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

Monday, April 25, 2005


It just occurred to me:

"Yo ho" in hip-hop-speak has a very different meaning than "Yo ho ho" in pirate-speak.

"Yo ho" = "excuse me, ma'am."

"Yo ho ho" = "well how about that!", or, perhaps, "a wop bop a loo bop."

Sunday, April 24, 2005


Gonna be busy this week and out of town part of it; probably light blogging.

Let me take this opportunity to say Hi! to everybody stopping by for a read. And Thanks! to everybody linking here.

And a comment about comments: Blogger, the host of all the “blogspot” blogs, pushes people to open a Blogger account before commenting. But you don’t have to do that. You can comment anonymously, or sign your name or your e-handle at the bottom of your comment. Comments welcome very!

In case you didn’t know, I wanted to tell you that Veda Hille rocks. The song “Noah’s Ark” on her Emily Carr tribute album, Here is a picture -- verses alternate between 7/8 and 4/4 leading into the uplifting chorus in 12/8, and a climactic bridge with which the song ends, also in 12/8 -- and making the rhythmic switcheroos feel so natural . . .

Which is mere background technical observation to the main thing, which is: a gorgeous song.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Most rock critics like to pretend that they’re invisible, and that they have no influence on the scenes they document. At least they tend to so pretend in their histories of said scenes.

Truth is, most crit-friendly indy-rockers gorged themselves with unhealthy helpings of rockcrit growing up, and often on into middle age. Not that I’m a crit-friendly indy-rocker, but I’ve played one in smoky bars.


Since the Who’s rhythm section is dead, and the Beatles’ guitarists are too, now might be the time for Daltrey-Townshend-McCartney-Starr.

Ladies and gentlemen -- The Hootles!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


1,347: Number of days from the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to VJ Day (Victory in Japan) on August 15, 1945.

1,317: Number of days from the airplane-bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, to today.

If Osama makes it to May 21, he will have survived the self-declared world's only superpower in a presidentially-declared war longer than did Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini working together.

It's pitiful that the current administration enjoys a stronger reputation on national security than the opposition party. Pitiful, outrageous, [your adjectives here].

UPDATE, May 1:

This post has by far gotten the most attention of anything I've put on the blog. In less than 3 weeks, Dubya's WOT will have gone longer than America's involvement in the Second World War. I don't think most Americans realize it.

At least two people (one of whom I don't know) emailed it to their personal list. These blogs have commented or linked to this post:

Digby's Hullaballoo
colinb at DailyKos
Past Peak
Seeing the Forest
aTypical Joe: A gay New Yorker living in the rural south
Brilliant at Breakfast
The Left Coaster
Bush Watch: Progressive News And Opinion

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It’s all I have to bring today -
This, and my heart beside -
This, and my heart, and all the fields -
And all the meadows wide -
Be sure you count - should I forget
Some one the sum could tell -
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

-- Emily Dickinson

In honor of National Poetry Month I’ve been posting poems for which I’ve written music. I’d loved Dickinson for years and years and always wanted to set something of hers. 2 friends were getting hitched and they asked me to sing something during the ceremony -- a rather awesome honor. What did they want me to sing? Anything I wanted, was the answer. Oh!

I thought of this poem and came up with a tune, mostly in the Mixolydian mode over a pulsing drone on the A string of the guitar, with one a-modal chord change near the end. I’m glad my friends liked it. My spouse said it’s one of the prettiest songs I ever wrote. It’s going to be on my band’s album, which, I swear by the breath in my body, I’ll finish before too long.

An early poem -- it's #26 of 1,775 in Thomas H. Johnson's authoritatively speculative chronolgical edition -- most editors leave it out of "selected" editions of her work. The later, knottier, often painful stuff socks it to me too, but I love this, and even in its relative simplicity, the antecedent to the opening word -- "It's" -- is mysterious and wonderful. What is the It? The poem itself is It, my friend Michael Barrish suggested. A likely candidate, but not definitive. I'm happy to leave It open.

