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

Monday, February 28, 2005


Unlikely allies, and yet, there it is, this beautiful love poem addressed by Coleridge to his friend Charles Lamb, who was then visiting Coleridge in the country. Lamb and the others were on a walk, which an injury prevented Coleridge from partaking in, and so Coleridge imagined the walk he so wanted to be taking, all throughout so pleased that gentle-hearted Charles was able to be there, in Nature, after having “pined / And hunger’d after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent.” The poem closes with the gorgeous line, still addressed to Charles, to whom:

“No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.”

Sunday, February 27, 2005


Just got back from taking the 2-year-old to his first classical concert, a friend’s senior violin recital down at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. The 2-year-old sat rapt and silent throughout it, though we did skip a Schumann sonata (which our friend didn’t play) for a diaper change. I kept on checking in with him between pieces.

“Do you like the music?”

“Yes,” he said, in a low quiet serious voice. I kept telling him what a good boy he was, and we didn’t applaud between movements.

At the reception afterward he was his usual merry self, laughing and talking and scribbling on the chalkboard, making a post-Cage looking score on the board’s pre-painted staves. I added a treble clef for orientation.

Extrapolating from the 2-year-old’s evolving relationship with the arts, a myth of origin suggests itself:

The original human art was the dance, and the dance came in response to music that was already there, the worldly rhythms of life. Only after establishing the dance did humans begin to respond to the music that was already there by trying to join in sonically as well.

Avatars of the myth appear in tap dancing movies, where Fred Astaire dances to the rhythms of an engine room during a trans-Atlantic crossing, and Gregory Himes dances to rhythm of a dripping faucet while languishing in prison.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Funny slip of the typing fingers in last night’s post on fade-outs, Sondheim, and Bacharach. The song isn’t “Send in the Clouds” -- it’s “Send in the CLOWNS.” I knew that. I like that song.

Cloudy thinking. Clouds in my coffee. I’m so vain, I think this song is about me.

Thinking about fade-outs, it occurs to me that jazz and classical composers haven’t completely come to terms with the medium of recording since they eschew fade-outs. Some tape composers in the classical tradition have used them and view recording as primary, but they’re off the beaten path. In jazz and classical, a recording is still almost exclusively a record of an in-the-air sound event -- often idealized through the miracle of splicing -- but rarely manipulated overtly. In pop, since Les Paul, really,* but especially since the mid-’60s, records stand tall in all their artificial glory, an entity separate from performances. I was really taken aback to notice a fade-out on a 1939 Count Basie recording. And it sounded great.

Curious to know whether anybody did it before 1939.

* Afterthought: The advent of the artificial pop recording dates back at least to the ’20s, when Rudy Vallee started crooning softly in front of a large band.

Hey Los Angelenos and jet-setters, Film Forum Los Angeles is devoting the evening of March 6 to showing films by my friend Ross Lipman. The oldest film of the group, “10-17-88” -- I made the soundtrack for it, back in 1989.

The film is a collage of mostly found and archival footage, beautifully manipulated by Ross, who is a master of optical printing techniques. When he invited me to make the soundtrack, I was excited to try out some collage ideas of my own.

I’d come to collage via John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, and my idea was to choose source material that I loved, and mix it up into something else I could love.

I borrowed a 4-track cassette recorder from another friend. For some forgotten reason I chose the early ‘30s Duke Ellington tune “Solitude” as the centerpiece. I took Thelonious Monk’s haunting solo piano recording from his Ellington tribute album and the brilliant 1961 recording by the Louis Armstrong sextet with guest pianist Duke Ellington. I used snippets of the recordings, putting them together, speeding them up, slowing them down, playing them backwards at some points. I added in swatches from Debussy’s “La Mer” from a gorgeous Szell / Cleveland record that my grandma had given me, and swatches of a piano roll of Debussy playing his “La plus que lente” from a record my mom had given me. “La Mer” went backwards sometimes too, and slower, and fed through a guitar fuzzbox at times -- a lovely warm effect on Debussy’s orchestra! Combined the different pieces as seemed fit. Recorded myself singing the Ellington tune and accompanying myself on guitar, singing the 4 strains of the song’s classic AABA structure in separate pieces, and mixing them in with the rest of the fragments to taste. One of the strains I did in a free-jazz-scat-punk-noise-rubato-expressionist style and then tried a second take which uncannily “fit with” the first without trying and ended up using them both together. Gave the several completed stitched-together fragments to Ross, suggested a running order that followed the sequence of the song, with room for discretion with the non-verbal sections, and told him to put as much silence between the fragments as he wanted.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with how Ross used the pieces and with the film they accompanied. I know I’m biased, but I love the finished thing.

(Historical aside: Some time not too long after working on this soundtrack, I heard De La Soul for the first time, and I nearly fell out of the car, I was so blown away. So arty! So pop!)

Of the other four pieces on Ross’s upcoming bill, I can only completely vouch for “Rhythm 93,” in which Ross beautifully uses a variety of natural light tones to film an actress silently, wordlessly improvising in several short scenes. “The Gift” features our friend Michael Barrish telling a story, and he tells good stories, and he tells them well. I read an early draft of the script for “Keep Warm, Burn Britain!” and liked it a lot -- Ross is a good writer. (It pleases me to remember that back in Ann Arbor I acted in two plays he wrote.) On the basis of Ross’s skills as a writer and filmmaker, and from knowing that our friend Lisa Black is a highly skilled actress, I have no trouble recommending “The Interview” either.

My spouse and I will be going to the L.A. area before too long to visit family; alas, we didn’t get it together in time to see Ross’s showing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Quickly -- up too late again, so no links, but I'm sure they're out there --

While honoring Presidents' Day by listening to some Lester Young, I noticed an early use of recorded fade-out -- the end of Count Basie's 1939 recording of "Dickie's Dream." A great tune, written by the Count and Pres, a feature for trombonist Dickie Wells, and that fade-out is just so right.

