Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, February 29, 2004

TONE AND TIMBRE (Driving down the Mountain with Ella and Friends, Part 7)

Tone and timbre, sound and expression -- I’m wrestling with the distinction between a person’s vocal sound, and the details of what the singer does with it.

I saw a documentary on Judy Garland on PBS the other night. She was blessed with what many people including me consider to be a deeply pleasing voice -- a beautiful voice. She also had a genius for expressiveness. This comes across particularly in film clips, watching the colors of many different shades of emotional nuance flicker rapidly across her face as she sings. She’s famous for an over-the-top excessive emotionality (which I love); she’s less famous for her subtlety and nuance. A recording like “Last Night When We Were Young,” from 1956, shows off many subtle shades of distraught, tinged with memories of joy, the loss of which has precipitated the sorrow. On “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Home,” from the same album (called simply “Judy”), she runs a gamut from rowdy pleasure to longing to something close to terror in her depiction of an itinerant life which the singer of the song feels inwardly compelled to live. “I’m going where the welcome mat is / No matter where that is.” Talk about fatalism -- Judy makes it sound very attractive and pretty damn scary.

The album “Ella Fitzgerald and Friends” (which I began writing about here on February 10, if you feel like reading the archives), unsurprisingly, trumpets these issues. Critics have denigrated Ella for not conveying lyrics as expertly as some of her peers, but I almost always find her to be idiomatic, expressive, and at ease in any emotional mode her repertoire presents her with. The raw sound of her voice -- many people have said this -- is simply gorgeous, as are her intonation, diction, range, rhythm, and improvisational inventiveness. Her buoyancy, her full-heartedness -- I cannot resist.

Two of the friends on “Ella and Friends” stand among the greatest masters, along with Judy, of finding unexpected emotional nuance in songs-as-sung: The two brilliant singing-playing Louises, trumpeter Armstrong and alto saxist Jordan.

On “Ella and Friends,” Armstrong’s genius for expressive timbre bursts through on a comic song by Joe Riccardel and Redd Evans (who they? Dunno), “The Frim Fram Sauce.” The singers crave a particular dish called frim fram sauce, with something on the side that the first several entries on Google all spell differently -- Ausen fay with shifafa on the side; oss-en-fay with sha fa fa on the side; oss and fay with chafafa on the side.

The line on which Armstrong surpasses expectations goes, “Now a fella’s really got to eat and a fella should eat right.” A breezy lyric, and Armstrong pounces on the word “Eat,” making it comically grotesque, an image of immense hunger bordering on gluttony. Or an image of immense pleasure in biting and tasting and chewing and swallowing, again bordering on gluttony. He sings the word out of tune, with a low loud shudder. The physicality of singing jostles over into the physicality of eating, with the enthusiasm conveyed by the dinner table entreaty, “Dig in!”

A couple years and a job ago at a conference-junket, when the 3rd keynote speaker in a row brought up spiritual matters in a way completely unrelated to the profession that the conference was supposed to be addressing, I started to get bugged. The new-agey speaker asked us to take a moment of silence to meditate on our “higher power,” however we conceive of such. I meditated on Louis Armstrong. And was filled with a feeling of peace and happiness, sating my hunger for personal smart-assery while simultaneously fulfilling the request of the speaker. Armstrong's devouring of the word “Eat” on the song “The Frim Fram Sauce” is only one example of many of his genius for complex expressiveness as a singer. The most perceptive and persuasive critic that I’ve read on this aspect of Armstrong’s music is Gary Giddins. In a terrific essay on Louis in his monumental book “Visions of Jazz,” which should be a basic guide to jazz history for years to come, Giddins has this marvelous line: “as Pope wrote of Homer, Armstrong’s art ‘is like a copious nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants.’”

Saturday, February 28, 2004


A few weeks ago on Jay Leno’s show, contemporary R&B singer Erykah Badu sang a song with an intriguing rhythmic twist. The song grooved along in a light, maybe slightly bossa nova-esque funk, and at the end of several phrases the whole band would stop, undramatically and completely idiomatically (in other words, as if it were the most natural thing in the world), and Badu would make a graceful arm gesture in the silence. Poof! -- her arm said; the music vanished, like a magician’s trick. And then, Voila! -- reappeared on the next downbeat, relaxed and undramatic and seriously grooving. Seriously cool.

I was reminded of this Thursday night when Prince appeared on Leno singing a song called “Musicology” with the same rhythmic disappearing act. He didn’t pull it off quite as intriguingly as Erykah Badu had, but still a really cool effect.

More striking was Prince’s chat with Jay after the song. Most musical acts just do their song and the show’s over, but Prince is a big enough star that he gets gab time too.

The main gab guest was Mel Gibson, who was there talking about his controversial new movie about Jesus. Mel talked about how since Jesus was a carpenter he was a masculine man. Sure, maybe, that’s plausible, who knows? I haven’t seen the movie and am unlikely to. When I'm in the mood to contemplate the gruesomeness of the crucifixion, Medieval Christian paintings do the trick for me. I’d be curious to see whether the movie is anti-Semitic. I’d watch to see whether Mel's Jesus looks like the other Jews. I’d be surprised if the blue-eyed Catholic looker who plays him does.

(State-sponsored torture is still very much with us. And since we're on the subject, please let me juxtapose that awful truth with one of my very favorite Jesus quotes: "As you do unto the least the least of these, so you do unto me." Meaning -- each one of us is God. Even the Green River killer.)

(. . . the pain and sorrow we humans so prodigiously inflict . . .)

Mel was still sitting in Jay’s TV living room when Prince flounced over showing off his white high-heel shoes. Jay said, "I have a pair just like them at home!" Prince was charming and friendly and cheerful as he totally flirted Mel up. “Mel Gibson! What are you doing after the show?” Asking masculine Mel on a date! Mel looked real uncomfortable, but he agreed to rendezvous. It made me wonder whether Jay or his producer scheduled the guests that way deliberately.

Monday, February 23, 2004


Paintings of Mary Mother of God from the early Renaissance (or earlier) through the baroque and mannerist periods (don't listen to me, I'm guessing) -- anyway -- whuh? -- for some hundreds of years some hundreds of years back, Paintings of Mary Mother of God frequently showed her wearing a blue cloak of stars.

Queen of the Night! You better believe it the Mother of God is a serious Goddess in her own right, in all but name.

Having just blown my art-historical credibility by being too rushed to do some homework on the chronology of that Cloak of Stars right now -- but this is an aside, and not the main point -- late Medieval or early Renaissance paintings -- say, before Leonardo and Raphael in Italy, and before their influence was felt in the North -- (bwuh, I don't even know Leo & Raph's dates!) -- Madonna and Child paintings before Leo & Raph show a feature of Mary that the silky smooth & lovely High Renaissancers -- whaddaya say -- smoothed over, suppressed, etherealized, idealized: In earlier Mother Mary and Baby God paintings, Mary looks TIRED. Over and over again. And often not even particularly supermodel-esque. Just, you know, a tired mother who happens to be the Mother of -- you know. Leo and Raph (and others, I'm sure -- Botticelli!) changed all that. Only ethereal beauties need apply.

Kind of a drag.

But not my main point!

This evening, while busily packing and picking up the house, getting ready for my personally sad-making first trip away from home alone since baby was born (see previous post), I was listening to a "fado" singer from up the road in Vancouver BC whose name I never remember. A pretty woman with a gorgeous contemporary plaintive voice whom my wife & I heard at a festival last summer. (The baby heard her too, but I'm sure he wouldn't remember, though we did dance quite a bit.) "Fado" is a Portuguese style from mid-20th century (I'm guessing again) that sounds influenced by tango to me (I've never read anything about "fado," only heard a little). Lots of dramatic rubato -- subtle speeding up and slowing down and pauses at the ends of and between phrases -- which I LOVE; gorgeous melodies; sinuous rhythms.

The singer, whose name I forget, grew up in Canada but her father was Portuguese and she grew up some of the time there too and speaks the language. So the music is related to her paternal roots, for whatever that's worth.

I was full of the emotion of imminent parting. One song -- and don't complain, you probably weren't going to try to buy the CD anyway, and I don't even know if it's findable online, but if you're interested, e-mail me & I'll find out what I can -- on one song the singer filled the weep-ful melody with wrung out sorrow, and I flashed on the Pieta, Mary grieving over her dead Son draped across her knees. The sorrow of the singer wept over the suffering world. The Mother of God wept for her children. (I don't understand a word of Portuguese.)

And that's what happens when music really happens. A god or goddess is made manifest.

