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

Wednesday, June 30, 2004


Had to drive to Tacoma today for work so lots of radio time. Notably:

“Caravan,” the Juan Tizol standard from the Duke Ellington songbook, played by the local Django-inspired Rosenberg Trio of lead and rhythm guitar and bass. Never heard this group before. The rhythm guitarist swung it hot, and the lead player did Django right.

“Opus One,” the Tommy Dorsey classic composed by the great arranger-songwriter-singer-trumpeter from the Lunceford Orchestra, Sy Oliver. Great tune, with loud drums & sweet strings -- an unusual combination at the time.

“Sway,” wherein Dean Martin sends his phrase-ending pitches drooping off, deep below the written note, over a percolating Caribbean rhythm. Sexy and exotically grooving, with spicily metaphoric lyrics that show an interestingly passive approach to masculine eroticism, I mean dancing.

On a newly-found AM soul station, tuning in faintly, a Sly Stone early-’70s sounding funk thang, with comic Clintonesque vocals, until I recognized it as “Musicology” by Prince -- the song is a definite Yeah. I’m old, though, and have only heard the song twice & can’t remember the tune now.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Beach Boys. A song whose yearning teen-age romantic idealism I couldn’t relate to as an actually existing teen-ager, never having known teen love nor the wish that “every kiss was never ending”; as an adult I have known never-ending kisses, and I admire the ardor that wishes that every kiss could be such. Today the song’s coda -- “Good night baby, Sleep tight baby” -- struck me as chocolate-orange sweet and caressing tender in the song’s context of being forbidden to “say goodnight and stay together.” The other day I’d heard an earlier, less famous Beach Boys “can’t wait to get married” song, “We’ll Run Away,” which ends with the singer forgiving the hypocrisy of his parents forbidding the wedding while forgetting that they had run away and got married at the same age. Such tender sympathy for human weakness and foibles.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

After dropping off the neighbors at the airport at 6:15 this morning, a Norah Jones song came on while the sunlight poured over the Cascades and Mount Tahoma. Hit the spot, her sultry sleepy sexy voice and piano and the nice & tastefully subtly tasty band, and me so sunny and sleepy in my cozy car on the interstate. Hours later I can’t recall the tune, but if you hum a few bars . . .

Monday, June 28, 2004


Recently read, vividly remembered but vaguely in the details: In a review of a performance of music by Beethoven some time in the 1940s, Virgil Thomson criticized the performer (or the conductor) for trying to make what he called the "passagework" as dramatic as the thematic stuff, ruining the piece's texture and washing all the colors monochromatic. Passagework: The placeholder to keep your interest warm at a low, even flame until the explosion of the good stuff. In classical, too, the bridgework getting you from point A (or the Key of A) to point B (or the Key of B). Upon reading Thomson's remark, my first reaction was relief and gratitude -- a big name classical guy is giving me permission to get bored when listening to one of those big pieces. Then, annoyance -- to quote my old poetry teacher, Ken Mikolowski, "Why can't the whole thing be like the good parts?" Now, acceptance. Even, admiration. The ears and the heart need a rest between the big events, and silence is too jarring for the old classical style. Lots of rock songs have bland, forgettable bridges to hold the place between the explosive, catchy, wonderful choruses. And I'm glad they're there.

Sunday, June 27, 2004


“It is (to describe it figuratively) as if a guitarist were to make a slip of the finger, and as if this musical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this musical error were to revolt against the guitarist out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, ‘No, I will not be dubbed over, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor guitarist.’”

I’ve modified the Kierkegaard quote with which J. D. Salinger opens his fictional reminiscence, “Seymour: An Introduction,” to commemorate my feelings upon hearing rough mixes of some recording my band has been doing. We’re making, I hope, an album. Recording has been a joy, despite the sad applicability of the Kierkegaard paraphrase. I had hoped to have the album finished by Independence Day, but it’s summer now, and scheduling more sessions with everybody will be dodgy until fall, as everybody’s going every which way. Me included. We may have decided on a band name, but that’s probably not best discussed in public yet. If you want to know, I'd be happy to tell you, but privately. For now.


Tried to see “Farenheit 9-11” tonight but it was sold out. On Friday I heard the sound for the theatrical trailer on Amy Goodman’s public radio show, “Democracy Now.” Really cool to hear it -- lots of super fast cuts that we’ve learned to watch but are hard to hear without the visual cues. I’d actually seen the trailer, or a version of it, so I knew who most of the speakers were, if not all. My Congressman, Jim McDermott, was in there. There was a clip of John Ashcroft singing some uplifting song, which I’d read about but hadn’t heard; he has a very nice singing voice. Somber classical soundtrack type music in the background at first, giving way to guitar solos from the old hippie blues pop rock song “I’d Love to Change the World” -- wailin’ bluesy rock guitar sounded great, no vocals from the song but the message of the words coming through if you know them, and the message of the rock guitar rockin’ out even if you don’t. Best of all, Michael Moore’s Michigan accent reminding me of my home state. I’d never noticed his accent before, because I’d never concentrated on his sound, never heard it without seeing him.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


A few nights ago, hanging out in the alley behind our house, talking to neighbors, our next-door-neighbor told this story.

“When I was a kid my family used to go on vacation in Florida, and my parents would drive all night to get there from where we lived in upstate New York. My sister and I would sleep in the back of the station wagon, and when the sun came up my dad would play the music from 2001 A Space Odyssey over his CB radio and wake us up.”


Last night walking home from the late night trip to the supermarket, I stopped in the neighborhood bar for open mic night, the same neighborhood bar where 6, 7 years ago I played regularly. A man was improvising on a small stick that lay across his mouth, tapping it with his fingers and changing the shape of his mouth to get different tones. He was drowned out by a motorcycle starting up outside. Everyone cracked up and he stopped playing, to a hearty ovation. “Duet with a Harley -- I never know when to stop anyway. Now I’m gonna play ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky.’” And he did, on jew’s harp. The melody came through, and I think it would have registered with me eventually even if he hadn’t told us. Afterwards I asked him what the thing he was playing before “Ghost Riders.”

“Oh, it’s a clackamore,” and he showed it to me, a 2-pronged wooden thing with no handle, with a thin flexible joint to make it easy to clack the prongs together.


A few weeks after publishing the 50 greatest rock-and-roll artists of all time, Rolling Stone’s current list is 50 great moments in rock-and-roll history. I was happy to see Carole King! In her Brill Building girl-group songwriter savant phase, but still it was nice. And ‘90s boy bands! Not Britney, but her ex-boyfriend, Justin, when he was in NSync. I didn’t read the articles, just looked at the pictures.


Once at a pep rally in high school, the cheerleaders started doing some peppy cheer, and me and my mean nerd snob friends started booing, and soon the whole gym was booing. I am not proud of this.

I thought of this in trying figure out my animosity towards people who say in a self-evident manner that Britney sucks. (I wrote about this on June 16 and 17.) Maybe it reminds me of of a shameful episode from my youth, and the reminder makes me mad.

