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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Do you know what’s groovy?
Have you seen the latest movie?
-- Johnny Mercer, “Conversation While Dancing,” 1944

The durability of slang: Neil Young used the exact same rhyme 30 years later. 30 years since Neil sang it, I find myself using other slang from Mercer’s song (music by bandleader Paul Weston): “May I hip you?”

* * *

The kid and I did some singing and playing at the piano after dinner from a chord-and-word songbook (you have to know the melodies). I’d never sung “Octopus’s Garden” -- and it’s soo sweet -- the touch of melancholy -- I’d like to be . . . elsewhere. I’m tempted to work up an arrangement.

“Red River Valley” made me cry. The sorrow of parting -- I thought of mortality. My friend Jim T. loves this song, and we sang it at his house a few months ago. The kid noted how the song sounded sad and he almost cried.

* * *

Dept. of coincidences: On the day that I praised Wanda Landowska’s playing of Bach at the expense of Glenn Gould’s, Bernard Holland did the same thing
in a New York Times piece on Gould: “Wanda Landowska is still my favorite Bach player.”

Via Ron Silliman.

* * *

I haven’t seen the film of Red River Valley. Am curious.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Uncle Bill, 1926 - 2007

Grandpa Bro got his nickname while fishing with his youngest son -- my dad, then a teenager -- some time after he became a widower. A bunch of young women went canoeing by, and my grandpa ordered my dad to call him “Bro,” so as to create the illusion of youth. I’m sure he knew it wouldn’t work, but the joke stuck and that became his name for his children and grandchildren to call him. He died when I was three.

His parents had died young too. Bro was the oldest of 5 children, born in 1910, with siblings following in 1917, 1920, 1923, and 1926. The younger three were orphaned, and Bro and my grandma Betty raised them along with their own three sons.

Bill, Bro’s youngest sibling, lost his parents at age 3 and 11. He lived fast and hard and died three weeks ago at age 81. During the 2nd World War, when rationing was in place, Bill had a connection with the liquor distributor, and even though he was underage he could get alcohol beyond the ration limits. This came in handy when one of the Eberle or Eberly brothers came to Battle Creek (my dad never did remember whether it was Ray Eberle or Bob Eberly, both swing singing stars, who, though they were brothers, spelled their last name differently). Bill was a fan and invited Eberle/y back to the house for some alcohol, and he came. My dad would have been a toddler.

I didn’t know Uncle Bill well. He was tough and cheerful. I remember visiting him when he lived in Chicago. I would have been 6 or 7, and I remember driving down Lake Shore Drive, my mom in the front seat with Uncle Bill, me and my younger brother in the backseat, Bill cursing a blue streak at the other drivers.

“Son of a bitch!”

And then turning to my mom to apologize for cursing in front of the children.

“Sorry Julie.”

But the apology wouldn’t prevent further transgressions.

“Jesus Christ! Sorry Julie. Son of a bitch! Sorry Julie.”

And so on.

At the funeral two weeks ago, my sister tells me, our cousin Liz told the story of sitting in the backseat as a little girl while Bill was driving and writing down every time he cursed. “What are you doing back there?” Bill asked her. “What are you doing?”

My other vivid memory of Bill came about 10 years ago when Liz got married, and Bill was walking with a cane. He was living in Arizona then and old friends hadn’t realized that his health had started to deteriorate. I saw some old friend, whom he’d known for decades, razz him, “Bill, what are you doing with that cane!” It wasn’t a question.

Uncle Bill, with a semi-pissed-off, sardonic smile: “Walking!”

Because they all grew up together in the same house, my dad and his brothers were uncommonly close with their uncles and aunt.

I saw Bill last when my son was a few months old. He and Aunt Juanita bought some clothes for the baby. Once or twice a year since then I’d think of writing to them but I never did. Regrets, I have a few.

I will write to Aunt Juanita.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Once a couple of years ago on the Co-op radio station in Vancouver, B.C., I heard one of the greatest radio bits ever: Some stoner-sounding DJ was playing any song he came across in which the words “I love you” figured prominently. The genres and styles and approaches jumped from pop to blues to soul to country to Tin Pan Alley; from fine-grained to rough-hewn to in-between; from elegantly clever to deliriously repetitive -- it was a gas to listen to.

