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

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Finished recording my solo album.

A hodgepodge of what-have-you, most of it of deep and dear interest to me right now in my life. Whether anybody else likes it . . .

Make a cassette dub tomorrow night. Don't know how long it is.

Weird project. Haven't been sleeping enough, so I'm feeling cranky. Wrote some songs I like, as well as some improv-sketches.

Only wrote 2 lyrics; set 6 texts by other people:
Scooter Libby
an email dictated by my almost-3-year-old son to his mom
The Old Oaken Bucket
Abou Ben Adhem (poem mentioned in passing on the blog, which my grandpa had to memorize in order to join his college fraternity; have since learned that it was a favorite of the Wodehouse character Jeeves, a writer I've never read but whose stuff my grandpa really liked)
The White Man's Shame
“Hope” is the thing with feathers, a great Emily Dickinson hit

And with 2 instrumentals, a story with guitar accompaniment, and a cover of the great Irving Berlin's Let’s face the music and dance, it may add up to 29 minutes of music. I'll find out.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

the aspens will already be turning

utopian radio

Douglas Wolk suggested recording an album, and Alex Ross suggested writing a song, and I’ve talked about troubles I had setting some of the words and then how it felt when I finished. Now you can hear it. An NPR reporter did a story on the Solo Album project and featured the song. You can hear the whole story, including a clip of the song and brief quote from me by clicking on “Listen,” and hear the whole song by clicking on “John Shaw.”

It’s not much like much else I’ve written. Of the couple hundred songs I’ve written, 90 or 95% of them started out on guitar, and the large majority of those have been on the cowboy chords; this is a piano song. The words have a somber lyricism that I would have had trouble sounding on a guitar.

Technical notes:

Alex suggested a melisma on the word “turning”; despite my reservations about musical parallelism, it ended up with a portamento;

I succumbed to more musical parallelism by putting the modulation on the line “because their roots connect them,” setting up, I hope, the song’s dramatic climax;

the last chord starts as an F-minor-11th but stretches out to a 12-note chord (which probably has a technical name) -- I liked the idea of the 12-note chord, just as a goof, but I wouldn't have used it if the sound didn't please me;

I had cold the day I recorded. (Dept. of Excuses Excuses.)

Technical shmechnical -- do you like the song? I tried to “play it straight.” Which some people may find funny. And that’s fine.

Now I’ve gotta try to finish the whole album.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The frame is a fantastical convention. It can make things lovely.

People don't see in squares and rectangles. Focus tends toward much smaller bits, even at a distance.

Space isn't flat.

A skillful photographer can exploit a moment of evenly spread light. The world is rarely evenly lit.

I love looking at pictures.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Portraits of the blogger by his not-yet-3-year-old son.


Today the coming-on-3-year-old told me and his mom about his band. Various imaginary friends, most of whom we’d heard of, playing drums, banjo, violin, trombone, and lots of singers, including a chorus of singing, dancing crabs. “Really big crabs. Huge ones.” The name of the band is The Tree The Grass.


Caught a few minutes of Bruce Hornsby on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” show on Saturday. He’s a surprisingly solid Bud Powell adept, nothing special as a melodist but solid, which takes dedication, skill, chops, passion. Marian wanted him to talk about his time touring with the Grateful Dead and he happily obliged.

Paraphrased from memory, he said something to the effect of, “People don’t realize how great they were as songwriters. They’ve written 50 or 60 songs that just make the hair on my arm stand up.”

Marian replies, and you can hear the eyebrows arch over the radio: “Really.”

Bruce plows on and mentions how they wrote 10 or 15 songs that sound like old folk songs, like they could have been written 100 years ago.

Marian: “Oh really.”

Highly entertaining radio moment.

Bruce, plowing on, says, “And where else could you play one song for an hour?”

Marian: “Well, there’s Sonny Rollins.”

Bruce (not understanding, and full speed ahead): “He never sat in the with the Dead, but Ornette Coleman did, and [jazz luminary whose name slips my mind].”

They played a duet of Powell’s gorgeous “Parisian Boulevard.” Really nice.

A few weeks ago I caught some of John Medeski on “Piano Jazz.” Marian seemed only slightly less skeptical of this whippersnapper, but John won her over. The first time I heard Medeski, Martin & Wood, years ago, Medeski’s organ playing struck me as analogous to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing: not Hendrix’s gorgeous lyricism, but his wildly innovative mastery of timbre and tone color. A few years ago I heard MMW play “Manic Depression” at an absurd Hendrix tribute concert put on by Paul Allen and Seattle’s Experience Music Project; they rocked it, one of the few acts up there that didn’t embarrass themselves. Since they flew in for one song, they didn’t bring their gear, and Medeski borrowed an organ from an acquaintance of mine, a friend of a friend. Afterwards I heard secondhand that the organ’s owner -- a serious, accomplished, gigging rock organist -- was astonished by the sounds Medeski got out of his instrument, an instrument he’d never played before.

