What size of ukulele do you play? Is the a particular manufacturer that I should look for when I go to Hawaii in a few weeks?
I play a concert-size uke. I have the thick hands of one who makes his living through manual labor. So when I bought my first ukulele — which was also my first stringed instrument — I thought I might have trouble getting my big fingers to work with a traditional (soprano) sized one.
Last year I could not, could not, could not execute a tricky chord in a song I wanted to learn. I just couldn’t stretch my fingers around to do what the chord chart needed them to do and after weeks of frustration, I started to wonder if the troublesome extra dots in the chord were a printing error instead of the composer’s artistic intention.
I solved the problem by buying a soprano uke, whose smaller fretboard wouldn’t make me try to “reach” quite so far. After a few weeks of practice with it, I was able to transfer that chord to my usual instrument, too.
So it was a successful experiment. Mostly the soprano helped me break through the psychological barrier. It happens time and time again as I push myself to learn songs with trickier chords and fingerings: I’m absolutely convinced that this chord is simply unplayable. Until I somehow figure out how to play it. And then months later I can’t understand why I thought it was so complicated. That, and simple, dumb programming of muscle memory, is how you learn a song.
I’ve been to Hawaii exactly once so I’m certainly no expert on what ukulele maker you should check out while you’ve over there. I suspect there’s plenty to choose from. But that trip sparked my initial interest in the uke. If I ever get a chance to go back, I’ll certainly take the Kamaka Ukulele factory tour. The Honolulu-based, family-owned company has been making ukes for close to a hundred years and the instruments have a good reputation.
I’d love to own one of their instruments some day. I suspect that if I do return to Hawaii I won’t be able to resist the urge to sample a few models and pick one to take back to the mainland.
I think I’d also take an opportunity to get my first formal ukulele lesson. I’ve just been working it out as I go. It’d be…interesting…to show my technique to someone who knows what he or she’s doing and see how they react. (“Why on earth did you think you were supposed to blow through the soundboard?”)
That said, I don’t actually own what you might call a “good” uke. My first was a secondhand Fluke and I’ve picked up two Chinese-made instruments in the years since. The third was the soprano; the second was another concert one that I acquired because I wanted something with an integrated pickup for Garageband recording.
I’m holding off on investing serious scratch on a good uke until I achieve the lofty state of ability known as “adequacy.” I worry about becoming one of those dopes who can’t figure out what’s going wrong with their photography or their putting and blames it all on inadequate equipment.
I mean, I’m certain that a $2800 Nikon d800 can focus faster and get cleaner photos at high ISOs than my little Panasonic GX1. But on the whole, taking five seconds to think about a shot before clicking the shutter is a lot cheaper and yields better results.
You missed Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” on Friday despite my explicit command to watch it?
I am displeased. But the holiday season has left me in an indulgent mood, so here it is, courtesy of YouTube.
I place this one in the top three of all time. Easily. Putting Paul in the middle of the stage was a terrific move. Among my favorite details of this performance, year after year, is seeing the absolute glee with which Paul Shaffer performs. It’s the same sort of facial expressions you see in the dogpile at home plate when a team wins the World Series. You’re seeing experienced, professional adults suddenly reverting to who they were at ten years old. Little Leaguers fantasized about the World Series and in 1963 14-year-old musicians listening to transistor radios fantasied about playing on a Phil Spector-produced Darlene Love record.
Enjoy this Late Show-produced supercut of her performances over the years:
I wonder if they’ve ever considered closing down 53rd Street and making it a big, open-air performance? They’ve done it a few times for other musical acts. Boy, I’d definitely jump on an Amtrak train to see that one. With the Macy’s Parade and the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, it’d be a great complement to NYC’s other public holiday events.
How did the show solve the “No Jay Thomas” problem? By having John McEnroe tell the Lone Ranger story:
…And then they had him try to knock the meatball off of the tree by serving tennis balls at it.
He eventually got the job done by charging the tree like it was the umpire chair and the meatball had just made a call McEnroe didn’t like. I’m surprised that the show didn’t have a tennis ball serving machine standing by.
All in all another fabulous show. The only missing element was Paul Shaffer singing “O Holy Night,” though it’s possible that this part of the show is going the way of the “Viewer Mail” segment, if it hasn’t already.
While I’m sharing holiday music videos, get a load of this one of “O Holy Night,” performed at Boston’s Museum Of Fine Arts last weekend.
“O Holy Night” is far and away my favorite Christmas song. A good one will get me tearing up. A great one will unleash the waterworks. This is a great one. The vocal performance, the arrangement, the presentation…this, to me, is a perfect encapsulation of the meaning of Christmas for people of the Christian faith. If you’re not Christian, I think it represents a perfect expression of peace and joy.
The video’s title describes it as a “flash mob,” which is why I clicked the link with a certain cynical sense of weariness. It wasn’t a flash mob at all. In truth, the organizers had solved the problem of beginning a public performance. The music chairs and stands and mics had been set up in this public space. How to get the crowd to quiet down and pay attention? Well, you just have the cellist take his seat and hold a note for a long time. People will get the picture. When the crowd is ready, the rest of the musicians drift in and add to the music.
Speaking of “getting the picture”…I hope that if I were ever to stumble across such a fine performance, I’d have enough self-discipline to keep my phone or my camera stowed.
I’m not even criticizing the dozens of people who held up devices. It’s not totally a bad instinct. Nobody could have foreseen how significant these little devices would become after they started shipping with halfway decent cameras. Anyone could have guessed that folks would take more photos and share them readily with friends and family. That’s only the most obvious impact, however.
Our phones become digital storehouses for our experiences. Like the mausoleum of an ancient Egyptian king, we’re surrounded by the artifacts of our lives. Whenever we tap a button, open the “Pictures” roll, and flick our thumbs over the screen, we relive all of these casual moments we’ve collected since the last time we switched phones. If you set up your new phone by doing a full restore from your own phone, you’re carrying your lifetime with you.
So I understand the impulse to come away from this most joyous and unexpected performance with some sort of tangible memento. I know I couldn’t have resisted firing off a few shots. But it’s so much better to watch it live and in 3D, instead of through a little LCD or LED screen.
I imagine if I had been there, I wouldn’t even been watching it live at all. Music this beautiful is enhanced when you close your eyes and devote all of your CPU cores to processing the sound. I would have been standing there with my eyes shut and with the biggest grin on my face you’ve ever seen.
This is a clumsy compliment but it’s genuine: my sole disappointment with this video is that there isn’t a “Buy It Now” button anywhere nearby. If the audio recording is for sale anywhere, I haven’t found it…and I spent twenty minutes searching.
Thankfully, there are YouTube downloader apps, and a feature in QuickTime Player that allows you to save just the audio of a movie file. But rest assured that the moment I’m presented with the opportunity to give these people money, I will.
The David Letterman Christmas Spectacular — which isn’t the official title of the last new Letterman show before Christmas but absolutely ought to be — is airing this Friday night. Please check your calendar, set your DVR, wind your watches, block your hats, and nog any eggs whose palatability could be improved by such a procedure.
This show is a beloved holiday tradition in my house. For decades, the show’s followed this same template:
Paul Shaffer tells the story of a Cher Christmas special that aired in the 70s, and then does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night”:
Jay Thomas comes on and goes into what Dave has endorsed as The Greatest Talk Show Guest Story Ever Told:
And then Jay and Dave compete in the Late Show Holiday Quarterback Challenge. They take turns chucking footballs at the meatball on top of the Late Show Christmas tree until one of them knocks it off.
“Why is there a meatball on the top of the tree?” you may well ask. You may also ask why it’s on top of a souvenir Empire State Building that’s on top of a large cheese pizza. The original reason for it is no longer relevant because, like all family traditions, the correct answer is now “Because it’s Christmas. And at Christmastime, we always put a cheese pizza on top of the tree, and then cover the top spiky branch with a souvenir of the Empire State Building, and then plop a giant meatball on top of the whole thing.”
Then there’s a guest, and then there’s the moment the whole show has been building towards: Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)”.
There’s such obvious joy on every square foot of that stage. Chorus, strings, extra horns, the blonde curly-haired keyboardist who supplements Paul in the keyboard pit every time an arrangement on the show calls for four hands (I can’t believe I couldn’t find her name on Google), the fake snow, the special lighting…it’s obvious that the whole show derives enormous pride and pleasure in these three or four minutes. As well they should!
[Edited to add: reader Tim Schwab suggests that the band's second keyboardist is Bette Sussman. Yup.]
Am I spoiling it for you by embedding all of these clips? Of course not. Is it spoiling your family Christmas party to know in advance that your Aunt is going to play “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a concertina, that your grandfather will wear the same Santa tie that he wears every year, and that your Mom will be bringing those mini pecan pies that she bakes inside muffin tins? Of course not. I look forward to this for weeks for the same reason why I usually order the same sandwich at my favorite diner. I loved it the last time and I know I’m going to love it the next time.
I’m informed that Jay Thomas won’t be telling his story or hurling a pig product at a cow product this year. Dash it. Well, I’m sure that they’ll find a way to use that time that will provoke Letterman fans to say “Hey, remember that one Christmas when they…” for many years to come.
I’ve always felt some sympathy for the one “normal” guest booked for that show. Everyone else on that stage has an established, eagerly-anticipated part to play. The guest probably feels like they’re joining their boyfriend or girlfriend’s family Christmas dinner for the first party. Should they join in on the traditions, or wait until they feel entitled?
This year, they’ve got Kristen Wiig, who clearly knows how to make some funny in any situation. Actually, by this time in the “Anchorman 2″ promotional campaign, I reckon she can make some funny and plug the movie in any situation up to and partially through the Biblical apocalypse. If Dave got raptured during the interview, she’d probably slide into the empty chair and use some of her anchordesk material, barely even noticing the angels as they cleave their way through the audience with swords of purifying fire.
(You have to admit: we’ve been hearing an awful lot about this movie for a very long time.)
When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he intended to document and popularize ways to celebrate the holiday. It was like one of those Martha Stewart Christmas magazines, only the polar opposite of smug and insufferable. The sole downside of that book is that it’s probably guilted a lot of people into trying to honor the Dickens tradition instead of anticipating and enjoying events and celebrations that have some personal relevance.
I do not go caroling, I don’t cook a goose, and though I’ve attended lots of Christmas parties, I’ve never polished and buffed my calves in advance in hopes that they would “shine like moons”, as Old Mr. Fezziwig’s did.
But I do watch the David Letterman Christmas Show. I’m keeping Christmas my own way and am made quite glad of it.
