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

Friday, December 31, 2004


Strike up the band, or gather round and sing --

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne

Words adapated from a traditional song
by Rabbie Burns (1759-96)


In response to ACD’s comments in last night’s post, I should try to explain what I mean by continuity of scale. All I mean is -- there are no close-ups in theater. The scale in which people appear is continuous.

Theater simultaneously brings stronger presence and greater distance between the actors and audience. Film has weaker presence but greater intimacy. I am not attempting a paradox. What I mean is this: The rich three-dimensionality of human presence occurs in theater but not in film, and yet, with its close-ups, film gives us a “warts and all” look at human beings.

As a result, actresses of 100 years ago like Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry could play ingenues and romantic roles into late middle age -- on the stage. In film, this is impossible.

In aesthetic terms, it is difficult for film to produce the goal of classical theater, which is the sensation of “larger than life,” because nothing can be more life-scale than an actor’s pores. The aesthetics of classical theater and its larger-than-life present-day stylistic descendants require this simultaneous greater presence and greater distance for its strongest effects to work.

Would love to hear comments on this question from any theater or film artists who may be reading.

Personal note: I did a lot of theater in my 20s. Wrote one full-length musical, a handful of short plays, and acted in a bunch of plays, mostly written by me and my friends in the wonderful, now 20-year-old Chicago troupe Theater Oobleck.

Elsewhere in blogville, Helen Radice of the blog twang twang twang gives an erudite and passionate defense of live performance here.

UPDATE: Further thoughts here.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


Theater blogger George Hunka of Superfluities essays an answer to this question of music-and-culture blogger ACD of Sounds & Fury; ACD finds George's answer wanting, and restates the question thus, "When film is an available alternative, what possible aesthetic justification can there be for producing a work live on the stage (i.e., aesthetic justification in terms of the realization of the work itself)?"

As George's answer gets at, a problem with contemporary theater is that it thinks of itself in filmic terms; what George doesn't say is that filmic terms are generally small and intimate when compared to classical theater. (George also correctly IDs the lack of loyalty of many theater artists to the theater-as-theater; I would add that many theater artists -- writers and actors -- appear to view the theater as a "minor leagues" for film. This is a problem.)

The genre conventions of film, by and large, descend from 19th and 20th century "naturalistic" theater, drawing room theater, the theater of "regular life." Film, with its close-ups, is superb at this, and when I see a naturalistic play, even a very good one, I'm hard-pressed to say why it wouldn't be better as a film.

Classical theater, by contrast, has little to do with every day behaviors of everyday people, and what theater can do better than film is what classical Greek theater in particular was charged to do, and that is to bring the gods present among us.

More than 20 years ago I saw Tufts University classics professor Peter Arnott perform his own translation of Euripides' The Bacchae with his own marionette theater, which he built, manipulating the marionettes himself and speaking all the roles. An unforgettable evening of theater, and when Dionysus revealed himself at the end, thrills of awe washed through me. The god was present.

Why this works better in theater than on film has to do with the continuity of scale that theater provides. Film darts in and out, flattens everything onto two dimensions, directs focus here as opposed to there, controls the flow of vision much more than theater, which is continuous and three dimensional. This continuity of scale makes the appearance of the god more powerful by forcing the "larger than life" feeling to come from live, living, life-size figures. It is audience members' senses that enlarge, rather than the artist's camera lenses and sound mixing pots.

Of course, I've had this experience only a few times in my theater-going life. In my friend Jeff Dorchen's play "The Mysticeti and the Mandelbrot Set," when the character of mad, cursed Sweeney of Irish myth slowly flapped his wings while perching, the god was present, and the god's breath blew like a wind through my being. Only a few other times has this happened to me -- Saint Joan's apotheosis in Greek Active Theater's production of the Bernard Shaw play made me cry; instead of Shaw's wordy post-stake-burning epilogue, Greek Active choreographed a dance to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" and Joan appeared, covered in ashes, chomping on a cigar, and grinning ferally, signalling simultaneously her horrible death and spiritual triumph in a way that struck most people as campy and funny but struck me as terrifying and brilliant. (Writer and editor Dan Savage was the director of Greek Active, and as good as he can be as a writer, in my estimation he is more gifted as a theater man; underlining one of George's points, Dan left the theater about the time he started signing book contracts -- that may not have been the reason he left, but that was the timing.)

ACD denigrates the sensual richness of theater and asks for aesthetic justification, but I would urge people to remember that the root of "aesthetic" is "sense perception" (hence an anaesthetic dulls feeling). Without sensuality, there is no perception.

Update: Further thoughts on the matter here.


The most famous is Eartha Kitt’s creepy little-girl-voiced “Santa Baby,” wherein she implores said Santa Baby to “hurry down my chimney tonight.” I know lots of people like Eartha Kitt, and this song in particular, but I don’t like little-girlish sexiness, call me a prude. It’s a clever song, and there’s nothing in the song that demands it be sung little-girlishly, but I’ve never heard anyone else do it.

Less famous is Ella Fitzgerald’s equally little-girlish, and more bizarre, “Santa Claus got stuck in my chimney.” Not a good song.

My favorite lascivious chimney is in the Leiber-Stoller “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” sung by Elvis on his first Christmas album in the late ‘50s. Elvis roars the last line, “Hang up your pretty stocking / Turn out the lights / Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight.” Elvis is pretty excited about it! Whoo!

I love lascivious singing -- maybe that’s my problem with little-girlish lasciviousness -- that’s not how I experience lasciviousness. I love the Big Bopper’s one, very lascivious, hit (“Oh baby that’s a-what I like!”), & I love Reg Presley of the Troggs dirty-young-man moaning on “Wild Thing” -- “Wild Thing, I think you move me, but I wanna know for sure, come on and hold me tight, you move me.” Dirty! He also trashed the Beach Boys’ golden hit “Good Vibrations,” making all those good vibrations and excitations sound dirty as hell, and underlining the obvious by inserting a word, “I, I love the colorful clothes she ALMOST wears.”

Lately there’s been some good lascivious women singing in Country Hit radio. This summer Gretchen Wilson sang, “I wear my jeans a little tight just to watch the little boys come undone” and “Gonna have a little fun, gonna get me some” with joyous carnality in Here For the Party. Also this summer I heard a woman on the Country Hit station singing about the pleasure of looking into “your” eyes and knowing that “you” want her no matter how much “you” try to be cool -- unfortunately I didn’t write down the singer’s name or recall enough of the words to be able to look the song up -- but it was another triumphantly carnal moment.

A lascivious sixth day of Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


I realized that not everybody would understand why I think Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is a comic song. It’s because of the verse, or introduction, the words of which:

The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I've never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it's December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.

