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

Friday, June 30, 2006

"Dandelions in every yard."

The voluptuousness of summer. Happy July.
in the middle of projects, i get 3rd wind around 11 pm and keep going. why would i want to sleep when there's music to hear or play, and words to read or write?

so much to tell you, but i really must sleep, alas.

just this: for reasons i'll get back to in a later post, i was thinking of Dylan & Lennon today, and their psychedelic apex, BD's in '65 - '66, JL's in '67. by which i mean: the extremity and acuteness of consciousness coupled with intensity of musical expression in their best songs of the time.

"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," the careening, detailed, funny, rolling, seat-of-the-pants comic triumphant bitter satire where the protagonist tweaks the bourgeoisie & gets tweaked in return but with never a personal sense of doom & escapes in the end only to find the historical past in the form of Columbus & his 3 ships heading toward the American port, a snapshot of inevitabilty & freaked-out consciousness-of-fate -- things have always been-to-be this way, there's no alternative.

"Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" -- bitterer, more personal, equally detailed, surreal, satirical, ending with the protagonist searching for a way out of going "through all of this twice," hopelessly wishing that things could be some other way even though they can't.

"I Am the Walrus" -- freer wordplay, less repetitive and predictable musical composition, less concrete, less externally-observed, and more personally harrowing. Like Smokey Robinson in "Ooh Baby Baby," the protagonist pleads, "I'm crying." And there's no other way to be. I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" -- acutely conscious dissolution of competent consciousness: "I think, ah no, I mean, ah yes, but you're all wrong, that is I think I disagree." Hippier & dippier than Dylan -- "nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about" -- but still a consciousness at an extreme -- the opposite extreme of Dylan maybe, an extremity near dissolution of meaningful connection with externality, versus Dylan's overstimulated observations so oversatuated that meaningful connection is impossible on this soul-terrain too.

Neither of them ever wrote this way again, and -- tellingly -- neither of them ever made music that sounded like this again. Dylan's kitchen-sink, everybody-play-lead-even-the-tambourine careening rock and roll enthsiasm. As a teen-ager, I adored the sound of his '65 - '66 records and didn't even care about the words. Lennon's kitchen-sink rock-pop-sound-collage, snippets of orchestration and sound effects coming together for a rich tapestry of consciousness afloat in a vaguely hostile sea. For both -- amazing sounding records.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

No more posting until I get some business taken care of, which hopefully will be soon. Nothing drastic or alarming, just gotta TCB.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sunday I helped raise the Midsommar Pole at the Skandia Midsommarfest.

A farm near my parents' place in southwest Michigan, a couple weeks ago.

We heard some lovely Nordic fiddle music at the Skandiafest.

Phalluses remain fertility symbols.

Bounty! Grain! Bio-wealth! Life!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hey New Yorkers!

If you know him only from this blog, you know Jay Sherman-Godfrey as my childhood friend and contemporary blog commenter, but he has a gig this Wednesday, June 28, 9 PM, Lakeside Lounge, NYC, 162 Ave. B., where he will be giving away copies of his new EP, which is wonderful.

Jay has credentials: guitarist with They Might Be Giants, producer and songwriter for Laura Cantrell, co-founder of Diesel Only Records and the band World Famous Blue Jays, co-composer of the soundtrack of Michael Moore's film The Big One, and much more.

I could talk about his new batch of songs, but you can hear them for free at the link above. Wish I could be at the show.

Photo courtesy of Michael Shelley.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

just another purveyor of background music from Seattle
(3/5ths of my band at my birthday party a few weeks ago -- Robert, Mac, and me)

Ali Marcus talks about the overwhelming amount of available music.

Why do I crave new musics?

When I hear something new that pings my just-right buttons in any sort of unique way, I learn something about myself. Music reshapes reality. When I resonate or vibrate happily with a piece or a song, it’s like the resonating note in a bathroom, the perfect pitch that makes the whole room echo, only I’m the room & the music finds me. Music tunes us. So “With the Beatles” may find my pitches more consistently than “Beatles for Sale,” and with you it may be the reverse, or maybe the Beatles don’t find your pitches at all. When I hear new music that finds my inner pitches, I become aware of capacities within myself I didn’t know were there.

Ali is absolutely right that the amount of already-physically-extant musical possibilities outstrips one’s capacity to listen: Every year more music is recorded and distributed than there are hours in a year. She’s also right that because of music’s ubiquitousness, its value is downplayed, and more of it becomes background music for most of us -- me included, and, I’m willing to bet money, her included too. But the background-ness of music is not a simple product of the age of canned music. The rich characters in Edith Wharton’s great book The Age of Innocence, which takes place just before the age of recording, go to the opera to flirt and gossip. Hang out with toddlers and even babies and you learn: Music is fundamentally human. Babies respond to music many months before they can crawl, much less talk. Don’t be ashamed if you like it as a background to other activities.

Check out Ali’s music. It’s free. She’s a solo-acoustic singer-songwriter. Her songs are tuneful, her voice is a rich and pleasant pop-folk alto with emotional-tone-color nuance, she strums solidly and with energy. I’ve been enjoying her stuff.

