Thursday, October 21, 2010


The dignity of decay

Here's Joseph Brodsky chatting with Sven Birkerts back in 1979. The subject is Venice, whose ample and aqueous charms the poet would later chronicle in Watermark. The main thing about Venice, explains Brodsky, "is that the place is so beautiful that you can live there without being in love." He goes on to explore the diminishing effects of all that beauty, which is intertwined with the city's perennial, time-lapse decay:
It is interesting to watch the tourists who arrive there. The beauty is such that they get somewhat dumbfounded. What they do initially is hit the stores to dress themselves--Venice has the best boutiques in Europe--but when they emerge with all those things on, still there is an unbearable incongruity between the people, the crowd, and what's around. Because no matter how well they're dressed and how well they're endowed by nature, they lack the dignity, which is partially the dignity of decay, of that artifice around them. It makes you realize that what people can make with their hands is a lot better than they are themselves.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010



Ever since I came across this tremendous photo, I've been on a Django Reinhardt jag (the latest one, anyway). It dates from 1946, when the Gypsy wizard made his only visit to the United States and toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In the photo, Reinhardt watches several of the band's virtuosi play cards, while the great Johnny Hodges works on his patented expression of boredom. As a guest artist, Reinhardt wasn't obliged to don the white jacket and playful tie. Nor, supposedly, could he handle the colorful boxer shorts worn by his American colleagues. Discovering these florid undergarments during a train trip with the band, he dropped by Ellington's compartment to ask about them--and found the maestro sporting an even gaudier pair.

Reinhardt expected to be greeted as a celebrity in America. For that reason, he didn't bother to bring one of his trademark Selmer Modèle Jazz guitars with him--surely he would be showered with instruments by American manufacturers. He was not. The disappointed Reinhardt made do with borrowed Gibson L-5, an amplified hollow-body whose fat sound was worlds away from the cutting, silvery Selmer. He considered the American guitar a giant step down, and practically swooned with gratitude when his manager showed up with the Selmer several weeks later: "At least it's got tone, you can hear the chords like you can on the piano. Don't talk to me any more about their casseroles--their 'tinpot' guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!" (The latter quote, along with the anecdote about the undies above, comes from this fascinating site.)

In any case, Reinhardt worked wonders with the casserole. Two of his performances with the Ellington orchestra were recorded onto acetate disks, and one of them--at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 10--is unusually crisp and vivid for the era, thanks to the use of overhead microphones. You can hear Django's entire four-song set on Duke Ellington: The Great Concerts, Chicago 1946 (Nimbus). But his scintillating take on "Honeysuckle Rose" is also available on this YouTube video. Listen to him adapting his style to the amplified instrument, with much less vibrato and a stripped-down approach to harmony (on the acoustic, he's always buttressing his single-note fireworks with chordal accents). Check out the roller-coaster runs at 1:01, and the sheer suavity of his sound. Reinhardt hung around Manhattan for a couple of weeks when the tour was over, performing at Cafe Society Uptown, and expressed interest in playing with the bebop vanguard, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Neither were in town at the time (just imagine Parker and Reinhardt trading fours, not to mention the cloudy acetates that would have long since become a jazz collector's Holy Grail.) A number of promised engagements in California fell through. And meanwhile, Reinhardt had found America itself wanting. Charles Delaunay, the guitarist's manager and eventual biographer, put it this way:
When I asked him later for his impressions of America, Django seemed to me to have lost most of his illusions. He was far from impressed by the American mentality, above all that of the women. Even the cars no longer had their old appeal for him; they were all too much alike.
The bit about the cars is particularly poignant. Clearly the Art Deco curves and chrome accents of the previous decade had turned Django's head. If he had stuck around two more years, he could have seen the sui generis 1948 Tucker Torpedo roll out of the showroom. Instead the disillusioned guitarist sailed back to France in early 1947, never to return.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Occupational hazards