In "The Iliad," people can't get anything really done without the presence of the capricious, unpredictable gods. If the god is with me, I can slay my enemy. If not, I'm in trouble. This view of life is deeply congenial to me, as a basketball fan and sometime player. A great player practices and practices and practices, over and over again, but when the game is on, whether any particular shot happens to go in depends upon whether the capricious god is present. (Nothing to do with the Christian God, who from what I've read hasn't gotten involved in human contests, at least since after He let the Babylonians defeat the Israelites.) The greatest players -- Michael Jordan comes to mind -- can get into what many players have called "the zone" seemingly at will. The gods are seemingly at their beck. The gods are still capricious, though.

I've long felt that theater exists to make the god manifest on stage. And listening to the "fado" singer reminded me -- the same is true of music.

Which is the practical difference between being on the observing side of a musical communion and being on the performing side. The musician, when the music is really happening, partakes of the divine. Dancers do too.

(Well fuckin'-A, how's that for pretentious? Give me my horn, let me toot it!)

The divine, by which I mean, (prepare for some shallow surface scratching) -- that which is beyond our comprehension, the immensity and complexity of existence, the incommensurability of the processes through which existence is perpetually transmuting itself, the unimaginability of the source and origin of existence, the mystery of time, the immeasurability of space, the unknowability of one's own body's deepest processes, the multiplicity of the rhythms through which the various planes of our existences swing.

And music, when it's really happening . . .

Music is my religion.


Yesterday’s post about playing a show -- I’m not satisfied. Satisfied with playing the show, but not with my writing about it.

Cliches. There’s a reason they’re around -- they often have truth, or at least perceived truth. To dip into some of that pool some more -- playing the show was very absorbing. It was as if nothing else mattered but the music, and, sometimes, the connection with the tiny audience. I’ve got no quarrel with a tiny audience. After all, they’re there (it’s the others who aren’t). And if you’re connecting, as Jake was big time during his solo set, and as I felt we were on our duo set (though not so much on the comic songs as I would like) -- if you’re connecting, it’s a type of communion. I feel this as a listener and as a player, when I’m connecting from either side of the stage.

Off to Atlanta for 4 days tomorrow for training for my job. Not delighted to be leaving the baby dude and his lovely and wonderful mother my spouse, but so it goes. Don’t know if I’ll have web access.

Still thinking about Ella and Friends (see previous posts starting Friday and rolling back). Much still to pursue in the spaghetti bowl of associations and histories and phenomena in there. I stubbed my mental toe on the realization that I’m much more fired up to write about one of the Friends on the album -- Louis Armstrong, Pops, Satchmo -- than I am about Ella herself. And yet I listen to Ella more than I do to Louis. So I’m inarticulately trying to untangle that paradox, and typing drafts of thoughts that haven’t come together yet. And I’ve been sick the last week too -- blah blah blah -- you probably don’t want to read this, whoever you are, dear reader (my friend).

I’ve also been tangled up in rhetorical flashbacks around the announcement of the Nader candidacy. Like a bad trip, man! 4 years ago, me, typing to whoever would read, “Yes, Clinton is a deeply compromised and mediocre, even wicked centrist, but Bush wants to trash the economy! Bush wants to trash the economy!” Even my friends thought I was nuts. I was. I didn’t read anybody who was more pessimistic about the prospect of a Bush presidency, and I am deeply sickened to say that I far, far underestimated his awfulness too.

Bush didn’t WANT to trash the economy, but the policies he’s deadset on driving down our throats lead to that result. But I was wrong -- the trashing is just a side effect. The looting is the goal. If he wins again, within 10 years American life expectancy will begin to plummet, as it has in Russia since the Commies gave away the assets of the state to the robber barons.

One really bad idea that the Republicans have been fixated on since Reagan: “Bankrupt government now! Bankrupt government now!” To which Bush added the incomparably worse idea: “And let’s piss off everybody in the world while we’re at it!" And, to make it bloodily concrete: "Let's invade and occupy hostile, complex, volatile countries that present zero threat to us as they are now constituted but could threaten us after we destroy their infrastructure!”

What bastards. The Bastard President (meaning, of course, "illegitimate").

BUT! Don't think Mr. Nader will have that much impact this time -- he could even provide positive influences, who the hell knows? And the last debacle wasn't his fault entirely by any means -- a nightmare brew of deeply unethical and even criminal elections officials in Fla. (the gov, the sec't'y of state), a deeply unethical and compromised and even unconstitutional and impeachable Supreme Court (two of Bush's appointers had immediate family members who were already working for him!), and the freak absurdist accident of the Palm Beach County butterfly ballot (a satirist would have blanched at the invention of Holocaust survivors accidentally voting for Pat Buchanan by the thousands). Not to mention the mainstream so-called liberal press's insane war against Al Gore -- check out the Daily Howler, http://dailyhowler.com/dh022304.shtml , and do a search for Gore.

All there is to do is keep on rockin' ("rockin'" as metaphorical coin for whatever fires up your woodstove) and don't let the bastards get you down. E-see you in a few.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Played a Late show with my friend Jake last night -- start time, 11:30, a tough time for my age group. Jake played first, beautifully, beautifully -- a really great set. Then we played several songs together. “Fun” doesn’t begin to describe it. When the music is happening, when you’re IN it, and it’s going well . . .

It's being in tune -- in tune with one's capabilities, and imagination, and desires -- and with the musicians one is playing with. A good feeling.

Small crowd at the late show. Learned that probably shouldn't attempt comic songs with small crowds, unless they're your friends already anyway. Laughter wants a crowd. Interesting -- not sure what that's about. Have to think more about it.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

At the dinner table, the baby, in his high chair, completely absorbed in putting a small flashlight into a jar, and taking it out again.

Friday, February 20, 2004

THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST (Part 6 of Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

"There is never enough time to hear an excess of talent" -- Billy Strayhorn talking about the difficulty of introducing new work for the Ellington orchestra when their fans wanted to hear three or four decades of favorites.

Growing up in the 1970s, the past already rocked me more than the present. I liked Queen and some of the progressive rock groups in junior high school, but not as much as I liked the Beatles or the Beach Boys. When punk came along, that rocked me, but after the Replacements released "Tim" in the mid-80s, I pretty much lost the thread. Meanwhile, my folks had jazzed me on jazz from childhood on, with their own records and by buying cool records for me. Classical too. So the past was already huge by 1977, my first year of high school. Records brought the past into the present, and I was intent upon learning about it. Digging it, archeological-like, man.

Listening to the Beatles' first album the other day, it sunk that it's as old as me -- 40! The music hasn't lost its peppy fresh pop, its charm or its energy, but being into it is a mark of being an afficionado. Unless you grew up with it, which I didn't. (Subliminally, I heard the hits on the radio in early early childhood. When I bought old Beatles albums in my mid-'70s early teen years, songs I had no consciousness of ever having heard were familiar, because I had heard them. Not as a fan, but as an absorptive young child.)

Listening to Louis Armstrong, the same sense of the pastness of the past struck me. (And I had had similar subliminal listening experiences with Louis. My first memory of hearing "What a Wonderful World," a song contemporary with the Beatles, is hearing Rich Little's dreadful "impression" of it on TV. Like the first time I heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the song was totally familiar to me. I'd heard it.)

Does the degree of pastness start to fade away at some point? In some ways, the first Beatles record seems older-fashioned than "Ella and Friends." The deliberate naivete of songs like "Do you want to know a secret" calls back to the sweetness of pop songs before Tin Pan Alley added some swagger in the teens and twenties. Sweet old pop songs like "A Bicycle Built for Two."

Well, the Beatles aren't THAT far back past. Or maybe they are. For people born in the '70s, I wonder.

Music music music. There's always been music. There's always been music happening. There's always been music happening in a way that vibes with whatever vibe you happen to be vibing. I've lost the thread of music today, but on the radio I hear songs to dig almost every day. New songs. And if some songs don't vibe me, it has always been thus. Try not to worry about the vibes that don't vibe you. Don't forget. This is important.

Ezra Pound despised Freud, and in general I'm not a big Pound fan, but Freud would agree, as I do, with this line of Ez's: "All ages are contemporaneous in the mind."

Chronology is a work of reconstruction. Raw memory is a-jumble.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

PARTY MUSIC (DIGRESSION NUMBER THREE from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

Writing Monday in the post SPEECH AND SONG, about a recording of Gershwin and Fred Astaire together, made me dig back into a Gershwin book I have on the shelf, "Gershwin Remembered," edited by Edward Jablonski, which includes written and spoken reminiscences about the great composer by people who knew him, as well as some of Gershwin's own writings. (The book quotes Astaire's memoir -- they were friends as well as collaborators, friends from before either got famous.)