* * *

Nice jam session with Fingers Hilarity after dinner tonight. He had asked whether we have a violin. I said no, we have a mandolin. He asked to see the “vandolin.” His mispronunciation made me realize that the “man-” prefix of “mandolin” meant “hand” (“manual” = “by hand”; “mano a mano” = “hand-to-hand” [NOT man-to-man!]). I showed him the mandolin, and he got out my $40 beater guitar that I bought for road trips, and he led us in a bunch of songs he made up on the spot. My mandolin will never be in tune -- it was my great-grandfather’s and is very pretty but not in good shape. Nice tone, poor action and intonation. Fingers Hilarity didn’t mind that my licks were out of tune. It was just good to play.

* * *

Shots from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” cut to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” over at Corndog’s new place. (And yes, I must update my links page -- this week!) Believe it or not, I had never heard the Outkast song. The video is totally charming, as is the song. I really dig how the whole thing is built on a riff 5 and a half bars long.

* * *

Lots of music this week-end. Will report as I have TIME.

* * *

For Beatles obsessives: Ben.H in comments to my recent Beatles post mentioned that the Australian cover of “With the Beatles” was different than the UK edition, and it’s true of “Beatles for Sale” and “Magical Mystery Tour” too.

Friday, June 23, 2006

I was surprised when the pilot invited Fingers Hilarity into the cockpit and urged us to take a picture. They wanted to put the Captain's hat on him but he wouldn't wear it. The plane was still at the gate.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I have found this eloquent encomium to the Beatles by Woebot to be liberating and inspiring on a couple counts.

First, the liberation. It should be obvious, but I’m a middle-aging fart with middle-aging musical interests -- old, really. Realized today that I’m older than Elvis was when he died! I’m not one of those who thinks “things were better when” or “music today gives me the blahs” -- just that my dance card is pretty full & I’m most committed to music I’ve been committed to for quite a while now. I have my peeves, but they’re merely peevish, and I hear as much delightful new stuff on the radio as I ever consciously have. But I rarely fall in love with it. My loss.

I’ve felt guilty about this regarding the blog -- why should anybody care about the reminiscences of an old fart with no previous claim on anybody’s attention? But here’s Woebot, 8 years younger than me, waxing gooey on the Beatles -- even gooier than I feel about them, which is plenty goo.

And that’s inspiring. Enthusiasm.

As a teen-age rock-classical-jazz aesthete American cheapskate snob I understood that the American releases of the Beatles first seven (!) albums were substantially different than the British releases, in some cases unrecognizably.

Please Please Me
With the Beatles
A Hard Day’s Night
Beatles For Sale
Rubber Soul

The cheapskate part was that I didn’t spring for the British imports. In my teen-age 1970s I stumbled across a Vee-Jay Records release called “Introducing the Beatles,” which was “Please Please Me” track for track, so I got that one. And various compilations and American releases. But I didn’t know them all.

About seven years ago two friends of mine got married and hosted a week-end long party at an old military base converted into a state park on the Olympic Peninsula facing Puget Sound, with private rooms in the old barracks for all of the guests. The night before the wedding a jam session transpired with a legendary version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” led by a powerful, merry singer and radical activist of Irish American extraction who commanded everybody to rise for the song. Four middle-aging folkies took turns leading the group in a song, as well as a sweet-natured 13-year-old sax prodigy who later won a national high school award for jazz improvisation at Wynton Marsalis’s annual festival, and who this night kicked all us old farts’ asses with, “you guys should be able to follow this, it’s just a blues” -- by Charlie Parker.

Most of the party were friends of the groom who all knew each other (or, in the sax prodigy’s case, knew his parents), and the one musician that night whom I didn’t know all of a sudden sang a Beatles song I had never heard because of my high school cheap-skated pseudo-snobbery: the Lennon song “Not a Second Time,” from “With the Beatles.” Joe, who had led us on “Gloria,” waxed gooey -- “How old were they when they wrote that song? 22? 23? Genius!” And it is a beautiful song, with a melancholy meandering melody that wanders unorthodoxly over seven- and ten-bar phrases. (Almost all American pop music is in 8, 12, or 4 bar phrases.)

A few months later I saw “With the Beatles” cheap at Costco, and I bought it. Trove of unknown Beatles! Unknown, that is, to me.

I had always loved “Please Please Me” as much as any of their albums except maybe “The White Album.” “With the Beatles” is their most consistently wonderful. High energy, a performing rock band, at the peak of (British) Beatlemania, 1963, the same year as the monumental “She Loves You” and the almost as towering “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” this is the album to stand with those songs.

14 songs, in order:

1. “It Won’t Be Long.” A new one for me, and the most Beatle-maniacal in the “She Loves You” sense on the album, with repeated, shouted, call-and-response “Yeah”s. Lennon lead vocal, and presumably mostly his composition. One of the reasons I prefer the first two Beatles records to anything except “The White Album” (which itself has a number of clunkers but is so expansive that it rumbles over any objections): The Girl Group influence. Five girl group cover songs on the first two albums. The call-and-response vocals and -- crucially -- the vulnerability and traditionally passive feminine role. This is a musically Beatlemaniacal song with passive, feminine “girl group” lyrics. Lennon is ecstatic, his wandering girl friend is “coming on home,” he’s been lonely, crying, having no fun, but now he’ll “be good like I know I should,” and -- the crowning ping of just-rightness, the chorus, “It won’t be long till I belong to you” -- the singer is not the possessor, he wants to be possessed. Traditional “girl” lyrics, sung with masculine gusto & even aggression. Brilliant.