I should really activate the parental controls on the TV in my bedroom. I’m not concerned about limiting my access to sex and violence so much as controlling the times that I can get sucked into great movies that I’ve never seen before. Friday morning’s casualty was “Infamous.” In one of those weird things that sometimes happens in Hollywood, two movies about author Truman Capote got made at about the same time, and both movies focused on the same period of Capote’s life: the research and writing of “In Cold Blood.”
“Infamous” started up just as I was making the bed and starting my long commute downstairs to my office. I’d seen “Capote” (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) in a theaters and I was a bit curious to see how Toby Jones approached the same character.
And the next thing I knew, it was lunchtime. “Infamous” is the more intense of the two movies by far. It’s understood that the intensity of researching and writing “In Cold Blood” (a process that involved forging a very close relationship with one of the killers) had a profound effect on the author. “Capote” presents it as a kind of transformation, albeit not for the good. “Infamous” left me feeling as though he had suffered a death of self without a subsequent rebirth.
Which is why I found myself scrambling to start my day a couple of hours late. I didn’t even bother to move to the room with the sofa and the good TV; I didn’t even think to get off of the half-made bed.
It’s not available for the Kindle. Dash it. And then, as the mouse pointer hovered over the “Buy With 1-Click” button, I realized that I didn’t even want to wait until Monday to start reading it.
So I grabbed my bag, put on my shoes, and headed for my local library, after checking online and verifying that they had it.
I love libraries. And here’s something I love just as much, if not even more: creating the false impression that I use libraries every day. In truth, this was the first book I’ve checked out of my local library in over a year. If I’m interested in a book, I’ll buy the Kindle edition. If it’s not available digitally, Google or Amazon will help me find another book that’ll satisfy a similar itch.
Yes, it’s a terrible and myopic relationship with books. It limits me to the subset of English literature that’s either in the public domain or copyrighted works that are still commercial enough to merit a digital edition.
In my defense, however, Day Two with the dead treeware edition of this book reminds me of the life I left behind when I began my relationship with ebooks. For all of the romantic praise that’s been lavished on printed books — the smell of the glue, the crackle of the binding, the dogears and light stains acquired through several generations of love and use — you won’t carry a three-inch-thick stack of paper with you unless you really, really know you’ll need it. I’m in a coffeeshop right now. The perfect spot to do a little reading before or after work. My usual daily carry bag won’t accommodate Truman Capote; I had to scrounge through the office for a promotional canvas bag that came with a loaner Nokia tablet.
Or, I can sling my usual bag (thick enough for a 13″ notebook and an iPad but little else) and carry the book by itself. Holding it low by my hip triggers painful flashbacks to junior high. Carrying it high makes me look like I’ve hollowed it out and am using it to smuggle a recording device into a movie theater or a loaded gun into one of the majority of places where packing heat is regarded as a serious social faux pas.
The experience did make me realize something: I’ve discovered the justification for commercial drones. I really did want that book right away. This is the perfect item to be delivered by autonomous octocopter: it’s light and takes up little volume.
It has the added twist of being something that I maybe shouldn’t have just bought sight unseen, even if it had been available as a digital download. I was taking a flutter on this book. If I’m honest, I’ve had to skip over Capote’s earliest work, which I found too obsessively lyrical for my taste.
The multistate lottery jackpot is up to $500,000,000. My sensible policy regarding lotteries is that I’ll buy one or two quick picks if the payout can legitimately described as a fraction of a billion dollars.
If I win, I have big plans for my local library. I’m going to buy them a fleet of drones. When you visit their website and find the book you were looking for, there’ll be a new button next to “Reserve”: “Airdrop.” Twenty minutes later, you’ll hear a rrrrrrrrrrrrRRRZZZZZZZZZ that increases in pitch and volume, and then a soft thunk outside your door. Presto: literature.
Later generations of these library drones will include two features that I consider essential to robotic package delivery: the drone should ring your doorbell by extending a white-gloved four-fingered hand on a scissor-tong. And when it acknowledges that a human has received the package, that same hand should remove a small brown bowler hat from atop the drone and tip it to the recipient before buzzing back to base. The hat will have no purpose other than to make this vital courtesy possible.
Ultimately, we’ll weaponize them to enforce collection of library fines and also ensure that the Amazon drones stay within their territories and leave the library’s air corridors alone, if they don’t want an airborne repeat of the bootlegger wars of 1920s Chicago.
But that’s for the future. First step is to win that lottery. Then, we start a pilot program. Or, if you will, a pilotless program.
I’ve suddenly realized what I’ll enjoy the most about this: I’ll be able to make terrible jokes like that one and people will pretty much have to laugh. I’ll be a half-a-billionare, which means that such things will be magically thought of as Quirky and not Gratingly Annoying. Also, I’m making it possible for everybody in the community to receive the full benefits of their local library without leaving their homes, so everyone will be willing to humor me. They probably okayed the library drone program because they thought they’d be able to hit me up for funds to long-overdue bridge repairs and upgrades to water treatment plant capacity later on.
Also, when someone during the town meeting Q&A asked me if I will have an override code that allows me to commandeer this fleet of armed drones to enforce my will upon a defenseless population, I’ll offer an answer that’s exactly what they want to hear, but just evasive enough to instill a slight concern that all will remember. It’s going to be great.
Who was Linda Ronstadt, when you first met her music?
To me, she was a Broadway musical star first. She starred as Mabel in a 1980 production of “The Pirates Of Penzance” that was super-popular at the time. It certainly would have been a loud blip on the radar of a kid who was (then as now) a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan.
This was one hell of a show. It made stars out of Kevin Kline and Rex Smith…but Rex Smith is a tenor, so screw ‘im. Here’s fellow baritone Kevin Kline as The Pirate King:
If you enjoy whatever work you do today as much as Kevin Kline obviously enjoyed being the Pirate King on that stage, count your blessings. This is light comedy that invites broad performances. If you’re not having fun up there, you’re somehow doing it wrong. Kline plays his part as though he’s trying to load in as many Happy Brain Chemicals as he can while the screenplay for “Sophie’s Choice” remains in his agent’s office, unread. He’s going to be playing a deeply troubled man in a profoundly sad movie very soon.
Did I love Ronstadt as Mabel? Mmm…I liked her, certainly. It’s no reflection on her performance. At this stage of my G&S fanboydom, I’d heard several different Mabels and all of them seemed to be voices that had been trained to hit the back wall of a theater. Ronstadt’s seemed to be aimed at the front of a microphone. Later, as I became (slightly) more sophisticated, I learned to listen to the orchestra for clues to what the singer was doing. In this Central Park performance, it’s clear that the conductor is holding back the musicians during Mabel’s songs in a way that they’re clearly not for Frederick, or the Pirate King, or anybody else.
But! Again, this isn’t a slam against Ronstadt’s interpretation of Mabel’s songs. Traditionally, the voice of a Gilbert and Sullivan ingenue is a motorcycle; Ronstadt’s is a bicycle. It’s quite lovely and it still gets Mabel where she needs to go.
I became a real fan when she released “What’s New,” an album of standards that was very much the Adele “21″ album of its day. You could listen to this album with your parents and your aunts and uncles and your grandparents and each age group would be thinking “Isn’t it great that this other generation is finally listening to some good music?”
What was the universal appeal of “What’s New”? Quality…apparent and gobsmacking. “What’s New” did for me what I hope Tony Bennett’s “Unplugged” album did for another group of kids ten years later. It opened up my awareness. I started thinking about exactly how much work and creativity and skill a singer has to invest in a song to create a unique performance, as opposed to just another recording. Until I made that connection, singing seemed like an obstacle course. I imagined that there was a clearly-marked path laid out for the singer in the form of words and notes, and I was scoring the singer on how few hurdles and cones he or she knocked over.
But no. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Linda Ronstadt each recorded “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You.” Ronstadt’s version of “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You” is a brand new thing that never existed in any form until she started work on that track. It’s like when three talented cooks prepare the same dish. Even if they aren’t completely deconstructing and reinterpreting a lasagna, each one represents a different point of view of how this dish should be communicated and experienced.
Yes, this was when I began to love Linda Ronstadt’s singing. She did another album of standards, and then an album of Mariachi music, and then some conventional pop. And in all this time, I never had more than a dim awareness that she’d had a career in the Seventies. “A career”? All right, well, she was making tens of millions of dollars a year and had landed on the cover of “Time” magazine. She did fine.
I admire creators like Linda Ronstadt who appear to be on a true journey through life. Steve Martin is another great example. There are probably plenty of people who aren’t aware that he was ever a standup comic…despite the fact that when he made the decision to quit, he still had over a year’s worth of commitments to sellout shows in arenas. Hell, there might be people who don’t even know that there was a time he was on the Letterman show to promote a movie, not to play the banjo.
The members of Monty Python are probably the masters of this sort of thing. It seems amazing that they could write and perform in something as groundbreaking as Python and have that not necessarily be the highlight of their careers. But every last one of them — apart from Graham Chapman, who arguably gets a pass because he’s been dead for thirty years — went on to do other great things. And much of it wasn’t even in the same sort of field.
(I say that they’re the true masters because they pursue diverse and divergent post-Python work and yet they retain the ability to keep cashing in on it as desired. It’s one thing to prove that you have an restless mind and a supple creativity. But instead of turning their backs on their early success, they’re happy to occasionally stick the Parrot Sketch card into any ATM and watch thousands of dollars tumble out into the tray. Good God, that’s worthy of emulation. Where do I get a card like that?)
“Heart Like A Wheel” is magnificent, and I’m sorry that I first encountered this and her other 70s work only a couple of weeks ago, while listening to a “Fresh Air” interview with Ronstadt. Ronstadt’s style was hard to quantify in the Seventies. Most of the articles I’ve been reading recently describe it as “California Rock,” which based on my own experiences with that first adjective must mean “Rock and roll, with a slice of avocado in there somewhere.”
“Heart Like A Wheel” is a very roots-ey sort of tune. It’s simple. It seems as though anyone can sing it or play it; it’s been optimized for the parlors of the 1900s. I was actually a little bit surprised to learn that the songwriter was born in 1944.
My fondness for the recording only expanded after I sampled lots of other versions, via the modern magic of music subscription services. Ronstadt’s version shrewdly omits this verse:
They say that death is a tragedy
It comes once and it’s over
But my only wish is for that deep dark abyss
‘Cause what’s the use of living with no true lover
Any “my heart’s been broken and I don’t know what’s next” song is moody by nature. This verse sends the song right over the cliff into overblown emotional theatrics. That’s perfectly acceptable coming from an actual junior high school student. When it comes from a grownup, the song becomes different and creepier.
Note, too, that the song becomes a duet (with Emmylou Harris) after this bit:
When harm is done no love can be won
I know this happens frequently
What I can’t understand
Oh please God hold my hand
Is why it had to happen to me
Am I reading too much into this choice, or is this supposed to indicate that the singer is moving forward? It’s a beautiful duet but perhaps it also indicates a first step towards rejoining the world.
