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

Monday, May 30, 2005


The bitterness of the memory of lives wasted in pursuit of lies and folly. Not since WW2 has the U.S. fought a war to defend its freedom -- our freedom. Including the current Afghan war, which George Bush has never been serious about winning anyway.

Lesson of 2004 election, which we should have learned in 2000: Gotta go negative against the Republicans. We have no counterbalance to Republican Talk Radio. In our case, all we have to do to go negative is state the facts. Republicans complain about the liberal media, and they have a point: Whenever the media tells the truth (which is a lot rarer than it should and could be), it's anti-Republican, because the Republican Party is proudly anti-fact, anti-reality, anti-truth.

New meme (hey, I used that word! meme! meme! meme!):

G.O.P. = Gross Oleaginous Prevaricators.

ReMember That!

The records of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, DeLay, Hastert, Frist, And The Rest should have taught us by now to assume they're lying whenever their mouths are open. We should allow for exceptions, sure, but only after vetting and verification.

Memorial Day. Pity the dead, pity their families, and forgive us for letting it happen now.

Sunday, May 29, 2005


Memorial Day week-end, it’s Northwest Folklife, Seattle’s “folk” music festival. Yesterday was the first day in a month my beloved spouse & I both had off together, so we made a day of it, and went to the festival. We saw some guys I know who play in a steel-drum wedding band. It was hot yesterday, and they were playing in the grassy shade, so we stayed for a while. Three steel drums and a kit drummer; intricate, showy, entertaining arrangements. The 2-year-old danced.

“Now we’re going to do a song by a little known recording artist. Anybody ever heard of Barry Manilow?”

My wife and I shook our fists in the air and yelled, “Barry! Barry!”

A 55-ish white woman standing behind us, standing with the aid of two canes, said to me, “Barry rocks!”

It was a welcome answer to my question of the other night.


The high point yesterday was The Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band. (For those who’ve never lived around here, Ballard is one of Seattle’s more self-regarding neighborhoods.) The BSSB lit up those Sousa standards and other brass band fare, and the be-sandaled folkies sitting on a lawn at the Seattle Center dug it. Sousa’s music in the park, where it belongs. Folk music -- the people’s music. At one point someone put their sandals on their hands and marched them in the air; soon the whole lawn was doing it, almost all sandals, and a couple pair of tennies, and my docksiders. (My ethnicity is WASP, middle-class WASP, more specifically, Lake-WASP. I grew up wearing docksiders, well before the brief fad for things “preppie” in the late ‘70s, and I never stopped. My high school band once got fired after the first night of a 3-night gig, ostensibly because of my docksiders. We were playing, roughly speaking, punk rock. In 1981, docksiders were Not Punk. I had made the Romantic mistake of thinking that rock and roll was an avenue for personal expression. Do I still have ISSUES about this?)

A lot of the BSSB members wear their old high school or college band uniforms -- the ones that can still fit in them. The middle-aged drum major sits in a chair, wearing shorts and her high school uniform, and twirls that baton like a pro, always seated. The crowd went nuts and demanded an encore; the band complied with “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The drum major stood up and sang, in a powerful church-soprano voice, this stanza only, during the march’s third strain.

Hurrah for the flag of the free!
May it wave as our standard forever,
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.

The march’s third strain plays thrice. The drum major sang during the first and third go-throughs; the piccolos nailed the obliggato in the 2nd & 3rd. I had never heard the words before, and damned if the condemnation of despots and the rousing music didn’t bring a tear to my eye, and damned if the whole crowd didn’t give them a Standing O.

Friday, May 27, 2005


The ice cream truck repeating (repeating repeating repeating) the first 8 or 10 bars of Beethoven’s ditty “Fuer Elise,” with its sour electronic intonation resembling a sickly set of chimes; while the young white man with dredlocks plays a soft, sweet, dusty-sounding pattern on his African-style hand drum. The 2-year-old picks up 2 sticks and hits them together, accompanying the drummer, and dancing in a slow galloping circle. The two percussionists, who’ve never met, look very happy to be playing together. As Beethoven blares down the block and kids splash and shout in the cold lake.


Last Sunday, the 2-year-old made his public debut. We went to a street fair, to see the crafts, mostly kitschy, and see and hear the busking jugglers and musicians, mostly very good. We bumped into a friend of my spouse’s from the peace movement, Jonny Hahn, a full-time professional busker who’s been doing it for decades, hauling his small piano (missing the top and bottom octaves) around in his van to set up and play. Wonderful guy and a darn fine musician. We chatted for a bit and then he asked if we would watch his piano and CDs while he ran into a building for a quick break. We said sure, and Nat wanted to play the piano, and that was fine with Jonny, so Nat did the 2-year-old tone cluster thing, not loud (he rarely bangs -- only when the expressive moment calls for it, right?), and very happy. He didn’t make any tips.
A little absurd to accuse someone of being loyal to his friends.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Buchner. When I discussed non-musical theatrical literature between, roughly, Moliere and Ibsen in a post a week and a half ago, I forgot Georg Buchner, the great German playwright of the 1830s. He wrote three plays that companies occasionally revive, “Danton’s Death,” “Leonce and Lena,” and, more often, “Woyzeck,” which became the basis of a 20th century opera.

But Buchner’s plays were so out of the fashion the time -- and so close to 20th century style -- that they almost prove the point I was trying to make about the datedness of 18th and 19th century theater. Buchner died in 1837 at the age of 24, and it would be almost 60 years before the first of his plays was performed before a German audience--and almost 100 years before his plays were translated into English.

* * *


I’m feeling icky about saying some not-nice things about “The Sunset Tree.” It’s complicated. I don’t know how I’d feel about it if I’d paid for it, because I don’t like a number of the songs. But the ones I do like really hit me.

Critical consensus calls Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” one of the all time classic albums, but some critics say, eh, it’s uneven. I agree with both views. Only three songs really send me spinning. But those three songs send me SO spinning, and their soundworld is so unmapped, that I can’t dispute the classic status.

It’s early in my listening curve with it, so I can't say how I'll end up feeling about “The Sunset Tree.” I don’t know whether “The Sunset Tree” will be a “classic.” Despite positive coverage in the “New Yorker” and (someone tells me) on NPR, I’d be shocked if its sales reach Marvin levels. Unlikely to show up on Oldies radio in 20 years. But likely to be a “classic” for its fans, maybe like Elvis Costello’s early stuff is now.