2. “All I’ve Got to Do,” another one new to me, another Lennon lead vocal and original song, another one in the wandering, odd-phrase-length, melancholy gorgeousness of “Not a Second Time.”

3. “All My Loving” -- one of the ones I knew. Paul at his jaunty best, with a rollicking rhythm guitar & nice twang guitar solo from George. Part of the melody is (no doubt unknowingly) lifted from a Brubeck composition from the “Time Out” album.

4. “Don’t Bother Me” -- George’s songwriting debut. Great rock beat with a subtle cha-cha undercurrent, moody tune with nice electric piano & tasty lead guitar. A toe-tapper.

5. “Little Child” -- another Lennon lead vocal new to me with nice riffing harmonica. Energetic tuneful teen lust throwaway filler -- not in a bad way -- with a great mincing vocal, “I’m so sad and lonely” alternating with a confident, leering vocal, “Baby take a chance on me” -- the utterly false mincingness is the best part of the song.

6. “Till There Was You” -- a cover from “The Music Man,” Paul in moony Broadway crooner mode, sung beautifully, with a slightly bossa nova feel from the band and lovely acoustic guitar playing, especially George’s jazzy solo. The moon-eyed satisfied melodious sigh of love. I had heard this one.

7. “Please Mister Postman” -- Lennon covering the Marvelletes, Motown girl group marvels. I’d heard this one, and it repeats the brilliant wild-eyed gusto leering joyous singing of passive lyrics of the first song. Poor Lennon, waiting, waiting for a letter from his wandering girlfriend. Those are the words. The singing says -- I’m going after her! Great, great record. (Another one I had heard.)

8. “Roll Over Beethoven” -- George servicably covering Chuck Berry with nice energy from the whole band.

9. “Hold Me Tight” -- McCartney’s only “shouter” vocal on the record, the least distinguished song on the record but not bad. Macca sounds a little tentative to me, but that’s OK. Another one I’d never heard.

10. “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” Lennon’s lovely cover of Smokey Robinson. Smokey beat the Beatles to the “vulnerable male” angle, but I suppose Sinatra had too. (One I had heard before.)

11. “I Wanna Be Your Man” -- Ringo singing -- shouting -- a Lennon & McCartney original. Like with the Ringo feature “Boys” on “Please Please Me,” the whole band cut loose for this one. Great rave up. And Ringo sings great, as usual. The exuberance of lust, the exuberance of lust, the exuberance of lust. (I had heard this one.)

12. “Devil in Her Heart” -- George covering an obscure girl group song. His boyfriends try to talk him out of dating the bad girl. “She’s got the devil in her heart,” John & Paul leer. “Oh no! This I can’t believe!” George protests. Another classic inverted gender song, with the “innocent” boy insisting on the goodness of the “bad” girl. Really great, and featuring a wonderful Beatles trademark: slightly menacing background harmony vocals. Note: George sings as many leads as Paul on this album. And holds his own. (This one was new to me.)

13. “Not a Second Time.” Beautiful Lennon, discussed above. I’d never heard the Beatles’ version before buying the record.

14. “Money,” the album’s third Motown cover, with the most menacing background vocals they ever recorded (“That’s . . . What I want!”), and great proto-punk tom-tom pounding by Ringo (the Troggs really listened to this one), and grinding bluesy dissonant piano riffing, and an amazing over-the-top lead vocal from Lennon. (Not a new one to me.)

All of the other Beatles records, even “Please Please Me,” there inevitably comes a song, usually a bunch, that I want to skip. Not this one.

So, thanks Mr. Woebot. Maybe getting all the writing-goo about this old music out of my system will clean out my ears for new ecstasies. And if not, it’s still a pleasure.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Happy summer. Broke out the early Beach Boys today. This one's a classic; their 3rd album, 1963, and not a bad cut on it. (The CD reissue is bargainiciously paired with “Shut Down Volume 2,” which does have a couple clunker fillers, and also a great bonus track, the awesome joyous marriage song “I Do.”)


Borrowed the terrific early Streisand album Color Me Barbra from my mom when I was home and have been listening to it a lot. Didn't know the record, lots of great stuff.

Of note for Celine-watchers (Celine cites Barbra as a prime influence): Barbra's high-vibrato Piaf-homage French-language song "Non C'est Rien." I don't know whether Piaf sang it, but Streisand uses more vibrato than usual and it seems in honor of the great French singer.

Also of note, and mentioned by Glenn Gould in his Streisand essay: the comic patter lyric set to Chopin's "Minute Waltz." Streisand nails it in her Brooklyn-Jewish-comic accent; really great.

And killerest, an over-the-top version of “Yesterdays,” lyric by Otto Harbach, music by Jerome Kern, with the awesome line,

Gay youth was mine, truth was mine, joyous free & flaming life forsooth was mine.
Streisand sings it with all her might. She sings all out. Sends it soaring, sends my listening heart soaring with her.

Joyous free & flaming life to you too!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

music & the loooove thing

Two of my favorite music writers, Carl Wilson and Kyle Gann, have both written recently on the the intersection of sex & music, Carl on sexiness v. repression in the indie scene, and Kyle on the flirty possibilities of four-handed piano.

