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

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


On the way home from the store this evening my beloved spouse and the baby dude and I stopped by our next-door neighbor’s house to return something we had borrowed. Our neighbors were just sitting down to eat dinner, and, claiming that they had cooked too much, invited us to join them. As they don’t appear to be the types to offer unwarranted or uncomfortable invitations, this one proved irresistible, and we sat down to delicious fresh tuna and spinach salad and scalloped potatoes, good conversation, and toddlers -- they have one 5 and a half months younger than ours.

I knew that several months ago Catherine had bought an upright piano after not having played much for many years. I’d heard stray strains wafting between our houses, but I’d never really heard her. I cajoled her into playing something after dinner by offering to butcher a Broadway tune or two in exchange. Haydn sonatas were on the CD (which I guessed correctly, which always surprises me), and so we had talked about composers. She had mentioned that Mozart’s sonatas make her feel smooth and balanced and calm, and Beethoven is stormier, and Chopin makes her feel like she wants to cry.

On the condition that the rest of us not interrupt our conversation, Catherine sat down and played a Chopin waltz, elegant and piquant though not, for me, tear-worthy; and a calm and balanced movement of Mozart; and then Traumerei by Robert Schumann. I’d heard the tune but couldn’t place it. Just beautiful, so tender and melancholy. It made me feel like I wanted to cry.

I kept my end of the bargain by butchering “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” which I sing and play better on guitar, even though the chords rumble so nicely in the bass register of the piano -- I’m just a nothing pianist; and then part of “That Old Devil Moon,” which I’m learning. I got much the better part of the deal, listening to Catherine, but she and her husband were kind and indulgent about my playing, and my own beloved spouse is used to it anyway. The toddlers danced.

After we got home I put on a CD of Mieczyslaw Horszowski, whom I wrote about here on September 12, playing Traumerei, and although his performance lacked Catherine’s occasional stumbles, I didn’t like it nearly as well. The smallness of a stereo after hearing a big live piano; the coldness of even a highly professional recording after the warmth of a noisy kid-filled living room. Live is always better.


Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper, will be publishing my piece on the Republican Party’s neo-feudal tax policies this week. I’ll post a link when it’s up. Meanwhile, here’s a story by my beloved spouse in the current issue.


Leavin’ town to go to a training for my job. Won’t be back till Saturday or Sunday. Happy trails.

Monday, September 27, 2004


Because I like the music, and because I remembered liking the acting, and because I was in the mood for lurid melodrama, I rented “Amadeus” the other night after not having seen it since it came out 20 or so years ago. And it was how I remembered it, and even better, this time I really got off on something I hadn’t noticed first time: F. Murray Abraham as Salieri having Teresa-like spiritual orgasms as he reads Mozart’s scores.

The movie’s author is a sour, dour person, but that Mozart sure wrote some spiffy soundtrack music.

Saturday, September 25, 2004


A post by Kyle Gann inspired an argument between Scott Spiegelberg and A. C. Douglas over whether it is possible to verbally describe how music works, Mr. Douglas taking the line that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (to quote a phrase that Mr. Douglas did not use but that Alex Ross brought up by way of jumping into the discussion, saying the line had been attributed to, among others, Schopenhauer, whereas I, no lie, had heard the line attributed to Martin Mull), and Mr. Spiegelberg taking the line that, of course, describing music verbally is possible, with which Mr. Ross agrees, as does professional harpist Helen Radice. (I haven’t linked to the original posts, but Scott Spiegelberg does here, along with others.)

Regular readers here will not be surprised to see that I agree that yes, verbal communication about music is not only possible, but often interesting. Mr. Douglas himself has made persuasive arguments as to why one of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is superior to another; his argument about the futility of writing about music has more to do with using technical language for an audience that lacks technical training (seems self-evident), and the irrelevance of cultural context to understanding music. (I disagree here, big time -- cultural context can help explain A LOT as to why the country music that Seattle’s downtown MacDonald’s played continuously a couple years ago to annoy and repel the young African American men who hung out there did indeed annoy them.)

Mr. Douglas is a furious rhetorician, but he says something that strikes me as worthwhile: that one can’t imagine that “prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music that merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener.”

While I agree with Mr. Douglas -- words are no substitute for the music -- I doubt that Mr. Spiegelberg or Mr. Ross or Mr. Gann would disagree. Words (Mr. Douglas’s very much included) can help someone hear a piece of music BETTER. And -- words can capture something of the character of a piece of music -- I’m probably simple-minded, but right now I’m simply confused by the word "essential" here. And -- as Mr. Spiegelberg says -- words are no substitute for a painting either.

If one had never heard music, then words about it wouldn’t have meaning. But music is universal (in the kingdom of the hearing), and just about everyone has some experience and memory to draw upon when reading or talking or listening to talk about music.

Despite my disagreements with it, I find the above quote from Mr. Douglas especially worthwhile because it points out that we’re rubbing elbows with the mystery of communication here. Someone puts a few syllables together, and POW, my heart’s all a-flutter. Someone pulls a taut bundle of horsetail across a taut catgut strung across some hollow wood, and ZAM, I’m in tears. And yet -- that flutter, and those tears, may not be what the creators of the syllables and the sounds had in mind. Any attempt at communication is a calculated gamble. Writing about music, playing a Sonatina, talking to your beloved -- any time something of what you intend gets across, it’s a wonderful, mysterious event.

That doesn’t mean we can’t describe HOW the mysterious stuff works, but I doubt very much that we’ll ever really understand WHY. Something about emotion, and empathy, and imagination (without which there is no empathy) -- . . . anything clearer than that eludes me.

