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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stuff Smith

Song notes.

1. Necrophilia

When Steve Lawrence sings that he and his love are hoping to get

A room without windows
A room without doors

I remember that the only such room is the grave.

Ervin Drake’s 1964 lyric (he wrote the music too) hammers the point home on the bridge:

If they said "Friend, how would you like to spend the long hereafter?"
I'd tell them what we're after
Is a one-way ticket to
A room without keyholes, a room with no view

Well, yes, the grave is the hereafter, and it does require a one-way ticket. Thanks for making that clear!

The love-death double-suicide desire is creepy, but not as creepy as Paul Simon’s purer necrophilia in this song from two years later:

I wish I was homeward bound,
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting silently for me.

The only possible love who waits silently and supine is a corpse. And if his love is alive, that’s even creepier -- so Goth! (Not that Goths are necessarily creepy; just the image of a silent supine lover waiting for her or his touring rock star boyfriend to come home seems straight out of the Adams Family.)

Corpse-lusting ‘60s goodness!

2. Contemporary echoes of girl group

I heard Amy Winehouse’s hit “Rehab” the other day. Has anybody noted that it’s a girl group song? Not the lyric, quite, but the beat and the attitude -- both updated, but basically ‘60s girl group infectious insouciance.

Next up on that radio drive was Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” -- a little too ‘70s in its voltage, but almost girl-group too. Really catchy song.

3. Fats and Stuff

In a post the other night I speculated that Stuff Smith’s classic novelty number “I’se A Muggin’” may have borrowed its main melodic phrase from a vocal lick Fats Waller may have interpolated into his 1939 hit cover, “You’re Feet’s Too Big.” But I looked it up, and Smith recorded his tune in ‘36 or ‘37, two or three years before Waller’s record. Hopefully someday I’ll track down an earlier version of “Feet’s,” which Fred Fisher and Ada Benson wrote in 1936. (Fred Fisher wrote boodles of other tunes over a few decades, including blackface numbers and sentimental jobs like “Peg O’ My Heart.”)

Until further evidence persuades otherwise, I will conclude that Waller was borrowing from Smith. When the Beatles covered the Waller cover in Hamburg in 1962, they kept Waller’s Smithian interpolation -- and even sang it twice. (Waller sang it once.)

The uncredited seven-second cover by Mingus and Joni Mitchell on Mitchell’s Mingus tribute album reflects Mingus’s bop interest, as the phrase that answers the the title phrase “I’se A Muggin’” is slightly bop-ified.

Smith’s tune got around.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carl Wilson is thinking about
poets who are also songwriters or songwriters
who are also poets
I can't help thinking of doe-eyed John Keats
gazing dreamily into the middle distance, having
looked up from his reading, his
face relaxed and attentive, neither
happy nor sad but
observant, and so
dainty and soft, and there's
an interesting discussion going on in Carl's comment
section, as different people
propose different poet-songwriters,
and one songwriter who's published page poems
as opposed to performance poems
although those can be published too
and also opposed to song lyrics
although those can stand up as page poems too
at least sometimes,
this songwriter modestly and charmingly
referred to himself as a
Sunday poet
by analogy with the old-fashioned
notion of
Sunday painter,
which was an amateur painter, almost
certainly of the upper or at least upper
middle class. Someone else
chimed in with pessimistic opinions
on the prospect of composers or shall we say
music writers
successfully setting successful
page poems
to music. That opinion struck
me as historically
Many of the canonical Greatest Hits
of page poetry originally had been
song lyrics, for
example the songs of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare,
many of the
Cavalier poets such as Sir John Suckling,
probably the Biblical Psalms,
perhaps the Sanskrit Vedic Hymns (I
should know this before blabbing but
I don't for
sure), much of
what anthropologists have published as
poetry of non-European people,
for example the North American Indians,
as well as the Medieval English and Scottish ballads.
It is true that
successful page poetry doesn't
need music in order to
but composers for centuries have successfully set successful
page poetry, going
back to Goethe at
least, whose poems inspired
generations of German composers. Debussy set Baudelaire,
Elliott Carter set Robert Frost beautifully,
as did John Cage some poems of E. E. Cummings.
It's a topic of keen
interest to me as
I have set several poems to music over the years --
one Shakespeare sonnet,
an early song of Blake's,
two Emily Dickinson poems,
an obscure Mother Goose poem,
and poems by Leigh Hunt (a friend of Keats's),
Samuel Woodworth (his once famous, since mostly
forgotten 19th century poem),
a now-obscure 19th century American humorist named Ben King
(though Ezra Pound put the poem in his anthology Confucius to Cummings),
an early 20th century Papago Indian woman named Juana Manwell
(in a translation by the should-be-famous anthropologist Frances Densmore),
an utterly obscure early 20th-century Michigan poet named Howard Dwight Smiley
(whose poem I found on a real estate company calendar in my parents' kitchen),
the American playwright Sam Shepard,
the Irish playwright J. M. Synge (a friend of Yeats's),
the English poet Edward Thomas (a friend of Robert Frost's),
the contemporary American poet Faye Kicknosway (a friend of my college poetry professor's),
an anonymous Kipling parodist,
and an anonymous piece of internet doggerel,
as well as prose by
convicted perjurer Scooter Libby,
feminist theorist and rock critic Ellen Willis,
and my son when he was two and a half, an email he dictated to his mom.
A lot of the verse I have set wouldn't make it into
most poetry history books but that's OK with me,
I love them.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Set list Friday night:

In July
The ground below, the stars above
Worms in the sky
Clinging to a cloud (words adapted from Johnny Burke's lyric for “Misty”)
I can’t get that song out of my head
In summer (written with Bob the drummer)
The bottle on the window sill
Wasting away
Have you ever been in love? (written with my friend Nick)
President’s Day (written with my son)

Jillian and Jim joined us for the last song, which was really fun. I had a blast; their set was nice too. Out drinking afterwards with Jen from my band, the soundman Jim Nason (a fine songwriter, singer, guitarist, and washtub bassist), and two friends of Jen’s. The kid had played games with Robert’s daughter, who’s 12 days older than him, during our set. Everybody in bed by the time I got home. I sat in the kitchen and listened to a CD of covers Jen had recorded this December -- gotta get her playing guitar in the band. Nice stuff. And a CD that I bought from Jim Nason -- really good songs. And a CD that I picked up at Starbucks earlier in the day as a partner to my company had passed out Starbucks gift cards to everybody in my department (it’s a small department) and an “Artist’s Choice” collection compiled by Bob Dylan was discounted for 8 bucks. What a great lot of music on that comp! I started falling asleep but didn’t want to leave the music so I turned out the lights, rolled up a jacket for a pillow, and fell asleep on the kitchen floor. (Not from drink; I had had one drink at the bar hours before.) Our living room CD player is on the fritz, so we listen to music on the boombox in the kitchen.

Looking at that set list, I like all those songs, but I’m concerned about the middle-aged disease: All but two of them are mid-tempo or slower. And the uptempo songs -- people like pep. Even middle-aged people. Gotta watch out for that next time we play. I sing more of the uptempo numbers in the group (two of the three I sang lead or co-lead on last night were the two faster ones), and I’m trying to spread out the singing more. Thing is: I’m the best at the patter numbers, and the other three lead singers all have much more beautiful voices than mine, so they should have the slower ones to glory in those tones. Gotta write some faster ones for them too.

* * *

The Bob Dylan comp is a corker.

1. Pee Wee Crayton - Do Unto Others
2. Clancy Eccles - Don't Brag, Don't Boast
3. Stanley Brothers with The Clinch Mountain Boys - The Fields Have Turned Brown
4. Gus Viseur - Flambée Montalbanaise
5. Red Prysock - Hand Clappin'
6. Sol Hoopii & His Novelty Quartette - I Like You
7. Ray Price - I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)
8. Stuff Smith & His Onyx Club Boys - I'se A Muggin' (part 2)
9. Charley Jordan - Keep It Clean
10. Junior Wells - Little By Little (I'm Losing You)
11. Patty & The Emblems - Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl
12. Gétatchèw Kassa - Tezeta
13. Flaco Jiménez with Toby Torres & José Morante - Victimas De Huracan Beulah
14. Wanda Jackson - I Gotta Know
15. Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra - I Hear Music
16. Junior Parker - Pretty Baby

Not an untasty track among the bunch; only one I’d ever heard before (the Wanda Jackson); and a handful that are now in my personal pantheon of All Time Great Records.

Gus Viseur played super tasty accordion in Paris in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the French pop style musette. If you don’t know the genre, think “French accordion.”