On Phil Spector’s Christmas album, Darlene Love sing-speaks the introduction as an interlude in the middle of the song. Her version is all teen-age sass and inexplicably over-the-top -- really great. Except for the interlude, which is strangely and delightfully unconvincingly sweet.

James Wolcott has a very different take on the song: “An entire book has been written about the song ‘White Christmas’ itself, the Irving Berlin classic suffused with nostalgia and melancholy and thanatos. A heavy snowfall is a cold burial that hushes the countryside, and when the singers wish that all your Christmases be "merry and bright," there's nothing merry and bright about the music, which seems to have made its own peace with death.”

In other Christmas music news, last week my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey wrote me a note about hearing Christmas at a party the week before Christmas: “At a party Saturday heard Dean Martin's and Frank Sinatra's xmas albums back-to-back. Frank, as usual, is Mr. Detail -- Jingle Bells light and airy, White Xmas thick, warm snow-blanketed.”

Jay’s comment reminded me that I had wanted to expand on something I wrote a few weeks ago on how singing conveys emotion. Jay says it better than I would have -- how overall affect and tone can create the emotion as much as the verbal tonal nuance. Light and airy for one song, thick and warm-blanketed for another.


My spouse and I were discussing this topic after dinner tonight when two possibilities came to mind.

Most of the suicide bombers come from desperate economic circumstances. The ones who have the resources or the access to resources that would enable them to come to the United States and minimally blend in are probably very few.

Yeah, but it only takes a few, said my spouse.

Maybe bin Laden has no interest in the United States. He attacked us once in hopes that he would provoke us to do something horrible in response, which would rally Muslims to his side. What would the point be in attacking us again? It would only increase worldwide sympathy for us and rally people to our side. He has no interest in taking down our government, and he couldn't do it if he wanted to. He's much more interested in taking down Saudi Arabia, which he doesn't even call Saudi Arabia, because the name of the place is Arabia, and the Sauds are just the despotic fascists who run the place now.

Despicable man, bin Laden is, completely willing to kill a lot of people in order to further his cause.

I could be wrong -- maybe the terrorists will come again, but I'm not surprised that they haven't.


at the magnitude of suffering in south Asia.

Death is the place where no words come. Any time anybody dies, I think, words fail. The inconsolate. No consolation, no consoling.

And that's one person's death. Tens of thousands of people dying --

it's unimaginable, the breadth and depth of suffering.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Terry Teachout of About Last Night wrote a beautiful, poignant description of the Christmas blues, the melancholy that descends on so many people during the Season. Mr. Teachout embedded the description in a touching account of attending a friend’s wedding. In subsequent posts he reports that he ended up having a lovely Christmas, to which I can only say, mazel tov!


I start listening to Christmas music a few days after Thanksgiving, usually after the first Sunday of Advent. And I don’t stop until shortly after the New Year. Make the feeling last.

Some of what I’ve been listening to this month:

* A jazz Christmas compilation with Louis Armstrong on the cover. Six Satchmo numbers, Duke Ellington’s quirky & wonderful post-bop “Jingle Bells,” Lionel Hampton’s “original” version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” and a bunch of songs I usually skip. On five of his six numbers, Satchmo exudes and exuberates Christmas -- “Cool Yule,” the funny-scarey song to a possible prowler, “’Zat You, Santa Claus?,” the expansive “Christmas Night in Harlem,” “Christmas Time in New Orleans,” and the gorgeousest, tenderest “Winter Wonderland” ever. (The sixth Armstrong number is “White Christmas,” which Louis oversings, I’m guessing deliberately, grotesquifying the syrupy Gordon Jenkins strings and the white white white lyrics. I only listen to this one when I’m feeling sardonic toward Christmas.)

* The Duke Ellington - Billy Strayhorn arrangement of eight pieces from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” I can listen to this one every day of the season, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful melodies swung by the great masters of tone color.

* The Ventures’ Christmas Album. 11 Christmas perennials rocked by a premier guitar rock instrumental ensemble (plus one original I skip). A quasi-anthology of ‘60s pop rock guitar licks -- the Ventures introduce the tunes with riffs from recent hit songs. Their own “Walk, Don’t Run” introduces “Sleigh Ride”; the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” introduces one of the few non-insipid renditions of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” I know; licks from “Tequila” and Johnny Rivers’s cover of “Memphis” get worked in too. I can listen to this one every day of the season too. The only non-insipid version of “Frosty the Snowman” I’ve ever heard.

* Roland Kirk’s Coltrane-and-Miles-inspired take on “We Three Kings,” retitled “We Free Kings.” I posted on this a couple weeks ago, getting a few of the details wrong, but now I don’t remember which ones.

* Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Just gorgeous, though the album is sequenced all wrong. I listen to what used to be Side Two first, opening the album with the theme song that opens the show. I skip the bonus outtake of “Greensleeves,” and follow what used to be Side Two with what used to be Side One. With this modified order, the last two tunes become the climactic “Linus and Lucy” and the meditative reprise of the theme song, “Christmas Time Is Here,” bringing the album full circle beautifully. (I don’t remember if I made this discovery, or my friend Jay, or my friend Jeff Haas, back in college.) In any case, gorgeous music.

* A Doo-Wop Christmas anthology from Rhino. Lots of great stuff, including rare non-insipid versions of “Rudolph” and “White Christmas.” (Bing’s “White Christmas” isn’t insipid either, because, recording during World War 2, he’s singing in the voice of a soldier overseas, and his wistfulness goes deeper than all the conventional versions that followed him. Berlin wrote it as a comedy song, oddly enough, which Phil Spector understood.)

* The classic Christmas blues “Merry Christmas Baby.” A short history. The “classic” version is by Charles Brown, who, as far as I know, was the first to sing the great verse, “Merry Christmas Baby, you sure been good to me / I haven’t had a drink this morning, and I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” The earlier, shout-ier version by Lionel Hampton didn’t have this verse, but had instead a tacked-on traditional bluesy verse imploring Santa Claus to bring his baby back to him, which Jimmy Rushing had sung in a completely different Christmas blues, and which contradicts the song’s earlier verses, which thank his baby for being so good to him. In Chuck Berry’s fine, quiet, teen-oriented version, he thanks his baby for buying him a hi-fi, instead of the song’s traditional diamond ring; Chuck also omits the allusion to drinking, thinking of his youthful audience. Elvis’s version skips the third verse too, because it sounds like he’s just jamming with his buds and he hasn’t remembered that verse. It’s Elvis at his relaxed and rockin’ and self-assured Elvisest, with nice hot guitar from James Burton. James Brown’s pre-Brand-New-Bag version goes for the sophisticado suave vibe, changing Charles Brown’s “drink” to “a toddy.” Lots of other versions out there.