If it weren’t for the album-ness of albums, and the custom of talking about them as units, and the custom of purchasing music through these units, I would not have even mentioned that I don’t like some of the songs on “The Sunset Tree.” I’m not sure I should have mentioned it anyway. But I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression in the extremely unlikely eventuality that someone might make a purchasing decision based on something I say on this blog.

Monday, May 23, 2005


No solos on the record. No improvising. Everything is drum-head taut. A punk sort of asceticism to it, a dramatic control, or a drama of control, the fight for control depicted in the songs, dramatized in the band’s playing.

The one about the grabbing the lion’s tooth and fighting him (his step-dad), with the gorgeous cello line and the dramatic tag line -- “I hold on / For dear life” -- tonight the song brought tears to my eyes. Expert, tense martial rhythm throughout, a dramatic bridge, and the story ends with the protagonists clenched in their fight, the singer’s face hot with tears, and suddenly the pronoun switches for the last chorus, “And we hold on / For dear life.” It’s the pronoun switch that brought the tears, the recognition that as horrible and violent as his step-father can be, he’s a goddamn human being too, and life, life is precious, it’s got a clawing root in each of us, and us in it, and we hold on.

Great dramatic singer. The ultra-controlled arrangements and crystal enunciation make me think of a grim musical sometimes. It’d be a helluva movie. Overwhelming.

The melodies and harmonies can be limited and repetitive over the course of an album, but Darnielle can write a hook, and the arrangements have a nice variety. If the record had a single, it would be the song with the refrain, “I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me,” with its jaunty, peppy, almost sodapop tune and its dark, taut arrangement working together to highlight the hope and the grimness of the sentiment.

Also admire: Some of the songs are SHORT. Two verses, no refrain, done. Very cool.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


This week-end a friend lent me “The Sunset Tree,” the new record by the Mountain Goats, an act I’d never heard, and I’ve been listening to it.

“The Sunset Tree” makes me reconsider the Death Of The Album, which I’ve been very comfortable with ever since the CD made it convenient for me to skip songs I don’t much like. (And right now I can’t think of one (non-jazz) pop album where I don’t skip tracks, besides Brian Wilson’s “Smile.” Maybe Gang of 4’s and the Sex Pistols’ first albums. OK, maybe a few -- but not many!) In the last year, though, I’ve heard a few albums whose constituent songs have benefitted tremendously from the context of the albums in which they’ve been released:
* Brian Wilson’s “Smile,” with its lovely interweaving of musical themes from song to song;
* Barry Manilow’s “Two Nights Live,” with the sweet context of Barry and his fans’ surprise at finding their mutual love;
* and “The Sunset Tree,” with its running theme of singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s childhood surviving the terrifying abuse of his step-father.

Part of the power of Darnielle’s song about grabbing the lion’s tooth, with the tag line, “I hold on / for dear life,” depends on the thematic context. It wouldn’t sock it so emotionally if I didn’t know the “lion” was his step-dad who beat him into unconsciousness in other songs. I can’t know what it would sound like without knowing the context, but I do know this: Great song, with terrific arrangement, the cello carrying an emotional, expansive melody during the chorus in response to the minimal, also very emotionally effective vocal melody.

Darnielle is famous for his lyrics. I’ve read at least 8 or 10 write-ups of this album or previous ones, and all I knew about the music going in was that it was minimally arranged, guitar-based, at least sometimes rhythmically urgent, and that he sang emotionally. I think one reviewer somewhere mentioned that he wrote nice melodies, but mostly the writers talk about the lyrics, lyrics, lyrics.

The detail-rich lyrics are, for me, hit or miss, but when Darnielle hits, he hits it out of the park, and in his own style.

In the second verse of “Broom People,” I was wondering why in hell the singer was getting so worked up about “a half-eaten gallon of ice cream in the fridge,” but it made sense when the last line came around, that when he’s tangled up in “your” hair, he is “a babbling brook,” sung with the wild abandon of freaked-out amazement at sexual connection, an amazement that retrospectively takes in the ice cream carton too.

Sometimes, despite the detail, the meaning is opaque. When the cops come in the second verse of the song “Dance Music,” I have no idea why, which is a shame, because the first verse is so vivid and powerful. The cops coming without explanation succeeds at spookiness, but leaves a bad taste in my mouth, like the singer is deliberately withholding information. I have to consider, though, that maybe I’m just dense, and the reason for the cops coming is perfectly clear, and I’m simply missing it.

Though I don’t always like the sound of it, Darnielle has a strong voice. A reedy, nasally timbre, reminiscent of strident ‘60s folk-protest singer Phil Ochs, sometimes slightly of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes’ first album, but more rational than Gano. Gano was barely out of adolescence when he made that adolescence-laden freak-out album. In the adolescence Darnielle portrays on this album, the standard American hormonal freak-out is complicated by an abusive parent, even though, as my friend Jake London pointed out, there are important cross-over points with un-abused teen-hood -- drive, drink, sex, music, identity formation, the longing for escape. Unlike Gano at the time of “Blister in the Sun,” Darnielle is in his mid 30s now, and I don’t recall Gano alluding to the myth of Remus and Romulus’s rearing (which was conducted by a she-wolf), or Jewish liturgy, which Darnielle does, expertly and movingly.

But whether I always like Darnielle’s voice, he’s a master of inflection and dramatic expression, with great control of timbre and pitch.

My first listen, the songs struck me as melodically and harmonically limited and repetitive, but on 2nd listen, I didn’t notice that, and my reaction depended on my connection to the song-as-a-whole, including the lyrics. The band is good, the arrangements nice, usually minimal, sometimes lovely. And they’re all in service of the songs, with their unique, strong style.

And more than mere art, Mr. John Darnielle, I’m just damn glad you made it out of that house. There will be dancing and singing in Jerusalem next year. As a song that alludes to another religion has it, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Good luck to anybody struggling with demons, internal or external.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


For the 3rd week-end in a row I’ve gotten out to hear a lengthy piece of music. Two weeks ago it was Ives’s 3rd Symphony, last week it was Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffmann,” last night it was the Who’s rock cantata “Tommy,” played in its entirety by a pick-up band of local musicians as a fundraiser for a friend of theirs who encountered a heinous medical bill without benefit of health insurance. Much as I disliked the plot of the Offenbach opera, I gotta say “Tommy” bugs me even more -- so preposterous, so sadistic, and so condescending in its depiction of mass adulation. I knew this going in, having heard the album as a teenager, but I like a lot of the music, and I like the musicians.

The band, with only a few rehearsals, rocked and socked the 75-minute suite hard, though with some mistakes (I must admit).

