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

Thursday, June 30, 2005


Last Sunday was the second parade in 2 week-ends for us. Saturday night a friend of a friend, a nice guy with whom we had socialized some, called and asked if we wanted to march with him in the Gay Pride Parade. Since this friendly acquaintance is Nick Licata, easily the most reliable progressive vote on Seattle’s City Council, and we didn’t have any plans, we said, Sure! The 2-year-old loves parades. My spouse and I do too. We took the next-door-neighbor’s kids, a 5-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old who are great friends of our kid’s. Their parents put the 5-year-old in rainbow pants, and she was a big hit. The one-and-a-half-year-old didn’t like the parade much, but he didn’t fuss. The parade was nice -- just walking and talking and wearing “Re-elect Nick Licata” t-shirts, which my spouse and I were happy to do.

This coming Saturday (the 3rd) at my parents’ place in Michigan, it’s the annual 4th of July Parade down their one-block lane, with friends and relatives and neighbors, organized by my sister and a childhood friend of hers, who grew up on the same lane and whose mom still lives there too. We fly in Saturday night. My childhood friend Jay and his son drive in Friday night (drive safely!) from NYC. Jay’s bringing his banjo for the parade -- I’m hoping we’ll sing “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Happy Birthday” to the country. I’d be up for singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” too, that weird, insecure, violent poem set to that stirring, slow-waltz tune.

I don’t think we’ll have any parades coming up soon after that. But as Fats Waller said, one never knows, do one?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005



Dinner time, eating veggie burgers with the 2-year-old, listening to the Weavers, while his mom is at work.

"Daddoo, what is this song about?"

"The Weavers are saying they don't want to get married."  (Song:  "I Never Will Marry.")


"Your mommoo and I are married to each other.  It means we love each other and promise to take care of each other for the rest of our lives."

"I was married once to Dzunukwa and I was married to Watchman, a long time ago, and Mommoo was talking to Watchman, and you were alking to Dzunukwa, and Mommoo was talking to Dzunukwa, and you were talking to Watchman.  And then I wasn't married and then I was married again."

(His mom is into NW Native art.  The 2-year-old has been crazy about totem poles since long before he could talk, and for at least a year we've been reading the art books to him, at his demand.  We haven't yet told him that Dzunukwa, the Wild Woman of the Woods, eats children who go astray.  Withholding information, are we, we are.  Dzunukwa has been his great imaginary friend, but sometimes she is naughty and he has to put her in time-outs. Watchman, who often sits atop totem poles, keeping watch, is his friend too, but he gets involved in fewer scrapes.)

Still eating dinner.  Phone call from my friend Jake, who is also the 2-year-old's friend.

"Hi Jake."

"Is that Jake?  Can I talk to him?"

OK.  Turn on the speaker phone.

"Hi!  The Weavers don't want to get married."


After dinner:  The 2-year-old is arranging his Mardi Gras beads into trapezoidal shapes on the floor, arranging and re-arranging and re-arranging, calling the shapes “castles.”  He gets frustrated, wanting the shapes different, and recruits me.  I arrange and re-arrange and re-arrange, momentarily satisfying his aesthetic vision, until his vision swiftly moves on.  He gets frustrated, I get frustrated.  “Fix the necklace.  Fix it!  Fix it!”

“You can fix it, sweetheart.”

“No!  I’m not a big man like you!  You didn’t fix it when you were a little boy!”


Picnicking at Victor Steinbrueck Park yesterday afternoon, just north of Pike Place Market downtown, overlooking Elliott Bay and the Sound, with the drunks and the tourists and everybody, and the 2 totem poles -- the main attraction for the 2-year-old -- and seagulls and sparrows hopping around, looking for dropped or discarded human food. I’m talking to my parents on the cell phone and watching the 2-year-old wander 10 or 15 feet away. Another 10 feet past him a sparrow accidentally hops into a seagull’s beak. Score for the seagull! The gull shakes the sparrow dead and proceeds to eat the whole thing, feet, beak, and all, over the next few minutes, slowly tearing it apart and swallowing it.

The 2-year-old runs to me while the initial tussle is still happening -- alarmed. “What is the seagull doing?”

“A little bird hopped into its mouth by accident, and it’s eating the little bird.”

“Didn’t the little bird say ‘No’?”

Monday, June 27, 2005


The bumpkins and suckers who believe Karl Rove's calculated nonsense about liberals wanting to offer therapy to Osama bin Laden deserve the country we're all getting -- one despised by most of the world, with good reason; one militarily hobbled and strategically insane; one deeply in debt and careening toward economic wasteland; one at war with the canons of science and reason.

The rubes and marks of the nation are dragging the rest of us down.

A lot of Bush supporters -- the "values" voters -- at least are getting what they want: an anti-science, anti-human-rights, anti-enlightenment administration. Their concerns are not worldly concerns. The thesis that lower-middle-class "values" voters are getting taken for a ride by the Republicans, and that they're fools for voting against their economic self-interest, is both factually wrong and tactically condescending. First, the Republicans are indeed stacking the courts with nonsensical fetus fetishists and successfully placing restrictions on abortion AND BIRTH CONTROL in places all over America AND THE WORLD. This is what the fetus fetishists want -- maximum pregnancies and maximum births. Second, the idea that self-described "Other World"-ers should be swayed first by Mammon is simply condescending.

No, the fetus fetishists and the deep-pocket plunderers have always been the Republicans' natural constituency (post-Reagan, that is; before that, Republicanism did have an honest component of fiscal conservatism and individual rights). It's the "security first" Bush supporters who are the rubes, the suckers, the fools, the marks, the bumpkins, the patsies, the hayseeds, the hicks. Because Bush's prosecution of his self-declared, Orwellian, War on Terror has been incompetent, dishonest, and self-defeating in the extreme.

A couple months ago I posted that some time in late May the days of Osama bin Laden being at large since the mass murder of September 11 would surpass the duration between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day -- the length of America's involvement in fighting the Second World War. The post got picked up and linked to widely in Blogville. A commenter on the post at a heavily trafficked liberal blog, Digby’s Hullaballoo pointed out that not only had Bush failed to apprehend bin Laden, but that by withdrawing American troops from Saudi Arabia he had given the terrorists exactly what they were demanding. Now, as it happens, I support, in this instance, the decision to give the terrorists exactly what they demand. But it's hardly a mark of machismo to do so.

When Bush invaded Iraq, he gave bin Laden more than he ever could have hoped for.

Sorry, suckers. I'm sorry your gullibility is dragging the rest of us down. Here's hoping we make it through OK, despite your idiocy and Bush's thorough dishonesty and incompetence.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


The question is, why does Karl Rove hate America so much that he makes nasty lies against half of its inhabitants? Why does George W. Bush hate America so much that he supports this nasty lie?

What makes Bush's supporters so enthusiastic about these lies?

And why does the press not hold any of them accountable?

I had thought that all the interesting ideas had been thoroughly mined out of Sincerity Pit, but discussion over at Carl Wilson’s blog keeps striking new veins.

Struck by the de-contextualization thread first mentioned by my good friend and Turtletop contributor Jake London, his comment that 15-20 years away from the original context, it can be tough to sort out the innovators from the imitaters (Soundgarden v. Stone Temple Pilots is his example), and all you can go by is whether you like the song. It helps explain why I (born in 1963) think the Monkees are pretty terrific, and people who were grown at the time think they were trashy cash-ins.

The lesson of the Monkees helps me keep my ears open to Britney et al. No matter who wrote / arranged / played / recorded / pitch-corrected it, "Toxic" is a pretty terrific song and record.

