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

Monday, February 20, 2006

the great Ethel Waters

Last week caught the L.A. band Listing Ship at a cafe; friends of a friend. A 7-piece band: guitar, stand-up bass, viola, violin, vibraphone, drums, plus a singer -- the violist, violinist & guitarist all sing too. Melodic folky densely orchestrated arty quirk pop with indy-style light vocals, though sometimes in 3 & 4-part harmony. Great drummer & hot string players; some of the violin-viola playing gave me goosebumps. Vibes in the soup giving countermelodies & riffs, low in the mix, just right. Enjoyed gabbing with them very much; having a mutual friend gave us an opening; seem like nice people. Hope to see them again some time.

The barista at the cafe had scars along her arm in a pretty design.

“Are those scars?”

Fierce, excited smile: “Yeah, they’re burns!”

“Wow, that must’ve hurt!”

Fiercely smiling: “Yeah!”

* * *

Rented “Cabin in the Sky.” Ethel Waters is radiant, a great actress & singer; Eddie “Rochester” Anderson has an amazing singing voice; the jitterbugging scene is astonishing; lots of great dancing; some great songs; a happening story; the man playing the tough-guy saloonkeeper is at least as good as Edward Arnold -- a great movie.

Also got “Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus,” curious to see footage of Jagger, who, I’d been told, was a great dancer. Well, his cockiness is charismatic, his sneering is somewhat amusing, he wrote some kickin’ songs (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”!) but that’s about as far as I’ll go. I started to understand the mystique of Charlie Watts -- he really does give the band excitement. Mostly, though, the opening acts -- Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithful, Taj Mahal, the Who (and I love Moon & Entwistle) -- underscored why the Beatles’ music stood out. Lennon sang “Yer Blues” with an all-star pick-up band; he played his double-stop triplet solo note-for-note from the record -- it’s a great lead, why change it? -- and just the casualness with which he tossed the solo off, as if to say, “yeah, I can play great leads when the song needs it, but it’s not my thing, it’s just something I can do” -- well, OK then. My favorite segment was Yoko’s caterwauling in front of the Lennon All-Star band. That, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” despite Jagger’s silly sneering preening. Bad-boy-ism is just so . . . adolescent. Silly in a grown man. The other Stones tunes, eh. As a whole, it made me feel that late ‘60s rock was a loooow point of 20th century popular music.

* * *

Conversations today with the 3-year-old.

A short monologue from the carseat: “It’s a bluey day. The lake is blue, the sky is blue. Look at how big the blue is. It’s enormous!”

And walking in the park after having tried out the tricycle.

“I’m a tricycle. I’m a tricycle that talks!”

“What does the tricycle that talks say?”

“The tricycle that talks says ‘Why’ all the time!”

I crack up. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Smiling knowingly, speaking forcefully: “Why?!”

* * *

I fly to Michigan tonight to be with my family as my dad undergoes surgery. He’s doing well, and they wouldn’t be doing the surgery if he weren’t doing so well, but it will be intense & there’s risk involved & I need to be there (though my folks told me not to come -- I’m being disobedient). Probably no blogging here for a week or so. Catch you on the flipflop.

Thomas Frank is a Republican agent

Well, probably not but he might as well be.

Via Steve Gilliard, this dailyKos diary about the new $500 million Bush program to go to faith-based (read: conservative Christian) organizations working on strengthening marriages.

The money specifically cannot be used to help gay couples.

There’s been a lot of left/liberal media hubbub over Frank's idea that Kansas voters are stupid to vote for their religious/social/cultural interests and against their own personal economic interests (which they indeed do), and that they’re especially stupid because the Republicans don’t even give them the reactionary social policies that they crave.

The people like Frank who think the Kansas voters are getting taken for a ride can kiss my broken toenail -- maybe their magical thinking will make my owie go away.

Frank's story sells because there has always been a lucrative market for telling city folk how stupid country folk are. His misplaced condescension flatters city folk as it pisses off and motivates country folk. Meanwhile, Frank's analysis works to lull socially liberal suburbanites into opposing the Republicans less than they otherwise would, while Rove & Co. push the big "security" con. The real rubes, the real marks of the deal, are the socially liberal voters who pull the R lever for "security" reasons while flattering themselves that the R's aren't as bad on social issues as the R's themselves say they are. The exact reverse is the truth: The R's are terrible on security and they make good on their socially repressive promises to Frank's Kansans. If Rove doesn't cut Thomas Frank a big check for services rendered . . . well, Frank's getting paid already.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Wicker Park

The corner of Damen, North, & Milwaukee, the hub of the Wicker Park neighborhood

Via Carl, a review by Brian Joseph Davis of a new book on displaced bohemia that focuses on my old Chicago neighborhood Wicker Park (I haven’t seen the movie), where I lived from ‘88 to ‘91.

In ‘89 I was renting an apartment in a 6-flat a few blocks from the North, Damen & Milwaukee 6-way intersection. The building was being sold. One day I was taking the El to the Art Institute to meet an old college pal who was in town for a couple days. I bumped into the realtor who was selling my apartment. He was going to the Art Institute to meet an old college pal who was in town for a couple days -- a funny coincidence. We chatted about the building.