A few years ago, on a whim I rented D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on the recording of the soundtrack album of Sondheim's "Company." Very moving -- Dean Jones pouring it all out for "Being Alive," and Elaine Stritch (sp?) ripping it up on "Ladies Who Lunch"; and Pennebaker's astute comment on the paradox of the greatness of Stritch's performance -- *for film* -- while being too excessive for the record. Terrific movie.

I liked the movie so much I later bought the soundtrack whose making it documented, and was interested to find that Pennebaker filmed only the songs that turned out to be my favorites of the show. The ones he skipped were more lackluster -- or did I think that only because I didn't have the memory of seeing film of the fleshy breathing singers singing them? I don't think so, but still --

I hadn't been much of a Sondheim fan. Sophomore year of college, in Ann Arbor, the opera company in Detroit put on "A Little Night Music," and the parents of a childhood friend of mine, who had season tickets and drove 3 hours each way from Kalamazoo to see the shows, gave me their tickets, because they didn't like musicals. I took a date, a classmate I wasn't interested in (why her? dunno -- maybe because she said she liked Sondheim -- don't remember), we went, and aside from "Send in the Clouds," which I already knew, nothing about the show stuck. Whereas lots of art experiences from that era did stick. Other than that, my only Sondheim exposure had been covers by Barbra Streisand, and they struck me as skillful, very post-'60s psychobabble-era dramatic songs, which I liked only OK -- the emotions didn't quite gel for me.

"Company" has some topnotch songs, lots of great music. The lyrical and musical milieu is reminiscent of the songs of Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Bacharach writes much pingy-er, zestier, tangy-er orchestrations, and I found myself being put off by the Ta-Da showy big endings of most of Sondheim's songs. I checked my Dionne Warwick records to see how Burt ended his stuff. Almost all the songs fade out.

Sondheim's songs are Broadway. Can't fade out on stage.

The prose equivalent of the fade out? Of course! The ellipsis . . .

From Jordan Davis’s blog I find a link to bloggy speculations on the future of poetry by poet and poetician Ron Silliman, who lays down some sparkly data on the explosion in the number of American poets since the 1950s -- stuff I’d read about in the essays of my main man Eliot Weinberger (who recently heard some things about Iraq) -- as well as some puzzle-nod-making stuff about the spirit of trobar clus; and I appreciate his hedge against difficulty-for-difficulty’s-sake, as well as his trenchant political stance -- “Richard Nixon, we must remember, was well to the left even of Howard Dean.” Dude!

Silliman divides the poetry world between the School of Quietude and the post-New American Poetry poets; N.A.P. poets being those collected and championed in the book of that name -- Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, many others. I’m guessing that the slam poets -- who are certainly not Quietudians -- fit into the post-N.A.P. group, but I’m not at all confident that Silliman is including them in the scenario at all, given that a number of his friends in the post-N.A.P. contingent(s) of the American poetry world studiously ignore them, or treat them as a louder version of the not-highly-regarded Confessionals (Plath, R. Lowell, who are champions of the Quietudians), an association that makes some sense, but more nonsense; or, rather, it privileges paraphrasability over prosody, which would be a prosy way of lookin’ at it. Even my main man Eliot Weinberger gets too hung up on bookishness, erudition, and esotericism in his view of the poetic landscape. Maybe I should email Mr. Silliman and ask. From my seat, the Slammers look to be part of the tradition -- they’re a significant element of What’s Happening.

Either way, I gotta add Silliman’s blog to my route of regular reads.

In other Equanimitous news, Jordan lays down some rhetorical science in a hoppin’ post on the ground of desire.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


So for Presidents’ Day yesterday I decided to spend an Abe -- in his honor -- on a used CD of radio transcriptions of Chick Webb and His Orchestra from 1939. Webb -- who died at the age of 30 a few months after these broadcasts went out -- was the king swing drummer, the rockingest & noisiest & most exciting of them all. Nice recordings, nothing to take the place of their best studio recordings, but a few to stand up with them. A drum feature with more solos than usual on “Wild Irish Rose”; an early Ella scat feature on “’Tain’t What You Do”; nice Ella vocals on a few numbers (Ella got her big break with the Webb orchestra); and a swinging “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Funniest typo I’ve seen in a long time. Composer credit for for “Stars and Stripes”: “J. P. Souse.”

Webb’s life story is amazing -- heroic -- the stuff of legend. Hunchbacked, small in stature, almost a dwarf with a large face and broad shoulders, Webb fought off congenital tuberculosis of the spine in order to become one of the most competitive drummers and bandleaders of the big band era. He moved to New York to make it as a drummer at the age of 16, lying about his age, and started as a bandleader a year later. His poor health killed him young; his last words, on his death bed, surrounded by friends and family, were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” And his records -- if you like swing, they’re right up there.

Monday, February 21, 2005


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey emailed me the other day, and we e-gabbed.


“The talk of the town is still the Gates installation in the Park. I noticed bloggist Teachout didn't like it. Quick to say ‘I don't like conceptual art.’ He goes on to say that upon overhearing the crowd, most of them had not come see it, but to see what the fuss was all about. What I thought was great about it, equally so as the visual impact, was the reaction to it -- the mass of people collected by it. It struck me that that was the point, the fuss. What a lovely fuss it was -- in several languages.

“A letter-writer to the Times thought it desecrated a sacred place, one that she goes to for solace and authentic nature. But of course Olmstead completely contrived the Park. It is no less sculptural than the Gates. It's a fantasy of nature -- conceptual art on an even grander scale than the 7500, 23 miles of Gates.

Manhattan thereabouts was a rather nasty swamp before the engineers got there.