Also struck by the "ambivalent stardom" thread. It was a big recurring theme in the Replacements' work, and by the time it reared its head on something like the 7th album in a row I was stone sick of it, even though I had loved loved loved the Replacements. I felt like saying, "Ambivalent about success? Then don't play in public."

The "ambivalence about success" theme is a holdover from the very commercialized anti-commercial thematics of the Weavers & the '50s folk revival, as Christgau has written about. The anti-commercial ideology, and its commercialization, is double-bind mindtwist, and it contributed to Kurt Cobain's death, and I hate it with a passion.

Carl in his original post inveighed against the Manipulative. I simply can't see what is inherently wrong with "bringing the strings in here." Arranging one's materials for most effective emotional impact is exactly what an artist is supposed to do, I thought. Among other things, natch. Certainly Ornette Coleman, Mingus, the Beatles, Mozart, Judy Garland, Beethoven, Bernard Herrmann, and so on and so forth -- even Laurie Anderson -- are masters of arranging their materials for maximum emotional impact. They may activate absorbing reactions other than sheer feeling as well, but their arrangements pack wallops. "Manipulativeness" feels like an even slipperier critical concept than "insincerity."

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Dept. of Fortuitous Coincidences.

The day after posting last night on Sense of Ensemble, I read a new “New Yorker” note by Sasha Frere-Jones on Gang of 4’s first album, “Entertainment!” – one of the all-time brilliant explorations in small group ensemble, as Sasha describes. 

2 voices, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and melodica – the voicings of the instruments (melodica excepted) deployed in ways that undermine the normative bottom-up layer-cake method of American-derived vernacular music, where the rhythm section of bass and drums lay the foundation over which the music plays.  (The Go4 were English, but playing in a rock-funk-punk tradition that owes so much to the blues and black American gospel and jazz.)  So, instead of bass & drums on the bottom and guitar “leading” or “soloing” on top, sometimes the Gang had guitar & drums playing and bass laying out, sometimes guitar & bass playing with drums laying out, and all 3 instruments careening off each other in exhilarating dialogue emblematic of a democracy of equals.  The words and singing are fascinating too – an all-time great album – but the trio – fabulous.  SFJ, I’m w/ U, Go4 roolz!

(Sasha also recently took down the White Stripes’ favoring of ideology and arty-tricksiness over musicianship, a deeply gratifying read for someone who believes with Kurt Cobain that musicianship is not a dirty word.  [Kurt fired his drummer when a better one became available.])

The only record I know that goes as far as Gang of 4’s debut in breaking down the foreground / background or lead / rhythm hierarchy of pop/jazz/rock/etc. is “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” a brilliant 1960 quartet album the amazing bassist and composer made with brilliant reedman Eric Dolphy, wonderful drummer Dannie Richmond, and solid trumpeter Ted Curson.  As with “Entertainment!”, the bass and drums aren’t mere “supporters” of the treble instruments – sometimes drums lay out, sometimes Dolphy “comps”, Mingus & Richmond take their share of “leads.”  It was Mingus’s response to Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz” explosion, and it’s stupefyingly exciting and beautiful. 

[Historical footnote:  “Village Voice” civil rights columnist Nat Hentoff produced the Mingus record on a small indy label that he (co-?) founded, partly in order to allow jazzmen to record politically charged music, such as this Mingus album, which includes a scathing anti-segregationist song, “Original Faubus Fables,” about a segregationist southern Governor named Faubus. Mingus had previously recorded the tune for Columbia records, but without the lyrics, which Columbia had suppressed.  Columbia’s record of censorship extended years later to Public Enemy, who recorded the immortal “Fight the Power,” with the amazingly censored lines:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant [expletive deleted] to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain
Mother[bleep!] him and John Wayne

To this day the sound of that “bleep” flabbergasts me.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


At Robert Christgau’s site I read an old piece of his (1978), with this great quote:

“rock and roll orthodoxy offends me at least as much as the other kinds”.

I’ve always dug the religious connotations of the “Ism” in Rockism; Christgau nails it.

Christgau described himself then as “basically a rock and roller” in defense of his history of having seen the B-52’s more times in the past year (again, 1978) than he had John Prine and Sonny Rollins combined ever. Very cool -- stating where he stands.

Christgau’s stuff engages me & often shows sharp insight. But his defensiveness about rock’s “dumbness” bums me out. He says, regarding his preference for Fred & Cindy & Kate’s campy, funny, *brilliant* new wave dance band from Athens, “Not that I think that the B-52s are better than Prine or Rollins, who are geniuses.” No reason to be defensive here. The B-52’s had great freshness and originality in song structure and great verve in ensemble playing -- more interesting composers than either Prine or Rollins, and better ensemble players too (excepting Rollins of the ‘50s and early ‘60s). Yes, Rollins is a king improviser, but since he stopped playing with the likes of Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, and Don Cherry, his sideman have often been background-men, to the detriment of his music-as-a-whole.

I’ve been chatting on and off with Franklin Bruno about this, who pointed out that Western musicology traditionally has downplayed the roles of rhythm and timbre in music. Jazz critics brought rhythm to the center of the discussion, and rock critics (pop too, I suppose) have started to bring timbre to the central place where it belongs. (As the late American modernist composer Dane Rudhyar would agree -- he wrote a book called “The Magic of Tone.”)

Another matter which is central to the experience of music, and even more elusive than timbre: Sense of Ensemble. The B-52s have it, greatly (on record -- I can’t vouch for them live, never having seen them). Rahsaan Roland Kirk had it as a bandleader, big time. To my ears, Sonny Rollins often lacks it as a bandleader, often going for un-surprising, convention-sticking groups that serve as backdrops for his titanic explorations. (Not true in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when his sidemen were his peers in stature.)

Don’t mean to pick on Christgau here -- jazz and rock criticism in general are weak on this point. Classical criticism is ahead of rockcrit and jazzcrit in considering Sense of Ensemble.

I played 3 songs. Jake London came over Monday night to rehearse playing some lead guitar and singing some harmonies on 2 numbers, one of which we used to play a lot together 10 years ago, and one of which I wrote last fall and he’d only heard once before. I found out when I got to the club that each act was getting 3 songs. Last minute decision, I played a song I wrote more than 18 years ago and was in the one full-length play I wrote, a song called “I’m Going Across,” which I hadn’t played publicly in 10 years, at least.

I felt connected to the songs -- and it feels good to feel connected to a song that’s that old -- but felt no connection to the audience. The other acts, everybody had at least one nice song, but it felt to me that few people were connecting to the audience either (of which I was a member, most of the night). The performers -- *we* -- were all climbing the tough mountain face of audience indifference, playing songs for which we all felt deep connection, mostly songs that we had written and were performing on our own, without ensemble members with whom to share solidarity, just us poor little lambs baring our bleating souls. The one song that seemed to top Indifference Mountain was a gorgeous lilting original country blues in a light 6/8 swing, mostly falsetto-sung by Darren Loucas, in something of a Skip James vein, but with a richer harmonic palette. It was a song I'd heard him play before, a song of forlorn romantic abandonment, a forlorn-ness I felt particularly tonight, feeling a longing for audience connection that would not be forthcoming.

I’ll be glad to be performing with a band again. Hopefully in the fall, with a *band name* and a finished CD.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Making art is a meditation practice.

Concentrating on the beautiful.

Writing a song, learning a part, acting, drawing, manipulating tapes –- it all takes concentration.

