Anyone who has read this blog before and is both observant and a fan of jazz may have noticed that the background image is of Mr Charles Mingus. My favourite jazzman. Pithecanthropus Erectus, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and (of course) Mingus Ah Um are absolutely five of my favourite jazz albums. Beneath The Underdog IS NOT one of my favourite books.
Mingus’ autobiography is written in the third person, ostensibly from the part of his soul that “observes” the good and bad actions committed respectively by the other two. Which, let’s be honest, is pretentious.
The book is also written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches”. And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.
And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally – there is no mention of Jazz at Massey Hall, there is no discussion of the recording of Ah Um, there is name-dropping almost solely for name-dropping’s sake. The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.
I am not impressed by sleeping around. I am not impressed by pimping. I am not impressed by three-way relationships which end with the two women becoming a successful team of high-end prostitutes that could’ve “made millions”. I am not impressed by the idea of fucking twenty prostitutes (some in their early teens) in two hours then going outside to masturbate because you’re “just not satisfied, man…” And, I’m afraid, this is a book FUCKING CLEARLY AIMED at readers whose response to a man who calls his lovers “bitches”, coerces them into prostitution then breaks up with them because “they go too far” is one of respect, awe. And that isn’t how the book made me feel. I read it hoping to feel the same glorious happiness that I get from the man’s music… Instead I got the same dirty, guilty feeling I get when I see a friend pissed and sleazing unwelcome on someone I’ve introduced them to. Urgh.
Mingus’ autobiography is approaching four hundred pages of self-indulgent, macho bravado bullshit. He fights, he fucks (and goddamn satisfies every time), he dabbles with drugs (in a casual way that is repeatedly distanced from the “dangerous” addictions of many of his friends), he threatens, he shouts, he punches, he kicks, he drinks, he drives, he steals, he thrives as a musician almost entirely off the stage of this book’s narrative, which instead just gives a deep, wet, penetrating glimpse into the way Mingus sees his sex life.
I was very disappointed by this, almost to the point where I may have to reassess my enjoyment of Charles’ music. Not quite, though. The man may be a bad writer, certainly a bad heterosexual, but he sure as hell can compose like a motherfucker:
Italy is still lovely.