Singer Sean Nelson has a vocal timbre more reminiscent of Brad Delp than Roger Daltrey, and that was fine -- he was charismatic and magnificent, and his warm and ironic banter undercut the story’s ridiculousness; one of my favorite moments -- in the original and in last night’s rendition -- is the instrumental “Underture,” a bitchin’ guitar-trio riff-o-rama for virtuoso drums (wonderfully played by John Hollis), bass, and guitar, which the band nailed. Sean gave synopsis of the plot-so-far during the tune, juxtaposing his friendly, deadpan irony with the passion of the music and the rest of the band. Exciting music, wittily ironic and charming presentation -- a complex moment. And Sean more than held up his end of the bargain as a singer, doing justice to the emotions of the material, and leaving his irony for between-song banter and his one spot of narration. (And, I just found out, Sean blogs! I like his writing -- he writes for one of Seattle’s free weeklies.)

Great tunes, great riffs, great LOUD noise. Wonderful to hear someone drum like that. An email announcing the show that I got from the guitarist, Darren Loucas, said that playing “Tommy” all the way through was one of his rock and roll fantasies. Sean repeated it onstage, saying it was a rock and roll fantasy of the 3 of the 4 of them up there, and that Bill Herzog, the bass player, was a good sport to go along. (Bill usually plays much quieter music.) It seemed to be a rock and roll fantasy for a lot of the crowd too, which was smaller than I had expected. People sang along and really got into it. I didn’t sing along, but I was very happy to be so well rocked, and the riffs and the tunes and the harmony vocals and the drums echo thunderously, happily, in my head the day after.

Friday, May 20, 2005


I gotta admit it -- the 2-year-old's addiction to the Michigan Men's Glee Club is starting to get to me. I like the music -- a LOT -- but not THAT much. And when I start to learn the words from sheer repitition --

"Here they come with banners flying!" --

that's kind of jaunty, that's colorful --

"Now we their praises sing for the glory and fame they brought us" --

the tune rocks, but the grammatically convoluted, tiresome words, especially after the 30th time in 2 months, and I can't even console myself by thinking of parallels to Pindar, the Classical Greek sports poet whom I'm not that crazy about anyway . . .

One line I do like, a lot, from the alma mater, "The Yellow and Blue" (written by a grad of the class of 1878):

"Yellow the stars as they ride through the night and reel in a rollicking crew."

Drunken, partying stars. Midwest anthropomorphizing paganism at its finest.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Jam session before dinner tonight. The 2-year-old got out the pots and pans and a pair of wooden spoons, I played piano and sang, and we wailed away. He actually listened, pausing when I paused, stopping when I stopped. At the end of every song he said, "Again!" I counted us in, imagining myself Paul McCartney, "one two three FOUR," but the 2-year-old didn't really get it. He likes the counting though.

* * *

Speaking of counting, last night before my beloved spouse came home I was watching the 2-year-old and the next-door-neighbor 4-year-old and 1-and-a-half-year-old. The 4-year-old asked if my spouse were coming home and I said, yes. The 4-year-old asked, "In six or seven years?"

"In six years you'll be 10," I told her. She liked that.

The two-year-old said, "I'm going to be six, and then I'll be seven, and then I'll be 2 again, and then I'll be a big big man!"

I don’t remember ever having had the Test dream, where, omigod, you have a big test for school, and you didn’t even know about the class, you never even went to the class, and so you didn’t study, and here you are in the classroom . . . stresssssin’.

A variation of that dream has come to me about performing.

Once it was opening night of “Hamlet” and I showed up at the theater to find out I had the lead role. The cast and director had complete confidence in me, and I was about to go on, and I never had been to one rehearsal, never learned one line. Oh sure, a few scattered lines, everybody remembers some of those, but there I was, about to go on and . . . stressssssin’.

Last night, I was hanging out with some poor Mexican immigrants, and someone asked if I played bongoes, and I said, sure, a little bit (truth is, I can keep a beat, and that’s about it), and someone asked if I wanted to play a show, and I said, sure, why not. One of the men played trumpet, which he carried in a paper bag. I rented a set of bongoes and showed up at the gig, which was in a high-school gym-type room in the suburbs. It was a 2nd string local professional orchestra, and I was in the precussion section, never having been to a rehearsal. The players and conductor were happy to see me, having complete confidence in me, while I couldn’t make head or tail of the bar-line free score and noted with some alarm a bit on the 2nd page with my name on it, “Bongo solo, John Shaw.” Two nice guys I knew from childhood, whom I haven’t seen in decades, sang bass in the orchestra chorus. I was happy to see them. Will A., in real life 20 years ago not at all a kissy guy, gave me a kiss on each cheek, French style.

I woke up before the concert started.

"[T]here are rare occasions when we experience an overwhelming awareness, not of *things* that are possible, but pure possibility *qua* possibility, nameless and unincorporated. It neither springs from nor is directed at a particular hope or despair in our life experience. We cannot pin it down except to say that what we are feeling is the presence of infinite possibility which is not directed *from*, *toward*, or *for-the-sake-of* anything.

"The possible in this manifestation fills us with apprehensiveness in the encounter; it seems unsafe, threatening, even diabolical. It is like Mephistopheles in Goethe's *Faust*, presenting itself as more primeval than Being itself. It is a nothingness restless with stirring intimations of being, a belabored womb from which being itself is to be cast out. Like one whose foot is slipping off the edge of a precipice, we feel ourselves falling headlong into a void. We draw back, grasping for any handhold we can get seeking refuge and protection in the limits or boundaries of reason.

"'Anything is possible' in this sense carries with it the notion that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- *has* to be, and that everything -- absolutely everything -- *can* be." -- “Art & Existentialism” by Arturo B. Fallico, 1962

Of course, this jargon isn’t *completely* discarded; it still lives, in Rockist criticism, with the difference that in Rockism (and here’s my objection), the only possible producer in Art or in Life of these moments is Rock, the whole Rock, and nothing but the Rock. A recent example by Jay Babcock, (courtesy Franklin Bruno):

“Rock & roll represents nothing if not the absolute destruction of chains: the sweet-heat moment of dance action; the moving, trembling, deafening vibration of molecules; the mind-body-spirit reaction to being in the presence of culturally-personally-spiritually-aesthetically resonant sounds and songs.”

Monday, May 16, 2005


In one respect, the average rock show is going to be better executed -- and closer to the creators' intentions -- than the average large-group classical show. The reason? The answer, my friend, has to do with what got the classical players to Carnegie Hall in the first place: practice, practice, practice. Rock bands practice like crazy, frequently going over minute details of songs dozens of times before a performance, practicing a 40-minute set for weeks or months before debuting it. A classical band, like the Seattle Opera's orchestra, which I heard Friday night, won't have nearly as much rehearsal before the show, so it should be no surprise that the rhythmic execution and togetherness isn't always as tight as it could be.