* Mannheim Steamroller -- my mom has given me two of their numerous Christmas albums, and I dig ‘em, a New Age rock instrumental group led by the guy who had earlier written the wonderful ‘70s Country novelty hit Convoy, believe it or not. I’ve tried to get into other Mannheim Steamroller albums, but the pomp only works for me at Christmastime. I was a teen-age Emerson, Lake & Palmer fan, and this is where ELP’s music went -- no lie -- only with the improvement of no lyrics (except occasional traditional Christmas lyrics) and no retrospectively unconvincing displays of virtuosity.

* A few anti-Christmas hits, because sometimes that’s where it’s at. The Sonics’ rockin’ ‘60s Chuck-Berry-on-speed “Don’t Believe in Christmas.” A bizarre and funny blues-soul monologue from the ‘60s, “Santa Claus Got Drunk,” with background singers harmonizing, “Oooh, Santa, Santa’s drunk again.”

* Another anti-Christmas song I think of but don’t listen to because it’s never been recorded: In December ‘98 my friend Jake London had a gig, and he invited John de Roo and me to play it with him. We brought in my friend and then bandmate, man-of-the-theater and ex-University of Michigan marching band and punk rock drummer Dan Tierney to play drums. We decided to do an all Christmas set -- Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” the Ventures’ cover of “Sleigh Ride,” Buck Owens’s “Blue Christmas Lights,” the Sonics’ “Don’t Believe in Christmas,” the Singing Dogs’ “Jingle Bells” (John D. sang treble dog, I sang bass dog), “Santa Claus Got Drunk,” and so on. At practice one day Jake started noodling the lick from “Paint It Black,” and John D. popped out with, “I see a reindeer and I want to paint it black / No Christmas any more I want it to turn black.” We made up words on the spot. John came up with most of it, most of which I don’t remember, but stuff like this, “I see that drummer boy, I kick him upside the head,” to which I suggested the rhyme line, “When Santa’s out I will take Mrs. Claus to bed.” And at the end, when John (who’s an excellent Jagger mimic) was doing the Jagger-esque freak-out, Jake and I sang “nyah nyah nyah” to the tune of “We Three Kings,” in harmony, which works on the same chords. Maybe someday we’ll record it.

There’s tons of other great Christmas music out there, and anti-Christmas music, and comedy Christmas stuff (though I never liked marijuana, I’m partial to Cheech & Chong’s surprisingly sentimental “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” which I listen to and laugh out loud at once a year).

My apologies if you’re partial to Rudolph and Frosty -- both sport interesting stories, but somehow for me the cheeriness of the music doesn’t do justice to the ominousness of the words. In Rudolph, it’s all about kids being mean to the weirdo, until the weirdo turns out to have a valuable skill. In Frosty there’s death and resurrection, but the way people tend to sing the jaunty tune just bugs me -- no numinousness, which the words have. Bah.

I’ll be enjoying Christmas music for a few more days. And our Christmas tree too, which we keep alive in a pot in our front yard -- it will be sad to take off the pretty lights again. And it’s great to have them up now.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Christmas Eve is a big deal to me. The rebirth after the long night. My spouse and I were both raised Christian; both of us lost our faith. But even though I no longer believe that faith in Jesus will win me a place in heaven, Christmas Eve feels expectant, with the darkness of the season and the lovely colors of the pretty lights. The rebirth of the sun, and the birth of a child -- every birth is sacred.

I’m going inside, inside the holiday, won’t be back for a while. Here’s hoping for the joys of the darkness and the light of the season.


My work trip last week took me to New Orleans. Party, right? Sure, yeah, but. On past work trips, my spouse had been able to take the now almost-2-year to visit her sister’s family, but a trip so close to the holiday was impossible for her. Aggravating the irritation was that my trip was a training on something I’ve been doing for 2 years -- five days to get officially certified on something I already know. But -- it was to New Orleans, and that means music.

Since Sunday is a child care day for me as my spouse works, I decided to fly red-eye Sunday night and taxi straight to the Monday morning meeting. Which was fine, but it meant I was trashed both Monday and Tuesday and didn’t get out to hear anything until Wednesday night. And Wednesday when I picked up a weekly entertainment guide I was chagrined to learn that I missed a favorite New Orleans group, the wonderful Rebirth Brass Band. I was tired Tuesday night, but had I known, I’d’ve been there.

Wednesday night I went to Preservation Hall. My spouse and I had been there 5 years before, in the week or so before Christmas of 1999. A wonderful venue for music. Tiny room, no drinks, no smoking, no food, no rest rooms, barely any chairs, just some uncomfortable benches and room to stand. And best of all, no P. A. Just the sounds of the instruments, the glorious sounds of the instruments.

The band I saw in 1999 played a swing-New Orleans hybrid style popularized in the 1950s by Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars. The hybrid style features 1920s New Orleans-style polyphony in the ensemble playing and smooth 4/4 late ‘30s swing-style drumming and bass playing. The rhythm section I saw in ‘99 was top notch -- the whole band was. The players I most remember from that night were trumpeter-singer-leader Wendell Brunious and banjoist-singer Narvin Kimball -- I probably remember them because they were the singers. Brunious sang with such sweetness and wryness and light swing, and so quietly -- and with no P.A., the band just had to play quietly when he sang. Mr. Kimball was 90 the night I saw him, and he boomed his songs in a huge belting voice with a wide vibrato. Both great singers. Clarinetist David Griller played a gorgeous rendition of the haunting tango-esque Petite Fleur that night too -- a traditional New Orleans clarinet feature. (I remember his name only because I bought a CD that night that he and Brunious and Mr. Kimball were on.) Brunious was a gracious bandleader, acknowledging his bandmates’ solos with genuine warmth, and always referring to the 90 year old Mr. Kimball as “Mr. Kimball.”

When Preservation Hall started in 1961, it was a venue for traditional New Orleans players who had played the New Orleans style when it was in the mainstream of jazz. Narvin Kimball was the last of the line -- he’s still alive at 95 but has suffered a debilitating stroke and no longer plays. The institution’s first recording, Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band from 1964, is a raucous affair, wild, loud, propulsive 2-beat style drumming, with liberal use of cowbell and woodblock -- just stomping, like some of the early, less famous rockabilly guys from the ‘50s. Full tilt music. The 1999 band was smooth and demure by comparison, but still terrific.

The band I saw a week ago Wednesday was completely different. Younger players, and wilder than the ‘99 band, and no banjo. And hot, hot, hot. Drummer Shannon Powell is one of the best drummers I’ve seen in my life -- energetic, witty, imaginative, lively, supremely musical and melodic. And, he plays in a post-bop, post-free-jazz version of the original 2-beat New Orleans style, including some use of the woodblock. Trombonist Lucien Barbarin is apparently from the same school as Powell -- post-bop in influence, and still smack in the heart of the traditional style. Plus, the greatest master of the trombone’s tone colors that I’ve ever seen live -- growling, sputtering, soaring smoothly -- whatever is fitting the musical conception of the moment, Barbarin is right there.