Thursday, September 23, 2004


One of my all-time favorites, the Four Tops’ Holland-Dozier-Holland tune “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” -- listening to it last night, I notice, at the start of the first 2 verses, someone shouts quite far back in the background, really punching it, “Yaahh!!” Heard the song how many dozen times? And never noticed it before. Really great.


A couple weeks ago I joked around here that politics is my favorite spectator sport. And it is. It’s also a participatory sport. And not only do I get to vote, I also get to try to help persuade my fellow citizens to vote the way I think they should. There are many ways to do that.

The Kerry campaign has a web site that makes it easy to volunteer to help elect John Kerry. If you ain’t already involved, I urge you to get so.

Rock critic Robert Christgau’s web site has a clearinghouse of organizations that can use volunteers. Christgau says it well: “No one is overqualified to work for John Kerry.”

I still think Kerry is going to win, but only because a LOT of people like you and me are going to put in some time helping to raise money, get people registered to vote, distribute Kerry’s info, identify like-minded voters & make sure they vote.

In 2000 I got over-emotionally involved in trying to persuade a large number of friends (including my beloved spouse) not to vote for Nader. And so a lot of that rhetoric is still echoing around my skull. Nader’s critique of the corporate media was half right-on and half way-wrong. He really missed -- continues to miss -- the spectacle of plutocratic media lords and ladies pulling out the stops for the more-plutocratic candidate. It happened throughout the ‘90s, with the rabid anti-Clintonists getting all their lies published “as is(n’t)”; & in 2000, with the media leading the charge against Gore’s “serial exaggerations” while giving Bush’s blunt dishonesty a pass; and it’s happening now, with the Swift Boaters, with Memogate, with everything possible being spun to Bush’s advantage, including perception of momentum and sampling pools for polls. The plutocrats know that one party will lower their taxes humongously, and the other party won’t; and the pundits and wannabe pundits are all enjoying or hoping for 6-figure salaries on the shouting-head TV pundit spectacles, and they have an interest in wealthy taxlessness too. I raise this to say: Don’t believe the media when they say Kerry is losing, or his candidacy is mediocre, or his staff is in disarray. Keep the faith, and act out that faith with positive action. Please.

Once Kerry wins, I really hope he looses the dogs of justice against Cheney and Halliburton, against the Republican spies who gave secrets to con men like Ahmad Chalabi and who outed Valerie Plame, against the Pentagon chiefs who OK’ed torture in Guantanamo and Iraq, against all the criminals in Bush’s world. Sure, vengeance is part of my hope, but more importantly, America shouldn’t let these criminals get away with it. To let them slide uninvestigated would send a wrong message, to the world and to ourselves.

Keep on rockin’.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Ultraconservative National Review writer Rich Lowry asks "people to describe Kerry's Iraq position in five clauses or less."

It's not that hard:

1 & 2. The President should have the authority to go to war, in the event of a threat.

3 & 4. Iraq posed no threat, and the President went to war anyway.

5. The President's poor judgment and incompetent execution necessitate a change in American leadership.

Kerry has been pretty clear all along.

Monday, September 20, 2004


Martin Buber in his brilliant and beautiful 1923 book "I and Thou" proposed that people view the 10,000 things of the world through varying shades of "It" or "You." If you have an "It" relationship with a person or a thing, that person or thing is something you want to exploit, use, take advantage of. If you have a "You" relationship with a person or a thing, you see the person or the thing as someone or something worthy of respect and care. When I read the book in the early '90s, it swept me up in its passion and lyricism (lyric philosophy), as I had already been swept up by John Keats's lyric odes where he addresses animals and objects and phenomena (the gorgeous To Autumn) as "You" (or, in Keats's case, Thee and Thou).

Walking around with the toddling dude, I never know when he'll stop to notice something -- a rock, a piece of chalk, a tree, a passing airplane overhead -- and set down whatever he's holding, smile and wave and say "Hi."

Sunday, September 19, 2004


Yesterday I dropped by my neighborhood junk shop and picked up 3 books for 5 bucks -- 2 early ‘60s reprints of early ‘50s “Peanuts” collections, and a book I probably saw in my childhood but don’t remember, “The MAD Book of Word Power,” by Max Brandel, which came out in 1973. The cover has a classic Alfred E. Neuman portrait, and the MAD logo in red, and the words “WORD POWER” in black block letters, with the leftside stroke of the letter “W” raised up high into a Black Power fist, holding a blue flower. It’s a book of typographical and verbal-visual puns.

Brandel’s book came out at the tail end of the international boom in Concrete Poetry, and constitutes one of the largest and wittiest contributions to it. (Though note: The pleasure provided by his wit on the whole is undercut by a few instances of juvenile sexist & crude ethnic -- racist -- "jokes.")

Concrete poetry combines verbal and visual stimuli to comment on each other. An example from the boom era, by Aram Saroyan, in its entirety:


The double “a” inspires me to lengthen the vowel when sounding the word; the lengthened vowel opens the mouth, which is what one does when one bites an apple.

Brandel makes full use of the MAD magazine repertoire of images, which puts it right in the mainstream of what critic and poet Charles Bernstein has called Poetry Plastique, an intersection of verbal and visual arts, often produced collaboratively, as for example in the works by avant-garde poet Clark Coolidge and post-abstract-expressionist painter Philip Guston. But some of Brandel’s pieces use solely orthographical puns for their effects. Examples:

Thou sh lt not steaal!



