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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

I was paging through a collection of small reproductions of Picasso pictures today. The publisher avoided chronological order and held the pictures' titles until the end of the book. Seeing the pictures laid out like that prompted the thought that Picasso is the paradigmatic modernist artist.

He began his public career as a masterful student of the existing styles. He could do "likeness." He could "render." He deployed color masterfully.

He worked his way through his "Blue" and "Rose" periods, keeping conventional line and shape, using color expressionistically, painting symbolic images not taken directly from "life." The big breakthroughs came with the pre-Cubist and Cubist styles. Throughout his career he continued to explore and combine styles and techniques.

Stravinsky is probably the paradigmatic modernist composer, starting as a masterful disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy; breaking through to a disruptive, disjunctive polyrhythmic mastery akin to Picasso's Cubist period with The Rite of Spring, and continuing to explore new styles and combine new and old ones throughout his life.

In jazz, Coltrane and Miles Davis would be the paradigmatic modernists, continually pushing into new styles. Ellington had as broad a stylistic arc as any of the modernists, but his career was so long that he settled into periods of stylistic consistency for longer times than Miles or Coltrane. Like Picasso and Stravinsky, these three jazz modernists mastered the existing styles before pushing the boundaries of style.

The Beatles would be the best example of modernist rockers in the Picasso-Stravinsky mold. Their early records show them mastering rhythm and blues, '50s rock and roll, show tunes, and country and western. And for the first five years of their eight years recording together, every year saw them pushing into new stylistic territory. By 1968 they started to retrench, still exploring new timbres but in what might be called a "neo-classic" vein. And this too is a mark of modernism. Both Picasso and Stravinsky had periods of "neo-classic" retrenchment, though Coltrane (and maybe Miles) did not.

Eno and the Talking Heads would be other rock candidates for questing modernism. Like Stravinsky and Miles and Coltrane, and unlike Picasso and the Beatles, they began as modernists. James Brown would be another modernist. He did not appear to begin his quest until several years into his career, but starting in the mid-'60s and continuing for many years (about a decade?), he continually pushed stylistic boundaries. Funkadelic too, whose One Nation Under a Groove sounds vastly different than their equally wonderful Maggot Brain; Groove was incidentally a huge, under-acknowledged influence on my favorite Talking Heads album, Remain in Light. Byrne and company absorbed techniques and sounds from Clinton & Company and did their own thing with them. Joni Mitchell is another, beginning as a folk-style master and producing her own brand of pop-jazz fusion which evolves over several years.

Questing modernism has a high rate of burn-out. All of the avatars went through periods of retrenchment, and most settled into their own style and stopped pushing at some point. Coltrane may be an exception, but he died young. Ellington may be an exception as well, with one of his farthest-out albums being one of his last, recorded at the age of 70, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

Maybe "The Quest" has been on my mind because I played music with friends at their house last night, and one of them requested "The Quest" (a/k/a "The Impossible Dream"), but I had forgotten the chords. I remembered them today. I'll have it down next time we get together.

"No matter how hopeless, no matter how far."

I admire, and sometimes take part in, the modernist quest, but I'm glad it's not the only way.

Pictures of musicians, self-portraits, and portraits of women by Picasso.

* * *

Please forgive my boasting, but this humble blog is the number one Google search today for "l'orchestre symphonique paris 78 rpm recordings," "short plays that rhyme," "bong shop in victoria bc," and "count had right to sleep with servants on wedding night." But my all-time favorite number one (uTTT has since slipped to number two for this) was "I love my dentures." Because I do love my dentures, and the thought that my love for my dentures may have brought comfort to another denture wearer makes me feel that perhaps this blog has not been a complete waste of time.

Realized last night: Google = go ogle.

Friday, April 27, 2007

I was trying to book my band into a bakery where we can play without amplification, as part of a monthly music stroll in the "up-and-coming" (read: gentrifying) neighborhood where I work. The booker likes us but she said no, the band is too big for that room, even unamplified. So she offered us a date in a bar across the street from the bakery, which is fine, and I'll take it -- but I'd rather be in the bakery. I was really hoping for a "folk concert" setting, not a "rock bar" setting. I really like playing unamplified -- the sounds of the lovely instruments and voices, sans electricity -- which won't happen in the bar. But I'll be happy to have the gig. It's months away; I'll update.

* * *

It's interesting how "Unplugged" has almost become a genre. Until the other day the only one I'd ever heard was Nirvana's, which is stellar. But then on Jody Rosen's recommendation I picked up Tony Bennett's entree in the series. I like Bennett, especially late-period Bennett, but I'd resisted this because I'd assayed its cover and judged it pandering.

How wrong I was.

It is pandering, but not in a bad way. Most of his albums of the last 10 or 15 years or so have been tributes -- a Berlin album (which I have on vinyl); tributes to the repertories of Sinatra, Astaire, and Billie Holiday; an Ellington album (which my mom gave to me). The ones I've heard all have wonderful stuff.