Stuff Smith’s “I’se A Muggin’” is an infectious novelty number, also ‘30s era. Mingus and Joni Mitchell did a seven second uncredited cover of it on Mitchell’s album Mingus. I can’t help thinking that the main lick is lifted from a Fats Waller tune, but I can’t place it.

The Pee Wee Crayton tune provided the Beatles with the opening guitar lick of “Revolution.” Patty & the Emblems were a mid-’60s girl group I’d never heard of; their tune is a classic of the genre. Gétatchèw Kassa was a singer from the golden era of Ethiopian pop (‘60s and ‘70s); his track has the deep, cardamom-spiced groove of the style. Red Prysock was a champion R&B tenor sax honker; his instrumental straddles jazz, R&B, and early rock and roll.

Billie Holiday from 1940 is ebullient on the visionary Loesser/Lane standard “I Hear Music.”

I hear music
Mighty fine music
The murmur of a morning breeze up there
The rattle of the milkman on the stair

Sure that's music
Mighty fine music
The singing of a sparrow in the sky
The perking of the coffee right near by . . .

A lyric like that might presuppose a collage of musique concrète for the tune, but no; paradoxically, it’s a delightful American pop tune I want to hear over and over.

The songs from early ska singer Clancy Eccles (whom I’d never heard of), the Stanley Brothers, Hawaiian 1930s steel guitar virtuoso Sol Hoopii, country icon Ray Price, Flaco Jiménez, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, and Junior Parker are aces too.

Dylan’s booklet notes wistfully evoke his early 20s, when he was getting to know a lot of this music, and how he got to know it.

-- manuscript of the opening from the Fourth Toccata of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Satch and Fats.

They were friends.

Louis starred in a Broadway show that Waller wrote.

Great singers with a mysterious stylistic connection. I'm guessing Louis influenced Fats, since he recorded earlier.

Fats the more sly, insinuating singer. I wish he would have covered "Sympathy for the Devil."

* * *

See the post below for news about Friday night's show. Really looking forward to it, and would love to see YOU.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Random notes from the last couple of weeks:

The radio edit of Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Will Do You Good” omits the following bracketed phrases:

“God’s little gift [is on the rag]”

[“Jack-off jimmy”]

I mentioned this to my beloved spouse after hearing the bowdlerized song on the radio, and she said, “Yeah, and they follow it with a Viagra commercial.”

It’s a classic rock station and so they don’t -- yet.

It will really be a sign when the classic rock stations start playing Viagra ads. I give it ten years, tops -- maybe five.

* * *

I don’t sleep enough and now
here it is again the middle
of the night, the middle
of life’s journey, or so
I would like to think.

* * *

I should be doing something else, but I plop a CD into the computer and can’t get up. It’s “Zaka” by Jennifer Higdon, performed by Eighth Blackbird. Skittery sumptuous music. I want to hear it to the end -- 4 minutes to go. Bob is coming over to work on a new song -- we have a show in a week and a half, and I’m going to be gone for 4 days -- and I should clean more of the house before he comes, not that he would necessarily mind the messiness, but still. The music -- the phone rang -- it’s Bob -- he’s coming in 40 minutes. The kid fell asleep on the way home and I carried him into the living room, where he still sleeps, on the couch, and the rug needs vacuuming, and the music ends with a skittery bang, as much of a bang as a small-ish flute-led ensemble can muster -- nah, they could probably bang bangy-er, but it is a nice piece. Now it’s another piece, by Gordon Fitzell, whose name I hadn’t known, and it beguiles too, but I really should do some things.

* * * √ √ √ √ √ * * *

Excited about Friday night’s show after Tuesday’s band practice. We have 11 songs in the queue.

Jen will sing lead on three.
Robert will sing lead on 2 and a half.
I will sing lead on 2 and a half.
Bob will sing lead on 2.
Jillian will sing lead on 1.

Here’s the info again:

When: Friday, July 25, 2008, 8:00pm.
With whom: With our friends Jillian and Jim Graham (who sat in with us last time we played there).
Jillian & Jim will play at 8:00; we’ll play at 9:00.
Where: Coffee to a Tea, in West Seattle
Address: 4541 California Ave. SW, Seattle, WA 98116
Phone: (206) 937-1495
Personnel (this time):
Robert Hinrix -- vocal, bass, mandolin
Bob Barraza -- vocals, drums, ukulele, flute
Jennifer Anspach -- vocals
me -- vocals, guitar, harmonica, bass
Jillian (vocals and guitar) and Jim (bass) will join us on a few songs.
Mac won't be able to join us this time.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A sign at Coffee to a Tea.