This recording steers completely clear of flashy, attention-hungry drama thanks to the edit, Ronstadt’s deft performance, and the simple arrangement backing it. The only outward sign of this woman’s grief, I imagine, is that she’s been stirring her coffee just a little bit longer than necessary. Ronstadt communicates these lyrics as though she’s experiencing productive grief. Grief is productive if it’s a process that delivers perspective and ultimately ends with our coping with a painful development. Other recordings of this same song make grief sound like a new lifestyle. (Bad.)
This is news to me. I had no idea until just now, when I did a quick search for background info on this track and this album.
And it’s not bad news, I stress. It’s sort of like discovering as an adult that one of my great-great-grandparents was Japanese. Several times in my life — notably, every first day with a new homeroom teacher in school — people have reacted to my last name by asking “Oh, are you Asian?” and I’ve said no. Because as far as I know, my heritage is 100% European.
(Wait, no, I’m catching myself in another unintentional lie: I keep forgetting that Russia is technically part of Asia, and that there’s a chance that my father’s family comes from a land slightly more east than what we commonly understand to be the case.)
This music post is getting very, very creaky. All I’m saying is that it’s an odd feeling to have a certain longterm, unquestioned understanding and then discover that whoops, no, that’s not the truth. You feel as though you’ve been set slightly adrift and now you need to make a mental adjustment before your grip on reality is back to what it once was.
If I’ve spent so many years under the delusion that I don’t own an Imogen Heap recording, who’s to say that I haven’t been mixing up Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro all this time as well? It’s a thought that tends to sit there and fester.
I’ve always liked Imogen Heap. More precisely: “Imogen Heap.” It’s a great name. I kind of hope that it’s a stage name because if so, it indicates that her creative powers are by no means inconsequential and that hers is a career worth keeping a close eye on. Alas, no less a source than Wikipedia pronounces that this is her birth name. “It sounds like something from a Dickens novel,” I was about to write. Now I see that she was born in East London, where such names are locally grown.
And just after writing that, I find myself dealing with another example of the ground shifting under my feet: Charles Dickens suddenly seems just a teensy bit less clever to me. I’d never made that connection before. Have I been giving him too much credit for all of those wonderful character names? Is it possible that Ebenezer Scrooge was just a mashup of the names of his mailman and a friend of his wife?
Dickens was in the capital to deliver a lecture to an audience of Edinburgh notables. He was wandering the city, killing time before the talk, when he visited the Canongate Kirk graveyard.
There, as revealed by his diaries, he saw a memorial slab which read: “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – meal man”. The description referred to his main trade as a corn merchant. However, the author mistakenly translated it as “mean man”.
Though he was shocked by the description, it gave him food for thought and two years later, art imitated life – or so the author believed.
I hardly know what to think about anything any more. Do I still like Macs, even? In my favorite photo of myself and my Dad that I keep on my mantle, does his smile suddenly seem a little forced?”
I think I’m going to just go out for a drive or something. Maybe if I pass by a graveyard I’ll take a walk and get a great idea for a book. Because I guess that’s all it takes to write a timeless classic.
Oh, right, “The Dumbing Down Of Love.” Good stuff. You should definitely give it a listen. It’s another slow and thoughtful tune, performed with great care. I love what Sigsworth did to her voice, too. It’s electronic processing as a form of seasoning: used sparingly and strategically to support and enhance something that’s already very good, and not to just cover up the weaknesses of an inferior product.
I love playlists because of the added power that certain songs can have when they’re played in a certain context. “The Dumbing Down Of Love” is one of the highlights of (among others) my “Night Drive” music. When it’s 11 PM and I’m not going to be home for another hour and I know I don’t want to listen to podcasts and be distracted from my thoughts, a tune like this is the perfect accompaniment to whatever ideas I’m processing. And it’s a solid soundtrack to the sight of headlights pooling over flickering blacktop.
You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)
Body And Soul
I don’t often go for these longhair songs where the whole thing is an allegory and you’re expected to hold the pads of your headphones against your ears and listen close to figure out the hidden meaning.
Here’s the lyrics of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)”:
Sometimes you start feelin’ so lost and lonely
Then you’ll find it’s all been in your mind
Sometimes you think someone is the one and only
Can’t you see, it could be you and me?
But if there’s any doubt
Then I think I’ll leave it out
‘Cause I’ll tell you one thing
You can’t get what you want
Till you know what you want
Said you can’t get what you want
Till you know what you want
Sometimes you keep busy reaching out for something
You don’t care, there’s always something there
Sometimes you can’t see that all you need is one thing
If it’s right, you could sleep at night
But it can take some time
But at least I’m here in line
Most of us who were alive in 1984 and not driven to melancholia by continued exposure to the toxic adhesives in our Rubiks Cubes listened to this song, gave it some thought, and concluded that Mr. Jackson was writing about love. From a paper I wrote about this song in school:
The balladeer and the person of whom he sings are at opposite sides of a dividing line in the emotional spectrum. Is it possible — logically or logistically — to pursue an object which one cannot clearly identify? The person spoken-of appears to believe this to be so; “the only failure in any campaign is a lack of progress,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger in his Letters.
While an effective mechanism for self-soothing, this illusion of effective work towards an ill-defined goal is a methodology prone to causing the objective to become fuzzier, not sharper, and distracts the subject from the ability to observe their own efficiencies objectively and reduces the likelihood that a failing method will be corrected. The balladeer, by contrast, has identified his goal — romantic affiliance with the spoken-of — and, further, determines a promising course of action towards attaining the objective. Having matured through the stage of the development of self-determinacy (ie, he has defined himself and his needs clearly without requiring outside agencies to define them for him), he has also progressed to a sufficiently high state to reject immediate gratification and to endure “want” if doing so will secure a long-range objective.
If I remember correctly, I wrote this after I realized that my teacher in this subject based 90% of her grade on whether or not what the thing she was reading had the rough shape of a coherent, rigorous essay, and that actual coherence and intellectual rigor could only elevate me from an A- to an A.
But in the intervening years I’ve acquired a keener and more critical ear. I now join my voice to the chorus of academics who have identified “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)” as a straightforward anthem meant to stir and inspire Black Friday shoppers. Like “La Marseillaise,” except with 12 months of zero-percent financing.
So today and this weekend, be sure to follow the sober advice of genre-blurring singer-songwriter Joe Jackson:
Read all of the printed and online circulars and assemble a precise shopping list before setting out for the stores.
If there is an emotional hole at the center of your life, the act of shopping will not fill it.
However, there’s probably one specific product that will fix everything. Obsess on obtaining that one thing until this focus obliterates every last instinct towards sense and reason you have.
Don’t get so wrapped up in shopping and acquisition this weekend that you become temporarily blind to the enduring balm and blessing of human companionship. If you have a partner, you can get him to stand in line at the checkout while you rush back to the electronics department to throw a few more elbows and get a fourth Sampo-brand HDTV. Remember, if it’s in someone else’s shopping cart or hands but they haven’t paid for it yet, it isn’t really theirs.
Yes, “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)” has so much to teach us. Joe Jackson’s entire catalogue is practically an audio Khan Academy. After replacing a broken power coupling on my washing machine, I couldn’t figure out the trick of getting the metal cabinet to seat back onto the appliance correctly until I read between the lines of “In Every Dream Home (A Nightmare).”
He just needs to do something about these parenthetical song titles. You know how I know that Paul McCartney chose the right title for “Hey Jude”? Because it didn’t need to be retitled “Hey Jude (Don’t Make It Bad)” later on.
The Descendants (Soundtrack From The Motion Picture)
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
And I extend those greetings even to non-US readers. I’m not going to tell you how to run your business. I’m just saying that it’s weird that so many of you have been eager to embrace our terrible reality TV and our copycat police procedural dramas, but when we lead you to another part of the showroom to sell you on Thanksgiving…suddenly you react like we’re trying to talk you into buying a vacuum with less than a proper amount of suction.
Would you folks at least take home a brochure? It’s an annual non-religious non-gift-giving all-day dinner party with all of your friends and family, where everybody brings something delicious, and you spend the hours after this wonderful meal sitting around watching sports and movies on TV together. We’re tremendously proud of this holiday; we believe that Thanksgiving is beyond any doubt the best holiday we’ve ever made.
We’ve prepared a short video and we’d love to show that to you right now…
[Sequence of Food Network personalities in tailored tee shirts seated in front of a white background, explaining details of Thanksgiving using lightly-technical jargon. They look slightly past the camera and make lots of hand gestures. Occasionally, there are slow panning shots of details of pies and vegetables and a TV remote.]
Just give it some thought. Trust us on this one. Did I mention that it’s always on a Thursday? Guaranteed four-day weekend each and every time…and Wednesday is generally thought to be a writeoff as well.
One of the holiday’s strongest features is the fact that there aren’t any big Thanksgiving songs to speak of. The Broadway musical “Promises, Promises” makes this attempt at scoring a Beloved Holiday Classic payday:
“Promises, Promises” debuted in 1968, in front of the generation of Americans who enthusiastically endorsed and supported a push to become the first nation to land a human being on the Moon. It goes without saying that these people wanted nothing to do with “Turkey Lurkey Time.”
“‘Imi Au Iá ‘Oe” isn’t Thanksgiving-themed. But it’s eminently appropriate.
It’s impossible to predict how a certain piece of music will affect you, or explain why. There’s something about the simplicity and precision of Keola Beamer’s slack key playing that transports me right back to every positive holiday memory from childhood. Specifically, those hours after Thanksgiving dinner, or Christmas dinner, or the unwrapping of presents, or after Mass, when there’s really nothing to do but enjoy hanging around inside a house filled with people you love.
The song is unhurried and beautiful. I think that’s what we all want out of a family holiday.
I wound up buying this song twice. First, as part of the soundtrack to “The Descendants.” After seeing this flick several times on cable, I’ve filed it in the “why the hell wasn’t this movie a big hit?” category. The premise: George Clooney is a wealthy attorney whose family has roots in Hawaii that go back more than a hundred years. While his languishes in a coma due to head injuries she sustained in a recent boating accident, he learns that she had been carrying on an affair and planned to leave him. All the while, he and his many cousins need to figure out what to do with the last huge tract of undeveloped land left from their ancestor’s estate.
The movie pulled into focus something I particularly value in storytelling: a refusal to flinch from the emotional consequences of a situation. Her prognosis is not good. Her husband was already emotionally gutted. Now comes this new information. What does he do? Should he track down the man she hoped to run away with? How does it affect him when her oblivious friends and relatives continue to praise her…perhaps sometimes at his expense? And isn’t all of this irrelevant? He needs to make decisions for her care, and he needs to be the bearer of bad news to all of the people who love her, and he needs to be a good father to his two daughters.