Today when I heard Martina McBride’s song of that title -- and it’s a great one, with a great catchy lively chorus whose words grasp the physical excitement of love -- I thought of Cole Porter’s song of the same name, which is more arch and layered, alluding to the erotic Biblical poems attributed to Solomon, quoting Tin Pan Alley cliches, and wrapping it in a fetchingly elegant though difficult melody. Porter wrote the song on a dare, the challenge being to spin a worthy variation on this hoariest of sweet-nothingisms.

And it is a challenge. Ever since I read that I’ve wanted to write a song with that title. I haven’t yet.

* * * *

The internet is a funny thing. While googling “I love you” lyrics, Celine Dion came up near the top, which reminded me of a song from her monumental album Let’s Talk About Love, which I picked up for a buck out of curiosity because I knew Carl Wilson was writing a book about it, which should be out very soon. I hate and I love the song, which is what the song is about -- and what it’s called, “I Hate You Then I Love You.” It’s a duet with Pavarotti, and you really should check out the video -- a pop-Italianate
quasi-operatic tune, with Celine’s Streisand-esque Celine-isms and Pavarotti’s excessive and brilliant voice, singing these words that, were I to sing them, would severely challenge my ability to keep a straight face. The song is brilliantly, astoundingly kitschy. I don’t really hate it.

And here’s Martina’s flirty charming video of her “I Love You,” with scene-lets from that Julia Robertson / Richard Gere vehicle Runaway Bride, in which the song appeared.

And here’s Aretha’s “Baby I Love You.”

There are hundreds -- thousands? -- of these songs. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?

* * * *

The internet is a funny thing. Last night I wanted to post some quick trifling riffs on the strange and amazing Ulysses Grant quote, “I am a verb.” One of the quotes that came to mind was, “I was born into chaos,” which I remembered seeing Mike Tyson say on a TV interview. I googled Tyson and the phrase to verify my memory. If it’s on the Web, Google hasn’t found it. I then idly googled the phrase, and found Wynonna Judd saying it, which I used.

Why didn’t I trust my memory? Technology has replaced it. Of course, that old process started with writing, right?

In my memory, Tyson said it poignantly, as though the chaos continued to eat him, and he quietly felt its pain and could do nothing about it -- he sounded resigned to its fate, but without self-pity or sighing.

Then I figured that Muhammad Ali must have said something about speed, so I googled Muhammad Ali quotes and found a line which I vaguely remembered having heard before, but never attributed to Ali.

“I am a verb” -- a human being doesn’t be, a human being happens -- we’re human happenings.

Oh, and one more thing. I love you. I honestly love you.

“I am a verb.”

Rimbaud didn’t say it. He said, “I is another,” but he didn’t say that.

“I am a verb.”

Nietzsche didn’t say it. He said, “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensible: frenzy,” but he didn’t say that.

“I am a verb.”

Marinetti didn’t say it. He said, “The world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” but he didn’t say that.

“I am a verb.”

Wynonna Judd didn’t say it. She said, “I was born into chaos,” but she didn’t say that.

“I am a verb.”

Mohammad Ali didn’t say it. He said, “I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark,” but he didn’t say that.

Ulysses Grant said it.

(I read it in William Safire’s “On Language” column.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I’ve only seen them in magazine and Web reproductions, but the cheerful lightness and spontaneous balance of Willem de Kooning’s late works relax my face. I look at them and tension dissipates. They feel like beautiful friendly gestures.

His famous stuff is among the most turmoil-stricken of the abstract expressionists. I’ve never completely warmed to them, though I love Pollock and Kline and Still. Pictured here is “Untitled XVII,” from 1984, when the artist was 80. (He lived to be 92 and stopped painting at 86.)

I look at these pictures and wonder, is there a musical equivalent? What would a music of cheerful lightness, spontaneous balance, and brightly colored friendly gesturalism sound like?

Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1975 album The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color -- it’s unique. Kirk’s range -- of gifts, of stylistic masteries -- was unique, and this album is unique in his discography: A psychedelic funk-jazz cornucopia collage dreamscape.

With dollops of satire.

And homages to Miles Davis and Scott Joplin.