Trumpeter-singer William Smith led the band with the same warmth and collegiality that Wendell Brunious had led his band and sang with great verve and passion. Clarinetist Michael Powell showed some post-bop influence in his playing; bassist Dewey Sampson and pianist Marie Watanabi played their roles with energy and fineness.

Powell and Barbarin backed Smith up in the singing, with harmonies and response vocals and vocal riffs and jokes. They walked a razor-fine line on the edge of comedy and horror as they commiserated exaggeratedly with Smith’s narrator who’s lost his woman to the morgue in “St. James Infirmary.” Hair-raising stuff -- funny and tragic, goosebumps and duende, an utterly transfixing lack of decorum in the musical, comedic, dramatic brilliance. Same with the Fats Waller classic, “Black and Blue”; originally a lament of a dark-skinned black man who’s been spurned by a light-skinned black woman, Louis Armstrong made it the lament of a black man who doesn’t get an even break in the white world. Smith, who’s dark-skinned, brilliantly modified the line “I’m white inside” to “I’m bright inside.” Powell and Barbarin, who are light-skinned, again sang the razor-edge line of comedy and drama, either commiserating with Smith (they’re all black) or mocking him (his skin’s darker) or both. I can’t imagine ever hearing better versions of either song -- both great American classics.

I wanted to hear “Petite Fleur” but unfortunately I didn’t remember the name and requested “Clarinet Marmalade” by mistake, a classic by the maligned but excellent Original Dixieland Jass Band. ODJB gets bad press because, as a white band, they beat the black New Orleans bands into the studio by 4 or 5 years and grabbed an unfair share of the glory and loot. Black New Orleans musicians seem to have let bygones be bygones, these 85-plus years later -- Sweet Emma herself recorded “Clarinet Marmalade,” and the band I saw last week raised their eyebrows at the obscurity of the request, but they remembered it and wailed it. It’s a hot and interesting tune with structural holdovers from Sousa-style marching music -- the interlude riff could be a Sousa riff, jazzed.

I stayed for a few hours and had a wonderful time.

Had such a good time that I went back the next night, last Thursday the 16th. The band I heard that night was different again, and not nearly as good. Gone was the comradery, gone was the comedy, and on the whole the players weren’t as accomplished or inspired. Another excellent drummer, also in the 1920s 2-beat style, with even greater use of woodblock and cowbell. A terrific clarinetist-soprano saxophonist who played in the wide-vibrato traditional New Orleans style. Bass, piano, and trombone were fine, but the trumpeter was shockingly mediocre -- unswinging, unswift, unsure. That night I succeeded in requesting “Petite Fleur,” and it was gorgeous. I didn’t write down the players’ names that night.

Every night you go, it’s called the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but the name of the band isn’t a band name, it’s the name of the company. Which is too bad -- I’d go to hear William Smith’s band once a month, easy, if I knew what night he played (if I lived in New Orleans). In the 3 nights I’ve gone, I’ve seen 19 different musicians -- a few were brilliant and unforgettable, and all the rest but one were splendid; only one was mediocre. It really is a great place to hear music -- it’s only about the music, the sounds the instruments and voices make, unfiltered by electricty. It’s a tourist attraction, and my co-listeners gave obligatory ovations even to the mediocre trumpeter’s solos. But remember: The original tourist attractions were holy sites for pilgrimages. This is one.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


So asks Joshua Clover, pseudonymously guest posting over a series of days at Sasha Frere-Jones’s place, and laying out his question more clearly in an email to Carl Wilson of Zoilus.

My initial grumpy reaction said that no matter how badly misogynist the hip hop lyrics can be -- and that’s very -- the misogyny of white rock and mainstream culture in general gets a free pass when there’s a scapegoat of color to focus on. This is the truth, but it does not excuse misogyny in hip hop.

After my anger about white culture’s “get out of misogyny free” card gets back in the cage, two possible answers to Mr. Clover’s question come to mind.

1. Violence against women signifies power, and power attracts people. Something deep in us respects the aggressor. The aggressor gonna go out and fight for his meat. Respecting the aggressor is the way of capitalism. It also probably helped George Bush win the election. Over and over from the wrongwingers, I heard or read that the American people “understand” that George Bush “gets” the War On Terror and the Democrats don’t. Given the givens of the Iraq War, according to this hypothesis, “getting” the war on terror means blowing up Arabs, any Arabs, no matter their inability and lack of interest in harming the United States. In the pop culture of hip hop and rock and roll, the dictum to respect the aggressor gives rappers the Bad Boy cred that rockist pundits (such as those at “Rolling Stone”) see as necessary for the continuation of The Rock. Loving the Bad Boy is an aspect of Respecting the Aggressor, and Rock Loves the Bad Boy.

2. In musical terms, the musical emotional rhetoric of the hard beats of some hip hop lends itself easily to an angry verbal emotional rhetoric. Same is true of punk and metal. If you’re looking for a vehicle for anger in our culture, misogyny is a widely accepted one. This is not to say that hard beats lend themselves only to anger, or that misogyny is the only vehicle of anger, just that according to our nurture they’re a natural fit.

Hard beats and anger. I read several months ago that metal is the most popular pre-combat music among American soldiers in Iraq. Made sense to me.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004


The oppressiveness of it all, the heaviness, the pressures of jollity and bounty, and crowds, and family; the wholly holy unholy alliance of commercialism and a variety of Christianity; the deep melancholy dug deep under its skin, in its bones; the darkness of the season.

Dig: the most famous, most beloved Christmas movie is about a suicide attempt. George Bailey sees his life and name and reputation going down the drain and he shouts and frightens his children and is cruel to his wife and he throws himself off a bridge into a freezing river hoping to put an end to all that.

I’ve heard the term “Capra-corn” to denigrate the happy resolutions of Frank Capra’s films, but check it out: “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t his only Christmas suicide film. “Meet John Doe” is another.

And in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” Shirley MacLaine’s character tries to off herself on Christmas.

Turning the heat down from suicide attempts to mere depression:

“A Charlie Brown’s Christmas” -- kids being mean to each other, and the whole thing suffused with melancholy, and Charlie Brown’s depression, and a theme song of children singing utterly sadly, “Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer.”

