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

Sunday, October 31, 2004


A little over a month ago I made some sarcastic-seeming comments about what I called Salieri’s “spiritual orgasms” while reading Mozart’s scores in that movie “Amadeus.” I was being cheeky, but the truth is, F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Salieri really moved me, especially his raptures while reading Mozart’s scores. The love of music, the love of music, the love of music.

Soon after, I started reading Peter Gay’s recent “Mozart,” a zippy bio, where I learned that the Salieri legend is probably bunk, that the “Amadeus” movie seriously underplayed the fecality of Mozart’s humor, and that Mozart’s given middle name wasn’t Amadeus, but Gottlieb, which means the same thing except in German rather than Latin. Mozart signed some of his letters with the French version, Amade (with an accent over the “e”).

Around the same time, I picked up, for a buck, a used CD from BBC’s Classical Music Magazine, of Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms in 1961. I’d heard of the Proms but didn’t know anything about it. I picked up the CD because it looked festive. The cover was a photo of Sargent in black tux, standing at a podium, waving his baton at an orchestra, while the rail behind him and his legs were covered with streaming ribbons, and the audience was dressed in elaborate fanciful costumes and waving British flags. Evidently not a typical night out of classical music.

And the show isn’t a typical concert. The first half is standard repertory -- a Rossini overture and a Grieg concerto -- but the second half is all patriotic British stuff. Elgar’s first “Pomp and Circumstance” March, played at graduation ceremonies here in the States but a patriotic hymn with words in Britain. And in 1961, the audience sang the words, loud and clear and strong. A medley of British sea songs arranged by the founder of the Proms, Henry Wood. The audience claps along with part of that too, and the CD has a very funny exchange between conductor Sargent and the audience, regarding their lack of rhythmical finesse. Two more patriotic hymns, Rule, Britannia! and Jerusalem. The audience sings the refrains of the first and the whole of the second.

Before the last number, Sargent makes a speech, rousing and gracious and funny at once. He ends it with a Bach quote. “You know, the great Bach said, when asked what music was for, he said it exists for the glory of God and the recreation of man. And I think if we judge from your attendances and your appreciation then we can really claim that our music has been for the recreation of man. Whether it has been for the glory of God, we are just hopeful that we have at least tried.” And from the crowd there’s a huge roar of approval, followed by competing groups of people singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” followed by another roar of approval, and then “Jerusalem.”

And one stressful day driving somewhere listening to this, the joyous roar of approval, and the hope for God’s glory, made me cry and cry.


Election day almost here. Last week I was nervous as a cat, jumpy & twitchy & staring at absences. This week-end I’ve been cheerfuller.

Months ago I predicted a big Kerry win. I underestimated the strength of the Republican propaganda machine. And I underestimated the “we love Dubya cuz he blows up Arabs” factor in the electorate. As a friend of mine pointed out to me one night, the breadth of the appeal of Bush’s implicit racism is big. Because the idea that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with our security is based on only 2 things: the deliberate outrageous lie of the administration, abetted by the conservative media, that Saddam & Osama were allies; and the related racist idea that all Arabs are terrorists.

Despite this, I think Kerry is going to win. The anti-pragmatic racist jingo vote is big, but not a majority, not even combined with the single-issue anti-abortionists and anti-homosexuality-ists.

A couple stories I wish had gotten more publicity:

1. Widely reported on the liberal side of blogville, but not much elsewhere, the appalling & depressing news that the majority of Bush supporters believes Cheney’s lies about the connections between Saddam and Osama, and believes Bush’s deliberately misleading insinuations that Iraq had something to do with the atrocity of 9/11, and believes that Iraq’s fictional WMD are real and have been found, and believes that a majority of the world supports what we’ve done in Iraq. (I read this on a few blogs, linked on my linklist, but I don’t have a specific link.)

2. The astoundingly widespread effort of the official Republican Party to lie and cheat their way back into the White House by unethically and illegally seeking to keep Democrats from voting. All of these stories should be front page news. A lot of Republicans should go to jail. That NO SINGLE REPUBLICAN can be found to denounce any of these tactics -- lying to voters about polling places and election day and Democratic Party positions, lying to elections boards about the addresses of new voters -- is shameful. They simply do not want the satisfaction of winning fairly and squarely. They obviously don’t think they can. All of these stories should be front page news.

3. In one of the debates, Kerry pledged to dismantle America’s permanent military bases in Iraq. “We have no territorial ambitions in Iraq,” is what he said, or something very close to it. This is a hugely significant promise, and I think it’s great. But with so much else going on in the election, I can understand why it’s not getting much attention.

Go Blue States, Beat Big Red. And run up that score, baby, we need a big win, I want to see the other team droopy and deflated, I want them to think about what they’ve done.


Music critic and blogger Douglas Wolk of Lacunae has put out a general invitation: Be part of National Solo Album Month. In November 2004, starting tomorrow, write and record at least 30 minutes of music. One cover song allowed. Must play all instruments & sing all vocals.

I’m in. Will try to write 10 or 12 or 15 new songs (possibly including 1 or 2 instrumentals) in the first 3 weeks of Nov. & record them solo live Thanksgiving week-end. I know I can do it, it just might be terrible. Hopefully not. I’ve been making a list of possible titles. Marinating some lyrical ideas seems allowed -- those “write a novel in one month” festivals don’t require entrants to vouch that they came up with the idea for the novel in that month, I don’t think!

How will Douglas know whether I actually wrote the songs in November? My word of honor. What’s the contest prize? No prizes, other than the satisfaction of taking part.

Might be light blogging for the month. If so, well, I’ll miss you!

P.S. Vote Tuesday, November 2. Go Blue States, Beat Big Red.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


A few weeks ago the excellent blogger Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions paid a compliment to this blog’s name. As Scott may know, and many people do, I took the name from the wonderful American poet Marianne Moore.

In the late ‘50s the Ford Motor Co. had solicited Moore’s suggestions for the name of a new car. They offered payment, Moore refused it, and after hemming and hawing about Procedures, Ford agreed to receive her suggestions for free. Moore replied, “I thank you for realizing that under contract esprit could not flower.” She sent many suggestions to Ford; her last one was Utopian Turtletop.

The story’s punchline -- well, I’ll let Ford rep David Wallace tell the story, from a letter to Moore, November 8, 1956: “We have chosen a name out of the more than six-thousand-odd candidates that we gathered. It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that’s what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is -- Edsel. I know you will share your sympathies with us.”

Moore published “The Ford Correspondence” in “A Marianne Moore Reader.”

Friday, October 29, 2004


Sandburg could tell grim stories with stoic understatement, embroider whims with fanciful riffs, and bolster jeremiads with rolling oratorical flourishes. He had wide contacts across the American landscape and deep sympathies with people. He had passion and humor. He had style.

He was an early practitioner of the bardic style, reciting his poems in public and singing the folk songs he had collected to his own guitar accompaniment. Ginsberg and the other beats tended to pooh-pooh him, maybe because by the 1950s he was a revered 70-something “homespun” America booster. But their energetic readings and long-breath lines share with Sandburg a common source in Whitman, a source that Sandburg kept current and available by his example. The example of the Beats inspired Marc Smith of Chicago to found the poetry slam movement in Chicago in the 1980s. Since Smith shared a setting with Sandburg’s most famous poem, he acknowledged his predecessor in a poem that built counterpoint across Sandburg’s classic. (Smith’s poem is in the slammin’ anthology Aloud! which came out in the early ’90s.) Sandburg’s example formed part of Smith’s inspiration for a vocal public poetry, and despite lots and lots of Smith’s followers not knowing their pre-slam poetic history, Sandburg’s influence is on the scene.

Even though in later life Sandburg completely absorbed into the American mainstream that he had been excluded from as an impoverished hobo, had railed against as a bohemian modernist, and had struggled against as a socialist activist, he never entirely lost his poetry chops, and some of his later poems parallel fellow Whitman-disciple Neruda’s late style.

OK, that’s enough about Sandburg. For now. I think.


In honor of the recent close of the baseball season, here’s the first paragraph of Sandburg’s preface to the selected poems that came out late in his life, “Harvest Poems, 1910 - 1960”:

“The inexplicable is all around us. So is the incomprehensible. So is the unintelligible. Interviewing Babe Ruth in 1928, I put it to him, ‘People come and ask what’s your system for hitting home runs -- that so?’ ‘Yes,’ said the Babe, ‘and all I can tell ‘em is I pick a good one and sock it. I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and I tell ‘em I don’t know except it looked good.’”

And here’s a short poem from his 1928 collection with a latterly famous title, “Good Morning, America.” A poem called “Maybe.”

Maybe he believes me, maybe not.
Maybe I can marry him, maybe not.
Maybe the wind on the prairie,
The wind on the sea, maybe,
Somebody somewhere, maybe, can tell.
I will lay my head on his shoulder
And when he asks me I will say yes,

Sandburg had significant influence on the makeup of the folk song repertoire and the folksinger persona. He wrote a ton of stuff with a large influence (mostly disavowed) on the Beats and (largely unknown) on the slammers. But besides all that, I just dig him.


I have to thank critic Tom Carson for dissing my man Carl Sandburg in his review of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” because it inspired me to re-read some of his stuff, dig deeper in collections I’d skimmed, and look up some bio.