Was it the recent film of The Importance of Being Earnest that had the scene of people getting hot under the collar while playing piano duets?

Solstice is coming. Must be in the air.

Image is by someone named Henry Hutt, about 100 years ago.
the would-be Streisand collaborator

I left town just as the rolling discussion of Nietzsche, Stephin Merritt, Carl-on-Celine, and the niceties of nasty criticism was winding down, but Simon Reynolds weighed in with another nice post that neatly rephrased my awkward attempt to quote Nietzsche in defense of Carl’s project. I had said Carl’s inspiration may have been related to F.N.’s theme of “self-overcoming”; Simon quotes E. M. Cioran to better effect in his statement of attraction to Carl’s project: “thinking against oneself,” he calls it.

Also not to be missed in Simon’s post is Professor Frith’s demurral that he was the godfather of the cult studs approach to rockwrite. A reference of Frith’s to Glenn-Gould-on-Streisand sent me back to The Glenn Gould Reader and his fabulous essay on Streisand.

Gould is right-on that she was a great master of vocal color or timbre, with tremendous variety and great control and imagination. What I hadn’t noticed before, though, is that Gould concludes the essay with an offer to serve as Streisand’s accompanist!

My own prescription for a Streisand dream album would include Tudor lute songs (she'd be sensational in Dowland), Mussorgsky's Sunless cycle and, as pièce de resistance — providing she'll pick up a handbook or two on baroque ornamentation – Bach’s Cantata No. 54. To date, in my experience, the most committed performance of this glorious piece was on a CBC television show in 1962. It featured the remarkable countertenor Russell Oberlin and a squad of strings from the Toronto Symphony. It also involved a harpsichordist/conductor of surpassing modesty who has requested anonymity; I am, however, assured by his agent that if Ms. Streisand would like to take a crack at Widerstehe doch der Sünde, and if Columbia would like to take a hint, he's available.

Gould’s discography confirms that the “harpsichordist/conductor of surpassing modesty” who conducted the Cantata in 1962 was Gould himself! Since he & Streisand were both with Columbia all their careers, let’s call this a missed opportunity of grand proportions.

Monday, June 19, 2006

my son with his paternal grandparents and cousins a couple days ago

Musical moments from the trip to Michigan


Hearing a muzak version of "Paint It Black" in the small-town grocery store: terrific.


A Sunday afternoon brass band concert in the downtown square of Kalamazoo. The usual fare of "light classics," Sousa, and show tune medleys, with some Brazilian tunes thrown in for spice. "Stars and Stripes Forever" made me tear up. What could be more (whitebread) American than Sousa on a Sunday afternoon on the town square? It's a powerful piece of music, but it's probably the wealth of attendant associations that got me. The myth of American justice has always been underwritten by imperial wealth stolen from the Native Americans, the African slaves and their descendants, and, today, the disenfranchised subjects of 3rd World despots working in poverty to provide us with cheap imports, as well as the disenfranchised "illegal" immigrants working in poverty to fatten the bottom lines of local businesses. Despite that, I still believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the first, fourth, ninth, tenth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth amendments; and justice for all -- the idea of America, the ideals of America. ("Peter Bailey was a man of high ideals, so called" -- Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life.") The reality falls short. I can understand why some people may hear in Sousa only the betrayal of the ideals and the jingoism of empire, but I still hear the ideals. And it was a beautiful afternoon as my son napped on a blanket and my spouse and I quietly chatted.


Earlier that day I had gone to church to hear my friend the 60-something radical preacher preach. (I have blogged about our friendship before.) He rocked it again. The topic was politics and religion. "Those who don't believe that politics should mix with religion should take their Bibles out of the pews and rip all of the prophets out." I asked him later if he had been responding to criticism that his sermons were too political, and he said, no, he was backing up his colleague Kevin, whose Easter sermon had talked about the recent extradition by the U.S. government of prisoners to allied countries that would torture them, and compared this action to that of the Jews who handed Jesus over to the Romans because they lacked legal authority to kill him themselves. The comparison had upset and angered people. "You ruined my Easter," someone had said. I don't know Kevin that well. He always struck me as a very sweet, mild-mannered man. Which he is -- and also a radical.

The choir sang a lilting Buxtehude hymn in an arrangement that accompanied the singing with pizzicato bass and flute, emphasizing the lilt and giving the tune almost a Mediterranean feel. The Congregation later sang an Italian hymn in 6/8, and the big church organ gave the Mediterranean tune a heavy Germanic feel. It's probably by design that the church organ muzzes over the sound of the congregation, making one's own voice the only one that one hears distinctly, emphasizing the individual and unmediated nature of one's relationship to God in Protestant theology, but I don't particularly like singing with that organ.


The next night my preacher friend came over for dinner. Because we had a guest we had spoken of the dinner being a dinner party. At the dinner table my five-year-old niece asked when the party started. I said, "The Reverend's here, and that means Party! Those who think that partying should not be mixed with religion should pick up their Bibles and rip out the Last Supper and the wedding feast at Cana!" The Reverend, who brought the beer, smiled merrily and said, "The Kingdom of Heaven shall be a banquet."