(More to say about my Rockism post from a couple nights ago -- and thanks JL for the comments. But lunch break over, back to work now.)

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Authenticity is never completely knowable, but inauthenticity sometimes is.

(Second thoughts on last night's post. Gotta run.)

Douglas Wolk does us a service by bringing the concept of “normativity” into the discussion of Rockism.  His formulation that Rockists see Rock as the Norm gets a lot of the truth but doesn’t go far enough.  His getting it so close helps me understand it better for myself. 

Here’s my take.

1.  Rock is the dominant cultural form and has been for a long time.

2.  Rockists see Rock as the Ideal.

3.  Part of the Rockist Ideal is to be in Constant Rebellion and to deny that Rock is the Dominant Form.  Like the song says, Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao.  Rockism posits a Perpetual Revolution, a Spinning of the Wheel, with the Rockists perpetually on top, and denying it. To put it another way, Rockists see Rock as the Norm in so far as Norm means Ideal, but they don’t see it as the Norm in so far as Norm means Dominant Form. When Nirvana reached Number One, the Rockists said, “We won.”

4.  Jazz partisans assaulted the castle of high art by claiming that jazz competed with classical music on musical grounds.  Rockists claimed the high art status of Rock on the grounds of High Romanticism.  A few of the High Romantic canons of Rockism:

4.a. the isolated genius of the artist;

4.b. the authenticity of the artist (the concept of auteurism, where performer creates the work by being the artist/writer);

4.c. the passion of the artist, typically signified in rock by timbres with high levels of distortion -- fuzzed guitars, gravelly vocals, loud drums (this pertains especially to Boomer-era rock and Boomer-certified punk and its offshoots);

4.d. the artist as rebel;

4.e. the authenticity of the lower classes;

4.f. which is juxtaposed against the beknightedness of the masses (a/k/a elitism, a/k/a the cult of unpopularity, a late, post-punk Rockist canon that helped kill Kurt Cobain).

5.  The High Romantic canons of Rockism have a shadow side:

5.a. the dissemination of all of the above (isolation, rebellion, elitism) through savvy high capitalist marketing and sincere, true-believer Rockist journalism and criticism;

5.b. the blue-collar masquerading of middle-class musicians;

5.c. the pressure on musicians to conform to all of the above.

Dylan crystallized these tendencies:  High Romantic notions of genius, isolation, rebellion, and auteurism, combined with savvy capitalist marketing and High-Romanticism-inspired blue-collar masquerading.  Since Romanticism itself came about in the shadow of Industrial Capitalism, it’s no surprise that the capitalist machine has long known how to market it.  As Kenneth Rexroth warned artists in the 1950s, Madison Avenue loves a rebel artist.

When the original Boomer Rockists chose Romanticism as their path up the High Art Mountain, it was a big historical mistake. 

First, the reliance on Romantic imagery and ideology shifts the focus from the music to the story-behind-the-music. While I’m as nosy as the next guy and love to know the story behind the music, promoting the story above the music itself short-changes the music. Rock has made unique contributions to musical technique, especially in qualities of timbre and rhythm. Rockism downplays this to the extent that it’s conscious of music-as-music at all.

Second, and more important, the confused class ideology (lower classes authentic, but masses beknighted) led to an obfuscatory class masquerade that has been bad, long-term, for our politics. There’s a direct cultural line from Bob Dylan, blue-collar rock rebel, to George W. Bush, man of the people.  I understand the difference between confused individual rebellion against one’s own class (Dylan) and calculated faux-populist demogoguery (Bush and Co.), but the rock rebellion of the ‘60s opened up a space of ambiguity where the Republicans could claim the populist mantle.

I know, I know, it’s wrong to blame Bush on Bob Dylan’s hagiographers, but I can’t help myself, it’s how I *feel*. And of course, as part of the wily Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao-ist Permanent Revolution of the Original Boomer Rockists, all questions of authenticity are now off the table, as the Rockists hide behind the New Pop Banner, having absorbed the Pop critique of Rockism and put it to their own use. So I can point out that the embrace of blue collar imagery by middle class artists like Dylan and hundreds of his middle-class artistic descendants has been *deeply inauthentic*, and the very people who promote the image of Dylan-as-Rebel-Artist reply, “Oh, it’s passe to care about authenticity.” But there is indeed something very authentic about the middle class denial of middle class roots -- it’s an authentic expression of shame about unearned privilege.

Maybe it’s that shame that’s at the heart of Rockism, and that connects Rockism to the Democrats’ electoral mishaps [asterisk]. Maybe Bush’s genius is to project an attractive (“rocking”!) shamelessness, while capitalizing on the populist urge for wealth that Rockist shame distances itself from. Have to think more about this.

We’ve gotten far afield. Culture’s like that, right?

High Romantic Rockism has been bad for music criticism and bad for American politics, but rock has long been the norm, and I’m in it and of it. While I love all sorts of music and listen to classical, jazz, and shmaltz pop at least as much as I listen to rock, I love the primal phrases, “that rocks,” and even, though less easily, “keep on rockin’.” “Rock” is my coin-word for, “that’s authentic, that’s true to itself, that’s passionate and real and right.” (Howard Dean rocked. John Kerry didn’t. I ended up supporting Kerry in the Democratic primary, but I was wrong. Dean would have been the better candidate.) And, unsurprisingly, the Romantic myth of the isolated, authentic, passionate, rebellious artist appeals to me deeply.

Rock me, rock me all night long.

[asterisk] I’ve always believed that Bush stole the 2000 election, and I’ve recently come around to believing that he stole 2004 too, based on inexplicable anomalies in the exit polls and on the Republicans’ history of cheating and upfront willingness to do so. Motive, opportunity, history, and evidence pointing in the direction of cheating . . . Still, in neither 2000 nor 2004 should the election have been close enough for Bush to have been able to steal it.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Family coming to visit for a few days starting tomorrow. Probably no blogging after tonight till after they go back home.

Looking forward to seeing them.

Have a good week.

Between the tragedies of Racine and the comedies of Moliere in French and Sheridan in English in the late 17th century, and the late-19th-century work of Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg, I can think of only one one non-musical play in the standard repertory, Beaumarchais’ “The Marriage of Figaro,” an anti-feudal farce from pre-Revolutionary France, which was the sequel to his “The Barber of Seville”; these plays became the basis of operas by Mozart and Rossini. Playwrights continued to write and actors act new plays in that 200-year dry spell, but the lurid sensibilities and ornate language especially of the tragedies have tended to leave contemporary audiences flummoxed.

