Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mendelssohn and Me

Ah, my blog has fallen silent lately. Sorry to all of you who hang on my every word.  Other things have come up that are taking up my free time – Christmas shopping, trip-planning, and digging out of this:


Also, listening to new music.  To be more precise, listening to old music that is new to me.  Is there any really new music worth listening to?  My experience over the past twenty years is that while there might be, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack and not worth the effort.  So, as Chris Berman says when someone hits a long fly ball, back, back, back I go. 

This week I’ve listened to Mendelssohn’s overtures to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hebrides, his E-Minor Violin Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s D-Major Violin Concerto.  The Concerto’s are on the same CD, performed by Isaac Stern with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  A lot of people I respect consider these the best versions.  I don’t have the time nor the inclination nor the money to be comparing different performances of the same piece so I always do a little research before I buy new concert music to find the one that’s considered definitive, or at least one that is a very fine performance.  One of the benefits of the CD revolution that occurred twenty or so years ago was that record companies went back into their vaults and re-mastered for CD some of the great LP performances of concert music that had been recorded between 1950 and 1980.  It cost the companies little to do this so they often sold these re-masters at bargain prices.  So quite often you can get a recording of a famous performance for less than a new, not as interesting, performance.  So it pays to do the research.  I still get excited when I see what is considered a great performance available on Amazon for $8.99. 

At any rate, the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is marvelous.  Mendelssohn, who wrote the piece when he was seventeen, was concert music’s other great child prodigy, along with Mozart.  (He also, like Mozart, died young, at 38.)  He’s been dismissed by some over the years as a lightweight due to his adherence to the classical era forms developed and perfected by Haydn and Mozart, along with his music’s perceived lack of Sturm and Drang, a mark of authenticity in the Romantic period in which he operated.  While there is certainly something Mozartian (is that a word?) about his music, I find him to be fully of the Romantic period.  The overture to Hebrides, for instance, is unimaginable as a composition of the Classical era.  If Mozart had been born fifty years later his music may have sounded something like Mendelssohn’s.  I don’t mean to compare the two as equals as Mozart was perhaps the greatest composer of all time.  I simply mean that I can hear the Mozart influence in Mendelssohn’s music, along with the Romantic period’s more personal and emotional expressiveness.  Mendelssohn did not lack there.  He simply had more control over the emotive aspects of his music than, say, Berlioz, perhaps because he operated within the forms that had been handed down to him from his predecessors, whereas Berlioz had only the thinnest knowledge of those forms – his music was all over the place. 

I need to listen to the Violin Concertos again before I comment on them.  All I can say now is that they are both lovely in parts, deeply emotive, and, of course, brilliantly played by Stern.  I will do this sometime today as part of a new plan of mine.  I want to, in 2010, learn one new piece of concert music per week.  Not just listen, but learn.  I have plenty of time to listen to music, during my daily commute, during my workouts, and at home, usually on the weekend mornings.  I’ve begun a little early with the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky this week but my plan for 2010 is already in the works.  For Christmas I’ve asked my darling wife for the following recordings:

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C-Minor
Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G-Minor
Elgar's Cello Concerto in E-Minor
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat Major

I am not promising to blog about each piece but I hope to have something to say about them on occasion.  I know you’re all dying to hear my views.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Marshmallow World

Still snowing.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a snow like this so early in the year and it does not bode well for the rest of this winter.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a snowy winter but with the temperatures the way they’ve been all year – cooler than normal – I wouldn’t be surprised if we had one this year. 

I know I gave you a Darlene Love song off the Spector Christmas record already today but the versions of these songs are so wonderful, in many ways the definitive versions, if you can say that about a Christmas song.  At any rate, it’s a marshmallow world here in Northern Virginia.  Below are some pictures from my house, plus the tree I put up this morning, from a few minutes ago:

IMG_1609 IMG_1607  IMG_1610 IMG_1608

When it snows…

…Aint’ it thrillin’
Though your nose
Gets a chillin’
We’ll frolic and play
The Eskimo way
Walking in a Winter Wonderland.

The first thing I do every year when the snow starts to fall is put on Darlene Love’s version of “Winter Wonderland”, produced by that famous lunatic Phil Spector.  It is the perfect Christmas song when the snow is falling, joyous and exuberant, and it conjures up all the feelings you had when you were a kid and heading out to go sledding; It’s also got jingle bells, chimes, and it’s just a lot of fun.  Perfect for the first snowfall of the season.  Enjoy:

Baby Won’t You Please Come Home

My wife left yesterday for a conference down in Atlanta so I’m here all alone.  And I’m miserable, all at loose ends, pacing the house, not able to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time, feeling lonely and blue.  I wasn’t always like this.  I was on my own for more than a decade before I was married and I never got lonely when alone but I guess twenty-plus years of marriage will change you.  If she were here it would be different.  We might ignore each other all day – me reading on the couch, her working on the computer (she’s very busy these days) but at least SHE’S HERE.  So, baby won’t you please come home?

I searched YouTube for an appropriate rendition of that great song and I came across this by some jazz band at a Bix Beiderbecke festival earlier this year.  And it’s not bad.  The cornet player actually has a little bit of Bix’s style and lyricism.  Enjoy:

And below is the man himself, who was breaking from traditional jazz and creating his own style during the 1920’s at precisely the same time as Louis Armstrong.  The two men’s playing were radically different but according to many sources they admired each other tremendously.  I’ve already mentioned how I wished I were a fly on the wall the night they jammed together.  There’s plenty of Louis to listen to in earlier posts on this page but here’s Bix with Frank Trumbauer’s Orchestra on probably his most famous recording, “Singin’ The Blues,” from May, 1927.  His cornet solo picks up at about the 1:03 mark, immediately after Trumbauer’s C-melody sax intro.  This is lovely stuff:

Oh my, I just looked outside and it’s snowing.  A couple of inches are expected.  I guess this is a good time to put on some music and put up the tree.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

A few years ago I received a Louis Armstrong CD for Christmas from a family member who knew of my appreciation of the great man’s music.  Unfortunately, to my mind at the time, it was a later CD, a collection of his songs with the All-Stars, the small combo band he formed in 1947 and continued performing with right up until his death in 1971.  I had listened to little of Satchmo’s music from this period because I had the same opinion of it that many jazz fans had, i.e., that it was the music of a man who had stopped taking chances long before, that compared with the blazing hot music of his early career it was not worth listening to.  Might as well just put on “Potato Head Blues,” or “Muggles,” or “Mahogany Hall Stomp” or any of the dozens of songs he recorded back in the twenties and thirties and listen to them again. 

A few days after that Christmas, while my wife and I were taking down the decorations, I put the CD on and was more than pleasantly surprised.  It is terrific.  While the music on the CD is certainly not comparable to the music of his early years, it wasn’t trying to be.  It was something else entirely: the music of an old pro, smooth, self-assured, and highly entertaining.  It has few of the exhilarating moments of the early stuff but, again, that was not the point of this music.  This is music for the masses, pure entertainment, and it succeeds on that level.  It’s fun!  While snobs and jazz aficionados can and often have called it the music of a sell-out, they missed out on some terrific entertainment in their insistence that Armstrong had to push at the boundaries each time he picked up his trumpet.  The opinion-makers of Armstrong’s time damned him because he wouldn’t produce another “West End Blues,” and unfortunately, it was the view of these high-brows that came to prevail.  In a nutshell, the opinion of Louis Armstrong for many years before and after his death was that he had sold out in order to please white audiences, that he valued fame and popularity more than his music.