The realtor said, “This is the 3rd time I’m selling this building this decade. I sold it in ‘81; the Italian family who owned it had owned it for many many years; it sold for $50,000. In ‘85 I sold again for $90,000. Now it’s going for $250,000. I’m making a lot more money now, but I have to wear a tie, and I’m not sure it’s good for the neighborhood.” Now the building is probably worth a couple-few million.

When I moved to the neighborhood, Wicker Park was right about to transition from a mostly blue-collar Hispanic and Polish neighborhood with a reputation for dangerous gangs (and a dead body was found in a car across from an apartment I lived in in ‘90 or ‘91) to an expensive chi-chi white-collar neighborhood. It was a quick El ride to downtown on the O’Hare El line -- an incredibly convenient neighborhood. I was making almost no money proofreading at the extremely profitable “Chicago Reader” -- alternative press, baby! -- and other odd jobs, and writing and making music and working in theater for no money. It was an exciting time, and like C. Carr doesn’t say but should have said in another piece on the Bohemian diaspora (Carr’s phrase) that Carl links to, my bohemia was more exciting and more accomplished than any subsequent bohemia. (Carr just says her bohemia was better, without acknowledging that everybody thinks that. In my case, of course, I happen to be right.) Plays, bands, experimental films, recordings -- a very exciting time, and of course no money. One of my favorite songs from the era was “Mickey’s Van,” a song I wrote about our one friend in the neighborhood who owned a vehicle, which everybody borrowed whenever anybody had to move. “Oh, oh, Mickey’s van will take me far / Oh, oh, never gonna buy my own car.” Hah!

I moved to Seattle in ‘91, to the Central Area, within walking distance of downtown, Seattle’s historic African American neighborhood, famous for gang violence and drugs. For five years I lived next door to a crack dealer; we heard gun shots every once in a while; a house I lived in was broken into 3 times, once when a female roommate was showering. I still live in the neighborhood, and now, as I knew it would be, it’s expensive and mostly safe.

“Shock trooper for gentrification” -- that’s been my role in the neighborhoods I’ve lived in -- college-educated white hippie punk artist social worker making the neighborhood safe for the landed gentry to move in after me. Now I even have a (barely) middle-class job and live in a house my wife bought on her own a few years before we got together; we couldn’t afford the house today on both our salaries.

I lament the scattering of my bohemians. My theater friends are still doing their brilliant thing in Chicago (Theater Oobleck was the one I worked with; Curious Theater Branch is run by friends); one of the members of a band I worked with has written a Tony-award-winning musical (which I haven
t seen); my filmmaker friends are still doing their brilliant thing in L.A. (in the experimental scene, not Hollywood, though I have some friends writing for Hollywood too); most of my closest musical friends are in NYC or Chicago or Tucson (though I do have some here too); and I miss them every day.

Barry Barry Barry!

Barry’s new album went to # 1 on the charts, and you might think that a member of the Barry Underground such as myself would be all triumphalist about it (as the grungers said when Nirvana went to # 1, “We won!” -- and yes, I was excited too), and yes, it’s true, I’m happy for Barry, and excited about his success, but unfortunately Jody is right to complain of the music’s lukewarm blandness. It’s an album of ‘50s standards; I haven’t heard it, but a few weeks ago my beloved spouse & I stayed up late to watch Barry on Jay Leno’s show. Speaking as Barry fans, we were disappointed: a dull work-out on the old song “Unchained Melody” (I think it was).

The problem is, these musicians -- Manilow and Rod Stewart and Queen Latifah -- are going the “standards” route without nuance or particularity. Which is a shame, in Manilow’s case, because he’s shown that he can -- his big band tribute album has some great stuff (I’ve written about his gorgeous version of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” more than once); it’s even more respectful of the oldies than his new takes on them are, but he sings them with nuance and beauty. Based on hearing the one song on TV, the new stuff looks to be Barry’s successful attempt to cash in on Rod-Stewart-mania (and Jody’s reporting confirms this). The drag of it is, Rod & Barry’s charts are stiffo: '70s rock fantasies of how Nelson Riddle would write for a cruise ship band on a TV drama. Thrice-removed ersatz-itude.

I agree with Jody: contemporary singers would serve the standards better by bringing their own game to the game. Joey Ramone’s “What a Wonderful World” melts me beyond any other version; hearing Joey sing “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do / They’re really saying ‘I love you’ ” makes me misty, the tenderness has so much more toughness to get through in his case than in a more conventional settings. I heard a modern-dance “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” on our local dance music station a couple years ago that was just great.

While Barry at # 1 surprised me, I wasn’t quite as surprised as I might have been: His greatest hits a few years ago went to # 3. My wife and I caught the promotional tour and it was terrific -- not only is he a generous, warm, witty, enthusiastic, old-fashioned showman, but the buzz in the theater had an element of surprise -- look how many of us are here, and how terrific is that! We caught the show near the tours beginning, which Barry extended from a planned 6 weeks to 9 months -- evidently Barry was surprised too, and his joy was contagious.

My only wish for Barry is that he would find peace with himself and give up the plastic surgery. Michael Jackson’s freakish facial transformation is only freakily different in degree, not in kind, from a widespread willingness to put oneself under the knife in order to badly simulate prolonged youthfulness.

Barry, we’ll love you even more if you show your age.