Which is one of 19th century opera’s big problems.

My beloved spouse and I went to see a friend of a friend, Dean Elzinga, sing the roles of the Four Villains in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at Seattle Opera last night. We had not been to the new tax-dollar-built hall named after the matriarch of a local family of cell-phone moguls, who put up some of the cost. The hall was gorgeous and the acoustics wonderful; it was a pleasurable place to be during the two 25-minute intermissions. More important, the music was lovely, sometimes thrillingly so; the cast was solid and in some instances stellar (Julianne Gearhart as Olympia especially stood out for loveliness of tone combined with power); the chorus was terrific, the orchestra good; the costumes were fabulous and the sets spectacular.

But the plot. No. Or, mostly no. The framing device, setting the opera in the lobby of an opera hall, was clever. The opening scene, in which Hoffmann’s guardian angel summons a chorus of beer and wine bottles to seduce Hoffmann into drunkenness so he would alienate his new love interest and be free to follow her, his muse, into genius and poetry -- well, the plot was stupid, but the chorus of beer and wine bottles was genuinely funny and wonderfully staged.

The mixture of comedy, Romantic notions of the Torment of the Artist, and gothic evil magic chicanery didn’t work for me, and it irks me that the Seattle Opera is promoting “Tales of Hoffmann” as ideal for first-time opera-goers. When one character wants to kill another, and resorts to magic to do it, and you have no idea what is motivating the murder -- well, you lose me. It just feels like a slapdash vehicle for the music. Offenbach’s score has gorgeous peaks and is never dull or bland, but apart from the peaks it is rarely emotionally compelling; maybe the problem is that he doesn’t musically do justice to the unmotivated Evil in the Tales. The plot that Tchaikovsky’s collaborators adapted from Hoffmann to make “The Nutcracker” isn’t any better, but Offenbach didn’t have Tchaikovsky’s fount of peak melodies. Few people have.

Still, it was sung spectacularly. “Solid,” I called the cast above, but to be solid in a 2900-seat hall, singing over an orchestra and sometimes a chorus, and to be heard in the back without amplification, takes spectacular skills. I’m going to carefully check the plot before I decide to go again; I’m more hopeful for the comic operas. The ticket price daunts me -- more than 40 bucks for a cheap seat.

I’m also going to look for opportunities to hear such singing in chamber settings. It’s really something.

One question about the production haunts me. Did they intend the alcoholic title character to have the same hair-style and open-collar look as famous drinker Christopher Hitchens? Because if they did, it worked.

Friday, May 13, 2005

I've never been to Seattle's rock music museum, called the Experience Music Project. It costs 20 bucks to get in. I'd go if it were cheaper. I'll probably go some day anyway.

I'd be curious to see Jackson Pollack's brushes and palettes. More curious to see Titian's.

If EMP had stuff like a 1622 book of music by Monteverdi, I'd be more interested. (Via Alex Ross.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

In the morning when I leave to go to work, I am so sad to take leave of my books. Because I don’t deal with them professionally, I am free to idealize my relationship to them.

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Condolences to Carl and his family.

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Gang of 4 was here last week. I found out they were coming at 11:30 the night they played. One of my regrets of my college years is that I skipped a chance to see them play then. Their first album remains a touchstone. The night after missing them last week I went to see the Ives symphony, paying $22 for the ticket, 3 bucks less than what Gang of 4 had charged. Given our household economy, it probably would not have worked for me to go solo to concerts two nights in a row.

During intermission at the Symphony concert, after hearing perfectly nice pieces by Carter, Sessions, Rorem, and Bergsma in the first half, I was full of “alas.” Gang of 4 would have been better.

As we were taking our seats after intermission, the man sitting next to me, who was also there alone, asked me if I were enjoying the concert. “I came to hear the Ives,” I replied cheerfully. He replied that that’s why he had come too, and asked whether his 4th Symphony was the one that required more than one conductor. Yes, it was, and wouldn’t it be great to hear that one some day too.

After hearing the Ives songs and his 3rd Symphony, I no longer felt wistful about missing Gang of 4. The man sitting next to me looked like his team had just won the championship. “Some day we’ll hear the 4th,” I said. And we both smiled.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


I realize I’ve posted on going to the symphony to hear Ives’ 3rd Symphony a few times now, and I haven’t said much about the actual music.

It’s a programmatic piece in 3 movements, with scene-setting subtitles, like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral.” Ives called his 3rd “The Camp Meeting,” referring to religious revival meetings of his youth, where his father’s brass band would sometimes play. The music has a prevailing mood, or mood-mix -- sweetness, nostalgia, wonder, awe. It feels shallow to speak of mood, but mood is part of the experience. The awe in the music feels larger than mere mood. As any great music, the forces it harnesses are at once human-to-the-core and more-than-human.

Ives’s “maverick” reputation is based on his innovations in polyrhythms, polytonality, and collage, and the dissonance that often attends these techniques. His 3rd Symphony goes light on the “poly”s and sticks to mostly sweet harmonies; I often think of it in connection to Aaron Copland’s “social realist” move in the 1930s away from his own dissonant modernism and towards more conventionally tuneful music. With a big difference. When Ives sought a simpler music “of the people,” the people he borrowed from were his family and his hometown neighbors -- his own deepest memories. Copland played the unintentionally condescending anthropologist, taking a Shaker hymn here, some Mexican rhythms here, some cowboy tunes there. I love “Appalachian Spring,” until we get to the cover of the (in itself lovely) Shaker tune. Then it loses me. Ives’s handling of the “source” materials strikes me as more sophisticated than Copland’s too; he alters and collages the hymn tunes he quotes to enlivening effect, while Copland tends to mount his “find” like a big game hunter and stick it in the middle of his piece’s living room, so to speak. (Though I love the most social of Copland’s “social realist” pieces, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” maybe because its source is old Europe -- the historic past, rather than the anthropological “folk” present -- and it truly is grand and accessible [“common”]. Ives’s use of his own “folk” culture as his stylistic ground and source brings him closer to Gershwin than to Copland, as hints of the rhythms and harmonic tints of the Eastern European Jewish klezmir that Gershwin would have heard as a kid pervade his songs as well as his concert music.)