“A professor I had at NYU for a class called Urban Geology illuminated me to the school of thought that cities are the habitat of humans much as ant hills are the habitat of ants, and no less ‘natural.’ That notion struck a chord with me, and still informs my daily interaction with the City.

“I also love bridges. We got some bridges here. Trying to write a song about a bridge near our house -- the Hell Gate Bridge -- a beautiful steel arch bridge spanning a famously treacherous bit (swirling, boiling tidal action) of the East River.

“Hell Gate is Dutch, and translates ‘beautiful strait.’”


I've been thinking about the limitations of the culture/nature dichotomy as well -- we are, after all, part of nature.

The Gates hubbub sounds interesting.

The park is a work of art, but it's also an environment -- man-made, sure -- and for some people it's a church.  More than a picture.  But despite this quibble, I agree with your point very much, and didn't know that Central Park had been a swamp before.

People object to putting Beethoven to a disco beat too.  Desecration! "A Fifth of Beethoven" -- man, whoever did that, they were some clever.

Jay replied that he loves “A Fifth of Beethoven” too.

My beloved spouse and I left the 2-year-old with the next-door-neighbors the other night and went to see Bride and Prejudice on the big screen. By the writers and director of “Bend It Like Beckham,” which we had both enjoyed, it’s an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” set mostly in modern-day India, with some scenes in London and L.A., and made into a Bollywood-style musical.

If you like Jane Austen and musicals, it’s a gas gas gas. Hilarious, touching, spectacular, exhilarating. Hundreds of people in the most brilliantly colorful clothes crowded into the streets of an Indian city, dancing dancing dancing. A chorus of men in drag dancing dancing dancing -- I have no idea if this is typical Bollywood or not.

To give a taste, without giving away too much -- in a love-song-scene set on an L.A. beach, a black gospel choir materializes on the sand, standing on risers in full church robes, to serenade the lovers -- while the strongly Indian-flavored vocal riffs are sung by a chorus of surfers.

The plot feels like Jane Austen, though with the darker undertones washed out -- but the iconic uptight miscommunicating I-hate-you-I-love-you characterizations, with the nuances between the upper-middle and the upper-upper classes, are strong. The acting hits the right notes, with tons of nuanced emotional stuff going on all the time among the background players.

Hearing contemporary-style songs in a film was exhilarating. I hadn’t experienced it before in my movie-going life. Mostly Indian pop, heavy infectious dance beats, somewhat hybridized Indian-Western melodies and harmonies. And even though I didn’t leave the theater humming any of the songs, only one of them bugged me as it was going by, and it was brief. The rest sparkled and dazzled. My spouse observed afterwards that American movies reserve that sort of exuberance for violence.

My spouse and I -- both fans of musicals and Jane Austen -- loved it.
Happy Pres’ Day!

Sunday, February 20, 2005


An email from my friend Kerry Reid:

“Hi John,

“Not sure if this really relates to what you’ve posted vis a vis the determinedly downwardly mobile posturing of the rocker generation, but something from Dawn Powell’s letters popped into my head as I read that (in conjunction with your musings about how people of Lerner's generation carried themselves differently).

“I would maintain that a studiedly grim demeanor also entered the posture of the rocker generation around the time of Dylan’s ascendancy. Certainly many rockers (the Beatles prime among them) had wonderfully puckish senses of humor, but the ease with which someone like Lerner, or Yip Harburg, or any of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters moved between pathos and humor and social commentary and romantic balladeering somehow seems lost (to me anyway) to a lot of the so-earnest-it-hurts rocker generation. And I suspect that they conflate a sort of grim workmanlike earnestness with the lower classes, and hence with ‘authenticity.’

“Here’s how Powell defined it in a letter to her great friend ‘Bunny’ Wilson (and I think you can get a whole ‘nother post out of the fact that no man would ever willingly go by the nickname ‘Bunny’ these days):

“‘The great Nordic social worker mind is always horrified that poor people (in literature, that is) laugh or mix their cancers, maggots, hunger and futility with jokes. They SHOULD beat their breasts and say “I am Underprivileged and I don't Forget it, Thank God. Wipe that smile off my face...” Isn't there enough unhappiness in literature without going to real life?’”


Your thought on the narrowing of emotional range in the move from pop and early rock and roll to Serious Rock dovetails with an earlier post of mine -- that the Alley cats are analogous to the 16th century metaphysicals & Cavaliers & the 15th century Elizabethans, and the Rockers are analogous to the Romantics.  I love Keats & Coleridge, and I deeply admire Wordsworth, and worship Blake (who isn't really a Romantic) and Dickinson (ditto) and Whitman, but this rang true for me -- a comment by George F. Whicher, in his 1949 collection of translations of late Medieval Latin poetry by the wine-women-&-song lovin' Goliards:  "The savor of life is lost when, as in much romantic poetry, all the emotions are stewed in the same pot, nor is the world any the better when the sharp contrasts of ecstasy and wretcheness are dulled to a prevailing drabness."  I have the feeling that Whicher describes sometimes when the local college rock station is giving full rein to what the Cher character in "Clueless" called "Complaint Rock."

Maybe it’s not a narrowing of emotional range that happened in rock as much as a shift in emotional range, with high-spirited humor becoming rare, but whole new ranges of darkness becoming visible. There are rock songwriters who range “between pathos and humor and social commentary and romantic balladeering” -- John Lennon comes to mind right away, though up until “Rubber Soul” he was as likely to write a truly bad lyric as a good one. Chuck Berry’s stuff delineated a whole world, with pathos & humor & social commentary & sex & romance. Other examples too, but maybe the point is that nobody expects the range any more.

In any case, thanks for the thoughts. 