I need to let it go. 10 years ago or so I bumped into one of the cheerleaders in a bar in my hometown, and she was perfectly friendly. A very sweet person, actually, and always was; nerd boys like me just resented her back in the day for being pretty, or for being a cheerleader, or for being “popular,” or for bestowing her affection on some “unworthy” athlete, or all of the above.

When grown men continue to act this way, I just need to learn to ignore them. My problem is, some of them are prominent music critics, or music bizzers, or professors, and I can’t help myself from taking them seriously, just as Rolling Stone magazine -- and the Oscars too! -- always disappoint me. (“How could they not give an award to ‘The Cradle Will Rock’?!?!?”)

I need to let it go.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


The sense of hearing is the only of the 5 Big Ones that doesn’t have a noun for its name. Taste, touch, and smell get double duty words that serve as both nouns and verbs. Sight is the only sense that gets a noun-only name, and hearing is the only that gets a verb-only.

I thought of this while contemplating the phenomenon of hearing one piece of music while simultaneously hearing a different one in the mind’s ear. This happens visually a lot -- staring off into space while the mind’s eye registers some remembered or imagined sight. I’ve experienced the musical equivalent a few times in the last week while listening to the AM pre-and/or-non-rock pop station. It happened today while hearing some chesty ‘40s or ‘50s belter singing the Ray Charles unrequited love classic “You Don’t Know Me.” I’d bet this guy recorded his version before Ray’s, and all through, I was hearing Ray sing it, with much more pathos. It was the best Ray tribute I’d heard since the great musician’s death -- a tribute to his pathos and power as a singer, his tremendous control and originality of timbre, pitch, and phrasing.


I wrote the other night that Jerome Kern was born in Europe. Wrong. New York New York in 1885. He wrote his first hit in 1905, at the height of the American light operetta period, a couple years after Victor Herbert’s most famous hit, “Babes in Toyland.”


Last night I wrote about my recent posts on modernism, “My snottiness probably came from a revulsion that I always have chalked up to a belief that life-oriented art is superior to innovation-oriented art.” This morning I got an e-mail from my friend Jake London:

“But who says that life-oriented art is somehow a separate thing than innovation-oriented art? Perhaps for some people they are one and the same thing. If by innovation oriented you mean innovation for innovation's sake art, well, then I hear ya.

“On the other hand, I think some of my favorite stuff is stuff where somebody is being life-oriented but in the process is innovative too (i.e., their very being just happens to be that way). That certainly wouldn't be me, but I appreciate it.

“On the other hand, I too get tired of art where it's clear the artist is obsessed with innovation at the expensive of any other value. Seems such a shame, as often times a lot of really great stuff gets discarded (stuff that in many cases sometimes feels better to me than the stuff they choose to keep).”

JOHN REPLIES: I agree. The poet and thinker David Antin (about whose thoughts on grammar I wrote on February 18) confirmed my faith about this in his brilliant book “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.” I don’t remember which poem he says it in, but somewhere he says that an artist makes what he needs to make with what tools he has at hand, and if he needs to make something for which the right tool doesn’t exist, he develops a new tool.

The technique is in the service of the art, not the other way around.

Antin’s history is interesting in light of his formulation. Originally a ‘50s American surrealist poet (published in the New Yorker, no less), he disavowed that stuff and wrote hard-nosed, sardonic, avant-garde poetry in the ‘60s, a lot of it “found” poetry. (A few of those poems light my brain up.) Dissatisfied with that, along about 1970 he decided to improvise-talk his poems, long poems, long poems of thinking-out-loud and telling stories. He devised his own method of transcribing his talk-poems that eschewed the justified margins of prose and the traditional line breaks of poetry, as well as punctuation and capitalization -- a phrasal poetry that mirrored actual talk, with the phrases set out with spaces between them. (Antin, among others, including psychoanalysts and the English professor and critic Northrop Frye, made the discovery that almost nobody speaks in grammatically correct prose.)

Antin’s an erudite, witty, imaginative -- brilliant -- man who knows how to tell a story, so the early talk-poems always have gems to ponder. But I haven’t felt like re-reading them. Early in his talk-poem career, he took part in a 3-way correspondence with the two editors of the postmodern literary journal “boundary 2” that sheds interesting light. One of the editors really dug his talk-poems, the other thought they were interesting but un-gelled, too discontinuous, too Socratic and not Homeric enough. Too talky, too thinky, not poetic or narrative enough. Antin didn’t disagree with the description, but with the judgment.

Antin’s most recent book, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde,” almost reads like an answer to the hopes of the editor who didn’t like his stuff. Very powerful narrative poems in the talk-poem lay-out and the talk-poem style, interladen with his typically acute observations on art, poetry, and society. The culminating piece, “The Structuralist,” is my favorite poem of the 20th century, tragic and hilarious and mind-blowingly erudite and inventive -- a true heroic poem. The hero is a friend of Antin’s, a fellow poet and linguist and translator, and the mind-blowing inventiveness is ascribed to him. It’s too late at night to do the story justice -- just believe me that I can’t recommend the book and the poem too highly.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


Thinking about modernism the last couple days, my attempt last night to wriggle a happy perspective out of the morass left me feeling woozy. The nervous neurotic quest to find the newest of the new.

I remember why I left it behind. For a couple years around 19 and 20 I took part in a modernist poetry quest, writing poems and searching for new idioms, new ways of going about it. By ‘83 or ‘84 I had experimented with improvised multi-voiced performance poetry, multi-media performance poetry (with collaged pre-recorded and live music), and visual collage poetry. I quickly realized that the competitiveness and the historical orientation of modernism was a recipe for neurosis, for me anyway. The paradox of modernism being oriented toward history dissolves when you realize that it takes a wealth of historical knowledge to prove that something is new.

The nervous neuroticism of new-new noveltyism is all over the academy too. I knew a guy working on his doctorate -- a really nice, very smart, very progressive guy -- and I could see the hunger for new angles on intellectual problems in his face. That, and anxiety about finding a job.

In my own personal post-modernist period (my entire drinking-age life), I’ve trusted that my own personal web of experiences and sensibility would lead my expression to be my own and personal, whether or not it’s formally or technically new or novel.

People still on the modernist quest -- I regret that my mixed feelings and personal baggage got me sounding snotty last night, and still tonight -- snotty. That word “novelty” trivializes the quest; I can’t shake my ambivalence that the quest is admirably ambitious and can yield real rewards but more often yields trivialities. Like I said last night, I’m always curious to hear new sounds and see new sights. If you’re on the quest, I wish you well.

My snottiness probably came from a revulsion that I always have chalked up to a belief that life-oriented art is superior to innovation-oriented art. But now I have to consider that my revulsion could come from a sense of failure. If my stuff can’t reach those new grapes, they must be sour.

Monday, June 21, 2004


To follow-up last night’s jumbled thoughts on modernism:

I’m of two minds about modernist ideology. Like the ‘50s American poet Frank O’Hara, I believe that life trumps art and that art is in the service of life. That said, part of my life is a curiosity about further boundaries of aesthetic endeavor and continually experiencing sounds and sights I haven’t before.