Medeski the pianist is also a terrific colorist; and, also, a melodist who doesn’t thrill me. He was a charming interview subject for Marian, friendly and knowledgable and vastly dedicated to the music.


Happy 50th Mr. Gann! Many Happy Returns of the Day!

(And thanks for posting your lovely piece, Satie’s Dream.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"words that don't mean anything"


I got a Michael Bloomfield anthology out from the library the other day. I’m nowhere near a connoisseur either of electric blues guitar or of Bloomfield, but he had a great biting tone, most famously on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and it was the library so what the heck. When I put it on I heard something that I hadn’t heard in 20 years, that I had forgotten, and it knocked me back: his mid-late ‘60s band Electric Flag and their version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. The happening proto-Blues-Brothers-style soul-horn arrangement of a classic paranoid blues number made it into a joyous sort of paranoid party music, and Bloomfield’s lead was hot, as was that of one of the saxophonists; singer Nick Gravenites is fine; drummer Buddy Miles lays down a super solid beat (most notably later for his work with Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys) -- the music is first-rate all around. What really knocked me back, though, was the soundclip that introduced the track: President Johnson intoning about “dignity” in what was obviously a Viet Nam war speech. It transformed Wolf’s lyric from a paranoid song of love gone bad to a political song -- “I should have quit you a long time ago.” And Johnson’s speech was just spooky -- that ghastly war.

I had bought the Electric Flag record in college because Miles Davis had touted them in a Downbeat magazine blindfold test that I had read in a Leonard Feather collection. I don’t know why I got rid of the record but now I want to hear more again.


Got a baby sitter and went with my beloved spouse last night to the new version of “Pride and Prejudice.” People in some quarters have complained about the over-romanticization of the director’s take, but I loved it, and the acting is uniformly wonderful. In the last year or so I’ve seen the quasi-Bollywood adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” and rented the Olivier “Pride and Prejudice” and the funny and occasionally annoying looser adaptation “Bridget Jones’s Diary”; I loved the Bollywood spectacle but this was by far the most moving. Haven’t seen the 5-hour BBC version from 10 years or so ago; that’s on the list.


Gordon Jenkins may have been Sinatra’s foppiest arranger with swooping impressionistic string lines and melodic lushness all around. I got into Jenkins in the summer ‘83 at the public library of Kodiac, Alaska, listening to records on headphones that the library had set up as free entertainment for all the college kids who came in the summer for the fishing industry; his arrangements on Nilsson’s album of standards “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night” wrapped up my lonely not-yet-employed 20-year-old soul in a warm blanket of sweet, sweet sound. (The library also had some obscure Ornette records and a 1929 Broadway soundtrack of a Fats Waller show in which Louis Armstrong introduced “Ain’t Misbehaving” by joyously lying through his teeth; it was a very hip library for a town of 5,000, which swelled to 10,000 in the summer.)

Ella and Gordon Jenkins: pure gold. Their “Black Coffee” becomes pure majestic noir tragedy.


The kid was making squiggling lines on the paper so I knew that in his mind he was writing. (Pictured above.) I asked him what he was writing and he said, “Words that don’t mean anything.”

Ohio State dramatically beat Michigan yesterday in the annual big game that closes the season. My dad and Uncle Pete were both there; Uncle Pete's first game since his open heart surgery, and Dad was happy to be feeling well enough to go. My brother and cousins went too, and sat in the seats my family has sat in for at least 5 decades. I'd've liked to have been there.
Go Blue.

(Cards as dealt by my son a few months ago.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

the old oaken bucket

A week and a half ago I posted what may have been the most popular American poem of the 19th century, The Old Oaken Bucket. After posting I noticed that the text I'd linked to and pasted differed from the text I had in two different anthologies of 19th century popular verse I own. Changes in punctuation, all for the worse, and one or two words different, also for the worse (but one may be closer to Woodworth's original text), and one whole line change -- also for the worse.

Lines 3 and 4 of the 3rd stanza in the linked version read:
Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,
Though fill'd with the nectar that Jupiter sips.

The anthologies give a different line 4:
Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,
The brightest that beauty or revelry sips.

Again, I like the anthology text better: beauty and revelry are exalted things of the speaker's actual experience; Jupiter's nectar is a bookish abstraction.

The two anthologies are in agreement with each other but not with the linked text. A third book version I own, however, agrees with the linked version, and that's the book-length single-poem edition I found among the book collection of my great-grandparents. Changing texts was common in 19th century popular poetry. St. Nick's 7th and 8th reindeer in their original newspaper appearance of 1823 were named Dunder and Blixem, not Donder and Blitzen. The originals are a Nederlandish exclamation meaning, literally, "thunder and lightning!" The more familiar, latterly chosen names are German in origin. Likewise "Casey at the Bat" has many variant readings.