Amen, and let's make it happen in historical time.


Last Thursday night my beloved spouse and I went with my sister and her husband to see Oklahoma! at the Barn Theatre, Michigan's oldest summer stock theater, under the same family's unsubsidized, for-profit management since 1946. My parents took me to see a show there as a teen-ager in the '70s, and I saw one show each in the '80s, '90s, and now, the '00s. Everything I've seen has been excellent: they put on straight-down-the-middle interpretations of standard scripts. The theater is small enough that it's always intimate, and the three shows I've seen as an adult have blown the movie versions away -- "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Noises Off," and now, "Oklahoma!", which had a live band, was well sung, well danced, well staged, well paced, dramatic, and very funny.

And those tunes! So many catchy ones, from the title song to "Oh what a beautiful morning" to "Surrey with the fringe on top" to "People will say we're in love" to "Everything's up to date in Kansas City" to "The farmer and the cowman should be friends" to "I'm just a girl who cain't say no" to the one that stuck in my head for days after, "With me it's all or nothing." Some of the "country" diction is cloying, somehow smarmier than Bob Dylan's similar affectations. But the passionate yearning of "People will say we're in love" brought a tear to my eye.


We sang some at the dinner table, led by the kids. After dinner one night my five-year-old niece sang a religious song she learned at her pre-school, a thanksgiving prayer appropriate for dinner, so my son wanted to sing some too, and led us in "This land is your land" and "Yellow submarine." My sister suggested that we sing something our grandpa had taught us, so we sang "Animal fair" enough times that the kids could learn the words. The last night there my two-year-old nephew indicated that he wanted to sing the song of thanksgiving before dinner, and while my niece was getting organized my son, misunderstanding the specificity of the request for singing, launched into "Animal Fair," so we sang that instead.

The birds and the beasts were there.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My son & my niece in front of my family's cottage and my nephew and sister.
(Photos by my beloved spouse.)

Got back a few hours ago from a week in Michigan. Good trip. Dad is hanging in through a 2nd round of chemotherapy. Lots of family and friends around, a party of some sort almost every night.

Not enough sleep last night, to bed soon. Sad to leave, good to be back. The 2nd day there I was moving a woodpile for Dad. He was deciding which pieces to keep and which to pitch. "Keep that one, I may want to use that for a project some day." The hopefulness of the statement struck me real -- it really was just one in an endless series of housekeeping projects, and I remembered: Live until you can't. The on-goingness of life.

My great-grandparents built the cottage 90 years ago. Shortly after we finished the woodpile project, someone let the back screen door slam shut, a sound I've heard all my life, and the exactitude of the sound pierced me and I teared up. The sound brought back dead grandparents and aunts and uncles, and great-grandparents and more aunts and uncles I never knew who passed their summers there before me. Where are they now? Where we're all going, some sooner, some later.

My last day there we went to a memorial service for the family friend who killed himself last November. A cousin of the mother of the deceased conducted the service and gave the sermon. The mother's cousin is also a friend of my parents' and I'd met him a number of times. Dr. L. is a professor of something related to Chinese studies and college provost at various institutions, a real sweet man who went to high school with my mom and is probably retired now. I had not known that he was an ordained minister. His sermon discussed suicide obliquely, in a quiet, deeply felt, understated manner. I can only paraphrase.

"The church, being a very human institution, has at various times attempted to ordain whom God will allow into his house, but the preponderance of the evidence is clear: as Paul wrote in the epistle to the Romans, 'Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.' "

And he went on to describe how Jesus was a healer who cast demons out of people when saw that they were sick, "and he didn't burden them with theological discourses on the nature of evil." Dr. L. said that the archaic imagery of demons can help us come to grips with mental illness, which really does make a sufferer feel as though they were being possessed by something outside of themselves.

My sister, who had been a good friend of the deceased's, cried, and seeing her cry made me cry. My dad, perhaps thinking of his own funeral to come, teared up.

It was beautiful ceremony. We had seen the parents at a restaurant our first night in Michigan, stopping from the airport on the way home. They were driving from the same airport picking up their daughter and her family, who were coming to pass the week ahead of the service. It was nice to see them all.

Before the service my dad had told me that R., the deceased, had sent him a basket of food upon hearing that he had cancer, just a few weeks before his own demise.

Lots more to the trip, but that's all for now. "The ongoingness of life" was the phrase that kept coming to me all week, and while my parents' home remains my home, my life now is centered here and this is my home as well. Great to be there, sad to leave, and good to be back.

Heartbreak and loss are inevitable, and it's only because we love that our hearts ever break.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Will probably be away from Blogville for about a week. Going back to Michigan to visit my folks with my beloved spouse and Fingers Hilarity. My dad (who has cancer) has been doing really well. When he was diagnosed 9 months ago, the doctor said the average life expectancy for someone with his diagnosis was 8 months. He's still working part-time and is now on his 2nd round of chemo. We usually go back in July or August but sooner seemed better this year.

One last bit of music before I go: A couple weeks ago I read an oral history of Parliament / Funkadelic that came out in 1998. Quick and enjoyable read. Amazingly, the first book on the subject. As great as it was to hear the voices of the people who made the music, I found myself wanting more depth as well -- wanting a detailed, track by track recording history and criticism, such as like the Beatles have been favored with and such as like I've wanted for few other acts. If someone could do this while I'm away, I'd be grateful.