And his typically gorgeous lyricism typically smelted with his typical hot ensemble plenitude.

The music section of any big bookstore will have competing titles on Bach, Beethoven, Beatles, Ellington, Armstrong, Coltrane, Miles. Kirk belongs in the pantheon.

(If you want to track this one down, be sure to read the customer review regarding reissue labels.)

* * *

Glenn Gould gets the ink for bringing Bach’s
Goldberg Variations into popularity. I want to raise a cheer for Wanda Landowska, the Segovia of the harpsichord, who lived from 1879 to 1959. Not only was she was the first person to record them, but she was also the first person to perform them in the 20th century on the instrument for which they were written: the harpsichord.

Like Gould, Landowska recorded the Goldbergs twice, in 1933 and 1945; also like Gould, her interpretation slowed down as she aged. The 1945 reveals the brilliance of the harpsichord’s sound; I hear it and think, this music was meant for this instrument. Landowska was a superb colorist. But her 1933, while of poor sonic quality, is my favorite of the recordings I have heard. Never startlingly fast or surprisingly slow, her tempos are impeccable. The music sings free and clear.

* * *

Since becoming aware of the singing of Asha Bhosle, I have admired more than loved her recordings. Until now.

You've Stolen My Heart: Songs from R.D. Burman's Bollywood, Kronos Quartet smooths out the often harsh timbres of Bollywood style, while Bhosle, now over 70 years old, still produces some of the loveliest vocal sounds on earth. Listening to this album I constantly thought, “They made this exactly for my demographic, and I’m loving it!” While smoother than Bollywood, Kronos’s sound palette has color, variety, and nuance, continually attracting the ear. The record’s demographic appeal reaches all the way to the ’70s-style drum sound, before the ’80s drums started sounding like cannons.

Bhosle is the most recorded singer in history, with over 12,000 songs recorded. Her husband Burman wrote wide-ranging songs for her, taking in western pop and rock influences as well as Indian pop and classical styles. Beguiling melodies, hooky riffs, lively rhythms. Whenever we listen to the album my 4-year-old son asks to hear one of the songs over and over. I happily oblige.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A silk painting associated with Wang Wei's style, and possibly by him, 8th century CE.

Twin Falls, Washington, where we hiked today.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, China, where my beloved spouse and I hiked in 2000.

Mont Ventoux, which Petrarch climbed in 1336.

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.
-- "Deer Park" by Wang Wei, ca. 700 - 761; tr. Burton Watson, 1971

A moss-covered branch hanging over the south fork of the Snoqualmie River brought this poem to mind this afternoon as my nuclear family and I hiked to see Twin Falls. Beautiful day; my beloved spouse and I had the day off, as did others -- the trail was crowded with cheerful people. The beauty of the scenery enchanted and quieted the mind, as a work of art or religious experience might -- the brain idling to a more peaceful hum; but not idling -- firing happily across one’s repertoire of thoughts, images, hopes, plans -- still, to extend the car-engine analogy -- the mind is in neutral -- running at rest.

Chinese artists and poets celebrated nature several centuries before westerners ever did.

The first western mountain climber was also the founder of the sonnet tradition -- Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, who undertook The Ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336. Westerners had climbed mountains before Petrarch, but none before him left a record of it.

Thinking of Wang recalled to mind a two-day hike my beloved spouse and I took above Tiger Leaping Gorge in spring 2000. We had been in China for a couple of weeks during Chinese New Year. Everywhere we went had been crowded with Chinese tourists -- except our hike.

Which now strikes me as odd, since the religious nature-hermit tradition in Chinese art/poetry/religion is so august. But perhaps the poet/artist/hermits of China don’t frequent the tourist trails.

The Chinese nature-poem-and-painting tradition replicates nature’s capacity for inspiring awe -- and, then, peacefulness. This particular poem by Wang is his most famous in the west, having been translated upward of 20 times. Eliot Weinberger presents and comments on 19 of them in his brief, lovely book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, and since the book came out several more translations have appeared.

-- photo of Twin Falls by Alex Wishkoski

-- photo of Tiger Leaping Gorge by someone named Greg

-- photo of Mont Ventoux from provence-hideaway.com

Thursday, November 22, 2007

For about 6 hours this afternoon and evening my beloved spouse was taking care of a friend who needed someone to take him to the hospital. He got checked out and is doing OK.