But on MTV, he wasn't tied to concept, and the prospect of reaching beyond his usual audience sharpened his focus. He played some of his '50s and '60s hits ("Rags to Riches," "The Good Life," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"). He dipped into obscurities. He reached out.

And he wailed.

Many times on the album he leaps from a croon to a shout with no transition, a wild yelp of emotional unexpectedness -- just like emotions. And it's tremendous. Whoever mastered the album didn't compress the dynamic range into nonexistence. The sudden dynamic shifts drop like cannonballs off the high dive when your back is turned from the pool. Boom -- splash -- and your emotions are all wet.

k. d. lang and Elvis Costello guest-duet on a song apiece. k. d. sings sweet harmony and splits the bridges with Bennett. Her solo spots are juicily virtuoso without upstaging the star or over-belting. Elvis can't keep up -- he croons like Mel Torme without the velvet. But it's a nice gesture, part of the rock-audience outreach, and it's not terrible.

* * *

My favorite Bennett performance is on his Sinatra tribute album, a song I'd only heard Judy Garland sing, "Last Night When We Were Young," music by Harold Arlen, words by Yip Harburg.

Last night
when we were young,
love was a star,
a song unsung;
life was so new,
so real, so bright --
ages ago. Last night.

the world is old.
You flew away
And time grew cold.
Where is that star
That shone so bright
ages ago, last night?

To think that spring had depended
on merely this,
a look, a kiss.
To think that something so splendid
could slip away
in one little day-

And now
let's reminisce
and recollect the sighs and the kisses,
the arms that clung
when we were young
last night.

Garland's version is a tragic aria about the seemingly boundless expandability of time, how yesterday can seem like forever ago if circumstances suddenly shift. And it's gorgeous.

Bennett sings it as a wistful, tender elegy -- quietly, quietly -- like a widower musing on his spouse of many years. And the song becomes about the seemingly boundless collapsibility of time, where something that happened decades ago can seem like last night. And it's gorgeous.

An amazing song.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A bit of follow-up on the EMP discussion. An academic musicologist who attended weighs in, and this captures both my resistance and my enthusiasm:

I went with very few expectations -- in fact, with rather low expectations. I was prepared to hate. Everybody wants to hate on the EMP pop conference, because everyone hates and fears critics, professors, hipsters, and academic conferences. Getting a bunch of hipster critics and professors together for an academic conference just seems unnatural and wrong, an affront to all that's decent. Just as soon as I came to town I read a piece in the Seattle's alterna-weekly The Stranger that offers an excuse: it's just a bunch of harmless nerds getting up and geeking out about their favorite music, like fifteen-year-old kids playing each other their favorite records in the basement or, for that matter, like Star Wars obsessives showing off their action figures. Which I thought was probably bullshit, because it sounds so self-serving. We don't judge! We love! We're cute and brainy and don't even notice our cultural authority! But actually, it was kind of true. This was maybe my favorite conference ever, partly because the papers were generally so good and partly because there was a vibe of total geeked-out unironic love and enthusiasm that just doesn't come naturally to academic gatherings.

Matos has an admirably pithy round up, and a blog search of “emp pop conference” will bring up many other worthwhile commentaries, with no doubt more to come.

I wanted to touch on something Matos alluded to: the racial dynamic in Jonathan Lethem’s keynote speech. To recap: Lethem referred to the comedic African American singers Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan as “clowns.” An African American questioner, who identified himself as a saxophone player, asked where Lethem got off calling such a fine instrumentalist as Jordan a clown. (Jordan had played alto in Chick Webb’s orchestra, which featured Ella Fitzgerald, before making it as a bandleader and singer himself.) Nobody accused Lethem of racism, and Daphne Brooks, an African American scholar who in her own paper later in the conference (which I caught and admired) urged us to consider that perhaps we are all always talking about race, whether directly or by omission, said that she had no problem either with Lethem’s characterization or with the questioner’s question.

I shared the musician
’s discomfort with Lethem’s characterization. Elsewhere in his talk he had talked about Ringo being “our representative” on the Beatles, the allegedly not-as-brilliant musician with whom “we” could relate. Lethem’s discussion of Jordan and Calloway came in the context of his discussion of James Brown’s quasi-non-musical screams that punctuate the instrumental sections of many of his funk recordings. Lethem’s conceit was that the quasi-non-musicality of the screams were likewise points of audience fantasy -- points where “we” could imagine being part of the band.

Lethem wasn’t addressing me. I’m a musician, and he was specifically addressing non-musicians, and confirming non-musicians in their fantasies of what being a musician must be like. And some of those fantasies are off, especially the fantasy that bands have room for people who are only semi-musical. (Well, some bands may, but that
’s another story.) James Brown’s shrieking is not only technically virtuoso -- sonically beyond the reach of most voices -- but always rhythmically, musically canny. (Previous bandleading vocal exhorters like Bob Wills and Charles Mingus also punctuated their sidemen’s solos with musically shrewd interjections.) And Ringo -- well, Ringo may have been the most influential instrumentalist in that band he used to be in.

I don’t think Lethem would disagree. He “air-quoted” the line about Ringo being a “bad drummer.”