I might post before I get back but probably not. Cheers.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Nik Cohn, age 22, writing in 1969, wrote the first history of rock, Rock from the beginning. This passage captures his style.

He was young and pretty, very cool, and he wasn’t manufactured: he was no part of any system. Instead, he came on like a Dharma Bum, most romantic, and his songs were filled with all the right kinds of dissent. Above all, he used words; his lyrics went way beyond the slogans of rock ’n’ roll (Awopbopaloobop). For the first time, he fed kids with songs that actually meant something, that expressed revolt through something more complex than a big cock, and many of the kids liked this.

In all these ways, Dylan was natural hero-food. . . .

The chapter on Dylan goes on, and in the end, Cohn give his opinion.

How do I rate him? Quite simply, I don’t -- he bores me stiff. Under pressure, I can see that he’s an original, that he writes good melodies and makes some funny jokes, that he has a pretty face, that his influence on pop has been immense -- but still I can’t enjoy him; he turns me off. Just the noise he makes, his whine and his sneer, he loses me.

The opinion itself, one can take or leave, and Cohn leaves plenty of room for the reader to take or leave it.

I’m not overstating the role of negative criticism in forming aesthetic opinion. Dig: EMP devoted a whole conference to the topic of “Guilty Pleasures” (in a handy tie-in promotion with the Streisand/Gibb reunion album). Such a topic would be unthinkable without the killjoy impulse of so much negative rock criticism: too many people have internalized the negativity and found themselves feeling guilty for loving something they’ve been trained to feel they shouldn’t.

I’ve complained about this training a lot, even though personally I overcame it many years ago. My complaints come from witnessing so many people struggling against the puritanical blight of so much rock criticism. Too femmy! Too emotional! Too frivolous! Too cheery! Too this! Too that!

If you love it, to hell with the guilt-mongers.

That’s why sweeping pronouncements that “Celine is shit” rub me so wrong: I’m imagining some 14-year-old music nerd addict reading the magazines or blogs who loves Sonic Youth and Dizzee Rascal and Meredith Monk and also loves Celine, thinking, “Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to love Celine too,” and suppressing that love until it comes out as a guilty pleasure.

If you don’t like something, say it and say why. You’ll be doing people a favor if you give them room to disagree, and maybe 15 years from now we wont be convening all these interesting thinkers on popular music to discuss the absurdly puritanical notion of aesthetic guilt.

Thanking you in advance . . .

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Her soldier boy is coming home.

In 1962 the Shirelles scored their second #1 hit, a dewey-eyed pledge of optimistic faithfulness dedicated to the narrator's "Soldier Boy." "You were my first love and you'll be my last love," the four Shirelles sing as if with a dreamy, not-quite-experienced sigh, in the voice of a young adolescent mooning over a magazine idol.

Four years later they failed to chart with a much more emotionally complex follow-up, "(Mama) My Soldier Boy Is Coming Home." The singer's voice rings with apprehensive joy -- jumping up and down in anticipation the first she hears he's coming home, but not entirely believing it until she feels him in her arms again.

Ten years later Electric Light Orchestra sang a hymn to "you and your sweet desire," saying, "it's a livin' thing, it's a terrible thing to lose." And for the verses they plagiarized the plucked violin riff from the verses of "(Mama) My Soldier Boy Is Coming Home." "You and your sweet desire" intoxicate ELO's sound, an arching melody surrounded by vertiginous strings -- and ELO & the Shirelles commune in the joy of life and lust -- it's a living thing, my soldier boy is coming home, sweet desire.

Unfortunately for ELO, the sweet desire is now in the song's past -- "your sweet desire took me higher and higher" (emphasis added) -- which is why "it's a terrible thing to lose" this "living thing," this "sweet desire." But the Shirelles anticipated this loss as well, not only with death's presence in the life of the soldier boy of 1965 and 1966, but in this odd bit of self-plagiarization. "Soldier Boy Is Coming Home" wasn't the first time the Shirelles had used that pizzicato riff. 1961's "A Thing of the Past" used the exact same lick. Whereas in 1961, the riff signified the sorrow that attends when "our love's becoming a thing of the past," in 1965 it sang out the joyous, worried anticipation of a less-than-inevitable reunion.

For the Shirelles, our love is the Thing. For ELO, your sweet desire is the Thing -- both songs name them as Things in the songs' titles. Life intertwines with desire and love and loss.

And that riff intertwines with them all.

Monday, June 05, 2006

La Banda Gozona

I’ve always loved Sousa and marching bands in general, but it was my grandpa and Wynton Marsalis who got me really thinking about brass bands. Doesn’t matter where the band is from -- I want to hear it. Klezmer, New Orleans, Roma, India, North African -- I’ll probably like it.

And, of course, Mexico.

A couple months ago a friend brought me a CD of brass band music back from vacation in Oaxaca, and then, a little over a week ago, I finally saw other friends play Oaxacan-style brass band live. La Banda Gozona played a lively set at the Seattle Folklife Festival, full of the trad Mexican combination of 6/8 and 3/4; the rhytms whipped energy. A local group of Oaxacan women danced traditional Oaxacan dance. My friends in the band also help organize the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which I’ve marched with, playing percussion. Brass bands make a big invigorating sound.