Just as there is no reason to start blogging, there is no reason to stop. So I'll get rolling again with two savory snippets. First, an observation: there are moments when the writing life seems like a parade of small degradations. Can any other profession take such a toll on the ego? Well, yes. This is from William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era. The year is 1977, and Richard Lewis is on the road, opening for Sonny and Cher. The golden duo is paid up to $175,000 per night, while Lewis is on a weekly salary of $500. No, that's not the degrading part. This is:
At the state fair in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he had to perform outdoors at 4:00 PM with a roller coaster running full bore behind him and circus animals being paraded around a race track between him and the audience. He was supposed to do thirty minutes, but the distractions were so extreme that he raced through his routine and bolted from the stage after ten minutes, sure that it meant the end of his career. He was consoled by a grizzled patron who told him, "Trust me, kid. Bill Cosby was here last week, and he only did fifteen minutes."
Next up, E. Howard Hunt. To be honest, I'm not shedding any tears for this fixture of Richard Nixon's Praetorian Guard and goon squad. I don't really care about his self-esteem. Yet I experienced just a hint of fellow feeling when I read about his 1972 visit to ITT lobbyist Dita Beard, who had implicated the Nixon Administration in some antitrust monkey business. Beard was in a Denver hospital, being "treated for a heart ailment" (if you believe Time) or simply keeping her head down. Hunt's mission was to pressure her into retracting her story. Here's the account from Mark Feldstein's Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture:
Hunt was warned to approach Beard in a physical disguise with a phony ID because "we don't want you traced back to the White House." To pay for his expenses, he was handed an envelope filled with cash from Nixon's reelection campaign: his flight to Denver was booked by a White House secretary. Hunt arrived at Beard's hospital room near midnight wearing makeup and an ill-fitting reddish brown wig, his voice disguised by an electronic alteration device provided by the CIA. The not-so-covert operative looked "very eerie," Beard's son remembered, with his hairpiece on "cockeyed, like he put it on in a dark car."
Actually, the cockeyed toupee would seem to be the most normal part of Hunt's outfit. Reading about these Keystone Kops antics, you don't know whether to be amused or horrified--this was the so-called unitary executive in action. Hunt went on to serve 33 months in prison for his role in the Watergate burglaries, then wrote a gazillion spy novels after his release. (Gore Vidal reviewed a baker's dozen of Hunt's novels in this 1973 essay, along with, uh, related titles by Arthur Bremer and Tad Szulc. NYRB subscribers only, alas.)

And now for something completely different. My review of We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century recently appeared on the The Book, a literary blog launched last year by The New Republic. I enjoyed this composite portrait, but grumbled about the editor's U.K.-flavored favoritism:
It is also no surprise that Fox views the century through a British lens. There is no need to complain about the preponderance of English voices, not when the likes of Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Ronald Blythe, Gertrude Bell, George Orwell, and James Fenton are in the choir. Still, it is a little strange to see Britain’s reconquest of the Falkland Islands in 1982 trotted out as a major event of the century and "the last of the British imperial wars." Why not include the American invasion of Grenada the following year, or the toppling of Manuel Noriega and his capture as part of Operation Nifty Package (really) in 1989?
You can read the whole thing here.

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Friday, April 30, 2010


Double trouble: Jalopy clip, Please Please Me

The clip below, expertly shot and edited by Jay Irani, captures the very first (and rather rickety) song in the set, "My One And Only Love." Karen is right on target, spreading her mystic charms. The rest of us are taking a freestyle approach to tempo, as if we all just finished reading I'm Okay, You're Okay. Things did get a little tighter in subsequent songs--really. The highlight for me is my panicky look right before my two solo choruses. The routine I had worked out, a simple paraphrase of the melody, had vanished from my brain. I got through it anyway.

Since this other clip is already a worldwide smash over on Facebook, I thought I would add it here as well. I was trying for a solemn, sweet, Mormon Tabernacle Choir effect. There's some poetic justice at work, since the Beatles originally conceived of this song as slow ballad, in the ripe-but-not-rotting manner of Roy Orbison. George Martin told them to speed it up: a smart move. Still, I like this approach as well. Every man his own glee club, is my motto.