There are moments of humor, for sure. But this isn’t a movie in which he and the Other Man have a wacky fight in her hospital room and then she snaps out of her coma as they’re grabbing bouquets of flowers from around the room and swatting each other with them. This is a movie in which someone deal with betrayal and figure out how to forgive someone whose motives you maybe will never learn and who can never acknowledge the hurt that they inflicted. More than that, it’s about recognizing the need to transcend your personal hurt feelings. It’s not all about him; it’s about him and his wife and their family.
I keep thinking that I’m going to cancel my cable subscription and go completely Internet for my entertainment. The major strike against that choice would be movies like this one. “The Descendants” came and went from theaters quickly and it probably wasn’t strong on my radar to begin with. But if I’m home and trying to kill a couple hours and I recognize the title on my cable lineup? Sure, I’ll tune in…and as often happens, I wind up seeing a beautiful movie that I wind up wanting to buy on disc.
I bought a second copy of this song as part of Keola Beamer’s “White Mountain Journal.” This album features track after track of music like this. A perfect, quiet, thoughtful instrumental shouldn’t be confused with “air pudding.” This isn’t the sort of sound that you put on to cover up the noise of muffled sounds of the neighbors next door. It’s an enzyme for quiet appreciation. Some music is “get up and dance” stuff. This is “Sit down and reflect.” It draws your attention until it’s the totality of your awareness, like a fire in a hearth.
Preview “‘Imi Au Iá ‘Oe” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon.com during that visit will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of store credits, which I promise to spend on heroically silly things. So thanks for clicking!
Hmm. I seem to have rushed into this whole Amazon Advent Calendar Thing without kicking things off properly and explaining the point of all of this.
As usual for things on the Internet, the Amazon Advent Calendar countdown is here mostly because hosting fees are very affordable and there isn’t a government agency in place to tell anybody what constitutes “an utter waste of everybody’s time.” This is the fifth year that I’ve recommended a different track of music every day during the holiday season (or tried really hard to, anyway). You can check out previous seasons under this link.
Why do I do it? Because:
It’s become a Beloved Holiday Tradition™. If not for you, then for me. I don’t do much to decorate the house (tree: check; cover up the operative word on my “Happy Halloween” door decoration with a sheet of paper printed with the word “Christmas”…check) and this is how I wear my holiday spirit on my sleeve. Think of these posts as my version of the Griswold Family Christmas Lights. It’s tacky, wasteful, and embarrassing on many levels, but you gotta at least be entertained by how much the guy delights in the undertaking.
It’s a nice break from writing. Which I admit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, giving that it means I’m taking a break from writing under deadline by writing something else under a different deadline. The difference is that I’m not getting paid to write about music and it’s not something I’m supposed to be doing. And as Robert Benchley once said, “Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment.”
The Amazon kickbacks. When I signed up for the Amazon Associates program, I didn’t realize that Amazon would give me a small percentage of every purchase the visitor made right after clicking on one of my music links. When I signed up I figured I’d be getting a few pennies off of every 99 cent track. I thought that maybe, if things went well, I’d get twenty or thirty dollars in credits. I buy lots of tracks for auditioning purposes as I put together these picks and I usually spend way more than that.
But whoops…no. Some people, God bless them, would click on a link for a Spike Jokes Christmas song I’m fond of and then they’d buy, say, a few dozen 60″ OLED TVs to serve as the back wall of the newsroom set they were building for a television network. Yippee!
The kickback comes back to me in the form of store credit instead of actual money, and it’s not like I can get a Tesla with it or anything. But it does mean that for several months afterward, I can go ahead and buy that axe or that keyboard or that book or that lens that catches my fancy (or a one-off cable or accessory that will let me review a new device more thoroughly) without thinking too hard about it. This, plus my affection for alliteration, is why it remains the Amazon Advent Calendar instead of the Spotify, Google Music, or “I bet someone’s uploaded the whole album onto YouTube somewhere; it’s certainly worth looking” Advent Calendar.
(If someone asks “But isn’t it a massive conflict of interest, given that you occasionally review Amazon hardware and services?” I can only say “I wouldn’t be doing this if I believed it were; I don’t think this is different from writing a how-to book about Apple hardware, or selling books in the iBookstore.” If this person says “I say it is, too a conflict!” then my response is “Ain’t. I respect your opinion and we appear to be at an impasse. Have a candy cane.”)
Day Two of this season’s Advent Calendar falls on the worst travel day of the whole year, aka “There But For The Grace Of God Day.” The Ihnatko operating system is by no means optimized for this kind of use case. Just last Friday, I concluded my business in town at the tricky hour of 4 PM. I considered sticking around through dinner just to avoid dealing with traffic before giving myself a mental slap in the face. “Man up and deal with it,” I gruffed. “Even if it takes you an extra 45 minutes, you’ll still be home two hours earlier.”
I merged onto I-95 and I made it past a whole three exits before I determined that Panera Bread was the better part of valor.
At least I had an option. Control — or the illusion of control — does much to increase one’s sangfroid. Other times, you need to just grit your teeth and remember the part of the Serenity Prayer that goes “GoddammitwhenjesuschristwhenisthisstupidfrackingtrafficgoingtoHEYMOVEgoingto****ing…” etc. This frustration is universal. Skymall sells a special set of teeth engineered specifically for that purpose. They’re available in the official colors of all NFL and NBA franchises.
I hope today’s song will help you if you’re in that kind of situation. The title is “Junkie Chase”; it is featured on the soundtrack of a movie called “Superfly.” It was composed by Curtis Mayfield.
A + B + C = You will feel like a total badass if this music is playing at any point during your holiday travel.
Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic? You are about to jump out of your car and leave it right there with the door open to continue your pursuit on foot. You are a badass.
You’re inside an airport, running through the terminal and not sure if you’re going to make your flight? Suddenly you see the drug informant you’ve been chasing. He’s darting in and out through the crowd as he tries to break away. “I bet he’s going to pull down that rack of Au Bon Pain pastries behind him just as I’m closing in,” you think to yourself, as your boots clack against the floor in fast rhythm. “I’m going to be ready for that.” You are a badass.
Your flight’s been delayed another hour, the gate seating area is jammed with humanity, and you’re forced to stand? He’s here. The courier. Probably the one who least looks like he’s carrying five keys of Walpole Thin. But there’s a tell. There’s always a tell. The toothpick in the corner of your mouth flicks left and right as your eyes slowly scan every face, every set of hands, the knot in every tie. You hope this doesn’t end in a gunfight inside a crowded terminal, but goddammit…Big Earl can’t win this time. He just can’t. You won’t let that happen. You are a badass.
I’m aware that the protagonist in “Superfly” is a coke dealer. But it’s been a long time since popular culture has thought it’s fun to pretend to be a drug dealer.
Unless you’re holding a game controller. Apparently, Society believes that almost anything is OK so long as you’re holding a game controller. Keep that in mind on Black Friday as you nunchuck your way through the Best Buy. The holiday season is the worst time to make a social faux pas.
Good reasons why it’s for the best that I wasn’t selected to be an Apollo 11-17 commander or lunar module pilot:
I was woefully unprepared, though in my defense I wasn’t born until nearly the end of the race to the Moon. It was still worth sending in the application form and $35 processing fee given that by Apollo 12 I had spent a much larger proportion of my life in a dark, weightless environment than, say, Al Bean. To say nothing of my experience wearing and using diapers, though here I must backpedal to “…at least as great a proportion” in light of revelations in the latest Dave Scott biography. (At age 11, Scott discovered that eliminating trips to the bathroom left him with more time to solve a sliding rings puzzle he had been given for his birthday; later, he enjoyed the convenience.)
Even as an adult: I can be goaded into doing stupid and pointless things at great risk to my life, but brave and meaningful things aren’t an immediate go-to instinct.
I have a tendency to ruin long car trips by choosing an annoying catchphrase and then running with it until either we reach the destination or I’m left behind at a service station.
Those tight black-and-white caps with the integrated headsets goof up my hair something awful.
I’ve never been really sure where the Moon is. I could get the command and service module as far as the Mass Pike and then I’d need to ask around.
The one reason that trumps them all:
If I walked on the Moon and returned safely to Earth, I’d be a total d*** about it for the rest of my life.
No joke. I’d try to sneak the fact that I had walked on the Moon into every conversation. If the lady at the McDonalds drive-through window declined my request for free extra sauce packets with my Chicken McNuggets, I would calmly reply “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought McDonalds had a policy of giving up to three extra sauce packets to anybody who’s ever walked on the Moon. Could you check with your manager, just to make sure? Because if so, I should get extra sauce packets. I’ve walked on the Moon, you see.”
I would believe that I could end any argument in my favor just my raising my hand and saying “Okay. Who here has walked on the Moon? Oh, so it’s just me, then? That’s what I thought…”
I would be telling people “You should be a little grateful instead of raising such a fuss. There aren’t more than 7 people in this country who can honestly say ‘A man who once walked on the Moon peed on one of my trees early in the morning on New Year’s’.”
I know that this is how I would behave. I bet that each of the 14 astronauts assigned to lunar surface excursions spent just 20% of their training time learning how to operate the spacecraft and conduct scientific exploration. The rest of the training was in not to be a total d*** about it.
But I wasn’t an Apollo astronaut. And unless China needs paunchy men who are experts at M*A*S*H trivia and little else, I’m not likely to walk on the moon, ever.
More realistically, however…I might one day be a Pip.
As in: one of Gladys Knight’s backup singers.
Barriers are being broken down left and right these days. Who’s to say that it isn’t time for a white Pip? And while there are only three slots open, I have to think that the original members are going to start aging out of the system soon.
In many ways, being a Pip would be as good as being an Apollo astronaut. I couldn’t be quite so aggressive when boasting about that item in my cv but I’d still be damned proud of it and would try very hard to let people know. Like, maybe I’d be in Chipotle and I’d see someone spill their drink and then I’d swoop in and ask “Can I get you some paper napkins? I’m one of the Pips.”
I imagine that there’s something quite satisfying about being one of the Pips, or even a former Apollo astronaut. There’s something inside each of us that yearns to have accomplished something within our lifetimes that other people will be able to acknowledge as Great, without any need for further justification. Think about the time your grandmother would show you a family photo album. I’m sure that she often stopped at a picture and said something like “This was my mother’s Uncle Wilton. He was a steady, loving husband and father who worked very hard to ensure that his family’s needs were fully met.”