Friday, February 17, 2006

"Peasant Dance" by Rubens (1577 - 1640)

“Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette” by Renoir (1841 - 1919)

Looking at a survey of paintings of dance, struck by the tremendous loss when the dance ceased being a group activity and focused on the couple.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

After dinner tonight, putting Fon der Choope (From the Wedding) on the CD player, my 3-year-old and I dancing around the living room, he grabs my hands so we can dance in a circle together -- very trad! How did he know? He's never been to a Jewish wedding!

Tremendous music.

Tuesday morning, before heading off on our day, the 3-year-old came back from the neighbors' house. He and Jane frequently draw together; Jane is an artist and an art teacher. The 3-year-old had drawings with him. I grilled him. Did anybody help him with these drawings? No. Did Jane or John (her husband -- it's a common name) tell him what to draw? No. Then my beloved spouse saw the drawings. Exact same interrogation. She called the neighbors. They confirmed the suspect's story. His first drawings of people. This one, he told me, is me. I dig the toes.

* * * *

More on the conservative nature of rock & pop music: fashion fashion fashion & planned obsolescence. Gotta be cool, gotta be up-to-date ("everything's up-to-date in Kansas City!"), gotta keep abreast of What's Happening Baby. Consume consume consume! The relentless destruction of the present -- the mode of capitalism par excellence -- no fashion stays current, no social form remains stable, "All that is solid melts into air" (Marx, on capitalism's relationship to social norms).

Nostalgic geezers like me, boasting of ye Olde Records in my collection, are no different -- merely a different fashion.

Simply because I happen to share the consuming passion . . . doesn't mean I condone it!

A friend in college (and bandmate after we dropped out) used to say that white people have no culture. That's capitalism at work. I've stumbled on remnants of 19th century pop culture in my parents' house, stuff my great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents owned; the connections to that culture died with my grandpa; I keep slim fragments of it alive in my memory, and to an extent, on this blog. The Old Oaken Bucket may not be a great poem, but I'm glad to know it.

Heck, maybe, if I'm lucky, I can start a trend, a fad, a movement, and bring that poem back into popularity, back into circulation, and . . . somebody can make a lot of money from it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

scene from a couple nights ago

Time to end the bath. The 3-year-old is enjoying himself, so I'll give him warning.

"OK, 2 more minutes."

"No, hi more minutes."

"Hi more minutes?"

"Face more minutes."

"Face more minutes?"

"Toilet more minutes!"

"Toilet more minutes?" (By this point I'm laughing.)

"Pee more minutes."

"Pee more minutes?"

"Poop more minutes."

"Poop more minutes?"

"Towel more minutes."

"Towel more minutes?"

"Door more minutes."

"Door more minutes?"

"Sink more minutes."

* * *

I too want door more minutes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I’ll take Simon’s challenge:

“it's hard to think of any rock writers who've . . . come up . . . with a convincing theory of how rock works and why it matters that meshes with a conservative worldview.”

It seems obvious to me -- of course rock ideology fits with the conservative to reactionary worldview: celebrating domination and machismo and violence and conformism and hyper-capitalism, the machismo carrying a hefty load of Puritanism. Or, to look at it from a possible conservative viewpoint, rock is about the freedom of the individual.

Domination and violence: metal and rap are the musics of choice for American soldiers psyching up for combat. Taking the place of the brass bands of 100 + years ago -- and with the same hard beats, loud dynamics, and brash timbres -- or, if not exactly the same, then from the same family, and working the same way.

Hard rock guitars make the sound of Republicanism. Lee Atwater wailing blues leads at Bush the First’s inaugural. FOX news being the first (and only?) network to trade in the traditional militaristic brass & drums for the modern militaristic electric guitars and drums for its fanfares.

Hard rock guitars make the soundtrack of violence: Football movies and TV sports highlight clips are routinely set to fast drumbeats with electric guitars.

The rock ideology of guilty pleasurism is a puritanical macho explosion, and EMP is devoting a whole conference to the topic. And what pleasures are to be deemed guilty? Why, the pleasures of soothing timbres, of course: the Fifth Dimension and Barry Manilow, to name 2 faves of mine. Do I feel guilty? I did when I was a teenager; I bought into the macho reactionary ideology, and now I hate it. (There’s a ton of nuance in the ideological-genre boundaries of timbre: “Soothing” can be fine, but not when it’s combined with the self-confident image/persona projection of pre-rock showbiz.)

Barry Manilow’s reputation is “wimpy.” Wimpy, meaning: not masculine enough, effeminate, possibly gay. I like a lot of his music; he has a great pop mastery of dynamics and the musical-timbral signifiers for passion. I thought rock and roll was supposed to be about passion? Didn’t somebody say that?

The “anti-wimp” rhetoric of guilty-pleasurist ideology is misogynist and homophobic. I won’t give you quotations unless you’re honestly surprised and curious.

The freedom of the individual is the mantra of conservatism, and from Elvis’s hips to Eddie Van Halen’s hot guitar to Eminem’s misogynist fantasies, it’s all about the freedom baby, the freedom and the passion.

The radio format on which one is least likely to hear a woman’s voice? Why, classic rock, of course.

The bad-boy-ism of rock -- conservatives love a bad boy. Look at Bush. His drunken jerk partyboy past is one of his few political assets that he cultivated on his own. (Not that all drunken partyboys are jerks, but he appears to have been one.)