Saturday, February 19, 2005


My suggestion last night that I'd be happy to see people pumping their fists and playing air violin at a classical concert was mostly facetious; but music can move the body as well as the spirit -- even Western Classical music -- and the suppression of urges to respond to the music physically might not be everybody's cup of afternoon tea.

Alex has made it clear that his interest in loosening up the decorum of a classical concert is in hopes of attracting new audience members who might otherwise be completely put off from the classical concert experience. Alex -- and lots of other people, me included -- worry that without new audiences, some major musical performance institutions might not survive. Alex's concerns are valid & his suggestions for addressing them feel on-the-mark to me.

The sorrow inherent in Alex's suggestion is, as Marcus makes clear, that a change in decorum standards at classical concerts would substantially lessen the joy and pleasure that many current classical patrons find in the concert experience, and that these decorum standards have aesthetic justifications, and are not mere snobbery and exclusiveness.

My suggestion for "rowdy" and "non-rowdy" performances sounds goofy, but it may actually be the way to go. We all love music in our own ways, and it would be great if we could devise ways to maximize everybody's opportunity to find joy in experiencing and expressing that love.

Like the saying goes -- and it's the American way -- different strokes for different folks.

Friday, February 18, 2005


Critic and scholar Alex Ross posted an informative new piece on the history of the disappearance of between-movement applause in classical concert-going today; Alex's post doubles as a moving plea for the resurrection of the noisy, participatory practice. Composer Marcus Maroney has an equally moving and persuasive defense of the silence of the audience. As an infrequent classical concert-goer, I have enjoyed the tension that suppressing the urge to clap produces, and the tremendous relief that comes when the piece finally ends and the applause explodes. But as a more frequent jazz and rock concert-goer, the noisier mode of interaction feels natural.

As Alex shows, it’s an anthropological question, and vocal members of a subculture are debating how the rituals should proceed. As the question is anthropological, analogies came to mind.

Silence between movements -- like a mainstream Protestant church service. I grew up in such a church, and understand the appeal.

More expressive audience interaction -- like an evangelical ecstatic church. I understand the appeal there too.

Silence between movements -- like a golf tournament. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, who’s a golfer, has pointed out the silent aesthetic of golf watching, even on TV.

More expressive audience interaction -- like a basketball game. It’s a great set-up for a body-switching comedy: A golf audience switches places with a basketball audience, and Shaquille O’Neil takes his free-throws at an away game in rapt silence and enjoys the polite applause when he sinks them, while Phil Mickelson tries to make his putt in front of a crowd of Tiger Woods fans who are shouting, “Miss! Miss!” and waving big white balloons to distract him.

In jazz and rock, it’s fine for band members to shout in response to an inspired bit of playing. Mingus screaming “Yeah” as Booker Ervin wails on his tenor; Ringo calling “All right George!” while Harrison digs into his guitar. Come to think of it, in classical Glenn Gould kind of did this too, but only for his own playing. “Ohhh, uhhh.” Yeah, baby!

In other classical traditions, Ohs and Ahs from the audience are part of the experience. I heard a classical Oud player from the Arabian peninsula in beautiful Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor 20 years ago, and the promoter explained the etiquette beforehand.

In Mozart’s day, an audience could stop an opera and demand an immediate encore of a favorite aria. Like the great age of the American musical show.

As the classical subculture settles this question, maybe in the interrim classical performers could add special “rowdy” performances, and keep the Quietists and the Expressivists separate, as they appear to want to be.

“I’d like two tickets for Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird.’”

“Would that be rowdy or non-rowdy?”

Alex mentions that the great conductor Leopold Stokowski once thought of trying to ban all applause altogether, even at the end of a piece, even at the end of the concert. In a lifetime of attending infrequent Michigan football games and infrequent classical music concerts, some rituals have changed. The Wave didn't exist when I was a little kid first going to football games. It developed some time in my teens or early 20s. A lot of traditional, long-time fans hate it. I love it. Some time in my 20s, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler got so vexed with the Wave that he threatened to ban fans from attending the games at all if we wouldn't stop doing it. Bo didn't get his way.

Even I would object to the Wave at a classical concert -- at least while the music was playing. Swaying back and forth to the beat -- that's fine, that's great. Pumping your fist, playing air violin or doing air conducting -- go for it. But the Wave, that would be going Too Far.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Our first amendment right to free association . . .

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be .

Monday, February 14, 2005


“The Ancients believed plants sprang, not from seeds, but out of the lust of the earth. There were no weeds then, nor at Walden, for the definition of a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted, and the lowest plantain is succulent and has its virtues, meadows make the best gardens. Poetry is the imaginary furrow where the words grow, out of lust. We come on each one anew, and name it, but savor the dandelions in our grasses.” -- Ronald Johnson, describing his poetics, in “The Young American Poets,” ed. Paul Carroll, 1968.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


After posting last night, I remembered that Jordan had commented on my post on Gendered Language a few weeks ago, “That's one of the nicest things in ‘The Odd Couple,’ Oscar calling Felix (and every other man) ‘honey,’ ‘sweetie,’ and other non-masculine terms of endearment.” Jack Klugman was born in 1922; as I wrote last night, it’s hard to imagine younger men talking that way.

An article on the Seattle chapter of the Grammys in this morning’s paper quoted Dave Dederer of the Presidents of the United States, talking about Seattle rockers’ distrust “of anything that comes from New York or L.A. as overly showbiz,” which he attributes to “That whole Northwest, bohemian-yet-blue-collar, ‘I'm-a-logger-and-I-read-Sartre’ thing.” It’s a good line; witty because Sartre is so out of date; and yet, Dave (I have from an authoritative grapevine) went to private high school, as did his bandmates, as did some of the Pearl Jam guys -- “logger” is a pose; Dave’s joke admits this, more or less -- except some of the rockers really have come from blue collar backgrounds, and really do read Sartre (or some latterday equivalent) -- so, what’s the joke?