But you don’t remember Great-Uncle Wilton, do you? Great-Great_Grampa Verne is clear as a bell. “He toured the vaudeville circuit in the Pacific Northwest with his famous knife-catching act. There’s even a style of tongue suture stitch named after him.”
As well as your Cousin Saltina. “She moved to Hollywood to be in the movies, but didn’t have any success. Much later, she discovered that some photos from a modeling shoot she did were used to create the lady in the Columbia Pictures title card. She’d signed away all of her rights, so she doesn’t get any money or credit.”
“…so two weeks go by, and your great-Uncle Ham gets a call from the railyard. ‘The thirty foot statue of Lenin you ordered is here.’ And he’s all ‘but I didn’t order a thirty foot statue of Lenin’ — Ham thought he was buying four tons of scrap metal, an easy flip — and the railyard is all ‘yes you did, your name is on the invoice and if you don’t get it out of here by 3:30, we’re going to have to start charging you $180 a day to lease the railcar and the siding we’ve rolled it out to’. He doesn’t know what to do, so he rents a huge flatbed and crane and he and his friends somehow manage to get it into his backyard while he figures out what to do. Well, his neighbors start making this huge fuss right away. Ham, he never liked being told what to do, so he gets the crane back and he assembles the statue, all thirty feet of it, just to tell the neighborhood to go screw themselves. He decides he likes it, so he keeps it. It’s still there. It’s this really popular county landmark. He even made this huge Santa hat for it and the local news comes by every December to film him dropping it on Lenin’s head…”
What I’m saying is that I want to plant my flag in family lore, as it were, and I’m certain that being one of the Pips would tick that checkbox off of my life list quite nicely. I imagine an awkward great-great-grand-nephew at a school dance, wanting to make small talk with some girl (or boy) he’s sweet on but not knowing how to break the ice. Then “Midnight Train To Georgia” comes on. He excitedly points at the source of the sound and says “I’m related to him. That’s my great-great-grand-Uncle Andy!” Then the target of his affections would ask “What, your uncle is the DJ?” and he’d reply that no, sorry, he meant that he was related to one of the world-famous Pips.
I’m possibly even more qualified to be a Pip than to be an astronaut. Every time this song comes up on Shuffle Play, I can’t help but bust out my Pip moves. The job seems to require that you be very smooth for several measures and then lean forward and sing “Leaving on that midnight trainnnn…WOO-WOO!” while you mime a train whistle being pulled. And then you just smile and keep right on being smooth for a while longer.
Yes, I do this every time.
If the song comes on while I’m driving, I dispense with the hand gestures and articulate my Smooth Pip Moves mostly through my neck and shoulders. I advise you to give it a try. Pipping is a very soothing and satisfying mode of being.
You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange/Everybody’s Got the Right
Original Broadway Cast
What I went through on Friday afternoon doesn’t qualify as “publishing another new blog post about a Sondheim song” but it did become a perfect illustration of why Stephen Sondheim is a rather special kind of Broadway composer.
I knew I was going to choose something from “Assassins.” I’d narrowed it down to two or three candidates and I suspected there might have been another solid choice lurking in the soundtrack.
So I listened to the whole thing, all the way through.
…While reading along with the lyrics and notes in “Look, I Made A Hat” to make sure I didn’t miss a single detail or piece of context.
…And after that, I was just too bummed out.
By a Broadway musical!
This is an unexpected result from a musical.
It’s not an entirely unexpected one from a Sondheim musical.
Actually, maybe it’s an easily-predictable reaction to a Sondheim musical that’s about people who’ve attempted to assassinate the President throughout American history.
Interesting Point One is the fact that a musical can leave me in a somber mood. Interesting Point Two: when I hear the phrase “A Broadway musical about Presidential assassins. Yes, John Wilkes Booth sings” I prepare to dismiss this as either complete idiocy, pretentious claptrap, or a lazy exercise in attention-grabbing bad taste…until I hear “…composed by Stephen Sondheim.” At which point I think “Oh. All right, then. Carry on.”
It’s not that I’m certain it’s going to be good. But I do know it won’t be lazy, and it won’t be anything less than “interesting.”
“Assassins” is both good and interesting. The show’s book (by John Weidman) presents us with nine men and women who tried to kill the President. Some successfully, some unsuccessfully; some famously, and some whose exploits have been completely forgotten by everyone except for the Secret Service and Presidential historians.
Samuel Byck (Nixon’s would-be assassin) was neither successful nor remembered. Doesn’t it seem incredible that one can die in an attempt to kill the President and yet be utterly, utterly unknown? I’d at least heard of Squeaky Fromme (who failed to kill Gerald Ford). But only because Laraine Newman played her in an SNL sketch (as a guest on a talk show entitled “Dangerous But Inept”).
Curiosity got the better to me and I read all about Byck on Friday night. I won’t tell you what Byck or Fromme got up to. Because something seemed clear to me after a moment’s thought: obscurity is among the worst punishments that Society can deliver to an assassin or a terrorist, isn’t it? If part of the killer’s motive is to prove that they matter, and to make the world pay attention to them, how can he or she fail any harder than “You didn’t achieve your objective and just a few years later, nobody knew or cared you ever existed”?
Go ahead and Google for Byck if you’re curious. I won’t judge you for that, but I also won’t help.
This clicks into a lifestyle decision that I made early this year. From now on, I’m going to try very, very hard to never learn about mass-murderers. I should know about these horrible events that become part of the national conversation, yes. But I don’t need to see their faces. I don’t need to recognize their names. I don’t need to know about their histories, see quotes taken from their last letters or social media activity, or hear about what they hoped to achieve by methodically killing innocent people.
I feel as though that information makes me into an unwilling accomplice. To what, I don’t know, but I do know it’s nothing good. Did the killer hope to transform themselves from insignificance to notoriety? Plant their flag in the national consciousness? Demonstrate that they have the ability to influence people and events? If any of these things are true, then the fact that a paunchy tech reporter in New England knows who they are becomes a Win for them.
I also worry that the saturation-coverage of these incidents is acting as an enzyme for other sick people. I worry that every time I click one of these links or tune in to one of these stories, I’m encouraging news outlets to stick with the story…and that we’re all encouraging the next horrible incident.
I don’t believe that coverage of a mass-shooting goads other potential shooters towards a terrible action. But I’m certain that exposure to this sort of news can have a desensitizing effect upon a mind that’s already sick.
Here’s what I mean. Should you ever reach out and dip your hands into molten metal?
Got your answer? All right. Now, watch this video of the Mythbusters dipping their hands into molten lead:
You’ve now seen somebody do precisely that. It seemed to work out just great for them. Look, they’re laughing and talking as if it were a highly-positive experience.
Has this influenced your thoughts about dipping your hands into molten metal?
The effect is subtle and it goes beyond “Jamie and Adam have explained a scientific principle and outlined specific conditions under which a positive outcome was possible.” That wasn’t the most powerful part of it. You saw another human being do something that you might have previously dismissed as insane.
You can extend this to the idea of jumping off of a low bridge while clutching a balled-up parachute in your right hand. It’s a bad idea. You definitely should not do that. If such a stupid and clearly self-destructive idea popped into your head, you might wonder “where the hell did that come from?” and worry about your mental health. It’s a crazy thought. You should dismiss it immediately.
But: when you learn that somebody else had that exact same idea, it somehow seems more normal. Not only are you not the only person who thinks that way, but hey, here, look: somebody did that.
(Aside: and now, BASE jumping is edging into the mainstream. But the early point still stands. Lots of people had to die stupidly before safety procedures — or more appropriately: “safety” procedures — were identified, developed, and improved.)
It’s still neither right nor normal. But to the wrong kind of mind, crazy things can suddenly seem more right and more normal once that person has seen it happen once already. To an unwell person who’s watching yet another news story about yet another horrible, unthinkable, and despicable tragedy, shooting up a public place isn’t an unprecedented act of desperate violence. It’s possible for such a mind to think of it as just “something that happens all the time, that other people also think about doing.”
And for “Jamie and Adam didn’t burn their hands” or “that guy parachuted safely at the bottom of the gorge and acted like it was the greatest thing he’d ever done,” substitute “that guy completely took over the national news for three solid days and everybody knew who he was.”
So that’s why I don’t know the name or the face of that guy who killed a TSA agent in LA last week, or any other mass-killer since the Boston Marathon bombings. I can’t prevent the news from covering these stories. I can only limit my own contribution to the problem, which is all that I can ask of myself.
“Assassins” can affect its audience deeply because it humanizes the killers and literally gives them a stage all to themselves to air their points of view and their frustrations. Despite what I’ve said about not wanting to know about killers’ backgrounds, I don’t believe that seeing these people as real human beings is a bad thing. It’s kind of our responsibility, actually. The inability to empathize and perceive people as human beings is the trait that makes these terrible crimes even possible.
Plus, denying the humanity of the killer is way too easy on the rest of us. It’s horrifying to recognize that the lifeforms who managed to hold two airplanes on a cold course towards the World Trade Center all the way to the points of impact were, in fact, the exact same type of organism as you or I. But it’s true.
And troubling. It’s scary to encounter a type of human behavior that we can’t understand in even the most remote academic sense. We try very, very hard to unravel a John Wilkes Booth or a Lee Harvey Oswald and understand why they did what they did.
If the shooting was the result of hopelessness, was there a way that we, as a Society, could have restored hope, and prevented this tragedy?
If the shooting was the result of a mental illness, were we, as a Society, derelict in our duty to protect each other? Were we complicit, in the way we maintain stigmas against the treatment of mental disorders? Did we collectively fail to serve these people? By identifying and treating this illness sooner, could we have saved the lives of both the victim and the assassin…two lives equally precious in the eyes of God or Nature?
Or: is it hopelessly naive to even pursue these questions in the first place?
The Humans are creatures of free will and America is a country that was largely founded on freedom. As such, a population of 300,000,000 people is statistically likely to contain thousands of people who are simply inclined towards committing horrifying acts on a national scale. We can, and should, try to understand these problems. We should also recognize that thinking and talking and collecting data is sometimes nothing more than a self-soothing behavior. We tell ourselves “This dragon is no longer any danger to us…for I have learned that its name is ‘Reggie’.”
We live in a world in which evil is quite possible. Sometimes, data is the cloth we drop over that statement so that we don’t have to look at it.
I’ve never seen “Assassins” onstage. I’ve only experienced it through the soundtrack. With the exception of a narrator (in the form of a balladeer), all of the characters are the assassins themselves, and they speak of their own experiences in the first person. They express their insane thoughts, the bulls*** that they use on themselves and on others, their self-pity, and sometimes they even express clear and rational (if disagreeable) lines of thought that don’t go off the rails until they end with “…and, so, I decided to take somebody’s life.”