Poetry Plastique was the name of a retrospective gallery show curated by Bernstein and Jay Sanders a few years ago, with works going back to the 1960s. It had the great flaw of ignoring the graffiti artists from the 1980s up to the present day, who unite virtuoso visual design with often cryptically allusive verbal flair. Brandel is even less likely to make it into the history books about concrete and visual poetry. The poetry perfessers tend to have some unproductive attitudes.

Saturday, September 18, 2004


My beloved spouse, our son, and I saw 2 of the 3 members of Mexika Ensemble last night, an LA-based group that plays pre-Hispanic instruments solely, mostly researched, revived, and built by leader and composer Martin Espino. Percussion and flutes and singing, with an occasional blast on the conch shell and twang on the “tawitol,” a taut bow string upon which one bounces an arrow. A lot of the music sounded mellow-new-agey at first, but usually a lively polyrhythm is happening, where the melody instrument is playing in a very free relationship to the rhythm instrument. The sound sometimes brought to mind a quieter, smaller indigenous version of the great Art Ensemble of Chicago. Espino shares the project of recreating un-written ancestral music in a modern context with the AEC too, and his buffet of homemade instruments calls to mind the great American composer Harry Partch.

Espino and percussionist Chris Garcia could get a serious groove going. At the toddling dude’s insistence we sat in the front row, which was wisdom, because it gave him room to dance, which was cool because he is too short to block anyone’s view. He asked his mother and me to join him in booty-shaking, but alas we are too tall.

Espino’s between-song patter did that classical thing of informing *and* entertaining -- witty and smart and warm and sincere, with a moving nonpartisan encomium to American freedom and a lot of celebration of indigenous Mexican culture.

Wonderful show.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


My good friend Jake spammed all his music freak friends, urging us to see the new documentary of a festival tour trainride across Canada in 1970 with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, the Band, and a bunch of other acts. Jake usually just spams to remind people to vote and to go to his shows, so I knew to take this seriously.

Am I glad I did. Saw it last night, went by myself after the toddling dude went to bed.

Jerry Garcia -- not particularly handsome, not especially expressive, but damn he was charismatic. Exuding cultural power, not just from his wide-ranging and generous musicianship, but also from his poise and confidence. Which inventing an archetype requires -- one of his speeches shows him to be the original uptight judgmental hippie dude who filters the hassle of other people through his Mellow mask. I used to know a ton of his disciples in college.

I never understood why the Grateful Dead had two drummers, and while I enjoyed their bits in the film, I still don’t.

The Band. Man, they were smokin’. Just 5 or 6 years before the Last Waltz, but 15 years younger in enthusiasm, and much more intense & rippin’. The wild gang vocals on Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and a Slidin’”; Richard Manuel’s unearthly gorgeous lead vocal on Dylan’s cryptic death hymn, “I Shall Be Released”; some standard-issue-wonderful Garth Hudson wild carnival organ; and Rick Danko’s brilliantly swoop-funk-rockin’ bass playing and awkwardly winning enthusiastic charm (which hadn’t dissipated by Last Waltz).

Buddy Guy -- fronting a great funky wild band ripping through the early Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want)” with his coyote blues caterwauling vocals and decorum-shredding guitar.

And lots of great scenes of jam sessions on the train as they lurched across Canada from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary. Lots of testimony from the musicians as to how it was the time of their lives. A beautiful, amazing scene of an utterly ripped drunk Rick Danko singing the old folk song “Ain’t No More Cain” with Jerry Garcia & Janis Joplin, with Jerry & Bob Weir on guitar and Danko sometimes too. At a limit of coherence -- any more drunk & it would just fall apart, and yet’s it’s beautiful, and Danko’s throwing it out there with all his delighted might, and it looks like they’re all having the best time ever.

And most of all Janis. I’ve always been a fan; love “Cheap Thrills” to pieces; love a lot of her stuff -- but seeing the footage, wow. A force of nature. A whirlwind. And, and, and -- one of the most complex musicians ever, alternating between high-intensity drama and improvised comic existential monologues in the middle of the songs, and dropping back and forth between comedy & intensity with utter grace and rightness. It made me think of Mozart’s overture to “Don Giovanni,” that comic opera that ends with the hero being dragged terrorized & painful to Hell. The overture skips along in a light, energetic ambience until WHAM a dramatic bit drops in like thunder from a clear blue sky. Joplin’s comic monologues zip along until WHAM she’s right back at the height of gorgeous virtuoso frenzy. Brought tears to my eyes. I was awed.


Trying to think about why I haven’t felt like writing about the much of the classical music I’ve been listening to -- it’s because most of it hasn’t gotten to anything more intense than “quite pleasant!” for me lately. I really like “quite pleasant,” for obvious reasons, but it hasn’t been inspiring new thoughts.

I had to drive for 50 minutes Tuesday morning, hither and yon, in the car with a CD player, so I dug into a 19th century symphony I’d never heard. Some nice tunes, but when the tunes aren’t hitting for me, I often get bored. Classical’s big advantage over almost all other music-types is an access to formal complexity that the others lack. But formal complexity in and of itself is neither strength nor weakness, it’s just a possibility. When it’s working, accute tenderness & intense stress can alternate within one piece, and it can make sense.

To my ears, when it’s not working, the period rhythmic styles remind me of their original European aristocratic milieu -- especially in the period after Bach and up to Debussy and Satie. Rhythm is about dance, and both rhythm and dance are about carriage and comportment. & unless I’m swept up in a piece of particular gorgeousness, I can’t relate to the carriage & comportment of aristocratic pre-industrial imperial Europe.