There is much to Terry Teachout’s terrific biography of Armstrong, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, but if there is a main point it is to shatter this opinion.  Teachout, who was a jazz musician himself before becoming a full-time writer and critic, shares in the enthusiasm of Armstrong early, ground-breaking work – his analysis of this early work is alone worth the price of the book - but he also builds an impressive case for the worth of Armstrong’s later music.  It’s definitely not a hagiography.  Teachout, who I consider the finest critic in America today, is intimately familiar with Armstrong’s music.  He knows when Armstrong was mailing it in or settling for less than he should have, and he has no qualms about pointing these moments out.  But he takes the music of Armstrong’s career for what it was and he is marvelous at pointing us to the highlights of his career, including what was worthwhile in his later work.  I’m not going to go into it any more than this but I’ll simply say if you love Satchmo then you need to read this book.  You’ll end up with a better understanding of the man and who he was, the man in full.  What’s more, Teachout doesn’t criticize Armstrong for not being the man many of his contemporaries wanted him to be. 

Teachout also points out something important: From the early 1930’s onward, Armstrong probably could not have duplicated his earlier technique due to the lip problems he began experiencing around that time.  His embouchure – the technique of shaping the lips to the mouthpiece of his horn - was flawed from the beginning and it was hard on his lips.  As a result his lip began to break down around this time, often rupturing in the middle of a performance, and he’d have problems with it on and off for the rest of his life.  He had to alter the way he played, if he wanted to play at all.  And he had to play.  Armstrong made it clear to everyone who knew him, including his four wives, that his horn came first.  It was his reason for being.  He would spend over fifty years, from the time he was fourteen years old until he was in his late-sixties, on the road, playing his horn.  If he took a  break, even late in life due to doctor’s orders, he would soon become restless, summon his band, and hit the road again. 

Well, who else does this remind you of?  Earlier this year in this space, I made the case that there are four musicians who could make the claim of being the “Greatest American Musician.”  Armstrong was one of them, along with Dylan, Presley, and Sinatra, take your pick.  All four of these men were (in the case of Bob Dylan, still are) obsessed with their craft.  After the prime of their careers, they all continued on, making records surely, but for the most part on the road, playing before adoring audiences.  To a man, they toured constantly.  They’ve all been accused of selling out (in the case of Armstrong, Dylan and Elvis) or continuing on long past the time when they should have hung it up (Sinatra.)  But none of them cared.  They were music men.  They all lived to play, to share their special talent with those who appreciated it.  They’ve all been condemned by the know-it-alls for these so-called failings.

But consider the following. 

If [Armstrong’s] new style was less spectacular, it was also purer, shorn of the excesses that had obscured the lyricism at the heart of his artistry.  To some extent this purity may have been imposed by the cumulative effects of the string of split lips that he suffered in the early thirties, but if that was the case, it would not have been the first time that a great artist has been freed to follow his inner impulse by technical limitations arising from physical decline.

Long before Teachout gets to this passage on page 217 I had been thinking about the parallels between Armstrong’s split lip and Sinatra’s vocal cord hemorrhage in 1950.  Sinatra had been a smash with the kids during the war, dubbed “The Voice”, a classic crooner in the style of Bing Crosby.  He had numerous number one hits for Columbia records during the forties but by 1950 his popularity was waning and he hadn’t had a number one hit for a few years.  He was also unhappy with the direction Columbia was taking when it hired the hokey Mitch Miller as its musical director.  Then came the vocal cord injury and he emerged from the incident a changed singer, perhaps even a changed man, one who was intent on becoming more than a pop star.  He left Columbia records and signed with Capitol and the rest is history.  His voice was now deeper, and he could no longer croon.  Instead, he invented a new style of singing: conversational, personal, less directly emotional, but more affecting.  There was a distance now between Sinatra and the song he was singing and that distance allowed the listener in; there was room for us to imagine ourselves in the song.  This was the key to his success, to his art.  (To illustrate this point, listen to Sinatra sing “I’m A Fool To Want You” during his Columbia days here, and then listen to his later, more mature, more controlled version of it here.)  He was no longer a pop star, he was an artist, the man who created the music in which we saw ourselves.  As with Armstrong, circumstances other than his physical injury had something to do with Sinatra’s new style but it certainly played a role.  What emerged, as Teachout says of Armstrong, was something purer and more profound.  For years afterward Sinatra was creating something new each time he entered the studio, and he knew it. 

I could make the case that Bob Dylan emerged from his motorcycle accident in 1966 a changed man but it’s a case that’s been made many time before and is hard not to see. The difference between the pre-accident Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde and the post-accident The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding is profound.  You may prefer the earlier work but it was Dylan’s retreat to his roots in the latter records that set the stage for the rest of his career.  Blood on the Tracks, Empire Burlesque, Good As I Been To You, and all of the records that he’s produced in the last dozen or so years during his re-emergence have much more in common with the records he produced just after the accident than those just before it. 

Read Teachout’s book.  It is marvelous, his best book yet.  I concentrated on a particular thread that happened to interest me but there is so much more to it.  

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Autumn Leaves

When we moved into our house over twenty years ago the Bradford Pear tree in front was no more than a twig.  Now it is about forty feet high with a two-foot wide trunk.  It’s taken over the entire front yard and I love it.  It gives us shade all throughout the summer, keeping the kitchen cool, and I can put a comfortable chair under it on nice days and sit and read while the cats play or lounge in the front yard.

Then comes Autumn and the leaves come falling down.  And there’s a bunch of them.  I raked yesterday morning and filled up twelve large trash bags. 

“Autumn Leaves” was originally a French song based on a poem entitled “Les Feuilles Mortes” (literally, “The Dead Leaves”) by Jacques Prevert. Johnny Mercer (he seems to be all over this blog recently) penned English lyrics for the tune, changing the title to “Autumn Leaves”.  Jo Stafford recorded it first (she was an early and long-time member of Mercer’s Capitol Records stable) and her recording of it is fine, though to my ears a bit rushed.  She sang it on a television show many years later and the video once was available on YouTube but seems to be gone now due to copyright violations.  Which is a shame because it was a marvelous and moving rendition of the song – the best I’ve ever heard.  Sinatra did it, as did Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and, well, I guess everyone who was anyone took a shot at it back in the day.  Here’s Nat King Cole’s version, a terrific one, for your morning listening pleasure:

UPDATE:  Funny how things work.  After I posted this morning I went off on my usual political blog troll and over at The Corner Mark Steyn linked over to a new Christmas CD he’s recorded with Jessica Martin.  I took a look and then decided to check in on Mark’s Song of The Week entry.  Funny, he did “Autumn Leaves” a couple of weeks ago.  Go here to find out everything you’ll ever want to know about the song, all in Steyn’s inimitable style. 

UPDATE II: Oh my.  Continuing my browsing at Steyn’s site I find that it’s Johnny Mercer month over there too.  And there’s much more if you’re so inclined, including his Macleans column and a 45-minute podcast that is highly enjoyable.  Great stuff if you love Mercer.   

Friday, November 27, 2009


Cat got me mad this morning:


Just kidding.  Saw this on Ace’s page this morning and it made me laugh.  Thought you’d like it too.  An inconsequential post, except that it is this blog’s 200th post.  I’m nearly at the two-year mark: my first post was December 2, 2007.  So that’s a hundred posts per year, a couple each week.  I’m enjoying it still, though on occasion I lose the urge and disappear for a month or two.  Anyhow, on to year three.    