He also had a riff about “faking it,” which he has written about before. Lethem contends that we are all always “faking it.” I don’t believe him. Language is always incomplete. Any representation is partial and contingent, and any self-presentation requires a choice from several options. But I don’t believe that Lethem was faking his discomfort when an African American questioner indignantly asked him where he got off calling a great musician like Louis Jordan a “clown.” I believe he sincerely had no intention of giving offense.

I wish I could have caught more of the conference. Papers by Franklin Bruno, Carl Zimring, Joshua Clover, Simon Reynolds, Jeff Chang, Mike Powell, Peter Scholtes, Douglas Wolk, Camara Dia Holloway, and many others sounded intriguing and got positive reviews. Here’s hoping it happens again next year.

And -- well, if you’re not a musician, and you love music, you should do something about not being a musician. You don’t have to learn an instrument, but -- have a singing party. Seriously. “Experiencing music” is not only about raising your fist and boogie-ing, and then spinning elaborate cogitations about it afterwards -- which are both fine things to do in themselves. Anybody can make music too. There’s nothing better.

the microphone is phallic as the king's scepter is phallic: symbol of power and potency; symbol of who's in command.

if I had to rank them for phallic-ness, I'd have to go with the microphone.

* * *

the person who licensed theater companies and productions in Elizabethan England was the Master of the Revels.

while recognizing that Revels can't really be Mastered, I love that job title. I'd love that job. I'd be an excellent Revelmaster.

to master the Revels, one must serve the Revels. one must prepare the way for the Revels -- food, drink, music or noisemakers; optional: outlandish clothes, masks. one can perhaps master the most fortuitous circumstances for Revels, but whether Revels will actually arrive always remains an open question.

a bouquet of broccoli, a jug of cider, a box of wind and a scraper, we're good to go.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Friday night I got the kid home fairly late from pre-school. When we got back, his great friend our next-door-neighbor, who is four and a half months younger, was playing in their backyard. He joined her as I got dinner together.

They played and played and then it was bathtime, and our neighbor invited my son to join her and her brother. It was fine with their dad and fine with me, but it was late and my son hadn’t eaten yet.

“Aren’t you getting hungry?” I asked.

“No, I’m hungry for playing,” he said, joyously adding, “in the bath!”

The neighbor kid thought this was hilarious and she repeated, “Hungry for playing in the bath!”

I chilled in the kitchen for a bit and then joined the festivities in the neighbors’ bathroom. My son started a song which his friend thought was hilarious, and they both sang and sang and laughed and laughed at the top of their lungs.

London toot is falling down, falling down, falling down
London toot is falling down
My fair lady!

And it got more scatological from there, to much hilarious yelling and laughter. I was slightly envious of the unselfconscious Dionysian fervor, wanting to tap some of that spark myself.

Two nights later I got my chance. After the annual Pop Conference finished, Carl Wilson and J-Lon came over for a spontaneous dinner party. I got out the guitar and sang a new song that I had mentioned to Carl. He sang one, and I sang another, this time with my son playing a plastic yogurt container-drum, almost in beat and with fine energy. My son wanted to play another, and I suggested one I had written originally for him. He said No, and then somehow it ensued that I sang the song anyway and he yelled all the way through it, a sort of musical rumpus roaring chant a la Maurice Sendak’s Max. The kid kept it up through the whole song with aplomb as people laughed and laughed, and I somehow made it through the song without doubling over. I hope we can record it that way.

Ended up being a lovely party, with Jake, Carl, and me taking turns singing songs and playing guitar after I put the kid to bed. I’m always buzzed for at least a day after a hootenanny; this one was no different.

* * *

When the kid is about to pull a prank, you can always see the excitement in his face beforehand. One recent time after catching him I said, “I knew you were going to play a trick!”


“Because I could read the words on your brain!” (Once a few months ago he asked his mom how she guessed what he was going to do. “Did you read the words on my brain?” he said.)

“No you couldn’t” -- laughing -- “I hid them in my shoe where you couldn’t see them!”

I always keep words in my shoe too.

* * *

Memories of my dad

My mom turned 68 last Friday, the birthday my dad didn’t make it to. A good friend, who lost her husband a few years ago, was visiting Mom, and they apparently had a great time, for which I am glad and grateful.

My dad’s last birthday was a year and a half ago, 67, the day before his cancer diagnosis. I was digging out an old sidewalk in our side yard on his birthday, and I called him three times that day as I kept finding more treasures. He was always orders-of-magnitude more handy than I am, and I knew he would enjoy our project. The birthday present I had mail-ordered for him never arrived (it still hasn’t), but I feel sure he enjoyed the talk of the project more than he would have whatever knickknack I ordered. And the next day everything changed, and eleven months later he was dead.

* * *

Since I’m thinking of it, one thing I want to set down so as not to forget.

We had the viewing the night before his funeral, at my cousin’s funeral home, which had been my dad’s brother's and their father’s and their grandfather’s before. And I was so touched to see friends I hadn’t seen in years and years, and we had lots of pictures up, and there were many tears and much laughter. Dad wanted an open casket and that’s what he got.