It’s a wide range of people and motives. You’re likely to recognize one or two of these generic thoughts, these fears, this kind of anger, as something similar to what you’ve heard a friend or co-worker say. Which is why listening to this soundtrack can be a harrowing experience.
For some reason, an example from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” comes to my mind right now. It’s the semi-famous illustration of a series of faces in which there’s a simple four-line “happy face” at the far left, and a photorealistic drawing on the far right, with progressively more detailed faces in between. McCloud uses it to illustrate how the brain can form a subconscious emotional connection to a comic book character. The face that’s halfway between “happy face” and “photo,” is low on specific details. But looks just enough like your son that your brain fills in the blanks. You’re not even terribly aware of the similarity. And yet somehow, you care more about that character as a result.
The assassins in this musical can have the same effect. Perhaps you recognize the lament of baseless anger and blind entitlement as the sort of thing that a former classmate engages in on his Facebook page. Or maybe the generic dissatisfaction with the direction of the country reminds you of conversations around the family dinner table when you were a kid. You’re not thinking about Connie or Jeff or Kevin, but the subconscious familiarity causes you to feel an additional investment in some of these characters. That connection creates a building sense of anxiety at the knowledge of what they’re about to do.
Like I said at the very top: listening to this jaunty Broadway musical all the way through is a heavy, heavy experience. Oh, no, I wasn’t driven to the whiskey bottle by this soundtrack. Nonetheless, I did feel a need to leave the coffeeshop and watch a lot of “Parks And Recreation” on Netflix when I got home.
Did I describe this musical as “Jaunty”? Yup. Sondheim often keeps us off-balance in “Assassins” by writing a quite lovely and conventional Broadway musical tune that’s only off-putting because of its context.
Take, for example, this classical love song:
I am nothing,
You are wind and water and sky.
Tell me, Jodie, how I
Can earn your love.
I would swim oceans.
I would move mountains.
I would do anything for you.
What would you want me to do?
It wouldn’t be at all out of place in 1940s movie musical. Which suddenly makes me realize, retroactively, that the singers in most of the love songs of the past seventy years was expressing the thoughts of a dangerous psychopath.
Thanks, Sondheim, for ruining a great Cole Porter song:
I’d love to gain complete control of you
And handle even the heart and soul of you
So love at least a small percent of me do
For I love all of you
Another “Assassins” tune is a “cheer up and don’t lose hope” ditty…which also wouldn’t feel out of place in a Depression-era MGM picture:
Everybody’s got the right
To be happy.
Don’t stay mad,
Life’s not as bad
As it seems.
If you keep your goal in sight,
You can climb to any height.
Everybody’s got the right
To their dreams…
One of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of digital music distribution is that it allows a song to become discoverable outside of its original context. I like to imagine some newly-engaged young woman cutting together an iMovie of all of the precious photos and video clips of her and her fiancee, to publicly celebrate their timeless love story. And then she lays in a sweet love song she found online because “It’s just SO TOTALLY me and Ethan.” She won’t know it’s actually a song about an insane man’s murderous obsession with a woman he’d never met until the YouTube comments start arriving.
The only way to top that would be a businessman running for Congress on a platform of smaller government and the American Dream, who approves a campaign song that’s also the anthem of a bunch of men and women who tried, and succeeded, in murdering the President.
So after two days of rewriting and revisiting my original question (“But which track from the ‘Assassins’ soundtrack?”) I’ve settled on “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange.” It ends with a reprise of the number that kicked off the show: “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
The reprise is kind of amazing. There’s a major disorientation between what the song is and what it means. The combination of fantasy and entitlement is a heady brew and it’s dangerous when applied to a sick mind.
The fact that this is Sondheim Week prevented me from selecting the most powerful cut on the soundtrack: “November 22, 1963.” It’s not music. It’s the ten-minute-long dramatic scene that acts as the climax of the whole musical. John Wilkes Booth visits Lee Harvey Oswald on the morning of November 22 before he leaves for work.
Unlike the other characters, Oswald is making his first appearance in the show and he never gets to address the audience or sing. He’s clearly a mess and at this point in his breakdown, his self-consuming frustrations could find practically any kind of outlet. Booth walks him through the situation and is soon joined by the other assassins, forming a chorus that preys upon Oswald’s broken mind for their own ends.
This is probably the bit that sent me home to watch “Parks And Rec” instead of focusing on this blog post. (Also, the coffeeshop was closing in an hour and they were out of scones).
There was definitely a point at which Oswald was of a sound enough mind to choose not to kill JFK and send the nation into an extended period of mourning. What could have someone have said to him to sway him towards a path in which both Oswald and JFK got to enjoy their grandchildren?
There will always be that fantasy of identifying a moment before the first rock tumbled from the cliff and the landslide became inevitable. And “fantasy” might be the right word. Oswald, Mark David Chapman, the 9/11 terrorists…they didn’t just suddenly snap. Their lives up to that point had undergone a long process of steady abrasion which left them in a frame of mind that allowed them to do the unthinkable.
But assassination and terrorism are acts against an entire society. Even if your life isn’t directly affected by the killings of people you’d never met, it’s a form of injury to any man or woman with the basic gift and burden of empathy for strangers.
Getting in a car accident in which nobody was injured is an improvement over spending three days in a hospital and then seven months rehabbing your shattered arm. But given the choice, most people would prefer to have never had suffered such a shocking incident to begin with. And that’s why, when we find ourselves listening to a highly-agitated Oswald wondering what to do next, we keep hoping someone will tell him “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lee…you don’t have to do this!” And if it doesn’t happen soon, then this shout just might come from the audience.
As I say: “Assassins” is a hell of a musical.
Geez. I promise that next time I’ll write about something cheery, like a man and woman who murder and butcher people for the meat, which they then sell as pies to an unwitting public. You know, something danceable!
Today, let’s talk about a Sondheim song that works just fine as a standalone. I don’t know why it’s surprising to me that Stephen Sondheim has written plenty of one-off songs for movies and television. I guess his reputation as an iconic composer of musicals interferes with my ability to think of him as a regular creator, who finds all kinds of outlets for his creativity.
I mean, why am I writing about Sondheim music every day this week, when I have plenty of reviews and news to take care of?
(“Because the holiday season is coming up. You’re trying to capture as many Amazon credits as you possibly can from your readers’ gift-buying sessions.”)
Okay, yes, there’s that, But…
(“You were embarrassed because you had to abandon the Advent Calendar last year after only about a week. You really wanted to get a jump on it this year, because…”)
Right, right. You’ve made your point. You can shut up about that now.
What I would like to say is that it’s easy to forget that to me, he’s Steven Sondheim but Sondheim only thinks of himself as a composer. He has a set of skills that he can apply to any number of creative endeavors, and no shortage of interesting offers. Writing one or two songs that don’t need to support 90 minutes of narrative must give him a kind of pleasure that composing a whole musical doesn’t.
“Sooner Or Later” is one of five songs Sondheim wrote for the movie “Dick Tracy.” It’s a torch song sung by Breathless Mahoney, nightclub performer and moll/protege of the gangster that Tracy is pursuing in the film.
In the increasingly-indispensable “Look, I Made A Hat” (volume two of SS’s annotated lyrics), Sondheim describes his involvement with the movie thusly:
Not only was it for a movie based on a cartoon I had grown up with, it was set in the 1930s and thus invited pastiche, something I loved writing. Better yet, the songs were to decorate the plot rather than enhance it, which made them easy to write, and when Warren hired Madonna, no less, to play Breathless, I thought it might even be my chance to have a hit record. In the fullness of time, I didn’t get a hit, but I got an Academy Award and, more important, had another good time working with Warren.
Aside: There are times when I hear of some kind of achievement or credit and I think “No question: this person has earned the right to hit the Snooze button every morning for the rest of his or her life and get another 30 minutes of sleep, no matter what’s on the schedule that day.” I imagine Paul McCartney, for example, waking up, looking at the clock, and then throwing the blankets off of him in a panic before thinking “Wait, wait…I just remembered: I’m the guy who wrote ‘Hey Jude’!” And then he feels entitled to sleep until 8:00, minimum.
Chester Gould was the creator of “Dick Tracy.” It’s an iconic and important comic strip that’s earned the greatest honor possible for a work of fiction: the characters will remain part of the cultural lexicon long after the original work has been forgotten. But I would have been willing to award Gould his Snooze Bar privileges just for having come up with the name “Breathless Mahoney.” If I ever have a daughter, my second thought will be “No. I can’t name her ‘Breathless Mahoney Ihnatko’.” End aside.
What a song, what a set of lyrics.
I’m gonna love you
Like nothing you’ve known.
I’m gonna love you,
And you all alone.
Sooner is better than later,
This time I’m not only getting,
Cripes. “But lover/I’ll hover/I’ll plan” — that’s good for an extra 20 minutes on the snooze bar. I’m not in charge of such things but I’d be more than happy to launch a petition granting Sondheim that upgrade.
Nope, “Dick Tracy” isn’t a musical. “Sooner Or Later” serves as a great piece of music for the audience to listen to while watching a montage of Dick Tracy going after various organized crime operations. But it’s a perfect song for this character and her role in the story: as a source of temptation for Tracy, and competition for his long put-upon girlfriend. Mahoney has plans for Tracy, no doubt about that. We won’t know exactly what they are until the very end of the movie, maybe. This song underscores all of that. At the same time, it lifts straight out and works as a standalone torch song.
It’s a song that rewards your close attention. When you focus on the lyrics, and how precisely they interlock…I can’t say anything more sensible than just “wow.” Sondheim lyrics are like dovetailed furniture. It’s rock-solid without any mechanical adhesives or visible fasteners. The stability is a result of how precisely all of these lines and words were made to fit together and interlock. It’s as though they had grown together as parts of the same tree.
“Sooner Or Later” did indeed win Sondheim his Academy Award. If there was any possibility whatsoever that he wasn’t going to win, I think Madonna’s performance during the 1991 Oscars sealed the deal. The reaction among voting members of the Academy — the men and women who dig women, specifically — was certainly intense enough to warp the fabric of reality and send their votes for “Sooner Or Later” backward in time to push Sondheim over the top.
Why do I complain about modern Oscarcasts that don’t include performances of nominated songs? Because: I sometimes obsess over stupid TV shows that mean absolutely nothing.
Also: this performance. I concede that it’s not every year that there’s a nominated song that can be sung by the hottest pop singer in the world at that time. But look at that again and tell me that a six minute clip package of 100 Years Of Scenes In Which Characters Order Coffee is an improvement on what you just saw.