Wartime Christmas songs (World War 2), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (“if only in my dreams”); and even “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Judy Garland’s tremulousness-near-tears, singing “some day soon we all will be together / if the Fates allow / until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” And: “Some day all our troubles will be out of sight.” But for now they’re very much IN sight. Post-war versions bowdlerized the song, cheapened it, faked it. “From now on our troubles will be out of sight.” Well, ahem, that sounds like repression. And: “Through the years we all will be together / if the Fates allow / Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” I can’t listen to the bowdlerized versions.

Yes, Christmas is a heavy and terrible spirit.

Like many holidays, there’s a huge cultural energy going into promoting an idealized norm. Valentine’s Day, it’s couplehood & sexy love. Thanksgiving Day, it’s feasting with Loved Ones. Christmas, it’s gift-giving within a solvent (Christian) family. If your life doesn’t match these norms, it can be a drag, especially if you’re not content with being off the beaten path. All these insipid, ceaseless, annoying, loud, repeated, repeated reminders.

All the secular Christmas stories revolve around generosity and gratitude. Generosity and gratitude. The Dragnet episode where an alky denizen of a men’s hotel gets taken in and questioned because someone stole the Baby Jesus from the Parish Creche, and the street guy was seen leaving the service with a bundle wrapped under his arm. Turns out, he had a packet of clothes he was taking to the cleaner, because he wanted to look his best for the hotel’s Christmas caroling that night. The Dragnet cop tells the priest, “I’m sorry, Father, the guy’s story checks out. We don’t have any leads on who stole the Baby Jesus.” Just then a sweetly smiling 4 or 5 year old Mexican boy walks up the church aisle pulling a bright red wagon, and in the wagon is the Baby Jesus. He speaks Spanish to the (Anglo) priest, who explains, the Firemen’s association gave red wagons to the poor kids in the neighborhood, and this boy took Baby Jesus home to thank Him, and now he’s bringing Him back.

I can’t think about this story without the tears coming.

Merry Deep Dark Winter Holiday.

Monday, December 20, 2004


Last night the almost 2-year-old didn’t finish his dinner, which, in our standard incentive system, not only meant no dessert, but more crucially, no more juice for the night. More water, fine, but no more juice. Putting on his pajamas, he got desperate. He bargained.

“Little juice?” he implored.

“No, I’m sorry sweetheart, you didn’t finish your dinner.”

“Tiny juice?” he begged.

That broke my defenses, and I smiled. Inducing a smile earns a reward.

“OK, you can have tiny juice,” I said.

All the way to the kitchen he shook his head and said, “No big juice? No big juice?” After he sucked down his tiny juice with beautiful contented concentration, he said, “More juice?” but to no avail.


Carl Wilson of Zoilus was feeling grumpy toward Chuck Klosterman yesterday too. Carl’s example chastens my overripe generalization about what’s wrong with rockcrit, which I should have qualified somehow -- maybe, what’s wrong with *rockist* rockcrit, an anti-critic critical term which Carl wrote nicely about a little more than a month ago, “Rolling Stone” magazine indeed being the all-time rockist champ, rockism’s convention center of conventional wisdom, the bright yellow stripe in the middle of the smooth rockist road, and thank goodness for traffic lanes so we all know our place. (The mag does do some good political reporting.)

In fairness to Klosterman’s book, I should note that it did make me want to check out Guns ‘N Roses, a band I don’t consciously know at all, though I’m guessing I’ve heard them in passing. (Where was I in the late ‘80s? Oh yeah, I remember -- doing theater, reading books, playing guitar, singing Alberta Hunter songs at the top of my lungs by Lake Michigan’s deserted winter shore, scraping by.)

Sunday, December 19, 2004


I finally had a chance to read J-Lo's lengthy comment from last week on my brief report from the middle of reading Chuck Klosterman's account of growing up in the '80s a heavy metal fan on a farm in North Dakota (which he wanted to call "Appetite for Deconstruction," and got talked into the much wittier, catchier, more accurate "Fargo Rock City"). I saw J-Lo's comment last Sunday and skimmed a couple paragraphs, but that day was very busy getting ready for a trip (non-drug, I should add, given J-Lo's extended drug analogy), and on the trip I had very limited web access. Got back Friday night with a bad cold and did very little webbing yesterday as I rested and slept. Feeling mostly better today.

Finished Klosterman's book a few days ago in the hotel room (work-related trip, spouse and child left behind, to everybody's chagrin). And I had all sorts of comments, but so much has happened in the meantime that it's an effort to recall. Which is an indication of the book's impact. Enjoyed reading it -- Klosterman's witty and ingratiating, and I laughed out loud at one joke (which I don't remember). Sad to bid the book adieu when it was done, as is often the case -- I can never read it fresh again. But a couple days later I was annoyed by Klosterman's memory.

It's a teen music fanbook written 8 or 9 years after the fact, by a pro music critic in his late 20s. And the book's key line (I'm not going to look up the exact wording) is that as for 99% of people, music doesn't mean as much to Klosterman now as it did when he was a teenager. And I must fall into that 1%, and that's what I'm looking for when I read about music -- a passionate feeling for music. Passion does not equate with naivety, though in theory I have no problem with naive passion.

Klosterman's attitude is perfect for a daily newspaper critic. Most people do indeed have a casual relationship with music. Nothing wrong with that. But most people who buy music books (even second hand for a few bucks, in this case) have a more intense relationship with the stuff.

I was continually reminded of Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, one of the first rock histories, and one of the first I read (as a teenager myself -- my pal John de Roo turned me onto it, as he did so much other music and ancillaries), and still one of my faves. Cohn shares Klosterman's topic, except it's about '50s and '60s Top 40 rock, not '80s Top 40 metal. They both refer to the stuff as flashy and trashy. But Cohn still loves it. He's unconflicted. Part of the difference is that he was 22 when he wrote it, not 28, and those six years put a large gap between one and teenagerdom. But part is that Cohn is more into the music-as-music.

When Klosterman says that without the glam makeup big hair ROCK personae at play in metal it would have been just as boring as real life, I think, THIS is the problem with rock criticism. Rockcrit is proud of its musical ignorance -- which in this case is exponentially compounded by musical indifference. Klosterman has passages where he evinces sincere enthusiasm for certain songs and groups (Guns 'N Roses chiefly), and he knows a catchy chorus when he hears one. But he lacks faith in the inherent worth of the catchy chorus, and he lacks faith in the inherent worth of the rockin' beat. Or, rather, sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't. Aaarrgghh. In high school I was a Beatles-Dylan-lovin' punk-jazz-folk-classical music snob, liked AC/DC & Zep (one of my bands covered "Highway to Hell"); disdained the metal persona, but couldn't deny the ROCK as ROCK, couldn't deny the rockin' beats, rippin' riffs & catchy choruses. Klosterman may have been a metalhead, and he may be slick writer, but he just doesn't get it. Or, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he's more interested in persona studies than music. In which case he should be a fashion critic. And if he thinks I'm kidding, he's got another think coming. Not that there's anything wrong with fashion criticism. And -- persona studies have their place in music writing -- they can be darned interesting -- I've been blogging some of them myself, Sandburg's influence on Woody Guthrie's persona, for instance, a few weeks ago -- but if it's a music book, I want some insight into the music-as-music. Klosterman isn't completely deaf to music's charms (obviously), but he's ambivalent.