Listening to Ives on Monday night, I realized so many of the rhythms are based on marching band rhythms and Protestant church hymn rhythms, which are American middle-class rhythms, not European aristocratic rhythms. Though Ives was born 89 years before me, the marching band and Protestant church rhythms of Ives’s childhood were still part of my social life growing up in my family’s dual religion of Protestant Christianity and Michigan football.

When the aristocratic European stuff is working for me, I dig the comportment that the rhythms imply. When it’s not, I don’t. Stuff that’s closer to home -- Ives or swing, for example -- it’s easier for me to relate even when the stuff is not at its most inspired.

Interestingly, the early 20th and late 19th century classical of Debussy & Stravinsky & to a lesser extent Schoenberg feel closer to home too. Not only was their historical milieu post-aristocratic, but their influence is all over soundtrack music, and what cultural experience could be homier than the movies?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


There it was, U2’s late ‘80s album, in the dollar bin at the CD store last night, so I picked it up.

When it first came out, I was disdainful. These big rock stars, and they’re acting as if they’d just recently found out about Billie Holiday, and the Beatles, and Hendrix, and the blues, and Dylan -- as, according to what I’ve read, they had. My disdain was my snobbery was my frustration was my jealousy. Now, U2’s rootlessness impresses me -- they came up with a style on their own. And the homagerie of “Rattle & Hum” seems sincerely enthusiastic. Even at the time it came out I dug the album’s rockin’ lustful Bo Diddley tribute, “Desire.”

The album’s first line, Bono, live in concert, says coolly, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re going to steal it back,” and into “Helter Skelter” they launch. My mid-’20s jealous snobbish frustrated disdainful self was appalled by the pretentiousness. Now I find it kind of sweet. Reminds me of another sincerely liberal activist bombastic singer’s pretentiousness -- Streisand, whom I once saw on a TV concert, seriously saying, “I was doing some” (pause) “research” (pause) “for an album, and I came across this,” before launching into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”!! It’s frontman Bono’s blase bluffness that makes it seem pretentious, but the song rocks, and they mean it, and I like it, pretentiousness and all.

Always dug the B. B. King duet, “When Love Comes to Town.” B. B. sounds magnificent, and the rhythm section sounds wonderful, and Bono holds his own, and the song fits B. B., all of which are admirable accomplishments. Out of nowhere, they learned the alchemy of writing for people really well -- on Roy Orbison’s late come-back celebrity album, “Mystery Girl,” their contribution, “She’s a Mystery to Me,” works better than any of the other celebrity songwriters’ tribute/homage originals.

I’d forgotten the lyrics Bono had added to their loud rockin’ great live cover of Dylan’s 3-chord classic “All Along the Watchtower,” which boasts one of Dylan’s most hauntingly cryptic lyrics. Pretty bold to add words to such a great song, but it comes as an intense chant in the middle of an instrumental break:

All I’ve got is this red guitar
Three chords and the truth
All I’ve got is this red guitar
The rest is up to you

Hearing it today, it gave me chills. Great lines. Pontius Pilate was the original radical skeptic (or maybe just evasive cynic) when he asked, “And what is truth?” and washed his hands. Bono (who’s Christian) makes me think, the truth is music.

Bono sings magnificently all over the album, wilder than on their earlier stuff; Clayton & Mullen on bass & drums rock the band hard & dark & solid; & The Edge on guitar does his terrific, original thing. The live version of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” has a really stirring crowd singalong (one of my favorite U2 songs, I’ve covered it for years in a quiet country-folk arrangement). Before a repeat chorus Bono pretentiously but authoritatively and convincingly and movingly announces, “For the Reverend Martin Luther King.” The aura of offhand rock-star glamor in Bono’s tone of voice is what makes it seem pretentious to me, but he is a glamorous rock star, and he means what he says. Again, it gave me chills.

I grew up Christian, and culturally & emotionally I remain one, though I don’t go to church, have no faith in the afterlife, think the idea of the 2nd Coming is absurd (“Jesus is Coming -- Hide the Bong!”), think the idea of Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy makes no sense, and am really appalled by a lot of what’s in the Bible, not to mention a lot of what has been done & continues to be done in Jesus’ name. (Yahweh and Allah’s devotees have a lot to answer for too, as do Siva’s, the Buddha’s, and Marx’s.) Still, when B. B. King sang today on his U2 cameo, “I was there when they crucified my Lord / I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword / I threw the dice when they pierced his side,” I cried bitter tears of self-recognition. The God that I can worship Who is/was Jesus is the God Who said, When you feed someone who’s hungry, you’re feeding Me, and when you clothe someone who’s naked, you’re clothing Me, and when you shelter someone who’s homeless, you’re sheltering Me, and when you comfort someone who’s afflicted, you’re comforting Me -- and this means that Jesus (like Walt Whitman) is all of us, and each of us is God, and you see, every day, they are crucifying my Lord, and the suffering is engulfing, and so much of the time I’m playing at dice.


Hearing Bono’s shout-out to the great African American prophet called to mind my all-time favorite musical shout-out to the Reverend Doctor. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, on his great, great album “Volunteer Slavery,” which came out in the year after King’s assassination, does a blistering cover of the Bacharach-David Vietnam-military-wife classic “I Say A Little Prayer.” Kirk’s version starts with Coltrane-esque out-of-tempo oceanicisms from the bass & drums (& synthesizer, I’m pretty sure), and out of this primordial awe Kirk shouts, “They shot him down! They shot him down to the ground! But we’re gonna say a little prayer! We’re gonna say a little prayer!”, and off they go like a racehorse in a fast intense rockin’ instrumental version of the tune. Hearing it has often made me cry and cry. And then the fervor of Kirk & his band’s prayer thrills me.