A few facts. Sandburg was born in 1878 in smalltown Illinois to very poor Swedish immigrant parents. He quit school at 13 to go to work, and at 17 he hoboed to Kansas. While stationed in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, he made a friend who talked him into going to college. Started writing Whitman-inspired free verse there, got encouragement, dropped out, worked as a journalist and as a secretary to Milwaukee’s socialist mayor. All this before his most famous poem, “Chicago.” Continued traveling across the country to sing recitals and read poems. Wrote big biography of Lincoln. Eventually became an icon of “folk” Americana. Marilyn Monroe was photographed dancing with him. (This last fact I remember from the glossy Norman Mailer picture book on Marilyn that I used to take down from my parents’ shelf in order to look at the pictures. There were lots of words too, but I never read them.)

Sandburg's rep is corny, stodgy, smarmy, but his lifestory belies that -- he really was a hobo, and a socialist, and a bohemian modernist. Of the 255 songs in “American Songbag,” he claims that he and his friends themselves collected about 100 of them that had never before been published. He was learning songs from ex-cons & hoboes & migrant workers & day laborers & street drunks. & from college professors too, and in his book he says so.

According to this interesting web article by Ron Chester, in 1964 Dylan visited Sandburg to pay tribute. He told Sandburg that Woody Guthrie had talked about him a lot.

And Woody talked like him too. This is from Sandburg’s introduction to “The American Songbag,” and to me it sounds something like Guthrie, and something like Pete Seeger too. Influential, not only in the songs he bagged, but in how he talked of them.

“History, we may repeat, runs through this book. Yet it is first of all, we say again, a songbook to be sung rather than read. Music and the human voice command this parade of melodies and lyrics. They speak, murmur, cry, yell, laugh, pray; they take roles; they play parts; in topics, scenes, and ‘props’ they range into anthropology, houses, machines, ships, railroad trains, churches, saloons, picnics, hayrack and steamboat parties, and human strugglers chanting farewell to the frail frameworks of earthly glory. There is patter and jabber of vulgarity, there are falsetto mockers and groaning blasphemies, there is moaning of prayers and tumult and shouting of faiths.”

Thursday, October 28, 2004


Carl Wilson and Sasha Frere-Jones put up tributes to the renowned BBC DJ and musical exhorter. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey met John Peel while touring with Laura Cantrell in England. This is Jay’s tribute, which he sent me on Tuesday:

"John Peel died. 65, heart attack on vacation in Peru. I knew little of him before he took on Laura's cause, but after the two Peel sessions we did (the one at his home was for the ages), I would tune in to his Thursday late-night BBC-1 show at work in the afternoon, benefiting from the time difference. It was a habit for a while, but it fell off over time. My brief encounter with him revealed a sweet, sharp, energetic music lover. Curious like a kid. Contagiously enthusiastic. At his house, getting ready for the broadcast, Jon G was warming up on the steel, playing a bit of Santo and Johnny. Peel, who had been chatting with us while simultaneously jotting down a playlist and getting CDs from monstrous racks behind his little studio, perked his ears. "Santo and Johnny!" He raced out, as a record played over the air to another building on his property where he kept his LPs, rushing in just in time to cue up the Santo and Johnny record he'd just fetched, make a pithy segue, and let it fly. We were all grinning. Forgotten Santo and Johnny anecdote followed. We played -- he LISTENED (really).

Afterward, expecting to be ushered to the waiting BBC van to the hotel, we instead sit at the great wooden table in the kitchen and swap stories. Though he is mostly on the telling side, when we spoke he LISTENED (really).

Three stories stuck: Rod Stewart dancing w/ John's mum at his wedding (and only his mum w/ pictures to prove it), Yoko Ono calling him to the hospital as an "approved donor" when she needed a blood transfusion after her miscarriage; and he being in Dallas when Kennedy was killed and sneaking into the press conference just before Oswald was gunned down.

Those few hours were incredible, and we all parted in the wee hours like old friends, though I'm sure he wouldn't have known me if he saw me again. Later, the thing I recalled most was his remarkable generosity. So rare."

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


One of my favorite sounds -- the ambient crowd noise on radio baseball when the announcers take a rest and the pitcher is looking for signs. Last game of the season today, I tuned in while in the car. When I was a kid, summer nights, I’d fall asleep listening to the Tigers. Missed the traditional ecstatic group hug by the winners because I was en route somewhere, but I heard all about it on the radio. My beloved spouse said that she and the coming-on-two-year-old enjoyed the joy, and that the little dude saw all the men on TV hugging and turned to his mom and said, “Hug?”


As our shadow fell across the moon, the moon turned red and brown, and we met our neighbors standing on the streetcorner in the cold night air.


Sandburg published “The American Songbag” in 1927. 255 songs collected from all across America, many collected by Sandburg himself, many of them later in Woody Guthrie’s repertoire, many of them still widely known. St. James Infirmary (sung by Armstrong), Willie the Weeper (later known as Minnie the Moocher), I Ride an Old Paint, Cocaine Lill, Buffalo Skinners, John Henry, Casey Jones, C. C. Rider, The John B. Sails (sung by the Kingston Trio and the Beach Boys under a slightly different title), Hallelujah I’m a Bum, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, Animal Fair (a fave of my son’s, and one my grandpa taught me, and his mother taught him, and which was, Sandburg informs us, a standard of minstrelsy), Pretty Polly, Frankie and Johnny, Red River Valley, Midnight Special (Leadbelly and Creedence), Careless Love, Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot (Everly Brothers), La Cucaracha, Mister Frog Went A-Courtin’ (recommended by Greil Marcus to Bob Dylan, who recorded it some 15 years later), Ain’t Gonna Study War No More (still sung at peace rallies), Gypsy Davy (subject of a brilliant chapter in Nick Tosches’s wonderful book “Country”). And on and on and on. A motherlode of Americana.

Sandburg’s prefatory material includes an introduction, a dedication, an apologia, and prefatory notes, in addition to which he introduces each song as it appears. Here’s his introduction to “Jesse James”:

“There is only one American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal that to get a true picture of him we must read a stern inquiry such as Robertus Love’s book, ‘The Rise and Fall of Jesse James.’ For the uninformed it should be stated that Jesse was living in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the name of Howard, when, unarmed, he was shot in the back of the head, and killed, by his supposed young friend, Robert Ford.”

The very funny but sometimes overly cynical critic Tom Carson thought Dylan was being sarcastic when he complimented Sandburg in his recently published memoir.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


In the course of our recent blogviations on Dylan, Carl Wilson aptly raised Jan Kott’s vision of Shakespeare’s Lear’s Fool as descriptive of Dylan: “He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.” Which is as good an introduction as any to the poem “Jerry” by Carl Sandburg, which was published posthumously.

Six years I worked in a knitting mill at a machine
And then I married Jerry, the iceman, for a change.
He weighed 240 pounds, and could hold me,
Who weighed 105 pounds, outward easily with one hand.
He came home drunk and lay on me with the breath of stale beer
Blowing from him and jumbled talk that didn’t mean anything.
I stood it two years and one hot night when I refused him
And he struck his bare fist against my nose so it bled,
I waited till he slept, took a revolver from a bureau drawer,
Placed the end of it to his head and pulled the trigger.
From the stone walls where I am incarcerated for the natural term
Of life, I proclaim I would do it again.


It seems that whenever a movie scene depicts an evil creepy fantasy fascist rally just about off to march to war, or some other suitably dramatic and gruesome scene of mob or supernatural violence, the director hails down Carl Orff’s 1937 cantata “Carmina Burana,” or the film’s composer pays homage to same.

I’ve often suspected that Orff took inspiration for his wild intense pounding rhythms from Stravinsky. Today I heard Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” for the first time, a recording from 1960 conducted by the composer, for 4 pianos, 4 vocal soloists, chorus, and percussion ensemble. I want to listen to it again before commenting, except to say that my suspicion about Orff’s source of inspiration is stronger now. Not that Orff and Stravinsky sound the same, just that Orff depended on some of Stravinsky’s innovations.

It’s funny that Orff’s music has become synonymous with creepy evil extravagant violence, because a lot of the Carmina Burana poems are lighthearted paeans to sex. A Victorian English translator, John Aldington Symonds, called his selection from Carmina Burana and related poems, “Wine, Women & Song.”


My bottom-line reason for wanting to throw George Bush out of office is that America needs to show the world that we ain’t cool with the horrors that went down in the interrogation torture chambers of Abu Ghraib. I forgive my fellow citizens who don’t understand that that mayhem flowed down from the top. I don’t forgive the mainstream media for letting Bush and Rumsfeld skate, and for abetting a disinformation campaign so successful that the majority of Bush’s supporters believe that Saddam helped Osama in the atrocity of 9/11, that the WMDs have been found, and that the world’s majority supports what we’ve done in Iraq.

Not that the media barons give a rolling donut about my forgiveness.

Monday, October 25, 2004


“Beware of respectable people; beware of crooks, but of all crooks beware of the respectable; beware of snobs, and especially middle-class snobs; beware of people who are perfectly grammatical; beware of culture hounds; beware of the people who let their thinking be done for them and don’t know it.” -- Carl Sandburg, from the “Chicago Daily News,” May 30, 1930, quoted in “Selected Poems,” edited by George and Willene Hendrick


Burned a CD at a Starbucks listening station Saturday. 7 songs for $9, plus a dollar a song for any additional. I know you can get ‘em cheaper on the web, but I have dial-up and haven’t taken the plunge.

Selection is fairly broad but not terrifically deep. Still, it was easy to fill a CD with 6 jazz trax & 1 classical piece I wanted. Process was fairly straightforward, and the packaging is nice -- CD & case with track & artist listings & an illustration you pick from a menu. Apparently there have been payment glitches because when the machine wouldn’t accept my credit card (which is in good standing & has posed no problems of late), the store manager gave me the CD for free. Bonus.