The legacy of the Old Oaken Bucket survives as a trophy for the winner of the annual college football game between Indiana and Purdue. The trophy dates back to 1925, and the bucket itself is more than 100 years old. The poem was more than 100 years old in 1925, when delegates from the two schools chose the bucket as the trophy. Neither the Indiana nor the Purdue web site mentions Woodworth's poem as the inspiration, though I'd be surprised if it weren't. College grads of that vintage were far more likely to have known the poem than to have come up with the phrase spontaneously. My grandpa had to memorize Abou Ben Adhem by Shelley’s friend James Leigh Hunt in order to get into a fraternity in the 1920s. It wasn't too long ago that poetry was far more widely read than it is today. As a gangster in a comic '50s movie I rented a month or so ago said, about homeland sentimentality, "You know, 'Breathes there a man with soul so dead,' and all that." I knew I'd read the poem but had to look up the reference -- Sir Walter Scott. Movie gangsters don't quote Romantic poetry any more; football fans don't know the roots of their customs.

Still, human imagination and custom have transformed the old oaken bucket itself into a thing of beauty and revelry. I imagine the bucket's author, Samuel Woodworth, who was born in 1784, would be pleased.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


i read Candide some years back. i laughed at the joke about the daughter of the pope, and Voltaire's footnote touting his own delicacy in not naming which pope. and Pangloss is a memorable character, a precursor to the Intelligent Designists who have faith that the putative I.D.-er Himself has created "the best of all possible worlds."

so when Joshua (a/k/a Jane, a/k/a, cutely, seasurface [in comments]) equates a questioning of the political utility of violence in this historical moment with Panglossian thinking, he's making with some fuzzy rhetorical math. the precise point is: i want things to be better, which is why i'm asking for the most effective mode of change; in a modern industrialized state, violence has had no history of effectiveness as an agent of social change. and besides, he's read my stuff. he knows i'm no Panglossian.

one might call Joshua/Jane/seasurface a mystico-historicist; "history" with his pen becomes a mystificatory magic wand. forget to mention every waking moment that our present -- his and mine -- privileges are underwritten by state violence, poof, you're ahistorical. question whether history has given us any examples of 20th century armed revolutions that did not lead to massively violently repressive states, poof, you're Panglossian. this priest of "history" wants "history" to mean whatever he says it means.

now, just because we've had a bad track record with armed revolution in the last 100 years or so, that doesn't mean it couldn't lead to something else in the future. but if history is to be of any use, i'd like to see some thinking as to why this time it will be different. in the meantime, i'm going to go on the record and say, regardless of how political the intentions of the French rioters are, burning people to death is strategically stupid. maybe i'm wrong. but, ahem, history is on my side, to my chagrin. chagrin, because i'm hoping someone comes up with something more effective.

meanwhile, Joshua/Jane/seasurface is the classic condescending liberal twaddle-mouther. "the poor dears," says he, "they've had such a bad time of it, who are we to condemn their murderous actions as immoral or ineffectual? we can't hold them accountable for their decisions, they're too oppressed." that's liberal condescension-masked-as-compassion at its worst. Gee, Officer Krupke.

but what's really amazing is the Kierkegaardian absurd leap of faith here. says J/J/s: don't condemn the murderous rioters for their random murders; and, don't worry that these murderous tactics, in the unlikely event that they succeed, may end up with a murderously repressive state. i'm sensing a faith in the wisdom of "history" here; a faith, which, if taken at its face, ends up with, whose violence shall prevail, so shall history be. i know that's not where J/J/s is at, intellectually, politically, or any otherly, but that's the conclusion that his thought tends toward.

i do agree with the gist of J/J/s's belatedly added closing: if you fancy yourself nonviolent, work to change the world for the better: work on the state and on the malefactors of great wealth.

that's right.
on Gil Evans

Bandmember Lew Soloff: "People would come to see us and hear all his unisons and say, 'Why isn't he writing something?' They didn't understand that he wrote unisons with a flair -- and believe me, at rehearsals, he got pretty tough with those unisons. Because it wasn't as if he wanted you to play like a machine or a perfect band playing a unison chart. That wasn't what he was after at all. He was after the particular people he hired singing this thing together in their own very individual manner."

Bandmember Warren Smith: "Gil's lines and phrasing were really difficult. He would write something but wanted it to sound more like the human voice -- he'd want fall-offs and shakes and all kinds of fluctuations of time and pitch. You'd have to wait until he sang it for you and imitate that. He molded the sound like it was this elastic piece of clay instead of a chart."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

new links

Jody Rosen is music critic for The Nation, who blogs under the guise of The Anachronist, an encyclopaedic enthusiast for early 20th century pop whose blog is replete with MP3s of music it's darned hard to find elsewhere.

Simon Reynolds is a rock critic and rave expert who gives away his blissblog.

Ange Mlinko is a smart and singular poet who blogs as the Bachelardette.

Been meaning to add these links for weeks and in some cases weeks and weeks and weeks now.
questions for jane

1. Is the only insurrection violent insurrection?

2. If so, how would you characterize the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement?

3. Do you consider the substantial, material, historical gains in rights won by African Americans in the Civil Rights movement to be negligible?

