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

Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day!

"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." -- the first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong

"Look before you leap."

"12 lords a-leaping."

"The dialectic of faith is the most refined and most remarkable of all dialectics, it has an elevation that I can form a conception of but no more. I can make the great trampoline leap in which I pass over into infinitude, my back is like the tight-rope walker’s, twisted in my childhood, and so it is easy for me." -- Kierkegaard, who is credited with the phrase "leap of faith," though I can't find an instance of him using it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Herndon Davis painted a face on the barroom floor of the Teller House
in Central City, Colorado, in 1936, in honor of a 49-year-old poem
that “thousands of people” had heard “from time to time since childhood.”

Daisy Fried has raised the issue of the public recitation of poetry, which is an interest of mine.

Daisy might be right -- grossly generalizing -- that actors can’t recite poetry well. Maybe so, but who better? I got into the recitation thang via acting; started writing poetry in college in part to feed a performance jones and gave it up for theater, more or less. My first encounter with public recitation of other people’s poetry took place at Chicago theater critic Anthony Adler’s annual solstice/Whitman party, circa 1990, at which people take turns reading “Song of Myself.” The time I went was with a gang of friends from Theater Oobleck, and reading with such fine actors was like a jazz jam. Since then, I’ve hosted numerous reading parties, usually around Christmas, often of a Shakespeare play. (This December we read The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was a blast -- the funniest Shakespeare I’ve read.) We’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in translation) two or three times at our Christmas party -- it’s magnificent to read aloud. We read two Canterbury Tales one Christmas (also in translation), which were just wonderful. Every time we read Shakespeare -- or older poetry -- I initially resist it, wanting to slow it down to understand every word, but once I give that up, the shared experience of reading and listening aloud together is deeply communal and uniquely soul-satisfying. We’re always sure to have lots of food and alcohol, which help too.

At my college reunion last fall I recited two of my college poetry teacher’s epigrams, as well as Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem,” which my grandpa had to memorize to join his college fraternity; I had memorized it to please him and so was able to recite it without planning to.

Several years ago I recited Carl Sandburg’s anti-bourgeois diatribe “The Sins of Kalamazoo” at a party at my brother’s house just outside our hometown of Kalamazoo, and it was one of the great performing experiences of my life (though I hadn’t memorized the poem). I’ve recited other poems at parties, around campfires, here and there. Always enjoyable.

100 years ago public recitation was mainstream popular entertainment. I’m always on the lookout for collections of “popular verse” and “ballads.” Last week I found one for 18 cents, from the 1950s, compiled by an elderly actor, director, and playwright named Charles O’Brien Kennedy, who had been a friend to Eugene O’Neill, Don Marquis, and the Barrymores. Kennedy’s note to the once-famous, now-obscure 19th century ballad “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, gives some of the flavor of cultural practices long gone.

Hughie D'Arcy always insisted to me that the title of his celebrated work was not "The Face on the Barroom Floor" but "The Face on the Floor." I reluctantly bow to popular usage and include "Barroom" in the title. Maurice Barrymore, brilliant father of Ethel, John, and Lionel, spread the ballad's fame by his recitation. Years after, when I was playing with the two boys in "The Jest," Hughie sent them an autographed copy. Seated in his dressing room, Jack read it to Lionel and me with the pathos that only Jack could command.

The poem itself is a fantastically sentimental Victorian job, with a touch of Victorian racism, and curious pre-sentiments of 20th century pop. The story takes place in Joe’s bar, who is at one point urged to “Fill her up, Joe,” very much like the line in the Arlen-Mercer song, “One for My Baby” -- “Now set ‘em up, Joe.
Here is the poem, if you’re interested.

(I just found that Charlie Chaplin directed a movie of it in 1914; am curious to see it. Chaplin played the unfortunate drunk who paints the face on the floor; there he is at left, begging a drink.)

(It’s an opera too! The poem is not entirely forgotten.)

More to say, but things to do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Spinners

Tonight’s the last night of the open mike at the bookstore near Ravenna Park that the kid and I have been singing at. The kid sang “Octopus’s Garden” and melted just about everybody. Luckily, he always wants me to go first. There were 38 people signed up, so I sang the shortest song I have, a song from a few weeks after the kid was born. I hadn’t played it in public before, besides a few parties. The whole lyric:

one and one makes one
what could be more fun?
one and one makes three
he’s a mystery
and we don’t know who he’ll be

God’s still saying, Let there be . . .
it’s still the First Day
and the Big Bang is Banging away . . .

People seemed to like it. They appreciated brevity, given the circumstance! And then the kid, like I said, melted them. It’s a melt-able song.

Oh what joy for every girl and boy
Knowing they’re happy and they’re safe

And the chord goes to minor on the word “safe,” with just a touch of foreboding, the acknowledgment that not all is safe, not everybody is safe, and I’d like to be safe, I’d like everyone to be safe -- a silly sappy deep and touching utopian vision -- in an octopus’s garden -- with you. And the utopia of the open mike -- everybody doing what they love, everybody rooting for each other. Some version of this assembly will be reconvening at a new location in a few weeks; sad that this location is closing but glad to have fallen in with the group.

* * *

On Valentine’s Day the local “quality rock” station played the Top Nine Most Romantic Songs As Voted On By Our Listeners. I like the station OK, but the list wasn’t mine! A power ballad by Journey was one of my favorites on the list -- a really nice song, something about arms (not weapons), that I thought, at the opening, might be a Barry Manilow song -- it wasn’t -- though Barry did invent the power ballad; or, if not invent it, gave it its basic form (minus the electric guitars); McCartney invented it. The only record on the list that I really love was by Etta James, singing a Harry Warren song from the ‘40s, “At Last.” Gorgeous record, great song. Glenn Miller’s version was a huge hit too and is almost as gorgeous, believe it or not, with a silken vocal from Ray Eberle.

My favorite romantic songs are the ones I’ve written for my beloved spouse because -- they seem to be working so far.

Other than that, as a listener, I have a lot of favorites; here is a provisional list. Fred Astaire belongs on it too; maybe next time.

9. “This Girl’s In Love With You” -- Dionne Warwick
“I heard some talk. They say you think I’m fine.”

8. “Could It Be Magic” -- Barry Manilow
Yes, it could.

7. “Sweet Love” -- Anita Baker
I was unhappy waiting tables when this song yearned gorgeous contentment on the radio.

6. “We’ll Run Away” -- the Beach Boys
A great creampuff masterpiece fantasy of marriage with an impossibly sweet surprise ending -- and may your dreams come true.

5. “The First Time That Ever I Saw Your Face” -- Roberta Flack
The awesomeness of love and passion.

4. “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” -- Elvis
We sang this at our wedding. The impetuosity -- only fools rush in -- and the inevitability -- like a river flows surely to the sea -- of love. And the ineluctable Elvisness of Elvis.