Last night after listening to Alan Hovhaness’s “And God Created Great Whales,” I wrote, “It’s really quite moving.” But moving to what? In what manner?

The whale songs are uncanny and awesome. The instrumental passages have a sense of wonder & expectation. Gorgeous piece.

Monday, September 13, 2004


At dinner tonight, showing pictures of whales to the toddling dude, my beloved spouse broke out ye olde LPs to find a Crosby-Nash record with a whale song so the T. D. could dig it. C & N sang pretty, and so did the whale, but the whale wasn’t in much and was mixed pretty low. I remembered that I’d bought an olde LP at a junk shop in the early ‘90s by classically trained “easy listening” founding father Andre Kostelanetz, an album of classical music with a pick-up for-hire orchestra, the repertoire headlined by the debut of a piece with pre-recorded humpback whale song called “And God Created Great Whales.” From sometime in the 1970s.

& wouldn’t you know it, it’s a lovely piece of music. About 11 & a half minutes long. Sweetly whirring free rhythmic orchestral passages, sometimes touched with nice Japanese-esque melodies, sometimes touched with really nice dissonances; the orchestral passages alternating with gorgeous pre-recorded whale song. It’s really quite moving.

The composer, it turns out, is a highly regarded American modernist named Alan Hovhaness, who lived from 1911 to 2000. Would like to hear more of his stuff.

The liner notes (it’s an LP! with a nice painting of a breaching whale!) tell how “the Maestro” Kostelanetz heard a recording of the whale songs and thought that Hovhaness, with whom he had worked before, should write something using them. And so Hovhaness did. And I thank them both for it.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately and haven’t felt much like talking about it. Mostly I “use” it as background music. I like the timbre of classic classical, the sweet strings of classic orchestral and the rippling piano of the piano soloists; I like the usually drum-less energy (though don’t get me wrong, I looove drums, and one of the best concerts I ever saw was by a drum ensemble led by pioneering Nigerian musical ambassador Babatunde Olatunji). And, when I’m listening closely, I tend to like good tunes, which classic classical can be hit or miss on. But when they hit, they hit that sweet spot for me oh-so-sweetly.

Pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski has been a fave lately. I picked up a used CD a year and a half ago or so, never having heard of him, because the CD booklet had an odd picture of a 19th century child with long hair playing piano, and the front cover had a picture of an old man in the 1980s, and both pictures were of Horszowski, who had been a child prodigy in the 1890s in Poland and who recorded well into his own 90s. His story -- and the pictures -- attracted me.

That CD I got, a late one but not his last, had the most gorgeous Mozart piano playing I’ve ever heard -- two of his sonatas. Like butter, smooth and sweet and soft, while bringing out all of Mozart’s counterpoint in crystal clarity, and with lively energy -- that’s how I’ve thought of Horszowski’s playing since first hearing. Horszowski also plays pieces by Chopin and Schumann on the album, and while they’re very nice, they didn’t send me reeling like the Mozart.

Right now I’m reading a very interesting and lively book from 1968 called “The Great Conductors,” written Harold Schonberg, who was the “New York Times” music critic at the time. It’s a history of conducting and orchestral music from the baroque period to the time of writing. Which makes it a partial history of the classical music of the period, but different than other classical music history I’ve read, which focuses on formal and harmonic innovations. This one focuses on timbre and ensemble and rhythm -- aspects of music more readily accessible to my ear -- as it talks about how orchestras changed in size and instrumentation, and how instruments themselves changed over the centuries.

Schonberg talks about Mozart’s musicianship and conducting. Apparently “smooth like oil” was a high compliment in Mozart’s vocabulary. It made me happy, that Mozart’s compliment to someone whose playing he liked was so close to how I thought about my new favorite Mozart pianist -- like oil, like butter.


Glenn Miller was a great songpicker and a great bandleader with a unique sweetly swinging style and sound. He composed only one of his big hits -- the gorgeous “Moonlight Serenade” -- but the sound he put together for that one was the blueprint for many others, even as he staffed out most of the arranging chores to Jerry Gray.

One of Miller’s (many) big hits was a swinging Gray arrangement of “American Patrol,” a popular march composed in 1885 by the otherwise forgotten F. W. Meacham. Gray used only the main theme, which only makes sense, because Meacham’s secondary themes are the American standards “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Dixie,” and “Yankee Doodle.”

I recently picked up a used copy of a CD by Mieczyslaw Horszowski recorded at the age of 97, a year or two later than the one I mentioned above. His playing was still buttery smooth and crystalline clear, and taking the place in my affections of the Mozart sonatas on the earlier album is the Sonata No. 6 in F Major of Beethoven. And the opening theme of the final movement, “Presto,” is very much like the principal theme of “American Patrol.” Meacham didn’t quote Beethoven exactly but borrowed the crucial opening licks. Call it “Son of F Major Sonata Presto.”

It’s a great tune. Meacham was right to borrow from it, and Miller and Gray were darn right to swing it, but the original Beethoven does just fine on its own too.


I sent off an op-ed on tax policy and Social Security to the “Seattle P-I” today, about 50 words under the 600-word “unsolicited op-ed” limit.

Short version: There’s $1.5 TRILLION dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund, because Social Security has run a surplus for almost 70 years now, and will continue to for another decade and a half. At that point, to make payments, it will have to dip into the Trust Fund. Unfortunatetly, Congress has borrowed the entirety of the Fund, and so-called conservatives talk as though there is no possibility that Congress will pay it back. Which means: The Social Security payroll deduction has just been a dishonest way to raise income taxes on the working poor and the middle class while giving the upper middle class and the rich a pass.