While she was gone the kid and I walked to a playground several blocks away and played hard for about an hour. Then we had hot cocoa at a cafe, and then a stop at the supermarket. On the walk home he started crying because his mom wouldn’t be home when we got back. He sobbed for a block or 2, real tears. I tried to comfort him, tried to distract him, tried to suggest fun things to do once we got home. To no avail.

We walked past a chapel and he asked to go in. It’s a lovely chapel, serene and beautiful. A side room had two chairs, desks, and pads for kneeling. My son asked what those were for. To kneel and pray, I said. He knelt. “How do you pray?”

“You talk to God.”

“What should I say?”

“Saying what you’re thankful for is a good way to pray.”

He prayed for a while silently. Afterwards he told me what he was thankful for. “Dad and Mom and builders and grandpa and grandma and people and friends and polices.” Builders, because without them we wouldn’t have a house. I was surprised -- and touched -- that his late grandpa was on the list.

At the open mic last night the host had asked the performers to tell everybody what they were thankful for. My son had said, “Our house.” I had said I was thankful for the warm and friendly hosting of the open mic, and the sound man, and just thankful to be there.

The chapel invites enchantment -- exactly like a work of art. A place to sit and quiet the mind. We aren’t church-goers; I’m agnostic, and one of my articles of faith is that there’s a lot that lies beyond human understanding. “God” is as good a metaphor for the essential beyond-ness of existence as any I can think of.

When we left the chapel the kid was at peace. It was a religious experience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Highlights of the open mic:

[update: link fixed]

1. An elderly man singing a medley of “‘Deed I Do” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and comping himself with the thickest jazz guitar chords, stretching his vamping several extra beats between singing phrases when he was feeling it.

2. A man playing and singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” We sang that song at our wedding, so it was great to hear it. Tonight’s singer kept switching between 4/4 and 6/8, seemingly spontaneously. If the spontaneity was an act, it was effective.

3. The man at our table played the famous Prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 1, in G major, on his guitar, and then he played it backwards. (Yo Yo Ma played the tune on a West Wing episode -- and here he is playing it! [With a weird and absurd political speech following.) Bach backwards still sounded like Bach, except, you know, backwards. Some passages sounded completely plausible. It was really cool to hear.

Last time we went to this open mic we heard a bunch of excellent semi-pro folk singers, including someone who had sung back-up on famous people's recordings. This crop of musicians was less polished and more ear-grabbing.

My son sang 3 verses of
This Land Is Your Land, loud and clear and on pitch. I sang a brief, through-composed setting of some prose by the late, wonderful feminist activist and hugely influential rock critic Ellen Willis. Once again, my son was the hit!


Monday, November 19, 2007

Our default internet page at our home computer is this Day and Night World Map, which tracks the rotation of the earth vis-a-vis the sun and the moon, 24/7.

* * *

A few times in the last few months we have exchanged babysitting with the next-door neighbors. The kids are great friends and they love sleepovers, and a sleepover means that one couple can go out for the evening.

S- sent us a picture today of C- reading a book in bed to their two kids and our son, acting the story out with a mock-serious face and cracking the kids up. And for some reason I flashed on something my sister told me about our good friend H-’s funeral five years ago. H-’s daughter had been my sister’s best friend from about the age of 5 through junior high, and through the two girls both families became close -- H-’s widow was visiting my mom when my son and I visited last month. Among the photos at H-’s wake was one of him sitting and reading a book to bunch of kids piled on him, including my sister, then a small child, and her friend. My sister told me that back then it was typical for H- to be piled with kids on top of him.

“I am afflicted with thoughts of mortality.”

* * *

Time sweeps us along so gently. Age creeps up on us. We hardly notice the continual transitions, each one is so tiny.

* * *

I’m younger than I’ll ever be.