Tracks (not in order): Coltrane’s magnificent “Nature Boy”; Miles Davis with his terrific ‘60s quintet doing “Freedom Jazz Dance”; Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments”; Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas’s oddball free jazz hippie peace religious yodel “Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah” (I’d only ever heard Eugene Chadbourne’s version); a couple lush gorgeous cuts by Michel Legrand with Stephane Grappelli; and Darius Milhaud’s beautiful “La Creation Du Monde” conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. (Starbucks CD credit says: “La Creation Du Monde” by Michael Tilson Thomas, no mention of Milhaud.)

Milhaud wrote his piece in 1923, and it’s the only jazz-influenced classical piece from that era I’ve ever liked, not counting Gershwin. A quiet non-jazzy opening with a moody mysterious atmosphere. You can hear Satie’s influence in the calm demeanor and mild 20th century dissonance. When the jazzy themes come in, they’re attractive if simple & rhythmically stiff-stilted compared to the real thing. Milhaud gets an engagingly intense & complex polyphony going that’s more like classical than jazz, even though the thematic material is jazzy. I’m grateful he doesn’t go “jarring-for-jarring’s sake,” like many of his contemporaries would have and did.

When I read Fitgerald’s great “The Great Gatsby” 13 or 14 years ago, I was struck by an allusion to Milhaud’s piece. At a big party, the fictional Vladimir Tostoff plays a piece called Jazz History of the World. Fitzgerald’s book came out in 1925, two years after the Milhaud. I remember thinking, if the story took place now (early ‘90s), the party would have a KRS-One style didactic rapper giving a world-historical rap (I was thinking of his terrific rap demonstrating that Moses was a Black man). And Gatsby, instead of being a bootlegger, would be a drug captain. And Wolfshiem, instead of being the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, would be the man who funneled inner city drug profits through the CIA to the Contras. At least in my version.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


In his review of Dylan’s “Chronicles” in the NYTimes Book Review today, Tom Carson disses the more-dissed than discussed Carl Sandburg. Dude, Sandburg was the shizzle.

2 paths of positivity betwixt Dylan & Sandburg.

1. Sandburg was a terrific poet. Not always, but often. The wry laconic every-guy persona that Dylan adapted from Woody, Woody got at least partly from Sandburg. Dylan’s early poem to Woody is in the same vein as Woody’s rambling non-song poems, which are in the same vein as Sandburg’s poems. In one of his poems, Woody acknowledges Sandburg as a pre-cursor (as did, coincidentally, and equally aptly, the founder of the poetry slam, a man named Mark Somebody whose last name escapes me right now). Sandburg’s discussions of the folk songs he collected in the late 1920s in his terrific book “American Songbag” often sound like Guthrie himself, 10 years ahead of time.

2. Carson mentions that in his book Dylan alludes to one of the most hagiographic mythographies devoted to himself, “The Old Weird America” by Greil Marcus. In his book, Marcus mentions that he borrowed the title from the great poet Kenneth Rexroth, adapting his phrase “the old free America” to his own purposes. Rexroth was a great fan of Sandburg’s (and of Dylan’s).

Here’s a poem called “Gone” from Sandburg’s first book, published in 1916. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to tab-indent material on this blog, so Sandburg's proto-Beat indented page lay-out is getting left-margin-justified in this rendition.

Everybody loved Chick Lorimer in our town.
Far off
Everybody loved her.
So we all love a wild girl keeping a hold
On a dream she wants.
Nobody knows now where Chick Lorimer went.
Nobody knows why she packed her trunk . . . a few old things
And is gone,
Gone with her little chin
Thrust ahead of her
And her soft hair blowing careless
From under a wide hat,
Dancer, singer, a laughing passionate lover.

Were there ten men or a hundred hunting Chick?
Were there five men or fifty with aching hearts?
Everybody loved Chick Lorimer.
Nobody knows where she’s gone.

Friday, October 22, 2004


There have been scattered reports that the toddling dude can sometimes manage to put two words together, but still for the most part his conversation consists of one word at a time. He knows what’s going on, and he’s able to manage extended comedy routines with his one-word-at-a-time delivery. If the audience knows the context, it can be pretty funny.

Putting on his shoes that his mom gave him. He knows his mom gave them to him.

Toddling Dude: “Mom?”

Me: “Did your mom give you those shoes?”

TD: “Res!” (Yes -- as my beloved spouse has pointed out, his “Yes” sounds like the dog Astro from the Jetsons, which makes me wonder why more hasn’t been made of the connection between the Houston ballclub and the Jetsons.)

TD: “Pau?” (Paula, his 1-or-2-day-a-week babysitter.)

M: “Did Paula give you those shoes?”

TD: “Nooooo!”

TD: “Boo-boo?” (Paula’s dog.)

M: “Did Boo-boo give you those shoes?”

TD: “Res!” (Big smile.)

M: “Boo-boo didn’t give you those shoes! Boo-boo didn’t give you those shoes!” (Followed by tickling, which makes “Boo-boo” the favorite contestant in the “Who gave you these shoes?” dialogues.)

He knows the names of lots of things, and lots of colors, and his mom and I ask him questions, and he often gets them right. When he doesn’t know the answer, he usually says, “Iss.” Calmly.

If he doesn’t know what something is, he says, in effect, “It is.”

And I just love that answer. So positive, so affirmative, so cheerful.


Late, late at night, the skies hunker down close, making the houses and trees and cars smaller.

Woke up at 2 this morning to go count homeless people sleeping outside with the Coalition for the Homeless. While I was putting on my shoes I listened to Mieczyslaw Horszowski's rendition of Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat. So, so tender and sweetbitter melancholy.

Someone in a sleeping bag out in the wide open park near the mouth of I-90. Chopin's Nocturne echoing in my mind's ear, seeing someone sleep is so tender and intimate, and the crushing indifference of go-go America to our internal economic exiles. Two people up late talking in their sleeping bags under the I-90 bridge. A man with a backpack walking manically around, flapping his arms, hoping for lift-off. Something, something about bluebirds flying, flying beyond the rainbow. Why can't I?

Home again Finnegan, time for bed and up again soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Carl is right about the red lights. I was reading & writing hasty & sloppy. But -- (you’ll always find a But aButted when you’re dealing with a But-head like me) -- just because I don’t make sense doesn’t make me wrong.

At this point it’s more a misunderstanding than a disagreement. At least about Dylan’s politics, and aesthetics & politics in general. My predilection for seeing the agitprop songs on their own terms and not as stepping stones to the visionary songs led me to misread Carl, who clearly does not believe that aesthetics & politics are in opposition.

And Carl graces us with the killer Kott quote, a writer he’s got more at the ready than I do.

“The Fool...does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not realise how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognise this world as rational.”

I see how Kott’s vision of Lear’s Fool applies to Dylan up to a point, But where I differ -- my re-But-tal -- brings me back to Hugh Kenner’s distinction between consciousness and whole humaneness -- (scroll down to July 28 for more on this). Dylan’s got the Fool’s consciousness -- he has no illusions and seeks no consolation and rejects appearances. But he lacks the Fool’s loyalty, at least in a lot of his most famous songs. He doesn’t stick with the mad King as the pitying Fool does, he’s much more likely to be “traveling on.” Dylan-songs don’t merely observe “brute force, cruelty and lust,” they sometimes enact same, with the narrator as the brute. Tricksterman he remains for me, the un-pin-down-able creator-through-destruction, much more than the compassionating wry riddling Fool. But (self re-Buttal) when I think about “Buckets of Rain” and the tremendous “Isis” and some other later songs, he’s that too, he’s loyal and compassionating, and sweetly, wryly so.

Damn. Dude got him some big songs.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Carl Wilson is no doubt right when he argues that even Dylan’s political songs show more concern with aesthetic values than political effectiveness, but I think he overstates when he says that Dylan’s latching onto the strongest images in a politically-engaged story “is not how a political person thinks.”

Are aesthetic concerns opposed to political concerns? Political aesthetes always consider the most effective aesthetic presentation of their politics. The Republican convention proved that, if nothing else. Their statescraft people repeatedly evince cluelessness, but the Repubs got some wily stagecrafts people.

Carl disagrees with my assertion last night that Dylan was a “good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was,” and his rebuttal makes me rue that unknowable word “sincere” -- again, with Dylan, less knowable than with most. But if we apply a deeds-not-words approach to ethics in our view of Dylan’s activist period, we see that Dylan took part in the 1963 March on Washington and played for free with Pete Seeger at a concert sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi as part of their voter registration drive. These are the actions of a good liberal activist, regardless of aesthetic ambitions, or sincerity -- this is not a disengaged aesthete.

Carl’s more subtle argument that Dylan always viewed his “political” or “topical” or “engaged” songs as “the first lilypad when he wanted to hop skip and jump across the Styx” is evocative of what may have been Dylan’s vision at the time. It’s an interesting thesis, that Dylan’s vision was there in potentia from the beginning. I used to know the great poet Alice Notley, back when I was a poetry student, and I remember her arguing with another student in somebody’s kitchen during that week that she was on our campus, that we should love Dylan’s Christian period too, because any great artist infuses their whole being into each work, from any period. Not quite the same as Carl’s argument, but similar. I don’t really agree, though part of me wishes I did. The fatalistic visions of “Memphis Blues Again” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” suggest that Dylan might.