Madonna’s performance of “Sooner Or Later” is available on “I’m Breathless,” a pop album she released to take advantage of the publicity from the movie. But there’s something…not quite right about it, for some reason. I guess that version of it feels like a song sung from the safety of a recording booth. The Oscars performance was live, in front of Jack Nicholson and similar icons, and a worldwide audience of millions. This one sounds like the performance of someone who knew that (despite being Madonna and everything) she’d never have a crowd like this ever again.
So instead, my pick for this one is Bernadette Peters’ live performance at Carnegie Hall. I came to appreciate Bernadette Peters, as I did Sondheim, later in life. But I don’t blame myself for this one. I feel as though her voice acquired richer texture as she got older. It might just be my ear or my taste, but I always thought her earlier voice was a bit too glossy.
I’m practically going to have to insist that you say — right out loud, and in a goopy voice — “Ladies and gentlemen…Welsh singing superstar Mister Tom JONES!” before you click the “play” button on this video:
You can go ahead and play this next one without any sort of buildup:
And sure, why not: here’s another version of “Send In The Clowns”:
I’m starting this one off with three videos because it’ll save us both a lot of time. By now, I’m sure you understand why, as a kid, this song inspired a display of eye-rolling that even a panel of contemporary teenage judges would have described as “excessive.”
Could you blame me? And can I blame you if you consider “Send In The Clowns” to be hopelessly cheesy and schmaltzy? Most of the performances we all get to see fell into one of these three categories:
The “Tom Jones,” in which the performer is just making their way from the green pin to the red pin, no matter how weird the mating of singing style and subject is, or
The “Muppet Show,” in which the director of this TV special or variety show glances at the title of the song and budgets $500 for rental of clown costumes or $300 for rental of actual clowns to flop around behind the singer. The show’s writers see this on the show rundown and they begin the numb process of developing some business for the clowns to perform behind the singer. “And then, the red clown is all like, ‘Where is the blue clown? I just loaned him fifty dollars. Green clown, let’s you and me go looking for him…’” And then there’s
The Krusty Option. The performer knows very, very well that this is an emotionally-punchy song. Holy cow does he know how emotionally-punchy it is. “I am going to sing the holy crap out of this one,” he declares to the director. “Push in close when you see me close my fist because that’ll be my signal that I’m going to make myself cry at the end of the next line.”
Remember, when I was a tiny tot, TV variety shows were still all the rage and “Send In The Clowns” was a legitimate hit song. I saw this song performed on TV a lot.
As I mentioned yesterday, I didn’t become a real Sondheim fan until I became an adult. I’ve already described my first obstacle: instead of listening to actual Sondheim, I was basing my opinion on what I thought Sondheim music was like.
My second obstacle to appreciating his work was the lack of context.
Many musicals are collections of tunes that happen to suit the moods of various scenes throughout a story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a song like that. It means that you can sing “Brotherhood Of Man” from “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and enjoy it as-is. You don’t even need to wonder if the sentiment being expressed in the song is meant to be taken sincerely or sarcastically.
Sondheim musicals are meant to exist in the air and gravity of their specific home planets. A pretty song is a pretty song no matter how you experience it. But when you hear one of Sondheim’s tunes as it was intended, with forty minutes of story and song in front of it and an act break and another hour of story and song after it, you get to experience its full impact and can appreciate its true purpose.
Outside of its rightful place in Act Two of “A Little Night Music,” “Send In The Clowns” is hard to parse. The sentimental nature of the lyrics and the musing tones come straight through. Fine, but what’s the cause? If these are the words of a teenager who’s been dumped after a second date, the sentiment is thin and drippy and overly-theatrical.
Is he or she singing it alone in a room? Is this an interior monologue? If so, it’s rather self-pitying, isn’t it?
It can easily be played for cheap, simple emotional manipulation…either on the part of the performer looking for love and approval from a live audience, or a character who just wants the world to know how how much they’re hurting, and is speaking out of a selfish desire for sympathy instead of a desire to express feelings sincerely and come closer to a larger awareness.
Let’s try this again.
“Send In The Clowns” is sung by Desiree, an actress whose success, fame, and glamor are distinctly on the wane. She sings it to Fredrik, an attorney. The two were lovers fourteen years ago. When her touring company performed in a theater near his home, they got together and reminisced about the old days. The two made love and considered getting back together, despite Fredrik’s wife and Desiree’s current lover (himself married).
This is the song that comes after Fredrik has told Desiree, with regret, that he’s too smitten with his teenaged wife to leave her for Desiree. He knows (I think) that he’s making a lame explanation but even so, he’s not leaving his wife.
The context transforms the song. They’re inside Desiree’s bedroom. The door is shut. This is a moment of intense emotional intimacy and the words that they exchange are for each other and each other alone.
She’s not moaning, she’s not pitying herself, she’s not trying to pull on anyone’s heartstrings, she isn’t even trying to get Fredrik to reconsider. She’s being honest about her reaction to the way their second affair has ended, in language that only he and she can appreciate, using the only opportunity she will ever have to be open with another human being about these thoughts. And she’s using theater analogies because she’s a woman who’s worked on the stage for two decades. This is just the way that her thoughts are expressing themselves.
So: no disrespect to Tom Jones (hell of a strong baritone) or The Muppets (to whom we all owe a debt that can only be repaid by passing the “Mahna Mahna” song along to succeeding generations until the heat death of the universe). But they couldn’t have possibly done “Send In The Clowns” justice.
Like most Sondheim songs, “Send In The Clowns” has an intrinsic beauty and dignity when it stands as a lone tree. But if you want to appreciate it in full, you need to feel the grass around it and hear the river behind it and sense the dappling shadows of the other trees surrounding it.
Did you notice the simplicity of this tune? According to ““Finishing The Hat”” it was written specifically for the actress playing Desiree in the original production. This role was written with a late-middle-aged actress with a talent for light comedy in mind. Sondheim knew that the chances of finding such an actress who could also sing was a longshot, so he didn’t write a solo for Desiree.
When he discovered that the actress they’d cast actually had a good voice (“small but silvery, musically and smokily pure”), and the director decided that, dramatically, this scene should belong to Desiree and not Fredrik as originally intended, Sondheim wrote this song to use the strengths of Glynis John’s voice. The smoky tone of her voice made it difficult for her to sustain a note for very long; thus, he wrote this song as a series of short phrases.
I eat details like that up. The idea of the artist flying free and unfettered is almost purely a romantic notion. More often than not, creators need to work their muscles against resistance, such as space limits or the fact that Papageno is a little bit tone-deaf and needs to hear the phrase he’s about to sing before he’s called upon to sing it, or the need to move a scene from a garden to a parlor because they can’t afford to shoot anything outdoors. Or, the creator needs to dial back a “brilliant” innovation because the audience just isn’t getting it.
The personal life lesson I take away from “Send In The Clowns” one is that I often tell myself I don’t like something and move on, without exploring why I don’t like it. I bet I miss out on a lot of great stuff for that reason. I still need to protect myself from bad versions of “Send In The Clowns” as seriously as a parent would protect an infant from werevampires, but I’m sorry that I shooed away awareness of Good Versions of this song for most of my adult life.
All right, I’m aware that after encouraging you to hear a Sondheim tune within its original context, I’m actually contradicting myself by encouraging you to sample this one song. Go ahead and buy the whole Broadway cast album of “A Little Night Music.”
In my defense, I’m posting this link out of selfish interests. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking this link results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. “You know what would really tie this kitchen together? A xylophone.” I will think one morning. And before any sensible part of my brain can have any voice in the decision, I’ll go right ahead and one-click such a thing…all thanks to your clicking these links.
If a movie flops, that’s that. If the movie was based on something else, maybe another team will take another crack at adapting the source material after enough years have passed and the floppage has been forgotten. There’s also an outside chance that the movie will have become such a landmark of failure that a squad of improv comics will do a sarcastic stage adaptation of it and (fingers crossed) they’ll get to make a sarcastic remake of the film (see: “The Brady Bunch Movie”).
(No, please, I’m definitely not telling you to see “The Brady Bunch Movie.” I meant “see” as in “I refer you to…” Though frankly, even looking at its IMDB page will make you very, very sad.)
Otherwise, a flop movie is damaged goods and nobody will ever touch it again. “Heaven’s Gate” was a legendary failure. In fact, this movie is credited with causing the collapse of United Artists. I’ve seen three different cuts of the film and I can certify that this is no maligned, hidden gem: it’s awful. It’s like a collection of subplots loitering around the set in search of a story to support. But I regard it as a tantalizing failure. The cinematography is often stunning. The performances are exceptional. The story…is incomprehensible. Yet I get a sense that the writing of the screenplay was going great until it derailed at point (X,Y) and if someone can locate those precise coordinates and apply some course corrections…wow, “Heaven’s Gate” could become great.
It’ll never happen, of course. It’s a movie. Dead is dead. Why remake a bad movie when there are so many bad unproduced screenplays waiting to be filmed?
Different rules apply to plays and musicals. Theater doesn’t attach stigma to failure; on the contrary, failure is a traditional part of the development process. Launching a theatrical production is like launching a paper airplane. You watch it fail and use that data to build something that will fly.
Some producers and directors look at a failed play and see an unsolved puzzle. It sticks with them…particularly if they’re the ones who created it in the first place. And, admirably, theater has no tradition of attaching stigma to failure. “Figure out what’s wrong and try to fix it” is an accepted part of the process.
“Merrily We Roll Along” closed on Broadway after 16 performances, bad reviews, and more audience walkouts than most creators like to see. It’s the story of a young, struggling Broadway composer who damages two close, lifelong friendships on his way to becoming a wildly-successful Hollywood producer.
It’s the last play that Sondheim includes in “Finishing The Hat” and he does a great job going through the black-box data on the failure. The structure of the musical used the same structure as the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play that served as the basis of the story: the curtain opens in the present-day and as the show progresses, we keep going further back in time. So it was tricky for the audience to follow, particularly as relationships between characters kept changing. A stopgap solution: have the characters wear tee shirts with a description of their current relationship with the main character (“Ex-Wife”) actually written out on them.
The characters are in their Forties at the start of the show and in their early Twenties and late teens by the end. The production had the idea of casting college-age actors and having them play younger over the course of the evening. The problem there (Sondheim writes) was that there aren’t many 20 year old actors who can play anything other than their 20-year-old selves. He described the audience reacting to the opening scenes of “young adults playing jaded grownups” as if they were watching a college production. Which, Sondheim says, was an intended effect but it didn’t play with the audience the way he thought it would.