Nik Cohn said something brilliant that's always stuck with me -- writing a great pop song is a knack. A lot of metal guys had it. Klosterman knows this, but backs away from it, doesn't embrace it, seems embarrassed by it.

One of the book's jacket blurbs says it all. Some book critic says (and I'm not looking up the exact words, sorry), "What fun! Great read! And the best part is, it doesn't make me want to go out and buy a bunch of music! Bonus!" Should have been a warning.

By the way, I've confirmed that commenter J-Lo is not Jennifer Lopez, but a dear friend of mine who shares her initials. Thanks for writing, commenters -- keep those cards and letters coming!

Sunday, December 12, 2004


Every Christmas we have a dessert reading party, and it’s become one of the highlights of my calendar. It started in Christmas ‘98 when my then-girlfriend-now-spouse was traveling in Africa, and a good friend of mine was house-sitting for her. At my instigation we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which takes place at Christmas. I’d read it a few times (in translation) and loved it. The party was a success -- something happens in the combination of rich food, alcohol, good friends, and spoken literature, everybody taking a turn with the poem as we pass it around the room. The poem itself is a feast, and takes a few hours to read aloud, and it is worth it worth it worth it.

Last year we read Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” and we were stuck on what to read this year. Someone suggested Chaucer, and, not having read any of his stuff since high school (and consciously remembering only the fart jokes in the Miller’s Tale), I did a web search for summaries to choose what to read, settling on The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and, if we had time and people were up for it, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which as it turns out I’d read in high school, having remembered only the ending, not the title or author.

We started cooking Thursday night for the Saturday night party, ending up with fudge, chocolate cake, chocolate-cappuccino cookies, lemon squares, and squash pie, with crackers, bread, cheese, and homemade olive paste for savory snacks. And wine, beer, store-bought eggnog, warm spiced cider, and whiskey to drink. Everything turned out either fine (the stuff I cooked) or wonderful (the stuff my spouse cooked). People started arriving at 7:30, and shortly after 9 we started reading. 16 or 17 people came.

Chaucer is hilarious. I won’t summarize here, except to say that he’s rich in daily-life detail in a way that I’ve come to adore in late Medieval painting and literature. Less idealized than what came after, without disdaining humans for our foibles and weaknesses.

We read the Bantam Classic facing page translation, and a few times people read the Middle English for a paragraph or two, which was sweet-sounding and pretty-much-followable. Luckily, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is pretty short, so we decided to plow on through the Wife of Bath’s Tale too, which was longer, finishing up around 11:15 or 11:30, and hanging out talking past midnight.

Alcohol, rich food, and reading out loud. With a great piece of literature, I recommend it highly.


Away at a training for work this week, might not be blogging much. Happy trails.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Reading Chuck Klosterman’s “Fargo Rock City,” his 2001 memoir of growing up heavy metal in the ‘80s on a North Dakota farm. Ingratiatingly written, witty, self-critical, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. This sentence troubled me: “Talking about the music [of Lita Ford] was more exciting than hearing it (which is still the way I feel about most rock ‘n’ roll).”

There’s a disconnect -- the music is exciting for Klosterman to talk about because of the effect it has on people, and the effect it *had* on him when he was a teen-ager. Apparently it rarely has that effect on him any more. And that’s sad.

Tell you one thing -- it ain’t music’s fault that music critics don’t find it exciting to hear. Sure, there’s a lot of un-exciting stuff coming out all the time, but that has always been the case, right?

UPDATE: I've finished reading the book, and post more here.

Friday, December 10, 2004


My beloved spouse was at a reading Wednesday night, and while dinner was cooking Nat and I got on the floor with some white butcher paper and crayons.  Nat has a two-handed drawing technique that’s great to watch.  He asked me to draw a “Nat-bird,” so I drew a bird with a smiling boy’s face.  I started to draw a crescent moon and he asked me to draw his mom, so I added a smiling woman waving, sitting on the tip of the crescent.  Nat said, “Nat-bird fly moon?”  Then he took his crayons and did his “abstract expressionist” thing all over my drawings, nearly obliterating them, making them beautiful.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


A few months ago I posted something about liking seasonal music. Now it’s Christmastime, and the Christmas music is out and about and all around.

I never hear it on the radio, so I’m glad to have it on CD -- Roland Kirk’s arrangement of “We Three Kings,” retitled “We Free Kings,” from the early ‘60s.

Kirk’s version starts with a propulsive 6/8 bass riff over a hopped-up version of Elvin-esque drums, immediately confirming Kirk’s unheralded status as a great bandleader. Throughout his career he had an almost matchless gift for propelling otherwise unsung players into fire-sparking hard-swinging ensembles.

Once the amped-up Coltrane-ish groove is established, Kirk comes in on 2 or 3 reeds playing a Miles-ian, Kind-of-Blue-ish riff. After a brief pause, Kirk on flute plays the main melody. For the “star of wonder, star of light” bridge, Kirk switches to his soprano-sax-like horn. (Kirk played obscure members of the saxophone family, often 2 or 3 at once, and I can never remember whether Kirk’s stritch is soprano-like and his manzello alto-like, or vice versa.) He solos on both flute and his soprano-ish sax with his terrific verve and invention. Some piano solo, back to the Miles-ian sax riff, and out.

A wonderful record: High energy all the way, a tremendous jolt, a shot of that old-time awesome religion. I’m never one to scorn merriment, and this is even further out there on the scale of joy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


After posting on the “Concert for George” last night, this morning I coincidentally got an email from an old friend and former bandmate, who saw the show on a Bay Area PBS station last night, saying how moved he was by it. And I realized -- my post left all of that (!) out. And it’s true, the show really is moving, it’s all about the love of these musicians (Ringo and Paul and Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne and the rest) for George and his music. And it really is nice to hear other voices sing some of those songs -- having only heard George sing them before, a different version can show off their beauty. (Though I missed George’s touch on his signature guitar licks and riffs.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I caught most of the “Concert for George” on PBS the other night. While I enjoyed most of it, I was really struck by the blandness of Sir Paul’s performance. It tickled something I’m having a hard time articulating. Before discussing what it was that nudged me in McCartney’s singing, I wanted to get a few items about the rest of the show out of the way.