(Is it in “Stage Door” that Lucille Ball and another chorus girl hook up with rich guys from Seattle, who turn out to be wealthy loggers who are built like tanks and show up wearing flannel shirts? I think it is. Funny moment, if you live here.)

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Forgive the clunky verbiage -- I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff, but it’s been on my mind.

Socially popular self-representations of masculinity change over time. Like any fashion. In the Seattle City Hall there has been a wonderful photo of the Seattle City Council from sometime in the 1890s. Men in suits and ties not far different than what we wear now; beards and moustaches bushier and more prevalent than is currently common in mainstream politics; hats, which went out of fashion about 40 years ago. What’s really different -- they’re all reclining in the grass, leaning on their elbows, in some Whitman-esque poses. Not campy, not humorous -- just one of the ways that men represented themselves at that time.

I grew up spending summers with my grandparents and a lot of Grandpa’s cousins and siblings, who either lived in the neighborhood or visited every year. Grandpa, the oldest of his clan’s generation, was born in 1907; his youngest cousin was probably born around 1920. My grandparents’ friends came around a lot too. And in recent months I’ve really been thinking about how their personae differed so strongly from those of my parents’ generation and from my own. They weren’t Whitmanesque loungers like the men of the 1890s Seattle City Council; still, the WASP educated middle class of their era presented itself in a much grander style than is usual now -- bearing more erect, visage more cheerful, rhetoric more florid -- a feeling of joie-de-vivre exuding more often than not.

I’ve been re-reading Alan Lerner’s memoir, “The Street Where I Live.” Lerner wrote the books and lyrics for “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” and other standards of the Broadway and film musical. He was born in 1918, and his tone is in the grand style. I only connected his tone to my grandparents’ generation the other day.

The generations of people who have grown up after the second World War have a much more self-effacing way of self-presentation. My parents and their friends are lower key than my grandparents and their friends were; my generation is more self-effacing still. I’ve written speeches for political events over the years, and I can get the florid rhetorical style rolling a little bit, but when it’s come time to deliver them, my tone has been low-key and deadpan.

For me and a lot of my male friends, the record cover of Let It Be by the Replacements epitomized our style. On the sloppy side of casual, self-deprecating, ironic.

Lerner’s memoir talks about his activism in the Stevenson campaigns, and how showbiz people are almost all liberals. The rocker generation pooh-poohs the previous generation as fuddy-duddy and reactionary, but it’s Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” that expanded Social Security and passed the Civil Rights Act and the Environmental Protection Act and tons more progressive legislation, and it’s the rocker generation that’s dismangling it all. (Emphatically redundant typo I’ll keep -- “dismangling” rather than “dismantling.”)

The rocker generation’s stupid political prejudice against the older showbiz style showed up in Eric Alterman’s comments section a week or so ago. Out of nowhere, for no reason, a writer speculated that Barbra Streisand, even though she’s been a liberal Democratic activist for decades and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the D’s, probably pulled the lever for Bush in the privacy of the voting booth, because Bush’s tax cuts are so good for her bank account. The absurdity and ignorance of the prejudice astound me -- and apparently Alterman sympathasizes with the dig, because the comment was one of the few that he posted that day out of the hundreds he receives.

Contrast Streisand and Lerner’s activism with Bob Dylan’s studied apathy. In his memoir, Dylan says he doesn’t even vote. Whether he’s marginally richer or poorer than Barbra Streisand, he’s definitely in the class of people whom the Republican Party serves. And yet Dylan remains an icon of white liberalism. I wanna say, Get outta town! You’re pulling my leg!

I’ve been poking at this theme on and off for a while, but lately it’s struck me more and more that Dylan’s downwardly-mobile self-presenatation has been a bad influence for humane politics. The myth of America has always been upward mobility, aspiration, self-improvement. Dylan’s example has made three generations of white middle-class entertainers ashamed of being middle class. From this perspective, it’s no wonder that the R’s have won the affection of so much of the striving white blue collar class. The ignorance and condescension in post-Dylan rock’s pose are maddening.

I wonder whether a grander, more florid, more joie-de-vivre style wouldn’t make for a more effective progressive politics. After all, the wide dissemination of opportunities for joy-in-life is what we’re working and hoping for, isn’t it? Isn’t the aspiration for wider prosperity a good thing? Isn’t it what we want?

The party of humanity wants things to work. We want government to work. We want the economy to work. We want our international relations to work. We have hope for us all and for the future. The conservative vision is of a dog-eat-dog world, but I’ll tell you something.

People aren’t dogs.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Carl Wilson is working on finding a word to replace "Rockist." I'll be curious to see what he comes up with. His first attempt, which dissatisfies him, is "authenticist," to note Rockism's interest in the "authenticity" of the Rocker's experience as it relates to his music. ("His" -- usually his.)

Authenticism is one of Rockism's 3 pillars, the others being the closely related Auteurism, and the fundamental and central Rebel-ism. Auteurism comes from film criticism, and it relates to the notion that the Rocker is the unique creator of his works, and that each instance of the Rocker's oeuvre is related to and a specific instance of the whole. (And Carl had a really interesting and suggestive post about auteurism a couple weeks ago too.) It occurred to me today that auteurism and authenticism both have very little to do with how music sounds, which relates it to my idea that the late '60s rockcrits lost their focus on how music sounds and got seduced by the imagery and ideologies of rock performance. But Rebel-ism -- rebel-ism does relate to sound. Intense, unpolished, noncomformist, passionate -- adjectives come to mind. And if your aesthetic is tied to not only the sounds of passion, intensity, nonconformity, and roughness, but also the rebellious ideology and imagery they suggest, then authenticism and auteurism follow, because it's useless to play the rebel if you're not calling the shots in your own music-making. Rebel-ism is the central pillar of Rockism.