* * *

We may go to an open mic tomorrow night, then it’s the holiday. I usually take Wednesday before Thanksgiving off. Looking forward. Maybe work on some writing this week-end, play some guitar. Saturday my son and I watched Ohio State beat Michigan -- an outcome I expected. Sunday night after dinner I asked if he wanted to sing some songs and he said, “No, watch football!” So we watched football for a while, then a bit of the American Music Awards. I enjoyed Fergie’s quote of that Little Richard song “The Girl Can’t Help It” (written by Bobby Troup). The kid asked me what songs he could write to be a famous musician some day. If I only knew, kid!

* * *

Reading poems by Robert Duncan this evening while cooking dinner for tomorrow. I love his exalted, almost priestly tone; his reverence -- he has the imagination and the syntactical shiftiness to make it work on me. I love the sense of language in a state of metamorphosis in a lot of his poetry; the reverence toward life and language and the way they are intertwined.

* * *

Time for bed. G’night.

Friday, November 16, 2007

At the open mic a couple of weeks ago I debuted an Emily Dickinson poem I set to music two years ago, shortly after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” Before singing it I talked about how I’d always loved the poem ever since first reading it at 19 or 20, having come across it in an anthology I bought at a flea market. But I didn’t set the poem to music until my dad had cancer, of which he died 9 months later. It’s a quiet tune in freely improvised polyrhythms, the guitar playing one loose tempo and the voice singing in another, with basic harmonic/modal overlap. It didn’t go over particularly well. Then my son and I sang “Frere Jacques” in round, him singing in Mandarin and me in French, and the cuteness/novelty factor won people over -- the kid is a hit.

The place is small and the tables were all claimed when we had gotten there, but some women invited us to join them at their table and so we did. When we got back to the table one of the women told me that the Dickinson was one of her favorite poems as well, and that she had found it when her friend was dying of cancer. Then she went up and sang -- beautifully.

Lots of good musicians out there.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Murray and other Democrats said they were troubled that Mukasey refused to recognize waterboarding as torture and to say outright that it is illegal. Waterboarding is a brutal interrogation technique that creates the sensation of drowning.

“My fear is that his failure to simply answer the question is an indication of a willingness to mold laws to the desire of the president, rather than to ensure the president abides by the law,” Murray said. -- Associated Press story on why Senator Patty Murray, D-WA, voted against Michael Mukasey’s nomination for Attorney General

“Judge Mukasey's answers to questions about executive power, especially regarding surveillance that may involve U.S. citizens, are troubling. I cannot support his nomination.” -- Senator Maria Cantwell, D-WA, on why she voted against Michael Mukasey’s nomination for Attorney General

“I will vote against the nomination of Judge Mukasey to be the next Attorney General. This was a difficult decision, as Judge Mukasey has many impressive qualities. . . . At this point in our history, however, the country also needs an Attorney General who will tell the President that he cannot ignore the laws passed by Congress.” -- Senator Russ Feingold, D-WI, on why he voted against Michael Mukasey’s nomination for Attorney General

“No nominee from this administration will agree with us on things like torture and wiretapping.” -- Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, explaining why he voted for Attorney General Michael Mukasey

The large majority of Democrats are on record regarding the following:

1. Torture violates U.S. law.
2. Waterboarding is torture.
3. The President has ordered the military to use waterboarding.
4. Warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens violates U.S. law.
5. The President has ordered warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Why is impeaching George Bush not a top priority right now?

What is the use of having the majority in both houses of Congress if you don’t use them to protect human rights, the Constitution, and the international standing of the United States?

What is the point of professing your beliefs if you don’t act on them?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

James James
Morrison's Mother
Hasn't been heard of since.
King John
Said he was sorry,
So did the Queen and Prince.
King John
(Somebody told me)
Said to a man he knew:
"If people go down to the end of the town, well, what can anyone do?"
-- A. A. Milne, “Disobedience”

Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop,
I'll be on that hill with everything I got,
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost,
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
-- Bruce Springsteen, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”

Uh, Bruce, if you see James James Morrison’s mother, could you please let her know that James James and King John are worried about her?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The other day when we were listening to a tribute album to Fats Domino, the kid liked it and asked about it. A few days later I was listening to Dr. John and the kid asked, “Is this Domino music?”

