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

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Shakespeare by Blake.


My son started crying when my mom, my brother, my sister and her family all left today, and so I cried too. The house was full! Hanging out, talking, great feasting, and happy kids.

Listened to the Four Freshmen with my mom and learned that she and I had played the same venue, 25 years apart. Her sorority vocal quartet sang Four-Freshmen style arrangements of standards like the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here to Stay” at the Michigan Union (an Ann Arbor student hall) in the late ‘50s; in the early ‘80s my punk-post-punk band played our originals there too. Mom sang alto; I played second guitar and number 3 riff-meister, behind the bass player and the first guitarist (my friend Jake). My mom’s sorority sister and lifelong friend DL wrote the arrangements for their quartet; I just sent a card to DL a couple of months ago. As one song was coming on the Four Freshmen CD I said, “This is a good one,” and Mom said dismissively, “Oh, they’re all good ones” -- a telling comment from the age of “standards” -- all of the songs had been thoroughly, ultra, mega-vetted by the time a group like the Four Freshmen recorded one of them. They did write at least one original (I have it), and they wouldn’t have recorded it if it hadn’t been as good as the standards.

While going through my parents’ belongings recently my sister found a 45-rpm-size recorded memento of the the 1956-’57 academic year at the University of Michigan, and she brought it to give to me. The university’s president narrated highlights of the year. One of the year’s highlights: a recording of the Ellington band playing a snippet of the Billy Strayhorn standard “Take the ‘A’ Train” played as the narration told of the Ellington band coming to play a dance. Mom said, “I went to that dance with somebody! I remember dancing.” Years before she had told me that she had danced to the Ellington band, saying slightly ruefully, then, “We should have been listening!”

Wednesday night my brother and I hooked up with a childhood friend of ours who lives in a suburb here, and I talked them into going to an open mic where I could try out a theory. I used to play this open mic fairly regularly, 10, 12 years ago, but stopped years ago when the bar started hiring me to play for pay there with the aforementioned Jake, which we stopped doing years ago. Earlier this year I started going again every once in a while -- to listen -- but one time I went up to play and found it deeply dissatisfying. One song, shouting into the din, just another guy with a guitar, with neither a glorious voice, nor, on the song I chose, an undeniably exciting beat, the two possible paths to climbing over the din of indifference. I decided then and there -- and this was months ago -- that the next time I tried it I would sing a cappella, hoping the naked (amplified) voice would distinguish me and conquer listener apathy. Wednesday night I tried it, only with harmonica, and played two songs from the deep catalogue, a William Blake poem I set to bluesy-rootsy music about 20 years ago, and a bawdy blues number I wrote in 1990 or ‘91. And my theory was right. They went over great. The harmonica grabbed the ear, and songs held their own. And dirty jokes always go over well. (I stole a dirty image from a Shakespeare poem -- “I love to nibble your grassy hills.” Blues & Shakespeare blend seamlessly.) People got into it, even clapping along at one point, a loud crowd beat. Made me think, dang, I should write some new stuff for voice & harmonica. The blues number I sang has a nice guitar riff too, but, in this venue, the guitar would only have hurt it. The Blake poem I’ve sung in bluegrass arrangement, a cappella with several percussionists, with harmony or solo -- it’s versatile.

On Thanksgiving Day I fell somewhat under the weather, stomach pains and flu symptoms but no vomiting or fever. I ate far less than usual at the Big Eat, and even left the party for a while to take a nap. But the party at our neighbors’ place was lovely; the hosts were warm and welcoming to my family, and everybody had a great time. My spouse cooked the turkeys (with some help from me, and stuffing by my mom, with help from me), my mom cooked squash, my brother-in-law made the gravy, I made a vegan dessert (so my milk-allergic son could have something), and the hosts and other guests cooked a storm of glorious side dishes and desserts, all of which I tried -- a little -- and it was wondrous. Friday my son got my bug, only this time with vomiting, and I slept most of Friday, missing the day’s family outings, which disappointed me, and today we’re both mostly fine. Grateful for the visit, sad that it’s over.

Back at it, whatever “it” may be . . .

As the playground saying goes, one-two-three -- you’re it!

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