Friday, April 15, 2005


It’s one of my favorite songs I ever wrote, a manic rockabilly freak-out in A-minor, setting an untitled Mother Goose poem that I first found 10 or 12 years ago in a book of pagan revival/survival poetry in English, edited by the late Canadian poet Robin Skelton. I used variant readings of some of the lines, which I found later in a 1950-ish anthology of verse for kids. The song will be on my band's upcoming album, which I hope to have finished by early summer. Here is the poem.

A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds;
And when the weeds begin to grow,
It's like a garden full of snow;
And when the snow begins to fall,
It's like a bird upon the wall;
And when the bird away does fly,
It's like a shipwreck in the sky;
And when the sky begins to roar,
It's like a lion at the door;
And when the door begins to crack,
It's like a stick across your back;
And when your back begins to smart,
It's like a penknife in your heart;
And when your heart begins to bleed,
You're dead, and dead, and dead indeed.

About the late hour of last night’s post -- I was out having my first blog-induced rendezvous, as Carl Wilson is in town for some music gabfest I’m missing out on because this week-end is the only one that worked out for my family to go visit relatives in California. Friends and acquaintances Jake London, the illustrious Don Slack, the charming Mrs. Slack, and a very nice woman named Lisa were there as well, and the beer and the talked flowed freely, copiously, prodigiously, lengthily. A blast.

* * *

As a public service, I urge you to please read how my friend oblomova lost a lot of money.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


English writer Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917) made his living as a book critic and only starting writing poetry in his 30s. Robert Frost was his friend. He enlisted to fight what we now call the First World War and was killed in battle.

I set this poem to a slow stoic tune in 3/4; none of the stanzas repeat exactly, though the first, second, and fourth are similar. I used to know a man who read Sappho in the original Greek who argued that her poems were syntactically too dense and complex to have been sung, and that the idea of her poems being “sung” was a metaphor. Thomas’s poem has a lot of clauses and semi-colons, yet I like to think I sing it fine.

I think of it as a sequel to J. M. Synge’s “Prelude,” which I posted last night; “The Owl” describes the aftermath of the hike, for the solvent traveler. Thomas addresses solvency. He also alludes to a song from Love’s Labour Lost in which Shakespeare -- sarcastically, I think -- calls an owl’s cry “a merry note.” Thomas is arguing with Shakespeare as he takes his rest after his walk.

Here is The Owl:

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Monday, April 11, 2005


I listened the Beatles’ White Album and Let It Be this week-end, and I thought of my theory of stardom, which I came up with a few years ago while listening to “Francis A. and Edward K.,” the album by Francis Albert Sinatra and Edward Kennedy Ellington (and his Orchestra). It’s a strange album. Sinatra hired Duke and his orchestra to sing a typical Sinatra album of standards, only one of them written by Duke, and he didn’t even hire Duke (and/or Billy Strayhorn) to write the arrangements for his own band -- the great masters of tone color, harmony, and song setting. Sinatra’s frequent arranger Billy May did them instead, and they’re typical May -- sleek and brassy ‘50s big band swing, and the band could be anybody. A waste. Except when he “allowed” some of Ellington’s band of brilliant soloists some space to play, which he did, some. And on one song Frank is singing and in comes Johnny Hodges, nonpareil sweet funky alto saxist, and I thought -- Sinatra never shares the spotlight, and Hodges is butting in. Good for Hodges! He’s at least as big a star as Sinatra in my ears; meaning, his sound is as brilliant and individualistic, as instantly recognizable.