Many people mention the pleasure Gershwin took in playing for people at parties. His brother and chief collaborator, lyricist Ira Gershwin, in his wonderful book "Lyrics on Several Occasions," mentions this a lot too. In the Jablonski book, a songwriter friend of theirs named Kay Swift describes what the scene was like, with loveliness:

"Oh, it was so stimulating [to hear him play]. I've seen very old people and kids, and people that were very stiffo about popular music or playing music for shows, and they rushed to the piano and hung over it . . . they were so stimulated that some of them were even starting to do a dance. People became unselfconscious; that was the great thing he did for people -- one of the great things. He made them forget themselves entirely and just think about the music, which was such an escape, like a trip to another country. They all felt it because they made him play so long. If he played at a party, he wouldn't play for fifteen minutes; he'd sit there for an hour. I've seen him play for an hour-and-a-quarter, and [an] hour-and-a-half, enjoying himself and everyone saying, 'Go on! More, more!'"

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

SECOND THOUGHTS ON YESTERDAY'S SCURRILOUS ATTACK ON MATH (Further Digression from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

Mathematically, the difference between .9999(infinity) and 1 is infinitesimally small.  It’s off by one infinity-eth, by an amount so small that it’s unimaginabe, immeasurable, imperceptible.  So why was I all so stiff and piffly about it?

As if -- as if I don’t embrace contradictions in other realms!  Like everybody’s uncle, Walt Whitman, said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

(Or as a parodist put it, “Do I contradict myself?  I contradict myself very well!”)

Maybe it’s the rational face math presents to the world.  I know now that it's more complex than that, but that was my many-years' long first impression, and first impressions (and 2nd, 3rd, on through 10th grade impressions) -- tend to last.

THE SOCIOECONOMICS OF GRAMMAR (Another digression from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

The great poet & thinker David Antin (who’s still alive, and in his 70s) first got me thinking about the relationship between speech and poetry (which I wrote about on Sunday) in an essay called “Talking to Discover,” published in a collection of essays on poetics, “Symposium of the Whole,” edited by Jerome and Diane Rothenberg. 

Later, untutored, amateur study of rhetoric led me to the discovery that rhetoricians have fancy names for every sort of grammatical mistake.  One possible implication from this would be that the fancy name applies only as long as the speaker made the mistake on purpose.  Antin – and probably most rhetoricians and linguists – would disagree with this implication, as do I.

The real implication, combined with Antin’s discovery (shared by literary critic and English prof Northrop Frye in “The Educated Imagination,” and by psychoanalysts as described in Janet Malcolm’s book “The Impossible Profession”) that people don’t speak in prose, is that almost nobody’s speech conforms to standard grammar. 

This is easy enough to hear if you hang out with enough middle class people.  An accepted middle class grammatical error is the overcompensation for the “he and I” rule.  In the nominative case, the standard grammar is to list the first person singular last, and to use “I” instead of “me.” 

“Peter and I wrote a novel together in high school.” 

In the accusative or dative case, one should not use “I”; one should use “me” (according to standard grammar).  Many middle class people overcompensate and use “I” when they SHOULD use “me.” 

“The literary police accused Peter and I of plagiarizing our book.”  That’s not correct according to "standard," but it’s acceptable middle class grammar.

This doesn’t even take into account all the run-on sentences and sentence fragments that grace the speech of most of us.

What struck me hard about this was that blue collar grammar won’t pass muster in a lot of middle class job interviews, when middle class grammatical errors are usually acceptable. 

I once worked on a project with an African American woman who was the director of Seattle’s Good Will Learning Center, a program of Good Will Industries.  She oversaw a class called “Cash English.”  Not “standard English,” not “correct English,” not “middle class English” or “white English” – Cash English.  Brilliant marketing, clever and true.  (My parents taught me Cash English from young childhood, and I’ve always been grateful.) 

The singing tradition exemplified by Ella Fitzgerald comes from an era of upward mobility. Ella grew up extremely poor, and many of the classic Tin Pan Alley songwriters grew up speaking Yiddish (Berlin, Harburg, Gershwin -- many modernist American poets too: Zukovsky, Reznikoff, Stein). The era of upward mobility required good diction of its singers and what they may have called "proper" grammar in its songs. And Ella exemplifies this. (Louis Armstrong is exceptional in this respect as in so many others -- his diction was often bad, and he often ignored as many as half the words of a song he was singing. Listening to him today interpolate a short original phrase into a sentimental pop song, I thought that nobody -- nobody, nobody (nobody I can think of anyway) -- nobody combined his air of transcendent hipness and utter knowingness with his air of all-inclusive friendliness and warmth of presentation.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A SCURRILOUS ATTACK ON MATH BY AN INNUMERATE LOUT (A Digression from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends, after having written about the Transitive Property yesterday)

I had trouble falling asleep last night, worrying over questions of infinity and Pi. The final decimal place of Pi is famously unsolved and though to be infinite. I’ve read pop-culture articles about it in non-math rags like “The New Yorker.” Infinite! What does that mean? The infinite is inconceivable in any sort of practical terms. A sheet of paper as large as the known universe printed on with 10-point Times New Roman typeface is thought not to be big enough to contain all the decimal places of Pi.

Last night I thought, piffle.

Westerners have known since the ancient Greeks that Pi is equal to 22 sevenths, or three and one seventh. Twenty-two divided by seven gives us 3.14 (and on probably to infinity).


I can see why it’s an interesting question to mathematicians, and I can see why an engineer would want more than two decimal places in order to get a job done with minimal accuracy. But I still say, stuff and nonsense.


What is one third? 1/3. 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 3/3 = 1. Right? Well, no, not according to the people who are worrying about “solving” the last decimal place of Pi. According to them, in order to add 1/3 plus 1/3 plus 1/3, we must first divide one by three. Which gets us point-three-three-three-three-on-unto-infinity. “.3333333 . . . “ And if you add .3(infininity) to .3(infinity) to .3(infinity), you get point-nine-nine-nine-nine-on-unto-infinity.

Which is not equal to one!

Math -- eck. So abstract. It’s problem is -- apples and oranges. Heraclitus said, you can’t step into the same river twice. Because it is constantly changing. In that respect, we’re all rivers, every last one of us and every last blessed little bit of whatever in the entire one-line-poem that is the universe. Meaning, we’re all constantly changing. I’m not the same as I was when I began writing this sentence -- I’ve expended energy, I’ve lost mass, and I’ve gained mass too as dust has landed on me. I’ve changed. Because “Time Changes Everything” (great Bob Wills song), there is no identity, there is no equality. Math (as pitifully as I understand it), by positing identity, by positing stability, ignores the truth of Heraclitus and the relentlessness of time.

And THEN, on its OWN TERMS (which I don’t understand), it tries to pass off as true these absurd things like 1 = .99999999(infinity). Intuitively and practically, 1/3 plus 1/3 plus 1/3 DOES equal One, NOT .99999(infinity).

SO, if you read about someone setting a new record for “solving” decimal places of Pi, take this into consideration. It’s still equal to three and one seventh, and westerners have known that for thousands of years already.

(Any mathematicians who by chance may be reading this are welcome to e-slap some sense and understanding into my ignorant arrogant head.)

Monday, February 16, 2004


The transitive property of mathematics states that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Yesterday I said that there is no real distinction between song lyrics and poetry, nor is there a real distinction between poetry and speech. The fundamentalist transitivians among us would insist that there then is, in my view, no distinction between song and speech. And composers like Steve Reich have created beautiful pieces of music out of melodies of fragments of real recorded speech (“It’s Gonna Rain,” “Come Out,” “Different Trains”), and indeed speech is always melodic and rhythmic (if not always consonantly harmonious). I do believe, however, that one should take into account the intention of the producer of the verbal concoction. A “page” poet intends her poem to stand on its own, without music. A song lyricist expects that her lyrics will be wedded to a piece of music. (This is as true of hip hop as it is of more conventionally melodious songs.) Most speakers usually aren’t too concerned with the aesthetic qualities of their speech. It is only in the ear of the behearer, or in latterday tranquil reflection, that the distinctions between the verbal genres melt away.

As it turns out, as “Ella and Friends” encounters the borderline between “page verse” and “song verse” in a song that quotes a line of a poem by Longfellow, two duets between Ella and Louis Armstrong on the collection also encounter the borderline between speech and singing.

The seemingly spontaneous spoken aside is an interesting feature of recorded song, going back at least as far as the 1920s and stretching at least into the rock era. On a duet Fred Astaire and George Gershwin recorded in 1926, “The Half of It Dearie Blues,” Fred interrupts his tap dancing to ask the pianist, “How’s that, George?”

Gershwin answers: “Just great Freddy! Do it again!”


The exchange gives the impression that Astaire and Gershwin were great friends (a Gershwin biography I read confirms that they liked each other and shared a deep mutual respect). The “conversation” touches me somehow -- the performers break through the invisible wall of the song, the illusion that they are completely wrapped up in the momentary creation of their art, and remind the listener of every day life and every day relationships like friendship.