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m almost done reading Terry Teachout’s marvelous biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.  As Satchmo himself might say, “it gassed me, man, it gassed me!”  One of the threads that runs through the book is Armstrong’s life-long willingness to play with white musicians – a trait not shared by very many back in the 1920’s and 30’s.  “Those people who make the restrictions,” he said, “they don’t know nothing about music, it’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Armstrong greatly admired Bix Beiderbecke, though the two great trumpeters played together only once (oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that jam session!) before Bix drank himself to death in 1931 at the age of 28.  Armstrong’s All-Stars were integrated for their entire twenty-five year existence.  Perhaps the white musician he had the longest association with was Jack Teagarden, the greatest of all jazz trombonists.  The men had a mutual admiration for each other’s playing, as Teachout explains here:

“Knockin’ a Jug” was Armstrong’s first recording with a mixed band, as well as the first of innumerable occasions on which he would perform with Teagarden.  Their paths had crossed a decade before in New Orleans, where the trombonist heard Armstrong on a Streckfus riverboat: “The boat was still far off.  But in the bow I could see a Negro standing in the wind, holding a trumpet high and sending out the most brilliant notes I ever heard….It was Louis Armstrong descending from the sky like a god.” Armstrong felt the same way about the slow-moving, hard-drinking, virtuoso with patent-leather hair who played the blues in an easygoing yet idiomatic style rarely heard from white musicians in the twenties.  “The first time I heard Jack Teagarden on the trombone,” he wrote in Satchmo, “I had goose pimples all over.” It was fitting that their first encounter on record should also be one of the earliest mixed-race recording sessions since both men were devoid of racial prejudice. “He was from Texas,” Armstrong said, “but it was always, ‘You a spade, and I’m an ofay. We got the same soul.  Let’s blow.’” 

“Knockin’ a Jug” was recorded on March 5, 1929 in New York.  I can’t find an embeddable version of the entire song but you can go here to listen to that historic – not to mention marvelous – recording. 

And here are Armstrong and Teagarden twenty-nine years later performing “Jeepers Creepers”:

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Doin’ the IPod Shuffle

I’ve got nothing to say this morning as I have household chores to do. Still I thought I’d post the IPod shuffle list I listened to while I was in the kitchen cooking:

  • I’ll Be Gone ~ Tom Waits
  • Angel Eyes ~ Frank Sinatra
  • Papa Oom Mow Mow ~ The Persuasions
  • Summertime ~ Artie Shaw and his Orchestra
  • Hoochie Coochie Man ~ Muddy Waters
  • He Likes It Slow ~ Louis Armstrong and His Hot Fives
  • Brahms Clarinet Sonata #1 in F Minor, 1st Movement
  • Brilliant Disguise ~ Bruce Springsteen
  • Baby Please Don’t Go ~ Van Morrison
  • My One and Only Love ~ John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
  • Bach Cantata No 227, IX - Gute Nacht, o Wesen
  • Makin’ Whoopee ~ Nat King Cole Trio
  • Fifty-Five Blues ~ Jack Teagarden
  • Blossom’s Blues ~ Blossom Dearie
  • Pump It Up ~ Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Lots of great music there. A few observations:

Do you listen to Tom Waits? I’ve loved his music since very early on and I’ve followed him through the years as he’s evolved into one of the finest songwriters of our time. The first time I saw him live was at the old Cellar Door club down in Georgetown, probably in the mid-1970’s. He wandered on stage in beat-up old clothes, carrying an equally beat-up suitcase, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, like a vagabond hobo who just happened to stumble upon the stage. An absolutely unique performer, even as his music has changed over the years. As for “I’ll Be Gone”, it’s one of the best songs on one of his best records, Frank’s Wild Years, along with “Hang On St. Christopher”, “Innocent When You Dream”, “Yesterday Is Here”, “Way Down In The Hole” (which became the theme music to the great, great HBO show, The Wire), and “Cold Cold Ground.”

Angel Eyes” is one of my top five favorite Sinatra songs. There used to be a video on YouTube of him performing the song and a more self-assured performance you will never see. Unfortunately the video is gone now, probably due to some copyright violation. Someone should put it back up.

My brother and I probably saw Muddy Waters a dozen times back in the day and he’d always play “Hoochie Coochie Man”. He was old then but he could still blaze through a 50-55 minute show.

The Cantata No 227, IX - Gute Nacht, o Wesen is breathtakingly beautiful. I’ll have to listen to that one again later today.

Favorite lyrics of the morning? Blossom Dearie from “Blossom’s Blues”:

I’m an evil, evil woman
But I wanna do a man some good
I’m an evil, evil woman
But I wanna do a man some good
I'm Gina Lollobrigida
I ain't Little Red Riding Hood.

At any rate, here’s a little something for your listening pleasure:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Point of No Return

John P. Marquand, once among the most popular novelists in America, is now virtually unknown.  Reading Point of No Return, his novel of middle-to-upper class manners in a small New England town, it’s hard to see why.  The high-brow critics of his era never had any use for him but the public adored him.  He won a Pulitzer Prize and many of his books were Book of the Month Club selections.  Nearly all his novels published after 1937’s The Late George Apley were best-sellers.  And now he’s virtually unread.  Why?

I have a guess as to why, though I welcome other’s ideas.  There was once a time in America when there was a ruling middlebrow culture.  During the twenty year period after WWII, the exploding demographic of young suburban businessmen and their wives saw themselves as the future.  They’d fought in the war, they’d triumphed, and they regarded economic success and personal satisfaction as their reward.  They were almost exclusively white and middle-to-upper class and they were centered in the Northeastern part of the country.  The men went to work and the women stayed home and raised the children.  Unlike their parents, they had money left over after the bills were paid and this afforded them leisure time to explore cultural activities.  They played golf, they belonged to the country club and they summered at the shore.  They listened to the same songs, went to the same movies, and read the same books.  And what were these songs, movies, and books about?  Why, themselves, of course.  If there was ever a monolithic cultural consensus in America, it was perhaps reflected in this late-1940’s to early-1960’s generation. Call it the Mad Men culture.  Marquand might be the post-child of this middlebrow culture for no one reflected it, for better or worse, than he did, and everyone seemed to realize it at the time.  Perhaps he has fallen out of favor because his subjects, like John Cheever, are so identified with this particular cultural consensus, one that is long-gone and repudiated.  This is my guess as to why Marquand has virtually disappeared.  If his subjects were a reflection of the people and attitudes of a bygone era, what could he possibly have to say to us now?   

Well, the answer is, plenty.  I was a bit dismayed when I first picked up Point of No Return and found it was 550+ pages.  Who wants to read a novel of that length about the intricate class structure of pre-war WASP society?  I immediately formed a prejudice against it and assumed it would be better if it were shorter.  The thought occurred to me that maybe this was the root of Marquand’s problems with the critics, that perhaps he was nothing more than a over-blown dramatist who heaped detail upon detail, who explained every nuance, until there was nothing left to to the reader’s imagination.  But this is not the case, not even close.  Marquand is certainly no minimalist and his exploration of pre-war WASP society is detailed and meticulous but what makes it work is that it is so true to life.  There are no false notes here, nothing that seems even remotely out of place.  You always feel like you’re reading something by someone who fully understands his characters and the situations he places them in.  The book’s length turns out to be one of its strengths because the story is told at a leisurely pace which allows the reader to clearly understand the everyday rhythms of life in Clyde, Massachusetts (a stand-in for Marquand’s hometown of Newburyport, MA.)  Another of the book’s strengths is Marquand’s steady and competent prose. He has little of the charm or style a greater writer might bring to their work but, again, this is a good thing.  A more stylistic account would take away from the verisimilitude Marquand achieves. 