Listen to Domino and you’ll wonder: Did Rock and Roll begin on the piano? The simplified boogie with the heavier beat -- Domino was doing it in 1949, in the same style he was having hits with in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

The tribute album is aces. Crazy wild jazzy rock-and-roll guitar on “Please Don’t Leave Me” by the Four Lovers, Frankie Valli’s group before the Four Seasons. Wild doo-wop backing from the Belmonts on “I Can’t Go On (Rosalie).” The great top-selling Cheap Trick cover of “Ain’t That a Shame” with ace drum and guitar solos. All songs by Domino and/or his bandleader Dave Bartholomew -- and not a bad track. How a propos that the lingua franca of rock and roll came from a New Orleans songwriter and stylist.

Monday, November 12, 2007

At Opening Day 2001 (I remember the year because it was Ichiro’s first game in the Majors), when the loudspeaker played the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A,” and thousands and thousands of people started spelling out the letters with their arms, a friend who’d been around in the ‘70s but hadn’t kept up with mainstream pop culture doubled over with laughter -- how delightful and surprising to see a gay-identified disco song being joyously embraced by mass popular culture 23 years later!

Today we went roller skating. The kid did great, falling down over and over and bouncing back up, happy as can be, waving his mom and me off, “I want to skate by myself”; so I got to skate. I’m not any good but it was great fun, bringing back junior high memories of just GOING -- the joy of movement -- without the junior high anxieties of identity and adolescence.

And when the DJ played “Y.M.C.A.,” the pre-adolescent girls, born 20 years after the song came out, spelled out the letters with their arms, so my beloved spouse and I did too, skating around the rink, vibing on the utopian vision of male solidarity-in-poverty expressed so exuberantly in the song.

A song for the ages.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

with so much music, it’s fine, it’s lovely, if you don’t pay close attention, but if you pay attention, it dissolves: too repetitive; inane words; inanely repetitive and repetitively inane words; serviceable melody at a distance but dull when inspected too closely. but the music wasn’t made to be paid attention to; it was made as sonic bathwater, meant to wash over you with elegant melancholy, make you feel good about your connection to the vast loneliness, lovely in your disinterested and vague sense of pity. it’s a fine thing; i just have to remind myself not to pay attention and enjoy the bath.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ange Mlinko named it: Enchantment -- feeling transported -- that’s what we want from poetry -- and, by extension, any art.

It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve read on aesthetics since I-don’t-know-when.

And the great thing is: There’s no prescription. Whatever the cure is, it’s over the counter. And uncountable. We don’t know how to get there or when we’ll arrive. When we get there we’ll know.

“Enchantment” sounds like mystic mumbo-jumbo; the fashion for the last 30 years has been to speak of pleasure. I prefer enchantment. “Pleasure” sounds so -- trivial. And art can be trivially pleasurable -- that’s fine. But that’s not what keeps anybody coming back, and it’s certainly not what puts art-hounds on the trail. Although, to give pleasure its due, it does have a sexual connotation.

(David Antin has a riff in his masterpiece, “the structuralist,” in which the title character, a linguist/translator/poet/painter and friend of Antin’s named Nasi, goes off on the erotic undercurrents of the submorphemic sememe /pl/.

I wanted to quote the poem but the page layout limitations here preclude that, so I’ll just list the erotic /pl/ words mentioned --

and “plant,” on account of the long poem by Erasmus Darwin called “The Loves of the Plants,”

and concluding with “plunge” -- “right away an erotic word” -- “almost embarrasses me to say it.”

End digression.)

The route to enchantment is unknowable. At the Michigan-Purdue football game a few weeks ago, with my brother and my cousin and my cousin’s wife and a bunch of their friends, I teared up when the marching band played at halftime, because it was the first time I’d been to a game without my dad, and the first time I went with him was 38 years ago when I was six,

and the marching band played the same tunes they have been playing for 50 years, in fact they had their chief arranger of 50 years ago back to conduct his 50-year-old arrangements of the pop songs of that era because it was Homecoming and he was still alive and up for conducting,

and while Alex Ross and Ben Ratliff can discuss charmingly the respective states of classical and jazz today in Slate, and sometimes sound like there’s a crisis afoot,

and some people think there’s a crisis in pop or semi-pop,

but nobody talks about the crisis in marching band music

because there is none. Marching bands play the same music at the same events that they have for -- how long? 100 years? The music has changed some in the last 100 years, but it has changed extremely little for 50.