And while Carl is certainly right that many people may “forget whatever political contexts Shakespeare’s plays come from, obvious as they once might have been, and take them for the ever-rearranging puzzles that they are,” the opposition of “political contexts” and “ever-rearranging puzzles” remains unnecessary, although puritanical activists and disengaged aesthetes would disagree with me. The wealthy English Marxist Terry Eagleton and the late anti-Communist Polish activist Jan Kott got my back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


I agree with Carl Wilson of Zoilus: “A writer friend of mine says she wishes she could lie to interviewers, give them legend rather than the literal, but her guile fails her. Bob Dylan's never did: This Tricksterman's untruths were truer than true, the exact reverse of a politician's platitudes.” Carl’s review of Dylan’s new book, “Chronicles,” is one of the best things I’ve read about Dylan. It elegantly insists on Dylan’s tricksterism.

Alex Ross confirms a belief in his half of a Slate e-mag dialogue on the book: “On page after page he's sitting back and watching others. He himself is often merely an incidental character in the narrative.”

On July 28 (you have to scroll down) I wrote a post called “My Bob Dylan,” which started out by discussing a book I had just read by the literary essayist Hugh Kenner, in which “he observes that after the 17th century Cartesian revolution, poets no longer conceived of poems as being a representation of a man speaking, but of a consciousness observing. The opposition of ‘a consciousness observing’ and ‘a man speaking’ helped me get at my Bob Dylan problem.”

Both Carl and Alex are persuasive that Bob’s consciousness contains more loving sympathy towards his fellow sojourners than I had come to believe from the songs.

Given Dylan’s deep tricksterism, Carl’s question about the sincerity of Dylan’s political period is more vexed than such questions usually are. I’d bet he was a good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was. Woody Guthrie was his God -- no exaggeration -- scroll down and check out his virtuoso poem written about the same time as his political songs. The recording of his recitation of his poem shows Dylan was a kick-ass slammer 25 years ahead of time. It also shows that his worship of Woody misses Woody’s point. Woody had a healthy ego, but he believed in the people, individually and collectively. The Dylan of this poem believed in Woody. It represents an enormous diminishment in scope, in the Harold Bloom-ian sense, if not in talent. My hunch is Dylan did the political thing -- sometimes brilliantly and always hugely influentially -- because Woody had. Sincere, but not really him. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” he sang in his disavowal of politics. In 1964!

Nobody should be surprised at Dylan’s vast booksmarts. In my July 28 post I called him “the greatest epigrammatist of the 20th century,” meaning, the greatest I know of. (2nd thoughts -- ONE of the greatest. e. e. cummings would have to be in there. I’m sure there are others.) It’s lines like these that I was thinking of -- a brilliant literary epigram:

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow

Pound’s life’s work, the “Cantos,” opens with a quote from the Odyssey, the original of which features a beautiful love nymph named Calypso. Eliot’s greatest poetic bombshell, “The Wasteland,” is based largely on the myth of the impotent Fisher King, and his number 2 bombshell, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” closes with the narrator despairing that the mermaids, whom he has seen and heard singing, will not sing to him, and were he to swim with them, human voices would wake him and he would drown. Dylan’s six lines skewers Eliot’s decadent despair -- life is teeming, the wasteland is blooming, music abounds, and the mermaids are lovely -- and, worse, Ezra and T. S. could have known all of this had they stopped bickering and climbed out of their tower.

Well, when it comes out in paperback, I’m sure I’ll enjoy Dylan’s book. He’s always been a rippin’ beat proser.


Jay Sherman-Godfrey writes to me about bathing his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter while his five-year-old son looks on, as they listen to Brian Wilson’s new album Smile:

I listened to it again w/ Lilly in the tub. Good tub music.

Malcolm: "Why are they singing about vegetables?"

J: "I guess they like vegetables."

M: "I don't like vegatables!"

J: "I know."

M: "I would sing about cars."

J: "They have those songs, too!"


A couple quick second thoughts about Smile. Contrary to what I said, it’s not entirely a goof. Some of the passages have the old “teenage symphony to God” angle -- the opening “Our Prayer,” the eerie instrumental “Fire,” many passages. And -- I’m guessing that Brian wasn’t thinking about radio play, because the record has a wider, free-er real dynamic range than most pop or rock records. The quiets are quieter -- not as quiet as with classical records, but quiet. “Wind Chimes” really stood out for quietness, ‘cuz when the big polyphonic bustle burst in, it was LOUDER. And tremendous.


A note from my friend Michael Barrish:

“Here's a quote I stumbled on that might interest you:

When people hear great music, it makes them homesick for something they never had and never will have. -- Edgar Watson Howe

. . . “

Monday, October 18, 2004


Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions loves Clark Terry, as do all right-thinking jazzheads. Plus he makes some astute, suggestive comments about ensemble groove, rhythmic expressivity, and the dialectic of personal expression and musical communication, featuring the musician’s eternal question, “is what I do too subtle for my audience?” Scott says, from his classical perspective, excessive subtlety is wasteful. As a songwriter, I know that 95% or more of the audience won’t consciously notice if I slightly reharmonize each verse of a song, but I have faith that the variety, if I use it for expressive purposes, will have a subtle unconscious effect.


Kyle Gann of PostClassic lays out the Commedia-dell'Arte-tastic tribal divisions of criticsville.

The classical critic Dottore is a “middle-aged, upper class white guy who’s heard everything and has exceedingly hard-to-please taste.”

The jazz critic Harlequin, or Arlechinno, is a humble servant of his art, where “every figure written about is a legend, somehow larger than human in both talent and suffering.”

The “pop” or rock critic Zanni “is supposed to be living on the edge, going to clubs at ungodly hours, inhaling substances, living the whole rock ‘n’ roll life. The essence of rock, they claimed, is attitude. Pop critics (except in the [NY] Times) frequently write about where they’ve been, who they saw hanging there, what they were doing, and who got arrested.”

Kyle’s descriptions (which I quote) ring true as broad-brushed types in criticsville -- types, with loads of exceptions. (The Commedia dell'Arte analogies are mine; can't be blamed on Kyle; and except for the pretentious upper class killjoy Dottore are really rather a stretch.)

Sunday, October 17, 2004


Friday night, sitting on the couch with my beloved spouse, watching a video of Flying Down to Rio, the first Fred & Ginger flick, from 1933. The typical goofy plot and goofy jokes and terrific songs (the terrific Vincent Youmans wrote the music; words by Edward Eliscu and the terrific Gus Kahn) and even better dancing. Fred & Ginger weren’t the leads, they were the cynical second-bananas, quasi-romantic but more buddy-buddy, in a flirty physical way. The inherent poignance of old movies -- “All of those people are dead now,” my wife said as the movie started.

The goofy plot finds them in Rio De Janiero, where the band -- Fred & Ginger are in a band -- is setting up to play surreptitiously for the love interest’s father’s hotel. Fred is distracting the guard as the band sneaks in with their instruments. I look at the guard and say to my beloved spouse, “Is that your dad?!?”

My father-in-law was born in 1898. According to his official on-line bio (written by my wife), he went to make it big in Hollywood in 1920, played the bad guy in a bunch of B-movie Westerns (which starred the original singing cowboy, Ken Maynard) and had uncredited roles in bigger pictures. He didn’t marry until 1961, at the age of 63, and 10 months later my wife was born. He died 20 years later, long before my wife and I met.

My father-in-law hadn’t talked about his Hollywood years to his kids, and it was only in the last 5 years that my wife has tracked down his filmography, with the help of my friend Ross Lipman, who is a film preservationist at UCLA. We hadn’t known about a role in “Flying Down to Rio.”

We re-wound the tape. Yes! It was my wife’s dad! Fred was spewing a zany monologue about beaches, and my late father-in-law, who towered over him, was shrugging his shoulders. No lines, but a scene with Fred Astaire. An amazing thing to come across unexpectedly. My wife cried.

“All of those people are dead now.”

One of the “Brazilian” singers in a big production number looked like she might have been a white woman “blackened up.” We checked the credits and Googled. Etta Moten was African American; she died earlier this year at the age of 102 after a career as a Broadway star, a movie singer, and an official U.S. government representative to “the independence ceremonies of Nigeria, Zambia and Lusaka.” Had my wife and I watched the movie a year ago, at least one of the actors would still have been alive. Moten’s husband founded the Negro Associated Press. She had a terrific voice and a great flirty delivery. Glad to have looked her up.

Fred sang the title song.

My Rio, Rio by the Sea-o,
Flying down to Rio where there's rhythm and rhyme.
Hey feller, twirl that old propeller,
Got to get to Rio and we've got to make time.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Yesterday, stressed and distracted, driving to a mid-day meeting, channel surfing, something on the Classic Country AM station, God that sounds sad, switch to something else, something else, something else -- nothing. Back to Classic Country, same depressing song, well, at least it’s something, something emotional, not really listening, pre-occupied, till the very last lines,

You don’t know about lonely
Till it’s Chiseled in Stone

Thinking, “chiseled in stone, that’s an allusion to the 10 Commandments, right?” Then, immediately, “No! It’s a gravestone!”

No wonder it sounded so god-forsaken sad. Damn.

Friday, October 15, 2004


Mickey Dolenz, one of the great rock singers of the ‘60s.  Totally underrated.  More like, unrated.  From weird auterist snobbery – “They didn’t write [many of] their own songs” – “They didn’t even play their own instruments [on their first records].”  [Note my defensively rebutting brackets.  Hah.  I’m an auterist snob too, but a self-loathing one.]