I’m all in favor of novelty, for I love trivial and frivolous things. In order for the New in an artform to be worth experiencing more than once, it has to have a resonance or connection with my life, actual or imagined. That resonance can fall into any of many abstract categories -- beauty, emotion, wisdom, insight, observation, politics.

But a career of chasing novelty for novelty’s sake -- well, I hope you’re having fun, fellas.


My friend Nick Griffin’s theory that music is a drug, which I quoted in Friday night’s post, inspired this response from Jay Sherman-Godfrey:

“What about the music playing in my head (my own and others)? As far as I can remember, it has not been interrupted much since I understood what music was. It has certainly allowed me to avoid things I face, but it also colors everything I face. More often than not, in a postive way.

“It heals me.”

JOHN REPLIES: Drugs can heal people. This drug is one the body-brain generates for itself.


I'm sure all the pundits and politicos who called on Clinton to resign after lying about sex will now demand that Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rice resign, for lying about life and death, the American economy, American security, chances for world peace.

Don't worry if I pass out from holding my breath.  The body will start breathing on its own.

Saw part of Clinton's show on 60 Minutes last night.  Most of the way through, I was thinking, this guy out-Reagans Reagan!  So affable, so charming, so easy and fluent in conversation, so personable.  Then the talk rolled around to his impeachment, and he said, with some heat and anger, how he was proud of fighting back that illegitimate abuse of prosecutorial power.  Anger in his eyes, but a smile on his face.  And I remembered why people think he’s a phony.  That smile was . . . conflicted.

Clinton was right to fight back of course, and I couldn't help but think of the chagrin of his persecutors.  "We trapped him!  We trapped him fair and square!  We spent tens of millions of public money and how many millions more of private money setting the trap, and he fell into it!  We trapped him!  And he escaped! He got away with it! We trapped him!"

The hatred and hypocrisy make me sick, and America and the world suffer the consequences.  OK, Supreme Court 5, how you feel about your appointee now?

Gangsta pols, the lot of 'em.

Sunday, June 20, 2004


Kyle Gann has interesting thoughts on ”Putting Modernism Behind Us” at his blog PostClassic. He quotes part of discussion between two novelists I’ve never read, talking in Slate magazine about how the modernist moment in the novel, exemplified for them by James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” represented a revulsion against the traditional artforms of the west in the wake of the slaughter of the first World War. The writers agree that experiments in greater complexity are not the thing to do now, that modernism has outlived its moment, though one of the writers aptly says that he is a modernist despite himself. In his comment on the dialogue, Kyle says he envies the “apparent ease with which literary people can remark on modernism’s irrelevance these days.”

Modernism -- one of the novelists quotes Ezra Pound’s commandment, “Make It New” -- modernism is a topic that always scratches my interest. Reading a composer’s comments on the thoughts of two novelists raises a disorganized jumble of comments and questions for me on the relationship between popular arts, subsidized-institutional arts, and mass reproduction.

* Novels are popular. They always have been. They didn’t exist until after the printing press. The split between so-called fine arts and so-called popular arts didn’t occur until long after the novel was established.

* For people who tout Joyce as the apex of novelistic modernism, what do they think of Gertrude Stein? For me, her boundary-pushing is more radical than “Ulysses,” and her “Tender Buttons” laid it out before the first World War, not after.

* It seems to me that novelists have never had to confront the question of how mass reproduction changes their relationship to their audience, since their art form developed after the printing press. Also, reading remains a solitary, absorbing experience -- you can’t just have a book on in the background, like you can music or a painting (though I did suggest to a friend who’s a performer and a Joyce fan that he would be the man to a Books-On-Tape version of “Finnegans Wake”). Reading is intentional and disciplined.

* Visual artists and composers work in artforms that were fully developed before there was any way to reproduce an individual work on a mass scale. Visual artists have confronted the question of what their art means in a world that’s inundated with images. There are still pitched battles in the artworld between the conceptualists, the abstractionists, and the post-modernists (many of whom are pasticheurs mining and recombining past styles of art), but the highest reaches of the artworld acknowledge that posters, comics, photos, and magazine covers are visual arts worthy of aesthetic regard, study, and preservation. Have composers in the classical (and post-) tradition confronted what their music means in a world inundated with the stuff? Have the highest reaches of the music world agreed that advertising jingles and Top 40 songs can be as worthy as music made in the university?

* The poetry world is like the music world in this respect. Until 60 or 70 years ago, rhymed verse was still a popular form, and newspapers printed it regularly. Today, newspapers print no verse, and university poets are split between the meditative conversationalists, the traditional formalists, and the intellectual avant-gardists. The different camps despise each other’s stuff, but two of the camps unite in their agreement that the wonderful poems of Robert Service (for example) don’t make the cut, and all 3 agree that neither do the energetic and often floridly inventive slam poets. What’s up with that? Interestingly, sometimes rock lyricists, and occasionally Tin Pan Alley lyricists, do make the cut.

* One of the novelists in the Slate discussion -- the one who aptly claims that he is still a modernist -- disses (en masse!) the new multi-cultural novel as stuck in the 19th century marriage narrative. Has the dude not read Malcolm Cowley’s brilliant review-and-defense of a new e. e. cummings poem book from the ‘30s? At the time, most poets, following T. S. Eliot, declared love poetry dead. (Note: According to the university poets, it still is.) Cummings wrote love poems, as well as undecipherable slang experiments, political jeremiads, and mean satires. Cowley tells this story: “I have known a poet somewhat younger than cummings who discovered that he had irrevocably lost the woman in whom his life was centered; he stumbled home and wrote, with tears gumming the keys of his typewriter, an elegy on the death of Rosa Luxembourg. Once I asked him what he thought of cummings. He said, ‘A fine poet, a very fine poet, but, I mean -- there’s nothing more up that street.’”

Saturday, June 19, 2004


Summer solstice arrives soon, and since now is the closest week-end, Seattle observed it today. The Saturday night swing show on the local NPR station featured songs about the sun.

Lionel Hampton singing (or someone in his band, but I think it was him) “The Sunny Side of the Street”:

If I never have a cent
I’ll be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the Sunny Side of the Street

The only wealth is life. Life’s energy comes from the sun. Gold’s value derives from its symbolic sunny color. For hundreds of years, across civilizations and cultures and languages and economies, the ratio of the value of gold to silver mirrored the ratio of the length of the solar cycle to the lunar cycle -- 13:1. In Roman mythology Pluto the God of Death is also the God of Wealth. In today’s America, Plutocrats rule by right of wealth and largely use it to deal death.

Gold dust at my feet -- gorgeous and true.

Friday, June 18, 2004


My friend Nick Griffin asked me and another friend the other day (the 3 of us had been in a band together):

Have you all heard my theory on constant music playing?  I feel it stunts development, both intellectual and emotional.  It's like a drug or alcohol. It allows you to avoid that which you should be facing.