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Monday, April 26, 2010


Jalopy gig, Ives: Part the Second

With alarming frequency, I have dreams in which I'm prepping for a musical performance, then show up for the actual event with no idea what I'm doing. This is, of course, just one more variation on the panicky, deer-in-the-headlights dream that most sentient human beings have from time to time. But I have it often, and in fairly grandiose forms. Sometimes I'm supposed to have composed an entire symphonic piece, something dense and gnarled and Mahlerian, with a long orgasmic adagio at the end. I have, in the dream, a very detailed sense of the music and am looking forward to conducting it, scrunching up my face in that Leonard Bernstein fashion during the big brass fanfares but mainly smiling. On other occasions I'm playing in a rock band. At least once that I can remember, I was in the Beatles. Sadly, I can't recall whether I was a fifth Beatle, in an intrusive, parasitical, Murray-the-K kind of way, or whether I was being welcomed aboard with full Fab Four privileges. (Come to think of it, there's a third option: I could have been a temp, a white Billy Preston.) But at the moment of truth, when the audience has filed in and the lights have gone down, I realize that I've screwed up. I can't do it. Either I fudge my way through the opening bars or wake up with a powerful sense of disappointment. Oh, I'm often partially dressed or naked during that final sequence. I never said I was subtle.

Anyway, I kept my clothes on during the Jalopy gig last night. And despite the lack of rehearsal, and the sometimes mushy groove, and my failure to cue Seth Fahey for his clarinet solo on "Mistress and Maid" with a brisk, whiplash-inducing snap of my head, it was still pretty fun. I got through my vocal performance with only one botched line (I think). In the photo, I'm looking at some sheet music on the floor, trying to figure out exactly where we are. Karen has her hands locked together in a prayerful, Mahalia Jackson manner and is probably punching out "My One and Only Love"--the kind of song I would have considered sheer treacle in my foolish youth but now adore. It's funny, that softening of sensibility, which comes from an increasing sense that people are delicate constructions and that you don't need to poke them in the ribs to communicate. I'll get back to that. The brief film clip below is from "Dream A Little Dream of Me." Again, the Mamas and the Papas recorded this Thirties chestnut as a campy frolic, and something odd happened: it came out straight and strangely heart-lifting, with its wistful adumbration of fading stars and sunbeams and sycamore trees. We did it faster, and the clip includes just a little bit of my guitar solo.

And what, you ask, does Charles Ives have to do with this? Well, last night, after beating a quick retreat from the theater, and after Nina and Nat and Caroline and Kerry told me it really hadn't gone that badly after all, I opened up Jan Swafford's biography again. I was hoping to find some more material about the hidden charms of amateur performance. Screwing up is good, right? ("A man of genius makes no mistakes," wrote Joyce, in a passage I memorized as a teenager, never imagining it would come in so handy as I pondered the daisy chain of mistakes that more or less makes up my life, forgetting that this get-out-of-jail-free card applied only to men of genius. "His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery.") Instead, what I found in the Ives was this paragraph from the introduction the composer wrote to 114 Songs. Some of the items in this collection are virtually impossible to sing. Even Yma Sumac would have bowed her head and cried at the impacted tone clusters of "Majority." But Ives, his tongue firmly in cheek, defends the right of a song to be unsingable:
A song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of the street, passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it?... Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm, the ear, and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around the valley, to throw stones up at the pyramids, or to sleep in the park, should it not have some immunity from a Nemesis, a Remeses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?... If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it?
Who indeed? Don't look at me.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Jalopy gig, Ives

Despite my shy and reclusive nature, I'll be appearing at 6:00 PM this Sunday, April 25, at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn. The stars of the show are David Hajdu, reading selections from Heroes and Villains, and Karen Oberlin, doing the vocal voodoo that she does so well. But I'll be supplying grace notes on the electric guitar and lap steel, along with my fellow sideman Seth Fahey on bass and clarinet. God willing, I'll also be singing on one song--something not heard in public since the early days of the Reagan administration. You can see three-quarters of the ensemble in this photo, taken by the very able Tom Stoelker, on a zany rooftop construction of girders and water pipes that resembled a set for Love, American Style.