And my son, who was then three and a half, asked to touch Grandpa. So I held him, and Nat reached down and touched his grandpa’s cold hand. I did too, and I might not have otherwise.

The next day five of my cousins and an uncle bore his pall and buried him.

Monday, April 23, 2007

My post the other night on my limited engagement with this year’s EMP Pop Conference was off, wrong, wrong-headed, ungenerous, particularly regarding Tim Quirk and Daphne Brooks’s presentations, about which I criticized for alleged insufficient exultation. In Brooks’s case, my memory was simply deceiving me. Her tone was subdued and academic, but what she was saying was a lot about music’s mysterious power; it was really good; the bug of complaint must have been possessing me as I sat down to type; and maybe I was slightly disengaged simply because I’m unfamiliar with the band she was writing about, TV on the Radio. I’d certainly heard of them, and probably heard them in passing, and the quiet clips she played sounded intriguing. Her paper was also about race, how we’re all always writing about race, either by omission or directly, and that was very interesting and struck me as right. (For the record, she is African American, and I am white American.) In America, the default assumptions about people are that they are white, male, heterosexual, and what I take to be the invisibility of these qualities pervade my writing too. For example, my account of the tramping into the fancy restaurant with 30 scruffy rock critics -- we were almost all white and almost all male and, I’m assuming, all or almost all heterosexual. And the fantasies of anti-nomianism that the episode conjured tend to be white male fantasies in popular culture. Anti-nomian fantasies of African Americans tend to be tinged with more danger in our cultural mythologies. So -- my apologies to Ms. Brooks, and brava on a terrific paper.

Quirk’s paper was on changes in the music business, and one of his lynchpins was the power of songs to attract repeated listenings. He took music’s power for granted, but music’s mysterious power was the paper’s underlying assumption, like the air we breathe. (And an “air,” in English, is also a “melody.”) His paper was thought-provoking and well-put-together.

Race came up in the Q & A for Quirk (who is white, male, and a father, we learned) more than it did for Brooks. A white male critic asked whether canons of cultural quality that favor assumptions of long-lastingness also favored white artists -- he asked it with an accusatory tone, as if the canons under discussion were racist, but I thought his question was racist. Why does he think that long-lastingness in culture is more the province of art by white people than art by others? In popular music, which was the topic under discussion, black people’s music has had no trouble at all competing in the long-lasting stakes with white people’s music.

* * *

I also should also put a caveat around my insinuation that Robert Christgau and his posse gave Jonathan Lethem’s keynote speech a Standing O because Lethem referred to Christgau as a “great man.” I spoke with a friend about this, who said that Christgau was name-checked all week-end long and he took it all in stride; and that he had seemed enthusiastic about Lethem’s speech apart from the flattery. I wasn’t around to see evidence of the former point but I completely trust my friend, and I agree with his latter point. I just thought the situation was funny, which, I trust, Robert Christgau would understand. Although, I must admit, there is an element of mockery and perhaps condescension in my pointing the situation’s humor out -- which upside-downs the gist of my post, in which I complain of critics condescending to musicians. Dish, take, pot, kettle, etc. I am ready for my lumps. I had hoped that my mockery was affectionate, but even affectionate mockery has an element of aggression.

Regardless of the fairness of my contention that critics frequently condescend to musicians, it is inescapable that the tone of most critics toward musicians tends towards meat-inspection. The music business is a meat parade, and we musicians want to be admired for the quality and tastiness of our cuts. The jadedness of critics is a natural result of the over-production of meat.

What critics don’t always understand, however, is that they’re in their own meat parade. And I, as a consumer of their critical steaks and burgers, objectify and dehumanize no less than they do musicians.

This is unfortunate in all directions. I intend to do what I can to re-humanize the situation, and I apologize for my own objectifying meat ogling.

Disagreement is natural, but we should try to disagree with the assumption that our interlocutor is a potential friend.

* * *

Regarding the over-production of meat:

The March/April edition of Songlines magazine has a feature on Ethiopia’s premier player of the begena, a millennia-old ten-string lyre also known as the Harp of King David. According to the article, there is only one CD exclusively devoted the begena, and it is by this musician, Alemu Aga. It’s the only one. But, Aga tells us, a revival is afoot. “This year,” he says, “five or six cassettes of different players have been released.”

It’s difficult to imagine not being inundated by the too-much-ness of musical production. But I wouldn’t trade it. And now, my greedy ears want to hear Alemu Aga too.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The EMP Pop Conference is back in town, and while various circumstances are keeping me away from most of it, I caught Jonathan Lethem’s keynote address and the after-party Thursday night. If you’ve never tramped into a swank hotel restaurant with 30 self-consciously scruffy rock critics -- well, the incongruity was hilarious in itself, and the self-consciousness with which we all got to indulge our fantasies of anti-nomianism had its comic element as well.