The indy-alt-art-school-college rock reaction to all this machismo has been: Let’s non-conform together. Go to the club, don’t dance, don’t tuck your shirt in, only certain shoes approved of, black clothes or plaid flannel only, and so on. And: let’s be defeatist about everything. Simon captures it really well in this later post: “deficiency is part of the music’s point and appeal, its rhetoric of sound.” As the indy-alt-college wing is typically socially and politically more progressive than the football-military-hard wing, college rock’s defeatist/deficient persona/philosophy/outlook/face has got to be something that the conservative movement loves.

By contrast, the Nashville persona is, stereotypically, confident, radiant, full of life, full of beans, raring to take what it wants and go for it. The persona of entitlement that asks, And why shouldn’t someone like me be entitled to the good things in life? It’s a powerful power seduction that conservatism has mastered, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Republicans appeal to Nashville stars far more intensely than to any other showbiz star cohort.
On the crit-discourse side of rock, the domination of the corporations over the discourse is close to total. The vast majority of inkspace goes to corporate product that the critics get for free. A band is generally presumed unworthy of attention unless it either has wide popularity or fits into a style that could win it wide popularity. How many Pazz & Jop finishers put out their own records?

Rock is conservative. That doesn’t make it bad. I even like some Rolling Stones songs, some of them a lot. (The Stones and Rush Limbaugh: rich white guys endlessly complaining about how badly they're treated.)

To sum:

Conservatism acknowledges freedom, passion, machismo, homophobia, and individualism as central to its creed; Nashville and hip hop more or less acknowledge all of these conservative values as their own; and while rock acknowledges all of them except homophobia, the homophobia is central to mainstream “anti-wimp” rock discourse.

Violence and domination are endemic to rock and hip hop; a sense of entitlement is central to Nashville; all 3 values are unacknowledged pillars of conservatism.

Rock’s acknowledged liberal/progressive wing is resigned and/or defeatist and/or deficient in outlook and thus plays into conservatism’s triumphalism. (U2 is an exception here.)

Profitability dominates rock-Nashville-hip hop discourse; Nashville and hip hop, again, are up front about this, while rock denies it but plays along almost totally.

Why shouldn’t the popular culture of the world’s most powerful empire reflect imperialist values? We want the world and we want it now.

(This all sounds so negative, which is too bad, because . . . I love rock and roll. And . . . I love the freedom of the individual, and passion. Not all conservative values are exclusively conservative.)

Added postscript: Don't mean to imply an equation of homosexuality and wimpiness in life; in mainstream American discourse, however, the equation is there, and that's what I'm commenting on.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Carl and Simon have been discussing this line of Mark’s:

“What Pop lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists.”

Creation-through-destruction is a particularly white western myth -- Futurism, Picasso, and punk -- that I haven’t found in other traditions (not saying it ain’t there; I just haven’t seen it): jazz critics called Coltrane’s stuff anti-jazz, but the vibe I get from his playing isn’t anything as small-potatoes as a negation of past art. If he’s protesting anything, it’s the condition of life itself.

Sure, there’s an emotional zing of saying, or howling, the art of the past sucks, but as anything more than metaphor -- if taken as a call to action -- it’s fascism. And I don’t just say it because the original white western theorist of destroying the past was a literal fascist (as I’ve written about before).

Item: the Taliban destroying 1,500-year-old statues of the Buddha.

Item: the Khmer Rouge killing anyone who wears glasses.

So, I take it back, the art of the past isn’t small potatoes. I simply pity anybody who finds it oppressive on principle, and if they take concrete steps to literalize their negation of the past, then I hate their guts. In other words, as metaphor, it’s lame; as political program, it’s despicable.

I’m much more interested in a protest against the conditions of life itself.

The kid & I had a lovely evening at the playground, climbing on the kid-climbing constructions, swinging on the swing, kicking around a soccer ball, all during the magic hour of dusk; and the whole time I’m thinking, why cannot this last forever, why must this moment pass?

Why must our desires exceed our capacity?

Why must our minds imagine boundless pasts and futures, and yet be bound within mortal limits?

There’s a bitter trick being played, when we all think we’re so special when we’re not.

The voice of wisdom whispers: Accept your lot; without loss, gain would not be so sweet; without despair, joy would have no meaning; without death, there would be no new life, and what is sweeter than new life?

I’m no lover of wisdom tonight. I want the joys without the despairs and the gain without the loss and the life without the death. I feel fated to want these things; I don’t feel unique in wanting these things; I feel most people want these things; we understand the need for death except when it comes to our own and to those we love, and this impossible contradiction is the cheat of life itself.

An art that seeks to negate THAT -- now that would be interesting to me. As someone I once knew used to say to me, Shake your fist at the gods! No matter how deeply however many people love their music, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin and Joe Strummer and Charlie Parker and Elvis and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain and Louis Armstrong Himself are not gods.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dick Cheney thought conquering Iraq would be a cakewalk.