Furthermore: Bush’s plan for his hoped-for 2nd term of office is to work toward eliminating all taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritance. Which means: People rich enough not to have to work would pay zero federal taxes.

The name for this fiscal policy is neo-feudalism.

I’ll let you know if they publish it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


Today’s reading is from The Decay of Lying, by Oscar Wilde:

Cyril: What is the subject?

Vivian: I intend to call it 'The Decay of Lying: A Protest.'

Cyril: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

Vivian: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.

Who knew that Dick Cheney was a devotee of the great Oscar? To boldly lie in the face of stacks of contravening (or at best no supporting) evidence -- Saddam’s WMD, the connection between the Baathists and al Qaeda, the Swift Boat Veterans Who Contradict Themselves (like Walt Whitman, they are large, they contain multitudes), and, most recently, the assertion that the terrorists will attack if we elect John Kerry. That Dick, he’s such a Wilde thing.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


I figured out my terror-ridden blues-rockin’ solo acoustic anti-war special arrangement of the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville” yesterday afternoon and debuted it last night at an acoustic singer-songwriter night at the Sunset Tavern hosted by my friend Jake. Slowed it down a little, hardened the beat some, modified the melody slightly in a couple spots to better bring out the words, held the word “know” for an extra measure once or twice in the phrase “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” and sang the phrase a cappella once or twice, replaced the klezmer-esque “doo doo doo” bridge with a dissonant guitar break, repeated the line “I can’t hear you” an extra 2 times in the phrase “I can’t hear you in this noisy railroad station, I’m alone and feeling low -- oh no no no! oh no no no!” The narrator has been drafted and is reporting for duty.

The song made me cry in my livingroom but not in the show (I don’t remember ever crying while singing onstage). Just sang a few numbers -- this one was my fave, along with a close-harmony duet Jake & I have sung many times, a Dolly Parton song, “This Boy Has Been Hurt.” My own tunes, I wasn’t as dialed in, having planned on playing only the Monkees, and then showing up and having more time than I’d expected. Just goes to show me. Practice makes better.

Local punk rock guitar titan and record producer Kurt Bloch played a lovely sweet acoustic guitar instrumental, and a guy I’d never heard named Darren Lucas (sp?) sang an original love song that was just gorgeous, lilting sad melody & intricate dreamy sweet sad guitar accompaniment -- he was a real nice guy too. Everybody else was fine as well, or better than fine. A nice evening of white guys with guitars. Small crowd but everybody was into it, which is more enjoyable for me (as a performer and as a listener) than a big noisy distracted crowd.

Melancholy too because everybody knew that after 5 years the club was discontinuing the monthly 1st-Tuesday singer-songwriter series. End of an era.


At the 2000 November Election Night 1st-Tuesday singer-songwriter show I broke a rule and debuted my whole band -- we had played an all-political set, including a Ramones-y arrangement of "The Preamble" from Schoolhouse Rock. My band had a blast, but we played before it became clear that that night was haunted by a wild mare.

The George Bushes have won one out of 3 of their presidential elections; 2 out of 3 if you allow for cheating. (Yes, preventing the accurate counting of votes is cheating. Period. Not to mention illegally disenfranchising your opponent's supporters, as Jeb did in Florida.) If they up their average this November, 10 or 15 years from now life expectancy in America is going to start dropping down toward Russian levels as the social benefit budget gets shredded. Dystopian Lizard Ass: you read it here first. Here's hoping the George Bushes end up one for four.

Monday, September 06, 2004


It was a nice day off and my beloved spouse & the toddling dude and I went to the beach and kicked the sand and got our toes wet and listened to the lovely waves. Seattle is a seatown and I love the sea and I only make it to the sea beaches a few times a year. Funny thing.

It's crunch time for the election. I've resolved to try to write an op-ed on taxes and social security, and to try to fold that into a letter to everybody I know who's planning to vote for George Bush, asking them to reconsider, and telling them why they should. I've lost touch with any friends who are supporting Bush, but a bunch of my relatives consistently vote Republican. Several months ago I predicted a Kerry landslide, thinking that only anti-abortionists, the richest plutocrats, and people who put a high priority on writing discrimination against gay people into the Constitution had anything to gain from a Bush presidency. I still believe that, but unfortunately a lot of American voters -- including a lot of my relatives -- seem to think that invading a country that posed no threat to us and pissing off pretty much the entire world in the process while drastically weakening our military was a good idea. Maybe they think Iraq was a threat to us.

I wanted to get some research and writing done today for this, but it ain't gonna happen till later, so, for now, off the top of my head:

1. The Social Security crisis is a hoax. The Soc. Sec. administration collects far, far more in revenue from payroll deductions each year than it pays out in benefits. The idea is that the surplus gets saved to pay benefits to current workers when they qualify later for the benefits. Starting in about 10 years (if I recall correctly), the Soc. Sec. administration will no longer be collecting surplus revenues, and will start to have to draw down on those savings. But the surplus doesn't get saved and just gets spent up like regular taxes, and all these lying politicians are running around saying that Social Security is going to go broke. Well, yes, it might, but only because the lying politicians are stealing the money to pay for general government.