3. “The More I See You” -- Gloria Foster with Carmen Cavallero and His Orchestra
Unfiltered schmaltz. How I love it -- and love.

2. “It Could Happen to You” -- The Four Freshmen
It -- life, love, rapture -- can happen to you. Wow.

1. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” -- the Spinners
The delicious, almost painfully sweet delirium of love.

Monday, February 25, 2008


When producer Scott Rudin won an Oscar for best picture last night, he thanked his husband: “This is also for my partner John Barlow. Without you, honey, this would be hardware. Thank you so much. Thank you.” Had he thanked his wife or his girlfriend or his parents or his children, the TV director would have shown the reaction, but they didn’t show Barlow. I’m glad to see the broadcasters getting flak about it. I snorted at the TV when it happened: “Wimps!”

* * *

I did enjoy seeing Daniel Day-Lewis kissing George Clooney on his way up the aisle to accept his Oscar for best actor. Showing his affection and asserting his dominance. When two cats live together, the dominant one does the licking. Why not be affectionate, when you’re the alpha cat?

The back of this Charlie Patton compilation sports this blurb from Rolling Stone magazine:

"After 70-odd years, Patton’s sheer focus and magnetic, almost palpable presence will still jump out of your speakers and grab you by the throat."

Who invented this violent-impressionistic style of music writing?

I want my presence to jump out of this computer screen, take off its white glove, and slap them across the face with it.

I want my presence to
jump out of this computer screen, sneak into their bedroom and short-sheet their bed.

I want my presence to
jump out of this computer screen and tie their shoelaces together when they’ve fallen asleep in front of the TV.

I want my presence to
jump out of this computer screen, saunter into their kitchen, open their fridge, and crack open a beer.

I want my presence to
jump out of this computer screen and plant a big wet smackeroo right on their lips!

I want my presence to
jump out of this computer screen and pace rapidly back and forth in their dining room, lecturing them fervently about the dangers of hyperbolically violent impressionistic criticism.

I want my presence to jump out of this computer screen, shake their hand vigorously and say, "Glad to know you!"

Patton’s plays beautiful guitar with tremendous groove and variety of color, and he sings with earthy power. He’s no monochromatic bluesman. “Shake It and Break It” is a fast-paced bawdy comical jazzy number that would not have been out of place in Bob Wills’s Western Swing repertory. One of his gospel numbers, “Lord I’m Discouraged,” shares a melody with the famous Carter Family hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

Definitely worth checking out if you like blues + gospel roots. But if his presence assualts you, you’re going to have to call Ghost Busters.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar rule of thumb: If someone is nominated for playing a real person, pick them.

Recent winners:

2004: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

2005: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote; Reese Witherspoon as June Carter

2006: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin; Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

2007 (tonight): Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf

Of course, there is often more than one to choose from:

2004: Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina; Johnny Depp as Sir James Matthew Barrie; Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes

2005: Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash; David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow

2006: Will Smith as Chris Gardner

2007: Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

With the exception of Elizabeth I of England, we at least have photographs and in many cases footage of all of these people.

* * *

Wanted to go to a concert of new compositions at Cornish College for the Arts tonight, but my son had a fever and my beloved spouse had to work, and I wouldn’t get a babysitter for a sick child. Hope the concert went well. I watched the Oscars instead. Not as funny as in some years. Also, the only film I’d seen this year is Ratatouille. Would like to see some others; no rush.

* * *

My son and I sometimes like to play a game where I try to type something and he tries to thwart me by grabbing my arms and hands. We laugh when I read the results out loud. Today I was trying to write something to the effect that “I like poetry, and my son is making me type crazy.” Here are the results.

g ss d SI l;repvw poetry . asesad df bluasdt nbult but my son is saboit a jgi njgweji agio ‘

saboit weAWE


] as

sdmaking lmr me io¨hop i bniu 3vb


mycv myy son wi` 1 1QYHAwis IS MK mak inrgh ae

i am ft ®†©trysfxc

tryyibnn bv e6

tr5y gg tdf6

trt tynik9

tog 2 rritrewm

2 ri6te ws

Friday, February 22, 2008

Period style: You’re soaking in it!

For example: The above line. The cheerfully ironic quote of a 1970s TV commercial: Quotes like that figure prominently in our period style.

Listening to the 1957 hard bop album Dakar, featuring John Coltrane, I hear fine hard-bop period style from all the players -- except Coltrane. He gets beyond the period style and plays: Coltrane. It’s a beautiful thing.

The CD reissues the 1963 LP, which reissued the original 1957 16-rpm double-length LP. This roughly 40-minute album fit on one side of the 16-rpm disc! The booklet notes (reproduced from the 1963 reissue) don’t say what was on the other side; nor do the notes name Dakar’s bandleader. Since 1963 it’s been a “John Coltrane” album, but he didn’t write any of the tunes, and the booklet says it didn’t originally come out under his name. He was a sideman.

Listening to the album now, though, it’s Coltrane’s. The other players are fine and more than fine, but only he foregrounds himself from the period.

* * *

The kid and I wrote 2 songs on Monday -- Presidents Day -- a day off for me. A five-year-old makes a delightful songwriting partner. When I would incorporate one of his suggestions he would bounce around the room ecstatically. None of my other songwriting partners over the years ever did that.

He wrote the chorus, the first line of the verse, and set the theme of the first song we did, so that was “his” song. I expressed an urge to write one, and he suggested Presidents Day as a theme. “And make it rockin’, like mine!”

I whipped out an old-style (pre-Dead-Kennedys) punk-ish riff, and sang:

What’s the holiday that no one cares about? Presidents Day!
If you have the day off then you can go out on Presidents Day!

If you wanted to you could learn all their names on Presidents Day!

“What’s a good rhyme word for ‘games’?”

“Babes!” he says.


And we haven’t yet elected any babes for Presidents Day!

I decide to recite all the presidents’ names for the bridge, the kid suggests including Obama -- great! Easy to rhyme with “electoral drama”!

I sing the Obama line, he starts chanting, in rhythm, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama! That’ll work too, I keep it.

The next day, driving between work meetings, driving to and from the kid’s pre-school, I recite, over and over and over, all the presidents’ names.

there’s washington adams jefferson madison
monroe adams’s-son jackson van buren
harrison tyler polk taylor
filmore pierce buchanan lincoln johnson
grant hayes garfield arthur cleveland
harrison’s-grandson mckinley roosevelt
taft wilson harding coolidge hoover
roosevelt’s-cousin truman eisenhower
kennedy an-unrelated-johnson nixon
ford carter reagan bush clinton
and bush’s son
what have we done?