If you constantly have music going that's what's in your head. Therefore, you're not thinking or feeling your own thoughts or feelings.

I've often thought about this in relation to my own high school days, and even for many years afterwards, during which music was always on in my bedroom or living space. I didn't have to think about anything nor deal with my feelings because I smothered it all in Bruce, or the Clash, or Brian Eno, etc...

JOHN REPLIES: Like any potion, music can be abused. I wonder about it for myself sometimes.


The 3rd former bandmate Nick was writing to too, our friend Jake London, wrote in as well:

"I saw Usher on SNL last weekend. He was amazing. The song was cool and the dancing was really astounding. If Marvin Gaye was coming up now, I think he might be Usher."

JOHN REPLIES: I hear Marvin Gaye in Usher's voice too, and not in any sort of bad way -- the styles are different.

Thursday, June 17, 2004


I forgot to mention in my post last night that Franklin Bruno argues that “rockism” is a stick-word with which to beat rhetorical opponents and should be avoided by thinking people. He’s got a point. But, but, but -- sometimes, it’s such a USEFUL word. But, OK, there are other ways to say it. Rock-snob-high-school-clique-ishness.


I remember reading some Rolling Stone magazine list of greatest albums some years ago that explicitly excluded Carole King’s “Tapestry” for being too mellow-singer-songwritery and Not ROCK enough. That’s what I was thinking of when I mentioned Carole last night.


I really am curious to understand the history of Wagner’s reception in America, and how Bugs Bunny affected it. Because affect it Bugs did.

I was trying to imagine classical objections to Bugs’s irreverent appropriation of Wagner’s tune and costumes. I couldn’t think of a reasonable one. Disrespectful, sure, but don’t classical composers lift folk and pop tunes all the time? Didn’t Bach lift tunes from his Italian contemporaries? Is cultural appropriation supposed to be a one-way affair? I haven’t heard any classical objections to the Bugs-Bunny-ization of Wagner; people are savvy; they know the anti-approprationist stance wouldn’t have a leg. So, does the classical establishment just pretend not to notice a whole opera audience whispering “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit”? I honestly don’t know.

(Digression on appropriation: I once heard -- a few years ago -- a hip-hoppy (speaking of wabbits) cover of the opening measures of Mozart’s wonderful G-minor symphony (# 41). As I recall, it was half-sung, mostly rapped, great dance beat, and that great Mozart melody. Wonderful record. No idea who did it.)

The pretense of the classical establishment is that everything from -- I dunno -- Monteverdi?, no, earlier -- to Webern and Shostakovich is under the Big Classical Tent. The implication is that well-rounded listeners APPRECIATE (if not necessarily LOVE) all of it.

If there’s a line of historical continuity that goes from Bach to Webern, there’s one that goes from Bach to Britney too. The split starts happening shortly after Beethoven. Johann Strauss gets called “light classic” and Offenbach founds “light operetta,” which gets picked up by Gilbert and Sullivan (Gilbert translated some Offenbach libretti) and evolves eventually into the American musical comedy. Jerome Kern (born in Europe; got rich in America) embodies the evolution, starting off as an operetta composer, famous now for having written a bunch of “classic” standard tunes -- Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Ol’ Man River, All the Things You Are, Just the Way You Look Tonight. The musical-comedy tradition intersects mightily with jazz, as jazz musicians play the tunes and appropriate the chord progressions. The first large flowering of this hybrid happens in the big band swing era of the ‘30s. By the ‘40s, one branch of big band swing is evolving into R & B -- the line from Lionel Hampton to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry is audibly direct. The R & B line represents the bluesier, less harmonically sophisticated strain than the musical-comedy strain of jazz, but the early rock-and-rollers covered lots of musical-comedy chestnuts. Etta James’s “At Last” and the Flamingoes’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” (both composed by Harry Warren in the ‘30s); the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”; Elvis and the Marcells’ different and wonderful takes Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” from the ‘30s; Beatles’ “A Taste of Honey” and “Til There Was You” as well as a Burt Bacharach song, “Baby It’s You.” Bacharach had worked with Johnny Matthis and Marlene Dietrich before striking gold with Dionne Warwick; the line from Dionne to Britney has Donna Summers in between. (More or less.)

There’s a whole lot more to the story, of course.

The Big Classical Tent idea glosses over the changing SOUND and STYLE and SOCIAL ROLE of the classical trip. The idea is, classical is “cultural history”; the reality is, it’s presented in a culturally blinkered and ahistorical manner as often as not, and in general. Not in every specific, of course. A lot of classical presenters have their cultural-historical Thang together. It’s the general overview that Provokes me.

Music-without-context is fine, if you have the ears for it. Nothing wrong with it. I can love Bach without caring about his Lutheranism. Or love Bach without loving Webern. Or Britney. (I *like* Webern and Britney, but don’t love them. Someone else can love Bach and hate Webern and Britney. Bach sounds a lot different than both.)

Music is music.


My friend Mickle Maher writes:

“John -- re Britney: I heard Richard Thompson defend her, or at least one of her songs, on the radio once. He did an acoustic version of "Whoops, I Did it Again", in his aggressive, anguished way and I had to a concede his point that it's a great expression of a guilty soul, tormented by his/her making someone they (only) care about fall in love with them AGAIN. Off the top of my head I can't think of another song with that exact theme. You?”

JOHN REPLIES: I don’t know that song, but the situation as you describe it is interesting, and nope, I can’t think of another song that gets at it. Richard Thompson ROCKS. I’ve seen him play three times -- his musicianship, his guitar playing -- to quote Bob Dylan -- “I stand in awe and I shake my face.”


When I write last night about seeing Britney on SNL, “didn’t remember her songs,” I meant to say that *I* didn’t remember her songs. Like most stuff I see on TV.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


During a break at work I was telling a friend about finding this old patriotic song “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” in an old book of music for kids. I sang the first few bars and my friend said, “Oh, I know that song from Bugs Bunny!”

Years ago my beloved spouse went to see a Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s “Die Walkure.” (Please visualize an umlaut over the “u.”) During the Flight of the eponymous spirits, the auditorium murmured with everybody whispering “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit,” quoting Elmer Fudd in Bugs’s version of the tune.

Bugs made Wagner pop, just like Stanley Kubrick got Richard Strauss to write the theme song to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 70 years before the fact, sure, but that’s a technicality.

What is classical music? The music of J. S. Bach has more in common with Britney Spears than Anton Webern. It’s tonal, it’s catchy, and a lot of it is based on dance rhythms.


In some rockwrite circles I’ve intersected with, usually only as a reader, it’s an article of faith that “Britney sucks.” Just mention the name, no need for elaboration. I was suspicious. I didn’t know her music. She had a catchy Pepsi commercial a couple baseball seasons ago. Saw her on Saturday Night Live once; didn’t remember her songs but she was funny and charming in the skits, as good as Derek Jeter. The contrarian in me was really happy when I heard a song I really liked on Top 40 radio, looked it up, and found out the singer was Britney.