A couple months ago when driving home from a difficult day at work, when I thought I had screwed something up (it turned out I hadn’t) and was seriously stressing, the local “quality rock” station played “Hold On John” by John Lennon -- “Hold on John, John hold on, it’s gonna be all right.” The coincidence of our first names probably gave the song a more calming quality than it might otherwise have had, but it really did calm me down. In the middle of the guitar solo, Lennon quotes the character Cookie Monster from “Sesame Street” and says in a low gruff voice, “Cookies!” Very sweet and goofy. It made me wonder whether it was a message to his then young son, a shared moment of watching TV together. Very sweet and goofy regardless.

Louis Armstrong was a master of the spoken aside. On a duet with Ella from the LP era, recorded more than 10 years after their duets on “Ella and Friends,” before launching into his trumpet solo on the Gershwin tune “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” he tells the superb rhythm section in a seemingly completely offhand manner, “Swing it, boys,” his voice redolent with an earned and un-resented and not unaffectionate authority over his accompanists. Pops was in charge, nobody doubted it, and nobody minded.

Louis sounds equally relaxed and natural-sounding in the scripted dialogue on “Ella and Friends.” The songs with dialogue are medium slow love songs, “Would You Like to Take a Walk” and “Can Anyone Explain?” Ella sounds stilted, as if she would much rather be singing, but it’s still nice to hear her talking. She says the same line on both songs, in the same spot, near the beginning, before the singing, while Louis is playing trumpet. “Pops, put that horn down!”

On one of the songs, Louis answers in a completely lascivious tone, “What’s on your lovely mind?” He draws out and exaggerates that word “mind” with great joyous comic energy. Pops knew the power of words, the importance of expression -- how the communicative power of tone crosses the borderline between speech and song. He knew it deep.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

POETRY AND SONG, POETRY AND PROSE AND SPEECH AND UM AND OM (Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends, Part 4)

The distinction between poetry and song was not always as clear-cut as it seems to be now. Verses that a poet-playwright like Shakespeare wrote to be sung in his plays now come down to us as “poems.” They were song lyrics. Ben Jonson’s song lyrics are now poems; scholarly consensus believes Sappho’s poems originally to have been sung. The word “lyric” comes from “lyre,” meaning, a poem or verses intended to be accompanied by a lyre, namely, a song.

Robert Herrick’s 17th century poems read like song lyrics, and composers into the early 20th century set contemporary poems to music and made them popular songs. Lyricists such as W.S. Gilbert (of “And Sullivan”) and Ira Gershwin and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz” and many other classic numbers) started out as writers of “light verse” who published their stuff in newspapers and magazines. In today’s era, Leonard Cohen published books of poetry before he revealed himself to be a songwriter.

The distinction is arbitrary. When Ezra Pound in the 1920s wanted to revive the spirit of 15th and 16th century English verse, he needed only to check out the songs of the era. Yip Harburg in particular sometimes strikes paradoxes worthy of John Donne, in such songs as “Last Night When We Were Young” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Formally, the Tin Pan Alley guys resemble the 15th and 16th century lyric poets too. The verses often have unique, unorthodox line lengths and patterns -- they’re not boxy iambic pentameter, they’re unpredictable.

So when Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher stole a line whole hog from a Longfellow poem for the title of their song “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” which Ella and the Ink Spots sing so beautifully on “Ella and Friends,” they were in the tradition. The tradition has continued into our time, as Bob Dylan cribbed the central line and fair amount of the imagery of Robert Burns’s poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands” for his 1997 song “Highlands.”

The distinction between poetry and prose is equally arbitrary. A character in a Moliere play (I don’t remember the play) expresses shock at realizing that he has been speaking prose his whole life. Close listening to the way people talk will reveal that almost nobody speaks in grammatically “standard” prose. The poet, translator, essayist, and linguist David Antin has pointed out that people speak with herky-jerky starts and stops driven by rhythm and association, and that these characteristics make speech closer to poetry than prose. Antin calls prose “concrete poetry with justified margins.” Psychoanalysts and English teachers have also pointed out that almost nobody speaks in what we call prose.

It’s actually very beautiful to listen to the pauses and the false starts in people’s speech. We’re quirky critters. Whenever anyone says “um,” I like to imagine them touching base with the Hindu cosmic seed-syllable “OM.”

Country roads, take me OM.

Saturday, February 14, 2004


Everything reminds me of everything else. It’s not exactly like William Blake’s augury of innocence, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand,” but it’s as close as it gets for me.

I mention this because untangling the spaghetti bowl of associations that listening to the album “Ella and Friends” while driving down a mountain road called up for me -- it’s gonna take a while. The musicians, the songs, the songwriters, the way the songs and the writers and the recordings and the musicians -- !! -- figure in the history of musical and lyrical style. And one set of associations setting off unrelated sets of associations. Each association connecting to all the others, everything reminding me of everything else.

A verse is a line of poetry. “Uni” is a prefix meaning “one.” The universe is a single line of poetry.

I’ll get back to Ella and Friends in the next day or two, but yesterday’s Wallace Stevens quote is firing me up. Wallace Stevens, like the great early 20th century esoteric American composer Charles Ives, made his living as an insurance executive. Of the contemporary American poets that are usually grouped with him -- William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, all of them but Eliot his friends to one degree or another -- only Pound was a typical bohemian. Williams was a doctor, Eliot was an editorial bigwig at a publishing company, Moore (I think) was a librarian. Most of them would have scorned the idea of being a professional poet.

In 1961, a few years after Stevens died, Marianne Moore at the age of 74 said something inspiring about this in an interview. She had said that professional writers sometimes lose their “verve and pugnacity.” The interviewer asked:

“How does professionalism make a writer lose his verve and pugnacity?”

Marianne Moore answered, and it’s the last thing in the interview:

“Money may have something to do with it and being regarded as a pundit. Wallace Stevens was really very much annoyed at being catalogued, categorized, and compelled to be scientific about what he was doing -- to give satisfaction, to answer the teachers. He wouldn’t do that.

“I think the same of William Carlos Williams. I think he wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were plausible; and tractable. That’s the beauty of it; he is willing to be reckless; if you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?”

Friday, February 13, 2004


If you’re a Wallace Stevens fan, there are probably a handful of poems that stick with you, that you like to track down and read every once in a while. For me, some of those poems might be “Farewell Without a Guitar,” “Tabletalk,” “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” “The Snow Man,” “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “The Palm at the End of the Mind.” Only people who are deeply into Stevens would say something like, “Oh I love his stuff from ‘Harmonium’ [his first book]; ‘Transports to Summer’ [a later book] has a great flow to it too.” His individual volumes have been out of print for decades; a modern reader’s choices are the various “Collected” and “Selected” editions.

Stevens is a lyric poet -- the poems are individual, usually non-narrative, usually non-dramatic works. His stuff is more in the meditative tradition of lyric soliloquy than the “I’m talking to YOU” lyric love-hate tradition. No doubt he arranged the poems in his individual books in order to give them a pleasing order, but he intended the poems to stand on their own, and that’s how readers know them today.

Outside of operas, oratorios, and cantatas, it’s hard to think of any songs at all that aren’t in the lyric tradition in that sense. Songs stand or fall on their own. Even during the era of the "concept album" (circa 1967 through 1976), the large majority of songs were intended to have independent lives.

I haven't been paying much attention to the discussion over how internet downloading of music is undermining the top dog position of the album in favor of the individual song. As soon as I got a programmable CD player, the album era was pretty much over for me. "I'm so glad it's so easy to skip that SONG I Don't like! So convenient!" And there are few albums that don't have at least one or two songs I'd be happy never to hear again.

The 33-RPM record brought the "Long Playing" ("LP") record into existence. Before then, "albums" got their name because they resembled photograph albums: They were books full of several 78-RPM records with one song or short piece on each side that the musician and record company wanted you to hear as a collection. Most records just came out as "singles," a single song on each side of one record.

Ella and her "friends" recorded the 20 songs that Decca Records later collected onto "Ella and Friends" as singles, in the pre-LP era, between 1944 and 1950. In 1996 the record company picked what they considered to be the best duets Ella recorded and put them out on this CD. I happen to like this way of putting collections of songs together. And I happen to like this collection very very much; my affection for it lately is less problematic and easier and merrier than my affection for the great albums she recorded in the 1950s and 1960s -- the albums she recorded as Albums.

Here's "Table Talk," which Wallace Stevens wrote in 1935.

Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.

And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Grey grass and green-gray sky?

What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:

Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.

It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

Thursday, February 12, 2004


(Whatever happened to the word “beeswax” as in “mind your own”? I haven’t heard that word since junior high school. Do you junior high students still use it? I have no idea.)