Because Tuesday night is open mike at a bookstore/cafe between pre-school and home, and we’ve been going, and I want to sing it. The kid ends up not singing with me, deciding not to, but it went over well. I stumbled like crazy over the list of presidents, but I hammed it up and people laughed. It’s a nice open mike -- really nice people. I’m 44 and below the median age of the performers. Wildly varying quality of musicians -- a lot of terrific ones, some unpolished ones, and everybody playing with nothing but love. Those 50-ish white guys nailing their guitar licks, how I love them. There’s something beautiful about people concentrating hard to do something they love, almost no matter what it is.

* * *

Lingering royalism in America: Only four people have gained the presidency after losing the election, and two of them were sons of presidents -- John Q. Adams and George W. Bush -- and a third was a grandson of one -- Benjamin Harrison.

The House of Representatives elected Adams when nobody won a majority of the electoral college (Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and the electoral vote, but not a majority); Harrison won by fraud; a majority-Republican Supreme Court appointed Bush over the will of the voters.

The fourth winning loser was Rutherford Hayes, who lost the popular vote -- and probably the electoral vote -- to Samuel Tilden in 1876 and won anyway because his party had more members on the Supreme Court.

* * *

Getting around Blogville:

The poet John Latta has a blog -- quirky, insightful, independent.

Utah Phillips has been suffering from serious heart problems. He has retired from performing, and his son Duncan has started a blog where he updates Utah’s health.

The revolving group blog hosted by the Poetry Foundation features some terrific writing and some wide-ranging comment fests.

My fond acquaintance Devin McKinney, whose writing I heart, is now also writing at a Beatlemaniacal group blog, Hey Dullblog. For Beatle-nuts.

* * *

Early warning: My old friend Ross Lipman and I will have a show on Sunday, April 13, at 7:00 PM, at the Jewel Box Theater in the Rendezvous, in downtown Seattle. He will show films and perform a monologue-with-slide-show, and my band will play.

Details HERE (subject to change).


When rock critic Jess Harvell sarcastically called Sasha Frere-Jones, who is white, a race man, I thought, wow, what an asshole.

when he called Barack Obama, “Barry,” I thought, I get it -- he’s the George W. Bush of rockcrit! Belittling people by inflicting nicknames on them!

But imputing Bushian levels of assholishness to the guy isn’t right. So when I saw newspaper columnist
Maureen Dowd calling Obama “Barry,” I thought, that’s it! Harvell is the Maureen Dowd of rockcrit -- slickly, pseudo-cleverly mean and relentlessly trivializing.

* * *


For some time I have mused on the possibility of Jane Dark / Joshua Clover’s misanthropy taking a turn to Republicanism. He already shares one thing with them: They hate liberals.

In his review of M.I.A.’s recent album (which I haven’t heard), he goes morbidly Cheney-esque some decades sooner than I half-suspected he might. Says Jane, in the context of considering M.I.A. as a “world” musician (and even the pseudo-tough-guy naughty word reminds one of the Veep): “The world fucking wants us dead.”

Out of such monochromatic, simplistic, macho, paranoid delusion was launched the invasion of Iraq.

The “world”'s murderous intention toward “us” largely correlates with the extent to which the U.S. has followed a Cheney-esque foreign policy. And that policy might be summed up -- crudely, but with more truth than the obverse: “We fucking want the world dead.”

A lot of people on the putative left have put considerable effort into eliding the differences between the (moderate, conservative) Democrats and the (rabidly nationalistic, anti-enlightenment, neo-feudalist) Republicans. It’s unpleasant to see someone go from there to repeating crackpot Republican paranoia verbatim.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Nobody knows anything.

No. Stop. Not true.

Everybody knows a lot.

Nobody knows enough.

Nobody knows the way out of this mess. [Update, Sunday morning, clarification below.] [AND THEN 2nd thoughts.]

[AND THEN further elaborations late Sunday night.]

[EVEN MORE elaborations below, this time in defense of Adorno, late Monday night. I have considered never writing another blog post, confining myself to the continual expansion of this one. I rejected such considerations. I will have a new blog post fairly soon, and then back to a slower pace, as other plans and duties beckon.]

Every time somebody thinks up a nice utopia, here comes somebody else disagreeing vehemently.

A lot of bookish people flatter themselves that they know more than the proles. (Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion tackles this question.) When the snobbish bookish fancy themselves lefty, the irony reeks ugly.

But bookish people have no better idea about how to get us out of this mess than anybody else.

Oh, sure, you may have an idea. You may have a vision, a plan -- but how to get that plan enacted, good luck. Or, maybe you do have a plan to enact the plan, and you’re working on implementing it, and you’ve got a long-term path and patience. If so, here’s to you. Drop me a line. If I think you’re right, I’ll sign up.

The political options in our declining empire are severely limited. I’ve met a lot of people who refuse to sully themselves by validating the choices presented. They must be very delicate, snobbish people, since the choices -- limited as they are -- have intense consequences in people’s lives.

If bookish people think book smarts are the most important smarts, they’ve read the wrong books. A lot of books murmur to the reader, “You’re very smart to be reading me, and aren’t people not in the know to be pitied?” When such books purport to be lefty, they reek ugly -- or worse. But such a message will always find a happy audience -- happy to be flattered, happy to be included among the elite that the book implies or declares.
Hey! I like being flattered too. The pitiful thing is -- the snobbery is unwarranted.

Because those books have no clue either. They may have acute diagnoses of the problems -- but everybody knows the problems. The rich use every lever of power at their disposal to press their advantage against everybody else. War is horrible. The anxiety of the job market grinds souls down. We may be killing our species’ long-term viability by our monstrous, out-of-control transformation of the environment. You know this. I know this. Millions of people know this. Reading a book about it makes me feel less alone. Talking to my co-worker (who is not bookish) does too.

Ben Jonson:

Then, as all the actions of mankind
Are but a labyrinth or maze . . .

* * *

Spike Jones and Doodles Weaver make me laugh.

* * *

[Sunday morning clarification.] People have ideas for specific improvements; many plans are being implemented. Bookish quasi-leftist scoffers point out -- accurately -- that the specific improvements are partial; they treat symptoms and not diseases. For example, low-income housing programs provide housing for impoverished people. Meanwhile, condo conversions and the out-stripping of wages by profits drive more people out of their homes than the housing programs can provide for. Bookish quasi-leftist scoffers would scorn the housing programs for not solving the problem. The housing programs make vast material improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of specific individuals. "
Nobody knows the way out of this mess." Making vast material improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of specific individuals is worthwhile until a more thorough solution comes along.

People scorn Obama's rhetoric for its emptiness and historical simplicity. I am sympathetic to the complaint, but, again, his election would result in material improvements for millions of people's lives. Results matter.