It’s like, these rock-auterists, it’s like they’re saying, “It’s not the sound of the music that matters, it’s the story of how the music was made that matters much more.”  OK, sure, stories of how the music was made, they’re cool, I’m interested.  But I also like how the music hits my ears.

Heard “I’m a Believer” on Oldies radio today.  Mickey’s moany-groany erotic sighing “Oh” right before the keyboard solo – right on.


As my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey wrote here a week ago, the most legendarily unfinished piece of rock auterism got finished recently. The day after Jay urged me to go out and buy Brian Wilson’s “Smile,” I did. And I listened to it a bunch of times. Then I wrote Jay this e-mail:

"The original project was uncompletable, Brian caught between his visions of a “goof,” a “teenage symphony to God,” and the most kickin’-ass brilliant genius Beatle-beating album in the world.  The incredible moving, gorgeous fragments of the symphony-to-God side of the vision – the original Cabinessence, both Brian’s and Carl’s mixes of “Surf’s Up,” the original Smile (not Smiley Smile) Wind Chimes and Wonderful – as individual trax, none of the new recordings matches up to the visionary originals.  The goofs & joys – Heroes & Villains, Good Vibes – I actually like the new trax better.  & as a whole & as a flow, the new totality goes for the goof, it works great, and the more gorgeous originals of the delicate visionary songs wouldn’t have flowed as well."

Jay replied, and I wrote him again:

“The new Smile sounds so HAPPY.  The original Cabin, Surf's Up, Wind Chimes, Wonderful -- all sound HAUNTED.”

Now it’s a few days later, & I have to confront how much of my attraction to the original “Smile” trax was due to a morbid empathy with the legend of Brian Wilson’s real madness. An old job of mine used to put me in contact with a lot of severely mentally ill people. A common characteristic among many of the people I knew was a tendency to mumble -- this tendency doesn’t usually make it into theatrical or film or video representations of madness. And it’s a characteristic of the original versions of “Cabinessence” and to a lesser extent “Surf’s Up.” Not mumbling, per se, but an intense quietness. Can’t make out the words to “Cabinessence,” and the melodies are so gorgeous, and the textures so unusual -- it’s just marvelous. And haunted, by the legends of “unfinished” and Brian’s madness. And haunted by the hushedness. And in my morbid romantic myth of the album, Brian's symphony to God gave him a glimpse of the Almighty, it drove him crazy, and the scattered shards of "Smile" was the "record" of the vision. New version of "Cabinessence": words up front, textures less delicate, timbres less rounded and bittersweet -- it’s just an oddball, pretty song, conjuring up faux-Stephen-Foster’s version of faux-minstrelsy, with the banjo & harmonica. Which makes it more in line with the vision of Americana-goof. But not a symphony to God. There’s no awe there.

Also missing -- Mike Love and Carl and Dennis and Al and Bruce, as Jay said. The Beach Boys were STARS. Their voices were uniquely THEIRS. The new band -- and this is amazing -- is made up of utterly devoted and skillful Brian-Beach-Boys FREAKS, who MAKE SURE to play the old records note for note and as close to timbre-for-timbre as possible. As I said above, I am interested in the stories of how music happens to get made. “Smile”’s story has got to be unique.

And the music -- well, I love it, in its complexity and beauty and un-precedentedness, its alternations between simple pretty singsongery and raging gorgeous polyphony, its Mozartian ease in suddenly shifting registers between delicate and intense. As Jay said to me on the phone the other day, if Brian had finished it in early ‘67, before “Sgt. Pepper,” it would have made Paul McCartney weep. The competition was big. Brian’s music, starting with “Pet Sounds” -- like some of Gershwin’s and Mingus’s and Ives’s -- is almost its own genre. Unique in its combination of antecedents, and with limited direct sonic influence on what followed.

Great album.


Yes, it made me squirm when Kerry and Edwards talked about Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter. It felt dirty, not that she’s a lesbian, but that American political discourse is dirty and muddy about sex and sexuality and they were getting into it. And after thinking about it and reading letters to the editor from gay corresondents in one of the Seattle papers, and reading comments by gay conservative anti-Bush writer Andrew Sullivan, I’ve come to the conclusion that while yes, Kerry and Edwards talked about Cheney’s lesbian daughter in order to turn homophobes away from voting for the Bush/Cheney ticket, that’s completely legitimate, because not only would Bush or Cheney not hesitate to return fire in kind, but because Bush and Cheney are stinking hypocrites, and, most importantly, in a sane world there's nothing wrong with anybody being gay.

Mary Cheney works on her dad’s campaign, for money. Her dad has talked about her being a lesbian, in public. Her dad’s boss is campaigning on an anti-gay agenda, which he probably doesn’t personally believe in. I’d love to see an ad made up of Cheney talking about his lesbian daughter, Edwards talking about Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Cheney thanking him for the kind words (which he did), Kerry talking about Cheney’s lesbian daughter, and then Cheney and Mrs. Cheney spitting nails they’re so mad that Kerry is talking about their lesbian daughter. Hang them on their shamelessly situational rhetoric that makes a mockery of the medieval theocratic policies they’re campaigning for and their love for their daughter both.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


Classical partisans may be interested to learn that conference committee of the Experience Music Project considers classical and opera to be pop.

I’m into it.

As Alex Ross has quoted Alban Berg as saying to George Gershwin, music is music.

Rock on, pop off, pop up, rock the boat, rock the vote, hop on pop, sock the hop, wear the socks.


My beloved spouse and I have a disagreement.

Does the phrase “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck” refer to the inexperience and naivete of turnip farmers, or to the inexperience and naivete of turnips?


I mentioned a couple weeks ago that Real Change, Seattle’s street/homeless newspaper, was about to publish an op-ed I wrote on Republican tax policy. I was wrong -- they bumped it for a couple weeks and published it today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch
Oh the Bush is back
Stone cold sober as a matter of fact
I can bitch, I can bitch
‘Cause I’m better than you
It’s the way that I move
The things that I do

Bush wasn’t as terrible as in the first 2 debates, but Kerry mopped the floor with him all the same. Had more command, was more at ease, more humane, more human, funnier; though Kerry’s joke about “marrying up” was probably canned, he told it very well. Bush’s quip about “listening” to his wife was almost as funny and was probably more off-the-cuff, but he tried a bunch of other jokes that stiffed. On the issues, Kerry had him, lock, stock, barrel; had him hogtied & hornswoggled, buffaloed and boggled; had him coming and going; had him cold.

Today I heard Eminem’s current hit for the first time, really liked it, and Em’s making fun of his own homophobia just put me in a Bush-Elton-Eminem frame of what-the-patootie-dootie shizzle dizzle.

20 days to go. Good luck to us all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


If a Democrat had hollered and jumped out of his chair and interrupted and talked over the moderator, as Bush did in the second debate, the rightwing pundits (the majority of the nationally broadcast pundits) would have been all over it like flies on doo-doo. Remember Howard Dean’s barbaric yawp? And it isn’t the power of incumbency that’s protecting Bush. The media laid it on thick whenever incumbent VP Gore sighed or raised his eyebrows. They were merciless against Clinton’s flaws, real and invented. I’m really hopeful Kerry unleashes some new levels of truth and righteousness and graceful toughness against Bush in Round 3 tomorrow. Something that’ll get under the fool’s skin and make him lose his poop.

Monday, October 11, 2004


Two weeks ago on the plane to Chicago I started reading E. M. Forster’s “A Room With a View.” I’d seen and loved the movie, once when it came out and again a year or so ago on video. Had never read the book. I was reluctant to put it down. Just a terrific read.

In an early scene, in the pensione in Florence, Mr. Beebe retires to his room early to write in his "philosophical diary." And I immediately thought of blogging.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


Disney gets credited for the innovation of having music exactly echo the action on the screen in early animated films. Carl Stalling at Warner Brothers took this technique to delirious virtuoso heights; film-music people have called it “Mickey-Mousing.” But Wagner beat Disney & Co to the punch, with his slapstick scene of Alberich tripping over his feet as he chases the Rheinbabes while the music makes bumptious bassy galumphing tripping noises.

The influence of Wagner’s dramatic (non-Mickey-Mousing) music runs all through Hollywood, especially ‘30s and ‘40s swashbucklers and tragedies and heavily heaving romances. I’ve been listening to Lorin Maazel’s “The Ring Without Words” on and off all day, and it’s gotta be the greatest soundtrack album ever, not only because the score predated the other great soundtrack albums by 6 or 7 decades, but because the music has spectacular range and power and tenderness and beauty and awe.


Late Wednesday night when I first posted on seeing the Chicago Lyric production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the first and shortest opera of Wagner’s “Ring” tetralogy, I made unfair insinuations questioning the commitment of professional musicians to the music they play.

It was unfair, but I had my reasons. Weak reasons, but reasons.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim has commented that job satisfaction among orchestral players is among the lowest (or maybe the lowest) of any profession. Several months ago Greg Sandow posted a long-ish email from a stay-at-home classical fan who went to a symphonic concert to hear them play music from a video game he played a lot -- he only went this time because a friend talked him into it -- and while he enjoyed the concert he was put-off by how obvious it was that the players held the music in disdain. And the night before I saw “Rheingold,” a free volunteer performance of music by John Cage appeared to me to have been received far more warmly than Chicago Lyric’s Wagner.

None of these anecdotes gives the slightest indication that any professional player is playing less than his or her best. Professionals have a sense of honor, and they don’t ever want to make fools of themselves. They play well whether they like the music or not.