I mention this because I recently came across a blog by an interesting writer named Franklin Bruno, who critiques the music-crit term “rockist.” He makes good points (that “rockist” is always pejorative) and observations (that “rockist” and “racist” are orthographically similar) and asks what do people mean by “rockist” anyway? Since on June 6, shortly before reading this, I had pejoratively used the word “rockist” to describe Nick Hornby, I feel motivated to answer Franklin’s question. Rockists are rock music fans who reflexively say Britney sucks, or who say a certain genre of music sucks because it’s “too commercial.” Nick Hornby excellently exemplifies what I’m talking about in the piece I was commenting on, where he uses Britney as an exemplar of bad music that’s too commercial.

It’s fine if you think Britney sucks, I only ask that if you mention it, you explain why, and not assume that it’s self-evident. I like Britney.

The “ism” of rockism connotes religiosity to me. I'm all in favor of religious enthusiasm about music, but a lot of Rockists are intolerant fundamentalists, and intolerant-ists grate on my nerves. I will try to be more tolerant of them in future.

Rockists who equate Aggression with the Rock grate especially. The Aggressivist view of Rock leaves out Carole King, for one thing. Carole King rocks! If the only songwriter to be covered by the Beatles and the Byrds and Aretha Franklin is not rock-worthy, that's not the Ism for me.


I’m not guilt-ridden. I’m aggressive in my denunciation of aggressionism. The irony is found on me. I don't know what to do about it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


At least once a day the toddling dude asks for “pow,” his word for piano. He sits on my lap as I plunk through songbooks, playing the melodies and singing and sometimes fleshing out some chords. He has a favorite songbook of kids’ songs, from a parent-and-child music class he took with my beloved spouse. Our other book is from 1961, “Childcraft: Music for the Family,” which I picked up 10 years or so ago from a thrift store because it had nice photos of white kids playing instruments. Lots of good songs too.

I never knew “Home On the Range” had a second verse, quite lovely.


How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the lights from the glittering stars,
Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Home, home on the range . . .


“Childcraft” is also teaching me “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” a tune I’d heard of (Ives quotes it in some of his pieces), and had heard, but didn’t know. A rousing march, an arm-swinging song for belting. A great line: “Thy banners make tyranny tremble.”

And a great second verse:

“When war winged its wide desolation,
And threatened our land to deform,
The ark then of freedom’s foundation,
Columbia rode safe through the storm;” . . .

Our current president seems to think war’s wide desolation gives him license to deform our land and sink the ark of freedom’s foundation. Amazing.


The anti-tyranny position espoused by “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” reminds me of the great Lincoln campaign song sung by Ronnie Gilbert on that great late ‘80s compilation of songs from the Civil War era. Gilbert, an old woman by then, with years of leftist activism and music behind her, including years as a member of the Weavers with Pete Seeger, put on her best rousing stern passionate white protestant radical abolitionist voice to sing the galloping waltz “Lincoln and Liberty,” with this terrific verse:

“Success to the old-fashioned doctrine
That all men created are free,
And down with the power of the tyrant
Wherever his stronghold may be.”

Gilbert nails the words “free” and “down”; practically shouts them.


President Bush’s lawyers told him that the crisis of war authorizes him to suspend American law whenever he sees fit. They tossed out the Constitution and everything this country stands for; Bush was quoted as saying that the great thing about being President is you don’t have to answer to anybody. The ghastly torture scandal is a direct result. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld should rot next to Saddam Hussein in prison for the rest of their lives.


Down with the power of the tyrant.

Monday, June 14, 2004


The wickedness and depravity of the Iraq prison torture, and the evidence that it almost certainly was condoned and perhaps ordered by the president, justified by an anti-American monarchical opinion that (Republican) presidents are above the law, combined with an utter contempt for historic alliances and the opinion of mankind, including a willingness to compromise national security by outing an anti-nuke-proliferation spy for petty political gain, topped by a naivete that gets them hoodwinked by a known fraud who's been convicted for embezzlement by one of the only Arab countries that recognizes Israel – WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? It stupefies me that they have one shred of credibility left with anybody.

Sunday, June 13, 2004


Heard two great tunes in the car yesterday. On the local NPR station, their local Saturday night show, “The Swing Years and Beyond,” there was a rich-voiced tragic alto singing a lovely melody with an elegantly forceful big band playing a passionate bolero beat, “The Breeze and I.” I’d heard the tune -- I think the excellent Portland band Pink Martini plays an instrumental version of it -- and I’ve probably heard the words, but they struck me this time. I don’t remember any particular phrases other than title, but the gist is, “the breeze and I were discussing how sad it is that you’ve left me.” A conversational relationship with nature often touches me, and the breeze is such a marvelous, awesome, unpredictable, here-and-gone force. Wind = pneuma = spirit. When, in Genesis, the spirit of God moves on the face of the deep, the metaphor suggests wind over water. D. H. Lawrence wrote, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!” Yes.

Later I heard Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Great melodic heavy distorted guitar riff, nice melody, and then a lovely melodic bridge with Neil’s gift for beautiful thick vocal harmonies, and then the tour-de-force climactic guitar solo, one note repeated with unremarkable rhythm but just beautiful, beautiful thick heavy distorted electric guitar tone, and somehow inexplicably perfect ending for the song. Hadn’t heard the song in many years; I’d forgotten the pop handclaps. Terrific.

Today, this music in my head, I put on my best baritone and sang the melody of “The Breeze and I.” The toddling dude made a sneering face, as if something smelled bad. Cracked me up.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


I heard "Burn" by Usher on the radio again yesterday. Every time I hear the song I like it more. It has unique style. Stripped down rhythm section, lush vocal harmonies, and lead singing that goes as quickly as virtuoso rapping, but with nice melody and lovely tone. Beautiful.

After posting on June 3 about songs I hear on the radio and like by unannounced pop stars, I realized I could Google the lyrics. The singer of the Donna Summer adaptation is someone or group named No Doubt, and the singer of the catchy whiny white hard rock pop anthem "I'm a dick, I'm addicted to you" is famed white rapper Eminem.

Today I heard a super-catchy lively melange pop wonder featuring a woman singing about tasting addictive toxic lips. The percussion track was a livelier, nervouser version of the percussion of "When Doves Cry" by Prince; there were some tasty noisy well-deployed punky electric guitar breaks; and best of all a lot of bittersweetly dissonant Cairo-style strings, probably synth strings. Really good record. Google search of "toxic lyrics" tells me the singer is Britney Spears.

It's usually been a Golden Age for pop music, if by "Golden Age" you mean an era with a few really good songs. Now is like usually.


On May 23 and 26 I wrote negative negative negative things about the classical music criticism of Virgil Thomson. I was wrong. He’s terrific. I picked up A Virgil Thomson Reader from a used book store Monday night, and it’s stuffed with wonderfully lucid and insightful observations of music, particularly live performances of classical music in the early ‘40s, when he wrote many of his daily newspaper reviews. And he’s in love with music and has a great respect for good musicians. He’s frank about his personal preferences and imaginative and sympathetic enough to be able to describe why other people happen to like something he doesn’t. Wonderful stuff.