The story is about the life of Charles Gray, circa 1947, who is married with two children and works as an investment banker at the Stuyvesant Bank in New York City.  Charles is being considered for a vice-presidency at the bank, a position he and his wife Nancy want very much.  One day he awakes and finds his thoughts on his boyhood home of Clyde, Massachusetts, a place he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades and one he thinks about rarely.  By what perhaps is a coincidence he is asked to go back to Clyde to do some research on a business the bank is thinking of investing in.  At this point Marquand begins to tell the story of Charles’ time in Clyde through a series of flashbacks in which we trace his boyhood through adolescence and early manhood.  One of the main plots in the book has to do with Charles’ father John, a charming, likeable, rogue of a man who has little care for convention, a liability in a town as class-oriented as Clyde.  Marquand contrasts the steady and reliable Charles with his charming but reckless father.  We see early on that Charles is the antithesis of his father, purposefully.  Charles understands early in life that John Gray, for all his good-natured likeability, is a careless and foolhardy man, a man who will inevitably hurt those who love him most.  I am not saying I identify with Charles but one of Marquand’s skills is to show us glimpses of ourselves in his characters.  While arguing with his father about his reckless investments, which threaten the entire family, John insists to Charles that he’ll be careful, which Charles knows from experience is a lie: 

When it came to money, everyone always promised to be careful.  In fact, it often seemed to Charles that most of his subsequent life had been spent in a series of timid, hedging precautions, in balancing probable gains and losses in order to keep sums of money intact.  The probity, the reliability and the sobriety that such a task demanded were to make his own life dull and careful.  Except for a few brief moments, he was to face no danger or uncalculated risk.  He was to measure his merriment and hedge on his tragedies.  He was to water down elation and mitigate disaster, and to be at the right place at the right time, and to say the right thing with the right emphasis.  Yet, whenever he thought of himself as a dull, deluded opportunist, compared with other people, he always remembered the intensity of his own feelings when his father had been speaking.  There had been a hideous sense of impending disaster, and no possible way to stop it.   

Who among us has not had such thoughts about themselves?  I certainly have about my own self, along with the same self-justifying rationalization that Charles has.  Point of No Return is full of such glimpses into the human condition.  We get it (spoiler alerts!!) when Charles, deeply in love with a young lady who, according to Clyde’s intricate class distinctions, is out of his league, convinces himself that everything will turn out fine.  His love blinds him to the fact that it could never turn out fine and the reader sees this long before Charles does.  The girl is too weak, too much a part of Clyde, to ever go against her father’s wishes.  When she finally breaks it off with Charles and lies crumpled at her father’s feet in front of him, the father and daughter are so pathetic we breathe a sigh of relief for Charles – he can get away clean from this situation. From that point it was clear (at least it was to me) that Charles’ personal relationship worked out for the best.  Nancy, who would become his wife, is a much more admirable character than the weak, tradition-bound Jessica.  Nancy has the traits – good-nature, a sense of humor, compassion and understanding, no illusions, no nonsense - most of us would want in a wife.  For those of us long married, we get another glimpse into ourselves in the relationship between Charles and Nancy, in particular the easy comfort which comes from knowing someone so well so long, when you know each other’s thoughts so well that words are often not necessary for communication.  We also get a glimpse of reality in the book’s final pages when Charles, having gotten the vice-presidency he so desperately wanted, finds no joy or satisfaction in it.  His climb up the corporate ladder will afford him and his family a bigger house in a better neighborhood, perhaps membership in a more upscale country club, perhaps a new sailboat, but that is all.  It will not buy happiness, which will still be elusive. His doubts and discontents will still remain.  Charles Gray is one of the most fully-realized characters I’ve even encountered in a novel because Marquand has made him fully human.  He’s everyman, which is another way of saying he’s you and me.

Read Marquand if you love a story in which you get such glimpses into yourself.  When my wife noticed how wrapped up I was in the book she asked me what it was about.  Not wanting to stop reading to explain the whole plot, I shrugged and simply said, “It’s about life.”  

Friday, November 20, 2009

Empire of Liberty

I’m not sure how Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 could be any better.  It may seem strange to call a 750 page history a page-turner but it is.  I couldn’t put the thing down.  One is always worried when picking up a history of this length that you’ll be confronted with turgid, clunky prose and pedestrian insights, that you’ll have to slog through the thing for weeks to get through it, if you finish at all.  That is most definitely not the case here.  Wood’s flowing, lucid, prose-style is wonderful.  He is also a masterful story-teller, his insights are fresh and fully-reasoned, and he untangles the sometimes contradictory threads of the founding era and weaves them into a comprehensible and satisfying whole.  It’s as easy to read as a good novel and just as interesting.  The book is a triumph of the historian’s craft.

Having spent a lifetime immersed in research of the founding era, Wood has no problem seeing the men responsible for our beginnings as men, not icons.  There is no hero worship here.  Wood fully represents the greatness and the genius of the founding generation that we revere today but he also shows us their flaws, their ambition, and their motivations, which were at times base. We get a full sense from Wood of the men and their era. 

Washington’s importance as the indispensable founder is recognized, though not dwelled upon.  Wood points out that while his two terms as president were important to the stability of the infant nation, in the long run his most important act was stepping away from the presidency.  Just as when he laid down his sword after the war when he could easily have become a dictator, his retirement from the office of the presidency which he could have held for life exemplified the Roman ideal of servant government and established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power.  By these two acts, Washington became a hero of republican liberty all over the world. 

Madison gets his due, which pleased me.  Many don’t realize how important Mr. Madison was to the founding moment but we see it clearly in Woods’ account.  Even more important was Alexander Hamilton, whose economic program allowed for the stability and remarkable growth of the early republic.  He may have been the most intelligent of the founders but he was also the most reviled.  Jefferson, who could hate with the best of them, never hated anyone more than Alexander Hamilton.  Even Adams, a fellow Federalist, despised Hamilton, calling him “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.”  It had always puzzled me that Madison had split so clearly with Hamilton during the first Washington administration. The two had been allies during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and ratification period of 1788-89, collaborating on the Federalist Papers in support of the new constitution.  But within months of Washington taking office with Hamilton as his Treasure secretary, Madison became the leader of the opposition.  I’d always attributed this to Jefferson inordinate influence over Madison.  Jefferson had been abroad in France during the Convention period so Madison was free of his influence.  Upon Jefferson return to serve as Washington’s Secretary of State, he and Madison resumed their close friendship.  And I’d been of the opinion that it was solely Jefferson’s sway over his younger colleague that caused Madison’s split with Hamilton.  But Wood shows that this was not the case.  Certainly Madison took Jefferson’s views into account.  But it was more often Madison temporizing his more radical friend than the other way around.  Where it came to Hamilton, Madison’s opposition was not the result of a weakness of character that caused him to defer to Jefferson but instead one of philosophical principal.  As Hamilton began introducing his economic programs Madison realized that Hamilton’s idea of a vigorous national government differed greatly from his own.  Madison objected vehemently to the federal assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debt and to the introduction of a national bank, both of which he believed would elevate the federal government far above that of the states.  He objected further to Hamilton’s creation of a permanent and consolidated national debt, ala Great Britain, which in Hamilton’s view would spur economic progress.  And indeed it did.  While instrumental to the early republic’s economic success, these moves were the beginning of the opposition’s fear that Hamilton and his fellow Federalist were monarchists.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the discussion over many chapters of the rise of the Republican party and the demise of the Federalists during the 1790s.  Wood explains how the Federalists, while believing in the equality of men under the law, also believed there was a natural aristocracy among men, an aristocracy which had the right and duty to rule over the masses.  Washington believed it, Hamilton believed it, Adams believed it.  As the self-made men coming out of the 1790’s economic success began to proliferate, the Federalist vision came under attack.  These “middling sorts” believed they had as much right to governance as the self-appointed aristocratic class, indeed even more so since they understood and could represent the interests of the common man better than the elites ever could.  The Federalist were appalled by these men, considering them to be nothing more than low-lifes and demagogues with little understanding of society and how it should be governed.  Each side saw the other as a threat to the liberty that had been won during the revolution.  The Republicans saw the Federalists as monarchists, while the Federalists saw the Republicans as “democrats” a pejorative term at the beginning of the 1790’s.  By the end of the decade the term began to loose its negative connotations  as many of the new merchant class began to embrace the banner. In the end, the Federalists never had a chance.  The sheer number of new men coming out of the economic success of the 1790’s overwhelmed the Federalists, who over the following twenty years became progressively extinct as a political class.  This rise of Jeffersonian republicanism was nothing short of a second American revolution, one that many felt finally completed what had begun in 1776.  The irony that it was Hamilton’s economic programs that gave rise to the men who would replace him and his class would not be lost on Hamilton.  After Jefferson’s election in 1800 he knew his time was through and he feared that everything he and the other revolutionaries had fought for had been subverted: “This American world was not meant for me.”