(And is any business ever really finished? People can experience a satisfying feeling of closure, and rest assured that it’s temporary, and an opening will appear soon.)


My friend Mickle Maher wrote a lovely e-note to me today to tell me that yesterday’s post about the weather and lyric poetry reminded him of a favorite anonymous 15th century English poem:

“Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.”

I’ve always loved that poem, and I never understood it until Mickle wrote to me today. (Thanks, Mickle!) My head had always been full of the “rain-equals-trouble-or-sorrow” metaphor. This poem isn’t about that. At least, I don’t think so now. The small rain is a good thing. Is the speaker of the poem a sailor waiting for favorable winds to go home? A struggling farmer or shepherd? Or someone just on a long journey?

In another version, it sounds more certain that the speaker wants the “small rain” to come, but the meter doesn’t please me quite as much in the first version (it’s less abrupt):

“O western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!”


Last Friday I heard Boz Scaggs’s version of “What’s New” again. On Wednesday, Feb. 4 (“Sexual Initiative, Part 3”), I had written that “Boz doesn’t sound either heartbroken or stoic or self-deprecating, and since it’s a stoicly self-deprecating heartbroken song that means he misses the point.” That wasn’t fair. He does sound self-deprecating. The words almost won’t allow a singer to sound anything but self-deprecating. After a couple quatrains of small-talk, each quatrain prefaced with the conversational “What’s new?,” the bridge goes:

“What’s new?
Probably I’m boring you,
But seeing you is grand,
And you were sweet to offer your hand.
I understand.”;

which leads straight into the pay-off quatrain:

Pardon me asking, ‘What’s new?’
Of course, you couldn’t know
I haven’t changed, I still love you so.”

Boz sounds bitterly self-deprecating. On most recordings I’ve heard of the song, the singers do. The first time I heard the song, however, 18 or 19 years ago on a jazz show on my hometown college station, the singer was jauntier and sounded humorously, charmingly self-deprecating. Which charmed me, and still seems to better fit the song. I have no idea who that singer was. Not Sinatra (who sings it sour and bitter), not Linda Ronstadt (distraught), not Boz (toughly bitter). I like Ronstadt and Boz’s versions fine, but I miss that jaunty charming one -- the one you can actually imagine someone saying to his (or her) non-reciprocating beloved, with a smile and a sheepish, embarrassed bow and no accusation. (Well, I can imagine a bitter accusatory confession in real life too.)


A few days ago (Monday, Feb. 9), in the postscript to “Beatlemania Anniversary,” I made a rash and sloppy generalization about how popular songs of the rock era swayed the balance away from words and gave more weight to music. My friend Jake London wrote to inquire about what the hell I was trying to say, and shared pertinent insight as to how post-Dylan rock songs often have a grittier, more realist edge to their words than pre-rock songs in general. I amended my initial generalization to say that the shift, while not universal but significant, came with REM, who on their early albums put Michael Stipe’s distinctive voice in the middle of the muddle of the mix, making it hard to understand the words. (I’ve heard people refer to their first album, “Murmur,” as “Mumble.”) Jake and I had an interesting e-discussion about the influence of recording technology on REM’s ability and decision to bury the vocals as compared to earlier rock and pop music. (And I like REM a lot.) I stand by part of what I said the other day: the marriage of words and music in song is complicated; and my general preference is for a marriage of equal partners.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


The first westerner to leave a record of climbing a mountain not for military, surveillance, or allegorical purposes, but just to see what he could see, was Francesco Petrarca.  On  April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed Mt. Ventoux in Provence.  On his way up, he met an old shepherd who told him, “I went up to the top 50 years ago.  Nobody’s been since.  Don’t bother – all you’ll do is get scraped and scratched by rocks and prickers.”  Petrarca and his brother and servants went up anyway.  And saw what they could see.

In addition to being the first recreational mountaineer on record, Petrarca was also the most widely respected moral philosopher in the Europe of his time and a founder of modern standards of classical scholarship.  Historians of ideas and sensibility consider his writings and his manuscript-collecting to be among the first labors of what we now call the Renaissance.   

But he figures into the story of Ella and Friends not only because of his mountaineering, and not because of his early general Renaissancing, but because he was the first popularizer of the sonnet sequence.  English-speaking poetry hounds know him as Petrarch and the sonnets he wrote as Petrarchan sonnets.  Chaucer, his younger contemporary, translated some of them. Wyatt and Surrey translated some too in the early 16th century, introducing the sonnet into English and starting the craze that culminated with long sonnet sequences by Spencer, Sidney, and Shakespeare at the end of that century.  Surrey, in translating Petrarch’s Petrarchan sonnets into a slightly different rhyme scheme, invented the form that later confusingly became known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Petrarch’s sonnets are about his beloved “Laura,” whom he loves from afar and who does not return his love.  A standard theme of pop song and poetry from Sappho to today, as the classics scholar W.R. Johnson wrote in his terrific book “The Idea of Lyric.”  Johnson is persuasive that when a jukebox “shrieks” at you, “I LOVE YOU BABY AND IF IT’S QUITE ALL RIGHT I NEED YOU BABY,” you are smack dab of the middle of the mainstream of the lyric tradition.  Petrarch was one of the kings of the lyric tradition between the Romans and Shakespeare, whose influence was consciously felt into the 20th century in the sonnets of e.e. cummings.

The lyric tradition touches Ella and Friends in a very direct way.  One of the most famous songs of the collection is “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher and recorded by Ella with the Ink Spots in 1944.  The title is a direct quote from a poem by Henry W. Longfellow, the most famous American poet of the 19th century (though no longer as famous as Whitman) whose poems were known by poetry-lovin’ Americans well into the mid-20th century. (Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert And set "The Rainy Day" to music and published it in 1867; I've never heard the song.)  America was a nation of poetry lovers.  Seattle has a public school named after Longfellow’s closest poetic rival in the hearts of his fellow citizens, the abolitionist poet Whittier.  Newspapers published poetry daily for many decades, and into the 20th century people cut poems out and put them into scrapbooks, similar to today’s practice of forwarding inspirational or humorous stories via e-mail or cutting out cartoons and putting them on the fridge. A couple years ago I found such a family scrapbook among my grandparents' things, one that someone from my great-great-grandfather's generation (or great-great-great) put together. I've found some interesting things in there.

“Into each life some rain must fall” is a beautiful song; Ella and friends sing it beautifully.  Longfellow’s poem is lovely too.  I don’t know whether Longfellow was the founder of the rain-equals-troubles-or-sorrow metaphor; a metaphorical relationship with the weather seems to go back several centuries in the western tradition.  Whoever invented it, they sure weren’t a farmer.  The metaphor bespeaks an alienation from the life cycle, an alienation most of us share to this day.  Rain rain, we need you.  Don’t listen to our complaints.  But don’t come on too strong either.  Moderation, please. And when you do rain, please rain as beautifully as Ella and the Ink Spots sing you.

Listen to me, Nature, listen to me!

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Last week-end my beloved spouse, baby boy, and I went to Mt. Tacoma (a/k/a Mt. Rainier) for an annual cross-country ski trip with a group of people my wife has been skiing with for many years. With our almost-13-month old, we weren’t going to ski, which was fine with me -- I’m a bad skier -- but we did snowshoe.

The group always stays in a big lodge just outside of the park entrance. But our boy is a poor sleeper, and we didn’t want to wake the world, so we stayed in a small one-bedroom cabin 100 yards past the lodge and ate and partied with the group. It’s a fine two-day hippie party with fine, middle-aging, middle-class assimilated hippies, including guitars and hand drums and the singing of songs in the evenings -- my favorite part. Along with the beauty of the snow.

The baby boy wasn’t going to be up for a long trek in the cold blowing winter wind, so we hung out for a couple hours on Saturday in the Paradise visitor center where our group skis. A historical exhibit in the center displayed documents on the history of white people exploring the area and the mountain, including the political tussle over its name. In 1792 the British Navy sailed Puget Sound, and Admiral Vancouver saw the fine volcanoes and named them after his friends. Admiral Rainier never even came to North America. In the late 19th and early 20th century, white Washingtonians petitioned the National Geographic Board to rename Mt. Rainier on patriotic grounds. The Brits in 1792 were America’s enemy; America was an independent nation; Rainier never even came here. The Yakima Tribe of what is now central Washington called the mountain “Tacoma” or “Tahoma,” meaning “great snowy peak.” The anti-Brit activists of a hundred years ago advocated that America continue its fine tradition of using aboriginal names for places, and the museum display showed a lot of post cards from the era that call the peak “Mt. Tacoma.” Sounds good to me.