It should be needless to say, but it's not, that Rebel-ism has since been co-opted by the forces of pillage and repression that have come to dominate the Republican Party and American political life. Ever since Lee Atwater played some ripping blues leads at Bush 41's inaugural, left-friendly Rockists should have had cause for some serious pause. As I've noted here before, Fox News is the only network to forego the traditional brass-and-drum fanfare sound in favor of electric rock guitars. For years I've thought that the Rolling Stones are the perfect mascot for the Republican Party -- wealthy white guys endlessly complaining about how badly they're treated.

Now don't get me wrong. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll is here to stay. Just give me some of that rock and roll music. That kind of music just soothes the soul. And party every day! I just don't think it has anything to do with progressive or humane policies. Progressive and humane values, sure, but even Nazis liked good music and could be kind to their families.

I have no quarrel with the "R" word; still, I'm curious to see what Carl will come up with.

Chris Bowers of MyDD has a compelling list of evidence showing that the Bush Republican Party is turning fascist. And it's not just lefties who are throwing the word around, either; Chris's post quotes an article from The American Conservative that raises the exact same spectre.

I post this in answer to Terry Teachout’s weekly request that his readers subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. Terry writes a weekly theater column for the Journal. His arts blogging is zippy and highly readable; his sensibility is admirably wide-ranging. Other than this, I've never seen him get political on his blog, except to say how delighted he is to have been commissioned by President Bush to serve on the National Council for the Arts. Terry's commission is evidence that the Bush people politicize *everything*; not that Terry won't be a good Councilor, just that he writes for the extremely Bush-friendly Journal and that most of his blog's political links are to the Republican end of the political spectrum.

One week Terry phrased his request to subscribe to the Journal this way: "Get with the program." Since there is virtually nothing in the Journal's political program that I could get with, I will honor his request in my own way. The Journal's editorial policy is to imagine the worst possible motive in its political opponents and then hammer away at it relentlessly. I don't plan to write daily editorials like this, but if we had a partisan Democratic press as fierce as the Journal, hypotheses like this one would be part of mainstream speculation:

Bush wants the terrorists to attack America again. He knows that when the terrorists attacked the first time, his approval sky-rocketed. In the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq, one of the few times anybody in his administration spoke honestly was when Rumsfeld said that an American invasion would probably increase the likelihood of Saddam Hussein unleashing weapons of mass destruction against America. (The Journal's editorial page doesn't provide links, and I'm not going to either right now, but I didn't make this quote up.)

For years the Israeli - Palestinian conflict has been dictated by people on both sides who don't want peace. The permanent war footing keeps the warmongers in power. Likewise, Bush and his handlers designed the "War on Terror" never to end. A good counterattack by the enemy would keep Bush's War Party popular. This explains Bush's near-universal bellicosity and his reluctance to do much to improve the security of our country's vulnerable nuclear and chemical facilities. He actively desires the murder of thousands of Americans, and his policies facilitate the coming-to-fruition of his desires. I hope with all my heart that he doesn't get what I see to be his way.

Terry has been coy about which parts of Bush's agenda appeal to him -- if any -- and I may be jumping to false conclusions about his political leanings from his shilling for the Journal and from the preponderance of his political blog links. My apologies if I have jumped to a false conclusion. And I hope that my effort to "get with the program" does a little bit to improve conditions in this great big beautiful deeply flawed and bullying country of ours that I love with such anguish and grief.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


One day a couple months ago, driving, listening to Oldies on the radio, Dylan comes on, "Memphis Blues Again," and it struck me, -- he's like Monk, the way their phrasing bends musical time into their own ear-grabbing shapes, impossible to ignore.

Meant to post on it, forgot to, and remembered again a few weeks later when I read Dylan's memoir, and he mentioned seeing Monk play in the early '60s in New York, and digging him.

I wouldn't call Dylan the Thelonious Monk of rock -- it was a momentary impression, and the differences are so deep -- but I did call Dylan the Picasso of rock, and was gratified to read in his "Chronicles" that Dylan found Picasso inspiring.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005



Speaking speedily in vast generalizations:

The Tin Pan Alley / Broadway / Hollywood lyricists echo the 17th-Century English lyricists (excepting Milton), more Cavalier than metaphysical, and their Elizabethan forebears. The sophisticated approach to love affairs, the love-as-metaphor-for-anything-and-everything approach to lyricism and, by extension, life. And, technically, the Alley and the Cavaliers shared a strophic prosody, where any lyric can boast its own verse-form; for instance, a 3-syllable line followed by an 8-syllable line followed by 2 4-syllable lines. They could all write it boxy and 8-to-the-line or whatever too, and the rockers can get all unorthodox strophic as well, but this is a by-and-large.

Rockin’ an’ Rollin’ songs start out little different than what came before, songwords-wise, with the delicious exception of a fondness for non-lexicographical syllables. But certainly by the time of Dylan's serious influence, the rockers are 19th century Romantics as compared to the Alley cats. The post-Stipe Iron(ic) Age rockers are quasi-post-Romantics, egoistically evading the Lyric I, historically analogous to Mallarme.

Hip hop lyrics are often Augustan -- didactic and programmatic; KRS-One is our age's closest writer to Alexander Pope that I know of, whether page poet or aural poet.

Like I said, this is speedy and generalized.


I’m sorry, I can’t help it, but whenever I hear him singing, “my love lies waiting silently for me,” I think of a corpse. Though I suppose his love could be deaf and mute.