Who won, in the long run?  Do we now live in a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian world?  Books could be written on this question alone and I myself could argue the question from both sides.  But in the end, in regards to the leviathan federal government of modern day America (one that would most likely horrify even Hamilton and would certainly send Jefferson into fits of outrage and despair) I believe we live more in a Hamiltonian world, one in which government coercion is everywhere, in which we are ruled by a small group of elites interested primarily in their own survival.  With his support for a strong and energetic executive and for the primacy of the federal government over the states, this is certainly not what Hamilton intended.  But it is perhaps the inevitable result of the Hamiltonian vision.  We have now what Jefferson continually warned about: the tyranny of the few over the masses.  So while we live in a Hamiltonian world I believe Jefferson won the argument. 

Jefferson is the winner in another sense also.  As Wood points out, Jefferson:

…personified this revolutionary transformation.  His ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as their is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations.

Wood does not flinch from the fact that Jefferson, while embodying for all time our most cherished vision of ourselves, was himself a member of the elite:

[Jefferson] was a well-connected and highly cultivated Southern landowner who never had to scramble for his position in Virginia.  The wealth and leisure that made possible his great contributions to liberty and democracy were supported by the labor of hundreds of slaves.

That Hamilton, the self-made man, would represent the rejected aristocratic vision while Jefferson, an aristocrat to his bones, would represent the adopted democratic vision, is one of the strange ironies of American history.    

Also at play during the 1790’s was the effect the French revolution had on the country.  I’d always known it was an issue but I didn’t realize how much until I read Wood’s book.  Virtually everyone in the United States supported the French revolutionaries in 1789 believing, correctly, that their own revolution had inspired the French.  However, as word spread about the appalling activities going on in France circa 1792-93, the Federalists began to have doubts about the true nature of the new French government.  On the other hand, Jefferson, who was blindly pro-French, and many fellow Republicans were always ready to excuse away any French democrats atrocities under the reasoning that you need to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet. To the Federalists it appeared that France’s revolution had devolved into nothing more than anarchy and terror, and given the rise of the democratic notions of the new merchant class, feared the same might happen here at home.  The issue fueled the mistrust between the two sides and colored virtually every public debate of the decade. 

And this only covers half the book though the idea that Wood concentrates on in the first half – that of the Jeffersonian revolution of the common man - infuses everything that comes later, for instance the furious rush westward, one that the federal government only could hope to control:

The carefully drawn plans of the 1780s for the orderly surveying and settlement of the West were simply overwhelmed by the massive and chaotic movement of the people….[m]any settlers ignored land ordinances and titles, squatted on the land, and claimed preemptive rights to it.  From 1800 on Congress steadily lowered the price of Western land, reduced the size of purchasable tracts, and relaxed the terms of credit for settlers in ever more desperate efforts to bring the land laws into line with the speed with which the lands were being settled.

If you ever need evidence of the American propensity for liberty and individual initiative free from government coercion, read Wood’s chapter on the push westward. 

This push, however, was disastrous for the American Indian.  (It would also set the stage for the argument about slavery in the Western territories, which set the stage for the Civil War.)  Jefferson and other leaders of the time held what they considered to be the enlightened view on the Indian issue: the civilization and assimilation of the Indian into white society.  This view:

…gave no recognition whatsoever to the worth or integrity of the Indians’ own existing culture.  In the minds of many early nineteenth-century whites, enlightened civilization was still too recent, too precarious, for them to treat it as simply an alternative culture of lifestyle.  Only later, only when the Indian culture had been virtually destroyed, could white Americans begin to try to redeem the tragedy that had occurred.

There is more, much more, to talk about in this wonderful book but I’ll leave it to you to explore the rest.  I’ll just end by saying simply that I loved this book.  It taught me much, explained a lot, and it made me think hard about the American character, the one that emerged during the Jeffersonian revolution of the '”middling sorts.”  Their confidence, initiative, and determination for self-improvement became instilled in the American persona, the idea of what it is to be an American.  Their demand for liberty became our birthright.  In the Age of Obama, do we still retain these characteristics?  I think so.  The push back against the statist, European vision of the Obama administration is heartening to see.  While I am certain that the elites in Congress don’t give a damn what ordinary Americans think, they do take public opinion into account when it comes to their reelection.  If there are enough of us “middling sorts” left out there, we may be able to defeat their collectivist vision and continue this Empire of Liberty with which we’ve been blessed.   

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The KSM Decision

Peter Wehner calls it “astonishing.” Jennifer Rubin calls it “shocking.” Others have used similar adjectives.  But at this point it’s really not so surprising at all.  The Obama administration’s decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his 9/11 co-conspirators in federal court has little to do with “bringing justice” to the terrorists who killed over 3,000 people on American soil.  After all, there is a military-tribunal system already in place for these types of cases and KSM and his cohorts could easily have been tried under the military’s jurisdiction.  In a post on The Corner yesterday, Andy McCarthy reveals the real reason for this decision: get George Bush.

The continuing investigations of Bush-era counterterrorism policies (i.e., the policies that kept us safe from more domestic terror attacks), coupled with the Holder Justice Department's obsession to disclose classified national-defense information from that period, enable Holder to give the hard Left the "reckoning" that he and Obama promised during the 2008 campaign. It would be too politically explosive for Obama/Holder to do the dirty work of charging Bush administration officials; but as new revelations from investigations and declassifications are churned out, Leftist lawyers use them to urge European and international tribunals to bring "torture" and "war crimes" indictments. Thus, administration cooperation gives Obama's base the reckoning it demands but Obama gets to deny responsibility for any actual prosecutions.

McCarthy goes on to list the downside for the country a civilian trial will result in:

Nothing results in more disclosures of government intelligence than civilian trials. They are a banquet of information, not just at the discovery stage but in the trial process itself, where witnesses — intelligence sources — must expose themselves and their secrets.