The 3 movements of Ives’s 3rd echoes standard symphonic superstructure, minus the 4th movement finale. The first movement, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” sets the tone. The 2nd movement, “Children’s Day,” is more playful, as a “scherzo” movement might be. (The root of the word “scherzo” is “joke.”) “Children’s Day” has delightful start-and-stop rhythms, suggestive of children playing. Ives closes with the quietest, slowest movement, “Communion”; standard symphonic form puts the quietest movement 2nd of 4, with the Scherzo coming 3rd. Offstage bells at the movement’s close ring a communion with the more-than-human home. I’d heard recordings of the piece many times, and those bells still surprised the heck out of me, thrillingly. (According to conductor Gerard Schwarz in a panel discussion after the concert, composer Lou Harrison suggested putting the bells offstage before conducting the premiere of the piece decades after it was written, and Ives presumably agreed.)

The audience gave a standing “O” when the piece ended; I thought the performance was fair-to-middling, but I gladly stood for the piece itself and for Ives. As I said the other night, hearing it played less-than-great live blew away the greatest recordings.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Since long before I became a parent I’ve looked at paintings of Mary with Baby Jesus with a view as to how tired Ma is. I tuned into this by noticing that in late Medieval paintings of the Holy Pair, Mary usually looks droopy. Sure she’s Mother of God and all, but that doesn’t preclude being bone tired.

A couple weeks ago I dug a 19th-Century milk-drunk Jesus at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Don’t remember the artist, but I recognized the look from when the 2-year-old was more like a 2-month-old.

Now my beloved spouse is a great admirer of what she calls the 2-year-old’s “chub thighs.” And not just our 2-year-old, but any baby. Both next-door neighbors have kids younger than ours. Admirable chub thighs on the lot of them.

I’m usually with the 2-year-old on Tuesdays. I slept in while my spouse fed him breakfast and got ready for work. I had no plans for the day and didn’t know what we would do, but the 2-year-old wanted to go to the art museum, and so that’s what we did. In the few hundred years’ worth of European galleries in which Christian iconography dominated, the 2-year-old and I admired all the chub thighs on the Mary & Babe pictures. Sometimes Baby John the Baptist was in the picture too. “Two babies!” said the 2-year-old.

Sunday morning the 2-year-old and I went to the grocery store to get a helium balloon for Mother’s Day. As we brought it to the star of the day, she got out of bed, and the 2-year-old said, “Mommoo, you have chub thighs!” A very sweet Mother’s Day compliment.

She doesn’t -- she’s slender -- and now we’re trying to explain to our boy that while it’s nice to tell babies and little boys and girls that they have “chub thighs,” grown-ups prefer not to be told this even if it’s true.


At Westlake Mall today we heard a pretty good drummer playing various 5-gallon and 3-gallon plastic buckets for drums, and bottles hanging from a milk crate, and a bucket full of nails for the snare drum. At one stopping point the 2-year-old shouted to everybody, “Clap for the music!” and the drummer said, “Listen to the little guy!”

This evening, while I was cooking dinner the 2-year-old got out all the unused pots and pans and drummed away, which he’s done before, but this time he shouted while drumming, “I’m on the CD! I’m on the CD!” And whenever he stopped playing he would shout, “Clap for the music!”


A couple weeks ago when my folks were here we took them to Pike Place Market, a favorite destination that I don’t frequent enough. Always lots of buskers there, including, that trip, my first time seeing a busker playing erhu, and he was swingin’ it hard. Earlier we had seen a local folk-protest icon named Jim Hinde, whom I’d seen at Folklife, our annual folk festival, last year. Knowing he’d know the 2-year-old’s favorite song, I requested “This Land Is Your Land.” He played instead a pessimistic re-write of it by a friend of his named Jim Page, an extremely prolific and accomplished local songwriter whom I’ve met a number of times and seen play many times. I didn’t care for the pessimistic re-write, which I’d heard before -- “This Land’s Not Made for You and Me” -- but Jim Hinde played it well and the 2-year-old didn’t care, he danced and drew a crowd. As soon as the song was over the 2-year-old clapped and smiled and bounced up and down and said, “Again!” which is what he says when I finish playing a song or reading a book he likes.

Jim Hinde instead played a song I’d almost requested, which I’d heard him do at the folk festival last Memorial Day, a catchy rag-timey number about George W. Bush and his cabinet doing the “Perp Walk.” An optimistic song. The 2-year-old was bouncing, and my spouse and I were digging it, and my conservative parents were looking at other stalls in the market, when out of nowhere a 25-ish looking man walked by, deadpan, staring straight ahead, and singing a perfect harmony and the right words.

For a sweet delirious moment it felt like we were living in a musical.

While I was writing my post the other night on hearing the Seattle Symphony play the 3rd Symphony of Charles Ives, I was reading the archives of a blog largely devoted to dissing the Symphony’s conductor and artistic director, Gerard Schwarz. It’s written by the Symphony’s recently fired concertmaster, Ilka Talvi, who writes up a storm -- his archives are a real link-clicker. (Fishing for a digital analogue to “page-turner.”)

I’ve sinced found out that Greg Sandow and Alex Ross heartily dislike Schwarz’s conducting too.

I don’t know enough to say. Schwarz is a spasmodic gesticulator. Once he literally jumped and the thump of his landing became part of the sound experience. The intensity of his spasms, however, didn’t always correlate to intensity of sound coming from the band, so it was hard for me to understand the relationship between his conducting and the music. Despite that, I thought the music had some shape and variety. But then I listened again to a recording of Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony some 45 years ago last night, and wow, there’s no comparison. The range of tempos and dynamics that goes into Reiner’s conception, and the musical excitement of his choices -- yes.

Two things mostly struck me about the orchestra’s part of the show -- first, even an fair-to-middling live performance beats the hell out of a great record; and second, the violins frequently sounded out of tune, which surprised me and made me wonder retrospectively about the firing of the former concertmaster.

Monday, May 09, 2005


I had a hankering for Barry White while washing dishes tonight. Love the voice, love the beats, love the tunes. Love the semi-comic, often-mocked reputation for sexiness too. Tonight it occurred to me: Those of us who’ve mocked, we were wrong.

People chalk up his sexiness to his basso voice and the beats, but more than the voice, it’s what he does with it. He wrote most of his hits and produced them all -- I’ve always hepped to his musicianship. But his singing really sank in tonight.

One of my faves, with the witty title and tag line:

I’m qualified to satisfy you
Anyway you want me to
Qualified to satisfy you
Anyway you want me to

It’s easy to joke about getting certification in satisfaction-delivery, state board certified, blah blah blah, but can you think of very many lyrics as devoted to the pleasures of the beloved?