Technical questions -– scansion, harmony, rhythm, color, line -– are of interest to people on the meditation-creation path.  For instance, if I write a song and set myself a challenge – “every chord should have the note 'C,'” for instance – that may be of interest to a fellow songwriter, or a player, or it may not.  I don’t see how it could be of interest to someone not involved in the creation of music.

(As it happens, after I wrote the song, I realized the central line of the lyric is, “these are the things I see,” and the climax comes with, “you never know what you’ll see.”  “See” sounds like “C,” si?  I can imagine somebody figuring this out and getting annoyed -– what a pseudo-clever bugger that songwriter is! -– but I swear by my breath, it was unconscious, your honor!)

(Similarly with the song about the birth of my son, which used music I had already written where every chord had to have the major second in it –- the “second” being an “addition,” as is, ha-ha!, my son –- again, the coincidence was unconscious!)

None of this matters to the listening ear.  Does the song move you?  That’s all.


For a while the 2-year-old has been asking questions such as, “Daddoo, do you know the ‘I Can’t Drink Juice Until After I Wash My Hands” song?” And I would answer yes and make up a 15-second song on the spot, and say, “Is that it?” And the 2-year-old would answer yes, as if the song always existed, and he, being closer to the pre-birth experience, would already know the song from his time in the Ideal world.

Today he told me, “I wrote a new song and I’m going to sing it.” He doesn’t know how to write! He’s only 2-and-a-half! But he sang a song while I played rhythm guitar. I didn’t catch a lot of the words, but the song went on for quite a while.

I think the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida said something once about the hierarchies and confusions between speech and writing, and something about the metafictions of presence, but I wasn’t there when he said it and I got the story second-hand.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Beautiful week-end. The Solstice Parade was a blast -- 2 hours of “This Land Is Your Land,” with dozens of people joining us -- maybe hundreds -- as we were the last float in the parade. I ended up playing tambourine, not guitar, and that was fine, and it was chaotic and wonderful. A couple good trombonists showed up.

A friend’s 60th birthday party across the alley, an alley party -- another blast.

Vocal overdubs today (Sunday) went well. I may even have a name for the band!

Found out tonight that I missed the Mountain Goats in town. Would have been difficult for me to go anyway -- my spouse works Sunday swing shift -- would have gotten a babysitter but I’m not on top of the club schedule, to my occasional chagrin.

Playing a song or 2 or 3 at a shindig at the Sunset Tavern on Tuesday night. Wrote a new song for it today -- we’ll see tomorrow if I like it. If you’re not doing anything Tuesday night, and you’re in Seattle, drop on by!

Up again too late. G’night.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Perhaps "shame over unearned privilege" is part of what drives the fake blue collar thing. But a more innocent explanation might be that white middle class/upper class kids just wanted an experience that seemed more interesting than their boring upbringing in the suburbs (that and blue collar folks also get to wear much cooler more comfortable clothes ).

Here's where I'm going with that idea. Up until the '60s, the mass media (such as it was) typically reflected the attitude and perspective of the top world. Consequently, many of the venerated images were those of the elites. In a way, one could say this about much of art and music from god knows when (like the 16th century or does it go back further) until some point in the middle of the 20th century. But it might be more fair to argue that there was a slow slide down the class ladder beginning in the latter half of the 18th century, where top world art and music cease to be purely of the royal court and start to incorporate "folk" elements and reflect the social world of the rising middle class/petite bourgeoisie.

I may be wrong about this, but if we were to track the diffusion of the creation of the "modern" self, it probably started with the richest elites and then worked its way down to the masses, just like many innovations have.

So while by 1960 the middle class and its concerns were well integrated into the culture of top world, the conventional wisdom of the mass media gatekeepers was still that the stories most worth telling were those of the winners (i.e., privileged elites and a smattering of up from the bootstraps tales about poor people of all stripes conquering adversity to join the "winners").

I picture dudes like William S. Paley of CBS doing their best to entertain the elites and uplift the masses, helping them assimilate top world values. This is that middle brow era that Alex Ross has talked about in his writing. It's the backdrop of my dad's upbringing, the Jewish immigrant learning the French Horn, attending youth symphony concerts at the Academy of Music, graduating from Central High School in Philly, ultimately attending the conservatory at Oberlin on the GI Bill and getting smitten by the high modernist atonal music bug (with many parallel explorations before and after into bebop, free jazz, etc).

In any event, for someone like my dad, it seems like the movement was either upward towards high culture or lateral into the working class black culture of Jazz (or maybe it's more fair to argue that Jazz [or at least Bebop] actually represented even in the 1940s a black high modernism parallel to the white atonal modernism). So to the extent that Jazz is a bottom world music, people like my dad encountered it not as disconnected white suburbanites, but rather as fellow urbanites laterally related by economic status but separated by race and cultural heritage (and probably more sheltered from the darkest aspects of the bottom world too, truth be told, but nevertheless no strangers to prejudice).

To my mind, the big shift in the late 1950s and early 1960s is that the rockist ideology turns a lot of this stuff on its head (actually, I think the rockist ideology is really just a music specific sub-set of a broader ideological thing that was going in this period).

It's the confluence of a number of factors:

First, you have the increasing dissemination of Marxian ideas about class, subjectivity, etc, as well as Freudian ideas about the self, etc.

Second, you have a large generation of people many of whom are the grandchildren of the immigrants who arrived in the US during the great immigration wave of 1885-1905.

Third, you have the reality of post-war American Hegemony and rising affluence.

Fourth, you have the collective historical amnesia of the 1950s that erased much of the history of class struggle in the first 35 years of the 20th century, butting up against the reality of the civil rights movement (the ultimate movement of an erased people).

Fifth, you have the legacy of the 1930s WPA projects and the folk cultural anthropology of people like Lomax sinking into the firmament, obscured by the above referenced historical amnesia but still increasingly visible in the urban folk revival of the 1950s.

And Sixth, you've got increasingly cheap audio and video reproduction technology, coupled with an increasingly robust radio and television infrastructure.

What you get out of this, starting perhaps with earlier adopters like the beats, Marxist academics, labor organizers, folklorists, etc. is a sense that the top world reality is not representing the subjectivity of a lot of people who live in America (like maybe most of them). You also get a scenario where these erased people start to have the means to communicate with each other more easily across greater distances, receive their own culture on a mass scale (country and blues radio), and begin creating a more clearly delineated self-awareness, as well as a more clearly delineated market segment with dollars to spend and needs to fulfill (needs which in many cases were not the same as those of the top world). Obviously, this market had always existed, and it had always been serviced. But in the period after 1920, it really starts to get serviced on mass scale, whether by Henry Ford, Singer Sewing Machines, or the people making all those Hillbilly and Race records.

What does this mean? Well on the one hand, at an individual psychological level, you've got a lot of people with evolving subjectivity (like the folks I've already mentioned). Plus after WWII you've got teenagers of all stripes, who start getting defined as a distinct group (and market sector), with distinct concerns, and for the first time income and time to spend it. Lots of time. Time to be bored. Time to dream. Time to wish that their existence was something, anything other than what it is.

It's Henri Lefebvre's concept of "everyday life" writ large. Lawrence Grossberg summarizes Lefebvre this way:

"Everyday life is not the same as daily life. It is a particular historical organization of the space of daily life, an organization based on principles of repetition and recurrence. It is daily life becoming routinized, without any principle which can define its unity and meaningfulness. Everyday life is predictable, and, paradoxically, that predictability is itself a kind of luxury and privilege. At the same time,·everyday life is a form of control: in Foucault's terms, a kind of disciplinization or, in Deleuze's terms, a politics of territorializtion."