McCarthy ought to know.  He was the Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and the eleven others convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.  He’s been intimately involved in the investigation and study of international terrorism for two decades.  He knows what of he speaks.  And it would defy common sense to believe that some in the Obama administration don’t understand this also.  Yet still they proceed.  Why, when their are already military-tribunals in place; to which KSM and his buddies already had planned to plead guilty; to “crimes” which KSM had already confessed?  What can possibly be gained by trying these butchers in civilian court?

It’s clear now that this promised “post-partisan” administration is actually rabidly partisan.  They passed a left-wing “stimulus” package, they backed a left-wing cap-and-trade bill (which thankfully seems to be dead), and they are still hard at work trying to get through a left-wing health care bill.  The Republican party has been cut out of all debate and even the so-called Blue-Dog Democrats have their arms twisted to vote for widely unpopular legislation which may cost them their seats.  A normal administration would be quite careful to keep a hold on the legislative majorities the Democrats now enjoy.  But this is not a normal administration.  It is driven by ideology and ideologues will sacrifice their own for the benefit of what they believe is the common good.  I’d say Obama knuckles under to the left on each issue but are you really knuckling-under when you share those views?  The president, his attorney general, and virtually his entire administration are of the left.  And part of the left’s agenda is to thoroughly and completely discredit the Bush administration.  Hence yesterday’s decision. As Jennifer Rubin points out, that it was announced on a Friday while Congress is out of session and the president is out of the country suggests the Obama administration knows how unpopular this decision will be with the American people.  But again, ideologues don’t care much about the opinion of ordinary people. 

I’ll leave it to McCarthy to explain the consequences of these upcoming show-trials:

…the circus will be played out for all to see — in the middle of the war. It will provide endless fodder for the transnational Left to press its case that actions taken in America's defense are violations of international law that must be addressed by foreign courts. And the intelligence bounty will make our enemies more efficient at killing us.

UPDATE: Someone else who should know, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor and also a former U.S. District Attorney for New York, goes into much greater detail of the dangers of this decision in the video below.  Some of the adjectives he uses to describe this: dangerous, irresponsible, incompetent.  Watch the whole thing and then I have a few questions for my fellow conservatives out there: what precisely is it about Rudy Giuliani that stopped you from supporting him during the presidential primaries?  Would you have any doubts whatsoever that this man, as president, would be zealous in his efforts to keep Americans safe? 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bloomingdale’s Restaurant

Lileks asks today if any of his readers have ever worked in a restaurant, citing the beneficial aspects of it.  Of course he wants people to respond in the comments section but we bloggers will use any excuse to publish on our own blogs.

My first real job was as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant called Ernesto’s in Vienna, VA.  I was fifteen years old.  It wasn’t a bad job (except the time I spilled a tray full of water glasses all over a customer.  But it was his fault.  He accidentally knocked the arm I was carrying the tray with with his own.  Somehow this didn’t seem to matter to him much as he sat there, drenched) though I only worked there for a few months.  One day we all showed up for work and discovered the doors locked.  The owner, apparently deeply in debt, had absconded with the previous night’s proceeds, and disappeared.  That’s the story that went around anyway. 

When I was sixteen I worked at the Gino’s restaurant near the Tysons Corner Mall, a now defunct fast-food place that server burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  I was in charge of cooking the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I was good, baby.  Best KFC you ever tasted.  I was there for at least a year, until they cut my hours back.  After that it wasn’t worth it and I looked elsewhere for employment.  I worked as a janitor for awhile in an office building in McLean, VA. but I got fired for not showing up for work on my eighteenth birthday.  I then stayed unemployed until my graduation from high school after which I took off for Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts to spend the summer with my father. 

Actually, I was only going up for my usual three-week summer vacation with my dad.  But as the weeks progressed I realized I had nothing to go back to in Virginia – no job, no plans for college – so I figured, why not stay?  After our three-week stay at the beach in the cottage my father had rented, my cousin and I stayed at a cottage his step-sister had rented for a few weeks.  Once that ran up I went back to the city to stay with my dad and his wife.  But with them at work all day and not knowing anyone else in the city I got bored and finally decided to head back to Northern Virginia.  Much to the relief of my mother, who feared she was losing me. 

She also was concerned about my future.  Once I was back living under her roof she was insistent that if I wasn’t going to college I needed to get a job.  This was end of summer, 1976. I really had no interest at the time but knew it was inevitable as my savings from my previous job, plus the infusion of cash my dad provided when I left Massachusetts, was running out.  My worried mother started looking in the want ads for me and it was she who found the ad for the job at Bloomingdale’s, which was about to open its first store outside New York at the Tysons Corner Mall.  When I applied it was for any old job but they hired me to work as a waiter in the restaurant on the third floor, La Provence.  (There was a second restaurant abutting it called Forty Carrots, a counter where they served lighter, so-called healthier fare.) Anyhow, the job at Bloomingdale’s would change my life because it was there that I met my baby.  I’m not sure if my mom ever put those two things together, that it was her actions that led to my meeting my love.  Not much slips by my mother, one of the smartest and most perceptive people I know, so she probably has.  But of course she is also one of the classiest people I know too so she would never mention it.  At any rate, thanks mom. 

Anyhow, I spent seven years waiting tables at Bloomindale’s, and I made a lot of money, enough to buy a condo near the end of my stay there.  I worked a shift that started at 11:30 and ran until we closed at 8:00, so I got both the lunch and dinner rushes in.  I made about $25,000 per year, pretty good money for a guy my age at that time.  I was always flush back then and since the tips came all in cash (even the tips that were charged came back to me in cash at the end of the night) I often walked around with a grand or more in my pocket.  My future wife worked the dinner rush because she was putting herself through school during the day.  I still remember the first time I met her, when she walked into the place in her waitress outfit, her long blonde hair flowing down her back.  (WOW.)  I was twenty years old, she was nineteen.  I’d actually quit Bloomingdale’s earlier that year and moved to Daytona Beach for about six months and had just returned and gotten my job back.  My baby had started during my absence and had herself just returned from a trip to Florida.  When others started asking her about her trip I insinuated myself into the conversation with my own tails of Florida, trying my damndest to impress.  She blew me off.

But only for awhile.  We became friends first and stayed that way for a few years, though she was always aware of my romantic interest.  I hosted the restaurant’s Christmas party at my townhouse when I was twenty-two and that night, as we exchanged presents, came the first breakthrough on my many year quest for her.  She claims that it was I who made the move for the kiss but I know it was her – she just couldn’t resist any longer, heh, heh.  We’ve joked about that for years.  She claims that if the question was put to all who knew us, who was more likely to make the first move, me or her, that she’d win the argument in a landslide.  In other words, that everyone would think I made the first move.  I tell her that’s beside the point. I was there and I know what happened.  Still, she’ll argue the point.

But this post was supposed to be about working in a restaurant.  The work itself was enjoyable – I liked waiting tables and dealing with the public.  And I was good, at least if you measured by how much money we all made.  I almost always made more money than my colleagues for I recognized right away that the vast majority of those eating were at Bloomingdale’s primarily to shop, not eat.  They wanted a quick meal, polite and efficient service, no dessert, and the check.  So the idea was to get-em-in-and-get-em-out.  The more parties you could work during the rush, the more money you would make.  Of course, there were always those who wanted to relax and linger, and recognizing them was also important.  You might not get turnover with them but if you handled them right you could run up a big bill and perhaps get a big tip.  Figuring out what people wanted and giving it to them was part of the art.  As a result I had lots of regular customers, another reason I would end up making more than everyone else.  Regulars were almost always good tippers. 