* * *

[Sunday morning later 2nd thoughts.] I don't mean to disparage book-learning. My point is: Nobody has a solution, and the self-flattery of the book-learned had been getting on my nerves. Certain strains of European philosophy, in particular -- I'll name names: Adorno, Baudrillard -- strike me as often worse than useless when they bring not much fresh understanding and inculcate a sense of superiority in their readers. And the funny thing is, they both occasionally state this intention explicitly, Adorno with his belief that liberated thought is impossible under capitalism (except, ahem, for the elite, wink wink); and Baudrillard with his occasional asides that yes, of course, he's being obscure on purpose. And do they have a solution? No. So they console themselves with their snobbery. Congratulations.

* * *

[Late Sunday night elaborations.]

This crazy-ass comments thread to a post on subcultural taxonomies in the poetry world is what got me thinking about Adorno, and one of his admirers dropped the following quote there:

the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.

Leave aside the old-fashioned idealism of thinking that anybody has ever "grasped the universal." What grates here is the appeal to the reader -- yes, dear reader, maybe you can be one of those autonomous subjects! I'm not at all sure that Adorno is deliberately trying to seduce and flatter his reader; my guess is that he would be dire on the prospects for autonomy and freedom among most of his readership. Nevertheless, the seduction is there. And it's bogus. "Autonomy" is a highly subjective abstraction. Everybody has autonomy to one degree or another, and everybody lacks it similarly.
(Someone on that crazy-ass comments thread admonished us not to quote Adorno to argue that autonomy is possible -- but this quote explicitly states that it is -- but only -- Calvinisticly -- and this is not the only trait Adorno shares with Calvin -- for the elect.) (No, not the comic-strip Calvin, the Puritan Calvin.) On popular music, Adorno's stuff mostly enacts his ignorant, anti-intellectual, a-historical prejudice. Not worth going into.

Now, about Baudrillard. It's been many many years since I tried to read his stuff on simulation, so it might seem unfair to say that "Hyper-reality" struck me as a useless concept for understanding anything existent, but that's how it strikes me. I recently read his essay "The Ecstasy of Communication" in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Hal Foster, ed.). My main take-away was an image of a snickering smirker who delighted in re-defining words for no good purpose other than to create a sense of initiation with his acolytes. The concept of "obscenity" figures in the essay, but it's not the moral obscenity of war he's talking about, or the newspaper sense that naked-people-are-obscene; he has a new definition, the effect of which seemed to be to inculcate a sense of snickering superiority in his disciples, who understand the new definitions, vis-a-vis the rest of us, who don't.

I looked it up. He's talking about the "forced extroversion of all interiority" and the "forced injection of all exteriority" -- that's what's obscene, in his para-neo-logism. Now, even humorless me realizes that it may look funny for a blogger to be calling bullshit on the notion that all interiority has been forced into extroversion, but there it is. It's baloney. Just so you know, there are whole realms of interiority that don't -- and won't -- make it into this blog. And ain't nobody forcing me to exteriorize that which I have or may.

In a footnote, Baudrillard lets down his guard.

[I]t is often problematic and useless to want to verify (statistically, objectively) these hypotheses, as one ought to be able to do as a good sociologist. As we know, the language of advertising is first for the use of the advertisers themselves. Nothing says that contemporary discourse on computer science and communication is not for the use alone of professionals in these fields. (As for the discourse of intellectuals and sociologists themselves . . . ) [Ellipses in original.]

Ah -- I'm not a professional. He's not talking to me. And he's not proposing anything verifiable or testable. He's just riffin' with his buds. Cool, dude. Enjoy your gig.

* * *

[Late Monday night elaborations.]

A few words in defense of Adorno, urged on me by his defenders, which ring true.

First, his descriptions were not recommendations. Indeed, he hoped for -- and worked toward -- a transformed society.

Second, obviously, he wasn’t anti-intellectual in general: He knew a lot and had acute things to say about classical music. His opinions on pop were stick-in-the-mud and, in my view, anti-intellectual -- sometimes hilariously so -- “anthropophagous collectivists” was his insult against fans of dance music. “Fascist cannibals,” in other words. Now that’s funny! But his idea that the pop music form, once it was set and settled, wouldn’t change at all, proved wildly wrong.

Third, scholars and serious students of the classical tradition, which Adorno championed, find his analyses useful. Kyle Gann, in the introduction to his terrific book Music Downtown, makes a persuasive case that Adorno predicted the social place of the downtown music scene, and even the split between what Kyle calls the "uptown" academic composers, the "midtown" neo-Romantic and audience-friendly pastiche-style composers, and the "downtown" experimental composers. In a later essay, Kyle shows how other critics and theorists have made attractive use of Adorno. It makes sense that the only critic I’ve read who has ever made Adorno seem worthwhile to me is a critic (and composer) who grew up with no attraction to pop music himself.

This discussion -- and Kyle’s advocacy -- has made me want to read Adorno more. And I will.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

This photo by Brook of Sheffield shows what Tin Pan Alley looks like today.
What he has to say about it is succinctly elegiac.
I agree: A museum would make sense.

(Thanks JSG for the tip.)

* * *


now that,more nearest even than your fate

and mine(or any truth beyond perceive)
quivers this miracle of summer night

her trillion secrets touchably alive

--while and all mysteries which i or you
(blinded by merely things believable)
could only fancy we should never know

are unimaginably ours to feel--

how should some world(we marvel)doubt,for just
sweet terrifying the particular
moment it takes one very falling most
(there:did you see it?)star to disappear,

the hugest whole creation may be less
incalculable than a single kiss

-- E. E. Cummings, Poetry magazine, the 50th anniversary issue, October 1962

This note from the magazine’s editor, Henry Rago, appeared below the poem:

Mr. Cummings sent us this poem for our anniversary issue just two months before his sudden death on September 3rd. We wrote to thank him, and almost immediately he sent back a post card from his farmhouse at Silver Lake, New Hampshire. It was written in two colors, blue and red; and its entire message was, Thank You! We continue to thank him.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I thought that I'd never find a more ung-
enerous rhyming word than orange,
and suddenly then I saw what I'd done: th-
oughtlessly bargained to rhyme with month.
The next thing you know, some big jerk'll
ask me to find a rhyme for circle.

-- homage to John Hollander, after re-reading parts of Rhyme’s Reason, where he found a rhyme for orange


Is stand-up comedy possible after Auschwitz?

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a crematorium . . .


An avant-garde poet and a Sunday versifier walk into the Elysian fields.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” each says to the other, simultaneously.

“I thought you didn’t believe in ideality like this!” says the Sunday versifier.

“There’s no way you should be here!” says the avant-garde poet.

The poets hedge and billow, airily complaining to each other of this that and the Other, as mass murder happens under our noses. The stench!

Where were you when they crucified our Lord?