I’m your man and you know I can
Make you feel the way you want to
Just tell me whatever you need
And that’s what I’m gonna do

It’s a complex lasciviousness, compounded of confidence and enthusiasm, but also tenderness and generosity, and, in other songs, vulnerability. It’s the complete sexy package.

And in this song, he sounds really, really, really happy at the prospect of making “you feel the way you want to.”

Right on.


Earlier this evening, after dinner, we hit the living room dance floor to my late grandmother’s old LP of Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony in Rossini Overtures. Such a range in dynamics and in tempos! Reiner and the band rocked it hard. The 2-year-old and I tore it up trying to keep up with the crazy beat. My beloved spouse joined us for a bit too. Cathartic!

After the 2-year-old went bedward, I watched a TV soap opera I’m into, though I miss a lot of episodes, Everwood, a show I got semi-hooked on one lazy night when seeing someone I know in a main role stopped me in my channel surf mid-wave (metaphor trouble here, sorry), and then, surprise, I enjoyed the melodrama. Tom Amandes is the ex-brother-in-law of good friends of mine in Chicago. Years before he got famous I saw him shine in the lead role of a Bernard Shaw play at a professional, subsidized theater associated with the University of Chicago. He’s a darn fine director too, judging from the one -- surrealist -- play I saw him direct, under the table, in violation of his actor’s union rules. Long time ago. Anyway, he’s excellent in this role as the uptight, judgmental, self-critical, loving husband-dad-small-town-doctor. There’s a horribly manipulative cancer plot going on now, and I cried and cried tonight, and it was great. Cathartic!

Sunday, May 08, 2005


Live is better. I’d listened to different recordings of Ives’s 3rd Symphony dozens of times over the past 20 years or so but had never heard it live. From the first notes Saturday night at the Seattle Symphony -- chills and tingles. The beauty of the piece, and the sounds of the gorgeous instruments live in the room.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz had a decent way with the tempos and dynamics. A couple rubato “free” passages were a little stiffer than I had enjoyed on the recordings I own, but still, live is better.

This is true even though the violins frequently sounded out of tune to me, out of unison. I had thought so during the “Elegy” by Elliott Carter which opened the concert, but couldn’t trust my ears since I didn’t know the piece. But I’ve listened to the Ives 3rd many times, and the violins often sounded off. I could be wrong.

The point is -- despite prefering the performances on the recordings I own, the experience of hearing the music live -- it was a thrill.

The show’s other highlight was the recital of 4 Ives songs by marvellous tenor Thomas Harper, accompanied by pianist Michelle Chang. Two of the four songs -- “Rough Wind,” a setting a Shelley poem, and “At the River,” an adaptation of a hymn -- blew a hole in my mind and instantly filled it with their beauty. Harper’s mastery of diction and the subtle nuances and details of music-as-it-happens-in-time was equally commanding in the other 2 songs, but the songs themselves didn’t do me as much. But it was a wonder just to hear such an artist sing.

I wrote last night that the concert’s first half didn’t rise above “pretty” for me, and I called Roger Sessions’s serialist pieces for solo cello “corny.” I’m not sure what I meant by corny, or why I said it. Maybe it’s the gulf between the serialists’ self-regard as “the modern” and “the up-to-date,” and the actual nice sounds of the lovely cello timbre and the conservative relationship to pitch. Soloist Walter Gray worked hard and played beautifully. My irritated shrug is at the ideology, not the actual sounds. Sessions wrote the piece in 1966. The music that Partch, Cage, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane had made by that time is what makes serialism, or at least this piece, seem mannered in both senses -- over-filigreed, and polite.
SEATTLE SYMPHONY (The 2-year-old is awake, and I'm playing his lullabye music, over and over, until he sleeps.)

The Ives was gorgeous.
So many surprises in the concert.
Small hall, not the main orchestra hall.
Chamber orchestra -- 6 first violins, 5 second violins, 4 violas & cellos, 3 basses, plus various wind instruments for different pieces.
Three pieces from a suite of solos for cello by Roger Sessions. Nice music. Hall too big for solo cello. I'd never heard Sessions, but he made Serialism seem nice, almost corny, with its nice polite sticking to the tempered scale. Nothing too memorable about it.
A piece of proto-thriller-movie-music by Bergsma, another composer I didn't know. Again, nice, nothing thrilling.
An early Elliott Carter, "Elegy." Pretty. Lots of open, Copland-esque chords.
A suite of 9 songs written to Robert Herrick poems by Ned Rorem, beautifully sung if cornily acted by Jonathan Silvia with pretty piano accompaniment by Michelle Chang. Pretty music in a Debussy-Satie bag, and I admired the brevity of many of the songs, sticking to the 4 or 6 lines of many of the Herrick poems; still, the emotional connection between the poems (which I've loved for a long long time) and the music was shallow. I've set quite a bit of poetry to music, probably around 20 songs over the years, if I count the ones I did for theater. It's a tricky biz. I've never set Herrick. Now I want to try. I would preferred the singer of the Rorem to have been singing vocalise.

The 2-year-old's asleep now. More on the concert tomorrow. Just this for now -- the Ives was gorgeous.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Here’s a link to the story about an anonymous Chicago banjo player taking a cab home after the gig and weeping while listening to his Indian cabbie sing, which I mentioned last night and provided a completely unrelated link to.

* * *

Godspeed ye Carl, our thoughts are with you & your family.

* * *

My pal oblomova is on the David Brooks case today.

There are apparently militia groups of secularists running around knocking off judges, killing every pharmacist that refuses to fill a birth control prescription or perform a safe, legal abortion, and calling for the explusion of known Christians from their jobs and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of their marriages. Betcha didn't know that, huh?

Because those secularists are SNEAKY-ASS BASTARDS, that's why!

But not too sneaky for Ole Davey Brooks. Nosirreebobcattail.

* * *

The Seattle Symphony is playing the Ives 3rd on Saturday, not Friday as reported last night. Never heard that gorgeous dreampiece live before. Looking forward.

* * *

Happy Anniversary Mr. Restful Noise! Careful with those razors, ‘kay?

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Peace. Y’hear?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Hey Seattle-ites! I’m planning on catching the Seattle Symphony playing the Ives 3rd Friday night -- drop me a line if you’re going and let’s have a glass of something.

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Monday night I dreamed that Saturday Night Live was occasionally funny again. The key was, they no longer focused solely on celebrity parodies.