According to Grossberg, "Rock's Politics are defined by its identification of the stability of everyday life with boredom. Consequently, it can only act as a deterritorialization. It draws and produces 'lines of flight' which transform the boredom of the repetition of everyday life into the energizing possibilities of fun. It creates temporary and local places and spaces of mobility and deterritorialization. It challenges the particular stabilities or territorializations of the everyday life within which it exists by producing and celebrating mobilities."

For many teenagers in this period, Grossberg continues, their parents had done everything possible to erase all memory of their immigrant past, the depression, the war, etc. and assimilate them into a top world fueled/defined notion of being a "normal American." This push is undoubtedly more about their parents aspirations and anxieties than those of their children. But in many cases the parents actions are being taken in the name of the children and for the sake of the children. And let's just say that those sorts of aspirations form an existence long on persona and short on shadow to use some Jungian terms (and as Jung said, most of the shadow is pure gold).

Nevertheless, the glimpses the kids get of their grandparents' experiences intrigue them. So do the glimpses of bottom world that the radio brings them in the form of R and B, etc.

Many of these kids start to discover hermeneutics, even though they probably have no idea what that word means. Whether out of boredom, curiosity, or a sense of being lied to, they start wanting to look underneath the surface to see what's there. They become aware of and intrigued by the shadow side of America, what Mike Davis called the Noir sensibility in his book "City of Quartz": Poor people, ethnic minorities, freaks, outcasts, etc. (people who in some cases these kids are blood related to and only really one generation removed from). Marcus called this the "Old Weird America" in his book on the "Basement Tapes" (although I get the sense that Marcus is referring to the rural shadow cultural while Davis is talking more about a slightly later urban iteration of it).

What many of these kids found down below seemed pretty fucking cool to them. Indeed, it was much more interesting and exotic than their own highly disciplinized, boring, safe existence (an existence their parents no doubt cherished: after growing up during the Great Depression and living through World War II they were more than ready for some luxurious "everyday life" in the Lefebvre sense). It also seemed more "true," especially in light of their dawning consciousness of things like the civil rights struggle, nuclear proliferation, and the war in Vietnam.

This is part of the process that we lose 40 years after the fact: the sense of wonder. At the same time, it's hard to comprehend the sense of outrage many must have felt upon finding that the top world story and the bottom world story were often so at odds with each other.

Watergate and its aftermath has permanently scarred most of us under 45 with a cynicism that makes the Boomer outrage hard to comprehend (what the hell did they expect? Life isn't fair and it's power and politics all the way down. No shit Sherlock).

But you too might be outraged if people had told you a fairy tale about how America worked for the first 16 or 18 years of your life and then you started finding out that it wasn't really true much of the time: That black people and poor people are often treated really badly. That their cheap labor is part of what makes the comfortable middle class existence possible. That there are white people in America who are so racist that they won't think twice about killing people to maintain segregation (even idealistic young white people like Michael Schwerner). That powerful men will send young men to a place like Vietnam for muddled reasons, then abstract the deaths of these young men into aggregate body count numbers on a balance sheet, like these lives were simply a cost variable at a General Motors plant (say hey McNamara).

At the same time, the lines were much more tightly drawn in the early 1960s than they are today (or so it seems to me). And a lot of this stuff was much more obscured and unavailable. There was also more danger in crossing those lines to find it. People didn't hop on Google and pop up a list of every old blues recording in existence (or whatever) and then download the mp3 from iTunes or order it from Amazon. There was no vast cohort of niche marketers waiting to make a buck of the long tail of demand.

In short, there was no map. Instead, there was a large mass of mysterious cultural artifacts from the first 30 years of the 20th century, forgotten or erased by the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

I'm sure this is where the sense of the underdog comes from. You see this thread all over the intellectual history of the period. This sense of being lied to. This sense that all the sanctioned history is very narrow and focused only on the subjectivity and activities of a very small subset of Americans (mostly rich white guys). This idea that the truth is out there, but it's covered up and needs to be exposed.

In part, this is where the Marxism comes in (at least in the academy), shifting the focus of inquiry onto bottom world, and the people who live under the radar. Whether it's E.P. Thompson writing the history of the English Working Class, Eugene Genovese devoting 700 pages to the world the slaves made on southern plantations, or feminists working to write women back into the story, you see an impulse throughout the culture to make the shadow visible, to say that the experience of an average British worker, plantation slave, or an average woman is just as worthy of historical inquiry and analysis as the experience of the rich white guys who usually run the world. And you see people trying to take these stories on their own terms as a part of the totality of American culture rather than viewing them as atomized anthropological field studies.

The battle to legitimate this sort of inquiry cannot be underestimated. It was hard fought (to a certain extent it continues to this day--although the whole attack on "Political Correctness" is kind of backlash against it). And the people pushing this agenda were most certainly the underdog in that moment, to the extent that they were out of step with the mainstream public opinion, even if they weren't necessarily out of the economic mainstream.

Today, on the other hand, these same folks are in many cases the white guys running things-- my two lefty mentors from the early '80s at U of Michigan are now the Dean of the LSA and the director of its Residential College.

You've also got venerated mainstream histories like James McPherson's "Battle Cry Freedom," about the Civil War, where there's not even an issue that he's going to try and spend a little time talking about the role of blacks, women, and working people in that conflict. He also spends quite a bit of time talking about things like the riots they had in New York City in response to the draft (and resistance to the draft in general).

That this sort of information is now in the Pulitzer Prizing winning Oxford history of the Civil War is an unspoken but important legacy of the impulses that started gaining momentum in the 1960s. You can bet that very few people in 1968 had even a dim awareness that there were huge protests against the draft in the 1860s. Today this is probably pretty common knowledge. I'll bet it probably even gets a mention in the Ken Burns PBS documentary).

But what about Rockism? Well, I think a lot of the same impulses are present there too. And just thinking about it, this impulse is a pretty romantic one. So it may be safer to argue not that Rockism adopted a romantic mode, but rather that Rock is a part of a large Romanticist trend that reared its head during the late '50s and into the '60s. For Romanticism is very much about venerating old things and traditions even as it is also about overturning current social conventions.

To me, the decade of the 1960s at a cultural level is very much tied up in notions on subjectivity and identity creation. So perhaps it is not surprising that the romantic mode was appealing given its emphasis on individual agency, heroic action, etc. (Shoshana Zuboff has some interesting thoughts on this in her book "the Support Economy" [a rare thing: a feminist business book]. In the end, the book's fantasy imagined "support economy" of the 21st century doesn't seem to add up to much. But her discussion of the evolution of subjectivity in the 19th and 20th century is very useful.)

Be that as it may, the full-on ascendance of these romantic ideas does create problems. For one thing, that moment is over. Much of the romanticism of that period took a dump after Watergate. Perhaps that's why rockism seems like a thing unto itself now rather than part of a bigger movement. The cultural Zeitgeist fizzled out in the '70s but somehow that romantic impulse seems to have survived and flourished in the limited confines of pop music discourse and practice.

But when we are all rockists so to speak, how does one continue to be an underdog, especially if rockism has become the entrenched social convention? Moreover, what if you never really were an underdog, but underdogs just seemed a lot cooler than the boring people around you? Where does that leave you exactly? And what happens when the theoretical basis for authenticity resides with "underdog" status but there aren't really that many authentic underdogs left to pass judgement on who is authentic (just a bunch of faux underdogs imposing on everyone else their fantasy imagined rules about what an authentic underdog looks like)?