As it turns out, professional harpist and excellent blogger Helen Radice of “twang twang twang” recently made trenchant, provocative comments that pertain to all of this, somewhat confirming my insinuations but mostly blowing them away, and either way, putting them in the bright and sympathetic light of personal experience. A coincidence that Helen is a harpist, in this post about my hang-ups about money and music: Lyric’s “Rheingold” orchestra boasted 4 harps, but the program listed only one harpist. Presumably Wagner’s score requires more harpists than the typical opera. The program lists dozens upon dozens of annual donors and single-production donors, but they don’t list everybody in the orchestra.

This tells me something about how the world works.

And Helen’s post closes with one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, which tells me something about how music works.

"is't not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?"

Saturday, October 09, 2004


I’m aware that probably everything I said a couple nights ago against Wagner’s stage craft and music has been said before.

Wagner’s frequent tunelessness: I remember someone somewhere joking that what Wagner claims is “endless melody” is really “endless recitative.” And, Jill Grove, who beautifully sang Erda’s lovely song in Chicago Lyric’s “Rheingold,” is quoted in the program about the music she sings: Erda “actually has a *tune*.” (Italics hers, indicated by the asterisks.)

Wagner’s clumsy stagecraft: Someone (maybe Virgil Thomson?) complains somewhere that it’s absurd for an opera’s heroine to take 15 minutes to cross a stage alone and silently because the orchestra has a lot of music to play.

(Aside to dwarf and troll partisans: I’m aware that Wagner says that Alberich is a dwarf, not a troll, which is what I called him the other night. He looked more like a troll to me; he was bulky; he wasn’t short; he lacked the dignity of Tolkien’s “Ringy” dwarves, which are the only Northern-Euro-quasi-mythic dwarves I’ve known.)

(Aside to anti-anachronismists: I’m also aware that Nietzche didn’t claim that Wagner’s operas were the movies of his day. That was a joke.)

Wagner’s stagecraft: I’m pretty sure that Alberich the trolly dwarf’s renunciation of love is supposed to be Tragic or Intense or Foreboding, even though Wagner’s played him for comedy until the renunciation, a “comic” lustbucket who has shown no evidence of a capacity for love, thus making the renunciation nonsensical, or redundant. It didn’t work for me, either as comedy or tragedy, though it did as didacticism, as an expression of a point that Wagner was trying to make about the incompatibility of love with the pursuit of absolute money and power. Alberich later has dramatic heft, when he curses the Ring after Wotan steals it from him. (Alberich has stolen the gold of which he’s made the Ring from the Rheinmaidens.) Unfortunately, Alberich’s “ridiculous” lasciviousness undercuts all that follows. A serious theatrical mis-step. Shakespeare could pull off that kind of tonal shift; Mozart too. Wagner couldn’t, either as librettist or composer; the comicality was lame.

The relationships between Wotan, his wife Fricka, and her sister Freia don’t make sense to me. Wotan has agreed to pay the giants Fasolt and Fafnir for work they have done by giving them his sister-in-law. The emotional whoozitts of this never gets echoed in the music. Fricka complains to Wotan about his philandering, Wotan says fuggedaboutit-I-ain’t-changin’; Fricka also complains about him selling his sister into slavery. And I simply didn’t hear or feel or see the depth of outrage that the dramatic situation requires. Wotan’s “excuse” is that he has a plan to have his assistant, the intriguing Puck-like Loge, trick the giants out of their deal, but Loge falls through. Nietzche and Bernard Shaw both asserted that “The Ring” was about contemporary bourgeois livin’, and that’s what I saw, a world-weary super-rich screwed-up unloving lameley-scheming couple bickering at each other. So, OK, maybe I do get it. (But probably not.)

My understanding is probably hampered by not knowing how the story unfolds; Wagner didn’t intend me to see just the 2.5 hour introduction to the 17 or 18 or 20 hour 4-part show, but that’s what Chicago Lyric was offering, that’s what my sister’s father-in-law had an extra ticket for, that’s what I saw.

Nice theatrical moments which I neglected to mention: After Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich, the giants get it from him. Wotan wants to go after the giants to steal it back again, when the ancient female earth-spirit Erda appears and with a serious and beautiful aria talks him out of it. Great moment.

Also, the Wotan-Loge relationship echoes the Shakespearean Oberon-Puck relationship nicely, and Loge is an attractive cynic.

And, when Wotan and Loge go to the Alberich’s ville to scope out this Ring biz, Alberich’s dwarfishness comes through as we hear the banging of Alberich’s metalworkers -- a great percussive moment in the score that’s also great theater.


I’m intrigued by the story. Curious at least to read the libretto of the whole Cycle.

Today I bought a used CD of Lorin Maazel conducting a Berlin orchestra in his own 60-minute redaction, “The Ring Without Words” -- it’s wonderful. I’ll be listening to it quite a bit. The ubiquity of Wagner Orchestral Highlights recordings rhymes with my feeling that Wagner’s music outshines his words; that the words may even be an impediment for many people.

I can imagine being carried by the music into a state of accute sensitivity, where Wagner’s characters and scenes pierce the heart. I don’t think it would happen to me that way, but I can imagine the possibility. I’m guessing that this might be how the stuff affects the people who love it. My hang-up about this is, I didn’t see joy in the bearings or the faces of anybody who was at the opera after it was over. Just didn’t see it.

I know people do love Wagner, passionately -- people travel thousands of miles to see productions of the Ring. When a highly regarded Wagner buff rapturously describes the Rheinmaidens as “charmingly frivolous, carefree, and childlike creatures without a serious thought in their very pretty but very empty heads,” I know Wagner will never completely be for me -- the bubbleheaded beauty is a lame and degrading stereotype, and it was even in Wagner’s time. But I look forward to digging more deeply into his stuff anyway. I once spent half of an 8-hour car ride trying to fathom why people like Phil Collins. I didn’t have much choice in the matter -- the dude who owned the car was a Phil Collins nut. If I can give Phil Collins the benefit of the doubt, I can do it for Wagner too.

Friday, October 08, 2004


First -- Great, Great, Great. A seminal work. Cheers to Van Dyke and light touch of the coterie.

I miss the 'Boys. Like Ellington, its written for the "players." Excellent singing, but not that off-the-cuff perfect blend the extended bros. had going. Whispier, less meat (which figures into discussion of texture below).

Splendidly of a piece. A satisfying concept album. Judicious use of theme and variation and pacing, and the new and new-old connective tissue holds up. Good Vibes (last track, different lyrics -- Asher's or B's original?), though, falls out of character thematically. Seems tacked on, even though its musical themes and sub-themes are foreshadowed. I would have book-ended it w/ a reprise of Heroes... the main theme. (If I may be so presumptuous!)

Here again he mines that thick, baritone/bass texturing that, to me, is his signature as a producer/arranger. Still can't figure how he gets so much articulation in all that mid-range meat. This is where Mike and Bruce are missed. The vox don't quite measure up in some of the thicker parts. Disclosure: I listened all the way through on headphones (total headphone trip!!!!!).

Over-archingly, and I'd like to expand on this at some time, there is a basic compositional shift relative to Pet Sounds that also points to his subsequent work. The contrapuntal choral vocal "rounds", or sometimes just short simple circular harmonic repetitions, that were relegated to coda or fades on PS and previous work are made the focus on SMiLE, moved to center with the "songs" used as run-ups -- extended mantra like passages that reveal themselves in repetition. Trippy. Beautiful.

If this truly had come out on schedule, pre-Pepper in late '66/early '67, it would have been far out, indeed.

Does not measure to Pet Sounds, which was exquisite and lyrical. This is a goof, though an ambitious and musically awesome one -- little gravitas ('cept for maybe Wonderful or Surf's Up, but these in context of the comic/ironic libretto they lose some weight).

I suppose the above paragraph has something to do w/ Brian's (lack of his) primary instrument -- that elastic, emotive, at once powerful and delicate voice. I did not miss that wisdom-beyond-his-age 24-year old until Surf's Up (Jeff Foskett's extraordinary falsetto doubling notwithstanding).

Chills: hit hard at same said Surf's up -- despite the dislocated voice (I'm getting a chill reprise just writing this).

Have I said that I totally dig it?

Great recording, great playing. Bits of the drumming and bass playing betrays the post-rock raised musicianship. Small peeve.

More in the brain, bouncing around. Maybe I'll get to it.

Run to the record shop and set aside 46 minutes ASAP!


You can post it if you like (and it would make me happy, too, to see what others who have heard might say in response). I think this slightly pondered gut reaction is as much as I have to say. I'll not enter the "is this the REAL SMiLE debate. And I do want to follow up on my "shift in composisitonal styles" paragraph, but that will take some comparative listening that I have to make time for.

One more tiny dissappointment -- he doesn't go double time rubato/ritard on the line in Surf's Up,

"The glass was raised, the fired rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting..."


Missed something I meant to say today... There's a (you might want to sit for this) ....

...GIRL on it! (singing that is, since of course bassist Carol Kaye was all over the sixties stuff).

The female voice on this music is strange, but not wrong. Anyway, it was shocking at first. It literally turned my head -- and I had headphones on.

Also, listening to "Wonderful" again. The mature voice really changes the meaning of it. In '66 it was kind of a polite erotic yearning. Now it reads as tender caring. Tonight anyway. Also a slower, more stately tempo.

Lovely. Was digging the track-to-track bridges more today. Crafty.