And everybody is satisfied -- even if they don’t like it, even if halftime is the time take a piss and get a cola and a hot dog, the marching band doesn’t annoy, because it’s there the way it always has been there.

I happen to find it enchanting -- rousing, exciting, charming, goofy, sweet music. And, of course, nostalgic.

Nostalgia can be painful now that my dad has died.

Halloween I was listening to a compilation of hits from 1948, and it put me in a sad way -- it used to be something to connect with Dad over, and now it reminds me of his absence. The music hasn’t changed, but I have.

Coltrane and Rashied Ali duet as I type this. Tremendous music. I saw Rashied Ali 12 years or so ago in New York City. His quintet played a tribute set to Coltrane. Ali is a lyrical and light touch among the fierce free-jazz drummers. His band sank its hooks into my heart -- the seriousness and virtuosity and intensity -- of music, of life, of all-that-there-is -- music that swings a rhythmic lasso around the drifting of the galaxies and swoops it into the room.

Grateful for the music -- and poetry -- for all of the wonderful poetry and music.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

It's been over a year since I've updated my links page . Lots of favorite bloggers have retired. Some have disappeared and reappeared. Some are new, or new to me.


Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is where this fine jazz composer and big-band leader shares his sharp observations.

Peli Grietzer’s vision is keen and he doesn’t miss much from the Second Balcony.

I often don’t understand what the pseudonymous Duck is getting at with his philosophy blogging at DuckRabbit, but I enjoy reading him nonetheless.

My old friend Tim Harris named Apesma’s Lament after something Captain Beefheart mutters at the end of some song. Tim and I met years ago through homeless advocacy. He lives in Seattle and I don’t see him enough; his blog rocks.

Wes Browning is one of the funniest writers I know. Except when he’s serious which is sometimes. I know him through homeless advocacy too. He recognizes my face and maybe my name but maybe not both together. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Here is his Run Off.

I feel like I know composer Miguel Frasconi because I stayed in his loft years ago when he was living with a good friend of mine, but he might not remember me
, even though he let me embarrass myself at his piano. In addition to being a terrific musician, Miguel is a really nice guy. I was delighted when he started blogging, and here it is, his well-weathered music.


Franklin Bruno says he’s nervous unto thirst, but it’s not that I could tell; when he has things to say, I want to hear them. Musician, philosophy professor, nice guy.

My doppelganger Gary Oxford keeps at it Corndoggedly. He's a songwriter-guitarist-singer my age; he's a married father; he makes me laugh. One of my goals in life is to meet him in person.

Ange Mlinko is my favorite poetry polemicist going right now. Lively poet too.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Before breakfast I put on a collection of music for prepared piano by John Cage and stepped into the shower.

As I got out of the shower, my coming-on-five-year-old came in the bathroom and said, “Why does the music go like this?”, and started drumming on my butt.

He liked the music.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Quantity is the problem: Glass writes faster than most of us can listen. . . . But it’s worth taking the trouble to discover first-rate pieces amid the reams of pretty good ones. Certainly, no one can deny that Glass possesses an instantly recognizable signature sound; the question now is whether that signature is being produced by automatic pen. -- Alex Ross on Philip Glass in The New Yorker

wouldn’t it be
if the whole
thing were
like the good part
-- from “Understanding Art: or the power of the memorable,” Ken Mikolowski

At my college reunion a couple of weeks ago I saw my poetry teacher, Ken Mikolowski, and I thought of his wonderful lines when I read Alex Ross’s piece on Philip Glass. By admitting that lots of Glass’s music sounds rote, Alex gives us permission to excerpt them ourselves -- as most of us do with pop CDs. I like this movement, I don’t like that; I like this song, not that.

Excerpting longer works has a long tradition in classical. Hit arias from operas; overtures detached from longer pieces; even favorite movements detached from suites or cantatas or, less often, symphonies or sonatas.