Well, that's when the mask goes on. And that seems to be a mask the kids have been putting on at least since the 1960s, and probably long before. And that process, I suspect, does relate to anxiety about privilege (or a realization that privilege doesn't sell very well in the rockist market place). Or maybe it's just that all teenagers feel like underdogs at some level, no matter how privileged they really are, and the rockist ideology has survived because it's a very effective tool for giving voice to this particular developmental moment (since its ascendance coincides with the emergence of teenagers as an acknowledged socio/cultural group).

Or perhaps it doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Perhaps the rock musician simply serves as one of late capitalist culture's rebel/underdog archetypes, living out that path for this time and place so that everyone else can experience those things from a distance, taking comfort in the possibility of that particular "line of flight" without actually having to pursue it. I can think of worse things. For as our friend the Pie Man is fond of saying, "Everyone needs a little structure."



(JOHN'S FOOTNOTES: Jake's dad is the composer and retired conductor Edwin London, who at one point in his life played French horn in Oscar Pettiford's big band. The Pie Man is a friend of Jake's and mine who's a social worker and who would probably prefer not to be quoted by name hereabouts.

Thanks Jake!)

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Saturday is the Solstice Parade in Fremont (Seattle’s most self-regarding neighborhood). A lively, colorful hippie parade with 2 rules: no printed words in the parade, and no mechanized transport (no motors or engines), unless a parader is disabled and requires mechanized transport.

The funniest thing I ever saw in the parade was a group of protesters, angrily waving blank white placards, and silently shouting slogans.

There are often spectacular Bread-and-Puppet style papier mache creations, often leftist political yang yang.

And usually some hoppin’ bands.

And the famous nude bicyclists.

This year a group of people my spouse & I know are putting together a gang to sing “This Land Is Your Land” while pulling a float with large (8 or 10 feet tall) wooden cutouts of North and South America, with 3-D things screwed on illustrating What Goes On In Different Places, like a ‘60s-style souvenir plate with a map of Your State. I’ll be playing guitar. Should be fun. Come down and join us if you’re in the Seattle area and you’re free. We’re hoping everyone will sing along. Our float is the last in the parade, so everybody can join us and march along.

(Just finished reading Paul Hemphill’s “The Nashville Sound” from 1969. The chapter describing the tour of a huge country star of the time whose stuff I’ve never heard, Bill Anderson, talks about how he closed his sets at that time with a patriotic speech supporting the war in Viet Nam, and then “God Bless America,” and then “This Land Is Your Land.” A song that has been embraced by Americans of a variety of political stripes.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


On Oldies radio this morning, "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tommy James and the Shondells. The ode to teen-age petting, with the key line, "The beating of our heart is the only sound," and all the music goes quiet, except a drum mimicking a heartbeat (in rhythm with the rest of the song, natch), and the sound of crickets! It's very beautiful. Hushed, midwest summer night, stopping and listening just for a moment, holding your sweetheart close. (Tommy James grew up in Niles, Michigan, not far from my hometown, Kalamazoo.) (But what's a Shondell?)


Driving home tonight on the teen dance station I heard a coolly sexy sounding woman singing an old Paul Simon hit over a smokin' electronic dance beat.

She said it grieves me so to see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do to make you smile again
I said I appreciate that

The singer spoke the last line quoted here as if conversationally, but not mopily, making it sound ever-so-slightly sarcastic, because who talks like that anyway? Not my favorite P. Simon song, but this was great.

Google tells me the name of the recording act is Plummet.

I thought of the dance-music hit cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" from 6 or 7 years ago, which I loved too, the African American urban milieu of the sound draining the story of kitsch and making it sound tragic and senseless, like a Johnny Cash murder ballad. I turned off the radio and started singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" as if it were a country song (I would omit the operatic bits, as the dance-music version did as well). I never called my mom "Mama," but a lot of black Americans do, as do a lot of white American southerners. If someone out here reading this thinks, damn, that WOULD be a great country ballad, and you record it, drop me a line and let me know. I'd love to hear it. I wish Johnny Cash were still around.

Mama, just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead,
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away-
Mama ooo,
Didn’t mean to make you cry-
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow-
Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters-

Too late, my time has come,
Sends shivers down my spine-
Body’s aching all the time,
Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go-
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth-
Mama ooo- (any way the wind blows)
I don’t want to die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all-
“Bah Bah Blacksheep,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and the alphabet song all have the same melody. What’s up with that?


Harmonica and vocal trax this evening. Went OK. Always a pleasure to be in there and hear in detail how much better I would like to be. Album is coming along. I think we have a title -- now we just need a band name! Suggestions welcome.


The library is rocking me.

Recently released (2003) Rahsaan Roland Kirk live in 1974 in San Diego. When he chose to, a bad-ass king tenor saxophonist. Always, an exciting bandleader and great writer. This show is HOT.

The Weavers. Pete Seeger cajoling people to sing can be both bossy and corny; a lot of the songs leave me cold; their arrangements can cheer-up somber material in a way that doesn’t please me; But. Their version of “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” -- so subdued, so understated, almost spooky -- it makes me cry.

“Mbube” by Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds, from 1939. The original of “Wimoweh.” The Weavers made a ton of money by stealing this copyright from Solomon Linda, who wrote it and died poor. (Rian Malan’s magesterial article tells the astounding story.) The Evening Birds’ original version is wonderful -- male South African harmony singing, with Linda’s caterwauling falsetto on the world-famous melody.

Lots of other stuff too. I love the library.

Monday, June 13, 2005


Deep in the comments of this post about why Coldplay doesn’t set his woods on fire, Carl Wilson, after dismissing speculation about sincerity as irrelevant to aesthetic experience (and I agree -- it’s also unknowable), bravely starts talking about “soul” in music, which I’m all for.

“Soul” is a metaphor for the distinct biological and cultural individuality that each person possesses, the myriad accidents of fate that make each of us who we are.  In Glenn Gould's case, the distinctiveness of what players call his “touch” rings loud and clear within a few measures of hearing him.  For another pianist to reproduce that “touch” -- Gould's distinctive sense of dynamics and legato/staccato -- would take a lifetime of study, and I doubt that anyone could completely pull it off.  It’s basically impossible, because for Gould, his touch was simply his truth, his beauty, and was the product of his working on his view of the truth and beauty in any particular piece.  For someone to reproduce it, they would have to worry more about Gould than about the truth and beauty in any particular piece.  The distance between the two is Gould himself, a space he occupies which nobody else ever could.

I'm highly suspicious of the “anybody can do it” mythos of rock, but there's an element of truth to it.  The Kingsmen's “Louie Louie” will never be duplicated, and not just because of the singer's distinct voice.  As Dave Marsh's book on the song points out, the drummer is out of his mind -- he mistakes the guitar solo for a drum solo, and he doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off, but he goes for it anyway, all stumbles and crashes and accidental pauses and noise, and it's great.  An un-reproducible compound of ego and enthusiasm and semi-competence that, magically, worked beautifully -- One Time Only.

Every once in a while I hear on a local college radio jazz show a trumpeter who has done a pretty good job of imitating Miles Davis’s late ‘50s trumpet sound. The style is consistent enough to emulate.  I have never, ever heard anybody come close to imitating the Kingsmen’s sound.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Re my post on Bobby Darin last night.

It’s not just that his “Mack the Knife” and “Up a Lazy River” are over-the-top. In both songs, his interpretation goes against the grain of the song’s intent.