If you're concerned about my singing (I certainly am), just bear in mind this bit from Jan Swafford's Charles Ives: A Life in Music. As a child, Ives was urged by his father to appreciate the rough-hewn aspect of amateur performance. Referring to an acquaintance's tuneless bellowing at a camp meeting, George Ives told his son: "Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds--for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds." Swafford goes on to add:
His father's cues turned those experiences of amateur music, especially hymn singing, into some of the elemental impressions of Charles Ives's boyhood. He could not separate the music on the page from the way people sang or played it. Even the coarseness of amateur performance seemed to Ives a sign of authenticity. The mistakes were part of the music; sometimes the mistakes were the music of the ages.
Perhaps I'm raising the bar too high here. In any case, come one, come all! It should be fun.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010


Sticking up for hubby

I've written before about the potential pitfalls of the Amazon customer review system: namely, the opportunities for logrolling, anonymous attacks, and nepotistic boosterism. Back in 2004, when the company's Canadian's site temporarily (and accidentally) disclosed the identities of its citizen critics, I noted:
A fairly large number of authors had gotten glowing testimonials from friends, husbands, wives, colleagues and paid flacks. A few had "reviewed" their own books. The novelist John Rechy, among those caught in flagrante, pleaded the equivalent of self-defense: He was simply fighting fire with anonymous fire. Other miscreants cited the ancient tradition of self-puffery, practiced by both Walt Whitman (who wrote not one but three unsigned reviews of Leaves of Grass, and quoted them all in the second edition) and Anthony Burgess (who paid for the stunt with his job).
None of these practices, which exist to a lesser degree in the archaic world of ink-and-paper journalism, will bring the world crashing down on our heads. And caveat lector is always a useful mantra to keep in mind when reading anonymous comments on any website or blog. Still, according to these pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph, a British attorney and senior law lecturer at Cambridge University has now set the bar just a wee bit higher when it comes to customer-reviewing pratfalls. The perp, Stephanie Palmer, is married to the distinguished historian Orlando Figes. In an excess, perhaps, of conjugal zeal, she has made a habit of praising her husband's books on Amazon's UK site, signing these assessments as "Historian."

Of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2008), for example, she writes: "The opportunity to hear these Russians speak of these things as individuals, in their own voices, is overwhelming, and a gift to all of us. Orlando Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes forever." On Amazon's American site, "Historian" supplied a different but no less glowing review, which included plugs for her husband's earlier books: "Figes is a great writer--anyone who has read Natasha's Dance or the multi prize-winning A People's Tragedy will tell you that." (The British reviews were promptly scrubbed from the Amazon site, but can still be seen on this cached page. For the moment, the American review remains on the site.)

If Palmer had limited herself to puffing her husband's books, she probably would have gone undetected. And really, who would have blamed her for fending off his equally anonymous detractors? Unfortunately, she took to drubbing books by his academic rivals, including Robert Service, whose history of world communism, Comrades, she flicked away as impenetrable dross: "This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read." Turning to the same author's Stalin: A Biography, she engaged in a similar round of ankle-biting before recommending some alternate choices to consumers: "This is not a book that places Stalin in the context of his times, or makes his rise to power, his terror and his cult, understandable. For that it is better to go to Montefiore and to Figes's The Whisperers."

Well, she got busted. For the full details, see the articles mentioned above--the short version is that after several of Palmer's victims complained, and suggested that Figes himself was the culprit, she confessed. Her husband supposedly knew nothing of her online advocacy. Amazon pulled the actual reviews off the site. No doubt some very interesting conversations have been going on in the Figes-Palmer breakfast nook. Meanwhile, the Telegraph quotes critic, novelist, and Mahler fiend Norman Lebrecht on the outcome: "This cuts to the heart of the shady pseudonymous culture of Amazon reviews. This is a real breakthrough, an unprecedented triumph for truth and transparency online." I wish I could share his sense of triumph. But this is essentially a hiccup, just like the Canadian fracas back in 2004, and will do nothing to change the duck-and-cover style of reviewing at Amazon, nor the deeply entrenched role of anonymity on the Web.

UPDATE: Whoops, Orlando Figes has now confessed to writing the carping reviews himself, according to this AP dispatch. Presumably he found the spectacle of his wife falling on her sword too distasteful, and decided to fess up. In a written statement, he took "full responsibility" for the sock-puppet fiasco:
I am ashamed of my behavior, and don't entirely understand why I acted as I did. It was stupid--some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm. This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse. I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.

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