We couldn’t add a chair. The table had six chairs and that was that -- no squeezing allowed, the maitre d
was very firm. So my friend and his friend got up because I got to the table too late to join them and my friend knew I barely knew anybody else among the 30. We repaired to a corner booth with another writer (whose book I happen to be reading and enjoying).

The menu! Put it this way: The prices were such that my beloved spouse and I might go there once a year, on our anniversary. Some at our table were hungry but none of us felt flush enough to order anything more than a $10 salad -- and maybe a drink. Our table of four: One had a drink and no salad, one had a salad and no drink, and two of us had a drink and a salad. Because we were at a booth we were allowed to squeeze in another diner, and so a friend whom we had abandoned at the earlier overcrowded table squeezed in, planning to table hop. But our friend returned to his main table before the waiter took our order. “Was it something I said?” he joked.

But it was no joking matter. When we ordered salads -- and nothing else -- the waiter openly scoffed at us. “No dinners? No appetizers? Huh!” It was just about the funniest thing I ever saw a waiter do.

Right as our salads were arriving -- delivered not by the scoffer but by a server we had not yet met -- a conference ringleader recruited us to abandon our table and go to the bar. “If we see the waiter I’ll tell him it was something he said.” The maitre d’s eyes popped out as she saw the server follow us to the bar, carrying our three salads. We were out of control!

The salads were delicious (we were at the Edgewater Hotel, if you’re interested), and the conversation was real. Talk about adoption and fertility and family and money, talk about music, talk about the weather, talk about work, talk about music some more.

As we were getting ready to leave, we learned that two or three other tables among our mass had picked up our table’s bill, because in the confusion the maitre d’ or the waiter could not find us. Embarrassing! Oh well -- saved twenty bucks, I guess. Thanks, other tables!

The keynote speech? It definitely had its points. Jonathan Lethem, acclaimed novelist, occasional essayist, music fan, genuinely nice guy. (He was one of the people who bought me a salad.) Elegant writer whose elegance, at least when he’s reciting, sometimes veers into mannerism -- he began reading as if it were a poetry reading, each syllable delicate. It probably wouldn't come off mannered on the page, but simply smoothly, and the poetry-reading tone faded as the talk developed. Personal writer, engaging. And illuminating.

Not about music, and not so much about musical culture, but indirectly about the culture of the consumption of writing. His personal, elegant essays are more likely to last than much more acutely perceptive, though less personal and less elegantly turned-out, essays about music by others. There are no truths in culture, so the conversation about it that lasts, lasts because of its style. So it didn’t matter that I took fundamental exception with some of what Lethem was talking about -- he said it stylishly.

I will say this, though. He may deny it, and other writers may too, but there is a widespread tendency among music writers to condescend to musicians. Music writers get by on their abilities to perceive and comprehend things, and articulate their perceptions and understandings, and then here comes music which is extremely difficult to understand beyond some basic reactions. I suspect that maybe music writers get nervous about their lack of understanding in the face of something that can seemingly haul their souls out of their bodies and fling them around the sky like a cosmic lasso. And in their nervousness, they seek to put music -- and, even more, musicians -- in their place; they joke, they belittle, they condescend. I’m generalizing, and maybe I'm overstating the tendency, but, especially in rock writing, I’ve seen it over and over and over again. (Shades of Dave Clark Five!) And, the pity of it is, not understanding music is no cause for shame, because music, make no mistake, is something that not even technically trained musicians understand very well. Sure, I can tell you that the ReBirth Brass Band’s strategic deployment of polyrhythm acts as a tension-and-release coiling and exploding of emotional energy, but I can’t really tell you how it is that that technique is so effective, and I can’t tell you how a melody works. “The secret of a great melody is a secret.” My view is -- we should exult that such secrets live among us. Lethem exulted, but . . . he also joked in a belittling way. During the Q & A afterwards, someone criticized Lethem for this, and the discussion was very uncomfortable. I agreed with the questioner.

When I spoke with Jonathan after the talk -- it turns out that he’s a friendly acquaintance of a friend, and a genuinely friendly person -- I didn’t bring it up. The evening was lovely, and why critique someone who was only trying to do his best, and besides, he had heard it already. (And I do feel a slight compunction about bringing it up now; interesting reflection of the impersonality of writing versus the intimacy and the hope for mutuality with face-to-face conversation.) I told him what I especially dug about his talk.

He had a long riff about the mythical 5th Beatle, and how the 5th Beatle is . . . you. And . . . it sent my mind to revery.

Growing up I shared a room with my brother. We had the Beatles’ “White Album,” and we hung the four poster-portraits of the Fabs on our bulletin board, and in the middle of the Four, between Paul & George, we posted a picture of our dad, in his tie, at his office -- our Fifth Beatle: John, Paul, Mike, George & Ringo. Dad really disliked the Beatles, so maybe there was a tiny element of mockery, and certainly a large dollop of goofiness, but mostly it was a token of our esteem. As far as we were concerned, our fairly square dad was cooler than any rock star -- something I believe to this day.