Chief, I was playing dice with the soldiers.

Where were you during the Middle Passage?

Boss, I was writing strophic lyrics of my lady’s lack-love.

Where were you during the Indian Wars?

Supervisor, I was writing romantic odes to fowl.

Too foul?

Not at all. Images of song + images of flight = poetry, supervisor.

Where were you during
the Holocaust?

I was writing alienated blank verse lamenting the impossibility of transcendence in the post-World-War world.

That would be the First World War.

It wasn’t called that until the second came along.

Which is what we are talking about.

Where are you now?

I’m critiquing the social basis of meaning through a sustained and explicit focus on language itself.

While mass murder goes on.

Sure – it’s what I’ve always done. What else should I do?

What should anybody do?

Isn’t that the point? What should anybody do?

Funny, we used to talk about, “It can’t happen here.” In America, I mean. But look – slavery, the Indian wars – it happened over and over again here. Now we’re taking it outside – like we have before. Just that, this time, the rest of the world is watching, and the rest of the world disapproves. As do I, of course. I thoroughly disapprove.

It sickens me.


Makes me want to puke.


To throw up my guts.

Yeah, I just want to throw up.

Vomit, hurl, blow chunks.

Call Earl on the big white telephone. EARL! EARRLLLL!

Does Earl ever call back?

No, thank God!

The bastard.

God, or Earl?

Take your pick.

Well, if you’re a Christian, you worship an illegitimate child – a bastard. God is a bastard. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be offended. It’s in the Bible.

Yes, but a Holy Bastard.

Yes, holiness makes all the difference, right?


Everything that lives.

Is holy.




So what’re you gonna do?

About what?

About today’s mass murderers.


Yeah . . . what.

What. Fut. Mutt. Scut. Dut. Butt. Butt. Y. Knot. Gott. Dot. Spot. Squat. Mott. Blot. Fot. Cot. Rot.

Broken door. Creatures come through, an anaesthetized gecko, a half-eaten baby.
Broken door. The repairperson reaps air. Creatures come through, the rain bogeydog, two celestial harmonists, a fuzzy wocket, three lobsters, an anaesthetized gecko, a half-eaten baby.
Broken door. What is the matter with Mary Jane? The repairperson reaps air. Creatures come through, a giraffe, three poetry curators vituperating furiously, the rain bogeydog, two celestial harmonists, a fuzzy wocket, three lobsters, an aesthetized gecko, a half-eaten baby.
Broken door. And it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again! What is the matter with Mary Jane? The repairperson reaps air. Creatures come through, eight maids a-milking, ten lords a-leaping, twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, seven swans a-swimming, a giraffe, three poetry curators vituperating furiously, the rain bogeydog, two celestial harmonists, a fuzzy wocket, three lobsters, an aesthetized gecko, a half-eaten baby.


I’ll tell you one thing, though. It’s a good thing we aren’t writing daisy flower love puke weak-ass imagery-nostalgia narrative poetry!


That stuff sucks!

Yeah, it sucks!

It really sucks!

Yeah, it really sucks!

It sucks eggs. It sucks dick. It sucks clit. It sucks nipple. It sucks socks. It sucks rocks. It sucks down beers so fast it’s a whirly hurly burly swirly!

It’s hitting the ol’ beer bong like Adorno at the frat party, Peter Quince at the Casio!

Bless thee, Bottom, thou art translated!

I’ll bless thy bottom with my hunka hunka holy water!

Oo wee. Bottom, got ‘em.

Sex, pal -- life, right? Death all around – so what, ‘salways been that way, you think not? Empire shmempire. Whoever said they didn’t want to be an empire is lying. Oh sure, maybe a few saints, but whoever said they didn’t want the benefits of being an empire is lying. What’re you gonna give up in order not to live imperially? What’re you gonna give up when the social justice bill comes due? Voluntarily, I mean – what’re you gonna give up voluntarily so that the social justice bill doesn’t come with a gun, so the guns stop killing all them Others who get in the way of our imperial insatiability for endless stuffing. What’re you gonna give up?


That’s right, nothing! You’ll keep the stuffing and give up the nothing! Let the others have the nothing! Plenty of nothing for them! A typical position -- just like most any other compromised denizen of any other empire ever. Live it up, I say, enjoy it! Guilt, good golly! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!

Oh, you are so cynical. I am so sick of your cynicism. From puking disgust to cynical greed-grab in two minutes, setting the ideological land speed record, congratufuckinglations.

Yeah, well so what, what’re you gonna do? Write your anti-lyrical investigations into syntax and signification? Write a letter to your Congressman? Go to a demonstration? Vote?!?!?

Yes, I’m going to do all of those things. Because empire can have different faces. Not just faces – policies. And those policies matter – as do the faces. And we’re not going to stop wanting to be an empire – me neither, when you get right down to it – but maybe we can be an empire that’s a little less murderous and a little more responsible toward the long-term viability of species other than ourselves, and ourselves too. And maybe if enough people call their Congresspeople it will have an effect, because I’ll tell you one thing, NOT calling them is just what they want you to do, NOT voting is exactly what they prefer. And I’m going to write my little beacon of investigation because why the hell not, I like it, and maybe some day this will all look like a bad dream, like slavery does now, a horrible mistake that we’ve gotten beyond – and don’t lecture me, I know slavery still exists, but there has been material benefit to the descendants of American slaves because of Abolition, and you know that and you won’t belittle it. That Eugene Debs crap about as long as one person remains oppressed I’m oppressed too – well, OK, maybe metaphysically, but my physical world is more important, and so is yours, his, hers, theirs, and the rest. Not everybody can be Tom Joad or Jesus or Walt Whitman or Eugene Debs – nor should everybody be.

Dude! So serious!

Yeah, you hate that, I know.

And now you’re going to expect me to go into my spiel about total transformation now or else forget it, but I won’t. Mock mock mock mock mock. Rock rock rock rock rock.

Roll away the stone and walk up out of the grave! Roll that rock! Rock and roll! Roll that stone! Walk away from death! Resurrection is insurrection!

Don’t go there.


Into some quasi-religious spiel.


It’s all a lot of apple sauce. Alan Lerner’s father said that. Sweet, wet, mushy. Religion, I mean. Not everything. Religion.

I don’t know Alan Lerner’s father.

The lyricist. “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot.” He wrote a memoir. His father said that when he was dying. It’s all a lot of apple sauce. Not life. Religion.

People like apple sauce.

You bet! Me too.

But you don’t like religion.