4. If so, why, and on what basis?

5. If not, why would this success story not point to the strategic effectiveness of nonviolent rebellion?

6. Can you name one successful armed revolution resulting in a putative Marxist state that has not resulted in the censorship of the press and the repression of homosexuals? (Nicaragua? That's a question, not a skeptically raised eyebrow.)

7. Is the answer to the repression of the homosexuals by Cuba simply more armed insurrection, to install a new, nonrepressive government?

8. If the vision is to keep the revolution going until nobody is oppressed any more, how will we know when nobody is oppressed?

9. And who decides when nobody is oppressed?

10. Are you saying that it is right for the oppressed youths of France to burn random strangers alive?

11. Who decides who is worthy to live and who is worthy to die?

12. On what basis does the decider get that authority?

13. On what basis does the decider decide?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

they turn in clusters

I haven’t posted much in the last week for a few reasons. First, I’ve had a cold and haven’t had much spare energy after work and family life. Second, some awful news about a friend of the family set me spinning, and I didn’t feel like writing. And third, I’ve been trying to write songs for National Solo Album Month.

I’ve finished setting the closing paragraph of Scooter Libby’s letter to Judy Miller, which Alex Ross suggested as a song text. I’m happy with the music; it isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever written. I went for a stately and somber and lyrical tone. And when I was done, I asked myself,
what the hell is this?

Scooter Libby could be an emblem for a lot of what I loathe about our present government; he has been an important cog in the machinery of death, deceit, dishonor, and deficits that is the driving force of the administration’s agenda.

A lot of lefty commentators have speculated that Libby’s letter may have been a coded attempt to suborn perjury from Miller. Miller and Libby both had attended the Aspen Institute where the administration’s adventurist agenda had been mooted; “turn in clusters” may have been a plea for solidarity on the witness stand.

If so, that would make Libby’s primary motivation in the letter (song) fear: He’s frightened of ending up in prison.

I’ve written before that Fear is the central driver of the administration’s foreign policy, that fear had been the defining feature of the key members of the administration’s relationship to foreign events. The neo-cons have consistently overestimated the threats to America, from Soviet Russia (where Cheney had said that Gorbachev’s dismantling of the empire was fakery) to Iraq. And this is consistent with their personal biographies: all of the top members of Bush’s administration supported the war in Viet Nam, and, aside from Colin Powell, not one of them fought it.

From this profound experience of personal cowardice, the Bush administration honchos have fashioned their worldview and their policies. They have projected their own cowardice onto America’s (very real) enemies. Hence, the insane strategy of “Shock and Awe,” wherein they posited that Iraq would simply surrender after the initial bombardment of March 2003. Hence, Cheney’s dogged insistence on a policy of torturing prisoners, wherein Cheney imagines himself in the victim’s chair, and knows without a doubt that he will spill everything he knows, pronto. It’s all about their own fears.

The administration’s cowardice-projection blinds them to this reality of history: that thousands of people have in fact fought and died for causes they believe in, including America’s present (very real) enemies. Suicide bombers are, by definition, undeterrable. The Bush administration does not understand this; they would have to confront their own cowardice to do so.

But the Bush administration is blind to its cowardice, and from their own perspectives, Cheney and Libby and Bush and Rove and the rest are behaving honorably: They are doing what they believe needs to be done to protect America. Even if Saddam Hussein posed no threat to America, we needed to conquer him anyway, to show everybody else that we mean business. Any lies or crimes committed were in the service of what they perceived to be that higher good. Likewise, if Scooter Libby has to lie now to keep himself out of prison, if he has to send coded messages to Judy Miller, asking her to lie to keep him out of prison, well, he doesn’t deserve to prosecuted anyway. So he writes what he perceives to be a lyrical (possibly coded) letter to Judy Miller. And if the letter fails of lyricism, it’s not for lack of trying.

And if my melody fails of beauty, it’s not for lack of trying.

All of the other post-songwriting analyses that I’ve touched on here, unfortunately I lack the compositional skills to address in the music itself. I was just trying to be true to the (possibly very false-hearted) words.

Setting Libby’s letter to music has humanized him for me. Fear is a basic human feeling; I can relate. It’s a shame and a terrible pity and a horror, how these people have acted on and translated their fears, and the resulting death and destruction; but writing this song has made me hate them personally a little bit less. I just wish for them a nice long, peaceful prison sentence to give them time to repent of and expiate their crimes against humanity.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


My parents were born in ‘38 and ‘39. They went to college in the latter half of the ‘50s. In college, to socialize, they played bridge. They still play bridge. Their bridge friends are all their age or older, or perhaps a year or two younger. The Baby Boomers, and even the War Babies, just a few years younger than my parents, don’t play bridge.