There was more about the talk that I liked -- Lethem's personal reflections of teen-age fan-dom were really engaging -- but the 5th Beatle talk was what really sparked me. But first there a crowd who wanted to congratulate him, and then the moment had passed, so all I said was, “I really vibed on your 5th Beatle riff.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

* * *

The reaction to the speech was fair-to-middling -- it was a tough crowd. But Robert Christgau and his wife Carola Dibbell and his good friend Tom Smucker gave Lethem a Standing O. And this probably isn’t the only reason why, but Lethem, in his talk, at one point quoted someone he identified only as “a great man.” I recognized the quote, but couldn’t place it, and tonight at a party I confirmed with an acquaintance who’s a friend of Christgau’s that what I suspected was correct: Lethem’s “great man” is Christgau. It was a sweet gesture, and, heck, if someone called me or my spouse “great” I might give them a Standing O too.

* * *

My beloved spouse is out-of-town, visiting an ailing 77-year-old cousin with her sister, so it was me & the kid at the post-EMP party tonight. When Robert Christgau arrived, I was holding the 4-year-old, and Christgau took my son
s hand and shook it and made a sweet goofy face and got a smile out of my son, and I should have introduced myself and my son, because I had met Christgau briefly before and weve corresponded a few times, and I really like his writing -- his was the one panel I tried to catch, the kid in tow, but we got there just as he was receiving his ovation this morning -- but I couldn’t decide whether to introduce him as Bob, which is what he goes by, or Robert, because we’ve never really been introduced and that’s what his byline says -- and then Christgau was gone, talking to a friend. Ah well. Would have loved to have stayed at the party, but it was pumpkin time, and there were no other kids, and so it was time to go.

* * *

Wish I could have caught more of the conference, and the two papers on Christgau's panel that I did hear, by Daphne Brooks and Tim Quirk, were both first-rate magazine articles, but, for me, something was missing. I'm in a weird frame of mind lately about music writing. I'm sick of mere opinion stated pontifically, and there's a lot of that in music writing, whether rock, jazz, classical, or whatever. Brooks and Quirk didn't do that, particularly, but I guess I just wanted more exultation in the mystery. Maybe the ubiquity of music has masked its mystery, like a drug to which our tolerance has grown, and I'm guilty of that too. Martin Medeski & Wood swinging a Coltrane tune on the iTunes as I type this as the kid sleeps -- they're terrific, Coltrane's tune is beguiling, Medeski's tone is distinctively sparkling, but for me right now it's just background music.

For more on the conference, Ali Marcus and the Seattle Times are blogging a lot of it, and I have no doubt that many of the participants will weigh in as well. I'll be interested in what others have to say.

* * *

Later thoughts, in which I recant my criticisms of Daphne Brooks and Tim Quirk.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tim Harris, the publisher of Seattle’s excellent street paper Real Change, is a friend, but I did not find out that he has a blog until I read about it in this Seattle Weekly expose that not all of Real Change’s vendors are homeless. The Weekly article mentions that Tim pre-empted their coverage with a blog post. The article doesn’t mention it, but Tim’s pre-emption became the story, and which I only found out about when I got around to reading Tim’s blog.

Weekly’s angle: A reporter new to town finds out that not all of the vendors for Seattle’s paper “for the poor and homeless” are homeless. He checks with other street papers in the country, and they all have the same policy as Real Change: they don’t means test, they don’t test for homelessness, they assume that if someone wants to hawk something they need the money and they aren’t remotely close to having a middle class income.

What’s the story here? Apparently it’s that some
Weekly writer and his editors think that Real Change and like organizations should consider putting in place a bureaucracy to make sure that nobody is making too much money selling their paper -- maybe up to $20,000 a year if they work long days year-round with no benefits.

Before the actual print article came out, the
Weekly editor complained on their blog that Tim -- who, after all, is a journalist -- scooped them, only he didn’t say “scoop,” he called names. Tim and other journalist/bloggers weighed in -- Metroblogging Seattle has a run-down of the chronology -- before and after the article came out. Because of Tim’s pre-emption, the story became, Why did the Weekly think to print such a non-story?

I do not know why it did not occur to the
Weekly editors that investigating another newspaper -- one widely respected both for its journalism and for its social mission -- might lead to public push-back.

Welcome to Blogville, Tim!

* * *

It has started to happen a little bit, but soon computer technology will be such that I will be able to digitally “conduct” a piece of music without any of the instruments. I can imagine feeding a score of, say, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, into a computer program, and being able to manipulate the dynamic changes and gradual tempo shifts into a sound play-back system that would sound like an actual orchestra, with even a bit of pitch muzziness that an actual orchestra would have. In some respects, the Joyce Hatto scandal was a remixing scandal -- her husband took other people’s recordings and passed them off as Hatto’s, and in some cases he altered tempos -- he remixed! But what I’m talking about would not rely on already-existing recordings but a vast sound-sampling program that would read scores and know which instrument should play which notes. Sampling systems and score-reading programs do this somewhat already, but as far as I am aware the playback programs do not yet sound convincingly like acoustic instruments.