Fortunately, Petula Clark’s version, which was recorded not long after the original, doesn’t switch positions, as such songs often do -- see Patsy Cline’s “Wayward Wind,” where "HE was born the next of kin, the next of kin to the wayward wind," as opposed to when a man sings it, in which "*I* was born," and so on. So it’s Petula’s love who’s lying waiting silently for her. Doesn’t make the song any better, but the gender-stereotype reversal is nice.

And it is a PRETTY song, don’t get me wrong. Just gives me the willies, that’s all.

Another of Simon’s songs talks about reading Dickinson and Frost, but I really think Poe’s more his man, not just thematically, but also the jingle-jangle clang-a-rangle fondness for alliteration.


Little Richard
Woody Guthrie
Hank Williams

You don't hear these people on radio much, because their voices stick out from the smooth fabric of the wall-to-wall sonic carpeting that radio strives to provide because people WANT it. (I like it too, and have recently grown fond of the local Smooth Jazz station.)

As an aspiring record-maker, it's hard to realize that part of my highest fantasy is to make something so good it will blend into the background.

Monday, February 07, 2005


Alex Ross posts a link to his moving speech to chamber musicians on the need for enthusiasm and vigor and shpritzy joys as well as deep dark truths and beauties in the programming and promotion of classical music. Attitude and repertoire are words of the day.

* * *

Attitude and repertoire are equally important to Francis Davis, who recently had a nice piece in the Village Voice on jazz repertory, which is facing institutional threats perhaps even more daunting than the ones staring at classical.

Davis comments that the American jazz and pop ethos expects musicians to put their own stamp on pieces in the repertoire, their own arrangements, their own sounds, their own style, often even their own tempo.  He remarks that the same isn’t true in classical music.  But it wasn’t always so: Bach writing versions of tunes by Telemann or Vivaldi, Liszt and Brahms writing variations on pieces by other people, Mozart re-orchestrating Handel.  They did this for the same reason that jazz arrangers take tunes by Gershwin and Ellington and Coltrane and make their own version – because they love the tunes and want to be part of them.  Composition in this manner is more of a community enterprise, less burdened by strictures of isolated individualism, while composers (and arrangers) still remain individualists.  Still happens some in classical, but it’s not central to the ethos.

Davis lavishes just praise on clarinetist and multi-instrumentalist Don Byron for combining jazz and hip hop. Byron has been blurring the lines between genres for a long time.  His collection “A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder” is a red hot fave – pieces by Chopin, Schumann, and Verdi sit next to tunes by Bernstein, Sondheim, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Roy Orbison, Ornette Coleman, and Stevie Wonder.  Byron shows that American pop and jazz hold vast melodic riches.  And he backs up his contention with gorgeous, energetic arrangements and playing.  His version of the Four Tops’ “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There,” a duet with pianist Uri Caine, never fails to give me thrills. 

I have this probably overly romanticized idea that music used to be whole.  Anything that got written down became “classical” after the passage of time.  J. Strauss and Sousa (and Offenbach?) were pop; now they’re classical.  The advent of recording has distorted this process.  We don’t need note-readers to recreate Spencer Williams’s “Basin Street Blues,” because we can always listen to Louis Armstrong’s gorgeous recording or Bob Wills’s great version or many many others.  But as wonderful as those recordings are, nothing beats hearing it played well live. Which is why music lovers want these institutions to thrive.  

* * *

Lisa Hirsch is right on that the decline of arts education in the public schools is a probable root cause of the decline of financial support for music institutions. I blogged here about a treasured memory of hearing what I remember as Bartok string quartets in my school gym in 5th or 6th grade. Today, before reading Lisa’s piece, I was reflecting on how things change -- as things stand now my son is unlikely to have a similar experience when he goes to school.

* * *

In other blogadelic news, Franklin Bruno got a flat and then later bought new tires.

* * *

Like Ol’ Man River, music keeps on rolling along. Like Franklin’s car, musical vehicles need regular maintenance to keep them rolling. Here’s hoping.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Got back today from our annual snow week-end at Mount Rainier in a lodge with a big group of people. My beloved spouse has been going on this trip for 20 years now, me for the last 7 of them. The excuse for the trip is cross-country skiing, which I’m quite bad at; since our son arrived we haven’t skied but instead snow-shoed, which I prefer anyway -- but that’s not even why I look forward to it. Really nice people, middle-aging long-hair folkies (like my wife and me), good food, good talk, music.

The guys break out the guitars on Friday and Saturday nights. I’m a terrible sing-along guitarist because I’ve never learned very many songs but have instead sat my thousands of hours with the guitar either noodling & doodling & practicing or writing my own songs. The songs by others that I do know tend to be ones nobody else in the room knows very well anyway. It’s an unsociable guitar practice, and I used to berate myself for it and vow to change, but I’ve learned to accept that I probably won't change, and I’m happy to follow along as others play and sing, and improvise the occasional solo, or play harmonica.

I didn’t sleep nearly enough last week, so before too long in Friday night’s jam I lay on the couch and listened. While the guys play and sing, the women mostly talk. Lying on the couch, listening to the 3 and 4 guitars slightly out-of-sync, shtrumming through folk-rock repertoire rich in open major chords -- the beautiful shimmer of the sweet, sweet acoustic guitars, and the lovely murmur of friends talking -- so, so lovely.

This morning, packing up the lodge, doing dishes, the bang bang bang of the dishes and the talk as people pack, while a tinny “boom”box plays a live tape of the Grateful Dead, a thin trebly distorted sound -- that was a lovely ambient mix too, in a bracing, get-a-move-on-it’s-time-to-go way.

Saturday night after we stopped playing, Ed, a fine guitarist, complimented a groove that Eric and I had gotten into as the last two guitarists playing. On our last number, Eric had improvised tasty polyrhythmic patterns over a three-chord progression of one of my songs, and we went on and on. I mentioned just how lovely acoustic guitars are, and Ed said he’d put his head in a guitar and listen while someone played if he could, he loves the sound so much.

