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

Monday, August 30, 2004


Most days at some point the toddling dude sits in my lap as I plunk mostly one-fingeredly through songbooks on the piano. I’m psyched that he’s starting to let me play from books other than children’s songbooks. I started him out with the Yip Harburg Songbook -- got the book years ago because he’d written lots of my faves & I wanted to learn some of them. Lyricist of the Great Depression classic Brother Can You Spare A Dime and the great Great Depression movie score “Wizard of Oz,” as well as the metaphysical love song It’s Only a Paper Moon and the metaphysical heartbreak song Last Night When We Were Young. I broke the toddling dude in with several days straight of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra” from the show “Finian’s Rainbow,” which also boasts the chesty standard “That Old Devil Moon,” which the otherwise lovely 1968 movie version (directed by Coppola!) embarrassingly turns into dewy-eyed soft rock. (One of Fred Astaire’s last dancing performances, in the title role, pushing 70 years old and so, so beautiful. Fred plays a searcher looking for his pot of gold, which he’d planted in Kentucky [a la Fort Knox] to make it grow. Fred’s search brings happiness to everyone except himself, who gives up the gold because others need it more. As it ends he dances away with tremendous grace and poise and melancholy, still searching. And I couldn’t help thinking -- a parable of the artist in society. Very self-flattering parable, true, but the story-in-itself worked for me.)

“Glocca Morra” gradually readied my toddling son for more Harburg lyrics, so today we sang “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” a song I’ve performed on guitar at political rallies regarding homelessness and poverty. Rich, tasty chords, great melody, and those lyrics. Sometimes they make me cry.

The intro, mygod -- “They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead.” Already having mentioned he’d been a soldier, he’s talking about the War to End All Wars. Now, it’s the Great Depression, and he asks, “Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?”

Into the song proper, a jaunty tune -- “once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time” -- proud, boastful; then, the tune turns melancholy as the work’s gone now -- “once I built a tower. Now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?” The beautifully forward American immediacy and friendliness (and impositioning) of “Brother.”

Next strain, same pattern, opening jaunty & boastful, “Once I built a tower to the sun!” Babel, Ozymandias -- now, the work ended, melancholy tune: “Once I built a tower. Now it’s done. Brother can you spare a dime?”

And then the bridge -- he was a soldier in World War 1, the tune is a little martial, we looked good, we slogged through hell, “I was the kid with the drum.”

Last strain, hysteria and desperation start in, and the tune is no longer jaunty, it’s a little freaked, starting an octave higher: “Say don’t you remember, they called me Al, it was Al all the time.” (An aside: Paul Simon should be ashamed -- ashamed! -- for trivializing that line on “Graceland.”) A little quieter, “Say don’t you remember,” then, explosive, climactic, utterly desperate: “I’m your pal!” Ending, pathetic, the familiar “brother” declined to a less personal, more distanced epithet, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

It’s that line “I’m your pal!” that’s made me cry many times while singing it, and tonight with my beloved toddling son in my lap. Hysteria in song touches me deep.

After my son went to bed I got out my guitar to remember how I used to sing it. This time, fuggedaboutit.

I’d always had trouble with the bridge. The jauntiness of the soldier’s boast as the tune turns to a major key and a martial rhythm. And tonight it hit me, the jauntiness is sheer sarcasm; or at least it is from the singer’s perspective NOW, even if he originally did feel splendid in his uniform, now it’s pure bitterness of pain and outrage and betrayal, and that’s how I sang it, the second time through. Don’t know why I never got it before. Gall, gall, gall, gall, gall.

Once in khaki suits
Gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee-doodley-dum
Half a million boots
Went slogging through hell
I was the kid with the drum

Say, don’t you remember?
They called me Al? . . .

I broke down sobbing for 3 or 4 minutes and couldn’t finish the song, and even as I type this tears stream down my face.


The other day I read that Colin Powell cancelled his trip to the Athens Olympiad out of worry that his presence would inspire anti-American protests. I thought, wow, we’ve really sunk low. Unprecedented. Fear of protest rallies in allied European democratic countries.

I’ve mentioned this here before but it struck me harder than ever: The “New American Century” envisioned by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Feith, Kristol, “and the rest” -- (may they all rot forver on a deserted isle, lost from a shipwrecked 3 hour tour) -- it’s utterly ignorant and ahistorical. These chumps looked around after the fall of the Berlin Wall (ahem, NOT the fall of communism, just ask Fidel, just ask Beijing), noticed that the U.S. had the numero uno military, and decided through sheer violence and intimidation, sheer bullying, we could hold onto that position FOREVER. Not having noticed -- or having forgotten -- that this has never worked, not for long anyway, never in the history of the world.

But ah, it worked on them. Except Rumsfeld, who served in the period between the Korean and Vietnam wars, none of them are vets, and most of them were of service age during the Vietnam War, which they all loved, like chivalrous medieval troubadours, from afar. WAR INTIMIDATED THEM. WAR FRIGHTENED THEM. THEY WANTED NOTHING TO DO WITH IT PERSONALLY. THEY HAVE PROJECTED THEIR COWARDICE ONTO THE WORLD. “IF I’M A COWARD, MUSTN’T EVERYBODY BE ONE? MUSTN’T EVERYBODY QUAKE BEFORE THE MIGHTY POWER OF THE AMERICAN WAR APPARATUS, AS I DID AS A YOUNG MAN?”

Um, no? Um, you might have noticed something about suicidal terrorists? Um, that deterrence is not really operational? You know, that fear is not really a factor? Uh, all throughout history, you know, these, there have been, like, PEOPLE, who fight against tremendous odds, because they believe in what they’re fighting for? You know, like, the American Revolution? Like, the Vietnam War itself? You know, history? And, you know, this thing about believing in what you’re fighting for, you cowardly liars wouldn't know about that, because YOU WOULDN’T EVEN FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVED IN.

Through the calumny of the Supreme Court 5 and the Florida Secretary of State, and through the absurdist farce of the Palm Beach County butterfly ballots, these cowardly mean-spirited anti-American bullying IGNORAMI seized power behind their shrewd and ignorant Salesman-in-Chief. And they’re playing it out, as they inspire anti-American protests around the world, as they make us and everybody less safe, as they kill more Americans than Timothy McVeigh, as they kill thousands and thousands of innocent people.

Gall, gall, gall, gall, gall.

Throw the bastards out.

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