What a weird song, Jimmy Crack Corn! Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote it, a white minstrel from Ohio who also wrote “Dixie” and “Old Dan Tucker.” All composed for black-faced minstrel shows in the north. “Dixie” was a dance finale, where the white actors would dance in exuberant imitation and mockery of black people. The white south adopted it as an anthem -- “I wish I was in Dixie, away! Away!” -- when in both “Dixie” and “Jimmy Crack Corn,” the intention, I think, would have been utter mockery of both white and black southerners. There may be an element of solidarity with the slave in celebrating the master’s death in “Jimmy Crack Corn,” but the slave is still a lazy conniving drunkard (and, the song asks, who wouldn’t like to be?).

Some day I’ll record it and pretend I’m an American Ian Dury, leering with all my might. Or Dean Martin crossed with Peter Lorre. Bitter joyous drunken violent menace.

Children’s music!

"We're singing about getting drunk and dancing on our owner's grave."

How flippin’ weird is it that a 165-year-old song about a slave making whisky, getting drunk, and celebrating his master’s death is a children’s song now? When I was a kid, I had no idea what
Jim Crack Corn was about. I don’t remember caring; if anything I remember enjoying the nonsense, but that’s the thing: it wasn’t always nonsense. And when my kid asks what the song is about, should I lie and say it’s nonsense? Yes, I probably should, because to most of our culture today, it signifies nonsense.

“Home on the Range” at one time was the most popular song on the radio. A long time ago. Now, a childrens song.

Am I right to suspect that “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was a minstrel song? I’ve thought so for a while, and a 1935 songbook called “America Sings” that my friend Jay gave me recently gives more evidence: that ol’ minstrelsy atrocious approximation of African American speech: “I’ve Been Wukkin’ On De Railroad.”

60 years from now, most of the Beatle canon will be children’s music. It’s on its way already.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Luca Marenzio, bad-ass modernist

the modernistissimo

Via ACD, this tremendous essay by Charles Rosen on Western music history; it’s part one of a review of a 4,154 page, $699, 8-volume book that I have no interest in reading. Rosen makes me want to hear the music he’s describing. And this sentence, about a 16th century Italian composer I’d never heard of, knocked me for a loop:

For many scholars and music-lovers, the greatest composer of madrigals is Luca Marenzio, whose production was immense, and difficult to characterize because, as the musicologist Alfred Einstein observed, every poem for him needed a different approach and a different solution.

Inspiring! And intimidating -- the idea of never repeating oneself -- so modernist! Roll over, Miles Davis*, and tell Stravinsky the news.

* I originally wrote "Boulez" instead of "Miles Davis," but changed because: a) Boulez is still alive; b) I know his polemics and don't know his music, except some of the records he's conducted, which I admire; c) I'm not trying to disparage the modernist quest for The New, and Miles serves as well as Stravinsky, and I love his music, especially his electric stuff.

Dept. of Rarefied Company

"I think that anybody who conducts Parsifal but has not conducted it in Bayreuth has not really conducted Parsifal." -- Daniel Barenboim, in Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society

the war on terror

Why the war on terror is a bad idea:

1. The word "war" legitimates the enemy.

2. In a war, any military target is legitimate. I live in Seattle. Boeing is a legitimate military target in a war.

3. No end to terror. "We have always been at war against terror." Orwell's perpetual war state -- the Cold War served the same purpose -- anybody remember the peace dividend?

Of course, these cavils are absurd. President Bush doesn't intend words to hold meanings. He's an emotional whirligig; his words mean what he wants them to mean until he wants them to mean something else.

Terrorism is a crime against humanity necessitating a coordinated international response. The neo-con way of "going it alone" does not work. It fails to apprehend the terrorists and it pisses off everybody else in the world: precisely the result that most endangers ourselves and lots of other people too.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

the road to Macca

Enjoying the Grammys. The Sly Stone tribute sounding good until the Rolling Stone wanna-bes from Aerosmith, and then Sly himself, looking old, weird, and out of it, a disspiriting combination to experience as a viewer.

U2 sounding good, and the duet with the singer whom I didn’t recognize and whose name I didn’t catch, a middle-aging African American melisma mistress of the R & B style -- the duet was great.

Mariah Carey rocked the house. I’ve never vibed with all the hate directed her way from rockville and critville -- amazing singer. I’d never seen her sing -- out there, intense, extreme -- convincing.

Springsteen’s song “Devils and Dust” -- no. The switch from the 1st-person sympatico to the preaching that excessive fear turns the God-filled soul to devils and dust, no. Doesn’t work, the switch from identification to condescending explanation of How You’re Messed Up. Maybe that’s not his intention in the song, but that’s what I got; I never felt he was speaking for himself, of his own experience. And what’s with the circa-1963 Dylanisms? Puh-leeze. And, Bruce, ditch the harmonica. Using it as a signfier -- earnest folk music! -- is insulting. If you’re going to play it, learn to do something with it other than pick the bones of a licked over Dylan cliche, sans nuance or distinctiveness.

Keith Urban is very handsome, and his song started out with a nice James Taylor-esque vibe. Faith Hill didn’t register at all.

Christina Aguilera would have come off better had she sung before Mariah rather than after -- similar style but lacking the excessive something extra. Herbie Hancock was wailing, but his intensely filigreed obligattoes clashed with Christina’s -- wasn’t making it for me.