Similarly with the Beatles. The old saw about the shame of the Beatles’ break up is that without each other, John acerbity and Paul’s lightness had no counterbalance. But that’s not the problem at all -- both those guys encompassed broad ranges. The problem is -- they never had nearly as good a band again. Who’s a better bass player for Lennon songs than McCartney? Who better guitarists for McCartney songs than George and John? Who a better drummer for all of them than Ringo? Listen to a song like the White Album’s “Sexy Sadie”: there’s Ringo with his tasty, melodic, hugely influential but inimitable drum fills; there’s Paul with his busy, inimitable, melodic bass; George with his tasty, melodic, hugely influential guitar fills; and John’s gorgeous vocal. Or “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”: drums, bass, and lead guitar going like 60 in a complex, interlocking pattern, and in the back, John’s slashing offbeats on the rhythm guitar. What a band! Each one of them a star; if not improvisers on the level of Johnny Hodges, nevertheless individualistic players in the rock idiom with tremendous, rarely matched ensemble sense.

Other thought from the week-end’s White Album listen: a question for legal beagles: What would the Beatles have to pay in royalties for the classical music clearances on “Revolution 9” in today’s clearance structure?


Flattered by the esteemed Carl Wilson’s compliments and quotes in the “Globe and Mail” of Toronto; delighted to see my spouse’s car getting international attention. (The linked picture is from almost two years ago, when the 2-year-old was only 5 and a half months.) Seriously, thanks, Carl.

Friday, April 08, 2005


She was one of the earliest, easily the most famous, and widely regarded as the best of the ancient Greek lyric poets.

He was an unsuccessful singer who hit it big by writing big hits for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, and James Taylor.

And their most famous creations are uncannily alike.

Fragment 31 from the poetry of Sappho and Otis Blackwell’s “All Shook Up” experience the physiology of love-lust in almost identical ways.

Sappho’s fragment may have been the most famous lyric poem in the ancient world. The Roman literary theorist Longinus discussed it in his work “On the Sublime.” Top Roman lyric poet Catullus translated it. (Click on “English” for English translations.) No other translations from Greek by him exist.

And it’s a tremendous poem:

In my eyes he matches the gods, that man who
sits there facing you--any man whatever--
listening from closeby to the sweetness of your
voice as you talk, the

sweetness of your laughter: yes, that--I swear it--
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since
once I look at you for a moment, I can't
speak any longer,

but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a
subtle fire races inside my skin, my
eyes can't see a thing and a whirring whistle
thrums at my hearing,

cold sweat covers me and a trembling takes
ahold of me all over: I'm greener than the
grass is and appear to myself to be little
short of dying

But all must be endured, since even a poor [

(Translated by Jim Powell.)

Blackwell’s song was a number one hit for Elvis, and it’s wonderful:

A well I bless my soul
What’s wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree
My friends say I’m actin’ wild as a bug
I’m in love
I’m all shook up
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

My hands are shaky and my knees are weak
I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet
Who do you thank when you have such luck?
I’m in love
I’m all shook up
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Please don’t ask me what’s on my mind
I’m a little mixed up, but I’m feelin’ fine
When I’m near that girl that I love best
My heart beats so it scares me to death!

She touched my hand what a chill I got
Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot
I’m proud to say she’s my buttercup
I’m in love
I’m all shook up
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

My tongue gets tied when I try to speak
My insides shake like a leaf on a tree
There’s only one cure for this body of mine
That’s to have the girl that I love so fine!

How do Otis and Sappho know that it’s love?

For one thing, there’s physical infirmity, trembling, wobbliness.

Sappho: “a trembling takes
ahold of me all over.”

Blackwell: “My hands are shaky and my knees are weak,
I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet” and “I’m all shook up.”

And this trembling doesn’t affect the limbs only, but the internal organs as well.

Sappho: The sound of her beloved’s laughter “sets the heart to shaking inside my breast.”

Blackwell: “My insides shake like a leaf on a tree” and “My heart beats so it scares me to death!”

The body’s regulation of internal temperature has gone wacko, and the singer experiences heat and cold simultaneously.

Sappho: “a
subtle fire races inside my skin” and “cold sweat covers me.”

Blackwell: “She touched my hand what a chill I got,
Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot.”