Item. Jeff Lynne, with his long frizzy brown hair, big hat, big sunglass, and big brown hair, looks like a muppet. Terrific musician who’s worked with everybody -- did he produce Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem?

Item. Ringo rocks. The only one onstage (besides Michael Palin) who’s an *entertainer* -- comes on waving and smiling, wearing a beautiful flamboyant bright red embroidered jacket. Gave a halting, moving eulogy to George too. And sang the heck out of “Photograph,” the hit he wrote with George, and did a fine rendition of Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t,” dancing while he’s singing, putting on a show. I’ve always loved his singing.

Item. Dhani Harrison looks just like his dad, down to the 1965 haircut. (Gosh, three of these items are about how the dudes looked. Must be on my mind. I saw some hot posters of Orlando Bloom at my son’s barber’s shop today -- maybe that explains it.)

Item. I have no idea how they got 3 drummers, a few more percussionists, 8 or 9 guitarists, and several keyboardists to sound good together.

Item. George’s songs suit Eric Clapton’s voice. Or vice versa.

Item. Lots of unusual, pretty melodies. Distinctive.

Item. Not sure about a lot of those words though.

OK. Now I’m not a McCartney basher. I have his 2-CD comp, “Wingspan,” and I love it. A few of his songs are among my fave fave favorites ever. Wonderful bassist, gifted guitarist, gifted and sometimes brilliant singer, and a fount of melody. Uneven but sometimes wonderful lyricist. The standard opinion, more or less.

Paul came on and made a nice speech about how George loved ukuleles and was always playing them in the last several years of his life. Paul said the last time he saw George, shortly before he died, he asked whether he could play George a song on the uke. And then he played it for us -- George’s big Beatle hit “Something.” A lovely arrangement. And a disengaged vocal. Like he wasn’t really paying attention to the words. Nailed the melody, of course.

Emotion works in music and language mysteriously. In speech, a lot of it has to do with tone of voice. We feel this, we know this, and we find it hard to discuss. Singing conveys emotion, with or without words. Words convey emotion, whether sung, spoken, or read silently. Singing and speaking are related, complicatedly.

In college I took two semesters of Music Composition For Non-Music Majors from the highly regarded composer and rippin’ ragtime pianist William Bolcom. One of the only things I remember from the classes: An assignment had us set a poem of our choice to music. We gathered musicians together to perform our pieces in class. One student set an Eliot poem, part of “The Wasteland,” if memory serves. After the first run-through, Bolcom asked the singer to recite the poem aloud without thinking about the music. The ensemble repeated the piece, and this time the singer keyed into the emotions and meanings of the words more effectively.

(Digression: I saw the U.S. premiere of Bolcom’s magnum opus, in 1984, his setting of Blakes “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Some of it made my hair stand up, and I’d like to hear it again some day. I also saw him play ragtime and blues piano in a basement bar one night. One of the most amazing sets I’ve seen in my life, brilliant, virtuosic, deeply moving.)

To bring this back to Macca, I really don’t think Sir Paul was keyed into George’s words when he sang “Something.” His delivery lacked the nuanced variety of tone color, phrasing, and pitch shape that conveys emotion in speech and singing. Difficult to pin down the nuances. Paul’s singing can deliver the subtle nuanced goods. When and why and how sometimes and not others? Who knows?

If you’re a George fan, the posthumous concert for him is worth renting.


ACD responds, or rather fails to respond (in comments), to my invitation to demonstrate the truth of his allegedly demonstrable fact that classical music is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all other music. As I expected, instead of accepting the invitation he merely criticized me for a minor, debatable point in my post.

I will take his declination of my invitation as a tacit admission that his original contention is indeed absurd.

Acchhh, who cares. ACD’s just a blogging guy. He loves classical music. He loves what the classical Thang does to the musical styles and techniques of other traditions, when composers borrow from jazz or folk or popular musics. That the borrowings are better than the original sources -- or at least some time theoretically potentially better -- is a fundamentalist religious conviction that ACD holds with much passion and announces with little reason. Freedom of religion, dude, this is still America. Rock on with your bad self*.

*Note to readers unlettered in vernacular Americanisms: that last line is a complimentary quote from a popular song from the 1970s; it celebrates individuality and eccentricity; in the context of the original song, it is a Blakean admission of the necessity of strife and contrariness, and the compatability of loving solidarity and contention -- after pleading with the beloved not to "rock the boat" of their relationship, the singer flips positions and says "rock the boat, rock on with your bad self" in a celebratory mood.

Monday, December 06, 2004


To all of the November Solo Album participants who finished their records. Douglas Wolk has a partial list here. In addition to Douglas’s list, Cash Nexus tells me that K. Thor Jensen and Michael Murphy finished theirs, and that “Lalitree writes on her blog ‘I figure if the way people generally do NaNoWriMo is to write profusely and then spend the next month polishing, then I can do the same thing.’"

Cash Nexus has a list of all the participants (not just the finishers) here, as well as his highly readable journal of the making of his album (of which I’ve heard and enjoyed two tracks).

I’m sharing Lalitree’s strategy, hoping to finish mine in January. To everybody who’s pleased to be finished or even to have tried:



Lots of guitar pickers can play Chuck Berry or George Harrison licks, but I’ve never heard anybody really sound like Chuck or George. So many subtle things go into sound – pick placement, pick velocity, finger touch, string-dampening strategies.  And for most players, I’d bet most of it is semi-consciously arrived at, just a part of our bodies and our bodies’ love for music.  


Kyle Gann, though he doesn't appear judgmental about people acting differently, believes in using his critical soapbox to promote classical music and nothing but -- specifically in his case what he calls "PostClassic," contemporary classical music.  AC Douglas agrees that classical critics should use their space to promote classical and nothing but, except in ACD's case he wants it limited to pre-PostClassic classical, since he loathes the stuff Kyle discusses.  Alex Ross and Helen Radice think classical critics should follow their muse. I admire Kyle and ACD’s singleness of focus, and I share Alex and Helen’s hope that the pop criticism of classical critics may attract new readers and listeners to classical.

While I'm sympathetic to other parts of his argument (though not his dismissal of contemporary classical), this contention of ACD’s is nonsensical: that classical is “music's very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music's other instantiations.”  ACD defensively continues: “That's not a classical music fanatic's wild-eyed rant, nor is it the rant of a cultural snob. It's a demonstrable, objective fact. “

I honor ACD’s love for the music he loves. I invite him to try to demonstrate the truth of his so-called demonstrable fact.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


A splendid time was had by all at the Friday night show. Many people played, almost all well and enjoyably. My own two-song stint went off swell.


* Carla Torgerson singing a quiet song and transforming a noisy bar into a quiet and attentive bar through the power of her stage presence and the loveliness of her voice. Transfixing.