* * *

During Sunday morning’s walk back from the food co-op a week ago, the boy was picking up sticks. But one he picked up happened to be a dog turd. “Why is it soft, Daddoo?” Gross! It did look like a stick. Fortunately we were almost home by then.

During Sunday morning’s walk to the co-op a couple of days ago he must have remembered last week’s encounter because he said, “If dog poop didn’t look like sticks it would be sticks.”

“All animals poop,” I said.

“I know, but if animal’s poop didn’t look like sticks or big rocks or little rocks, it would be sticks or big rocks or little rocks.”

“Well, then things would be totally different, and nobody knows how they would be.”

“No, you’re wrong. I know. Don’t contradict me.”

“How do you know? Did somebody tell you?”

“I don’t recall anybody telling me. I just know.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut wrote more than once about how he was killing himself with cigarettes.
He lived longer than he expected, I wager. Good for him.
My grandma lived even longer smoking those things. My dad lost that bet.

At the food co-op last night I heard some lovely loud distorted guitar rock music. I asked the friendly young nose-ringed spike-haired cashier what the music was and she said, "I put on Come On Pilgrim by the Pixies because Kurt Vonnegut died. You know, Billy Pilgrim."

Yes, I knew.

A very sweet tribute.

I haven't read Vonnegut in years, but Breakfast Of Champions made a deep impression on me when I read it in junior high. Lennon & the Beatles were my ideal rockers: funny, impassioned, pained, unembarrassable, tender, excessive. Vonnegut's book struck me the same way and I thought, "This book is rock-and-roll." (Somehow, at that time, I don't remember lust being part of my rock-and-roll ethos.)

Condolences to those who loved him personally.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

a good sport, here pictured not busking

Carl has a thoughtful post on the Joshua Bell busking caper; both the caper and Carl’s comments are worth reading, as is the heartfelt, wide-ranging online dialog the WaPo hosted afterwards.

After commenting on Carl’s blog that I wouldn’t have stopped for the Gavotte, but I would have for the Chaconne (clips of both of which are posted at the original article), it occurred to me:

Talk about framing! This deal never would have happened at any time in history but the post-recording era, which made music available on demand at any time. Before recording, public musical performance existed only in set-aside times, specific frames, special occasions. The idea that live music would attract a crowd of people on their way to work is insane. It’s not that people are too busy or that the timing was unfortuitous, it’s that the premise is insane.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


I know the festive atmosphere of
Beach Boys Party! was overdubbed later, but I find almost all of it convincing and contagious. A few times I've gotten it into my head to record that way -- invite a bunch of people together, have a party, and record some music. It's always been a blast. But I haven't done it for years.

In August 1999, I recorded one about a certain Presidential candidate. I invited a bunch of musicians and non-musicians over, taught everybody the song, and recorded it live. More accurately, my friend Jake London recorded it -- and played keyboards and did some vocals.

My beloved spouse named the band Honest John and the Grand Old Partyers. Let's see if I can remember everybody who was there.

Honest John -- lead vocal and electric guitar
Ben London -- acoustic lead guitar, vocal
Jake London -- engineering & live mixing, keyboards, vocal
Dave Balczo -- bass
Dan Tierney -- drums
And a bunch of neighbors singing back-up and clapping hands: Jane Sherman (with a vocal solo), Flo Beaumon, John & Ben & Andrew Green, Aysha Haq, Mark Henley, Maire Donoghue (sp?). I think that's everybody.

A lot of people don't remember it now, but in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, a lot of hay was made about the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, which just about everybody agrees resulted in thousands of people mistakenly voting for Patrick Buchanan instead of Al Gore, which they had intended. I think it was Barney Frank who made the remark about "Jews for Buchanan." If it had not been for the butterfly ballot (or a host of other perfectly storming factors), the vote would not have been close enough for George Bush's cronies and minions to steal it for him. Gore would have won solidly.

Before November was out I had convened another band and recorded a song about it. I engineered this one. Here's the lineup for Honest John & the Electoral High School (another band name from my spouse):

Honest John -- lead vocal, guitar, harmonica
Ben Roseth -- alto sax
Mac McClure -- bowed saw
Dave Balczo -- bass
Dan Tierney -- drums
Andrew Green, Glen Felias-Christiansen, David Christiansen, Flo Beaumon, Doug Hobkirk, Alice Quaintance, and Jen Anspach -- background vocals
Dubya overdubs engineered by Scott Balikian (now of Blue Disguise Records)

Here's Cocaine George by Honest John & the Grand Old Partyers.

And here's President by Mistake by Honest John & the Electoral High School.

(Ben Roseth was 16 when he played on "President by Mistake"; he is the son of a colleague of mine and we had jammed together at a party. He went on to win all sorts of national awards as a teen jazz champion, and he's still playing. Really nice guy too.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The artist at work. He calls his opus The Universe, but it's mostly the solar system.
We all have our provincialisms, I suppose.

Inspecting the model.