Hmm. Hum. Hymn. Him. Hem. Ahem. A hum. A hummer. A blow job and an armored personnel vehicle re-outfitted for quasi-civilian use. Which do you choose? Do you have to choose? In the empire, you don’t. M-pyre. Mmmm-pyre. Mmm-mmm-good-mmm-mmm-mmm-pire. Umpire. Expire. Impair. The words shade from positive to negative poles, feeling-wise. Rhetoric. The art of feeling-argument. The art of using feeling in argument. Tricky, using tricks, gauging guessing betting on what your auditor would like-feel to hear. So much is unknowable. One does one’s best, one hopes.

It’s all you can do.

Taut! All! A! G! (Tautology.) All you can do is all you can do.

Transcendence? Possible? No, well, maybe, prob’ly not – but! Surprise. Surprising oneself. Pushing past one’s past. And, since, fractally, practically, the whole and the part relate, isn’t it, isn’t it, IS NOT IT POSSIBLE that the species can surprise itself? Who knows? IS NOT IT POSSIBLE that we can – not transcend – but leave behind – leave behind these bad habits, bad decisions, ameliorate the most destructive impulses, tear down those walls Mr. Reagan, unscrew the locks from the doors Mr. Whitman, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not soon and maybe not in our lives, but in some future shock, our descendants look at our folly and mock and laugh that they have left our bad ways behind. How to get there? Who knows! Who hoo hoo hoo hoo! And what to do? Be as if! Be as if! Contingent! Live at once in future hopes and present practicalities. No contradiction between utopian hopes and ameliorative compromise. If you can get to utopia some way quicker than step by step, show the way, show the way, and if not then by all means take those steps while looking beyond, aim high in driving and don’t miss the road.

You got it, the religious vibe. You dissed it but you got it. The religious vibe. That’s what this is about. Any aesthetic experience: It’s religious. An experience of communion. Reading: Communion with the consciousness of the writer -- whether the writer is long dead or in the next room. Theater: Communion with the performers. Sometimes they mediate between the author’s consciousness and the audience’s experience, but an author isn’t necessary for theater. Painting: communion with the painter’s consciousness through the medium of paint. Music: communion with the musicians’ consciousness through the medium of sound -- and with all of these, so often, the consciousness is smaller than the experience, for the artist and the auditor alike -- the music exceeds the musicians’ consciousness, the text exceeds the writer’s, the painting exceeds the painter’s. All these experiences -- yes, they have meanings, but the experiences can’t be reduced to the meanings. The experience is irreducible. And in this respect there isn’t a difference between poetry, fiction, or other prose: They all provide opportunities for the reading experience of communion with the writer’s relationship with language.

Any experience may be irreducible, but that doesn’t mean it’s communion. I wouldn’t call it communion. There’s no bread. There’s no wine. There’s no alter or priest.

Yes, but there’s transformation! Of consciousness. There’s the bread-ifying and wine-ifying of consciousness, not only a simultaneous slowing and quickening of consciousness, where one is both less anxious -- that would be the slowing -- and more alert -- that would be the quickening -- but also a consciousness of community, of being with another, whether it’s the writer or the performer or the DJ or the other dancers or the audience or all of them together. The poet Ange Mlinko calls it “enchantment.” Same thing, whether your metaphor is of magic or of religion, the metaphor refers to this change of consciousness, which is what happens when an aesthetic experience is working.

What about stand-up comedy?

Communion, absolutely. The communion of laughter. The sacred clown, the satirist; the communion with the audience, the dependence of the commedian on the audience, the interchange between them. Say, how many stand-up comics does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

I don’t know, how many?

I don’t know either. I was hoping you would.

How would I know?

I don’t know.

Maybe two.

Two. Why two?

One to try out the material, the other to wait in the wings in case the first one is dying up there.

But they don’t really die.

Sure they do. How is a failed joke like a French orgasm?

I don’t know, how is a failed joke like a French orgasm?

They’re both a little death.

That’s not funny.

I know. And it feels so good! Oh, oh, it feels good, oh, yes, it feel sooo good. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes yes yes yes yes! Ohhhhhh YESSSSS.

Oh great, now you’re going to roll over and go to sleep. Lots of fun for me!

You can take care of yourself. Don’t smoke in bed.

I don’t smoke, except when I’m on fire.

Signalling through the flames.

The Artaud-esque actor like Joan of Arc.

Burn baby burn.

Disco inferno.

Burn the records. Feel the burn. No pain, no gain. Burn all the records. We never had this conversation. Burn the records. The Beatles versus the Christians with the Christians as the lions, throw them into the Colosseum, the crowd roars, the lions roar, the Christians roar, the records go up in smoke, disco inferno, the rock DJs at Comiskey Park, boom! Up in smoke. The world on fire. Giant holocaust. Sacrifice all of it. Only God can make a tree. But we’re working on it, goddamn it! Cloning, the creation of life at the cellular level, we’re working on it. Burn it down! Throw the monuments of culture onto the conflagration. Burn my books, burn my papers, burn my life. Empty the museums and empty the company headquarters, empty the halls of government, and burn them. Fire! Fire! Ready! Fire! All of your pictures, all of your memories, everything most dear to you, burn it! Start again! Phoenix-like, arise! Burn and be reborn, like the forest -- be the forest, harbor the seeds of the Ceanothus shrub, which open only when the fire passes through, be the Ceanothus seeds, burn yourself to open, burn the old and make way for the new, arise from flames, burn!

You don’t believe a word of this, do you.

No, I don’t.

But if it feels good . . .

Do it.

Must utopia be deferred?

Will it ever arrive?

The imperfect is our paradise -- an insurance salesman said that. Beautiful, huh? I mean seriously, it’s a beautiful line. The imperfect is our paradise. But it does sound like something a cynical insurance salesman would say. If the perfect were to arrive, or arise from flames, the insurance salesman would be out of business.

Yeah. So I was partying with Adorno at the frat. The dude could pound beers. An absolute pounder. And, dude, he was a funny drunk. All this blather about absolute intoxication, pure intoxication, the pure drunk. Denouncing the mild buzz as a bourgeois manifestation of the hegemony of the oppressive capitalist state, in which the critical and utopian project of the drunk is evaded; a capitulation to a docile and contented tipsiness in the face the commercial onslaught; a pseudo-individualist pseudo-pleasure fulfilling a pseudo-need for mild consciousness alteration produced by the numbing all-consuming enfolding of the consumerist state; a compromise of drunkardly principle, of the high modernist drunkard’s quest to follow the drunkenness into the blizzardly complexity of pure drink. Upon which pronouncement he would critically face plant and be out of commission until the next afternoon. He called his approach to benders, “negative mixology.” The popular, lyrical drunkenness filled him with nausea. That, and his hangover.

Dang, I’m sorry I missed those parties.

Yeah, you were dating some effete poet who hated the frat.

I’d love to have done beer bongs with Adorno.

I’m telling you, I couldn’t keep up. He had a thirst -- unquenchable! Good times.

Wanna get one?