Bach Super Hits is one of the all-time great albums by anybody ever. In addition to his prodigious gifts in counterpoint, the man could write a catchy tune, and this collection focuses on them. Orchestral and keyboard work -- the album leaves aside the vocal music -- with stellar performers like Glenn Gould (who performs 4 of the 13 tracks), Eugene Ormandy, and E. Power Biggs, the only organist whose name makes him sound like an industrialist in a Jay Ward cartoon. And, as Alex implies we should do with Glass, the pieces are ripped from their larger contexts and put into a lovely mix-tape format.

If I love a particular style, I don’t need to listen only to the most wonderful examples of it. Any example will do, depending on my mood. Other styles, I want to hear only my favorites. I suspect most listeners are like that, but I could be wrong.

At my college reunion there was an open-mic poetry reading in honor of Ken and another long-time creative writing teacher. Without having planned to I recited two of Ken’s short -- very short! -- poems from memory at the reading. I was happy to be able to do it.

I came across a reference to Thomas Eakins's portrait of Whitman in the morning, and then in the afternoon I saw a black-and-white reproduction of it.

The aliveness in the eyes is enchanting.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Today I got an email from a friend urging me to vote for a local lefty activist for City Council. I had been planning to vote for her, but she got busted for drunk driving a few weeks ago, and I can’t do it.

Drunk driving should be a felony.

Drunk driving is no different than firing a pistol into a crowd.

One day when I was 19, I had taken the bus from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo to visit my parents from college. I took the city bus from downtown to my neighborhood. When I got off the bus, a childhood friend of mine happened to be walking by, looking bewildered. “A drunk driver killed my mom. Driving down a 2-lane country road under a clear blue sky.”

For years afterwards, every time my friend spoke of his mom, he spoke of her in the present tense. Sometimes I tear up thinking about her death, and how her death affected my friend and his family. She was a wonderful person -- very cheerful, very kind, very smart, very firm. We had worked together on a volunteer project at church the summer before she died. I liked her immensely.

Some years later a good friend of my sister’s got into a car with a crowd of people, all of them drunk, age 18 or 19. They plowed into a tree and they all died. My sister's friend had played Tevya in the high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. She hasn't been able to watch the show since. He died 19 years ago.

My friend’s candidate would be good on the City Council. But she belongs in prison.

Thanks to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for the picture.

I must thank my friend for the email, because he brought my friend's mother to mind. And as horrible as her loss was, I am tearfully glad to remember her on the Day of the Dead. I have been missing my dad today too, and my grandparents and my grandpa's cousins whom I loved.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

People have been discussing college rock, and in honor of that I want to talk about college pop.

I want to talk about Rudy Vallee, the original collegiate popster of the 1920s.

Bing Crosby partisans say that his more relaxed, demotic, masculine croon wiped out the appeal of Vallee’s more silky stilted style. Commercially, at the time, that is true: Vallee didn’t disappear, but Bing was ascendant and a huge influence on subsequent singers.

I dig Vallee though. He had a lovely voice and a capacity for joyful winking irony one song and straight-up, unflashy, yearning romanticism the next.

There’s an undercurrent of class embarrassment in the college rock discussion. Middle-class college grads are still embarrassed about their privilege. Yes, if you’ve been to college, you have been privileged. If your family had middle-class comforts when you were growing up, you have been privileged. Being embarrassed about it is likewise a privilege, and pretending that you haven’t had your privileges is the greatest privilege of all. Your embarrassment is not going to make social inequities go away. It’s not going to do anybody the slightest bit of good.

I worked with homeless people for about 8 years. Very few of them resented middle-class people for being middle class. Most of them wanted to be middle class, and a whole lot of them thought of themselves as middle class. A significant percentage of them came from the middle class, but a lot of them from a background that a white-collar person would call a "working class" background called themselves middle class; and, in fact, a large percentage of blue-collar Americans have been in the economic middle class, though that class has declined hugely since the early '70s.

In the most memorable scene in Hunter Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels, college-educated, gay Allen Ginsberg charms the blue-collar, macho bikers by being unafraid: Unafraid to be himself, unafraid to speak his mind, unafraid of the bikers, unafraid to treat the bikers straight up respectfully.

Like the homeless thieving drifter in “Streets of Bakersfield” says, “Hey I’m not trying to be nobody / I just want a chance to be myself.” Being a middle-class college kid is OK if that’s who you are. Just ask Rudy. Or Allen.

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