McCartney’s perpetual cloying expression annoys -- yes, Paul, you are cute and clever, but wearing an expression that says, “I look for your approval and expect to get it” starts to wear and tear. Still, Sir Paul, you write the tunes. I dug the opening song from his most recent album, “A Fine Line,” with his great shifts in texture and mood, dissonant piano licks, simply lovely melody, interesting emotional tone of brotherly love and concern. Everybody dug “Helter Skelter,” proto-metal (though I like the new one better), and coming out to sing “Yesterday” with Linkin Park was nice -- a very pretty song, but I never completely connect with it.

The main strain of “Yesterday” is a 7-bar phrase -- very unusual at the time for popular music, and sounding completely natural. Burt Bacharach has talked about how he had to fight with A&R directors to let him record songs with odd-shaped phrases; eventually he got to do it a lot with Dionne Warwick. The Beatles were doing it way early on too -- by “With the Beatles,” their 2nd album, 1963, “All I’ve Got to Do” and “Not a Second Time” -- both Lennon tunes, mainly -- have 9 and 11-bar phrases. McCartney was equally free and easy with the phrase lengths: an amazing conjunction of talents (someone may have mentioned this before me, somewhere): 2 guys in the same band free from the tyranny of 4, where every phrase is either 4, 8, 12, or 16 bars. It’s true -- they did grow up together, started playing together at age 13 or 14 or 15 or whatever it was -- young! Formative! And, with McCartney, continuing to this day, on his energetic, wonderfully melodic, and emotionally textured current album.

The other day I listened to part of Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” solo album, and was struck again by the rhythmic freedom. I put “P.O.B.” on because I’d recently read about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot in the “New York Review of Books.” Fawkes had conspired with a bunch of other people to blow up the new Parliament building in London in 1605; the plot was foiled, but had it succeeded, it could have killed most of the British ruling class. One of the books is called “Remember Remember,” and I remembered that Lennon’s tune “Remember” on “P.O.B.” ended with an explosion after he screamed “remember remember the 5th of November” -- Guy Fawkes Night, a noisy traditional English celebration commemorating the foiling of the plot. In the song, the explosion happens -- is it a revolutionary call, “let’s blow up Parliament”? -- or is it a simple reminder about this English holiday that traditionally features fireworks? In the context of the song, it sounds like a joke-fantasy about revolution. I could be wrong. Most people seem to think it’s about the holiday.

* * *

The other day while walking down the street I looked in a restaurant window and saw Howard Schultz sitting at a table with another guy. I thought about walking in and giving him a dollar since he’s asking me to build him a new basketball arena, but I like the restaurant he was eating in and didn’t want to make a fuss; not to mention I lacked the guts.

* * *

In the car, oldies radio, “This Magic Moment” by
Jay and the Americans; I tell my 3-year-old son, “This is Jay singing. Not our friend Jay, but another Jay.”

My son says, “Where does he live?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know his cell phone number? I want to go to his house.”

“I don’t know his cell phone number, but I’ll put the word out.”

“What does ‘put the word out’ mean?”

My beloved spouse: “It means he’ll write about it on his blog tonight!”

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

the American Revolution isn't over

American liberals are in the majority, but our liberal culture has gotten so hang-dog resigned beleaguered about everything that we don't act that way. When Bush stole the 2000 election, we just shrugged and bitched, collectively. The wrong-wing Republicans had the pumps primed to howl yowl and scream bloody murder if Bush were to have won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. They're all fight and cheat and spit.

The liberals are the majority. Large majorities support a woman's right to have an abortion, universal health care, higher taxes for the well off, an end to the war in Iraq. The Democratic Senators represent millions more people and received millions more votes than the Republican Senators.

The whole anti-democratic Senate is itself a legacy of British colonialism: By a quirk of history, the Brits colonized the east coast of America piecemeal and set up separate colonies rather than one big colony. When the Americans won the Revolution and had to put a nation-state together, the representatives of the old Brit-mandated colonies wanted to keep their fiefdoms, and so the anti-democratic, anti-solidarity compromises of the Senate and the Electoral College were made, to let small states have disproportionate power. The minority-rule Electoral College mess and the minority-rule Senate mess are the results of an incomplete revolution and a bowing to British colonial whims. The American Revolution isn't over.

We're unlikely to disband the Senate or the Electoral College any time soon -- the minority likes having its disproportionate power, and any appeal to fairness would not only be scoffed at but screamed at as anti-patriotic.

But remember, liberals and lefties and so on: We're the majority. That's why the Republicans have to lie all the time; that's why they mustn't ever show the truth of their convictions, but hide behind euphemisms and lies -- Alito swears he hasn't made up his mind about abortion rights (a lie); neither has Roberts (a lie) -- these so-called Christians, I swear, these so-called Christians seem to think that 9th Commandment is an order to bear false witness, not a prohibition against lying.

We're the majority, and we might as well act like it. Don't be bullied, don't be cowed, and don't let the thieving liars get you down.

highlights from the week-end

snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing in Mt. Rainier National Park and staying in a lodge outside the park with 20-some hippie friends who have been getting together for more than 20 years, with people coming and going (my beloved spouse has been going for 20; I have for 7 or 8)

“I slept like a baby.”

“Did you wake up every two hours wanting to nurse?”

(an old joke, but “a good old good one.”)

* * *

Man reading a brochure about the park to my 3-year-old son: “Do you want to hear more facts?”