Mexican music hasn’t gone through a “hip” phase in the U.S.A. yet, unlike Cuban and Brazilian and Argentinian and even, to a lesser extent Peruvian. (I’m dissatisfied with the lifestyle choices Paul Simon offers in that hammer v. nail song, but he did steal a nice tune.) I don’t know why that is. I love the ardor of the singing on the Latino pop stations we get in Washington State, as if absolutely nothing else in the world would do for the singer than to say exactly what he is saying right this moment. Maybe that ardor is exactly why it hasn’t been hip. No cool eye of detachment.

* * * *

I meant to post on this but forgot -- a couple weeks ago I saw a couple Latin American buskers downtown, a singer-harmonica player who also played washtub bass, and a rhythm guitarist. When the singer wanted to emphasize something he played faster. He was mostly out of sync with the guitarist, and yet his harmonica playing was conventionally solid. But on the whole the ensemble was incompetent. And still very rich, very complex, and not at all unpleasant -- I liked them quite a lot -- their rhythmic phrasing was emphatically accented.

* * * *

Tonight before bedtime, Fingers Hilarity asked for a song on the piano, “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” I got the old children’s songbook out and plunked through on the piano. After the song I commenced noodling, and the kid climbed into the cradle my arms form when playing the piano, then pressed his feet against one arm and pushed. It was the most emphatic audience participation I’d ever encountered -- even more than that performance in college when two friends without warning me beforehand leapt onto the stage and wrapped me in string as I played guitar and sang. That time in college I kept a stoic mask and sang my song (don’t remember the song). Tonight I cracked up.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Robert Hinrix, Bob Barraza, my son, Jen Anspach, and me,
in the dead-end alley behind my house, one year ago today
(Jen and Bob couldn't make it last night, and Mac couldn't last year)

* * * *

last night's set list:

"last train to clarksville." -- "this is a song from the '60s about a guy who's been drafted and he's about to leave and he's talking to his sweetheart on the phone." we start playing. a few chuckles -- oh, the Monkees! but it's a hard fierce blueswailing version with an unearthly a cappella tag line, "and i don't know if i'm ever coming home." we finish. "wow, i never realized what a sad song that is." first time I've performed the song with Robert & Mac; Mac & I rehearsed it the night before without Robert. wing it. went fine!

"spring's here to stay." from the CD. i got to some groovy places on the harmonica, and Mac stretched it more than usual on the bowed saw, but mostly i missed Jen's sweet harmony vocal & Bob's finger-snap-tight drumming -- they're both out of town.

"it's all i have to bring today" -- the Emily Dickinson poem. from the CD. missed Bob again, Jen too, but we swung it fine, and it's a fun vocal to "perform," especially to gesticulate during the guitar-less section. lack of drums forced me into a more conventional rhythm during my guitar solo, but i dealt with that fine & added harmonica during the guitar solo, making it a dual-solo. one of my favorite songs i ever wrote, such an ecstatic poem.

"how sweet I roam'd," the William Blake poem. no rehearsal, first performance with this group. wrote the music to this song about 20 years ago. still dig it.

"a man of words," the Mother Goose poem. from the CD. missed Jen & Bob. added Fingers Hilarity & Robert's daughter, nickname Bug, who's 12 days older than Fingers. the 2 of them joined us on the laughing section with gusto.

"sleep," a lullaby i wrote about 20 years ago. i'm not sure that Robert & Mac had even heard the song but they followed along fine. a friend i've known for more than 20 years noticed that i dropped a line, which i dropped some years ago. she had sung the song as a lullaby to her now-teen-age daughters when they were little. i was touched to learn that.

* * * *

Jen sings as much lead as I do in the band, so we couldn't do a bunch of songs from the CD. it felt really good to play off the cuff. Robert's good enough that he can follow anything on the cowboy chords (guitar slang meaning, "not too harmonically complex"), and we fit Mac's bowed-saw playing in on the fly no problem.

also feels good to be playing songs I wrote 20 years ago. and still love them, still find them relevant to my life. not many from that long ago still resonate; grateful to have any.

* * * *

today I turned 43. last night we had a party and started giving away the CD. Robert's friend David Milford played a set before we did, on our back deck, while people sat in the dead-end alley and listened. great setting. David sang a bunch of Blake's Songs of Innocence, really nice melodies, mostly quite simple and touching. a college pal, John Logie, coincidentally had dropped a line saying he was in town with his wife and children visiting his in-laws, so he was there for David's set and the first song of mine. during one song of David's set, Logie leaned over to me (he goes by his last name) and said, "Do you remember when Ginsberg sang this [particular Song of Innocence] at Hill Auditorium?" more than 20 years ago. No, I didn't remember; all I remember from that reading was his magnificent performance of his longish poem
America, and the charmingly swishy emphasis he gave to the word "queer" for the line, "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

i've been basking in the afterglow of the party all day. after the music I started drinking. gab gab gab in the kitchen, nurturing the mind with lively talk and the soul with cathartic blah blah blah and the heart with the bonds of friendship. eventually everybody left except David and his girlfriend Jennifer. I started plunking songs from my Yip Harburg songbook at the piano while Jennifer noodled pleasantly on her flute -- which she's only been playing a month -- until my beloved spouse finally went to bed, necessitating an end to the musicmaking, by which time it was officially my birthday, already one of the happiest ever.