Nobody I know grew up to be a professional classical musician. The discipline it takes to achieve that depth and breadth of proficiency intimidates me. For all the middle class professional orchestral players, many more people trained to do that and didn’t make it. Getting the gig is a remarkable achievement.

Kyle Gann attended a recent piano recital by composer Terry Riley. Pianists and composers both, Riley and Gann decided against becoming repertory pianists, daunted by the disciplined submission-to-the-score that it requires. Riley improvised some of the recital. Schubert and Beethoven and Mozart and Bach frequently improvised parts of theirs.

Please come play in Seattle, Terry Riley!

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Last night’s cranky, ungelled, inconclusively bilious post mystifies me. I had two topics in mind and didn’t get them together.

The question of public subsidy for professional proprietary arts is complicated. Clearly, symphony orchestra players aren’t going to be able to earn middle class livings without public and private subsidy. And without the promise of a middle class salary, most of the orchestra players won’t play together, and we won’t have very many orchestras, and no professional ones. The orchestra players would have to earn money in other ways, leaving little time for amateur orchestra playing. And as much as classical polemicists complain about the lack of funding, the money shakers have decided to keep funding at least several handsful of professional orchestras around the country.

I rue the snideness in my tone, reflecting the snideness in my soul. My conscious political mind agrees that it’s great to fund the arts. I have experienced thrilling joy and beauty in symphonic music. I wish we had more money for the arts. I’d love to see more arts education -- free musical instrument rentals for any public school kid in the country, along with group instruction. Art instruction and free art supplies. Free access to performance space for experimental and/or community artists of all ages, to put on plays or dance concerts or music concerts or pageants or what-have-you. And I’d love to see more jazz repertory big bands. I’m glad the orchestras and opera houses get theirs; that there's not more to spread around is a minor symptom of our debauched polity.

Since the public subsidizes the big orchestras, the question of box office is relevant. Which is why the repertory is so conservative, and the most recent pieces to win regular performances are probably 40 years old now. The majority of the audience don’t dig Charles Ives. Makes me sad, because I do, and his unpopularity means I’ll have to wait quite a while before my local Seattle Symphony will put his music on the bill. Even his incredibly sweet and harmonious and poignant 3rd Symphony. (Ives dissed it for being conservative, which formally it’s not.)

The power struggle between composers who can’t get their stuff played, audiences who don’t want to hear it, and orchestra members who don’t like it anyway is fraught with emotion and politics. I don’t know where my sympathies lie. The blogging critic and composer Greg Sandow posted a few weeks ago about a concert performance by the LA Philharmonic of a version of music from the videogame “Final Fantasy.” Sandow quotes a long e-mail from a young guy who went to the show, his first orchestral concert. A lot of the orchestra members hated the music, and the audience of videogaming orchestral neophytes loved it, even though they could tell the players weren’t digging it.

It would take a sociologically-minded novelist to get the story here. The culture wars; the alienated labor that goes into its production; the subsidized version of a market economy; the “vertically integrated corporate form” (to borrow a phrase from my friend Jake London) -- there’s a lot going on in the orchestral world. I'd be curious to know the story of how the LA Philharmonic decided to put videogame music on the bill.

One thing -- orchestral music ain't about original vision. Different conductors or soloists can bring unique points of view to the repertory, but has there been a new growth in music that first flowered with the orchestra since Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"? It would not surprise me to learn that orchestral writers somewhere have found new wrinkles in orchestral tone color in the last 90 years, but classical ain't where tone color explorations have been mostly happening.

(Thanks to my friend Jake for helping me think about this stuff.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


The New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross wrote a review last week of a series of concerts featuring the music of Charles Ives. He says some things that bemuse me. How is Ives’s music the embodiment of a “prankster aesthetic”? Meatily sincere, audio-visionary, bracingly life-embracing are closer to the mark, and if he’s sometimes humorous, it’s affectionate razzing rather than pulling pranks.

Ross worries that the poor turn-out for the Ives concerts along with the spectacle of many of the patrons leaving before the end will discourage orchestras from further adventures in adventurous programming. As a classical fan who’s skeptical of the special subsidized status that classical “enjoys,” this worry raises -- what’s the word? -- oh yes, “issues” for me.

Classical partisans argue that its special subsidized status derives from its superiority to other available music, combined with its commercial unviability. Leaving aside the question of superiority, if orchestras justify the government and private foundation subsidies they receive on the grounds of commercial unviability, then why do they worry if the box office does poorly and people walk out? Isn’t that part of the justification for the subsidy in the first place?

Money money money. As a semi-pro (mostly amateur) musician and amateur blogger, I have found inspiration in Charles Ives’s example. Don’t expect to be paid for doing what you love, he said, and he didn’t get paid. So, while, yes, guilty, I confess, I’m jealous of the money I don’t make from my music, that’s not the whole story. I love what I’m doing.

Which is one of the sorrows of orchestras. According to conductor Daniel Barenboim, in his book of conversations with Edward Said, “Parallels and Paradoxes,” job satisfaction among orchestral players is among the lowest of any profession. How could that be? Aren’t they getting paid a middle class salary for doing what they love?

Apparently not. Orchestral players -- in most cases -- have no say over the music they play. Even though they’re the ones producing the sounds, and what they do requires an incredibly high level of skill, higher than that enjoyed by all but the most accomplished rock and pop and country players (jazz is a different story), they have very little control over the expressive interpretive nuances of the music they don’t choose whether to play in the first place. The dude standing in front waving his arms gets to make the interpretive decisions. (Almost always a he-dude.) Sometimes the conductor isn’t even the one calling the tunes, if he’s not the artistic director. Orchestras are large complex bureaucratic organizations, which in general are alienating places to work anyway.

If orchestras-as-institutions (as distinct from orchestras-as-groups-of-musicians) are worrying about box office, there’s some bad faith somewhere. Clearly, it’s true that they couldn’t survive without the subsidies. An orchestra in London tried a few months ago and went out business within two months. But if they’re programming their shows to appeal to the widest possible orchestral audience, they’re laboring under commercial considerations.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t worry about box office. Alex Ross thinks the Ives concerts could have had better box office with better outreach and education. I say, if these giant organizations are sucking up hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money, they should be selling tickets for cheap. That would help box office.

I pity the unhappy workers of the world, orchestral workers included. It’s hard for me to listen to records when I know that someone within earshot doesn’t like the music. (No Albert Ayler when my beloved spouse is in the room.) After reading what Daniel Barenboim had to say about unhappy orchesters, hearing orchestral music will haunt me.

Monday, June 07, 2004


Rest in peace Robert Quine, noisy dissonant beautiful hot guitarist on the early Richard Hell records and on Lou Reed's “The Blue Mask,” which I haven’t heard in many years and would love to hear again. Heroin is the devil.