This matters a lot, because the Social Security taxes are regressive. Only the first $80,000 of a household's income gets levied (approx., and it may differ between singles and marrieds -- like I said, need to research). So Joe Dishwasher, who makes $18,000 a year, gets socked for the full 7.5% (if I remember right) every time, every check; while Jim Lawyer, who makes $200,000 a year, only gets socked on the first 40% of his wages. Theoretically this is somewhat defensible, because Jim Lawyer has a cap of how much he can collect in Social Security benefits, while Joe Dishwasher can collect on his entire income. (I don't completely buy this defense, because benefits are pegged to how much you earn, up to $80 grand a year, so Jim Lawyer still collects a lot more in Social Security benefits than Joe Dishwasher, and presumably needs less because he's presumably saved more.) But the theoretical defense is universal hogwash because we're not saving the Social Security surplus, we're using it for general government, and once Social Security goes into deficit, the crisis-mongers are telling us it will have to somehow pay its own way each year. And the crisis-mongers really want it to be this way. What this means is that Social Security deductions are no different than general taxes, and in fact Joe Dishwasher pays taxes at a HIGHER RATE than Jim Lawyer.

2. The writer Garance Franke-Ruta in the blog TAPPED reported the other day that the Republican goal for a 2nd Bush administration is to eliminate all taxes on investment income including capital gains and savings interest and inheritance and stock dividends, while making the income tax a flat tax. If Bush wins or steals the election again, and if they can pull this off, it will bring neo-feudalism to America. I need to follow Franke-Ruta's links and get the lowdown from the sources, but it's just astonishing, the idea that people who get their income from owning the big ticket items of society should pay nothing for the maintenance of society, while people who work for their living should pay to maintain the society for the benefit of all, including the free-loading owners. The workers pay to pave the streets and arm the soldiers and keep the streetlights working and keep the schools open and regulate the air traffic, and the owners pay nothing. Nothing. Zip, zero, nada, total free lunch. That's the Republican goal, and that's feudalism. I know a number of people who have never had to work a day in their lives because they've inherited a lot of money. The Republican vision is that none of their heirs, ever, should ever have to work or ever pay taxes.

If I get my letter or op-ed together, I'll post it. For several years I would jokingly tell people that the Republicans have introduced a bill changing the name of Labor Day to Management Day. The joke no longer amuses me.

Hope you had a good Labor Day.


On the radio today I heard “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” on the “quality rock” station, and Dylan’s brilliant pitch & timbre & phrasing sounded so fresh and alive, and it’s a great song. Several weeks ago I posted on how I especially love Dylan’s satires, of which “Memphis Blues Again” is one, except this and “115th Dream” come off as visionary songs-beyond-satire -- he not only sees the world, but processes underlying what Taoism calls “the 10,000 things.” And the strong feeling I get from both songs is that Dylan sees a world in which nothing could be anyway other than it is -- a fatalistic vision. (I have not read, but am curious to see, English professor Christopher Ricks's book on Dylan's lyrics.) The fatalisc sense comes at the end of both songs. The end of the 115th Dream:

But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin' the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin'
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn't drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, "Good luck."

In the song’s vision, all the crazy 1960s America packed into the song already happened before Columbus showed up. It’s exhilarating, and funny, and Bob’s good wishes even feel humane.

A year later, in Memphis Blues Again, the fatalism is bitterer.

An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.


So I don’t let it go to my head too much that after breakfast the other morning my son asked me turn off the CD of Chopin Ballades so he could sit in my lap while I played one-fingeredly through “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be.”

Saturday, September 04, 2004


Running an afternoon errand in the car I heard on the local “world of music and ideas” Pacifica station Woody Guthrie ballad-izing about anti-union thugs murdering sit-down-strikers.

It was only the 2nd time in my life I’ve heard Guthrie on the radio, the first time being while working on a fish-processing barge anchored off Clark’s Point, Alaska in 1983. I’ve heard Hank Williams on the radio only once or twice – a few months ago (I was so excited I blogged about it) and maybe once before that, though I’m not sure. The one time I ever heard Ornette Coleman on the radio, I thought, cool, Ornette Coleman. When the DJ played a second song I called the station in a panic, “Did Ornette Coleman DIE?!?” No, he hadn’t died, I was simply unable to imagine another motivation for a DJ to play TWO TUNES IN A ROW BY HIM since DJs NEVER PLAY ORNETTE, but fortunately I was wrong: the DJ was just in an Ornette state of mind.

The tragic union ballad was a great song, I’d never heard it before, a waltz, with Woody’s patented stoic delivery belied by the urgency of his words and his guitar, and also by his dramatic rhythmic virtuosity, stretching out some phrases and rushing other depending on the dramatic effect he wanted. Loved for his lyrics and his persona, he’s a vastly under-rated musician.

As I mentioned last night, musically he’s a disciple of the Carter Family. He played a lot of their tunes, and he played in their style. And he shared with them a stoic approach that worked great for his political songs. Both he and the Carters sing with dispassionate timbre and dynamics and lack-of-melisma, but the urgency of their guitar playing conveys an underlying passion. They have deep emotions to stoically bear. (The tension between the stoic voice and the urgent guitar rhythm tension is something Carter Family disciple Gillian Welch doesn’t get; she also lacks their rhythmic variety and keeps it straight 4/4.)


A reader wrote to say that I was being a little too hard on Paul Simon by saying that he should be ashamed for trivializing the climactic line of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” with the tag line of his “Graceland” hit “You Can Call Me Al.” My correspondent said that the allusion was benign and lost on most people. The query sent me to Google, which found Simon’s lyric.

Some of the lines show wit, and there seems to be a deliberate obscurity, but the 3rd verse shows the protagonist to be going through an identity crisis as he’s touristing in an impoverished 3rd World nation. He experiences an epiphany while noticing the beauty of a building; this brings him joy and his sense of identity back.