A coldy.

Nah, got things to do tonight.

Like what?

I don’t know, things.

Like what?

Dude, don’t sweat me. I got things to do.

Yeah, sure, OK, whatever.

Oh, that’s nice, pseudo-affirmation punctuated with the diss disguised as disinterest.


That’s it! So late 20th century, I love it!


The utopian word -- anything whatever is possible.


We could keep this up forever!


Forever whatever. Endless openness. Everwhatever forever. Whatever forever. Everforever. Whatever. Such a beautiful word, made to sound so pseudo-tough and dismissive.


Oh please.




Exclamations fail, explanations flail. We’re no closer than we were.

It’s true.

Is closeness desirable? Or closure?

Some would say no, but that refusal is a period style now. Nothing wrong with period style. But even the refusers of closure -- funny, re-fuse = join-together-again -- even the people who refuse closure desire closeness.

To what? To the audience, to the material?

Yes, wouldn’t you agree?

I don’t see why not.

We could be wrong.

That possibility is always to be considered.

That’s the human condition. Contingency. Partiality. Never comprehending the whole. Except -- the illusion of comprehending the whole is called mystical illumination, and the forging of a new metaphor for the whole is called mystical illumination. It’s quite out of fashion, has been for a more than a century.

Fashion is interesting.

What do you know about fashion?

Very little! But when has that stopped me --

From blathering on and on about something!

It’s interesting, how ideas about truth and beauty change over time. Sociologically and aesthetically interesting. How it comes about remains mysterious. Charisma -- whether charisma of person or of rhetoric or both or something other -- must be part of it, and charisma is never predictable. Our analysis of charisma is very limited. But wouldn’t it be nice to be charismatic?

I think so!

The persona of confidence, rhetorically for sure, and personally as well, has got to be part of it.

So a charismatic person is a confidence artist? Projecting self-confidence and attracting the confidence of others? Quite a responsibility. Some use their skills to swindle their public, but not, I trust, everybody. Adorno was a charismatic thinker (as well as drinker). I don’t think he was out to swindle his readers. His interrogation of the lyric impulse after the horrors of the Catastrophe -- the Shoah -- of the mass murder of Jews by the Germans was hugely influential -- charismatic; writers couldn’t write lyrically without a self-consciousness in part imparted by Adorno’s interrogation. His spurning of lyric could be thought of as rooted in a sense of mourning. Mourning is incompatible with public display of individual aesthetic achievement. How long should one mourn? That will vary from culture to culture, person to person. And is mourning appropriate while the catastrophe is still unfolding? Is the public display of individual aesthetic achievement appropriate while the catastrophe is unfolding? Isn’t the catastrophe always unfolding, somewhere? I should say yes, it is. Its ubiquity does not absolve us of the consciousness that doing nothing to prevent or stop it is evidence of self-centered cold-heartedness. The U.S. invades Iraq, millions and millions of people march to protest it, but the leaders go ahead anyway and murder tens of thousands of people. The people understandably resign themselves to powerlessness in the face of a government so heavily armed, heavily defended, and ideologically protected by the frothingly nationalistic mainstream media. But making symbolic protest still seems valuable -- to put oneself on the record as opposing the atrocities, to communicate to the rest of the world that the barbarities are not universally endorsed. That the state tolerates dissent of all sort signals an interesting change from previous epochs, an increased confidence on the state’s part that they have nothing to fear from artists, provocateurs, dissident propagandists, or protesters of any variety. But maybe my trust in the good faith of anybody’s discourse is misplaced. Maybe it’s all a swindle. This discourse included, obviously!

Yes, the idea that through dialogue we can achieve an improved understanding that will make for happier, better, more vividly lived lives. I quite lack all confidence that improvement is possible -- but I hope it may be so! And maybe -- and here’s the tricky part -- maybe this lack of confidence could inspire confidence in others, their confidence in my integrity. I’ll have to think about this.

It might be best to go on your nerve and let the chips fall as they may, and, like the poet said, they always do may. If they fall into your lap -- if you win your hand -- congratulations! But few people do. Economy of scarcity.

Though our economy, here in the U.S.A., is hardly an economy of scarcity -- it’s an economy of credit! Why we should be so creditable, I have no idea. Easy credit -- too easy credit -- has extended our economy of horded abundance beyond our ability to pay for it. It’s the hording that’s the problem, obviously, and I’m no different, looking out for number one. I can justify it: If I don’t take care of myself, nobody else will, and if I didn’t, whom could I possibly assist? Whom could I join with in transformation?

Getting beyond that fundamentally isolated state where one is compelled to consider one’s own interests first, leaving that behind and creating a new set of relationships, without aspiring to saintly asceticism, isn’t that the goal, isn’t that the vision?

Yes, but how to achieve it?

Who knows!

And who is who?

That’s the question -- and it’s not a question of naming, it’s not a question of identifying. It’s a question of identity. Who is who is not only the question, it’s also the statement, a tautological one. We’re all in this together. The bell may or may not toll for thee, but you’re probably no more than a few relationships separated from the person for whom it does toll. It’s a vast web, and along the web we exchange our anxieties and competitions. It doesn’t have to be that way; our exchanges could be made with a sense of mutuality, where we don’t press our advantage but find a way for mutual advantage. I don’t see a way out of the exchange, and I’m not even sure that leaving exchange behind would be desirable -- though, again, I could be wrong -- but transforming the nature of our exchanges seems fundamental. I hope we figure it out.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A highly entertaining, crazy-ass comments thread on subcultural taxonomy within the poetry world has pushed me to write a long-ish goofy sincere parodic quasi-dialog on the relationship between art and politics and history and intellectual fashion and, and, and -- hopefully I’ll post it soon.

* * *

M. C- of The Standing Room makes a profound observation about the incompatibility of classical vocal technique with microphone technique. This gets at something my ears tell me when classical singers take on pop: Their voices project these rich sounds that overwhelm the words. Some recognizably pop music predates the advent of microphone singing, but we have no living, first-hand tradition of pop singing without microphones, and the repertory would have to predate the 1920s.

Today I picked up an excellent recital of mostly 20th-century classical songs with a few pre-microphone-era pop songs delightfully thrown in: Songs Of America by the late mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, accompanied by pianist Gilbert Kalish. Listened to it three times. 28 songs by 21 composers. Three composers get three songs: Ruth Crawford Seeger, Charles Ives (two of whose songs received their debut on this 1988 recording, both of them written when he was in college, in a Romantic idiom, and both gorgeous), and a writer of whom I had never heard, Carrie Jacobs-Bond, who may have been the most popular songwriter in America between Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin. I knew one of her songs on the album, “I Love You Truly,” because Burt the cop and Ernie the cabbie serenaded George and Mary Bailey with it on their wedding night in It’s a Wonderful Life. Beautiful sentimental song. DeGaetani and Kalish recorded an all-Ives album as well, which I really want to hear. Wonderful musicians.