My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey knew Quine from the New York rock guitar scene:

“I was acquainted w/ him from hanging out at Mojo guitar shop on St. Marks. It was like the Floyd's barber shop for guit freaks in NY. I had the honor of one of my solos on a They Might Be Giants record being wiped to make room for him.

“Quine was was very cool, but also very enthusiastic about music if you could engage him. A real NY eccentric with his 24/7 shades and permanent black suit. His storage space was legend at the shop -- filled to the brim with guitars. Then, he had no time for vintage and would tell you so. He preferred $300 Japanese Strats when I was acquainted with him.”


Elvin Jones died a few weeks ago. I revere his drumming with the Coltrane Quartet.

Once I heard “A Love Supreme” emanating from an airport Starbucks. It shocked me. “What’s Starbucks doing playing religious music?” That it shocked me only proves my unimaginative snobbery. Starbucks workers deserve whatever religious uplift they can find, just like anybody.


This morning's Doonesbury sharply illustrated how kids today transcend rebellion, which I wrote about last night. Rick Redfern's son says to him, "There's no generation gap, like back in the day. Adults your age are invisible to us."

Has King Oedipus finally wandered blindly offstage?


The toddling dude was taking his bath, playing with a plastic duck. “Du du du,” he was saying. He gets the vowel sounds right but omits the closing consonants, and only a handful of words have more than one syllable in his version. Mama. Dadda. Backpack. Mama and Dada sometimes proliferate into a bouquet of syllables, “Mamamamama” or “Daddaddaddadda.”

I asked him, “What does the duck say?”

“Wa wa,” he said, rhyming with “quack quack.”

Then he pointed at me and said “Dadda.”

“What does Dadda say?” I asked.

He looked puzzled for half a moment but struck upon an answer that surprised me. “Dadda,” he said, with a big smile.

“And who are you?” I asked.

“Na,” he said.

“And what does Nat say?”

“Na!” Big smile.

All that we say is our name, and more than our name, our identity. And more than our identity: Our being. The word is made flesh in our lungs and windpipes and mouths. Being a man of my word, when I break my word I break a part of my being.

Like many metaphysical theories, I like it, it gets at a truth. Like any metaphysical theory, not the whole truth. My newly adopted linguistic ontology is not fundamentalist or dogmatic, that would be silly.

Sunday, June 06, 2004


I’ve been enjoying the spectacle of aging rockist rhetorical revolutionaries hardening their rockism into reactionary fogeyism. Fogeyism has always been with us. “Things were better when I was better, I mean when I was young.”

A couple weeks ago the English novelist and film scenarist Nick Hornby opined in the New York Times (link available, but it costs money now) that good old rock and roll just ain’t as good nowadays as the old good rock and roll. His main complaint seems to be -- though he doesn’t say this explicitly -- that no current young act is as multi-dimensional as Springsteen; he seems to want his stars to be crafty melodic noisy passionate goofy hard-rockin’ popsters with great personalities that have brilliant insights into the ways of the heart and the world but don’t take themselves too seriously. (Hornby’s evidence that Springsteen has a goofy side is that he covered “Little Latin Lupe Lu” in concert, a song I remember having heard of only because a character in a Nick Hornby movie mentioned it.) Hornby disses today’s crafty light popsters for being too commercial, and the passionate insightful rockers of today disappoint him because they’re not commercial enough or too ironic or both.

On the strength of a hit novel and movie about obsessive record collectors, Hornby became for a while the pop music critic for the New Yorker. His replacement, Mr. Sasha Frere-Jones, wrote a line-by-line takedown of Hornby’s piece on May 21, which includes most (or maybe all -- don’t remember) of Hornby’s orginal.

Not only did Sasha Frere-Jones’s blog alert me to Hornby’s piece, but a friend sent it to me as well. Around the same time that same friend sent me a link to a recent interview with David Crosby, who says what Hornby says -- ain’t it a drag that things ain’t what they used to be. The pull quote from Cros says, “It changed from being about the music to being about what you look like.” This is hilarious, because Crosby’s band the Byrds hired drummer Michael Clarke not because of his mediocre drum chops (which are often masked by tambourine or scraper or shaker on the records, or replaced by a session drummer) -- the Byrds hired him because he looked like Mick Jagger!

Sinatra’s generation mostly complained about rock and roll, and now a lot of the rock and rollers complain about what’s going on now. The only wrinkle is that rock ideology proclaims itself to be Now! New! Rebellious! Rebellious against the stale old Sinatra fogeys, originally. Post-rock genres -- such today’s R&B and techno influenced dance teen pop -- have silently liberated themselves from the dogma of rebellion, if they ever felt the dogma in the first place. The kids are doing their own thing without making such a fuss about it, and the kids are alright.

I’m a fogey myself, and I love the Byrds, and I love David Crosby for saying this, despite himself, in the recent interview:

“I see plenty of future for music. Music is magic. It's been mankind's magic since the first caveman danced around his fire going "Ugga bugga, hugga bugga!" That was music, and he was happy. And we're still doing it, and it makes us happy. It will transcend; it will go on.”

Music is magic. The sounds travel through space & into your ear & they vibrate your skin too, and in ways that nobody can ever completely understand, they change your outlook, they transform you. Ugga bugga hugga bugga, baby!

Saturday, June 05, 2004


I forgot to mention in my recent reports on Seattle’s Folklife festival that I enjoyed hearing a local singer whom my spouse knows from political activism, a guy named Tom Rawson. He’s what they call a true folkie, meaning, someone who got his style, including his long-neck banjo, from Pete Seeger. (“Everybody got extra long-neck banjos after Pete Seeger did,” he told me the one time I met him.) Pete Seeger is a terrific musician & a lively polemicist, but his roots ain’t “man of the people”; he’s a second-generation musical leftist-anthropologist. His father Charles more-or-less founded ethnomusicology after giving up his career as an avant-garde Euro-tradition (“classical”) composer.

What struck me, though, after reading STOMP AND SWERVE by David Wondrich (which I wrote about on May 12) was the irony of sincere white leftists like Rawson and Seeger playing an instrument that became popular with white people from minstrel shows. Banjo was originally an African instrument -- I knew that -- and Wondrich shows how the 19th century blackface minstrel tradition, which featured banjo, had a huge influence on white folk & country music.

I heard Tom Rawson sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” with some new verses (presumably by Tom) and a great gospel tune called “Up Above My Head I Hear Music In the Air,” which the amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded in at least two terrific, very different versions. A light rain fell on the lawn of the Seattle Center as Tom sang his heart out and beat out the beat on his long-neck banjo, and some of us sang along and lightly bounced to the rhythm.