The melody of Cabin Essence is striking. The way the first phrase is low and sneaky chromatic, and the second jumps up and shows it off.


Thursday, October 07, 2004


Ardent Wagnerian blogger ACD denies that “Wagner is a master of harmony and texture”; that he has a “genius for atmosphere” and a “mastery of . . . structure”; that the opening of “Das Rheingold” is “magical, spectral, expectant”; that Erda’s tune near the end of “Das Rheingold” is pretty; that the story of the Ring is interesting and that “Das Rheingold” makes one curious to see the tetralogy to the end. That’s what he seems to have meant when he wrote that what I missed about “Das Rheingold” in last night’s post is “comprehensive.”

At least ACD shows me the respect of reading and linking to me, a respect which is mutual.


In addition to catching up with my sister & her family & my brother & parents when in Chicago and Kalamazoo last week, and having my first live Cage and Wagner experiences, I also dropped in unannounced on my friends Kate O’Reilly (who sang in my band in Chicago, the Wild Onion Rhythm Babies) and Michael Greenberg. I met Kate on a bus in ‘88 or ‘89 when I was living in Chicago, shortly after she & I had played on the same bill in different acts -- I guess we met at that show. The bus meeting was shortly after that, and the moment we started talking we were lifelong friends. Her husband Michael and I connected immediately as well, and though we go months and even years without talking now, whenever I drop by their house it’s always as though we’d seen each other last week.

Michael played piano & wrote the bulk of the music for the legendary Chicago band Maestro Subgum & the Whole, which Kate sang in. Maestro broke up in the early ‘90s and Michael kept on chugging, putting bands together and putting out solo albums, mostly self-released. When I dropped by last week, Michael was at work, and Kate told me that this spring he’d put out a 2-cd retrospective culling from his first 15 albums (including several Maestro albums) put out over 17 years, and then immediately after that he put out a brand new album. I had no idea he’d released so much stuff.

Terrific albums both, not for sale anywhere, and I tout them proudly, because -- surprise to me -- I have songs on both of them, songs Michael & I wrote together years ago. I’d forgotten completely about one of the songs. I play guitar on one of the songs on the retrospective too.

I hope to talk Michael into letting people buy his records. I’ll let you know.

While I was in Michigan, my friend Robert Hinrix played another of my songs at a political cabaret in Seattle. Robert plays bass and mandolin in my (still officially unnamed) band, and he’s also a fine guitarist & ukulelist. He’d signed the band up to play the cabaret, not knowing that I had a ticket out of town, so he played the song solo that he had in mind, a scurrilous bit of doggerel I wrote in ‘99 about a certain Republican Presidential candidate’s rumored coke habit. Robert told me it was the hit of the evening when, during the line “George got naked and danced on a table,” the cabaret’s MC came out dancing, wearing nothing but a Dubya mask. Wish I’d’ve been there.


I had my first live experience of Wagner last Saturday in Chicago, the night after my first live experience of John Cage in Kalamazoo. The Cage piece was put on for free by amateur performers at an art opening in a non-profit gallery & studio. The Wagner piece had hundreds of sponsors, ranging in sponsorship from $500 to $100,000 for the season, and $500 to $10,000 for this particular production of “Das Rheingold.”

I’d listened to recordings of Wagner before, though not anything from the Ring Cycle. I once listened to a cassette set of Tristan straight through on a rainy Saturday, and I didn’t regret it. Wagner is a master of harmony and texture.

The opening of “Das Rheingold” exemplifies his genius for atmosphere. Quiet, quiet, quiet pulsing waves setting the scene of the underwater Rheinmaidens, lowly glowing and slowly growing as the action starts. Magical, spectral, expectant.

But once the action started, mostly I was like, omigod, this is dorky. And not in any sort of charming way. This is kitsch. Opening scene: A weed covered fat troll trundles lustfully after the three waternymphesque Rheinmaidens, one after the other; the maidens lure him and tease only to spurn him; the music “Mickey Mouses” the action, with “comical” bumptiousnesses underlining the “slapstick” of the spurned ugly thing tripping over his feet as the lithe & lovely maidens swim away. (Swim away in a very cool way, in the Chicago Lyric production, where the program quotes the choreographer as congratulating Chicago Lyric for being the first American opera to authorize the use of bungee cords. These waterbabes were swimming through the air!)

Spurned troll renounces “love” in exchange for wealth and power. Yeah, maybe I would care if the troll had any believability on any emotional level whatsoever, but this was sub-Saturday-Night-Live sketchiness. It’s a very didactic script (written by Wagner, as for all his operas).

And tunefulness? Not hardly. Wagner’s mastery of harmony and structure and texture allowed him to stitch all the wandering sung talk-talk seamlessly, but a good tune takes more than mastery, it takes inspiration. Wagner had his inspired moments -- the cool, dark, watery opening instrumental passages of this opera, The Ride of the Walkure from a later opera in the Ring, the famous stately wedding march (from Parzifal, maybe?), the Liebestod from Tristan.

A few tunes did appear later in the opera. A character called Erda sang a pretty one near the end, though I couldn’t remember it at all afterwards.

But didactic? Let me tell you. Wagner’s story is interesting, and a web search I’m sure will turn up a synopsis if you’re interested, but his characters are mostly way thin. Wotan, king of the gods (who rules, we are told, by virtue of cleverness in treaties, just like a contemporary businessman, in a funny anachronism) invites his wife to join him in the new digs he’s had built, a magnificent castle (called Valhalla) that embodies all he’d hoped for it. His wife, Fricka, instead of saying “wow, gorgeous house,” or, “yes, my sweet, I want nothing more than to live with you,” says, “why’d you call it Valhalla?” Wotan answers, “I’ll tell you later,” setting up, I’m guessing here, a LATER PLOT POINT WITH PHILOSOPHICAL RAMIFICATIONS.

I’m being misleadingly harsh and flippant. I did enjoy the spectacle, I enjoyed the singing and the sound of the orchestra, I’m curious to see how the whole Ring cycle would turn out. I’m glad for the experience. But I wouldn’t seek it out again.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was unsure. As soon as the opera finished, people poured out of the aisles to leave before the clapping was done -- I’d guess half the people were gone while clapping still continued, not being assisted by the quick exiters.

& I didn’t get a vibe of, wow, what a great experience, from anybody in the hall. A few singers did get ovations with extra-special enthusiasm, especially the magnificent bass Andrea Silvestrelli who sang Fasolt. But the general moods seemed to be semi-resented obligation and not-greatly-impressed curiosity. Count me in the latter category, though not completely -- as I said, I was impressed by the musicianship, including that of Wagner’s, and the sets & costumes & spectacularity were terrific.

Great contrast from the night before, where the audience for Cage was genuinely enthusiastic.

When I was a teenager a member of my church who had gone to Europe to sing opera professionally -- her name is Susan Anthony, believe it or not, and she’s on CDs now -- would occasionally come back and sing an informal Lieder recital in the church’s social gathering room after Sunday morning service. People would stand and listen, and I remember being blown away by the power and beauty of her voice. And I heard her for free, in a “chamber” setting. I’d really like to hear an amateur production of an opera. I’m not saying that musicians shouldn’t get paid, but with amateurs, my confidence that someone is doing it for love goes way way up.

I just didn’t get this “Rheingold” business. Opera was the movies of its day (I think Alex Ross said this, probably Nietzche too), and Wagner was a king of spectacularism. And unfortunately for him, his 19th century spectacularism is way dated. Hopelessly dated. Shakespeare’s sword fights and pursuing bears still help sell tickets, but they aren’t what keeps his name alive. Wagner’s dramaturgy ain’t what’s kept his name alive either. I don’t recommend “Das Rheingold” as evidence for the viability of his theater.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

“FOUR 6” BY JOHN CAGE (Continued from last night’s post, in which I described how I came to be attending a performance of “Four 6” by John Cage in my hometown of Kalamazoo last Friday night)

The concert was in the Smartshop, a converted industrial building now serving as an art gallery and studio space just north of downtown. When Jeff and I got there, the joint was packed for an art opening, people crowding around the photos and sculptures and metal furniture and the food table. We found Jeff’s friends in the ensemble, who call themselves “The Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo.” One of them gave us beers.

Cage wrote “Four 6” for 4 players who choose 12 sounds each. The piece starts with a simultaneous clicking of stopwatches. The score consists of instructions regarding the order in which the players make their 12 sounds, and the time limitations for the sounds to strike. For example, maybe Player A makes his or her (all “his,” in this case) Sound #1 some time between 30 seconds and 65 seconds into the piece, then Sound #2 some time between 65 and 80 seconds. (I made these examples up.) The players have great discretion as to how long and how often they strike their sounds within the time frames dictated by the score. The whole piece lasts 30 minutes.

At the bar before going to the Smartshop, I had objected to Cage’s reliance on digital clock time to one of the performers, Richard, who’s a friend of my brother’s and a friendly acquaintance of mine. Clock time is nervous time and mechanical; I want music time to be governed by heart time. Richard replied that Cage’s piece wasn’t mechanical at all.

The Collective played in the studio side of the building, but the busy happy talky noise of the gallery space spilled into the concert space. The audience had no chairs.