* Christy McWilson’s two song set, backed up by members of her old band the Picketts, John Olufs on lead (acoustic) guitar and Blackie Sleep on snare drum, both of them singing harmonies. A new rockabilly belting number (Christy is an ace belter) with the refrain, “He never was a family man.” Followed by a cover of the Beatles’ “Think For Yourself,” complete with vocal harmonies and lead guitar licks, and all the energy and passion of a rockin’ live performance. Christy told me afterwards that she has a new album completed, produced by Kurt Bloch of the Young Fresh Fellows and the late lamented Fastbacks, but she has no distribution and no time to promote it.

* Rusty Willoughby playing a beautiful song mostly on one string of the guitar, mostly one note accompanying a hushed melody, guitar part beautifully broken up with occasional diaphonous chords.

* Joe the bartender butchering Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” complete with chord changes, to rowdy comic effect.

* A hot-picking rockabilly guitar arrangement of a New Order song, by Grant Johnson.

* Thick dissonant strummy pretty guitar chords with a nice vocal melody in a song by Eric Roper.

* Hosts Jake London and John Ramberg joining Jon Hyde near the end of a high-energy galloping cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” to surprise him with unexpected harmony singing on the choruses.

* Good songs by John Ramberg and Jake in their own sets; pretty guitar picking by Kurt Bloch in his.

* Music critic Peter Blackstock singing the old ‘70s hit “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” written by one-hit wonder Danny O’Keefe. While Peter was playing, Carla Torgerson said to me, “I wish we all could have one hit. Not just Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Redistribute things a little.” She was smiling and I laughed and told her how I tell my wife about “when I write my hit song,” and she doesn’t believe me. I’m all in favor of music critics playing, as these critics do. While it’s not a requirement, cursory knowledge of how a thing is done, and how it feels to do it, is good for a critic.

I played two of my new songs. Friday morning I woke up and got the idea to cover a Christy McWilson song, since I’m a fan and she was playing on the bill too. While feeding breakfast to the toddling dude before work I figured out the chords to “Night Fell” from the Picketts’ terrific album “Euphonium,” and I memorized what words hadn’t already soaked in by osmosis. I didn’t know whether I’d be playing one song or two or three. As it turned out, everybody got two songs allotted, and by the time I got on it was late, Christy had left, and I was following the rowdy versions of “Mandy” and “Surrender.” So I took the stage with an a cappella shout of my recently written Post-Election (Anti-)Unity March with words by anonymous internetters. People laughed and hooted at the punch line, “Let’s all get together, let bitterness pass / I’ll hug your elephant, you kiss my ass.” Then, having gotten everybody’s attention, I played a new quiet medium-tempo ballad, “Ms. Dish and Mr. Spoon.” And people seemed to like it, judging from the vibe and people’s comments afterwards. It’s a gratifying feeling, meeting the contingencies of the moment and connecting with people.

Friday, December 03, 2004

all we need is music, sweet music, there'll be music everywhere

If you’re in Seattle Friday night (tonight, Dec. 3), I’m playing one or two or three songs at a benefit for a downtown homeless program. At the Sunset Tavern, music starts at 8:00. Seven bucks. Early comers get free barbecue cooked by my friends Jake London and Scott Balikian. (Veggie option too.) Here’s the line-up, lots of people I’m delighted to be billed with (the ones I know, anyway):

“Hosted by Jake London & John Ramberg guests include: Larry Barrett, Mia Boyle, Robb Benson, Peter Blackstock , Kurt Bloch, Earl Brooks , Christy McWilson, Nancy K. Dillon, Jeff Fielder, Rick Friel, Michael Hill, Mark Hoyt, Joe Howe, Billy Joe Huels, Jon Hyde, Grant Johnson ,Ben London, Darren Loucas , Rick Miller, Erik Roper ,Johnny Sangster , John Shaw ,Matthew Southworth, Fred Speakman, Britt Speakman, Scott Sutherland, Jeff Taylor, Carla Torgerson, Rusty Willoughby and more!”

Jake, John Ramberg, and Carla Torgerson will be on KEXP at 11:00 AM on Friday -- you can listen here. (Yes, I know it’s Friday now as I write, but I’m up too late, I’m in denial, it’s still Thursday night for me.)

The Sunset is on 5433 Ballard Avenue.

Now, what to play, what to play? I’ll figure it out . . .


One of the winter songs associated with Christmas that I love. Played as a Christmas song, but Christmas isn’t mentioned in it. (Lots of songs in that category, most of them having to do with sleighs.)

It’s the last 8 bars that get me. “Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream by the fire, to face unafraid the plans that we made, walking in a winter wonderland.” The beautiful self-contradicting true detail in that one word, “unafraid.” Why mention it unless fear is a possibility, indeed, inherent in the prospect of getting married? Who can know how forever will play out? Heck yeah, I had my moments of fear. It’s a big deal!

Tenderest reading of it I’ve heard is by the one and only Louis Armstrong.


This week is the 5th anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests. Which were a blast and a half. Hearing a blurb about it on the local non-NPR public affairs radio station Tuesday night, it struck me that the protests could have helped elect George Bush in 2000. Without the protests, Nader might not have attracted as many votes, because his anti-globalist, “anti-corporatist” rhetoric may not have had nearly as large and welcoming an audience without the publicity the protests brought to the issue. And without Nader’s successful attempt to attract dissatisfied lefty voters who might otherwise have voted for Gore, the Florida vote wouldn’t have been close enough for the technological failure and anti-democratic partisan cheating to come together to steal it for Bush. If Fate enjoys irony, she is laughing now, no?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Shortly after the election, a lot us -- me included -- were storming around sick and appalled with sardonic defeatist phrases like this on our lips: "Fine, Red Staters, it's your deficit now, it's your war now."

Yesterday near the end of a long meeting at work I pulled apart my cardboard coffee cup heat-guard and twisted it to make a Moebius strip. And this is corny, but it struck me as a possible metaphor for our political predicament.

The Blues and the Reds have been in a mean-mouthed feedback loop. A simple twist of the loop and we're all on the same side. And this is true. The majority of the Red Staters don't want to bankrupt the country. The majority of them don't want to attack countries that pose no threat to us. As the Blue leaders have been saying for years, we win on the issues, because the majority agrees with us.

It's time to give the feedback loop a twist. The sad truth is, the primary responsibility for the deficit and America's plummeting international reputation DOES belong to the Red Staters. We need to find ways to persuade them to lean on their elected officials to represent their interests and beliefs. Kansas farmers don't want a bankrupt government any more than I do.

How we do that, I'm not sure. But let's see if we can make this "we win on the issues" lament work for us. Let's test it. Let's see if it's true.

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