We did get out for a 45 minute walk on the blowy snowy beautiful cold mountain valley path, under a hazy white sky that blended into the snowy white horizons, where if you squinted the evergreen trees looked like they were floating in white space. A beautiful walk.

Driving back down to our cabin the sky began to clear in patches and treated us to a spectacular color show. Purple clouds, purple-blue monochromatic patches of clear late-afternoon sky, a glowing golden orb-like cloud -- colors we’d never seen in the sky before, and each shade pure and juxtaposed sharply against the next shade, with little blending. Remarkable, gorgeous -- and, to use an overused word, awesome.

We’d bought a new Subaru station wagon just before the baby arrived, not wanting to ruin our middle-aging backs packing him into the ancient two-door (practically Tudor) Datsun, and hey! -- all the new cars have CD players. So I put in a collection from the ‘40s called “Ella and Friends” and we listened to her lovely voice duetting with Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, and a very smooth group called the Delta Rhythm Boys, and the gorgeous music accompanied our gorgeous drive as we played the American fantasy of being in a glamourous scene of a movie with a glamourous setting and a glamourous soundtrack. Driving while listening to music is the most cinematic of experiences, the windshield serving as a screen.

“Ella and Friends” represents a crossroads of American and western culture, a veritable spaghetti bowl of criss-crossing cultural currents. So much beauty, so many beauties, and so many resonating echoes from other artifacts before and after going backward and forward many decades. The mountain, the musicians, the songs, the music, the words, all bouncing off each other as we drove slowly down the snowy mountain road.

Disentangling the spaghetti bowl would take a long time. I love spaghetti.


My friend and longtime musical collaborator Jake London of Seattle wrote to differ with the proposed alternative definition of stardom from my post of January 28, “Gait, Posture, Voiceprint.” He was responding to these sentences: "Everybody is a star, like Sly and the Family Stone say. And my definition of a star is somebody with a uniquely personal ‘way of walking,’ which means everybody.”

From here on out today it’s Jake:

I can't agree with your definition of "star" above. Perhaps everybody could be a star. But I don't think everybody is a star. It's true that each one of us is a unique individual (although Foucault and some his buds might argue with that construct too). But the term star connotes to me the relationship of the individual to the collective. In using the term, there is an implicit argument about the star's power relationship to everyone else. The star floats above the rest of us on the ground, and there can be no stars without people on the ground gazing up at them. So if everybody is a star, then nobody is a star. Consequently, I suspect everybody is most definitely not a star (although the rhetoric of our culture certainly encourages the belief that everybody has the right to strive for stardom and the possibility of attaining, which is definitely a nice idea).

I think stars are generally people who have a personal way of walking but not too personal. It's usually a very delicate balance of distinct and indistinct that allows for stardom, particularly on a mass scale. Stars tap into our inadequacies around both homogeneity (I wish I was closer to the norm like this beautiful star) and heterogeneity (I wish I was different from the pack like this star).

So at it's best, the star's gait is distinct enough to challenge the expectations of the masses, but indistinct enough that if the masses work at it a little bit, a certain amount of familiarity reveals itself, allowing the masses to comfortably embrace this gait (and maybe even emulate it). In other words, at least in the culture of modernity, it helps to be aspirationally distinct (I don't quite understand it, but I'm curious get to know this new thing better), but not alienationally distinct (I don't understand it, and it's way too freaky for me to even want to understand it--get it away from me).

This is how people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan succeed in being stars. While some may find their vocal gait to be alienationally distinct, their overall gestalt gait is aspirationally distinct (i.e., put together their, distinctive singing voice, their looks, fashion sense, attitude, the tunes, the production, etc., and the total package is something people didn't quite understand at first, but still ultimately wanted to know better and become a
part of, because it had some familiarity to it--if nothing else sex appeal seems like it is almost always familiar to the masses).

I think it's telling that there aren't many pop stars with the voice of Dylan and the gestalt gait of Wallace Shawn. Paul Simon and David Crosby perhaps come closest to having Wallace Shawn's gestalt gait. But they each have voices that are much closer to the societal consensus of "good singing voice," and this perhaps helped them to overcome those elements of their gestalt gait that were less appealing.

Monday, February 09, 2004


Several weeks ago I saw "School of Rock” and laughed my butt off. (Funny image! My butt suffered no damage.) Afterwards, wanting to bask further in the Spirit of Rock, I took down a recently published volume by the reigning spirt of the “spirit of rock” school of rockwriting, the late Lester Bangs, and paged my way to a piece on the Beatles and their post-Beatles careers, written in the mid-'70s. Bangs got my goat -- my wandering, straying, easily get-able goat -- when he called Ringo “inept.”

Now, I’m 40 years old, too young to have experienced Beatlemania first-hand, but when I started to have my own opinions about what music was or was not cool, in junior high in the mid-‘70s, the Beatles were my favorites. And I’ve never stopped digging them. A conclusion that I’ve come to in recent years is that Ringo ruled. Not only was he a charming heartfelt individualistic rockin’ singer, but his drumming had verve, energy, musicality, originality, style, and considerable influence. That their early records crackle through their pop is as much due to him as anybody. And on the psychedelic records like “Strawberry Fields” and “A Day in the Life,” the tom-tom fills Ringo was playing ended up being copied all over by many many drummers. Always musically interesting (at least with the Fabs), he plays subtle tasty parts on the ballads like “Something” and seemingly effortlessly nails the meter-changing, tempo-changing tours-de-force like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” It’s no wonder that Lennon and Harrison hired him for their early solo records, including Lennon’s stark, minimal, practically naked intense, rhythmically subtly complex monster album “Plastic Ono Band.” Inept? Dude! What are you talking about? I regret asking a rhetorical question to someone who only still lives in his writing.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the Beatles playing on American TV for the first time. Cute buggers they were, and so talented!

My junior high school cohort in secondhand Beatlemania, musician Jay Sherman-Godfrey of Queens, wrote in response to yesterday’s awkward and tentative post on beauty, and went on to talk about the Beatles anniversary. Here’s Jay:

“I enjoyed your entry about beauty. I was thinking of something similar the other day, in trying to decide why I liked a particular fragment of music I had heard on the radio. Perhaps because it was a fragment, without reference or much context, I had a particularly lucid moment in which I felt I knew exactly why I liked it. It had to do with juxtaposition of tone(s) and a particular wide harmonic picture. I have no idea what it was.

“It struck me that relationships within structures that "jibe" for us create allure -- beauty maybe. That harmony has some vernacular "meaning" makes this even more interesting.

“So, I guess I am a musical, or perhaps more specifically, harmonic, fetishist.

“The anniversary of the Beatles' 1964 "Landing" (like men on the moon!) has the radio dial full of the most beautiful music. My old friend and college roomate Richard Dennis used to cite the downfall of the professional songwriter as the end of the good in popular music -- something the above Beatle event affected greatly, of course. But to me, the great allure of the Beatles is not as rockers, but as songsmiths. Lennon's rejection of the "pop" Beatles as dishonest (based on MacDonald's suppostions) led him back to rock and roll -- in which it is easy to be "honest"; you just rock (and he knew how). But I like him better on his other tip. On the radio I heard, back to back, Here There and Everywhere, and Yes It Is. Both top catalog, IMO, and very much in  "professional" songwriting. Perhaps a little light on the lyrical side vs. the greats. Lennon was a great, impassioned, ballad singer. Maybe he thought he had to give it his all to make it real.”

John replies: Yes it is, yes it is, yes it is, oh yes it is! Lennon was a great great ballad singer who gave "his all." And -- as a song is a marriage of music and lyrics, one hopes the marriage partners are congenial and well-matched; I agree with Richard Dennis that the rock era swayed the balance toward music (though some of Duke Ellington’s lyricists also failed to procure suitable spouses for his tunes); and, like any marriage, the mating of words and music is a deeply tangled complicated personal topic.

Sunday, February 08, 2004


This week-end I re-read Dave Hickey’s short, provocative, brilliant book of art criticism, “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty.” He doesn’t go very much into dragons -- in fact, he mentions them only once, in a metaphorical aside. It’s an original and nice metaphor -- you’ll have to read it -- and I can see why he hung the book’s title on it.

Beauty is one of those things that one knows when one sees or hears it, even if one has difficulty explaining it or why or how it does that thing it does. Which means, it’s the key. If we’re talking about music. Which is what I want to do.

Hickey’s talking about the visual arts, but a lot of his insights translate to music. Writing in an art-critical-historical context in which beauty had been neglected and even shunned for several decades, Hickey insists: Without beauty, art loses its point. In an introductory parenthesis, he says he includes the actively ugly and disturbing in his definition of beauty, since both beauty and ugliness are vividly opposed to what so much contemporary institutional art seems to aspire to -- inoffensive visual blandness mixed with humanistic social critique (and the search for an original stance on the stage of art history, which Hickey doesn’t talk about). I’m with Hickey here, though he enjoys the actively ugly and disturbing more than I do.