At the summer cottage my grandparents shared with us as my generation was growing up, there was a bridge game almost every day all summer long. That’s how I remember it -- maybe it was only four days a week. It would be my grandma and my mom, and maybe my grandpa (after he retired), and one or more of my grandpa’s cousins (three of them were neighbors), or another friend of my grandparents’ generation. My mom was the youngest bridge player, and the only one of her generation of cousins that played. She was the oldest of her generation.

For some reason I dug it -- I hung around the old women & learned to play, and every once in a while, eventually, they’d tolerate me to play a hand, if one of them had to step away for a few minutes. Back when I was a pre-teen. In college and after, when I came home, I always got my grandparents or one or two of grandpa’s cousins, whom I loved, and one or two of my parents, to play a couple rubbers with me. (“Rubber” -- yes, that’s the unit of competition.) I was never any good as a player, but it was a way for me to socialize with my grandparents’ generation -- these marvelous small-town Michigan Edwardians, all born in the nineteen-oughts and teens.

The last time I saw my grandpa’s cousin Honey, we were playing bridge at her sister Sally’s house and joking about cartoons we had seen in the New Yorker. It was around the time of that sensational trial of the woman who castrated her husband while he was sleeping. There was a New Yorker cartoon of 3 blind mice sitting around gabbing, and one of them says, “She cut off his WHAT?” Honey and Sally both got the New Yorker, and I had picked it up that week, and we had a grim laugh. Everyone seemed in good health and good spirits. A few months later Honey got sick and died. Grandma had recently died, Grandpa died a couple years later, and Sally a couple years after that. They’re all gone now, and I miss them.

The social connection of bridge is on my mind because this week we got horrible news about a friend of the family. Last week-end the son of one of my mom’s good, decades-long, weekly bridge friends killed himself. I didn’t know him well -- he was 7 or 8 years younger than me, a friend of my sister’s (who’s 8 years my junior). He had struggled with bipolar disorder and auditory hallucinations since his early 20s, had been hospitalized at least once. (I don’t know how many times -- once? 5 times? I don’t know.) Last week his parents knew he was in trouble and his dad flew across the country to go get him. He got there an hour and a half too late.

RIP, R.W. I grieve for your suffering and your family’s.

Monday, November 07, 2005

words and music

Scott Spiegelberg has put out a call for papers on the relationship between poetry and music. Part of me wishes I had something to say on the matter; it’s a subject for which I’ve long had some ambition; but anything I have to say is piecemeal and pragmatic, from having set 15 or 20 poems to music over the years.

I’m enjoying the trouble I’m having setting Scooter Libby’s letter to Judy Miller to music, which Alex Ross suggested as a song text.

You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover—Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—-and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers.
I’m having trouble with the Iranian nuclear program; its specificity has a comic edge that I’m not vibing with. The absurd diction is comical as well -- “into jail” rather than “to jail”; I'm guessing that the ring of failed high-falutin’-ness was one of the things that attracted Alex to the text. But despite the tonal faltering the text remains somber and serious: Libby's friend is in jail. He is thinking of and praying for her. “Come back to work -- and life” has the feel of a cry from the heart.

Historical subtexts: Are Judy Miller’s imagined articles on the Iranian nuclear program to be as filled with bogus information as her articles on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States? Will Ahmad Chalabi’s nephew “Curveball” make an appearance?

Should I score a chorus chanting “Curveball” in the background?

Alex suggests a melisma on “turning.” Tempting, but too literal; I object to the “I am walking up the stairs” school of 20th century musical parallelism, where the melody imitates the words without verve. Imitation or parallelism of that sort has a tendency toward comedy, and too many composers don’t realize that and end up with weak, unintentional comedy. (I’m pretty sure Alex does realize the comic potential with this suggestion.) Still, even I’m tempted by the musical vocabulary of “clusters” and “roots,” tempted to accompany those words with their musical equivalents. “Roots” is especially intriguing, suggesting polytonality.

As a college sophomore I took “Composition for Non-Music Majors” with William Bolcom. One lesson: After an in-class performance of a student’s song, he coached the singer to read the text, without music, before singing it again. Focussing on the words’ music-less meanings sharpened the singer’s performance the next go-through. It’s helpful for setting a text to music too. It was only after sounding Libby’s text aloud that I realized that “come back to work -- and life” was its climax. Don’t know whether I’ll get a good song out of the attempt, but I’m enjoying the try.
dinner table repartee

Scene: Dinner table. Time: Just after dinner, a few nights ago.

Me: [burrp.] Excuse me! I burped.

Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding: Why did you burp?

Me: Because I'm a burper!

Mr. JCP [smiling because I'm obviously teasing him]: Nooo! You're not a burper. You're a human! You're not a burper!

Me and my beloved spouse: And what's a burper?

Mr. JCP: A creature that lives in the woods.

Me and my beloved spouse: And what does it do there?

Mr. JCP: It burps!

talking in our sleep, episode 2, "haunted by music"

Early this morning, a cry from the depths, my son declaimed: "No! Go away songs!" Then he fell back asleep.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

studying the nostalgias

Simon Reynolds is discussing with John Darnielle the ubiquity of the nostalgia industry, what that says to us about our senses of time and aesthetic progress, and what historical antecedents of the nostalgia industry may be.