Confusion afflicts the singer.

Sappho: “my
eyes can't see a thing and a whirring whistle
thrums at my hearing.”

Blackwell: “Please don’t ask me what’s on my mind,
I’m a little mixed up.”

And speechlessness ensues.

Sappho: “I can't
speak any longer,

but my tongue breaks down.”

Blackwell: “My tongue gets tied when I try to speak.”

Sappho and Blackwell know: It must be love!

History doesn’t report whether Blackwell ever read Sappho, or Sappho ever heard Elvis. According legend, Blackwell’s inspiration came in the form of a challenge from his publisher, who shook a bottle of soda and said to Blackwell, “You can write about anything. Write about this!”

Blackwell went home and channeled Sappho, and the rest is history.
the difficulty of political discourse when your side is playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules and the other side is kicking, biting, and kidney punching, and when you appeal to the ref, the ref pretends that it’s a fair fight. (for “ref,” read, the press.)

rage at the thorough dishonesty and unscrupulousness of the kickers, biters, and kidney punchers; utter disgust at the long-term tendency of the Queensbury team to act all abused wife who always wonders how she can change so that husband won’t kick the crap out of her any more; heartened by any signs of fight -- which seem to be appearing more frequently lately -- in the ol’ dame.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Seeing as how it’s National Poetry Month, as my fellow blogging singer-songwriter reminded me, I thought I’d post some of the poems I’ve set to music.

William Blake wrote this poem at the age of 14. I first set it to music -- a listless waltz -- when I was about 15. In my early 20s I re-set it to a much more suitable 4/4 one-chord mountain-style holler. I’ve played it in many arrangements with many people and still play it every once in a while. Blake a fave poet and thinker, this poem a fave, and the tune I wrote a personal fave too.

Some time long after I wrote my tune I heard the Fugs’ version. As I recall it’s a waltz, not unlike my first attempt at it. I have no idea how I could have heard the Fugs at that age. I still don’t know the Fugs’ music -- have only heard snippets -- but I dig Ed Sanders’ poetry, and his singing and synthesizer playing in the wonderful film Poetry in Motion is spell-bindingly beautiful.

(Disclaimer and aside: There was something in the paper today about the challenge the British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion faces in writing a celebratory wedding poem for Prince Charles and his royal squeeze. [I don’t know Motion’s stuff at all but I like that last name.] Motion’s challenge points to the utter absurdity of the U.S.’s recent adoption of the tradition of naming Poets Laureate. If a poet is moved to write an elegy in honor of Reagan’s death, or a panegyric on Bush’s 2nd inauguration, that’s fine, but we don’t have the tradition-infrastructure to institutionlize that role, and our so-called Poets Laureate have had no ceremonial duties, so what’s the point? Similarly, the idea of National Anything Month is rather Hallmark-y, but what the heck, if it gives people an excuse to discuss and learn more about what interests them.)

Here’s Blake’s untitled poem, originally published in a book of his early stuff put together by his friends, without his participation.

How sweet I roam'd from field to field,
     And tasted all the summer's pride,
Till I the prince of love beheld,
     Who in the sunny beams did glide!
He shew'd me lilies for my hair,
     And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his gardens fair,
     Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
     And Phœbus fir'd my vocal rage;
He caught me in his silken net,
     And shut me in his golden cage.
He loves to sit and hear me sing,
     Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
      And mocks my loss of liberty.

Pseudonymous blogger Corndog has a charming parody of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot up "in honor of national poetry month," Five Ways of Looking at an Eskimo Pie.

I’ve added Corndog’s blog, Corndoggerel, to my links to other blogs, as well as those of a poet-who-knows-all-the-poets-and-talks-about-them-really-interestingly, Ron Silliman, and jammin’ cult studs and lit prof Michael Berube.