Institutional music is not nearly as strong a contemporary phenomenon as institutional art -- museum shows devoted to contemporary art far outnumber concerts and symposia devoted to contemporary institutionally supported composers. And so some of the particulars Hickey talks about don’t apply to the music world. Which doesn’t diminish their interest, only their applicability.

Hickey persuades me: Allied with the shunning of beauty is a tough guy attitude toward art that posits the critic and consumer of art as someone butchly masculine who will not be ravished by art’s seductive powers. In music, an aversion to the sentimental is a hallmark of jazz criticism going back at least to the ‘50s.

Beauty is contextual, certainly. A singer with a pretty voice will always have a pretty voice, but if he or she doesn’t convey the words of a song convincingly, and if the words of the song are important to my experience of it, the performance won’t strike me as beautiful. And if I’m at a party, as I was last night, and people are singing songs, as we were, and someone asks to sing “Moondance” and whether anybody knows the chords, as one acquaintance of mine asked and another knew the chords, and we played it, well, I found the vocal rendition to be beautiful, because I like the guy who sang it, and he was singing it because he loved the song. He even made me like the song, which I hadn’t before.

I first read Hickey’s book a few years ago, and he turned me consciously onto the beauty kick, and I’ve been grateful.

In the middle of writing this I stopped to pick things up around the house, and eat some dinner, and put laundry in. I switched the Grammy Awards on while eating. I did not find the Warren Zevon tribute beautiful. A bunch of people singing -- live -- the background parts of a song he recorded while he was dying, while the video monitors showed a montage of scenes from Warren Zevon’s life and his recording played. “Keep me in your heart for a while” was the matter-of-fact tag line, sung matter-of-factly. He was dying and he knew it. Joey Ramone sang “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” and “It’s a Wonderful World” when he was dying and knew it -- Joey was worrying about us and singing his love for the world. Warren Zevon was worrying about whether we’d forget him after he died. OK. I’ll remember you; I’ve never been a particular fan, but that Werewolves song has a cool piano riff.

Keats said something similar more honestly, in an untitled poem that runs in its entirety:

“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life would stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed -- see, here it is --
I hold it towards you.”

Friday, February 06, 2004


I confess it. I’m not immune to hype. I saw “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” a couple months ago, the terrific documentary about the Motown session musicians, and it re-piqued my interest in the “sound of young America” circa 1962 - 1970. Engaging, charming people and great musicians, most of the session players came from the jazz world. The movie doesn’t explicitly say this, but points in the direction that James Jamerson, Motown’s great bassist, was probably the most influential instrumentalist in pop music in the last 40 years. He died before the movie was made. He came to Motown from jazz.

Jamerson pretty much invented funky electric bass playing, influencing not only whole genres like soul and funk and disco and hip hop and techno, but also white rock and Miles Davis’s fusion and Ornette Coleman’s different fusion. People with rock-centric ears think of the electric guitar as the key instrument, which it is -- in rock; but electric bass is central to pop music all around the world now, including rock, and if not electric bass, then synthesized bass playing a similar sonic/musical role. Jamerson’s role in that is huge.

I heard Stevie Wonder’s song “For Once In My Life” while coming home from work one night last week, a late ‘60s Motown hit co-written by Stevie but played and produced in the Motown way. (Stevie produced and played most of the instruments on his ‘70s hits.) The beauty of a song I had heard many many times before rolled over me again.

The liltingly funky guitar licks that open it; the joyous vocal; the lyrics that open themselves up to the pain, sorrow, and loneliness that preceded this time of joy; the joy precipitated by having “for once in my life . . . someone who needs me”; and then Stevie’s distinctive, joyous, melodic harmonica solo. The brilliance of the arrangement, from a few instruments to a seeming cast of dozens pounding away, with nothing out of place.

The lilting lightness of the guitar licks and the chromatic harmonica solo, catching the euphoria and elation; the heaviness of the orchestra and chorus catching the depth of passion. An overwhelming emotion, overwhelming and elating, heavy heavy heavy and oh-so-light.

The complexity of human emotion -- music can capture it spectacularly.

Thursday, February 05, 2004


When my sweetheart, who is now also my wife, and I went to China in the early part of 2000, we had the opportunity to sit in and listen to a Chinese Opera jam session one afternoon. We had been walking our usual path in Beijing, where we had been staying for several days, and my sweetheart heard sounds coming from an odd little building that had always been closed up. I pressed my face to the window and saw a jam session going on, 8 or 9 musicians and about the same number of listeners. The listeners enthusiastically waved us in the room and got us chairs.

The musicians were mostly in their 50s or 60s or 70s, men and women playing away, sharing jokes, and having a great time. Great music. Strange, to my ears, and precise, and passionate. A few of the musicians still wore the Mao-era outfits that they had worn most of their lives, even though they were no longer required. The singer was a younger man, in his 30s or 40s, neatly dressed in western clothes. When the jam session ended after 20 minutes or so, the singer approached us.

He spoke heavily accented, slow English. I asked whether the musicians were professionals. He wasn’t, but some of the others were. He had been to America on business a number of times.

“LA, Chicago, New York, and what’s that place? Kentucky. Nashville. I like the country music.”

Yesterday a co-worker and I had to drive about an hour north of Seattle to Everett to give a presentation. My co-worker is a 50-something Vietnamese immigrant, a very generous Buddhist. I was doing my usual channel-flipping on the radio when it occurred to me to ask her if she had a preference.

“Do you like American music?”

“Oh, sometimes John. I like country music.”

So I flipped back to the country station and kept it there for a while. The first song was sung by a relaxed man. A cheery tune, “All I wanna do is watch the wind blow by.” Would have been a hippie song 25 years ago, but this singer sounded more middle-American. Nice song, “breezy” -- then it struck me as unexpectedly (unintentionally?) paradoxical. As the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti put it, “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.” You can’t watch the wind, you can only watch what it moves. Was the singer expressing a desire to be mellow, or a wish for the impossible? Or both? The unexpected depths of hit songs never cease to draw me in. Either way, nice song.

After that the DJ, a cheery woman, was taking a request from a serious sounding woman. “What can I play for you honey?”

“Could you play a LeAnn Rimes song and send it out to my husband, and tell him I love him?” (I forget which LeAnn Rimes song.)

“You bet. You and your husband doing OK?”

“We’re working on it,” was the worried-sounding answer.

“We’re all working on it sweetie. We’re all in the same working-on-it boat. You hang in there, OK?” And she played the song, which made no impression on me, other than it was a “you are my everything” type love song and very sweet. I’m a sucker for that love stuff. The request more than the song itself in this case, but I can see why the song meant something to the woman making the request.

A couple months ago another co-worker had to go to Nashville for a conference. She asked me before going if I knew anything about Nashville. I’d never been there, but a good friend had been several times, so I e-mailed him and got recommendations about where to stay and what to check out. My co-worker got back and thanked me and my friend for the recommendation, saying she had a good time. Then with a puzzled smile she asked, “How would you define country music?”

“Oh geez,” I said, rubbing my brow. “Southern accent music where you can understand the words.” (I should have specified “white” southern accent music.) “Other than that pretty much anything goes.”

My co-worker laughed and said that sounds about right.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


There’s a vogue for rockers of a certain age singing pre-rock standards lately. I’ve heard about, but haven’t heard, Rod Stewart’s attempts. Boz Scaggs’s take on “What’s New” features some Elvin Jones-esque drumming, which is always a plus. Boz doesn’t sound either heartbroken or stoic or self-deprecating, and since it’s a stoicly self-deprecating heartbroken song that means he misses the point, but it’s not terrible. He sounds a little miffed in an attractively breezy and masculine way.

Barry Manilow -- well, maybe he doesn’t count as a rocker covering old standards, because he probably doesn’t count as a rocker. But, like the Carpenters, his thing was informed by rock. Whether or not he counts, I recently heard his version of Glenn Miller’s theme song, “Moonlight Serenade.” Gorgeous melody (one of Miller’s few hits that he wrote), gorgeous big band arrangement, and Barry’s beautiful voice, singing the words with perfect idiomatic ease and emotional connection. Banal words, but sweet and romantic, to go with the ultra lush romantic tune and arrangement.

Carly Simon -- another rock-era star of dubitable rocker credentials -- does the most poignant version of “My Funny Valentine” that I’ve ever heard. I heard it on the pre-rock-pop station a couple months ago. At first I was thinking, oh Carly Simon, she has a nice voice, giving a rather emotionally cool rendition that suits her. And then the words and Simon’s cool rendition hit me hard. “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart? No.” Oh, how sad! The man is not smart when he speaks! Nor is he particularly good looking! And his lover is openly telling him! How hard on his dignity!

