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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Thursday, April 08, 2010


Recording the Duke, gravity

If I start messing with YouTube videos again, I'll never stop, but I'm making an exception for this 1937 Paramount short, "Record Making With Duke Ellington." It's a delicious document for two reasons. First, it offers a rare glimpse of a stellar ensemble in the studio, rehearsing the train-whistle mimesis at the beginning of "Daybreak Express." Ellington had made his classic recording of this piece four years earlier for RCA Victor, not long before his fraying relationship with the label unraveled completely. In his notes to the Centennial Edition, Steven Lasker recounts the coup de grace: "A recording supervisor had inadvertently left the talk button on in the control booth. Not realizing that this enabled the musicians to hear him, the executive advised the engineer to get set for 'some Saturday night nigger music.' The band packed up and left." Having temporarily parted ways with RCA Victor, Ellington spent the next few years as something of an artistic itinerant, recording for a smorgasbord of small and large labels, including two set up by his manager, Irving Mills: Master and Variety. Which brings us back to the short, a promotional vehicle for Variety. I wish there was more footage of the rehearsal, with Ellington chiding the band ("This is not a freight train!") and Johnny Hodges and Freddie Guy vying for the most bored facial expression. Still, it's a precious glimpse of history--and the pep-rally narration of the recording process is nothing to sneeze at. I like the moment at 4:04, when a blob of "special plastic material" is placed into the waffle-iron-like stamping press:

Given the date, the recording technology looks surprisingly spiffy. Thirteen years later, when a young George Martin began his career at EMI, he was surprised to discover the Dickensian apparatus under the hood:
The routine of another recording take began again. Charlie Anderson, the engineer, began winding a large crank, and a heavy weight rose slowly to the ceiling. As he did so, Oscar walked through to tell the musicians that he wanted another performance, murmuring a few words of encouragement to them. In the control room a fresh warm wax disc was taken from the cabinet and placed on the turntable, and the engineer checked his settings. Then he shut his little window, released a brake, and spun the turntable. Slowly the weight began to fall....

To my new and untutored eye, the whole set-up seemed incredibly crude. I had thought, for instance, that the use of falling weights for motive power had gone out with Galileo. The answer, it seemed, was that electric motors in those days were not reliable enough to guarantee a completely steady and "wow-free" 78 revolutions a minute. Gravity, on the other hand, knew no hiccups.
The manufacturing process was even cruder, Martin recalls. Now, the factory pictured in the video is hardly a high-tech clean room. There were probably enough chemical spills and environmental hazards to give a latter-day OSHA official the cold sweats. But Oliver Twist could have worked in the facility Martin describes:
Before I visited the works where the records were pressed, I expected immaculate, white-coated operatives standing by stainless steel, plastic-topped counters, pressing buttons and watching the automatic moulding of the discs. How wrong I was. Reality was a hot and dirty factory, with men stripped to the waist, bathed in sweat and forever grimy with the black carbon dust which hung in the air.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Debenedetti affair

I'm late to this particular party, which has already been thoroughly explored by Judith Thurman at The New Yorker (here and here), but it's an irresistible scenario: a young Italian journalist publishes controversial interviews with a host of big names, including Philip Roth, John Grisham, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, and Nadine Gordimer. In several cases, these interviews include ideological spitballs aimed at American political culture in general or Barack Obama in particular. And then, lo and behold, it appears that the journalist, Tomasso Debenedetti, was making up these conversations out of whole cloth. Roth and Grisham immediately denied ever having met him, and since then, numerous other interview subjects have denounced his work as pure ventriloquism.

Thurman contacted Debenedetti in Rome via cell phone. In the course of their exchange, he engaged in some hilarious ducking and weaving, while insisting that the interviews were all genuine:
Debenedetti said he was completely "shocked and saddened" that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for "political" reasons--because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.

I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a "tired" excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had "thrown them away."
That's right, the dog ate his homework. What's most interesting to ponder at this point is Debenedetti's motive for this journalistic crime spree. He was paid peanuts for the interviews, so we can rule out filthy lucre as a driving force. There is also the modest (unless you're Oriana Fallaci) fame that accrues to an interviewer of the high and mighty, or at least extravagantly talented.

But no, Thurman pointed to more fertile ground when she noted that Debenedetti represents the third generation of an Italian literary dynasty. His grandfather, Giacomo Debenedetti, was a celebrated critic, translator of Proust, and an editor at Meridiano di Roma, whose two short books on the deportation of Roman Jews by the Germans are still in print. (He was also an early booster of the poet Umberto Saba, whose daughter kept this photo of the critic in a subsequently destroyed diary.)

Next came the fabricator's father, Antonio Debenedetti, the author not only of several works of fiction but of a highly regarded memoir of his own father, Giacomino. His fiction wears its postmodernist heart on its sleeve, with such titles as Monsieur Kitsch and In the Absence of Mister Plot. But he is also a regular contributor to Corriere della sera, where the prose tends to be less puckish, and may have actually offered his son a paradoxical role model in the course of this 2002 interview in Italia Libri. How, the interviewer asked, did he first get interested in writing?
You could say that I began to write before I knew how to write. That will sound like a curious statement--but at the age of five, I was already assembling little notebooks out of folded paper, which I clipped together and pretended were my own books.... I dreamed of becoming a writer: in an essay I wrote in the third grade, I foresaw my own literary glory in the guise of a future Pascoli or Carducci, the authors I knew at the time. I still remember this episode well, because my essay was published in the school magazine.
My suggestion about the anxiety of influence was tongue-in-cheek. Yet it's almost as if Tomasso Debenedetti inherited his father's dreams without the actual will to carry them out. Or more likely, the long string of bogus interviews was a deliberate attempt to blow the family legacy to smithereens. After all, in the age of the Internet, such dissembling couldn't be hidden forever. Sooner or later, one of his imaginary interlocutors would catch wind of the fakery, and then Debenedetti's work would be exposed for what it was: a game of pretend, no different than his father's childish ouevre, without the excuse of being a toddler. The Oedipal fallout from this mess will be no fun at all (according to Thurman's interview, father and son were no longer on speaking terms even prior to Tomasso's exposure.)

Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether a shred of Debenedetti's interviews could be authentic. Couldn't he have spoken to somebody, at least as a break from the hard labor of making up conversations from scratch? I posed the question to a prominent Italian journalist, who preferred not to be identified, and in his eloquent if idiosyncratic English, he dismissed the very idea:
[Debenedetti] is a complete fabulist. Not even [the] smell of journalism here (he cannot explain why there is no voice record of his skyrocketing interviews.) The asshole thinks that if he keeps denying, he could get out of this mess in a way or another. Please don't let him.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010


friendship, goose eyes

A while back I was reading Phillip Lopate's Notes On Sontag, a compact mixture of criticism (some of it fairly critical, especially when it comes to Sontag's fiction) and personal reminiscence. It was the latter that really grabbed me. I had a single encounter with Susan Sontag in January 2000, about five years before she died. It was in the midst of an extraordinary cold snap in Manhattan, and her publicist had given me the incorrect address, so I found myself wandering the frigid blocks to the west of her apartment building. There were loading docks, parking lots, a factory that made products out of injected plastic--surely Sontag couldn't live in such a place? Feeling increasingly anxious, I located a pay phone, whose square metal buttons were frozen and non-responsive. I took my gloves off, warmed the buttons with my hand, dialed the publicist, and was directed to the correct address. And there Sontag, who I imagined to be a forbidding figure, was kind and welcoming. Within a few minutes, in fact, I was thoroughly irradiated by what I can only call charisma. She made you want to be her friend. This didn't mean you were her friend--only that you felt an irresistible urge to become one. And that brings me back to Lopate, who was repeatedly hit by the same urge, then left out in the cold:
Over the years, whenever I would read an essay of hers praising some writer or filmmaker I loved, I would think, "My God, we have so many tastes in common! We both care about the same things! Wouldn't it be nice if we could be friends?" I would fantasize having our dinners around town or dropping in at her apartment and comparing notes on the latest cultural doings. But of course any friendship would have to be predicated on mutual respect, since I could never bring myself to play the flunky. On my end, I would also have to surrender some of my own judgmental wariness about her and trust her more. Above all, you look into the eyes of an acquaintance and see permission to take it further, or not; I never saw that permission in Sontag's eyes. I don't think she was even looking for it in my eyes. So a friendship between us never came to pass.
He's correct. There is a moment in any embryonic friendship when things change. A subliminal signal is passed back and forth. You drop your guard, you feel an instinctive and possibly foolish affinity for a person who, after all, you hardly know. It's a rare and beautiful sensation. I would call it a painless version of falling in love--love plus Novocaine--except that the end of a friendship can be very rough.

I was sure that Diana Athill had described something similar in Stet, her superb memoir of life in the editorial trenches. But where? I scanned the entire book in a mindless way, trying to read and not read at the same time. To my annoyance, I kept getting detained by paragraphs like this one, which details the acquisition of a stuffy British publishing operation by Athill's own firm:
One of the more burdensome books we inherited from [the old firm] was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times's first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner--where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: "Oh, what a tempting title!"
Priceless. Still, I couldn't afford to read the whole book, I didn't have time, and redoubled my efforts to stop latching onto particular bits of text. I was, as I discovered in William Langewiesche's Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson, behaving like a goose--at least an aspiring goose. The author (who I once interviewed) reports:
[B]ecause geese lack foveae (the part of the eye in humans and birds of prey that is responsible for sharply focused central vision) it is believed that they may see everything with equal sharpness without having to move their eyes. This means they would see every word on this page simultaneously, though comprehension would be a problem.
Now I know who, or what, to blame: those damn foveae. I was beginning to wonder if I had simply made up the passage in the Athill book. It's happened before: I have a very distinct memory of some pithy formulation, some vivid image, that turns out not to exist. I've dreamed it up, then longed for the imprimatur of somebody smarter than me to say it. Reverse plagiarism: attributing your words to another person. Try it, you'll like it. But wait--I found the passage! It's about Alfred Chester, the charismatic, wig-wearing enfant terrible of postwar American letters. Athill was the British editor for his books, which sold no copies. This can put a crimp in a relationship. Yet she found his friendship an enthralling experience, with its instant, almost reckless lowering of the drawbridge:
Meeting him, whether alone or at parties, reminded me of the excitement and alarm felt by Tolstoy's Natasha Rostov on meeting her seducer and knowing at once that between her and this man there were none of the usual barriers. Something like that shock of sexual accessibility can exist on the level of friendship: an instant recognition that with this person nothing need be hidden. I felt this with Alfred (although there was a small dark pit of secrecy in the middle of the openness: I would never have spoken to him about his wig).

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