Keep on rockin’.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Took the 2-year-old to a kids’ music concert on the recommendation of a friend yesterday. Elizabeth Mitchell has a lovely voice and sings with concentrated sweetness and robust tenderness, accompanied by some fine finger picking and jumpin’ rhythms from her husband Daniel Littleton on guitar, and some sweet violin by a woman named Jean whose last name I’ve forgotten. Elizabeth and Daniel’s 3-year-old daughter played the gig too, singing surprisingly in tune, audible much of the time.

My 2-year-old was rapt.

With a couple exceptions, the repertoire was notably devoid of children’s songs. Elizabeth and Co. opted instead for folk and rock songs with strong melodies -- Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” Bo Diddley’s “Hey Bo Diddley,” Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone,” the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.” The VU and Diddley songs really got the kids bouncin’. Two of the songs typically ID’ed as “kids music” were among my faves in the show -- Woody Guthrie’s “Little Sack of Sugar [I could eat you up],” which I’d never heard before, and the old Schoolhouse Rock number Three Is a Magic Number. I’d forgotten this verse, and the diaphanous arrangement and performance brought a tear to my eye:

A man and a woman had a little baby,
Yes, they did.
They had three in the family,
And that's a magic number.

You’re shocked at my sentimentality, I’ve no doubt, but you won’t be once you know that my birth song is “It’s My Party [and I’ll cry if I want to ]”. I’ve always been a cryer. (My spouse’s birth song is “Big Bad John.”) (Thanks to Alex Ross for the popstrological tip.)

Thanks to Elizabeth and family and friend for the lovely show.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

[deleted bewilderment about how Australian wild horse fetishists were finding my blog -- sausage fetishists too.]

Tuesdays are usually child care days for me, which means, among other things, that I get to sleep in while my spouse gets ready for work and feeds the 2-year-old. And this morning, lying in bed, I finally got around to reading Borges’ story “The Aleph,” which my friend Jeff Dorchen recommended to me about 20 years ago.

If you don’t know the story, and don’t want me to spoil it for you, stop reading this post right here, and go read the story.

Great story, right?

What struck me about it was not only the vision of a point in space that contains all other points in space simultaneously and in infinite detail. Borges handled that spicy little number with his typical pungeant grace. What haunted me was the effect that the vision had on the people who experienced it. The narrator says that he was filled with compassion, and as soon as the vision passed he treated his host, the possessor of the Aleph, with calculated dishonesty and cruelty. The host, who had been experiencing the Aleph for years, was pompous and foolish. The vision brought no wisdom.

Borges’ imaginative fancy intrigues; his insight into the ways of people is feeling painfully true.

I finished reading the story and rolled on my side and went back to sleep.

Monday, April 04, 2005


From the 1972 Penguin anthology, “Imagist Poetry,” ed. Peter Jones, an appendix of contemporaneous parodies, this anonymous dollop published in the “The Chapbook: A Monthly Miscellany,” May 1921.

“Tutti Frutti”

On the spots of
The brown cushion
My love
Has laid her yellow hairs.

Her fan is not moving:

Is the drunken juggler?

[JOHN COMMENTS: Anticipating not only Little Richard, but the closest Sondheim ever came to a hit, “Send in the Clowns.” Where is the drunken juggler indeed. Ezra Pound wasn’t really a lunatic, but he played one for the hanging judge; in a late poem Carl Sandburg referred to Pound as “my crazy brudder.”]


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey writes in response to recent posts on Barry Manilow and Elvis Presley's soundtrack to "Loving You." First up, "Loving You." Here's Jay:

"Loving You is my fave Elvis picture. He plays a cleaned up proxy of himself and the story line is an up an coming singer who overshadows his mentor (and falls for the mentoress). The title song is delicous -- what a groggy tempo, and thos druneken L's --- llllllovingggg you... One Night of Sin is the original lyric (Fats Domino again) to E's big hit One Night With You. I didn't know he had recorded the origianl lyric. The hit has a great burlesque, stripper drum thing going, so it's clean-ness is only skin deep."