Steven Feld has made gorgeous recordings of the Bosavi people of Papua New Guinea, of songs people sing while going about their days. The recordings include the ambient sounds of the rainforest. Numerous CDs now exist of threatened human and natural soundscapes. Seattle composer Christopher DeLaurenti recorded many, many hours of the November 30, 1999, Seattle march against the anti-democratic, anti-environmental World Trade Organization and edited it to a wild, beautiful hour-long piece. (He also wrote, very movingly, and at length, about the experience of doing the recording.)

Back in 1985 I recorded a harmonica solo in an empty country field at 2 o’clock one summer morning, in a duet with a field of crickets. Not a document of my everyday life; not a momentous, dramatic, historic event; but real sounds I loved. Next winter, for the ski trip, if I get it together maybe I’ll record the shimmering guitars and murmuring conversations of the nighttime lodge gathering. And maybe the morning dishwashing too.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A couple weeks ago now, driving to work, thinking of stopping for a donut, when on the local "world of music and ideas" college station I heard some Middle Eastern or maybe South Asian modal jazz piano, drawing me into its rubato filigreed soundworld, and then a groove started, a big slow bass riff, three notes, over and over, as the piano continues its explorations -- wait, that riff is in 7/4, cool -- and tasty percussion, tabla, drums, maybe some more percussion, just beautiful. I drove to work without stopping, foregoing my donut. No regrets.

The DJ came on. The pianist was Michael Wolff, someone I hadn't heard of.


A gorgeous and raucous Afro-Cubop masterpiece by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. Chano, a hot conga player from Cuba, played in Dizzy’s late ‘40s big band. He wrote the main themes of “Manteca,” or, rather, the main riffs, stacked one on top of each other, first the bass, then the low saxes and trombones, then the mid-range saxes and trombones playing a little higher in a “call” figure with the high trumpets wailing the response. Riff riff riff, energy and power -- Cuban-style riffs, ear-delighting and body-moving; and, like much riff music, going in circles, round and round, harmonically static -- which isn’t how jazz goes. Dizzy wrote a melodic, harmonically lush bridge, and the big band recorded it, with Chano’s hot congas, the wailing horns, hot trumpet solo from Dizzy, a hot tenor solo, until it comes back again at the end to the opening riffs, only this time Dizzy is yelling wildly -- “Manteca! Manteca!” -- a cry of exoticist liberation, primitivist intensity, until you learn -- or maybe you already know -- that “Manteca” means “grease” or “lard,” and that changes everything, it’s so un-cool, so goofy, so, so strange; and then, remember, in impoverished cultures grease and lard are big deals -- luxuries. Is that what Dizzy’s excited about? I’m guessing not; still, knowing the literal meaning of the word raises such questions, and the knowing does change everything about the record -- animal fat! animal fat! -- everything, except how it sounds.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


George has been writing about glimpsing the ungraspable reality that lies -- beneath? beyond? -- the everyday everyday everyday harangue, and the difficulty in communing with that reality. Similar to the Hindu belief that all metaphysical systems -- this is Blake's belief too -- are metaphors for pointing beyond the system; or, says Lao Tzu (a/k/a "Old Man," legendary [?] founder of Taoism) -- "the way that can be named is not the eternal way" (which metagoofytautological me always wants to misquote, "the way that can be named is not the nameless way").

Meanwhile, Carl says that the myth that music is a universal language dis-serves music -- music exists in innumerable local languages, he sensibly says, and to understand those foreign languages takes study. Fumble bumble stumbling here, but yes and no and no -- Yes, knowing other musics takes study; but No, not necessarily to get the gists; because No, music is not a language at all, or if it is, it's a language without signifieds, it's a language that gets under the skin, changes the internal temperature, works on the heartbeat, rocks the body; it's a language of imageless metaphor, a language of relationship and process, not conceptual content, not, "honey, please pick up some onions on your way home from work," but a language of feelings; in which case, I'm betting there are universals, or near-universals, in feeling-sound, based on the human body, the sounds of babies crying, the rhythms of day and night and month and year and breath and blood and eating and crapping and sex and birth and death, the adrenalins of fear and attraction and hunger and bliss and pain. The specifics, sure, innumerably local and distinct, like Carl says.

And -- relationship and process -- Relationship and Process -- tonight, I say, for me anyway, they are the metaphysical Question Mark that underlie What's Happening. (Stray notion from 15 or 20 years ago -- human "being" is off-target; "human happening" -- that gets closer.)

Martin Buber wanted to say to every happening being he encountered -- animate or not -- "you," not "it"; he wanted a lyric relationship with what Taoism calls the Ten Thousand Things -- all the specific instances of What's Happening -- a personal relationship, not an exploitative instrumental relationship. Kenneth Rexroth called Buber's desire for "you" relationships "metaphysical greed."

Is it in Borges? I remember a play written by a friend in which one of the characters talked of a language in which each word contained all the others. (Did Jeff write that play? Or did Mickle? Or did they both use that image at different times? That's my guess. I'm getting old.) The Hindu "Om" feels like this (which is what I hear whenever someone mumbles "um").

Sometimes when I want to listen to music, and I can't decide, I'm wishing I could hear all my records at once.

One night several weeks ago, the 2-year-old, who was not yet two then, sat his mom and me down on either side of him, gave us each a book, and told us to read them aloud to him simultaneously. He sat and listened in calm contented satisfaction.

In the beginning was the sound -- (some people call it the big bang, but that sounds rather macho and violent, doesn't it?) -- and it was the tonic and it was the downbeat, and there ain't no key and there ain't no rhythm you can get into that's wrong with that first note. Don't let anybody persuade you different.

(And speaking of wrong rhythms, I'm up too late again. Night night. Sweet dreams.)

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