Early in the performance, I felt doubtful about the sounds that the performers had chosen. My brother’s friend Brad (actually, my brother knew everybody in the ensemble -- Jeff knows a lot of people) started his sequence of sounds with a kitschy wind-up toy of a female doll banging a tiny xylophone. Kitschy to look at, yes, but it was a surprisingly interesting sound, a fast wham wham wham wham wham of high-pitched metal. Another performer started with low, slow pitches on an electric piano. Richard, who’s a DJ, played some instructional record. The 4th player played records too. The use of instructional records seemed cliche-kitsch to me at first, but I warmed to it as sounds appeared and disappeared according to the score. Some of the sounds were just lovely. Several times in the piece, Richard held a long note on a bugle. A guy named Kirk played a scratchy old ‘78 recording of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Because there were no seats, and some of the audience sat behind or next to the performers, and people were milling around, when “Summertime” stopped I went to look at the record label -- who was the rich beautiful alto voice? The record label had completely faded away. At one point I got restless and peered to look at one of the player’s stopwatch. 23 and a half minutes, only six and a half minutes to go. As the lovely sounds (bugle, very quiet mbira, bass drum, quiet rattle, low slow electric piano notes, “Summertime”) and the ugly sounds (drill, human voice shouting) and the kitschy sounds (instructional records) alternated and collided, all of the sounds became lovely. And part of what made them lovely was that the performers chose them because they wanted to; and because it was a celebration, an opening of a new art gallery/studio (I found out later); and because, while throughout the piece the audience drifted in and out, there were never fewer than 40 people listening attentively, standing on the concrete floor.

When the 30 minutes were up, the performer who had introduced the piece raised his hands to indicate The End. And people applauded enthusiastically, a good minute-long ovation. A really warm reception, people really happy to be there, really happy to have heard the piece. It was a great communal feeling, a feeling of communion. Just wonderful all the way around.

Afterwards I congratulated and thanked my acquaintance Richard. He said, with some intensity, but smiling and very pleased, “That wasn’t bad, was it? That wasn’t any ‘small-town’ John Cage. That was world-class John Cage!” I replied that I didn’t know enough to say but that I liked it very much.

A little while later my parents’ lifelong friends Mary and Brooks Godfrey showed up. I told Mary about the Cage performance she had just missed, and she told me a story about teaching a drama class at Western Michigan University in the early ‘70s, when John Cage came for a concert, and her students arrayed themselves throughout the campus’s largest auditorium and performed the piece. She said it was really neat.

Mary also gave me the low-down on the scene. The whole evening, I’d seen more people walking around downtown Kalamazoo enjoying themselves than anytime other than Christmas shopping in the 1970s when I was a kid. Mary told me that the proprietor of the Smartshop, an artist in her 30s, had bought the building with a $100,000 grant from Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative. Mary told me that Granholm’s idea -- “She’s a young woman about your age, about 40,” Mary said -- is to provide the kids who have orange hair a reason to stay in Michigan, and that the way to do that is by creating cultural institutions that will keep their interest. Judging by my one evening interaction with the results, it seems like it might work smashingly.


The next day, Saturday, my sister, Emily, who lives in Chicago, drove me back to her city so I could catch my Sunday morning plane back home to Seattle. My job had sent me to a day-and-a-half conference in Chicago, and I had taken a day and a half off afterwards to visit my parents and brother in Michigan, and Emily and her 3-month-old son Michael went with me, in their car. My beloved spouse and our toddling son went to California to visit her sister and and brother-in-law and their daughters while I was away.

Em and her family live in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, on the North side of Chicago. We were driving up Lake Shore Drive on the South Side when Em’s cell phone rang. It was her husband. “Does John want to go to a Wagner opera with my dad tonight?”

“I think I better take this opportunity.”

“He just left on the El to get there. He doesn’t have a cell phone and he doesn’t expect you, but he knows you might come. It starts at 7:30 and it’s two and a half hours long. He’s going to try to sell his extra ticket if he gets there before you.”

(Time for bed. To be continued. G’night.)

Monday, October 04, 2004


Friday morning at my parents’ place in the country outside Kalamazoo, my hometown, my parents’ friend Mary Godfrey, whom I’ve known all my life, dropped by. First Friday of the month, it’s “Art Hop” in downtown Kalamazoo, Mary said; “A lot of the businesses have art openings and receptions. It starts at 5 o’clock. Brooks and I will be going.”

I wanted to go into town to get some Kalamazoo paraphernalia from the Chamber of Commerce anyway, and I always enjoy stopping by the Michigan News Agency (a terrific news/magazine/bookstore near the Chamber), and they’re both downtown.

I made it to the Chamber about 90 seconds before it closed at 5, which put me right on time for Art Hop. Bought a magazine at the News Agency and wandered through Kalamazoo’s lovely downtown square, Bronson Park, which is surrounded by grand old churches, a nice old City Hall, the County Building, the YWCA, the Civic Theater, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and the library, and which is home to war memorials going back to the Civil War, including one placed on the spot where Lincoln gave an anti-slavery speech in 1856, as well as what I always thought of as the Peace Monument, a group of statues of children from the liberal 1970s, sponsored by local ecumenical religious groups -- Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist.

A block from Bronson Park is where the art action was happening. I checked out a couple shows and picked up a program of events. 8 PM, a free performance of a John Cage piece, “Four 6.”

I really wanted to go. My family had a plan to get together for dinner at 8, but I could probably beg off. I called my brother, Jeff, who was still at work. We agreed to meet at 6:30 at Bell’s, Michigan’s oldest and still Kalamazoo’s most popular brew pub. Having arrived at our parents’ late the night before, I hadn’t seen Jeff yet.

We got there at almost the same time and walked up to the bar. A friend of his came to talk to him -- “Dude, we’re playing some John Cage at the Smartshop at 8 o’clock tonight.”

“Yeah! I read about it. I really want to go,” I said. Jeff’s friend Brad is a high school counselor who almost got fired from his job for having a ponytail. Seemed like a nice guy.

Shortly after, another friend of Jeff’s, Richard Bowser, whom I’d met at his house, came up. “Hey man, we’re playing a John Cage piece at the Smartshop at 8 o’clock tonight. You better be there. It’s on North Avenue just across from Louie’s.”


I’d been fond of Richard even before I met him, because of a story my brother had told me about him. Jeff and Richard were talking, some years ago when they were getting acquainted, and Richard had been in a band in Kalamazoo in the early ‘80s, and Jeff had said, “My brother was in a Kalamazoo band then too.”

“What was the band?”

“The Young Rossums.”

“The Young Rossums! They were the first punk band in Kalamazoo! They inspired me and my friends to start Violent Apathy.”

The Rossums had been my band in high school. Turtletop correspondent Jay Sherman-Godfrey (son of Mary, whom I mentioned above) and I initiated the band and recruited the members when we were 14, after having first talked about it when we were 10. John de Roo, whom I’ve written about here, was the main lead singer. We played Kinks, Troggs, Pistols, Ramones, Talking Heads, Byrds, Chuck Berry, Dylan, Stones, and other covers, as well as lots of originals written by Jay, John, or me.

A few years ago Jeff convened an approximately 20-year Rossums anniversary reunion gig at a 4th of July bonfire and pig roast at his house in the country outside Kalamazoo. Jay, John, ace drummer Dave Lewis (now of Riverside, California), and I came from our corners of the country, remembered the old songs for a couple hours the day of the party, learned the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” for Jeff to sing, and played a set for friends and family members.

After we played, Richard DJ’ed, and people hung out, ate pig, drank Bell’s beer, and, after nightfall, watched the giant bonfire. Rather late into it I borrowed Richard’s microphone with his permission and recited a favorite anti-Kalamazoo poem, “The Sins of Kalamazoo,” a snotty bohemian anti-small-town anti-bourgeois poem by Carl Sandburg from the nineteen-teens. “The sins of Kalamazoo are neither scarlet nor crimson. The sins of Kalamazoo are a convict gray, a dishwater drab.” Richard, having no idea of what I was going to do, immediately backed me with a wonderfully surreal melange of records of strange and kitschy and patriotic music. It was great. I was feeling it. The poem is a few pages long, and when I got to the climactic lines I shouted at the top of my lungs, “‘We’re here because we’re here’ is the song of Kalamazoo. ‘We don’t know where we’re going but we’re on our way!’” People in the crowd cheered drunkenly, “Woo woo!” It was a deeply gratifying moment, and Richard’s DJ accompaniment was perfect.


My sister called to let us know that the family dinner was cancelled and we would convene at breakfast. Cool. I talked Jeff into going to the concert. “It’s abstract music, arhythmic and unmelodic -- a lot of carefully arranged random sounds.” Plus, the concert was free, and his friends were playing it, so what the heck.

We bumped into another Bell’s regular, a friend of my brother’s and mine from junior high named Jon. I knew Jon would know Cage. “Hey, we’re going to a John Cage concert in a little bit.”

Jon was psyched. “I met John Cage! I was a bicycle messenger in New York, and you always see famous people in New York, but when I saw John Cage I had to stop. I said to him, ‘You look just like John Cage.’

“‘Yeess?’ he said, with a big smile -- he was a very effeminate guy.

“‘I can’t tell you how much your work has meant to me, your music and your writing.’

“‘And what do you do?’” [Jon smiled broadly in his impersonation, very friendly.] “He was asking me what I do! Can you believe it? ‘Well, uh, I, uh, sort of make videos and music and . . . ’

“‘Best of luck,’ he said, and he patted me on the shoulder and kept on walking. John Cage!”

So Jon was up for the concert.

[It’s late, and I need to sleep, and I’m nowhere near getting to the end of the story, and my thoughts about the actual concert -- which was wonderful -- and how thought-provocative it was to see the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle the following night at Chicago Lyric Opera, and so with regret and apology I say, to be continued, and good night.]

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