A few reactions, not in disagreement with Simon or John, just riffing:

Item. Oldies radio has badly skewed our sense of the past. People have forgotten that Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Perry Como had big hits throughout the ‘60s. What we think of as pop nostalgia for that era is not nostalgia for the pop moment, but for the generational moment, or for a generational divide as it played out in that pop moment.

Item. I agree with Simon that the idea of “development” or “progress” in an artist’s career, or in a pop style, seems to have waned. It seems to have flourished for maybe 25 years, from the mid-‘60s to the late-‘80s; from, say, “Rubber Soul” to U2’s late ‘80s stuff (by which time I had lost the thread of pop music, so my dates may be way off here). What’s interesting to me is that pop music criticism has had next to no musical vocabulary with which to discuss musical changes within the scope of a style or a single musician’s career, or between styles either. Critics have been cognizant of the changes, but have had to talk about them in impressionistic ways, or by focusing on the lyrics. For me, the constant contrast is with jazz criticism, which has had a well-developed musical vocabulary to celebrate the changes in jazz style over time, and a strong narrative to tell the story. (And note: jazz critics were doing this already back in the ‘30s, when jazz was a mainstream popular style and not a specialized, small sub-market; critics might carp about a Benny Goodman record, say, because it “broke no new ground,” already in the ‘30s.) Jazz critics have emphasized rhythm and harmony to tell the story of the changes of style in jazz over time. This emphasis misses fascinating developments, such as Mingus’s brilliant extensions of jazz compositional form in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The story of the changes in rock styles would have to emphasize songform and timbre more than jazz historical criticism has, though rhythmic changes from Girl Group to Funk to Techno are important to the story as well.

Item. Simon asks about historical antecedents to the nostalgia industry. I don’t think he’d disagree that a sense of nostalgia imbues some of the earliest recorded human stories. The story of Eve & Adam’s expulsion from Eden evinces a nostalgia for a better past. Urban fantasies of a happy bucolic past go back to pre-Christian Greece; 3rd century BCE urban sophisticate Theocritus founded the pastoral poem of how happy the shepherds must be without our urban stresses, which in our era survived in cowboy movies and songs (a friend once said to me, “There have always been more socialists than cowboys in America”), and on down to trucker songs. This is a different question than the industry to promote past art. Currier & Ives may be a precursor.

Item. Popular verse of the 19th century stayed popular for decades. For example, Samuel Woodworth included the massively nostalgic poem “The Old Oaken Bucket” in his Poems, Odes, Songs, and Other Metrical Effusions of 1818. According to Martin Gardner in his anthology Best Remembered Poems, it “was reprinted over and over again in newspapers, magazines, school readers, anthologies and in illustrated books containing only that one poem. Currier and Ives honored the bucket with two colored lithographs.” I found a copy of one of those illustrated books containing only this one poem on the bookshelf of the family cottage my great-grandparents built in 1917 or 1918. I don’t know how many decades it had been since anybody had looked at this book; nor do I know how or why which great-great-ancestor acquired it; it’s inscribed as a Christmas gift of 1893 “To Dear Lizzie,” and I’m not aware of any Lizzies on that branch of the family tree. In this edition, the poem’s 30 lines receive 15 illustrations. The book is copyrighted 1881, 62 years after the poem’s first appearance in book form. (Copyright law was different then; Woodworth and his estate got no money from all the reprints.) “I Want to Hold Your Hand” still has a ways to go before it gives “The Old Oaken Bucket” a run for its money. Someone set the bucket to music, but I’ve never heard the song. (Note: Gardner’s book has an indefensible title and forthrightly idiosyncratic editing standards, but I still highly recommend it, especially in conjunction with his even better follow-up, Famous Poems from Bygone Days, which doesn’t have the burden of pretending that anybody remembers the poems any more.)

Item. The music of Glenn Miller has never gone out of style. Miller died in 1944; the still existing Glenn Miller Orchestra was formed in 1956, and there are now Glenn Miller Orchestras in England and Germany too (scroll down).

That all said, I still agree with Simon that the present ubiquity of Boomer music still feels different, but I’m not sure if that wouldn’t be because the Boomer generation is simply wealthier, collectively and individually, than past (or subsequent) generations. About 10 years ago I was bicycling through Seattle’s University district and accidentally found myself on Fraternity Row. At the doorstep of some big old house with large Greek letters in front, a pile of female students were singing a song about their sorority to the tune of “Down on the Corner.” It occurred to me that none of them had even been born when Creedence recorded the song. I’m not sure exactly how that’s different than women my mom’s age singing pre-swing tunes in their sorority singing group in the late ‘50s, but I tend to agree with Simon: I felt significantly less of a sense that “this is old-fashioned music” coming from the ‘90s sisters than I’d bet my mom’s generation had about “Sweet Adeline.”