* * *

Went to the caucus yesterday, and enjoyed it. Our neighborhood caucus organizers planned for twice as high a turn-out as any previous caucus, and we exceeded the capacity they had planned for. I had been feeling despair at American passivity in face of George Bush’s crimes against humanity, but the turn-out turned my head. Americans loathe the Iraq War, but the passivity makes sense: The state is heavily armed, the opposition party is implicated and divided on the issue, and the press is so rabidly nationalistic and habitually pro-Republican that a widespread protest movement would be instantly marginalized and widely vilified -- as it was before the war began. So people have been waiting for the chance to throw the insane, anti-Enlightenment, incompetent, anti-humanist imperialists out and replace them with the sane, pro-Enlightenment, competent, humanist imperialists. Obama v. Clinton on the issues was a toss-up; I voted for Obama because he’s a good speech-maker and, given a reasonable choice, I would prefer a non-legacy candidate. If Hillary wins the nomination, I’ll vote for her, despite her culpability for the Iraq War. Why? See above re: sanity, opinion on the Enlightenment, competence, humanism.

* * *

People talk about Hillary being “polarizing.” This is wrong. The word “polarizing” implies that the polarization emanates from her, from her actions or from her being. It doesn’t. She is widely hated. People hate her for mostly wacked-out reasons, and because a huge propaganda machine has been vilifying her for 16 years. (People may hate her for policy reasons as well, but they are a minority.)

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Please drop “polarizing” when describing Hillary. Use “widely hated” instead. And then, maybe, if you feel like doing some journalism, you might want to look into why people hate her. It
’s on them. “Polarizing” makes it sound like it’s on her.

* * *

Gongxi fa cai -- Happy Chinese New Year! The Chinese New Year celebration the other day at the kid’s bilingual Chinese-English preschool was great -- songs and skits in Mandarin, and a dragon dance, and a potluck. He’s the blond boy in the back. Last year we went to three Chinese New Year festivals around town. The best was at Mall of the Great Wall in the south suburbs. My beloved spouse took the kid to a small-town New Year’s parade today at a suburb a ferry ride away across the sound and he got his face painted. (I didn’t go today because I’ve had a cold.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

To my ears, Will.i.am’s setting of Barack Obama’s New Hampshire concession speech is immediately one of the greatest campaign songs ever, up there with “Lincoln and Liberty” and FDR’s campaign theme “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which wasn’t written for FDR and so probably shouldn’t count.

It’s not the “We Are the World”-style all-star cast of singers, rappers, instrumentalists, and actors that gives
“Yes We Can” its punch, although Will.i.am deploys the talent shrewdly and effectively. What gives the record its musical, dramatic, and symbolic power is Will.i.am’s blending of Obama’s oratory with the singing and reciting of his performers, as well as his sweet, serious melodies and simple, effective harmonic setting, which is provided by a lone, strummed acoustic guitar, repeating a four-chord sequence for most of the song.

I’m a sucker for oratory. The oratorical tradition in American poetry from Whitman through Sandburg and Ginsberg to the Slam Movement attracts me keenly, and I have never listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without crying. According to Ben Wallace-Wells, writing in
Rolling Stone, Obama has patterned his oratory in part on that of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the African American preacher at the church where he is a member, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama has a gift, and he has skills.

The setting of speech to melody has been an interest in the classical field for close to 100 years, at least since the Czech composer Leos Janácek notated Czech speech melodies and incorporated them into his compositions. Closer to home, closer to now, closer to Will.i.am’s practice, Steve Reich’s masterpiece Different Trains fashioned string lines from the recorded speech melodies of testimonials that Reich had recorded from people who had worked on American passenger trains in the 1940s and from Holocaust survivors (who had ridden very different trains), and blended the recorded voices and the string quartet together.

Reich had a strong and obvious editorial hand in cutting, repeating, and ordering the speech fragments. Will.i.am, the leader of the Black Eyed Peas, took a more naturalistic approach, allowing Obama’s oratory to flow in a dramatically plausible fashion. A look at the text of Obama’s speech, however, reveals that Will.i.am
’s handling of his material is just as strong as, if more subtle than, Reich’s.

The song picks up Obama’s speech about two-thirds of the way through, just after Obama commences the preacherly repetitions of the catch phrase, “Yes we can.”

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

Will.i.am cannily builds the opening of the song around the Obama’s following variations, looping additional repetitions of the title phrase. When Obama veers into campaign strategy talk, Will.i.am cuts back to the middle of the speech for the
song’s bridge, where Obama talks of the adversity that we -- pointedly, “we” -- will face, dropping the guitar and going quiet for the magnificent line that ends the bridge, “But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”

The speech and the song close identically, Will.i.am ratifying Obama’s dramatic instincts and throwing in a few repetitions of the chorus phrase for good measure. A superb song construction and terrific editing job of excellent source material.

The music is sweet, and the video is lovely, though I would advise a little less screen time for Will.i.am himself. Yes, he made the song, but the video almost makes Obama out to be a character in Will.i.am’s mental drama. I’m always happy to see someone wearing a Duke Ellington T-shirt, as rapper Common does, and John Legend’s sweetness and enthusiasm moved me way more than any of his own records ever have, and he sings his parts wonderfully. The juxtaposition of Will.i.am’s own low-key talk-singing, with Common’s more weighty rap-talking, with the sweet soul singing of Legend and a number of female singers I don’t recognize (besides movie star Scarlett Johansson, who sings fine), with a number of actors doubling and tripling up on Obama
’s lines, is canny and effective. Herbie Hancock’s late entrance with piano filigrees gives an elder statesman’s gravitas to the proceedings (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s appearance as one of the speakers serves similarly), and Hancock’s playing is sweet and apropos.

Acoustic folk-soul. No drums, no bass, no electric instruments, but the hi-tech editing, looping, and layering give it an up-to-the-minute feel.
The ease with which the singers and rappers negotiate the speech rhythms testifies to the rhythmic virtuosity of contemporary R&B, a virtuosity inspired by hip hop, and with which Will.i.am is familiar in both modes from his work with the Black Eyed Peas. And the song is sweeping the nation: Released to YouTube on Saturday, by Monday it had received 700,000 viewings.

I have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of leadership taken by the Democratic Congress in holding Bush accountable for his crimes against humanity or even slowing them down, but come November, I will without hesitation vote for one of the Democratic Senators for President as an oceanically better alternative to Republican more-of-the-same-ism. Despite my mixed feelings about the Senatorial career of Obama, this song made me cry. Like I said, I’m a sucker for oratory. Set it to inspired and skillful music, and it gets me.

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