Finished! A neighboring artist printed the English labels (click on picture to enlarge),
and my beloved spouse researched and printed the Chinese characters.
(She took the photos too.)
The four-year-old is in a Chinese-language preschool.
My beloved spouse and I assisted him with the backgrounds.
But never without him working on it at the same time.
Just like in the Renaissance studios.

One day he walked into the kitchen hiding behind his picture.
"Where's Nat?" he said.
"What's that Universe doing in our kitchen?!
Who let that Universe in our kitchen?!"

Unsurprisingly, the Universe giggled.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

George W. Bush's Heart Laid Bare by a 19th Century French Poet and Self-Described Dandy

"We must be distrustful of the people, common sense, the heart, inspiration, and evidence."
-- Charles Baudelaire, 1821 - 1867, Personal Journals, tr. Wallace Fowlie

* * *

(For some reason -- and maybe I just haven't slept enough lately -- this line of Baudelaire brings to mind George Frederick Watts's 1886 painting Hope, depicting a blindfolded goddess stranded on an orb floating in indefinite space, slumped in despair, plucking forlornly a one-string harp.)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ah the old madeleine problem. Last night and today I read short plays of Thornton Wilder, which wildly and intensely evoke childhood memories with my grandparents, not through assocative memory but through artistic evocation; and walking home from the bus tonight after work I sobbed and sobbed. Even though they hated, and I loved, the Beatles (which the nice Lennon vid clip you link to reminds me, Carl). I wish I could remember whether it was Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" or the Beatles' "I'll Follow the Sun" which prompted my grandfather's scornful remark, "They sound like children," referring to their pitch and timbre, an astute bit of music criticism, though it wounded me (not badly).

Of course madeleines remind me of Proust, whom I've neither met nor read, though I did once meet the painter who introduced Ginsberg to Orlovsky, and who later met Dylan through Ginsberg ("Allen brought Dylan to a party at my loft. Dylan was an asshole," this old man told me); he highly recommended Proust's novel; said it was one of life's great experiences; he liked me because it was a party at our mutual friend Joe's house and nobody could remember the 19th century art critic about whom Proust wrote a book, and I reminded him it was Ruskin, whom I have read (he was a huge influence on Gandhi as well as Pater and Wilde and Woolf), though I haven't read that Proust book either.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

I listened to Mingus’s magnificent Oh Yeah today and I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten to include him in my post of six months ago about singer-songwriters from the worlds of jazz and pre-rock mainstream pop. Mingus has been a Top Dude for me since high school -- how could I forget him! Such a tuneful and texturally complex and rhythmically exciting and structurally unique composer! Such a great band leader; of course a great bassist, probably my Favorite All Time on the instrument; and, on this album, a lively pianist -- and, here especially but elsewhere as well, a great singer. Of the three songs-with-lyrics, “Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” is powerful, frightening, sardonic, funny, wild; “Eat That Chicken” ditto, somehow, and a send-up/homage of the minstrel tradition; only “Devil Woman” doesn’t strike me as a wonderful song, though the music is. But the album’s most thrilling vocal performance is the repeated, incantatory, ecstatic exclamations of the album’s title on the gospel-ly “Ecclusiastics” -- hair-raisingly powerful.

My all-time favorite Mingus vocal, though, is on the original recording of “Haitian Fight Song,
from 1957, an accompanied canon in which the third part, accompanying the lead trombone and the following sax, is Mingus’s screaming-in-tune wailing-trumpet voice. In later big band arrangements, trumpets do indeed sing Mingus’s vocal line.

A book could be written about Mingus’s song “Original Faubus Fables”. Maybe I’ll talk about why another time, but I have other things to do tonight. Suffice to say, if you don’t know the album it is from, which I just linked to, and which features the amazing Eric Dolphy, I can’t recommend it too highly.

* * * *

Further thoughts about
Music and Lyrics, the romantic musical comedy I posted on last night: It's not an old-school music in that nobody bursts into song -- all of the songs are being performed within the context of the story. Nothing wrong with that, just thought I'd mention it. What is old-school about the show is the rapid wit. The depiction of the "hit song" the main characters write feels at least 10 years out of date, but that's OK; and maybe I'm wrong; maybe it will be or already is a hit on the actual (non-movie) radio.

Also, it's interesting, and I'd like to see the movie again to confirm it (and I think I'd like to see the movie again because it made me laugh), but I don't think the main song ever gets performed all the way through in the movie, for various narrative and pacing reasons. Which is interesting too.

The power of images combined with music. A while ago I took the kid to a Bach recital, and he's a good boy but he didn't last long. But in the previous month I had taken him to Chinese New Year festivals on three successive week-ends. (He's in a Chinese-language pre-school, and we're working on adopting from China, so he's interested.) (The best of the three festivals was in a south suburban shopping center called The Mall of the Great Wall; it also had the smallest percentage of white people in attendance.) Anyway, the kid sat raptly, silently, for long stretches when there was something going on visually as well as musically.

Radio is a thin medium; we don't see the singers. Seeing them humanizes them and makes the songs more sympathetic, more sticky, more powerful. At least, that's the theory. They know how to work it in the movies.

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