I was just about to finish this post when the phone rang. It was my mom. She had gone to see a friend tap dance in a tribute to Irving Berlin today. We talked about whether my son & I should come home for Christmas; my wife can’t come because of her job, and I hate the idea of Christmas without her, but the dispensers of prognoses say that my dad’s illness makes the odds likely that this will be his last Christmas. Dad’s responding well so far to treatment, and he could live for years, but the average with his diagnosis is more a matter of months than years. If you can’t imagine how such a conversation could bring up many powerful emotions, including a powerful sense of personal nostalgia, you will have no interest in “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

And here it is:

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollections present them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wild wood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew;
The wide-spreading pond, and the mill which stood by it,
The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy house nigh it,
And e'en the rude bucket which hung in the well;
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-cover'd bucket, which hung in the well.

That moss-cover'd vessel I hail as a treasure;
For often, at noon, when return'd from the field,
I found it the source of an exquisite pleasure,
The purest and sweetest that Nature can yield.
How ardent I seized it, with hands that were glowing!
And quick to the white-pebbled bottom it fell;
Then soon, with the emblem of truth overflowing,
And dripping with coolness, it rose from the well;
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-cover'd bucket arose from the well.

How sweet from the green mossy brim to receive it,
As poised on the curb it inclined to my lips!
Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,
Though fill'd with the nectar that Jupiter sips.
And now, far removed from the loved situation,
The tear of regret will intrusively swell,
As fancy reverts to my father's plantation,
And sighs for the bucket which hangs in the well;
The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-cover'd bucket, which hangs in the well.

Among other things, nostalgia is a hopeless defense against mortality.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Willie and Duke and the most embarrassing gig

In the mid '60s, Duke Ellington would accept pretty much any recording gig he was offered. "Ellington '65" has the Famous Orchestra playing the hits of the day -- "Danke Schoen," "Hello Dolly," and, somewhat startlingly, "Blowin' in the Wind." The next year's follow-up, "Ellington '66," offers more of the same: "People," "Moon River," and two by Lennon and McCartney, "All My Loving" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The "wa-wa" trumpets on the last number may indicate that Ellington (or one of his arrangers) may not have been thrilled by the material. They sound sarcastic.

Willie Nelson never sounds sarcastic, but today it occurred to me that in this and other respects he may be Duke's truest heir: like Duke he's held his band together for decades and written many standards, and he sometimes gives the impression of being willing to record whatever some producer will pay him to record. There's something oddly humble about such an attitude -- servants of music, regardless of the circumstance.

Ellington's co-arranger, co-writer, and substitute pianist Billy Strayhorn spoke about some of the less reputable commissions the Ellington organization took on in these terms. Stanley Dance, chief chronicler of the Ellington band, asked Strayhorn in 1966, "Where does the inspiration come from for approaching pop tunes, Mary Poppins, or Rhapsody in Blue?" Strayhorn answered:
From your own sense of what to do. It's more a matter of morality than technique. You should say, "I wouldn't treat this any less carefully than I would that." You should treat them equally. I put the same effort into whatever I do. I try to do the best I can.

Dance: Well, numbers vary in quality.

Strayhorn: They differ -- not so much in quality as in variety. You have a simple tune here, a more complicated one there, or a folk tune. That's variation and it has nothing to do with quality. Or that's how I like to think about it. If I'm working on a tune, I don't want to think it's bad. It's just a tune, and I have to work with it. It's not whether it's good or bad.
This parallel between Willie and Duke occurred to me at random this morning, and now that I'm writing it up I realize, it pertains to a theme that Helen Radice got going and M. C- encouraged: What's the most embarrassing gig you ever played?

the most embarrassing gig

I had no idea before it started that it would end up embarrassing. I was 18 and a freshman in college. My high school band was still gigging even though I lived in Ann Arbor, Dave was a student in East Lansing, and only (the other) John and Jay were still in Kalamazoo. (Or was I the "other" John?) A classmate of mine, whom I didn't know very well, Mark N--ski, hired us to play his father's wedding reception. I wore the black polyester suit that my parents had bought me for my senior prom; the other guys, as I recall, tried to dress reasonably suitably. But we were a noisy rock and roll band with quite a few punk numbers in our repertoire and punk influence in a number of our originals and covers. (Our punk cover of "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" was one for the ages; it was, after all, our town.) We also played early Kinks and "Twist and Shout" and a couple obscure Troggs, and a Creedence-esque "Heard It Through the Grapevine." So we had some that the Boomers would like.

But not this party.

People were pissed.

"A Polish wedding and they don't even know a polka," someone said, loudly.

At the set break we figured out "Roll Out the Barrell." As I recall, the other John refused to play it. We did our best -- and I've always liked polkas -- "In Heaven There Is No Beer" is an all-time classic -- but a teen-age rock guitar trio just wasn't going to cut it.

"At least they tried," someone said disgustedly.