“Mack the Knife,” a sardonic song about a serial killer, which Darin turns into a party romp. Have to give him the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that his version might be the most Brechtian of all, at least until that late ‘80s MacDonald’s campaign where a cartoon crescent-moon-faced lounge pianist sang about “Mac,” the Mac in this instance being MacDonald’s. Brecht’s play is about the celebrity-celebration of a murderer, and nobody outside of MacDonald’s does that better than Bobby Darin.

“Up a Lazy River,” a sweet nostalgic number that Darin starts sweetly enough but turns into a menacing rage number before it’s over.

These performances make all rock-era lounge parodies I’ve ever heard sound weak, tame, redundant, and irrelevant.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

I heard Bobby Darin in a cafe today -- "Beyond the Sea," the least campy of his big band hits. Taken as sincere, straight readings, there's nothing about "Mac the Knife" or "Up a Lazy River" that makes any sense at all -- they're quite nutty performances, bizarrely over-the-top, almost proto-punk -- conceptual art. But a passion does come through those tracks, a fierce urge to squeeze more out of the songs than exists in them. By the end of “Up a Lazy River,” when he’s shouting, “UP A LAZY RIVER!!!” and menacing his listener with an interpolation not in the original lyrics, “Ain’t goin’ your way, GET OUT OF MY WAY,” you’re wondering, what the HELL is this guy thinking? And it’s great.

“Beyond the Sea” is more straight up, and it’s lovely -- Darin’s beautiful voice, and whoever that drummer is playing those fills like 60 during the instrumental break -- he’s brilliant.

“Sweet music makes the same old story new again”
-- Harry Warren and Al Dubin, “Sweet Music”

I’ve been re-reading this wonderful book from 1969 by a man named Paul Hemphill, “The Nashville Sound.” I can’t recommend it too highly to anybody interested in good writing about popular music. Hemphill was a reporter; this was his first book. He’s a white guy from the south; his dad was a long-distance trucker. The book is a survey of the country music scene, starting off at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a popular Nashville hang-out for country musicians, and encompassing profiles of songwriters, promoters, producers, DJs, singers, and back-country country people who build their own fiddles and don’t have electricity. Describing Glen Campbell’s ascent to stardom and sudden wealth, he puts in a quick allusion to “The Whiffenpoof Song,” a Yale University singing club song from 95 years ago or so. Hemphill says, “It’s a long way from the tables down at Tootsie’s to the place where Campbell dwells.” The song starts, “To the tables down at Morey’s / To the place where Louie dwells.” (It’s not so odd that a book on country music would make a quick nod to this bit of upper-class northeastern whiffenpoofery, because the Statler Brothers had recently recorded an upbeat version of it that, I gather from the Statler Brothers' collections, became a hit.) (And it occurs to me now, Richard Berry may have named rock and roll’s most famous bartender after this song.)

So I put on my one Rudy Vallee CD, thinking about the tables down at Morey’s and the place where Glen Campbell dwells, and came across that great line about Sweet Music, quoted above.

Carl Wilson has been discussing what makes Coldplay bad, (I kinda like Coldplay, in the small, random doses I’ve gotten). Deep in the comments he says something about the originality and depth of the Mountain Goats’ new album “The Sunset Tree.” In rockcrit contexts, “depth” usually implies “depth of thought or insight,” but what makes the great songs on “The Sunset Tree” work is the depth of songwriting smarts and of feeling -- songwriting including the sharply observed and evocative words as well as the “Sweet Music.” Darnielle tells his tale with a verbal vividness that makes it something other than “the same old story,” but what takes his words -- excellent as they are -- to another emotional and perceptual plane is the Sweet Music. As I am quite sure that Carl would agree.

P.S. This has nothing to do with Coldplay or the Mountain Goats, except that it seems very rock and roll -- old school. My Rudy Vallee CD is a 1998 reissue of an album from 1956, long past Vallee’s heyday. The booklet notes are from pre-rock pop historian Ian Whitcomb, who, when he met Vallee, asked him what it was about his voice that made his fans so devoted. Vallee answered, “Deep in my throat is a phallic symbol.” And since we're on the subject of phalluses deep in throats, I do want to say that this movie presents a much more plausible, unified theory of Watergate than anything Mark Felt or Bob Woodward or convicts like Gordon Liddy say.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Before going to the neighbors’ to invite them for a walk after dinner tonight, the 2-year-old and I played some duets on the piano. I plunked through a few numbers from a book that advertises itself as “The Greatest Songs Ever” and the 2-year-old played soft trebly tone clusters to accompany. We did “Love Me Tender.” The kid instructed me not to sing so loud -- he wanted a delicate texture. Then he requested Hoagy Carmichael’s (and Ray Charles’s) “Georgia.” And so we played it. I hope he’ll agree to record sometime.


According to Freud’s theory of Transference, it’s no surprise when the patient “transfers” his or her affections from some past experience to the doctor. The patient believes that this transfer of fantasy-affection means that he or she has “fallen in love.” The theory is best illustrated in Robert Palmer’s old hit song, “Bad Case of Loving You.”

Doctor, doctor, give me the news
I’ve got a bad case of loving you
No pill’s gonna cure my ill
I’ve got a bad case of loving you

Palmer’s lyric explores the traditional dominant role of the doctor in our society, and the patient’s relative passivity in relationship.

I know you like it, you like it on top
Tell me, momma, are you gonna stop?

You had me down, 21 to zip
Smile of Judas on your lip
Shake my fist, knock on wood
I've got it bad, and I've got it good

Palmer’s lyrics betray some resentment about his powerlessness vis a vis the lover-doctor, but his beat and his tune say Yes Yes Yes. The struggle of liberation, resenting the female love-object’s greater social power, but wonderfully excited by that nonetheless.

A friend of mine from college married his therapist.

(P.S. Oh yeah, forgot to add: I married my boss. Slept my way out of a job -- one of us had to quit.)

UPDATE 2: In comments, Corndog identifies the songwriter of the Robert Palmer hit song as Moon Martin. Thanks, Corndog!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Heard 2 songs in a row on the radio tonight that have personal associations.

First, that novelty instrumental cheery muzak hit “Music Box Dancer,” from the late ‘70s. A tune I hated until that year, ‘84 or ‘85, when I lived with 3 friends in a rental house with a piano, and everybody in the house played it. Jeff H, a music theory major, played it best. A neighbor, a man in his 30s who, if I remember correctly, lived with his parents and had a cognitive impairment, would come over with the sheet music for “Music Box Dancer.” Jeff would play it, and the neighbor would lean on the top of the upright piano with his chin in his hand, and have the sweetest, dreamiest expression while he listened. And I couldn’t hate the tune any more.

Second, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding. At one point while I worked in Seattle’s roughest, biggest shelter from ‘91 to ‘93, located at the corner of Crack Alley and the original historic Skid Row, two clients would sing that song in the sweetest, most perfect harmony while one of them played fine rhythm guitar. I’m pretty sure that at least one of them had a serious crack problem. They were in their 30s and appeared to be in decent mental and physical health. They sang like angels. “Just to make this dock my home.”

1. A book scanner that would photocopy a book without breaking its spine. So I could "burn" copies of particular poems or passages or essays in books that I hold onto for those particular parts.

2. (This one might exist already.) A distortion pedal for electric bass that would reproduce the sound of rattling car doors and dashboards, to give a recording the patina of the urban pedestrian listening experience, without breaking eardrums.

3. (This might exist too.) A compressor for TV to keep the volume consistent. With the 2-year-old asleep upstairs, I am constantly adjusting the TV volume so that I can both hear it and it won't disturb the sleeper.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I’m peripherally involved in a few different discussion groups on the arts, and parallels in conflicts just occurred to me.