And, here's Jay on barriers to Loving Barry:

"I think another barrier for the rock crit crowd is theatricality. Some rockers, Bowie, etc., can get away with it by couching it in concept -- making it art. And, young Elvis is of course a great performer, but it is called inspiration -- dancing in tongues, so to speak -- uncalculated. Vegas Elvis, on the other hand, gets no respect -- showbiz, calculated theater.

"But generous performance, and the emotive kind of music making that goes with it is a no no.

"Eisenberg talks about the idea of cool. Rocker's must stay cool, though they are allowed to be moved by the spirit."

JOHN REPLIES: Right about "Loving You" (which I forgot to mention as a highlight of the album!); right about the Stripper Drums to both of Elvis's "One Night"s (good call! I hadn't thought of it that way, and you're right); and right about theatricality. I would add that not only does Bowie bring "art" to his theatricality, but irony as well. Same in soul music -- theatricality is fine in the Motown acts and Otis Redding, but by the '70s, Earth Wind & Fire's unironic theatricality doesn't cut it with the critics nearly as well as Funkadelic's ironic take on staginess does.

Digressive afterthought: Is there a relationship between the embrace of irony in the '70s and the shrinking historical hopes that parallelled the shrinking economy?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Informed and lively discussion of Smooth Jazz over at Michael Berube’s web site.

Franklin Bruno (scroll down a bit) mentions being a musical Platonist. Currently re-reading “The Recording Angel” by Evan Eisenberg, which includes a discussion of musical Platonism and musical Aristotelianism. Hoping to hear more from Franklin on this.

Thinking I'm a Platonist, according to Eisenberg's lay-out. Lulu's "Cry Me a River," from the Martin Scorsese blues doc series -- I luxuriate in the tasty bitterness & sorrow of the performance.

Music that rings your emotional bells says to you -- "You're not the only one who feels this way." Explanation of the power of radio -- the music comes along unexpectedly.

I'll always be bewildered and naive. Why are the Republicans intent on maximizing sorrow and suffering for the maximum number of people? Why do they insist on lying about it? Why? Why? Why? (Though I was pleased to read that new Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz -- a decades-long friend of my dad's family -- came out in favor of raising the tax cap for Social Security and told V.P. Cheney in public and to his face that he disagreed with some of what the Administration is proposing. Most Republicans who disagree have simply refused to appear with Bush or Cheney in public forums on the subject. This is the Joe that I expected and hoped for.)

In my post on Chris Montez the other night, I forgot to mention that he also recorded the early ‘60s party hit, “Let’s Dance,” which is much more hyped up than his laid-back later ‘60s party hits that I love. As far as I know he’s never recorded Schubert Lieder, in Spanish or German. I only mentioned that he had out of a misguided loyalty to an early April tradition.

Spring ahead, brothers and sisters, spring ahead.

Friday, April 01, 2005


I come across him only occasionally on the oldies station, and I’ve never even seen a CD by him, but whenever I hear Chris Montez, I’m charmed & seduced. Fronting an easy-going, laid-back version of the Johnny Rivers hand-clapping party rock vibe, Montez has a sweet, light, friendly, sexy, slightly-and-charmingly-out-of-tune voice. The only songs I’d heard had been a bouncy, light, sexy “Call Me,” much less fervent than Petula Clark’s original; and a pretty big ‘60s hit I don’t recall having heard anyone else sing, “The More I See You,” another light bouncy sexy number. It wasn’t until today that I learned that he had recorded hand-clapping party-vibe arrangements of some Schubert Lieder, when I heard his Spanish-language take on “Die Forelle,” or “The Trout,” now sung as “La Trucha,” on the local world music station. You wouldn’t necessarily think that that Schubert’s brisk 6/8 would translate well to a laid-back 4/4 party rockin’ groove, but I found the whole thing awkwardly sweet. I guess it was a minor hit in Germany in the early ‘70s.

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