* * *

Found in the men’s room at my office, a page from Craig’s List in Chicago, where an anonymous banjo player taking a cab home after the gig weeps listening to his Indian cabbie sing. (UPDATE: Posted wrong link; will correct tonight.)

* * *

Topics for posts I may or may not get to:

The oratorical strand in free verse from Whitman to Sandburg to Ginsberg to the Slammers, and how Pound made his splash by “freeing” free verse from the oratorical. To do: Define “oratorical”; look up the names of the rhetorical tropes I’m thinking of; find relevant quotes esp. from the Slammers.

That book-list chain-post that Corndog sent me.

The unduplicability of the Kingsmen; harder to copy than Coltrane or Miles.

A Smooth Jazz cover of an Outkast song I heard on the radio the other day, and my chagrin about never posting on how Outkast’s original made me think of the Temptations. “I Like the Way You Move.” Great song.

Decontextualization of classical music by film and by general classical consumption; esp. as it relates to the pre-classical period, namely, Bach, and the proliferation of the “hits” (“Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude”) sans their original contexts; conjecture whether the creation of the continuous tradition in the late-Classical early-Romantic period influenced the decontextualization of Bach (his music like that of all previous composers fell out of circulation; Beethoven’s never did).

The 2-year-old standing the guitar up like a bass fiddle, strumming it and singing a song to Dzunukwa.

U of Michigan Men’s Glee Club 2nd oldest choir in the country (1859), only Harvard’s older (1858); connection of college drinking songs to the Goliards.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Sasha Frere-Jones has a good piece in the New Yorker on the incompatibility of short stories and rockin’ pop songs, taking as Exhibit A the new Springsteen album. I haven’t heard much by Bruce in recent years, but what I have heard makes me nod my head in agreement with Sasha’s take. But then I thought of counter-examples. Woody Guthrie.

Chuck Berry.

Newly interested in the question, I listened to two of Chuck’s masterpieces from 1964, “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land.” The first of these captures a unique mix of powerful emotions.

The exuberant joy of young love and marriage, chiefly communicated by the horns and piano and rhythm.

The stress of making ends meet, in the words and Chuck’s delivery.

The pessimistic encouragement of the young couple’s elders, who showed up at the wedding and wished them well, and who get the song’s tag line: “C’est la vie say the old folks, It goes to show you never can tell.”

And the tenderness of Chuck’s vocal, especially in the reprise of the first verse.

“It was a teen-age wedding and the old folks wished them well.
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle.
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell.
C’est la vie, say the old folks, It goes to show you never can tell.”

The ingenuous happiness of the couple as propounded and profoundly pounded by the band; and the consciousness in the singer’s tone and the old folks’ words that such happiness is a rare and lucky happening.

A delicious tinge of bitter in a sweet sweet wine.

The complexity of the emotions -- the full weight of truth given to the joy of the young and the humane cynicism of the old -- gives “You Never Can Tell” a unique tang and life to the story it tells.

American vernacular music has the capacity to convey that emotional complexity extremely well, and across genres. Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family (his biggest influence) sing with stoic detachment and play guitar with urgent passion, conveying a depth of emotion beneath stoic surface. The jazz of Armstrong and Ellington and Mingus and Kirk is rich with such complex emotional tangles. Even a record like “I Will,” where Dean Martin sings in a flirty and self-deprecatingly sexy, almost jokey tone, the band pounds an insistent riff of the-lust-that-shall-not-go-away.

I haven’t heard the new Springsteen, but other post-Nebraska stuff I’ve heard makes me think that he, like Gillian Welch, has missed the point of Guthrie and the Carters -- as Sasha puts it, he “seems to be stuck in the lowtemperature affect of a certain kind of American short story.” Guthrie and the Carters can move me to tears because of the contrast between the stoic singing and the urgent passion of the accompaniment, the complexity of the whole.

Since I’ve been dissing Bruuuuce, I should say that his speech a couple months ago inducting U2 into the Rock Hall rocked, swung, and cracked jokes at his own and at U2’s expense. And, coincidentally, now that I’ve re-read it, I see that Bruce expertly describes how each player in U2 contributes to the emotional complexity of the band’s whole sound, similar to the complexity I’ve been trying to describe here, that pop and rock and folk and jazz and country can be so good at. (I came across Bruce’s speech via Tim Riley).

Monday, May 02, 2005


It shouldn’t surprise me, since he’s been a Sousa fan from way back, but Woody Guthrie’s place as the number one musician in the two-year-old’s affections has been usurped by the Michigan Men’s Glee Club of 1977. Tonight while brushing his teeth I sang him the alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue” (written by someone from the class of 1878), and he said, “I used to be in the Glee Club. A long time ago. With Mommoo.” And he started singing, “I wanna go back to Michigan,” but couldn’t remember past the first line, so he repeated it.

More on the Glee Club later. Just this for now: The Glee Club says it, Mee-shee-gun. Time for bed.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


I have a record of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club of 1977 singing “Songs of Michigan.” All of the songs are by UM grads, class of ‘78 and ‘01 -- that’s 1878 and 1901 -- and so on. Mostly good songs too -- some dated and awkward words, but lively, tuneful music. Legend has it (and it may even be true; it’s certainly plausible to my ears) that John Phillip Sousa praised “The Victors” (by Louis Elbel, ‘99) as the best college march he ever heard.

My parents left this morning after a weeklong visit from Michigan; while they were here we listened to my old record. They met at Michigan; both of their fathers went there; my mom’s paternal grandparents went there too. When my folks were in school in the late ‘50s, lots of people still learned those songs. Nobody in my acquaintance did when I was there in the early ‘80s, besides my friend Dan Tierney who drummed in the marching band. Most people knew words to the 3rd strain of “The Victors” march; nobody knew the first and second strains. Mom said that her dad, who was there in the late ‘20s, knew the songs much better than she did.

The LP comes with a 4-page lyric booklet illustrated with photos of Glee Clubs past, including one of 10 members of the 1959 Glee Club holding director Philip A. Duey on their shoulders just after having won an international choral competition in Wales. Young brush-cut men with ties, some with horn-rimmed glasses, while director Duey wears a bow-tie and less flashy glasses, everybody grinning like crazy, even ecstatically. One African-American man in the group, grinning like the rest. Such a sweet picture, everybody so happy and, except director Duey, so anonymous, and so long ago.

Well, maybe not so anonymous. My mom knew one of the men in the picture. He’s widowed and lives in Grand Rapids. Back in college days he dated my mom’s best friend, who’s still a close friend of our family. She still is in touch with the former Glee Club man. I’ll have to send her a copy of the photo.

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