If you don’t know Harburg’s Depression-era lyric, Simon’s chorus is just a happy goof. But I do know Harburg’s song, and it’s also about a crisis of identity, and Harburg’s protagonist has no epiphany and no restoration of confidence and no happy resolution, and the reason why is that Harburg’s protagonist is impoverished and has nowhere to turn, while Simon’s protagonist is a presumably well-off tourist lost in an impoverished place. While the identity crises of the solvent are no trivial things, and while Simon’s protagonist is probably just goofily echoing some old half-remembered song, to my ear the allusion makes it sound like the triumphant crowing of a well-off man who remembers he has attractive options. Unlike Harburg’s protagonist, who’s name really is Al, someone will call Simon’s protagonist Al, and that’s not even his name. A song in which a rich man celebrates his triumph over identity-lessness by appropriating a poor man’s cry of identity-lessness. Not the protagonist’s intention, probably not Simon’s intention, but that’s how I hear it. Am I being too hard on Simon? Probably. It’s complicated. The rich man’s crisis is real, and maybe his appropriation of the poor man’s song indicates a guilty conscience. The bounty of possibilities makes it interesting, but that doesn't mean I like it.


What makes some songwords good and others bad? It’s an endless question. More about it later.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


John Kerry is fighting back. It’s key. His timing feels right. Lots of D’s have been nervous about JK’s reticence. Waiting to upstage Bush makes sense to me. Waiting for them to take the first swing makes sense. Here’s hoping 50% of the voters agree with me -- I’ll be the +1.

(Oh, right, Electoral College, wait. Well, you get my meaning.)

Excerpt: “The vice president even called me unfit for office last night. I guess I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty.

“Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty. Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without healthcare makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi Royal Family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Handing out billions of government contracts to Halliburton while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit. That's the record of George Bush and Dick Cheney. And it's not going to change. I believe it's time to move America in a new direction; I believe it's time to set a new course for America.”


Harry Nilsson’s magnificent cover of Ike & Tina’s “River Deep Mountain High” tonight -- he loves but doesn’t identify with Tina’s rag-doll loving protagonist -- with Tina, “I” loved that ragdoll; with Harry, “she” loved that ragdoll. Common practice in Tin Pan Alley and in rock, though rock isn’t built on covers nearly as much as the earlier style.

Interesting -- the country/folk Carter Family to Woody to Dylan lineage was different. Maybelle Carter sang many songs from the male point of view, and Woody and Bob (on his debut album of mostly covers) both sang “House of the Rising Son” from the woman’s point of view. The House is a whorehouse, the singer is going back to wear that ball and chain because she has no other way to make a living. And it’s hell -- please tell my baby sister not to do what I have done, but shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Son. The Animals’ rockhit version makes no sense, really -- the male protagonist is . . . a sex addict? OK, it’s possible, but not nearly as compelling or sympathetic. Or, just occurred to me, maybe he’s a male whore, but that feels to risque for ‘60s Top 40 and pre-Velvets rock.

Dylan’s version is terrific.

Relevance to life -- a mark of an appealing lyric.

Lots of Tin Pan Alley / Broadway / Hollywood songs come fitted with a male lyric and a female lyric. Only song I know that comes with different words depending on the color of the singer, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

White version: “you can tell all my pets / all my blondes and brunettes”

Fats Waller’s version: “you can tell all my pets / all my Harlem coquettes.”

Harry couldn’t have loved a ragdoll, and Fats knew there would have been trouble if he’d talked about his blondes and brunettes. But Woody and Bob and Mother Maybelle, they were comfortable.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004


In 1984 I had a world-politics class for which I was working on a paper of contemporary media criticism. Ortega had won his only electoral victory in Nicaragua, and the American press was contradiction itself right and right, reporting (apparently accurately) that it had been a free and fair multi-party election with a (mostly, as I recall) free press, and that the commie had won it, and that therefore, since the commie won it, it must have been a fix, a tainted, corrupt, illegitimate election. The election day photo in Time magazine showed a bunch of poorly dressed Central Americans lining up peacefully to vote. In the same Time magazine issue was a piece on the wartorn elections in El Salvador, which was then near a peak of its internal war. The photos were of firestorms and explosions, and substantial percentages of the population had not had poll access. The press, contradicting itself right and right, congratulated El Salvador on their excellent democracy.

I didn't finish the paper and dropped out instead, but I fantasized of a media critique showing its plutocratic bias (though I wouldn't have said plutocratic at the time). That critique exists now -- Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine and Altercation (on my Links list) is one of its stars. The critique probably existed in '84 too, but I didn't know about it.

More recently, a couple years ago, I fantasized of politics being covered with the depth and breadth and detail and passion of the sports page. Now it is, in blogville -- dailyKos, Atrios, Billmon, Juan Cole, and Eric Alterman are 5 star reporter-pundit-media-critic bloggers, and their pages will link you to many other excellent writers. I hardly have time to read the sports pages any more, and since the Mariners and the Sonics have been mediocre lately, I haven't minded. (Psyched to read about the Yankees losing 22 to zero yesterday though.) Besides, politics is my favorite spectator sport anyway.

Go Blue States! Beat Big Red!


Biting the fruit and sucking its juice, the sweetness and wetness and texture. The seed spells the death of the fruit, and its later continuation. The seed is bitter, frequently inedible.

September first, summer all but over. Listening yesterday to Beach Boys' "All Summer Long," their great gift for singing the sweet juice of life while keeping a hint of the bitter seed that knows that the sweetness is quickly gone.

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