In contemporary classical composition, there’s the split between Uptown and Downtown. (Manhattan, that is -- and no, “Uptown” doesn’t mean Harlem, unlike in that Girl Group song.)

In contemporary poetry, a split exists between what poet and blogger Ron Silliman calls the “post-avant” and the School of Quietude. I’d heard of this split more than 20 years before I’d heard Ron’s name for it.

In both of these splits, the group that has generally better connections to institutional support denies that the split exists.

Unlike the first two, the third split is more between critics than between artists. It’s the rock / pop split in popular music. Which I’ve been writing about. Too much too.

(I’m mulling over the poetry split, but am not ready to go whole hog on it. [When writing about poetry, the more cliches the merrier!] I was struck by Ron Silliman's description of contemporary poetic practice, particularly its silence in the face of the "noisiest" of contemporary poetic practices -- the poetry slam. One of these days I’ll get to articulating my half-formed thoughts on the American avant-garde’s debt to Ezra Pound, who liberated free verse from the oratorical strain of Whitman and Sandburg, and set it off in a more meditative [quiet!] direction. Ginsberg is in the oratorical tradition of Sandburg and Whitman, and the Slammers took cues from Ginsberg and developed a new oratorical style, often with a syntax even freer than Ginsberg’s, and more opulent use of neologisms. It seems to me that the dichotomies of Ron's "post-avant" and "School of Quietude" are both, generally speaking, in a meditative mode, which is opposed to the oratorical mode. Also, post-avants and so-called Quietudians appear to be working together to deny status to the oratorical mode, Whitman and Ginsberg excepted.)

(Sketchy, parenthetical generalizations that have been often on my mind, but which I have not been able to formulate in a fashion bold and backed-up enough to shed the shadowy parentheses.)

Monday, June 06, 2005


9 days ago, a week ago last Sunday, my beloved spouse was at work, as is her Sunday routine. The 2-year-old and I went to Seattle Center to catch some of Seattle’s annual folk music festival. At the center is a permanent amusement park. Since there were no musical acts I was itching to catch, we went on the carousel. The 2-year-old is too small to go by himself. So I stood with my arm around him as he went up and down and we went round and round, listening to the canned, electronic calliope music. “Turkey in the Straw” or some such merry number was playing. It was a grey afternoon with a big crowd of people going through, and I realized that the countless TV shows about Omniscient Cops had trained me to associate the music and noise and sight of a merry-go-round with foreboding and danger, and I instinctively searched the crowd for murderers.

Sometimes I hate TV.
Blogging is the continuation of the dorm-room late-night bull session by other means.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


There have been signs all along the way. That summer in my early 20s when I started liking country music, which I had sworn when I was in high school never to like, saying it to an adult teammate on the church softball team who replied, “I used to be just like you when I was in high school; I only liked rock and roll, but then I slowed down a little bit and the country music rhythms started sounding better,” to which I had scoffed at the time -- hah! Then there was that morning in my late 20s when I woke up and realized (to some horror, which I’ve since gotten over) that those Barbra Streisand records my mom listened to while I was growing up -- I like them. Some years later, coming to terms with the truth that those Barry Manilow songs I liked when I was 10 -- I still like them.

More recently, a few months ago, listening to Thelonious Monk in my cubicle and my cube neighbor remarking cheerfully that it sounded like elevator music. The very same thing about the very same musician was said to me by someone else when I was 19, and I had then gotten very indignant. Now, I just shrug it off -- and not just because I find elevator music interesting when I didn’t back then.

Today, at the beach with the 2-year-old, playing in the sand, beautiful spring sunny cloudy windy day in Seattle, seeing cruise ships heading north to Alaska and thinking for the first time -- hey, I might not mind doing something like that some day. Given my family’s financial status, it’s unlikely to happen, but the thought was NEW to me.

Turned 42 yesterday. Got phone calls and emails and well-wishing blog comments and had a party. Four of my band’s five members played in the dead-end alley behind our house, and we fed 20 people (including 6 little kids), bratwurst & veggie burgers, and grilled eggplant and zucchini, and salad, and vegan birthday cake. (My son is allergic to eggs & dairy; we were psyched to find a good vegan cake recipe on the web. The secret is two whole pears to bind it together and keep it moist.) Bob, the drummer, was nervous but congenial when 3 two-year-olds gathered around his floor tom-tom to give the band a polyrhythmic, free jazz feel, which I dug musically as well as visually and socially. One of my best birthdays ever.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Hey! It's my birthday!

Thursday, June 02, 2005


Terrific piece by Alex Ross in the New Yorker on the effect of phonography on music. Chock-filled with researched history and insights. Great stuff on early use of record players as instruments by German modernist composers in the 1920s, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Stefan Wolpe. Fascinating history of how phonography standardized performance practices in standard-repertoire classical music.

A couple points I’d like to expand upon. Alex points out that early recording had so much surface noise that sharp sounds, such as Caruso’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, had an advantage over the softer, rounder tones that so much classical music makes. Another disadvantage that classical had, especially in the early years, but continuing to this day, is that records have an extraordinarily difficult time reproducing the dynamic range of a classical piece, especially of an orchestra. Popular music has conformed itself to radio’s requirement for a consistent volume level. Mozart wasn’t thinking in those terms, and neither was Ravel, who composed into the era of electrical recording (a big technological advance of the 1920s).

Alex points out the innovation of the soft croon that recording -- and radio -- made possible. I don’t know that classical music has very much explored the *artistic* possibilities of this change of media. Rock has been brilliant at finding the emotional complexity that can be wrung out of placing sounds that register as loud next to sounds that register as soft, and allowing the listener to hear them on equal terms. Topper Headon bashing away at his drums while Mick Jones speaks conversationally in your ear creates an emotionally complex sonic whole. Franklin Bruno’s book on Elvis Costello’s album “Armed Forces” points out an example -- Elvis simultaneously singing and whispering the chorus of a song. These effects would not exist without recording. I know some classical composers have explored this arena -- maybe the solo bass voice chanting “Koyaanisqatsi” as the electric organs wail in Philip Glass’s piece could be an example. I’m sure there are others -- it seems that this could be one.

Interesting discussion of the article at Carl Wilson’s place too. Thanks to Alex for the thought-provoking and informative stuff.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


A million blog-years ago my blog friend Corndog passed me this chain-post about books. I was tickled that he picked me, after having been antsy that other bloggers I like HADN’T, and then I thought, how pathetically junior high is that! Still, thanks Corndog. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.

You are stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you be?

I’ve never read that book. Being stuck inside a book sounds very unpleasant. How would I move my arms to eat?

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

No -- I tend to identify with the protagonist, like most readers, I assume. Sarah Shulman wrote a lesbian version of “On the Road” that never goes above 14th Street in Manhattan. She cribbed the title from a phrase from Kerouac’s book: “Girls, Visions and Everything.” She was identifying with the protagonist.

But a crush? That’s a pretty absurd question. I’ve had crushes -- my heart beat fast when SHE was in the room or on the phone, I got tongue-tied, I obsessed. Those reactions to a fictional character? I pity anybody who experiences THAT.

What is the last book you bought?

Franklin Bruno’s book on Elvis Costello’s “Armed Forces.” Because I was corresponding with Franklin, and because I knew I could pass the book along to someone else when I was done, and because I used to be a big Elvis C fan (“Elvis,” for me now, is Presley), and because it was only 10 bucks new. As it happens, I’m really enjoying it -- no surprise, wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t think I would -- AND, it’s explaining to me in very sympathetic terms why I lost interest in Elvis C., and it may even be rekindling that interest.