Near the end, as my baby and I became more serious, I knew that I couldn’t wait tables my whole life.  If I was going to marry her I needed something more than this.  So I went back to school, starting first at Northern Virginia Community College and then transferring over to George Mason University.  I continued at Bloomingdale’s with my usual shift, taking classes early in the morning.  At a certain point I realized I had to quit if I was going to finish school in a decent amount of time, as my work schedule just didn’t permit me to take a full load of classes.  I quit and took a job working only evenings at Blackie’s House of Beef in Springfield, freeing myself up to take late morning and afternoon classes, along with an evening class on my night off Blackie’s.  And Blackie’s was fun too.  More importantly, it paid the bills during my years in school.  It was a completely different style of waiting tables than I was used to and it took me some time to get the hang of it.  I did eventually though I never took to Blackie’s the way I took to Bloomingdale’s.   

Then I got a job working for the FDIC in IT, my current field.  This was during my last year of college.  I took what classes I had remaining in the morning, took a subway downtown to work at the F-Dick from 12:00-5:00, subway-ed, then drove over to Blackie’s by 6:00 for the dinner shift, finally home by 10-11:00.  It was an exhausting schedule and I could never do it again.  I saw my baby on Sundays, usually for an all-day stint of studying at the library at Georgetown University, where by this time she was studying for her PhD. 

And then we got married and I got a full-time job with FDIC.  I still had to finish a few more classes up that summer to get my degree and I kept the job at Blackie’s in an attempt to make as much money as I could, having just bought a house.  But I couldn’t do it anymore.  After about twelve years of waiting tables I simply had no more motivation.  I found myself giving away my tables to others because I couldn’t bring myself to walk up to another table and say, “Hi folks, how’s every one tonight?”.  Truth is, I didn’t care how they were.  I just wanted to get on with my new life.  One night I walked up to the manager at Blackie’s and simply said, “I quit.”  To his credit, he replied, “I don’t blame you.”  And that was that.

But this post is titled “Bloomingdale’s Restaurant” and it was Bloomies that I originally intended this post to be about.  It was a great place to work for a young person and we had lots of fun there.  For years there was a group of us who would head out after work to have a few drinks – that was a pretty good crew.  We’ve lost track of them all now but here’s to all the old Bloomies gang: Marie at the grill, John the host, Sylvia the cashier, Helen the night hostess, Juanita cooking in the back, George making sandwiches and desserts, Greg, my best friend and fellow music-lover and drinking buddy, Brian, who played in a band, Melissa, besides Greg my best drinking buddy, Monica, Saul, Adrian, Mike who also played in a band, the other Mike, Monroe who I saw years later working at the National Archives, Pam, Lynda, Jan, Ginny, and the dozens of others we came to know during those years.  It was a lot of fun folks.

More Mercer

In my post last week on the TCM tribute to Johnny Mercer, I excerpted a paragraph from Terry Teachout’s 2004 Commentary column on Mercer, mentioning that the full column was hidden behind the subscription firewall. Good news. Terry watched the TCM special also and posted most of the column over on his site. His thoughts about Mercer are well worth reading. He adds an addendum at the end of the post with some book and music recommendations. I already own Nancy Lamott’s marvelous Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercerlisten to her “Moon River” below, easily the best version I’ve ever heard – and, thanks to Terry, the Mosaic three-CD box set is on its way.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Once Upon A Summertime

Once upon a summertime if you recall
We stopped beside a little flower stall
A bunch of bright forget-me-nots was all you let me buy you
Once upon a summertime just like today
We laughed the happy afternoon away
And stole a kiss in every street cafe
You were sweeter than the blossom on the tree
I was as proud as any man could be
As if the mayor had offered me the key, the key to Paris
Now another wintertime has come and gone
The pigeons feeding in the square have flown
But I remember when the vespers chime
You loved me once upon a summertime.

Johnny Mercer, Once Upon a Summertime

Saturday, November 7, 2009

That’s Another Question

Okay, earlier today I answered the desert island question, kind of (see below). Now I pose a question James Lileks’ asked on The Bleat (if you don’t read Lileks’ blog daily you’re missing something) yesterday:  You are given a check for a million dollars, tax free. You have to spend it. You cannot use it on bills, or invest it, or just give it away. What would you do with it?

Lileks says he’d make a movie, which is a great idea.  I’ve written two screenplays, the second of which I really think could find a market if we could get it made.  It might need a bit of tweaking from the professionals but what original screenplay doesn’t? So that’s a possibility.  My wife’s immediate response was to buy a house at the beach and I could go for that too.  My first response was perhaps an apartment in Manhattan so I could pop up to NYC whenever I wanted.  Second response was to set up vacations all over the world for the next decade and beyond, flying first-class, staying at the finest hotels, eating the best food, etc.  I’d also buy all the books, music, and DVDs I ever wanted and get a club membership at the best golf course close to my house.   

I might also buy a new car, not because I don’t like the one I’m driving now but because what I have now is old and it has a cassette tape player and I’d want something with a CD player and a plug for my IPod.  The car itself means not much to me, so long as it’s reliable. 

Would I buy a new, bigger, home?  No.  Neither my wife nor I ever cared about living in a big house.  Too much space to keep clean.  At this point in our lives if we move we’d probably go smaller, into a condo.   Maybe we’d use the money to move into a very nice condo, so long as a weekly visit from the cleaning-lady came with it.  I hate housework and so does my baby. 

Someone responded in the posts’ comments section with perhaps an even more interesting question, one that may shed more light on your character than the original question: “What if you won a huge lotto? Big enough so you wouldn’t have any worries about money, ever again. Now, it’s two years after you’ve won that. You’ve travelled, you have the RV, the cabin, the remodel, whatever. You wake up and it’s Monday morning. What is your day like?”

Who can say, really?  I think that my day would not be so different from what it would be without the money.  At least I hope it wouldn’t be.  I’m certain that I’d still have the same interests and concerns.  I’m in my fifties: I know my likes and dislikes, and I know my own mind.  I’ve never longed for splendor, nor for anything that I couldn’t buy with my own hard-earned money.  To be honest, I like money, it buys you a bit of freedom and gives you some peace-of-mind, but it’s not a central to my happiness.  So long as I have my girl, my family, a few friends, and a few outlets, like music and the theater and trips to New York, with the occasional jaunt over to Europe, then I’m happy. 

Someone in the comments answered that they’d build a theater and hire pros to run it, and then sit back and enjoy the people in town seeing great theater.  What a grand idea!  Put me down for that one too. 

Another responded that he’d try to outdo Andrew Carnegie for philanthropy and that too crossed my mind.  I’d like to come up with some sort of organization dedicated to a cause that I was certain would benefit my community and/or the world at large.  I’d staff it with a few pros whom I respected but mostly with family and a few friends since they would be the only people I fully trusted, at least at the beginning.  (I’d have my wife overseeing the books because I could then be certain we weren’t be spending a penny more than was necessary.  I love you baby.) Something like that could be highly rewarding.

Okay, enough for today.  It’s the weekend and we all need some downtime.  If I were infinitely rich I hope I’d still do what I plan to do today as a poor pauper: spend some time with my love and continue reading an astoundingly good book, Gordon Woods’ Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.  If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the very happy guy on the couch.