My beloved spouse took this picture the last time my band played there.

My band, Ruby Thicket, is playing there again in about a week.

When: Friday, July 25, 2008, 8:00pm.
With whom: With our friends Jillian and Jim Graham (who sat in with us last time we played there).
Where: Coffee to a Tea, in West Seattle
Address: 4541 California Ave. SW, Seattle, WA 98116
Phone: (206) 937-1495
Personnel (this time):
Robert Hinrix -- vocal, bass, mandolin
Bob Barraza -- vocals, drums, ukulele, flute
Jennifer Anspach -- vocals
me -- vocals, guitar, harmonica, bass
Jillian (vocals and guitar) and Jim (bass) might join us on a song or two too.
Mac won't be able to join us this time.

It's a cafe, so kid-friendly. Just don't leave your child unattended! When we played there two months ago, my son introduced himself to two young women who were playing the card game Uno, learned the game from them, and got himself dealt in. He's happy -- you can see his cheek pushed up in a smile.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

[Sunday night: Updated with further thoughts below.]

For a long time I felt that the preposterousness of the theft of the 2000 Presidential Election was unsurpassable by satire.

The sheer implausibility of the coincidence of factors that made the theft possible!

It all hinged on Florida, where Bush’s brother, who was the governor, had illegally purged the roles of predominantly African American voters, who favored Gore inordinantly.

It all hinged on Florida and a flawed design of a ballot in Palm Beach County, where a fringe, xenophobic candidate named Patrick Buchanan, who had spoken admiringly of Hitler, received thousands of votes almost certainly intended for Gore, in a jurisdiction with a large Jewish population.

It all hinged on Florida and the charisma of a civic hero -- Ralph Nader -- who put considerable thought and energy into denying the significant differences between Bush and Gore, deliberately courting voters who predominantly would have been predisposed to have voted for Gore otherwise. If only 6/10ths of one percent of Florida Nader voters had pulled the lever for Gore, Gore would have won on the first tally.

It all hinged on Florida and an initial miscount of ballots, which erroneously showed George Bush to have won the state by 547 votes.

It all hinged on a corrupt Supreme Court, including three members appointed by Reagan, whose Vice President was Bush’s father, and two members appointed by Bush’s father, which prevented the State of Florida from completing an accurate count of the votes; in an unprecedented decision, the Court declared its decision to have no authority as a precedent -- they knew that their decision made no legal sense, and they explicitly ordered that its reasoning not serve as precedent for future decisions. (Note: One of Bush’s father’s appointees voted for the accurate counting of votes; the idea that any court would decide against the accurate counting of votes makes my head swim and stomach churn.)

It all hinged on an antiquated, anti-democratic Electoral College, which allows for the possibility of a candidate losing the vote of the people by half a million and still ostensibly winning the election. I say “ostensibly” because an accurate count of the votes showed that Gore won more votes in Florida, despite the Palm Beach ballot confusion, and despite the illegal purging of eligible voters from the roles; and Florida’s electoral votes would have won Gore the Presidency.

Change any one of these factors, and Al Gore would have been inaugurated President in January 2001.

As background, add that the Republicans were willing to lie, cheat, and steal to “win” the election, even going so far as to pay people to stage a riot outside the Miami, Florida, recount office, successfully shutting down an accurate recount. And add that the Republican Party had a propaganda plan to discredit and de-legitimize Gore in the event that he might have won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. And add a national media so used to propagandizing for Bush’s party and against Gore’s that none of this received the publicity it deserved, while, had the roles been reversed, any one of these factors (with the exception of Nader’s clever campaigning) would have been motivation for months of front page investigations and calls for impeachment by the press.

I’ve always said that this concentration of forces had a preposterous grimness that would have daunted any satirist. But now I’ll have to rethink my position. Because two weeks ago I saw a theatrical presentation of a satire of American Presidential politics that’s more outrageous than what really happened.

Mickle Maher’s play The Strangerer re-stages the first debate of Bush’s reelection campaign, against John Kerry, in light of reports that Bush had read Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, in which a French man murders an Arabic-speaking North African man for no reason. Mickle’s fancy is wild and unpredictable. To spoil a few surprises: Bush’s mother is a zombie, living dead in a casket that Bush takes with him to every hotel room on the campaign trail; John Kerry is a walking, talking somnambulist; and Bush has decided to murder debate moderator Jim Lehrer for no reason on live TV. [End spoilers.]