My son: “Yeah.” (pronounced: “Weah.”)

Man: “Right on.”

* * *

A friend: “I’m taking off to volunteer for a week in New Orleans.”

Me: “Are you hooked up with any nonprofit organizations?”

Friend: “Yeah, I’m hooked up with a few, but there’s definitely some H.I.F. going on.”

Me: “What’s H.I.F.?”

Friend: “Hippie Ineptitude Factor.”

* * *

The park. The snow. The snow-shoeing. (Most people ski, and we used to until the kid was born. I don’t miss skiing; I wasn’t any good at it.)

* * *

The hours and hours of singing and playing back in the lodge.

* * *

My beloved spouse knows me: “You don’t come for the snow, you mainly come for the music.”

* * *

Remembering that I’m not that much of a hippie after all. I like the Grateful Dead, but I don’t know the words to ANY of their songs.

* * *

I don’t really like the words, but the tune of “Love the One You’re With,” is catchy as a virus, especially when sung loud by 15 people, in harmony.

* * *

Second night of playing and singing, after a few hours, someone saying, “Hey, you guys should do a Rolling Stones song in honor of the Super Bowl.” Eric, a walking songbook, starts playing “Honky Tonk Women”; my ripping harmonica solo (if I do say so) totally upstaged by a line of five dancing women doing Motown moves.

* * *

Watching my son’s growing independence, going up and talking to people he doesn’t know.

* * *

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to listen to the radio again, after hearing all these songs sung here.”

* * *

“The Monkey Song” from “Jungle Book” sung in a rockin’ Latin 6/8 meter -- I’ve covered the song for years, since before Los Lobos covered it; never played it in 6/8 until the best guitarist in the group, a professional musician I’d never met and real nice guy named Larry, started playing the rocking beat on a nice big hand drum; I started singing, accompanied by many people making monkey noises.

Afterwards, a friend asks: “John, is that one of yours?”

I think she’s joking, but no, her husband wants to know too. “It’s a Disney song, from ‘The Jungle Book.’” (Written by the Sherman Brothers, who scored “Mary Poppins.”)

“I’m Disney illiterate! I should make a button!”

* * *

2 in the morning Sunday, after hours of playing, collapsing into roars of laughter on the couch, like a teen-age slumber party.

* * *

“ ‘A Taste of Honey’ is the only song where Herb Alpert kicked the Beatles’ ass.”

“No, did the Beatles do that song?”

“On their first album.”

“That’s the same song? The Beatles and Herb Alpert did the same song? Oh man, that changes everything! You’re messing with my head!”

* * *

A friend to my son: “Come here, give me a hug.” They hug. A man in the room says, “Give me a high five.” They high five. The woman’s husband asks for a high five too. Another high five. The woman laughs: “We’re teaching sex roles.”

Sunday, February 05, 2006

"When you drop a snowball into the stream the snow turns to water and it becomes part of the stream," said my beloved spouse to our son.

The stream is the water and the process and the path. Dry river beds are not rivers. You need the water as well as the path and the process for it to be a river.

Music is a stream. A musician drops sound into the stream, and the sounds become part of the stream.

John Cage built on a remark of Charles Ives to show us that the stream consists of the quality of attention that we give to the world of sound, and that any sounds, given a musical listening, can be music.

Any stream feeds the ocean of music. Dive into the ocean and hope to find a beautiful stream.

Songs: complexly mannered hybrids of words and music. Why it's sometimes easier to listen to songs in languages I don't understand: I feel the emotional rhetoric of the music & timbres of the singer without getting tripped up by words that please me not.

Jump in! The water's fine! (Weather permitting.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Walt, Oscar, Roland

Daphne Carr asks for suggestions of great writing about music. I wrote back a few suggestions, including this passage from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I hear the violoncello, ('tis the young man's heart's complaint,)
I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train'd soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Walt ain’t afraid let himself be ravished, deliously and sexually. He nails it, what it’s like to be swept up in the musical flow and vortex. There’s a heavy undertone of spiritual orgasm here -- or maybe not merely spiritual -- and clearly Walt is the one being done unto, not the one doing the doing. To which I can’t help myself but say, Rock on!

An elaboration on Whitman’s line, “It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,” appears, uncredited, in Oscar Wilde’s philosophical dialogue The Critic as Artist:

After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins
that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were
not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It
creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills
one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one's tears.
I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing
by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering
that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed
through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild
romantic loves, or great renunciations.

Of course Wilde anticipated a central theme of rock criticism in one of the first lines of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, when Algernon describes his piano playing to his servant:

I don’t play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression.

It’s all about the passion, man -- I hear that! Dig it -- Oscar Wilde, punk rocker! “Let’s give it ‘em right now!”

Roland Barthes spun his own amateur piano playing in a different direction. For him, the only virtue of his playing was the lack of expressivity. From his “autobiography,” Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Richard Howard, translator):

I record myself playing piano, initially, out of curiosity to hear myself; but very soon I no longer hear myself; what I hear is, however pretentious it may seem to say so, the Dasein of Bach and of Schumann, the pure materiality of their music; because it is my utterance, the predicate loses all pertinence; on the other hand, paradoxically, if I listen to Horowitz or Richter, a thousand adjectives come to mind: I hear them and not Bach or Schumann.