The most interesting note that Sondheim makes is the “time moving backwards” structure of the show interferes with the audience’s sympathy for the main character. When they meet him, he’s rich, at the top of his profession, kind of a jerk and a shallow phony. It’s hard, then, to sympathize with him as they see him screwing over his friends and disconnecting from his creative passions in subsequent scenes. By the very end, when the audience sees the young and idealistic composer complimenting his friend’s play and suggesting that they work on a musical together…they’re supposed to compare and consider this likeable underdog and the jerk he became, and see the tragedy. It’s all there, but (never having seen the whole musical, myself) I can imagine how the overall effect requires more of a contribution from the audience than they might have been prepared for.
The book describes all of the problems that were identified and addressed over the decade of different productions that Sondheim worked on before he considered himself satisfied with “Merrily We Roll Along.” That’s an interesting relationship with a work, isn’t it? It feels like that scene in “Seinfeld” where George is humiliated by a co-worker during a meeting, and then he keeps trying to re-stage those exact circumstances so that he can use the devastating comeback that came to him later on. You don’t get to do this in real life but as a theater composer, when you later think “You know what that character should have done?” you can do something about it.
This “Seinfeld” reference also allows me to mention that Jason Alexander was part of “Merrily”‘s original cast. In fact, when Sondheim writes about the mistake of casting inexperienced young actors, he singles out Alexander as the only one capable of playing a 40-year-old. “It’s as though he had been born middle-aged,” he wrote.
Yup, another example of the Charles Nelson Reilly Effect. It blew my mind when I learned that he’d come to “Seinfeld” off of a successful Broadway career capped by a Tony award for Best Performance By A Leading Actor for his work in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”
The mind is good at forming retroactive connections. Every time I see Costanza do one of his rare little dances of joy (see: “The Puffy Shirt,” “The Trip, Part 2″) (yes, do see them) I can’t help but think he’s rocking some of the moves he used on stage while singing “If I Were A Rich Man.”
And damn, the man has a terrific voice. You’ll recognize him instantly in “Opening Doors” as the theatrical producer that the two composers audition for.
“Opening Doors” is practically an entire musical play in itself, with a beginning-middle-end arc and character development throughout. It’s also emblematic of why it took me a long time to warm to Sondheim.
I wish I had enough musical knowledge to articulate my early reactions. When I thought of a Sondheim song, I imagined a performer having to strut sharply from one separately-lit and dressed section of the stage to another as he went…”I’m singing, and I’m knocking on a door” “Heeeeere I AMMMMM at a blaaackbooAAARRRdddd, because nowww as I sing my next linnnneeee it’s three months later and I took that teeeeaching job…” “Whoops, here in the middle I have a different job cleaning the poooool filters in an aaaaaquacaaaaaade because the school burned DOWNNNNNNN!!!!”
You know what I mean? Lots of shifts in tone and melody and place, and characters who are clearly going through a lot over the course of a single song. Lots of stacatto declarations. Overall, Sondheim is the only composer who can get a character to commit adultery, confess to his wife, abandon the daughter his mistress gave birth to, and then wonder if he should accept his daughter’s invitation to her new gallery opening after thirty years of estrangement…all within the margins of a single nervous ballad.
(Side complaint: this types of songs also present frequent challenges and frustrations to a devoted shower singer such as myself. Right about the time when I’ve started to throw myself into the song, I’m forced to hold my position while a countess enters the bathroom, muses for eighteen bars about broken jewelry, and then moves off. Then I get to sing some more. But while I was en tableau all of my Irish Spring Body Wash dripped off and I need to reapply and lather.)
I’m not saying that this observation was off-base. In many cases, it’s spot-on. I guess what turned me off about these types of songs was that I heard them done so poorly by so many Sondheim pretenders and parodists that I wasn’t leaving my mind open to the solid features of the original.
Sinatra and Elvis Presley recordings have the same problem. It’s hard to lock your memories down on the originals any more.
And I know it’s kind of an ironic admission for me to make, given the nature of this song and “Merrily We Roll Along.” Here I am, complaining (or at least observing) that many of Sondheim’s songs have a beauty that require active comprehension. In “Opening Doors,” Jason Alexander’s theater producer character is rejecting the composer’s score and complaining
There’s not a tune you can hum
There’s not a tune that goes bum-bum-bum-di-bum
You need a tune that goes bum-bum-bum-di-bum
Give me a melody!
He has a point. I’ll still take Sondheim over Jerry Herman any day, though. “Penny In My Pocket” will take me nicely through the wetdown/soap/lather/scrub/rinse/shampoo/lather/rinse/conditioner/set/rinse cycle. But leaves me with a somewhat emptier feeling.
Preview “Opening Doors” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Yes, I know…you can also get it from iTunes and elsewhere. But anything you buy on Amazon after clicking this link results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits, which I assure you will be spent on foolish but fun things.
All morning long, I’ve been reading blog posts about everyone’s favorite childhood Sondheim Week memories. I’m sure I had the same reaction as you did:
“It’s that time of year? Again? But the stores have only just taken down their Jerry Herman decorations!”
It seems to come sooner every year, doesn’t it? And the crass commercialization of what was originally meant to be a spiritual reflection of the healing power of musical comedy can turn almost anybody cynical about the whole thing.
But a funny thing happens. You realize that your grumblings about the giant inflatable Hal Prince in front of the drugstore was mostly for show. You didn’t want to let on that the first time you saw the iconic “Follies” posters hanging in the shop windows, you were instantly transported back to that shiny day in second grade when Mandy Patinkin dropped in as a surprise during a school assembly and sang two numbers from “Sunday In The Park With George” and then one from “A Little Night Music” as an encore.
Oh, sure…now you realize that it was just the gym teacher in a Mandy Patinkin costume — a shabby rental version that circulated around all of the schools in the district during the week, at that — but I ask you: does that knowledge diminish the magic of the moment? Or prevent you from wanting to dress up as Mandy Patinkin or Elaine Stritch for your kids some day?
I’m just saying that you never get too old to be affected by the Spirit of Sondheim Week. I’m kind of ashamed to have never celebrated it publicly before now. I hope to make up for it this year by keeping Sondheim Week in my heart the whole week long, just like Greg Evigan promised at the end of that 1988 holiday special that ABC never seems to run any more.
I really wanted to embed a clip from that show. I still get chills every time I see him racing through the now-unfamiliar streets of his hometown, tearing down the omnipresent banners for “Gavin Macleod’s ‘Aqualung: A New Musical’” and desperately calling for the angel who’d granted him his hasty, angry wish that Stephen Sondheim had never been born.
Alas, Sony issues a takedown notice to YouTube three seconds after anyone posts anything from that show. So I’ll link to something else that’s relevant: this clip of a student singing the patter song from “Company” on a BBC television show.
Degree of difficulty: she’s performing in front of Sondheim himself, during a master class televised to all of England, in a venue where Sondheim will interrupt and correct you if you’re doing anything wrong at all.
Did you just have one of those Sympathy Vomits? I sure did.
I love everything about this clip. It’s obviously a terrific performance; not just well-sung, but well-acted. I love the shot of Sondheim leaning out to get a good look at her while she performs. He’s grinning like a composer who knows that his song is being performed right,. His eyes are narrowing like seasoned NASCAR spectator who knows exactly how dangerous this particular race is and is wondering if this next, tricky curve is where she finally buys it.
I also like to imagine her parents watching at home or in the audience. What a wonderful moment for her. I’ve no idea what became of her after this televised master class. Even if her passions led her somewhere other than musical theater, she has this glorious memory of doing something very tricky in front of the one person in the world who can give her a categorial pass/fail. This is like the Marshall McLuhan scene in “Annie Hall,” for real.
I have a new appreciation for this song thanks to Sondheim’s two-volume set of annotated lyrics: “Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made A Hat.” Sondheim goes through all of his music, show by show and song by song and his notes focus on the song- and show-making process.
It’s not as though I was blind to the fact that songwriting is work. It’s just that I figured, you know, he just sort of sits down and writes these things. But of course, the artist’s ideal is to reveal the art and obscure all of the technique.
The video gave you the context of “Getting Married Today.” The bride is having a panicky meltdown on her wedding day. Sondheim’s notes in the book break down her breakdown. For example: why do none of the lines rhyme, as the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs do? Because, he explains, her brain is going in a million directions; her thoughts aren’t orderly enough to form rhymes. Sondheim also talks about the need to help out the singer and string together words that can be sung rapid-fire. I feel foolish for thinking that he just wrote the words and left the rest as a problem for the performer.
There’s another thing I like about this song: the role was originated on Broadway by Beth Howland. The name might not be familiar to you. She went on to play the ditzy waitress Vera on the sitcom “Alice.” And if the sitcom “Alice” isn’t familiar to you, you’re probably over the age of forty. It aired from the mid-seventies to the mid-Eighties.
In my personal understanding of the real world, performers like Beth Howland are the closest thing to actual superheroes. I knew her in her secret identity, as a name I kind of could remember from a show I sort of watched when I was a little kid. But later on, I learned that “mild-mannered sitcom supporting actress” was merely her secret identity: in her superpowered guise, she originated a role in a Sondheim musical before she moved to LA and got into TV. To me, that’s as close as I’ll ever get to finding out that this reporter I know at the Sun-Times is actually Superman.
We can refer to this as The Charles Nelson Reilly Effect. On TV, he was far more mild-mannered than Beth Howland. As far as I knew, he was famous because he was on TV, he was on TV because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because the man in the suit who introduced him at the start of “Match Game” said he was. How on earth can a man have starring roles in the original casts of two of the most famous musicals from one of the most famous eras of Broadway history, and that doesn’t come up in the introduction?
That’s like being introduced to “a retired college professor” at a dinner party and then, a week later, the host asks you if you enjoyed spending two hours with Neil Armstrong.
You know how Twitter has “verified accounts” for people who (for whatever reason) satisfy some metric of high-profile-osity? I favor the formation of federal agency to create a “Verified Interesting” designation. Yes, I know…everybody has interesting experiences or stories. But I feel as though someone who has walked on the Moon or who has been directed by Sondheim or was on the original Macintosh hardware team should be issued a laminated card containing this piece of information (in three languages) and ought to be required to present it every time they’re introduced to someone.
To make it worth the hassle, perhaps the card would also be good for a 20% discount on any speed recorded by any member of law enforcement on any interstate highway. So: if you were part of the work crew that restored the Statue of Liberty in 1985, the cops can’t ticket you for doing 75 in a 65 mile per hour zone. Just hand over the card along with your license when the trooper pulls you over, and be prepared to tell at least one good story about what it’s like to rappel down Lady Liberty’s face.
Why aren’t I linking to the same track on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play?
Partly because Amazon is the most ecumenical and simple way to preview a track without linking to a bootleg on YouTube. And mmmostly because I have an Amazon Associates account and if you buy anything at all after clicking on one of these links, I get a small kickback. Which, I assure you, will be spend on foolish things for my personal enjoyment.