What are you currently reading?

“Armed Forces” by Franklin, and “The Nashville Sound” by Paul Hemphill, a terrific book on country music from 1969 that I read 10 years ago or so.

Five books for your desert island cruise package.

I’m glad Corndog said “cruise package,” because those “desert island” questions are absurd and depressing and sadistic. So, for my CRUISE, I’ll take whatever I happen to be reading at the time, plus a book of poetry (probably selected Blake or “Leaves of Grass” or a good pocket-size anthology).

Who are you going to pass this slambook baton to and why? (only three people)

I’m sending it to only two: Devin Hurd. If anybody else wants it, they’re welcome to it. Devin seems like a nice guy and I’m curious to know more about his literary sensibility.

I’m also sending it to my friend Michael Barrish. Just because.

Now, I know, I know, the purpose of picking people is to cross-pollinate readerships. I’m sorry to be such a killjoy. If you want me to link to you, I would be happy to you. Just send me an email.

Devin Hurd is an interesting music blogger who passed me this here chain-post about music. I’m sad that Devin recently moved away from Seattle -- I had hoped to meet him. I still hope to hear his music.

Total Volume of Music on your computer?

964 megabytes. I’ve been copying a bunch of music from the library. A little bit of my own music, but mostly, this stuff is waiting to be burned onto CD-Rs.

Last CD you bought?

I picked up “Bernstein Conducts Bernstein” for 6 bucks a week or so ago when I sold a bunch of books. I hadn’t heard the overture to “Candide” before -- I love it. Am I nuts to hear echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov in it? The Symphonic Suite from “West Side Story” benefits (in my mind), like “Wagner Ohne Worte,” from the lack of singing. Bernstein sounds so Russian to me! The spectacular color-splashes from Rimsky-Korsakov, a Stravinsky-esque rhythmic voltage, and then, as respite from the rhythmic storm, a melody almost-but-not-quite worthy of Borodin. The “Somewhere” love-ballad theme jumps out like that gorgeous Tony Bennett hit jumping out from Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” The Symphonic Suite reflects rhythmic influence from jazz as well, and Bernstein, unlike other composers I could name, does himself no dishonor in opening himself to the hot stuff.

The last album I bought new was “Roger the Engineer” by the Yardbirds, a couple months ago. “Over Under Sideways Down!” Wingy peppy light-footed loud blues-flavored mid-’60s rockin’ sometimes-tuneful MUSIC.

Song currently playing?

Also known as the “how hip are you?” question. Well, luckily I’m feeling pretty hip. “Bechain Dil Khoi Si Nazar” by Lata Mangeshkar & Manna Dey, from “Golden Voices from the Silver Screen,” a Bollywood anthology. Lata M. is Asha Bhosle’s sister; I’d heard of Asha B. but not Lata M. Now it’s the next song -- Asha Bhosle. Lively stuff. I got it from the library. I’m copying the whole CD.

Now it’s a while later at night, and my son’s lullabye is on its 3rd go-through. A version of Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell March,” also known as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” played on calliope.

In any case, nothing could be hipper than Devin’s “treasures . . . the sounds that echo within undocumented recesses of my mind.” Seriously. As the Beach Boys emphatically put it, “music is in my soul.”

Five songs that I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me?

Oh geez. Like Devin, I’m going to stick with Songs With Words, otherwise “Liberty Bell March” (4th go-through and counting tonight) would top the list. I listen to it A LOT. It means A LOT to me. Oddly, I long since became immune to getting sick of it -- I like it.

OK, what pops into my head.

1) Happiness Is A Warm Gun (“Liberty Bell” count now 5) -- John Lennon’s surrealism & the band’s great ensemble. Great vocal, complicated rhythmic shifts. “She’s not a girl who misses much.” But the sardonicism of the ending -- maybe I *am* sick of “Liberty Bell.”
2) Samba of Orpheus -- no words, but sung -- “la la la” -- on the original “Black Orpheus Soundtrack,” which blew me away in college and blows me away anew every time. Bonfa wrote this one, but Jobim is so much more famous that it sometimes get credited to him. I get chills just thinking about the role of this song in the film, which I haven’t seen since college. The village kids KNOW that Orpheus sings to make the sun rise, and they know that Orpheus is dead, so they rush to the top of a rise on the east side of the village to sing to the sun, because OTHERWISE THE SUN MIGHT NOT RISE. This, my friends, is a properly religious view of music. Amazingly, the tune is worthy of its burden.
3) Me & Mrs. Jones -- this one is cheating, the next song that popped in was Counting Crows’ Mr. Jones & Me, and I couldn’t go there -- I like the song fine, but it’s not list-worthy. Followed the Jones from there to Dylan’s -- almost list-worthy, but not quite, and then to this, by -- I’ll have to Google -- I’m guessing now -- Billy Paul? -- Google answers: Yes! -- well, this song isn’t list-worthy -- or maybe it is! First, a couple friends from high school -- Dave, with whom I had a band in high school, and Bud (with whom I've lost touch) -- covered it some years after high school, with two really interesting guys named Barry and P. Michael; P. Michael singing the song in his naturally swishy, lisping style (“Mithith Joneth, Mithith Joneth, Mithith Joneth” -- that’s how he talked), and it was very funny, also funny because he was gay, and it was a rehearsal in an empty loft in a bad neighborhood in Chicago before I moved to Chicago, mid-’80s, very hip and witty and glamorous. But, now I remember! In the one full-length play I wrote, my friend Jeff Dorchen was playing a character who was going off to war, and the Chorus of Townspeople were bidding him farewell, and Jeff wrote himself farewell lines for each chorus member as he shook each of their hands. “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. I know what you mean, Mr. Mustard. Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones.” A very fond memory. Which I hadn’t thought of in years. And an excellent song. I still play a couple songs I wrote for that show.
4) Wait, by Laura Cantrell. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey wrote the song and produced the record, and it’s gorgeous. I’ve known Jay since infancy. We were in a band together in high school (along with Dave, mentioned just above). Jay’s working on his “solo debut” EP; he’s promised to send me some rough mixes soon.
5) The Trickster, by the 4th member of my high school band, John de Roo. My friend since 8th grade; playing music together since 9th. The first song of John’s that pops into my head right now. Great tune. “Taking a nap on the beautiful lawn.” John lives in Tucson, and two Tucson compilations will be releasing songs of his soon. As I said to another friend from high school, it’s no surprise -- it’s a relief! That the curators are finally starting to pick him.
6) Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained, by my friend Jake London. A gorgeously melodic and thickly textured mid-tempo paean to love. I’ve only known Jake since we were 18.

OK, that’s six.

Three people to whom I'm passing the baton:

my friend Michael Barrish (who will probably ignore it)
my friend oblomova

I'd be curious to know what all these people have to say about this, and they know me well enough to know that I wouldn't mind at all if they ignore this. If anybody else wants me to "pick" them, drop me an email, and I will -- and, further, I won't tell anybody that you asked me to pick you, I'll just casually post something like, and oh, I'd really be curious to know what Blogger X has to say about this too. Or, you can just answer the questions and start your own chain. Or whatever.

It's not just in rock myth that the Romanticism of the '60s shines through.

Some day I'll make my cover album of non-rock '60s songs, all about freedom & intense individualism.

Born Free
I Gotta Be Me
I Did It My Way
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (non-rock psychedelia, by Lerner & Lane)
The Impossible Dream
Moon River

OK, maybe an EP.

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