I can’t say definitively whether Barthes had Wilde in mind when he wrote this passage, but I would guess that he did, since not only did Barthes re-write Wilde’s joke, but by equating inexpressivity with faithfulness to the musical text, he refuted a contention Wilde put forth in a later passage in “The Critic as Artist”:

When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely--Beethoven re-interpreted through a rich artistic nature, and made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality.

As a listener, I’d have to go with Oscar on this one. I don’t know that Barthes would disagree, and I know Walt wouldn’t; Walt, for whom no pleasure was guilty:

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious

All so luscious, my friend, all so luscious.

Ange Mlinko asks for suggestions of good analyses of women in country music. I'm not aware of any and would be curious to read any.

Country has always been a site where gender relations have been contested, from the Carter Family's magnificent "Single Girl, Married Girl" to Kitty Wells's great "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" to Loretta Lynn's jaw-dropping "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill." When I first heard Loretta’s late ‘60s hits I was struck by how much more about women’s power than almost any rock songs of the era were.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

why's guy

Putting Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding to bed last night, we talked about his day.

"And then we wrestled," I said.

"Why did we wrestle?"

"Because it's fun," I said.

"Why did we wrestle because it's fun?"

"Because fun makes me happy," I said.

Then he got an impish expression in his eyes and smiled broadly and said in a voice just this side of laughter, "Fun makes me sad!"

I cracked up.

* * *

I added 2nd thoughts to the post below, and may or may not be continuing to add additional blah blah blah, in that post's comments section.

Mary Tyler Moore looking for some Ponce de Leon action

vibes of the times

“Music ‘X’ captures how it feels to be alive now”: this construction constitutes one of the central tropes of music writing. And I agree -- music does give you the vibe of the times.

To stereotype the radio formats:

F’rinstance: When I hear Adult Contemporary Rock -- or a heckuva lot of it anyway: Jack Johnson and Norah Jones spring immediately to mind -- I hear the moany-groany beleaguered resignationism of embattled educated urban and suburban and college town liberalism. But elegantly resigned! With nicely decorated houses!

And: When I hear smooth jazz, I hear aspirations toward a life free of conflict, a life of abundance and even-keeled happiness; a music of class aspiration; a music of road-tripping in fantasy car commercials. (Note: doing social work with homeless middle-aged African American men who dug smooth jazz hipped me to what it was about.)

And: College rock vibes me with the righteous alienation & irony of privileged (mostly white) young people; often with dispassionate vocals enveloped in passionate dissonant noisy guitars.

And: Top 40 gives me multi-culti teen lust & identity building & curiosity & romantic aspiration; the white guy rockers earnest and yearnful, the R&B balladeers ditto, the rappers tough and knowing; the openness to mildly “world musicky” pastiche energizing & exuberant.

And: Country radio vibes me with the contested terrain of gender politics, within a context of exuberant entitlement and nostalgia. (I say “entitlement” because C&W is almost as absorptive a genre as Top 40; C&W is the only format where you can hear -- occasionally -- white guys rapping and sounding unapologetically white and middle class and middle aged about it; pop and metal and R&B and electronic drums can end up on C&W radio too, as long as it’s put through the C&W filter; the only current pop usage that’s verboten is college rock mumbling -- Shania Twain tried it and people complained; world-musicky pastiche a la Britney’s terrific single “Toxic” is probably off limits too.)

And, to take the vibes of the times a step further, into criticsville: Critical consensus battles between Top 40 and college rock; C&W gets some enthusiastic support but more frequently grudging props; some adult contemporary rockers get their due but on the whole it’s considered dullsville; smooth jazz is nowheresville.

My own bias: I’m curious about it all, and occasionally knocked out joyful by something I hear on any of the formats. It’s hard for me to judge my preferences for contemporary music because in Seattle, the smooth jazz and adult contemporary stations play a lot of old stuff too, but taking that caveat into account I probably listen to the contemporary-music stations in this order of frequency: adult contemporary, smooth jazz, college rock, Top 40, C&W. And, interestingly, I’m probably most often blown away by something on Top 40 followed by C&W -- this shows me that the other genres are more in my personal “comfort zone” -- they speak to me as an urban embattled white educated middle-aged liberal; they make for pleasant background music.

The consensus critical preference for the genres most strongly vibing with youth -- Top 40 & college rock -- vibes with the contemporary anxiety about aging. People across cultures and millennia have feared death, hated aging, and coveted youth, but today with plastic surgery ubiquitous, “extreme makeovers” accepted, and hair dye for aging rockers de rigeur, it makes sense to me that the middle-aging-and-older solons of criticsville would make like Mary Tyler Moore and Ponce de Leon and search for the fountain of youth.

The vibes of the times embodied by different genres speak to the body, to different modes of carriage, ways of carrying oneself in the world. Which is probably why I listen to the pre-rock oldies AM station the most -- the jaunty pre-rock carriage of the swingers vibes my body good; I aspire to the cheerful self-confidence of Tony Bennett (who, interestingly, isn’t pre-rock chronologically, but is pre-rock stylistically).

And heck -- I just like the music.

p.s. The vogue for World Music -- which Im way into -- says a lot about the vibes of the times too.

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