* * * *

this morning my beloved spouse let me sleep in as she fed breakfast to our son. after I got up we went back to the Maya Lin exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery, which we saw 6 weeks ago. a wire mesh sculpture in a large room that maps an ocean floor is really about proprioception: the mesh is large enough that you can poke your head through it no problem, so you're simultaneously above and below the wavy surface. Lin's stuff also feeds the mind as it feeds the heart. she is art-schooly in that way of fundamentally questioning and exploring the material characteristics of her media, which Daphne Carr described in her terrific EMP paper from this year, which I didn’t hear but read here. But Lin's stuff has heart as well as that intellectually-driven quality Daphne wrote about -- as my beloved spouse said, "It really feels like there's love in her work." Love of the physical and biological world. I felt it too. Want to see the show again.

* * * *

The status of the CD: hopefully I'll have it up on the web before too long (meaning, some time this summer) available for free (at least at first). still figuring some things out. will keep you posted. for now: grateful to my beloved spouse for designing the packaging; grateful to the band for their passionate, imaginative performances; grateful to the engineer for getting the sounds down & sorting them out with me; grateful to listeners for encouraging the music with attentive listening. and grateful to the music. being in the music -- as a musician, nothing beats it.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

"Shadow of a Dream" by Fingers Hilarity

I feel so silly to have been doing all this squabbling when I'm pasting together the packaging of my band's CD, feeling like the old 'zine days -- each object slightly different.

I'm so happy to see the chintzy pasted together THING. With a picture of me! (And most of the band -- it's the only photo we have, and the band has been scattered for months with no re-convening in sight -- alas.)

And 10 of My Songs.

I can't wait for you to hear it.

(Fingers Hilarity is a recent name for Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding. He became Mr. Hilarity some months ago when he would get in the car and scamper around the interior avoiding the carseat. "You must be Mr. Hilarity because everything is so hiLARious," I would say as I lunged and contorted myself to grab him, wrestle him down, and strap him in, and he laughed and laughed. He dubbed himself "Fingers Hilarity" at the playground when I was chasing him around trying to eat his fingers. The name sounds like a rakish pickpocket from a Jay Ward cartoon. Fingers named his picture, above.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

Lou Andreas-Salome brandishes a whip at Nietzsche and their friend Paul Ree. “You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra. (But for whom to use, and why? Looks like F.N. may have been into something kinky.)

Carl and Simon disagree on the nature of the “poptimist” critique of rock-centric criticism/mythology. Carl lays it out:

But I call bullshit on this complaint: "anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion." Only literally true: It's an attempt to remove one aesthetico-moral framework, entirely on aesthetico-moral grounds: It posits that rockism has boring aesthetics and inhabits a social fantasy that is in fact morally dangerous, in which visionary Supermen are meant to lead the masses, who are distracted by their corrupt bodies (bodies that are too young, too old, too female, too gay, too repressed, too sexual, etc.) from true engagement with the pure rebel mind - with the help of the Superman they may be shown the way to enlightenment.

This debate has played out in academic aesthetic theory for at least 30 years. Simon got the terminology wrong. The traditional complaint is aesthetics versus morals, not the elimination of aesthetics and morals. The “old-school” resentment of the feminist critique of the traditional Western literary canon, for example, argues that feminism replaces an aesthetic framework with a moral/political one. In the case of “pop” versus rock-centrism, the poptimists are attempting to remove the old pseudo-political rocking framework of empty blustery macho rebellion with a framework that takes identity politics into account.

Carl and Simon agree that the rock-centric framework has a clearer positive aesthetic, but I’m not so sure. The rock myth of rebellion involves endless metaphysical distinctions between rockin’ and non-rockin’. The recent Marcus discussion is a good example. For Marcus, glitzy ‘70s arena rock is bad, except Fleetwood Mac, because they “really” rock. The vision of excess promoted by the Sgt. Pepper film is bad because those avatars of excess are bad, but the avatars of excess of The Last Waltz are good because they “really” rock. I find no coherent aesthetic framework here, merely a set of stated attitudes that adepts must study and memorize if they want to adhere to them. The most obnoxious of the boomer rock-centric critical aesthetic:
bubblegum pop is bad, except the bubblegum pop of our own youth, because since our youth the times have gotten so politically/culturally/morally ugly we must cop us some pseudo-Adorno attitude, whereas before JFK (or RFK, or MLK) got shot, things were nice. Try adopting a coherent aesthetic or political program out of that. Unless you want to adopt the solipsism of people 60 years old, forget it. It makes no sense.

The pop aesthetic, on the other hand, seems clear to me. Good beats & catchy hooks rule! (And “hooks” need not be melodic hooks -- see, for example, the myriad great hooky successes of hip hop.) And good beats aren’t necessary for ballads, but a large, clear, powerful voice is. This aesthetic covers pop from Stella Mayhew to Shakira, whom I heard on the radio today -- totally charming and lively and imaginative.

The great thing about the good-beats-catchy-hooks aesthetic is that it takes in a whole lotta rock and roll too. The catch is, nobody gets to choose what constitutes catchy.

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