My classmate Mark and his siblings dug it. I didn't know him well. Their dad's second marriage, obviously; don't know whether the first one ended due to divorce or death. I've always wondered whether hiring us was a stamp of disapproval, an acting out.

At least we tried.

Friday, November 04, 2005

You know, I searched and searched to find the contents of this album, and now a couple years later after having gotten the music scattered over a few different discs, I sit down to blog about it, decide to google an image, and here it all is, easy as pie.

I first heard a track from it more than 20 years ago, back in Ann Arbor, when my friend Steve A. was a DJ at the campus station, and Irving Berlin's "The Song Is Ended" was on a compilation he came across, and he played it for me, thinking I might like it, and was he ever right. Armstrong and the 4 Millses singing, Armstrong's trumpet, and the one guitar of the Mills Brothers, and that's it. Super slick sophisticated witty gorgeous singing from all concerned, just sublime. It was years and years before I heard another track by the ensemble, and then I read that they recorded 11 tunes together over a few years in the late '30s, and I wanted them. I'm glad to have found them. It'd've been easier to have found this disc!

To some ears today the Mills Brothers might sound kitschy, particularly their "gimmick" of imitating brass and reed sounds with their voices. They do it so well, and the arrangements are so spritely and sophisticated, I simply find it beautiful. Louis Armstrong had no problem with it: On their recording of Berlin's "My Walking Stick," one of the Millses takes a "trumpet" lead, and Armstrong "responds" to the phrases of the "vocal trumpet" with his actual trumpet. The effect is witty and musically wonderful.

This post by The Anachronist got me thinking about this music again. It's got some of the sweetest singing by Armstrong that I've ever heard, as well as some of the toughest and wittiest -- he sings Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home" in the voice of a slick, lowkey, smarmy preacher, and he blows the lyric's white southern fantasy of "darkies longing for the old plantation" to heaven and back. He closes with a smarmy aside, "Well looky here, we are far away from home." Then, in his own tough voice, sublimely sarcastic and yet without anger, he has so transcended the attitudes that would keep him down: a quick and dismissive, "Yeah man."

Which is almost, and not at all, Amen.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

(parrot costume by my beloved spouse)

A friend pointed this out to me. The Revolution is everywhere.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

relatively recent music

Enjoying Bjork's "Medulla." Gorgeous, trippy textures, beautiful choral compositions, propulsive rhythms; more a studio-sculpted Meredith Monk vibe than anything on pop radio.

And Alice Coltrane's "Translinear Light." Otherworldly organ & lovely piano playing; worthy 1963-ish era John Coltrane disciple on sax.

And Ridin’ the Stang by Daniel Patrick Quinn. Somewhat reminiscent of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, except facing the North Sea rather than dreaming of the Mediterranean, and with interesting recitations; "God bless the Burryman"; worth checking out if you like the idea of cold-climate ambient. (How I acquired this CD: Daniel Patrick Quinn spammed my blog email address announcing the album. I wrote back saying the description intrigued me and I'd like to hear it. He mailed me a copy, and I'm glad.)

And -- this isn't recent, but it's a new release -- The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Some of Monk's most exuberantly wild piano playing and bandleading; early and tremendous sound-sheeting Coltrane; and -- I never realized -- drummer Shadow Wilson is a star (did the engineers give him a hotter mix than they would have 48 years ago?); almost polyrhythmic ensemble textures predating mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet wondery. Had it come out near the time of its recording, it would have long ago been deemed a peak in Monk's career, and Coltrane's too.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


A few months ago I re-read "The Nashville Scene: Bright Lights and Country Music" by Paul Hemphill. Hemphill grew up in the south; his father was a truckdriver; Hemphill was a reporter. His 1969 book is a reporter's book, surveying the country music scene from a Kitty Wells recording session at Owen Bradley's barn; to small-town DJs going over hill and dale to host dances; to down-on-their-luck songwriters hanging out in bars, waiting for their break; to hanging out with Chet Atkins (one of Nashville's few liberals, Hemphill notes, with a touch of wistfulness); to hanging out with mountain people who build their own fiddles and play tunes their parents taught them; to covering tapings of TV shows by Johnny & June and by Glen Campbell; to hanging out with fans who've saved their money for months and driven for hours to get to the Grand Ole Opry; to interviewing Tex Ritter who's bemused that his son, a college student at Berkeley, has given him "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver (I've tried but failed to determine whether it was future "3's Company"-man John who was the Berkeley student); to getting the Opry's one African American star (a harmonica player whose name I've forgotten) to open up about how poorly the Opry treated him. All throughout the book, Hemphill gets a ton of detail in -- social detail, everyday life detail, telltale details denoting social status. And -- he says it himself, and his writing shows it every page -- these are his people, and he loves them. And -- it saddens him, their political viciousness -- most of them supported George Wallace's segragationist candidacy in 1968. He loves enough to criticize.

I recommend the book to anybody interested in the American South in the late '60s, or anybody interested in country music, or to any music writer.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?