Pretty brilliant, the gender switcheroo. I’d always thought of that song as tender. It’s not. It’s as tender as an insult. So what if the singer desires the subject of the song. It’s still an insult. Funny how I never noticed how insulting it was until I imagined myself as the sung-to, not the singer.


Old friend Nick Griffin, of San Francisco, writes in regard to American musicians significantly modifying their instruments:

“Do you know about the adaptions to the banjo machines that allow you to bend notes and then return to the original tuning?  I think Bill Keith might have invented them but maybe not since Earl Scruggs used them.  They're a cool device.  I had them on my banjo.

“I heard Earl on Fresh Air a few weeks ago. First time I'd heard him talk.  I studied banjo with his text book.  It was a cool interview, especially when his wife came into the booth. She's managed him and Flatts and Scruggs all these years.  They sounded so unpretentious.”


In my post of January 29, I failed to mention the heavy metal elements of Brown’s herkin’ guitar solo. Blues, metal-of-blazing-speed, and country licks all came together in an ear-grabbing way. It was the lyrics, when they came in, that did nothing for me.

And -- Nick’s right. The banjo string-bender was a dandy mid-20th century development of an already-existing instrument. Earl Scruggs is a serious master and a major dude.


Bush's National Guard record has been in the news quite a bit lately. Apparently he failed to show up at required physical exams, lost his flight status, and didn't show up for his last year and a half of duty. The "Boston Globe" reported this in 2000, but most of the press ignored it.

We can thank Michael Moore for bringing the issue back. He and Wesley Clark took a lot of flak because Moore called Bush a "deserter" at a Clark rally, and Clark didn't repudiate it, thereby opening him up to charges of intemperence and Bush-hating. Others have written, accurately, of the painful double-standard here: how Bush has NEVER been asked to repudiate the ads comparing Democrat Max Clelland, the Viet Nam vet who lost three limbs while serving, to Osama; and no Republican has EVER been criticized for calling Clinton a draft-dodger, which he wasn't. Because of the higher standard to which the press holds Democrats, Moore's comment may have hurt Clark's candidacy, but it helped the Anybody But Bush party.

Thanks, Michael Moore.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004


I can’t think of all the times a friend has bucked me up when I was feeling low down, beat down, beat up, hornswoggled, flummoxed, depressed repressed and oppressed by life’s hard vicissitudes. What would I have done without this or that friend on uncountable occasions? Friends -- here’s to ‘em.

Yesterday on the high-school-student-run public station, “C-89, Seatte’s Hottest Music,” I heard a song I’d never heard before and likely will never hear again. Over a hard driving dance beat, a young-sounding woman sang a fetching melody with her heart in her throat.

“If you’re feeling mixed up
Remember it’s a mixed up world
And if you feel life is just too tough
Remember you’re a real tough girl”

My heart went out to the singer and her friend. I wanted them to know I’m rooting for them, whoever and wherever they are. They’ll probably both be OK, but sometimes people just aren’t OK, and it’s heartbreaking.

Monday, February 02, 2004


I hadn’t planned on watching the Super Bowl, but my neighbor called and said he’d been up til 4 in the morning roadying his friend’s show Saturday night, and when he woke up he learned that his teen-age son had invited 10 teen-agers over to watch the game, and would I mind if he came over to watch? Of course I wouldn’t mind.

(I can’t resist mentioning something that probably hundreds of other people have mentioned before: What a funny name the Super Bowl is!

“Yes sir, that’s one grand bowl you got there.”

“Grand? Oh no, it’s more than merely Grand. It’s a SUPER bowl!”)

Pop R&B star Beyonce sang the National Anthem. She sang most of it in 4/4, and it sounded weird, stretching the phrases awkwardly from their usual 3/4 shape. I’d heard a country diva on the pop country radio station sing it in 4/4 a couple months before, and it struck me as odd. Beyonce sang the heck out of it -- great singer (I’d heard of her, a big current star, but don’t know her music). Interestingly, when she got to climactic closing lines -- “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” -- she switched to 3/4, and it upped the energy meter.

I really like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Great tune -- stirring and emotional. Sure, the words are martial, but how martial can a song be that’s in waltz time? And, someone pointed out, the words are nothing but questions. O say can you see? O say does the banner yet wave? It’s kind of odd and goofy that the national anthem of big bad-ass America is a series of insecure questions. And I do like the lines about the land of the brave and the home of the free.

The half-time musical extravanganza with Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nellie, Kid Rock, and Justin Timberlake was an extravagant lip-synch dance bonanza. The only song I’d heard before was Nelly’s catchy hit about being in a hot room and asking his companion -- telling her, really -- to take off all her clothes. I’m all in favor of nudity. I listen forward to the hit songs where women tell men to take off our clothes. At least, I think I do.

Even though Janet was the headliner, and was the only one who sang twice, Justin closed the medley-cavalcade-of-stars, with Janet still on stage dancing dirty with him, grabbing his ass as she rubbed her own ass against his crotch. The extravaganza ended with Justin grabbing Janet’s dress and tearing half of it off, exposing her breast, which had some sort of sticker on the nipple. Janet seemed into it, but it’s impossible to imagine a male headliner submitting to having his shirt torn off by an upstaging woman. She had shown sexual initiative by rubbing her ass against Justin’s crotch, but I wasn’t into the dominance he displayed in the end.

Complicated questions of sexual initiative and gender roles and popular music. About 30 years ago, Loretta Lynn was having affairs and falling out of love with her husband and celebrating non-reproductive sex (in her songs -- I know nothing of her personal life, except she was a coal miner’s daughter and Crystal Gayle’s sister). “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” has these great lines.
“I never wanted to stop loving you /
I swear by the breath in my body it’s true.”

Not, “I swear to God”; not, “I swear on the Bible”; not, “I swear on my parent’s grave” -- I swear by the Breath in my Body. Processual, physical, personal -- life. Beautiful.

Sunday, February 01, 2004


In late 1999 when the WTO had its Seattle meeting, I was joyously unemployed and took part in the street-festival-party protests every day. I didn’t get arrested or beat up or directly tear-gassed, so I was on the luxury cruise package protest.

What a time it was! Singing and dancing on the streets. The exhilaration of tens of thousands of people marching for higher wages and environmental protection. People in costume -- a school of lovely sea turtles. A gang of people dressed as condoms with the message, Practice Safe Trade. Street theater everywhere.

And the chanting of chants. Many lamentable lamentations. As my old friend dave bucachon chanted at some march or other many many years ago, “A Slogan / Exhausted / Should Never Be Repeated!” And, from another waggish source (once more with feeling), “All we are saying / Is give chants some peace.”

Despite my aversion to the genre, two chants at WTO I happened to dig very much. A group of tough masculine un-hippie French trade unionists chanted:
“Tous ensemble!
Tous ensemble!
Oui! Oui! Oui!”
(All together / All together / Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!)

I don’t know how to spell it; they pronounced the last line “Weh weh weh,” a French equivalent of “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” This became the drinking chant for me & my friends in the bar at night after a long day of protesting, banging our pints on the table to punctuate the Weh Weh Weh!

My very favorite chant was led by a randy white lesbian in a flamboyant red wig. “Whadda we want? EVERYTHING! When do we want it? ALL THE TIME!”

What more, what more can one say? It’s a vision of eternity.

The other morning while driving to work I heard a catchy tune on the pop country station that featured a passionate woman singing the anthemic chorus, “I wanna do it all” followed by lots of “all” rhymes -- "watch the Mariners play ball, fight City Hall, lay down the law" -- I don’t remember them all, I’ve only heard the song once, but those were three of her desires. (The Mariners? Odd. Unless they recorded market-specific versions of the song, Broncos for the Denver market, Warriors for the Bay Area market, and so on.)

The song endorses casual sex for women, though within the social standards of male initiative. “I wanna say ‘why not?’ when somebody says ‘you wanna?’” That comes before settling down with “the love of my life” and having kids, which is also part of the all that the singer wants to do.

Songs -- like culture in general -- reflect and reinforce social mores. Interesting negotiations of the gender barriers are taking place in pop country music, and contrary to country’s rep as a bastion of conservatism, it’s not all depressing news for libbers, nor is women’s lib a new development there. Loretta Lynn was celebrating the Pill and female sexual initiative more than 30 years ago. Men in country song still get more leeway to behave like rogues, but I’m all in favor of people who want to fight city hall and lay down the law and do it all.

(I googled the song. The singer and writer is Terri Clark. I found lyrics on the web that said “watch the Yankees play ball” and “watch the Gators play ball.” Ambitious!)

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