A blunt description makes it sound sketchy and simple, but it’s rich and strange. Mickle is a powerful, poetic writer (he won a prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry when we were students at the University of Michigan), and he’s written a feast for actors. Guy Massey as Bush -- Mickle wrote the part for him -- is a virtuoso of intensity, comedy, and unexpected pathos. Mickle himself is hilarious as Kerry, and Brian Shaw (no relation) is spot on as Lehrer. (Colm O’Reilly alternates in the role of Lehrer with Shaw; I knew Colm in Chicago, and he is a gifted actor.)

Kerry’s somnambulism in the face of Bush’s rage for murder is a parable for not just the Democratic Party, but for the country as a whole, for all of us, for humanity’s acquiescence in the murderousness of kings. That Mickle has written a teaching play is alluded to in the title, with the extra “er” of Strangerer echoing the difficult-to-pronounce “rer” of Lehrer, which means “teacher.”

But the play is not only a parable of politics, it’s a profound meditation on the theater. Much of the dialog explores and describes the power of the theatrical “moment,” and the play is full of its own powerful moments.

What gives the play its richness is that the theatrical meditations come from the fevered Bush, who is haunted by his mother, by his love of theater, by the acquiescence of Kerry, and by his solitude that is caused by his sense that people perceive him as a cipher not to be listened to but merely to be mocked (if his auditor [nominally] opposes him) or to be already-assumed-to-be-agreed with (if his auditor supports him). The loneliness of the king is a theatrical staple going back at least to Richard III; Mickle’s script and Massey’s acting make it real anew.

I’m haunted by those professional Republican rioters in Miami in late 2000. Bush is the more compelling -- and ultimately more sympathetic -- theatrical character because he wants it -- whatever It is -- more than Kerry, just as those rioters wanted Bush more than Democrats wanted Gore. Desire propels the drama, whether theatrical, political, or plain human. Today the Democrats avoid the drama of impeachment, while Bush lays the groundwork for attacking Iran.

The Strangerer has recently moved from Chicago to off-Broadway, Theater Oobleck’s first show to go off-Broadway after 20 years of original hits in Chicago. I’ve known Mickle since high school and played a lead role in his first full-length play, in 1985 in Ann Arbor; he played a lead role in the only full-length play I wrote, in 1987, also in Ann Arbor; and we were both among the crew that moved to Chicago together and founded Theater Oobleck. He’s written many plays since then; I’ve seen only a few of them and read a couple more. After seeing The Strangerer at its last Chicago weekend two weeks ago, he and I and other friends went out for a beer; afterwards he gave me a ride to my sister’s house, where I was staying. I’m glad to count him as a friend, and I’m delighted that you don’t have to take my word for it when I say his show is terrific. You can read the ecstatic Chicago reviews at Oobleck’s web site. “Beyond brilliant.” “[A] freakish, perfect, hilarious play.” “One of the ten best of 2007.”

If you’re in the New York area, do see the show. It’s hilarious and haunting.

Theater Oobleck
The Strangerer by Mickle Maher
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St.
New York City
Opens July 9, 2008
Tues-Sat at 7:30pm
Sun at 2:30pm + 7:00pm

Tickets available at
(212) 239-6200 or at the Barrow Street Theatre Box Office

Theater Oobleck
Barrow Street Theatre

* * *

Update, further thoughts, Sunday night: In comments my friend Kerry Reid, a playwright and critic with whom I saw Mickle’s play 2 weeks ago, makes the connection between “teaching play” and Brecht, which -- duh! -- had not occurred to me, even though I studied Brecht years ago -- acted in 4 of his plays, read and saw a bunch more and read a lot of his theoretical texts; and I know Mickle has studied Brecht as well. And since “Lehrer” means teacher and “Lehrstück” (“teaching piece”) is -- I’m pretty sure -- a Brechtian coinage to describe his political/dramatic parables, we might as well go whole Brechtian hog and remember Brecht’s even more central concept of Verfremdungseffekt -- “alienation effect,” or “distanciation,” but a rendering somewhat closer to the root of the German word would be “estrangement effect,” in which the acting style makes the familiar “strange” in order to bring it to our attention -- precisely what Mickle’s play achieves, as it asks, why would the murder of an American broadcaster be more outrageous than the killing of thousands of Iraqis through indiscriminate bombing? In other words, strangerer and strangerer . . .

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?