Thursday, June 03, 2004


Crranky today from not enough sleep – ah, but the pleasures of quiet time at night – reading, writing, conversation – and crranky from driving too much in too much traffic – too much for my mood anyway – and crranky from the glary bright day from which I’m penned at work & then driving too much (and so on) – but then, then, refreshment arrives on the all-hits station; I heard that Usher song “Let It Burn” again & started to notice its intricate, excellent, expert structure, its superb dramatic dynamics, when Usher mentions that he's crying followed by a sweet falsetto "Ooh ooh ooh ooh" over nothing but the drums, followed by the loudest most intense moment in the song, a passionate phrase shouted over one note -- marvelous; and then right away heard “I’m a dick / I’m addicted to you” again & dug the hard rock 6/8 hooky pop teen squeak heartbreak song, catchy as catch can. Then after a respite from driving got back in the car, turned the radio back on & heard a groovy adaptation/cover of Donna Summers's "I LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY" that takes that tag line, words & tune, and weaves a complex, somewhat Arabic sounding R&B melody, a whole new song, around it, sung a by a worthy heir of Ms. Summers. Hearing 3 energetic melodic engaging grooving charming songs practically in a row -- it must be a golden age for hit radio.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004


My post the other night about dreaming about a lost chord inspired this reminiscence by my friend Emily Dietrich: "My mom used to play this song called 'The Lost Chord' and sing with it.  She said she sang it when her parents forbade her from seeing a boyfriend or when something else dramatic happened.  It's quite a dramatic song.  It starts small and gets huge."

John replies: I've never heard the song, but I know the poem, written in the 1850s or '60s by an Englishwoman named Adelaide Procter. Sir Arthur Sullivan set the poem to music; he was better known for some theatrical work written with someone named Gilbert.

Some sources give the poem's title as "A Lost Chord," but I've always known it as "The Lost Chord." A memorable and sympathetic poem. I'd love to hear the music. Caruso recorded the song.

Seated one day at the Organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I do not know what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an Angel's Psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplexéd meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the Organ,
And entered into mine.

It may be that Death's bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heaven
I shall hear that grand Amen.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Monday’s personal highlight at the Seattle folk music festival was seeing the hula hoop lawn -- some woman had brought a couple dozen hula hoops for people to swing their hips. That, and bumping into friends. And, dancing with my son. And, hearing a white-bearded guitar-picker sing a jaunty song to Bush & Co., looking forward to them doing the “Perp Walk.”

That said, I have a complaint. It’s of a linguistic nature.

Today, by the evidence of the folk festivals I’ve been to, “folk music” means non-rock-jazz-pop-classical music from Euro-derived cultures and any music at all from any other culture.

Which means that Ethiopian pop music is folk music.

And Indian classical music -- complex chamber music traditionally played in the courts of the nobility -- is folk music.

“Folk” is a Germanic word for people, as in “the” people, as in, “not us.” "Us" -- the ones calling the shots, making up the names, and deciding on the categories. It’s an aftertaste of colonialism for westerners to think that 3rd world elites must be the “folk.”

I love hearing things I’ve never heard, and these festivals get me there. I just wish they were called “western folk and international music” festivals -- that would be closer.

“Folk” music for my white-collar white-skin milieu is musicals. Most people of my age-and-culture group grew up with them & know the songs, & I love a lot of them. I'd love to hear a sing-along act doing Rodgers & Hammerstein; I wonder whether such an act could pass muster at a folk festival. Most of the performers at these things come from my culture group, and most of them have taken up music that they didn’t grow up with. I’m not in a position to say that there’s anything wrong with that -- my parents didn’t listen to free jazz or punk rock or Woody Guthrie, and those 3 musics inform a lot of the music I make.

This stuff has been itching my cogitator for years. I’m still scratching at it.


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey talks about some of this stuff in this beautiful e-mail he sent me today.

Saw your blog on the Seattle Folk fest -- went to a folk fest of sorts here on Saturday. In our Astoria neighborhood is one of the last (if not the last) beer gardens in NYC, outdoor saloons and social gathering places based on the European model that numbered in the hundreds in the City, I believe, until prohibition. This one is attached to the Bohemian Hall, a Czech-Slovak social club that also houses a nursery school and gymnastics club. As a beer merchant and good hang, it serves both the old timers and the new, hip Astorians. Kids are welcome until the early evening -- we used to go a lot when Mac was a baby. They have a lot of fine big trees and always a nice breeze.

Anyway, last weekend was the annual Czech-Slovak festival there, which revolved around music and dance performances, and even included a gymnastics exhibition. We were among many non-Czech/Slovaks (not sure when there was a significant Czech/Slovak presence in the 'hood, though I've noticed other remnants besides the beer garden), and so it was of interest on its face (the kids and I loved the music and dancing) and also as a cultural event somewhat out of time.

It started w/ speeches (best quote of the day, from a dour club official in a dark gray suit, "I will read this all in both Czech and Slovak so everybody will understand.") and prayers and a presentation of the Czech, Slovak, and American Flags. The said club official continued w/ a very moving eulogy for those lost, making special mention of the many Czech/Slovaks that died in concentration camps. There were tears from the older in attendance, and many clasped hands and bitten lips from some of the same and their families, seated at long tables in their Sunday best, when the soldiers now in Iraq were honored. Our wars on the backs of generations of immigrants.

But the band, after Taps, lighted it up. The Pilsner Brass Band, average age seemed to be about 65. Most older, few younger. The tunes were unfamiliar, (though I think I noticed the a varient of the Beer Barrel Polka) but the sound was great. Lineup, from memory: Tuba, trap kit, two or three baritones, two tenor sax, one alto, three trumpets, two doubling on flugelhorn, a flautist/piccoloist, and two clarinets, one a very small version I had never before seen.

They were a bit warbly, but endearingly bouncy. Not often that I hear brass band music, and it seemed so right amid hissing sausages and beer-mug clinking. A gray haired, barely moving guy in a Yankees cap and Birkenstocks that half seemed like he just stepped up from the audience (though later I could see he was with the band) sang in Czech and/or Slovak (I assume) with a tight lipped, chesty baritone, often joined by the crowd in unison, at which point he would become suddenly animated, waving his arms to the beat. It was really great. The power of nationalistic music, a music of community, of memory, of family. I don't think we have that reference anymore. Shame. It was a treat to watch and hear it, and somehow steal a bit of the feeling.

Next was a traditional dance troupe, Limora by name. Youngish, oddly tough looking guys in flowery outfits and triangular caps and prim 20-ish women in intricate dresses and head scarves. The men leapt and whooped and slapped their heels high in the air (little cymbals attached to their boots like spurs), while the women demurely twirled and lightly kicked with their hands clasped behind their backs, suddenly to be flung into the air by their partners. They had their own little combo, two fiddles, accordion, double bass, and a large hammer dulcimer I learned was called a Cimbalom. The dulcimer was under-amplified, but Mac and I sneaked right up behind him. A deep. lovely ringing sound. This lasted 'til evening, off and on, broken by the gymnastics exhibition performed to recorded classical music. The dancers gave up and started drinking, but the combo continued into the evening, this time with spirited two-part singing. All the while, kids of all sizes running willy-nilly all over the stage and dance floor (and the Czech/Slovak kids nipping at beer in little cups poured by their grandparents). We left beer-soggy and with extra-tired kids as the new Astoria slacker crowd started to file in for their regular Saturday night.

A great day of music, family, and friends. The kind of musical experience I rarely get, but want more of.


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