I recently joined Goodreads, a site for booklovers, and I’ve been adding books to my “read” list as I recall them.  The list is up to 360 books as of today though that number is only a fraction of what I’ve read in my life. I’ll be adding more.  Perusing my bookshelves the other day in order to add to the list I came across the book Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, by Greil Marcus, which I bought when it was first released back in 1979 and I was 21 years old.  The book consists of twenty rock and roll writers essays answering the question: what rock and roll record would you take to a desert island?  Marcus adds a final chapter entitled “Treasure Island” in which he answers a different question: were a Martian to land on earth and ask you the meaning of rock and roll, what would you play to explain.  Marcus uses the question to craft a commented discography is which he outlines the best rock and roll has to offer, at least up to that time. 

It’s a fun book with some surprising entries and it got me thinking.  When I purchased the book thirty years ago my answer to the desert island question would have been unequivocal: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.  (I’ve blogged about Van and Astral Weeks previously here and put together sort of my own rock and roll discography here, here and here.)  I have loved Astral Weeks since the first time I put it on the record player when I was in my mid-teens.  I had no idea at the time that it was considered by the rock cognoscenti such as Marcus and Lester Bangs (who chooses Astral Weeks as his desert island record in the book) as one of rock and roll’s masterpieces.  I simply knew that I loved it.  It got to me in a way that no other record ever had.  And no one else knew about it!  It was my own little treasure.  And it would be tucked under my arm when I landed on that desert island. 

Would it still be?  If the desert island question were presented to me today would I still choose as I did as a 21 year old?  A 51 year old has different needs than a 21 year old, after all.  Would the me of today need or want to ride Astral Weeks’ emotional roller coaster in his desert island existence? (By the way, I’ve quoted Lester Bangs in this space previously as saying “Cyprus Avenue”, one of the records finest songs, was about “rapture, and despair.”  Perusing his essay this morning, I see that he says “rapture and anguish.”  I was close but wrong.  Thirty years will play with your memory.) Plus, as anyone who has read even the past few posts on this blog knows, my musical tastes have…what?   I was about to say my musical tastes have changed, but that’s not true.  The rock and roll I loved thirty years ago I still love.  Better to say my musical horizons have widened.  These days I listen to classical, jazz, and standards as much as I listen to rock and roll, probably more.  After all, I’ve heard the rock and roll thousands of time by now.  There is nothing new there, while there is still plenty of new music to explore in those other areas.  Anyhow, I digress.  Probably because I am avoiding the question.  What record are you tucking under your arm as the ship that dropped you off sails away into the distance?

I could cop out like Marcus and simply say, well, I’ll take my IPod with me along with the twenty-five hundred songs I have on it.  That’ll do.  No, you say?  I must choose a single record or CD?  Can I least put together a compilation?  No?  No. 

And the answer to the question is: I don’t know.  Or, at least, it depends on the day.  Today I might still choose Astral Weeks, tomorrow some other Van Morrison record, like Tupelo Honey, or Saint Dominic’s Preview, or Veedon Fleece.  Would I choose any other rock and roll?  No.  The older I get the more I am convinced that Van Morrison is the greatest rock and roller of them all (i.e. my favorite).  I listen to his music far more than anyone else, including Dylan. Pack me off to the island with just Van’s oeuvre and I’d be satisfied. 

But there are other contenders now.  Today I might choose some Bach concertos, such as this CD, which I adore.  I imagine keeping oneself from falling into the depths of despair would be of central concern on a desert island and I know of no music more joyous than the Bach concertos.  Tomorrow I’d perhaps choose Beethoven’s Archduke Piano Trio whose jaunty, bouncy second movement would keep one’s spirits up and whose first movement would add a dose of pure beauty to go along with it.  If you deem that large doses of beauty are the most important need on the island, Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet might do the trick.  It’s a touch choice, as you can see.

Perhaps a Jo Stafford collection, Helen Merrill’s debut album or Frank Sinatra Only The Lonely would fit the bill.  Jo Stafford’s full, rich voice could see you through a lot, and, to my taste, when she sang the standards no one did it better.  The Merrill and Sinatra records might be dangerous though.  You might want them in order to wallow in your despair but listen to them too much on your desert island and suicide may be your only way out.  As much as I love them, best they be left back on the mainland. 

Or maybe I’d bring along Pops’ Hot Fives and Sevens, perhaps the seminal jazz recordings.  The music is consistently great and it has the added benefit of including ninety songs.  That’d last you awhile.  And whose spirits would not be lifted while listening to Louis Armstrong sing and blow his horn?   

Clearly this post has devolved into an excuse for listing some of my favorite music.  So sue me.  Marcus used an entire book to list his.

There is more but time is short this morning so I’ll end.  Today, if forced to choose, I’d still go with Van Morrison.  But I’d take one of his later records, Magic Time, because you’d need a dose of magic if you’re all alone forever on a desert island.  And what song would be more appropriate to your existence than its opening track?  It would be the story of your life:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bach’s Cantatas

Speaking of looking back (see post below) I’ve recently been looking way back, about 275 years.  I’ve loved Bach for a long time now but most of what I’ve listened to is his secular music, his violin concertos, the Brandenburgs, the harpsichord concertos, his cello suites, his violin sonatas, etc.  Most of this music was written between the years 1717-1723 when Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold of of Anhalt-Köthen.  The prince loved Bach and apparently the feeling was mutual.  Furthermore, the prince knew his music – he was a gifted violinist - and as a result he realized Bach’s genius.  He put no restrictions on what Bach could write and for this we can thank Prince Leopold for some of the most glorious music in the Western canon.  So, thanks Leo. 

But all good things must come to an end.  Leopold married in 1721 to a shrew who apparently had no appreciation of music and who felt that Leopold was spending far too much money on his court orchestra and Bach.  Bach hated her and things began to deteriorate from there.  By 1723 he felt he could no longer continue as Kapellmeister at Cöthen.  Bach was offered the position as Cantor at Leipzig, and though Leopold’s shrew kicked the bucket before he accepted, Bach decided to move on anyway.  Alas, if only she had died sooner, before Bach had started looking for other employment, musical history may have been changed forever.  At any rate, Bach would spend the rest of his career at Leipzig until his death in 1750.  And unlike his position with the prince, his new job imposed strict requirements on what he could write.  The main requirement, other than teaching at the school, was to “provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig”.  This necessarily meant that most of what Bach wrote forever after was church music (though he would write both The Art of the Fugue and the wondrous Goldberg Variations late in life).  Hence his St. Matthews Passion, the Mass in B Minor, and his chorale preludes and cantatas, both of which he wrote hundreds.  The sheer volume of these works intimidate the newcomer.  Which ones should we listen to?  Which are the best?  Having completed re-listening to Robert Greenberg’s Teaching Company course How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, I’ve now begun re-listening to his Bach and the High Baroque.  This has inspired me to take a shot at the cantatas.  The cantata form rose during the Baroque alongside opera and oratorio.  They were essentially small scale operas intended for the church, for one or two singers, acting out the gospel lesson of the day or week.  As such, a new one was needed weekly, which explains how we know of some 250 Bach cantatas, with many hundreds more thought lost. 

I received Bach: Cantatas BWV 80, 140, 147; Jesu, meine Freude from Amazon last week and listened to the cantatas at home and during my morning workouts this week.  And they are marvelous.  I especially love the first movement choruses – the chorus of Wachet auf (“Sleepers Awake”), BWV 140, is truly sublime.  I know I use this phrase a lot when discussing music, but it makes me giddy.  Everyone knows some of this music, for instance the fourth movement choral movement of Wachet Auf can he heard here:

If you’ve ever been to church, you’ll recognize some of this music.  If anyone told me twenty years ago that I’d be listening to and enjoying church music I’d have told them they were crazy but there it is.  Here is that sublime first movement chorus to Cantata No. 140.  Turn up the volume and enjoy: