At Last: Librarians With First-Strike Capability

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.

Afterward, I was eager to read some more of his works. I’d read a couple of his short novels. I’d never read “In Cold Blood” (I feel like I shouldn’t tackle it until the spring, when there are more hours of sunlight in the day). But I found a collection of nonfiction essays that I was immediately keen to read: Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (Modern Library Paperbacks)

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.

Amazon Advent 03 – “White Wine In The Sun” (Tim Minchin)


Album Art

White Wine In The Sun

Tim Minchin

Ready For This? (Live)

Genre: Miscellaneous

Continuing my kickoff theme of “Comedians, And Please Give Them Their Full Due As Musicians,” we have this triply-appropriate and hugely wonderful track from Tim Minchin. (1) The album is filled with clever, funny songs; (2) but “White Wine In The Sun” is just a flat-out beautiful piece of music; and (3) as a bonus…it’s actually a Christmas song.

Add Tim to my growing list of “whiplash musicians.” I went from not having the slightest inkling that he existed, to hearing my first Tim Minchin song, to owning everything of his that was available in the Amazon MP3 Store, to being very sad that I then had to wait for him to release his next album just like every other Tim Minchin fan…all in the space of about an hour.

I absolutely freakin’ love Tim Minchin. My first Tim Minchin song was “Prejudice.” It’s catchy, and funny, and thus it’s exactly the sort of link you’d receive as an IM on a slow weekday mid-afternoon. Mr. Minchin was nice enough to post a video of the song to his YouTube channel, so I’ll just go ahead and embed it right here-ish:

That’s, like, nine pounds of clever in a five pound bag. I had gone my entire life without realizing that “Ginger” was an anagram of a highly offensive word. And now, it’s difficult for me to think of it as anything else. It serves as a valuable reminder that wordplay, like all active sports, often leads to careless injury. So if you’re going to let your son or daughter go out and spoonerize with other children, make sure they’re wearing protection.

(Aside: I had no idea until very recently that “ginger” is used as a derogatory term for redheads. Is that a European thing? [Edited: or an Australian thing?] It isn’t an American thing, right? We had red-headed kids in my school and yeah, I think many of them got teased. But only under the eternal rubric of “we’re 284 children plucked from our safe and familiar surroundings; we’re hoping that if we ruthlessly tease any kid who’s in any way different, maybe nobody will sense how terrified we all are.”

I never even heard of that use of “ginger” until a few years ago…and I had thought that my experiences with the Mean Kids faction of my junior high school had left me with an exhaustive database of derogatory insults. True, I didn’t have red hair. But I also had no developmental disabilities nor any desire to kiss boys, and the Mean Kids sure didn’t let those details stop them.

In a way, this fresh use of “Ginger” is reassuring. It’s additional evidence that butt-headed prejudice has no rhyme or reason. It’s just a kind of free-flailing tendril of idiocy that doesn’t really care what it latches onto. Now that I know I can’t do anything to personally eradicate prejudice on a worldwide scale, the pressure’s kind of off, isn’t it? End of aside.)

When you’re done laughing at “Prejudice,” switch off the part of your brain that understands English and listen to the song again, solely as a piece of music. That’s some powerful late-Seventies arena-style singer-songwriting, isn’t it? Most of Minchin’s songs remind me of one of Jeff Koons’ monumental-scale balloon animals. It’s a colorful item of obvious whimsy. But the thing’s twenty feet tall and it’s made out of stainless steel. The thing is structurally-sound, thanks to the impressive amount of engineering and fabrication work that went into its production.

“White Wine In The Sun” is a pretty, pretty song. It packs a punch, too. The best way to describe it is as “A Christmas song for nice people who happen to be atheists.”

I hope my atheist friends aren’t offended by that turn of phrase, which I’ve been in love with from the moment I first encountered it. I saw it in a post by an atheist, who used it to describe his default appraisal of religious folk: “Nice people who happen to believe in God.” It’s perfect. I think this basic form describes the vast majority of people.

First and foremost: “Nice People.” Regardless of what sort of jewelry we wear around our necks or what kind of bumper sticker we put on our cars, we know that we all agreed to at least try to be nice to each other, as one of the simple Terms And Conditions associated with the license for human DNA. If you’re upset about that, then you should have read the whole document before clicking the “I have read and agree to all of these terms” and then hitting “Install.”

Then comes the “…who happen to…” bit. However you choose to perceive the big picture of our reality, primarily you’d like to be define yourself as a Nice Person, instead of being perceived through the weird veil of a clumsy adjective. Further, there’s no need to describe atheism or religion in anything other than a neutral tone.

At its core, though, this construct underscores the premise that a nice person is a nice person because of who they are and how they treat people. Maybe their nature has been positively shaped by religion, maybe it’s been positively shaped by rational influences (again, going solely from a non-judgmental dictionary definition of “rational”). So long as they’re nice people, what does it matter?

The singer of “White Wine In The Sun” kicks the song off by saying “I really like Christmas.” Then he calmly states his objections to religious holidays. And although he makes several valid points against religion specifically, they’re gentle and subtle ones, and he’s only mentioning them in passing.

He saves his intense emotions for the main bit, where he explains why he treasures this holiday: he gets to spend time with his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his Gran, all together in the same place. He’s filled with gratitude for this regularly-scheduled day filled with warm feelings of love and support and family and belonging.

What a marvelous sense of perspective. An airliner pumps tons of greenhouse gases into the air as it crisscrosses the country. But it brings you home. On that basis, you can only be grateful that it exists.

“White Wine In The Sun” is a live recording and the song cast an obvious spell on the audience. The audience had heard a dozen funny songs before this one. During the beginning of “White Wine,” they chuckled at all of the right parts. Those who had never heard the song before, however, seemed to grow a bit uneasy; the funny bits were more like clever observations than actual jokes. And soon, the funny bits disappeared entirely. You can almost hear the thoughts going through their heads: “Is Tim…being sincere? Is he trying to make me feel a genuine, cathartic emotion? Hey, where’s that crying sound coming from? Crap! It’s me!

Sure, I’ll admit it: I was powerfully moved when I reached the core of the song, and he started singing about his family. I’m very sad to say that I’ve shared my last Christmas ever with some of the people on that list of “Dad and brothers and sisters and Gram and Mom.” I still miss those people a lot, even years after losing them.

Just when I was thinking “I can’t believe I got through that without crying,” he started singing about his daughter. And that, dear readers, was when I was very, very glad that I was alone in the room.

I absolutely freakin’ love Tim Minchin.

Sample “White Wine In The Sun” on the Amazon MP3 store. Everything you buy on Amazon after clicking that link, whether it’s a 99-cent music track of a $7000 wristwatch, will result in my receiving a kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I promise to spend on foolish and wonderful things.

Amazon Advent 02 – “Mr. Fancy Pants” by Jonathan Coulton


Album Art

Mr. Fancy Pants

Jonathan Coulton

JoCo Looks Back

Genre: Pop

“Not many people know this…but the Führer was a terrific dancer.”

So wrote no less an authority on European history than Dr. Melvin James Kaminsky, in his seminal work, “The Producers.” It goes to show you that typecasting is a widespread problem that extends far, far beyond the fields of entertainment. The public, and the media in particular, like to lock a notable person into a single, oversimplified container. Apparently, there just isn’t enough bandwidth in the zeitgeist for “He led a nation into madness, a world into a bloody, extended war, and 11,000,000 souls to extermination” and “He understudied the role of Billy Crocker in the original 1934 New Haven out-of-town tryout of ‘Anything Goes’.”

Jonathan Coulton is much like Hitler, in this (sole) (as far as we know) respect. The Amazon MP3 Store and iTunes have both chosen to categorize him in the overly-nondenominational but entirely reasonable category of “Pop.” But mainstream commentators often try to narrow that down. They usually fail. Is he…a musical comedian? A satirist? Is he a narrowcaster of “nerd folk music”?

Hmph. Honestly. Why not just call him a musician, and leave it at that? Pigeonholing him is pointedly unnecessary, as demonstrated by…well, pretty much every Jonathan Coulton track available.

He has a remarkable felicity with lyrics, clicking words together as though that’s the way they should have appeared to begin with. I have to believe that when I plucked “Anything Goes” out of the air for a cheap joke, it was a case of divine ordinance. Coulton seems to inject the same kind of playful, effortless flavor into his lyrics as Cole Porter.

(It was either Divine Ordinance or an expression of my offhand genius. But surely that’s for future generations to confirm.)

And to anyone who disagrees with my high opinion of Coulton as a composer: I challenge you to listen to “Mr. Fancy Pants” and not be humming the tune for the whole rest of the week. We speak of “earworms.” Well, a Coulton melody is more like a Babel Fish. Yup, it winds its way through the ear canal and won’t leave, and it might creep you out a little at first. But soon, and forever after, you’re glad it’s in there.

His tunes and lyrics play together so well. There’s an construction in “The Future Soon” that I adore. Viz:

Last week I left a note on Laura’s desk
It said I love you, signed, anonymous friend
Turns out she’s smarter than I thought she was
She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too

In the last line, “does” completes the rhyme with “was.” But there’s still that next word after it. As sung, it’s like that moment of weightlessness when a ball thrown in the air has arrived at the apex of its trajectory and is about to start its fall.

I’m sure there’s some sort of musicological terminology for that kind of thing, but it doesn’t matter and I can’t be bothered to look it up. I just think it’s great.

Above the technical stuff about his songs, there’s the fact that Jonathan Coulton does what every great songwriter does: he figures out how to use a song to underscore a simple, shared truth of the human experience.

In his live show, Coulton introduces “The Future Soon” as the thoughts of a 12 year old boy during the Eighties, lying in his bedroom and reading “Omni” magazine and thinking of the future. It’s a time when you’ve yet to figure out how to wield any power over your own destiny. At the same time, you can’t stop thinking about the future. The kid in this song is eager for what his life will be, when technology will have magically eliminated all of the unsolveable problems that stand between himself and what he wants.

(And then it gets a little out of hand and he starts describing what would probably make for an awesome epic doodle on his homeroom desk.)

The next developmental step for this kid is a (hopefully brief) period of impatient teenage anger. After that, a sense of entitlement will be replaced by one of enlightenment. It’s a wonderful moment of discovery when a young adult realizes he can set his goals even higher and go out and get everything he wants, without the need for bionic implants and a robot army.

But I didn’t choose “The Future Soon” as today’s song.

Why?

Um…okay: there’s this electronic beeping that starts around the bridge and repeats until the fade-out. It’s like the flashing lights in that one “Pokemon” cartoon. It triggers some kind of epileptic seizure in the part of my brain that controls my irritation; by the end, I find myself loading the song into Garage Band and seeing if there isn’t some EQ or filter I can apply to this awesome song to make the beeping less noticeable.

Instead, I chose “Mr. Fancy Pants,” which has much to recommend it. It has a bouncy melody. It has the word “Pants” in the title. And there’s a subtle, important point lurking within its brief tale of a man who is driven to be publicly acknowledged as the owner of the fanciest pair of pants in town.

Say a little prayer for Mr. Fancy Pants
The whole world knows
They’re only clothes
And deep inside
He’s sad

The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t help but think about the many times I’ve been on some kind of fan message board or another and saw a photo of a collector’s room that made me a little sad. Most of them don’t. But there are some that fill me with some small measure of pity.

Usually it’s a spare bedroom, filled with IKEA bookcases. Each bookcase has a half a dozen shelves, and each shelf is stuffed with “Star Wars” toys. Multiple copies of them, each in their original boxes and covered with a certain amount of dust that serves as the collection’s sole cataloguing system.

Or, it’s a room dedicated to comic book action figures and statues. I can imagine that this room was once a cheery museum of a productive hobby, way back when it was filled to about 20% of its current capacity. A chair, a sofa, and the ability read and watch TV surrounded by nifty things. But by the time the photo was taken, the collection was at the advanced stage where the room looks like the excavation of the terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin. Rows upon rows upon rows of figues and statues, packed so densely that they can only be perceived as a single crowd. How can any one of these objects deliver any pleasure to its owner?

Thus speaks a man whose house contains a decidedly nonzero number of Cold-Cast Porcelain Limited-Edition Collectible Statues. I, um, might be standing on shaky ground.

But, look: it’s a manageable number. When I see my Jim Lee “Batman” statue on the shelf, it holds my attention and gives me some joy. Ditto for my Artoo Detoo Cookie Jar (shelf above), my Death of The Endless statue (opposite set of shelves) and my California Originals Chewbacca stein (mantle). They sit in places in the office and living room where I might look up from my book or my keyboard. I see something pretty, and it makes me happy. Or it reminds me of a great story or a favorite creator, and it inspires me.

So those things are fine, I reckon. I feel like I can defend them. They’re evidence of a person who has hobbies and interests, and pursues those interests as part of a healthy, balanced life.

Once, my collecting…probably wasn’t Fine. For a year or two, I was so excited that there were new Star Wars action figures available for the first time since my childhood that I went slightly nuts. From that moment, we now fast-forward several years to the scene where I remove a dozen huge Toys-R-Us bags from a storage locker. Each one was filled with unopened toys and a certain kind of numb, remote shame.

As I was acquiring these toys, they gave me a temporary jolt of Happy Brain Chemicals. Almost immediately after, however, the Happy part was over for good and they became just a source of clutter. I didn’t look at them again and I wasn’t even particularly aware that I owned them.

I took those bags to my friendly local comic book retailer and swapped them for a boatload of store credit…which I drew upon for a mighty long time. I bought a whole bunch of terrific comics and trade paperbacks. They give me new joy every time I pick one up off the shelf and read it again.

I hope I’m not judging these kinds of collectors. Manic acquisition seems sad, that’s all. The things you own should mean something to you. I see the fantastic Brian Bolland-inspired “Wonder Woman” statue in Terra Cotta Warrior formation as part of someone’s immense collection and it just seems like such a waste. All by itself, the statue is a lovely object and it’d be a highlight in the room of any Wonder Woman fan. As part of a huge crowd, it’s meaningless, except as a show of force. “Look at all these statues I own! Come back in a month…I’ll own even more!”

Material things (even things designed specifically for acquisition and collecting) aren’t the problem. The problem comes when there’s a glaring divot in your life and you fill it with those material things, or a new habit, or with an empty goal such as “Get More Stuff.”

It sneaks up on you. There might come a time when your collection is no longer a solution to a small problem (“I need a hobby that allows me to relax and decompresss”)…but a distraction from a very large one.

I suspect that I was buying action figures because there was something missing from my life at that time. When that time passed, the action figures went into storage and I was glad for the extra space. I didn’t miss them a bit. Even during the height of my collecting, I could have lost them all in a fire and not really felt anything.

By contrast, if my 1977 Chewbacca tankard were to fall off the mantle and smash into smithereens, I’d be bummed. Supposedly, this tankard was a product that George Lucas wanted for his own use. It’s a beautiful thing and it makes me think of a movie that gave me a hell of a lot of joy during my childhood, and of a creator whom I greatly admire.

When I see some of these out-of-control collections (or a super-crazy-intense love of a movie or TV series) I worry about what happens to these people when the distractions are gone. It’s only when the room is completely empty that you finally can see the cracks in the walls and the gaps between the floorboards.

The whole world knows, it’s only clothes…and deep inside, he’s sad.

Okay, well, reading back, I must acknowledge the possibility that none of this was on Mr. Coulton’s mind when he wrote “Mr. Fancy Pants.”

But that’s kind of the point. Art that speaks to something fundamental doesn’t usually need to spell it right out. Usually, it’s the product of an artist making an observation about nothing in particular. But because the thing is of this world, and the creator is both an artist and a human, significances seep in.

I’ll conclude by shifting the tone and acknowledging that if I moved to a new town and saw posters for their annual Fancy Pants Parade, I’d feel as though I’d made a shrewd choice. The first year, I’d chuckle about it and I probably wouldn’t go to see the parade, though I would have entered the date into my calendar. I’d go see it the second year and snap photos.

Sometime before the third one, maybe I’d be in Dallas on business and I’d be walking around the outskirts and I’d happen along a costume rental shop that was closing its doors after 90 years in business and selling all of its stock. I’d chance across a pair of trousers that began its life as a pair of riding breeches in 1930 but which had been repurposed once every twenty years until it had become a dazzling layer cake of velvet and satin and sequins.

“If these people are asking anything less than $100 for these,” I would think, “Then this year’s trophy will, no doubt, be mine…Mr. Fancy Pants be damned.”

Is the Fancy Pants Parade followed by a Fancy Pants Dance at the VFW hall later? I hope so. I’ve been working on my dance steps for it since the first time I played this song in the privacy of my home.

I told you: it’s a damned catchy song.

As I’m sure you’ll agree once you click this link and sample it on the Amazon MP3 Store. Everything you buy on Amazon after following that link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits.

Which I promise to spend on foolish things.

Maybe fancy pants. Maybe a “Superman” statue.

Amazon Advent 2012: “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby” by Jerry Lewis

Album Art

Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis Just Sings

Genre: Comedy

My BFF John has been simultaneously inspiring and shaming me with his Movie Year project. He’s watched and reviewed 1300 movies over the past four years — each one new to him — and has kept up a one-a-day pace nearly the whole time.

You see my dilemma. Patting oneself on the back is rarely easy unless you’re a gymnast from one of those weirdo former Soviet nations. It’s even more challenging for me to boast “I write about a different piece of music every day (kind of) for about a month, once a year” in the face of this much grander achievement.

(Or is it “grandiose”? Well, that’s for other people to decide.)

I mean, a month ago, a little kid somewhere in the world finally summoned every last gram of his bravery and made his very first dive off of the one-meter springboard at his community pool. He was immensely proud of what he’d done and he was right to be. But what did he find after he ran home, with his hair still wet and stiff with chlorine, to tell his parents what he’d done? He found the whole family gathered around the TV watching Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon and one-upping him.

And just to rub it in, the bastard had to go and dive from a platform 127,997 meters higher.

I know exactly how that kid feels. It ain’t right.

Well. If I can’t match John’s consistent productivity (and I can’t; honest, ask my editors) I can at least steal an idea of his, just out of spite. John often includes runs of films that share a common theme. And so, I’m starting this year’s Advent Calendar with a number of tracks that are all related to Comedy.

Ah! But there’s a theme inside this theme. Each of these tracks would probably be filed under “comedy” by an underpaid store clerk in a retail store, or by an underfed algorithm in a digital store. But is it comedy, really?

Case in point: “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby,” recorded by Jerry Lewis.

Jerry has earned a rare and highly desirable group of distinctions. By God…the man is in his Eighties, lucid, and his cv includes a long string of legitimate career successes, all at the same time.

If you can score two out of three of those achievements, you can dine very well for the rest of your life on testimonial dinners. Though as a practical matter, one of those two should definitely be “remain alive.” The event organizers usually expect you to say a few words between the serving of the soup course and the entree, you see.

If you can achieve the full trifecta, then unlike Milton Berle you’ll be served a full plate of respect as well as the free dinner. Folks like Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, and yes, Jerry are in this kind of club.

Any Jerry fan will remind you that at the apex of his career, he was part of an act that simultaneously was successful on TV, movies, the radio, and in live performances. “The King Of Comedy” (a compulsively readable Jerry Lewis biography) paints a picture of a guy who was both driven (good) and obsessed (bad) with success. The press kept painting Jerry as the genius of the act and Dean reacted by gradually retreating from all responsibility; ultimately, he couldn’t be made to care about anything apart from showing up at the right place and the right time in the right tuxedo. Meanwhile, Jerry seemed to tackle the duties and opportunities of the team’s success with a kind of grave seriousness.

In the 1500s, another man applied that same kind of focus towards overseeing the first 50 years of construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the 1950s, Jerry applied it to taking his hyperactive little monkey character and parlaying it into six decades in show business. Well, whatever; it’s all about setting goals and letting nothing stand in your way. It’s admirable.

His drive was matched by his obsessions. One of them (if you believe the book) was cultivating a bond with Dean, casting him in the role of “big brother” in his life. Alas, Dean Martin appeared to be as disinterested in expressions of mutual affection as he was in everything else. “When I look at you, all I see is dollar signs,” is the famous quote from that period.

One might theorize that this actually forged the strongest kind of “little brother” bond possible: a white-hot passive-aggressive drive to top all of the big brother’s achievements.

It’s just pop-psychology, I know. But still, wow, there’s no denying that Dean Martin had set up housekeeping deep inside Jerry’s head. After their 1956 breakup, Dean Martin opened a restaurant on the Sunset Strip in LA and it became a success. So Jerry opened his own restaurant, just up the street. Where “Dino’s Lodge” required little more from Dean than signing the contracts and letting them hang a neon caricature of his face outside the joint, “Jerry’s” had the dubious benefit of Lewis’ mitts on every aspect of the shop. Jerry even hired away as many key staffmembers of Dino’s Lodge as he could.

(Read all about it here.)

And shortly after the breakup, Jerry started making records. Not even comedy records: “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” was an LP of straightforward singing. Yes, Dean and Jerry were definitely entering the Popeye and Bluto phase of their relationship.

Soon, Jerry’s solo career eclipsed Dean’s. Which serves as proof, yet again, that although the alchemy of enduring success is impossible to nail down, “drive” is the one ingredient that you absolutely can’t do without. Dean didn’t have a Colonel Tom Parker or a Brian Epstein to help plan his next move for him. Jerry didn’t need one. He simply dropped the clutch and burned rubber.

Part of me enjoys the drama of that sequence of events. This part of me is rude and mean and alas, it often shouts down the nobler part…the one who, even now, sighs and wonders why we should even care about a spat between two celebrities that took place a half a century ago.

This nobler part gently nudges me to move on and start talking about the positive nature of Jerry’s triumph instead. “Jerry Just Sings” was a hit, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby” sold well over a million copies. None of that would have happened if not for the fact that Jerry had confidence in what he could do, and a determination to succeed. Even though he was part of one of the most popular live and movie duos in the world, he couldn’t land a record deal. So he bankrolled the production costs of “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” personally, booking a studio, engineer, and a full orchestra.

I’ve selected a version of “Rock-A-Bye” that includes part of the studio recording session. “I’m laughing,” he banters to the booth, as everybody resets after a flubbed take. “But I’m paying for the date. Hurry up!”

There’s a story behind the inclusion of this song in the recording session, and it’s exactly the sort of broad-canvas Showbiz story that I usually associate with Jerry.

I mean, I imagine that if you’re Jerry Lewis and it’s 1956 and you’re vacationing in Las Vegas with your wife, you can sort of expect to be called upon to serve as a last-second substitution for Judy Garland. “Rock-A-Bye” was the tune with which she usually closed her show and Jerry knew it by heart. It was a classic Al Jolson standard and it happened to be a song that Jerry’s dad used to perform in his own act. Danny Lewis was largely absent in Jerry’s childhood, chiefly because he kept trying to make a singing career happen. He only made it far enough in show business to spend the rest of his life wondering why the hell his son became an international superstar instead of him.

At least it allowed Jerry to close Judy’s Vegas show the same way she always did. He sang “Rock-A-Bye” to her onstage, as a way of proving to the paying audience that she had actually gone sick, and wasn’t just off somewhere putting in some sweat equity on future diagnosis of cirrhosis.

This track leaves me with two different thoughts about Jerry Lewis, the singer. First: jeez, that guy could really sing. Give the man his due. His mouth was clearly good for a third thing, apart from spit takes and licking Sinatra’s head whenever that could get a laugh.

Also? It seems like the sort of performance made by someone who sees singing as one of the skills in an entertainer’s full portfolio. If you want to entertain, you need to sing well, act well, move well, make people laugh, and you need to be a solid enough creative force that (unlike Dean) your career isn’t left at the mercy of outside writers and directors and producers.

To put it another way: it seemed as though Jerry saw singing as one event in a showbiz decathlon. He definitely medaled in the overall competition. Meanwhile, singers like Tony Bennett focused on just one skill…and it shows.

To further exploit an Olympic analogy: in any creative endeavor you can score a bronze, a silver, or a gold if you’re very good. You get the bronze if you can mimic what other people have done. You win the silver if you can adapt what other people have done in a fresh way.

The gold is reserved for people who are truly inventive. Janis Joplin wasn’t even the hundredth person to record “Summertime,” from “Porgy and Bess.” But she was the first singer in many years to invent a new performance that was so fresh that it forced everyone to thing about this familiar tune in a completely new way.

Danny Lewis’ act (it seems) consisted mostly of mimicry. “Rock-A-Bye” was a big hit for Al Jolson, so Danny sang it like Jolson did. Jerry’s singing chops shouldn’t be judged based on this track (he could hardly help but deliver this song the way his dad did). Nonetheless, his other tracks seem familiar. He sings with great skill and he seems to genuinely care about his performance, but there’s nothing about a Jerry Lewis track that urges you put down the Kindle and focus fully on the song.

As a comic, though…yes, Jerry was pure gold. The fact that even a weak Jerry Lewis impression is instantly recognizable — as is a certain style of filmed comedy — underscores the conclusion that Jerry put something on earth that wasn’t there before.

It’s a powerful lesson for anyone in a creative line of work. You need to invent, invent, invent. Mimics can be very successful, but after the lights come back up in the theater, nobody ever remembers who they are.

As the old Albert Brooks joke goes: the sign at the outskirts of Las Vegas reads “You are now leaving Las Vegas. Nobody past this sign knows who the hell Danny Ganz is.”

Sorry: Danny Gans.

Oh, well, he was a singing impressionist. He had his own theater in Las Vegas and the largest billboard on the Strip. His act grossed 18 million bucks a year. He passed away in 2009 at the age of just 52.

Yeah. See what I mean?

Oh, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he played Dean Martin in a made-for-TV miniseries about Frank Sinatra. Lovely how things come full circle, eh?

Speaking of bringing things full circle, I was only kidding when I implied that I was spiteful of my BFF John. He’s maintained a truly Roger Ebert-scale annual output of movie reviews. I’m proud of him.

Still, it would please me greatly if my own blog post today outgrossed his. Shouldn’t be much trouble, as he doesn’t even use Amazon Associates links, but every bit helps.

Click to sample “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby” on the Amazon MP3 store.

Anything you buy after following this link will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits, which I promise to use for stuff that helps me to be a better tech columnist.

(Meaning, anything from “a $45 cable that lets me check to see if a new tablet works with a wired network” to “a comfier chair for the living room, which is a place where I sometimes write.”)

Amazon Advent Calendar 2012: The Preamble

This can’t possibly be the first day of my annual Musical Advent Calendar, can it?

First objection: “The Advent season doesn’t begin until Sunday, December 2.” I’m not sure why this is your first objection.

If you’ve been sent here expecting additional guidance and insight about how to prepare yourself and your family for Celebration of the Nativity…wow, you have a terrible, terrible pastor. Does he drink? Or did you happen to hit him up for a recommendation just as he was about to hit up a recently widowed and always turbo-hot Zumba instructor?

Second objection: “You normally don’t start this until a few days before or after Thanksgiving.”

I suppose that’s true enough. I try very hard to maintain the illusion that this is all about offering you, the reader, a daily piece of music that’s eminently worth your attention, a glimmer of unexpected tonal beauty in what might otherwise be a dreary winter day. I’m so very eager to distract you from the realization that this is all about tricking you into clicking one of my Amazon affiliate links just before you were about to do some high-ticket holiday shopping. So eager, in fact, that some years I’m even willing to start the Advent Calendar several days after the highest-volume shopping period is long-gone.

And with that previous explanation, I’m trying to distract you from the realization that I often start the Advent Calendar late because other work gets in the way, and/or I skip a few days because I’m distracted by bright, shiny objects.

So this year, I’m trying something new: instead of tackling the Advent Calendar as a daily diary, I’ve started writing these entries months in advance. It’s August and I’m sitting in a Dunkin Donuts. As I write this, I can look across the store towards the racks of baked goods and I don’t see any novelty donuts frosted in autumn oranges or yellows, let alone holiday tones of bright red and green. All I can see are a lone rack that’s been topped with crumbled Oreo cookies. Does that ring a bell with any of you?

Yes, instead of tackling the Advent Calendar as a daily diary, I’ve decided to tackle it as…a daily diary.

I’m using Bloom Built’s rather awesome calendar-based journaling app “Day One” as my writing tool. It’s brilliant for this kind of thing. I pull up the calendar (which at the moment is a canvas of blank tiles), then I click on a date on the calendar, and then I start typing. When I go back to the calendar, that date has been colored in. Which means that I’ve completed my duty to God, country, and readership for that day.

(Excuse me, please. I’ve been thinking about those Oreo donuts nonstop for the past five sentences.)

(YUM. I very much recommend talking Superman into spinning the Earth backwards a couple of months and picking up a half dozen of these for you.)

(Licking fingers.)

(Continuing.)

This might be your first exposure to my annual Musical Advent Calendar, so I’ll kick things off with some background. Every day until Christmas, I select a different track and write about it. Most of these will be songs available from the Amazon MP3 Store, but I’ll also salt and pepper the list with some choice freebies. There isn’t much of a rhyme or reason to these picks. Each one is just something I really like, or at least something that can inspire a few hundred words of typing.

The Advent Calendar is my annual audit of the music I’d discovered during the previous year. It’s a form of archaeology and personal anthropology. I start by examining the three or four manually-assembled playlists that feed most of my casual listening. A couple of clicks quickly narrows it down to the songs that I added in 2012. Another sort of the list, based on number of plays and the number of times I skipped past the track during playback, identifies the true stars among this list of favorites.

It’s also the time when I try to spot obvious trends in my buying, and the obvious gaps in my musical tastes. I sure bought a lot of Old Country this year. Why did I only bought two or three tracks that anybody would broadly call “current”? I make a note to try to be a little more adventuresome, and try to buy some music that was released this decade.

(Let’s not go crazy. Let’s start with “this millennium” and see how that goes.)

Part of this archaeology project is the challenge of explaining and defending my choices. I don’t actually need to do either, of course. All one ever needs to do is love something sincerely.

But…well, take this track from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. Why am I slightly ashamed to have it in my library? Hmm. This hesitance points out a disconnect between the person I am and the person I want everyone to perceive me to be. An Elevated individual tries to keep those two things closely synced. When the second gets irresponsibly ahead of the first, it only leads to stress, lies, bad decisions, and overall unhappiness.

Here we are at the end of Day One and Musical Advent Calendar 2012 is already a roaring success. In the sense that I’ve had a Diet Pepsi, a donut that was thoroughly shrapneled with jagged Oreo bits, and now I have a blue box over the first day in the calendar. Excellent, excellent.

The only thing missing today is an actual song recommendation. This would usually be the spot in the proceedings where I’d paste in a link to the track on the Amazon MP3 Store. These links (including that one) are embedded with my affiliate code and any purchases of any kind that you make after you click it will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits.

I often spend these credits on things that help me with a column. When I reviewed the Google Nexus 7 tablet over the summer, for example, I bought nearly a hundred bucks’ worth of different USB accessories, trying to see exactly how far I could go in treating this little pocket-sized tablet like a full PC. The answer: very far! Keyboards, mouses, Ethernet adapters, USB adapters, everything. Cool. It’s always nice when I can do that without going deeply out-of-pocket.

I also use those credits to buy silly things that please me. The other day I wondered what I’d look like in a bowler hat. I checked Amazon. They sell bowler hats and they aren’t even all that expensive.

No, I didn’t buy myself a bowler hat. But I could have. And if I had, I would have had you people to thank for it.

(Now I’m thinking about that hat again.)

(Would it make me look interesting and dashing? You know, if I had a bowler hat, I could answer the door as the Mad Painter from “Sesame Street” this Halloween.)

I should probably end this and distract myself with a different project before I do something impulsive. See you tomorrow. In the meantime, check out previous years’ Advent Calendars:

2011

2010

2009

2008

And hey…Happy Labor Day!

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: “The Lady Is A Tramp” (Amazon Advent Calendar day 6)

Album Art

The Lady Is A Tramp

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Duets II

Genre: Pop

Yesterday’s post covered the subject of “Being surprised that a famous person is good at doing something else besides the thing for which he or she is famous.” Today’s topic is about being surprised that the famous person is good at the thing they’re actually supposed to be good at.

I’m speaking, of course, of Tony Bennett.

I’m joking, of course.

I’m actually speaking, of course, of Lady Gaga. I admit without hesitation or qualification that I was wrong, wrong, wrong when I assumed that she was (at best) a mediocre singer. Why did I make that assumption? I dunno. I mean, she ripped off so much else from Madonna…

Okay, I apologize for that.

The actual explanation: I’ve only heard a few of Gaga’s songs and in each of them, her natural singing voice was tightly shrinkwrapped behind a wall of production trickery. Overprocessing is a big help to the mediocre singers — it putties in all of the lows and cracks in a performance — but when the lady can actually sing, heavy production also sands down the highs.

It might be a point of pride that causes a true vocalist to put one track on the album in which it’s just them and a microphone. I think it’s why many stage magicians wedge a selection of slight-of-hand tricks in between the Swallowing A Gulfstream Jet Trick and the Flaming Elephant Escape Illusion. Showbiz is showbiz, but it’s a point of pride to demonstrate that you have the sort of skills that come from dedication and hard work in addition to the sort of buying power that lets you bring in whatever hardware that a miracle requires.

Tony Bennett kicked it up a notch by singing a capella in his live shows…without even any assistance from a microphone. This here’s a crummy phone video but it was shot during a Radio City Music Hall performance. This is not a small venue:

I believe that this was shot in 2007. When Mr. Bennett was EIGHTY-ONE YEARS OLD.

EIGHTY-ONE!!!

Dammit, if ever there was a time when the HTML "BLINK" tag was 100% called for…

Onward. Yes. Please. More Gaga tracks like this one: the lady has some serious pipes and the track makes me want to seek out more of her music. If she ever released an “American songbook” album, I’d consider that a pretty quick 1-click.

Maybe in a couple of years, after she and her fans get itchy for her Next Thing. I did see her HBO concert special, and (yes) I thought there was too much staging and too much flash. Those things do a remarkable job of obscuring her talent. The show was all meat dress and no steak.

Allow me to make an overly-precious simile. There’s a restaurant up above Boulder, Colorado that serves all kinds of game. I used to eat dinner there once every year. I’d always order the oddest thing on the menu just on principle and the experience taught me something important. One year, I ordered emu. It arrived as a thick, grilled steak with very light seasoning. A little salt and pepper? Maybe.

One year, I ordered alligator. It arrived slathered in cheese and heavy sauces.

The clear lesson: terrific ingredients can stand on their own. If it’s something that Humanity was never meant to consume, the chef covers it in enough gunk that you can’t taste it at all.

So when I see a performer who works so hard at being so outrageous…yes, my prejudices get the better of me. I assume that it’s a crocodile quesadilla.

(Aside: Emu is heavenly. It’s truly a fusion of the best elements of red and white meat.)

Seriously, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. But that’s marketing for you. As a consumer, I’m not obligated to try out every song, movie, or TV show. I’m to be forgiven for applying what I’ve learned from past experience when deciding how to best invest my time and money, right?

Lady Gaga is more like Cyndi Lauper than Madonna. Lauper, too, had — and still has — an incredible voice and an outrageous style that might have caused some people to draw the wrong conclusion and turn away. But she had the advantage of coming on to the popular scene in the early Eighties, when audio production tools were still analog and a fantastic voice could still fight its way through whatever layers of spray-on gold and gloss that a producer attempted to slap on it.

This is Tony Bennett’s second album of duets and like its predecessor it helps expunge my memory of Frank Sinatra’s end-of-career “Duets” albums. Sinatra’s handlers arranged for a nice lineup of talent, but they all essentially performed karaoke to Sinatra’s pre-recorded tracks. Bennett’s duets are real, in-studio collaborations and it shows. “The Lady Is A Tramp” is one of the standouts; Bennett and Gaga really sound like they’re having a great time together.

Try or buy “The Lady Is A Tramp” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking the link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. Which, I assure you, I shall spend on Lovely and Foolish Things.

Amazon $5 MP3 album sale…last day picks!

Today’s the last day of Amazon’s $5 MP3 album sale and good riddance. It’s been forcing me to revisit two eras that I thought were well behind me:

1) My teen years, in the form of albums that were on, like, EV-ery 90-minute econotape I put together for my Walkman while I was in high school, and

2) The days when I’d chance across a used CD or used bookstore that had an exceptionally good assortment at exceptionally good prices, and think “Well, look, when will I have another chance to buy it at this price?” way, wayyy too many times.

#1 is bad because if you were to visit Young Ihnatko during that era, you would have met a dumpy-looking socially-inept idiot who stayed up waaaay too late every night messing around on a computer, had practically no luck with girls, and was constantly being berated and put down by his peers. Today, there’s all that, yes, but I have visited Industrial Light and Magic several times.

#2 is bad because it puts me in the poorhouse. But what can you do? Money is tight in today’s economy and if I have to spend $5 to save $8, then I need to go ahead and do the smart thing. I’m pretty sure that means I make $3 on the deal.

I’ve accidentally come across enough really great albums on sale that at some point, I decided to simply make my stately way through the entire list of 1500, looking for favorite albums that somehow I’d never gotten around to buying before, and ones that I’ve kind of always wanted, but could never pull the trigger on at full price.

At this point, I’ve been simply making my stately way through the whole list of 1500+ on-sale albums, looking for stuff and trying to pick every piece of ripe fruit off the tree. Why, I’m saving so much money that I might even be able to buy that powerboat I don’t need, but which will convince my neighbors I’m a big shot or something!

Some last-day picks:

Hunky Dory (David Bowie)

I think this was the first Bowie album I bought after a “Greatest Hits” collection. Smart lad. “Life On Mars” is firmly in the category of Best Bowies Ever and there’s plenty of good tracks beyond the obvious hits.

Live In Santa Monica ’72 (David Bowie)

There isn’t a “Bowie’s Greatest Hits” collection on sale this month, but this concert album comes close.

Greatest Hits (Devo)

Now here’s a Greatest Hits album. Devo has no interest in the Tranquil, Meditative Ballad business. It’s nerds throttling processors, all the way.

King Of America (Elvis Costello)

Elvis Costello has made it onto that short list of performers who will always be making albums and will always be doing worthwhile things. Most performers are lucky to just still be around without having to just tour with the same material that made them famous.

11:11 (Redrigo y Gabriela)

I’ve been a fan of this acoustic duo ever since I saw them perform on Letterman years ago. Your first response is “There’s no way in hell they’re getting all that music out of two acoustic guitars, played live” but after you get past that, it’s just great music.

Paul’s Boutique (Beastie Boys)

I have no story about my introduction to The Beastie Boys’ oeuvre that makes me sound cool. It’s the classic story of “Boy sees the video for ‘Fight For Your Right’, remembers to follow up on these ‘Beastie Boys’ fellows at the record emporium some day.” This is prolly my favorite of the three BB albums I own.

Chicago IX (Chicago)

Greatest Hits albums like this one are a particularly good pick. In one fell swoop, you get the band’s hits. Who hasn’t heard most of these Chicago songs? “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is” and its ilk are welcome surprise visitors when you’re listening to your iPhone on Shuffle Play mode.

Greatest Hits (The Band)

The other advantage of “Greatest Hits” albums? They can move a band from “Oh, right, they did that one song” to “I love these guys and I have all their ab-lums” with one purchase. You know “The Weight” but maybe you don’t know that this is a group of hella-talented musicians.

Insomniac (Green Day)

I gamely sat through a lot of awful, awful punk albums as a youth. A lot. Where a $40 yard-sale guitar plus unearned rage minus musical ability plus a 60-minute econotape equaled “**** you! I’m in a band!” Green Day makes up for all of those.

The Wind (Warren Zevon)

And I’ll tell you who had a right to be angry: Warren Zevon, who was diagnosed with “just go home and do whatever you want” cancer just when he was at a point where he could enjoy the fruits of an incredible songwriting career. “Whatever you want” included writing and recording one last album. I can’t pretend that it isn’t more powerful because of its position in his catalogue, nor that its context should factor into how you react to it. But it is, and it does.

Greatest Hits (Shirley Bassey)

The phrase “Dammit…this woman can sing” seems scarcely sufficient. Another $5 “Greatest Hits” album = another chance to slap yourself in the head for having lived life to this point only thinking of Shirley Bassey as “That one who does all the James Bond themes, right? (And yes: you get the James Bond themes.)

Innervisions (Stevie Wonder)

This album is a corrective action. I think you’re given until age…let’s say “35” to acquire the 100 albums that no sane music listener should do without. This is one of them.

Live At Leeds (The Who)

…And this is another one of them.

Intermodulation (Bill Evans)

I’m not a fan of all kinds of jazz. But I cannot be an exception to the rule “Everybody digs Bill Evans.” This is a superb album of piano and guitar improvisations. Every sequence he plays underscores the wisdom of my giving up the piano after just three or four years’ worth of lessons. This is what most people think of when they think “Jazz” without suffering some sort of facial tic afterward.

Music Is Awesome! Vol. 2 (Yo Gabba Gabba)

Remember when Chuck Jones used to say that he and the other Warner Brothers animators were just trying to amuse each other? Same deal here. They’re not making music for a kiddie show. They’re making music to make each other happy. Buying this album is the reason why you’ll be staring at your car dock and thinking “Wait…what the hell was that awesome song and how did it get on my iPhone?” a few times a week for the rest of the year.

Oh, and yes indeed: each of those links is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking will result in my receiving a small kickback, which I promise to spend on extremely silly things.

Amazon to Apple: Oh, it is sooo ON!!!

Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the Cloud Player; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon Cloud Drive.
Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the CloudPlayer; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon CloudDrive.

This is why I love my job. Today, Amazon enabled two new features to their site: Amazon Cloud Player and Amazon Cloud Drive.

Cloud Drive is iDisk via Amazon storage, pretty much. You get 5 gigs of storage for free and can buy more as you need it. Your Cloud Drive can store anything…documents, photos, movies, music.

Cloud Player…lets you stream all of the music you’ve stored on your Cloud Drive. Annnnd everything you purchase via Amazon MP3 (from now on, anyway) is automatically added to your Cloud Drive and doesn’t count towards your storage limit. If you buy 100 gigs of Amazon MP3, you can play all of it for free without paying a dime. In fact, if you buy MP3s from Amazon, they’ll up your “regular” storage to 20 gigs anyway.

And there’s a helper app that’ll scan your existing iTunes library for music files that are compatible with the service. Click a button and all of it — or selected playlists — get uploaded to your Cloud Drive…even files you didn’t purchase through Amazon MP3.

The Cloud Player works through any web browser that supports Adobe Air. So: your Mac is in the club…but your iOS devices are out. But good news if you have an Android phone: the Amazon MP3 app will stream alllllll of your content just great.

Photo of the Amazon MP3 app for Android phones.
The Amazon MP3 app for Android devices...all of the music I've put into my CloudDrive is streamable. Even the stuff I didn't buy from Amazon!

I’ve already transferred four gigs of music to the cloud and yup, it works great. Any computer, anywhere there’s Internet, I get an iPod Nano’s worth of music. I’ve also downloaded the new Amazon MP3 app to my Android phone and…yup…there’s my music.

I tried opening the webplayer on my iPad and it warned me that I’ve got the wrong kind of browser. The player loads up, I can see my music, I can tap a Play button, it selects the track…but nothing happens.

iPad browser with the Amazon CloudPlayer.
You can visit your Cloud Player on the iPad, and it looks like it could be playing your music...but nothing will play. It seems to require Adobe Air/Flash.

Well, isn’t this very interesting!

I wrote a column last week about the new Amazon AppStore and how this signaled a start to some more direct and aggressive competition between Amazon and Apple as the elite seller of digital content and as the Great and Powerful Oz of your mobile experience. This is the second shoe to drop in that battle and there’s a centipede’s worth yet to come.

I’ve used this service for just a half an hour but yes, I already like it a lot. It’s a much simpler and more robust way to cloud-stream your online music purchases than anything else going at the moment. It’s a reason why I’ll continue to buy music from Amazon instead of iTunes.

And — God help me — it makes all Android phones that much more cool.

[Added: and to anyone who wonders where the money is for Amazon in this…you should think bigger. Think of the next Kindle as an entirely cloud-oriented media player. It always has ample local storage for books and a playlist or two, but it has an intimate connection with all of your Amazon purchases and can retrieve — or stream — any of them at any time. Someone deciding between an iPod Touch or a 7″ Kindle Color could be swayed by that kind of feature, couldn’t they?]

I’ve sent an email off to Amazon about any plans for an iOS player. I reckon they’ll make one if Apple will let them release it. Amazon’s always been about selling content, not operating systems and hardware and it’s always benefitted them to get the Kindle reader on as many devices as they can.

I actually first heard about this when I hit Amazon.com to buy a couple of things an hour ago. As soon as I saw it, and I set to work downloading things and uploading things and playing with it, I had to stop and think “Damn…I love my job. Apple versus Amazon is like Ali versus Frasier. This is two evenly-matched fighters and the outcome of their battle can only benefit consumers.

This is what I’ve been hoping for: a company with the skill, vision, clarity, and competence to truly compete with Apple. It wasn’t going to be Google. It was never going to be Google. I’m grinning at the thought of how high these two companies can push each other. What a great time to be a geek and to be alive.

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues (Advent Calendar day 26)

Album Art

Fairytale of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best of The Pogues

Genre: Pop

What’s your favorite Christmas-ish song?

Note the decisive use of the hyphenated suffix. If the lyrics include references to either the Batman or the Superman of this season (Santa and Jesus) then you can clearly file it under “Holiday.” Others, even some of the standards, are merely “seasonal.” I remind you, for example, that “Frosty The Snowman” is merely a winter-themed song. It only received its religious affiliations later in its life, when the last line “…I’ll return again someday” suspiciously became “I’ll return on Christmas Day.”

(Which was right about the same time when the Pledge of Allegiance became “One nation, Under God,” I think. Coincidence? Oh, absolutely. But I’ll change my tune if I’m ever booked to appear on a popular syndicated politically-themed radio show. Four hours is a lot airtime to fill and outrage, like methane gas, expands to fill the container into which it’s been introduced.)

Let’s also tip the hat to songs that simply use Christmas as a setting. There’s no real attempt to evoke the mood or the memory of the holiday. It’s just the day when These Things Happened.

I have two favorite Christmas songs. One secular, one very doubleplus not. The first tells a story of an event on Christmas Eve; the second talks about something that happened on Christmas Day. Both have the kind of lyrics that demand to be printed out and read as poetry.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrAwK9juhhY

Today is Christmas Eve. This is the day in the annual Musical Advent Calendar when I say “Screw it,” — maybe “sod it” would be more appropriate? — “I don’t care if this one’s a repeat from last year. It’s time for ‘Fairytale of New York’ again.”

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better piece of music than this. I’m not saying that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos weren’t as good; I’m simply saying that when you compare it to this epic song about regret, loss, and longing you must ultimately conclude that these are two very different pieces of music.

I don’t think the thought “I’m someplace where I really don’t want to be” ever penetrates so strongly as when it hits you on Christmas Eve. And the root cause isn’t always something as harmless as “Uncle Gob has cornered me and he insists that it’s my duty as a concerned parent to buy one of his $1200 water filters,” either. You can always stop payment on the check as soon as you can get outside and find a signal on your iPhone. But when it appears to you that your life has been a flawless sequence of self-destructive choices and that your remaining decisions have collapsed down to “live” or “die”…well, not even the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or a tube of raw Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough can break you free.

That’s the spot that the narrator of “Fairytale of New York” is in. It’s hard not to take pity on someone who’s in jail on a night like this but still, it’s hard to actually root for him, either. But you’re keenly interested. After I hear this song I almost always visit the lyrics. I want to sift them for more clues to what’s happening with this guy.

He’s a drunk and a gambler and probably an addict. Is he learning anything tonight? Or is he distracting himself from his situation with delusions about a past relationship? Is he giving up? Does he have any hope for himself and the future? He spends part of the song reflecting on a time when he seemed to have the world at his feet. Do those memories encourage him, or do they only drive him deeper into depression?

And whatever happened to the woman? Clearly, she’s out of his life. That must have been a good thing for both of them. Is she spending that same day in her own version of the drunk tank? Or has she found some answers that continue to elude her former partner?

Would she be flattered to know that here, at his lowest point, he consoled himself with thoughts of her? Would she pity him?

Hmm.

It’s a very malleable story. You could just as easily interpret the lyrics to mean that he’d made it out, found a new source of hope, and from the safety of a better life he’s thinking back to the day when he hit rock-bottom and the only cheer he could find was in a ruined relationship.

That’s the hallmark of a truly great song. It was one specific thing when it was written and recorded but its final character and flavor is only assembled and defined by the palate of the person who hears it.

There’ve been a bunch of viral Internet creations where someone takes a self-portrait with identical composition and lighting every day of his or her life for years. That suddenly seems boring. The only thing the series will teach you about yourself is “You got progressively older and you tried out only two or three new hairstyles.” But what if you were to write about the same song — particularly one as potent as “Fairytale of New York” — on the same day every year? What would the next ten to twenty annual essays reveal about the path you’ve taken through life?

Changes in weight, beards and hairstyles are easy to spot. Your assessment of yourself, the world, and how the first thing relates to the second thing can only be tracked through close examination. I would dare say that the results could be far more revealing and mortifying than a temporary distraction into the world of mullets.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

For the record, I’m headed out to the first of about four or five different parties and gatherings over the next 48 hours. At the moment, I suspect that I’ll look back on this blog post and the only source of embarrassment will be the fact that back in 2010, I was using Amazon Associates links to get little kickbacks from my readers’ Amazon purchases.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

I might tsk-tsk and think “How cheap and exploitative!” early on. But then I’d remember the gorilla costume I ordered with the resulting Gift credits in 2011. And then every last lingering regret will be instantly dismissed.

“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Kasio Kristmas (Amazon Advent Calendar day 24)

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You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch

Kasio Kristmas

Kasio Kristmas

Genre: Holiday

Here’s a song with real crossover appeal. And not that weak kind of crossover either, where a longtime fan of a quirky, iconoclastic performer eagerly buys her first mainstream release and is bewildered to find that all of a sudden, she’s covering both Ann Murray songs and the Misfits tattoo on her forehead.

Nope, I mean “crossover” in the sense that this is a Christmas song arranged like a spooky Halloween tune. You know that scene in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” where the Grinch snips the pieces for his Santa suit out of a set of red curtains? Okay: substitute “the flayed skin of a still-living human victim” for “curtains” and you’ve got the idea of this version.

Well, close enough, anyway. It provides excellent value for money in that you can start playing this in mid-October and not give it a rest for two whole months.

I’ve suddenly realized that the same could be true of a Grinch lawn ornament. It just seems like too much bother to decorate the house for just a couple of weeks, to say nothing of the expense and all of the storage problems. I could certainly get behind a decoration that you can keep on your lawn for a quarter of the year.

It wouldn’t be perfect. I’d still have to stow the Grinch’s Santa suit until “Gosh, you still have your Halloween decorations up?” transitions to “Gosh, you’re already putting up your Christmas decorations?” But if you’re willing to stretch it all the way to “When are you going to take those Christmas decorations down, Andy?” I could be covered through February.

Listen to “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” on Amazon MP3.

As always, Amazon music links on this site are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. Everything you purchase after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I assure you: they shall be spent joyously and foolishly on fun things.

“The Spirit Of Christmas” by Ray Charles (Amazon Advent Calendar day 23)

Album Art

That Spirit of Christmas

Ray Charles

The Spirit of Christmas

Genre: R&B/Soul

How many Christmas songs can there be, do you reckon?

And I’m not throwing my hands in the air and whining that there are too damn many of them. I’m saying that there seems to be a fixed number of Christmas songs that we’re willing to accept, in the same sense that in baseball, you’re limited to a 25-man active roster and a 40 man expanded roster. And whenever there’s a hot new left-hander whom you want to bring up from the minors, you’re forced to send a broken-down left fielder back to Indiana to work at his cousin’s Volkswagen dealership or perhaps testify at some kind of hearing.

Is it…fifty songs? Whatever. There’s definitely a ceiling to it. It’s not as though every year, we become aware of more and more Christmas songs. “The Hanukkah Song” explodes and from that point on, some old standard that was scrabbling for survival gets dropped from our consciousness, never to return. All I can say is that it’s a good system. I don’t think anyone would deny that when “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” finally pushed “Stuff An A-Bomb In Hitler’s Stocking, That Nasty Nazi Rat” off into oblivion in 1949, it was a long time coming and a positive step forward in healing the wounds of war.

What are the chances of a song like “The Spirit Of Christmas” becoming a Holiday standard? It’s forced to knock timidly on the back door and hope that this is the year when we’re all finally sick of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” I think I heard it twenty times before I actually bought it. I bet you’ve heard it, too. I think it’s even possible that you’ll be able to place it, once you hear the sample.

Yes, it’s from the “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” soundtrack. You hear a snippet of it while Clark is trapped in the attic, and is watching 30-year-old home movies. It’s a lovely, (mostly) secular tune that underscores the basic concept that whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s nice that there’s this spot on the calendar during which people are at least supposed to try not to act so much like d***s.

And it’s from Ray Charles. He’s like Johnny Cash in that his performance makes any song hard to date. What a sneaky tactic. This song is good enough to displace any of the lesser tunes on the Christmas Roster. I bet the composers were hoping that everyone would just assume that it was already a classic.

I’m willing to forgive. It’s quite a solid tune.

I’m curious about when it was written, though. The first name on the list of contributing songwriters is Mable John, who has a decades-spanning history with Ray Charles (as a Raelette and then as the director of these same Raelettes). Was it written especially for Ray Charles, maybe? It sure sounds like it. There are a handful of other versions of “The Spirit Of Christmas” rolling around but none of them truly distinguish themselves.

It’s a great tune for the “cooldown” phase of the holiday. Its tone is a little too solemn to be heard over the din of a Christmas party or the unwrapping of presents, but it’s still not the best choice for the “C’mon Everyone…Let’s Take A Moment To Be, You Know, Kind Of Solemn And Stuff, Okay?” part of the proceedings. But it’s the perfect thing to send to the AirPlay speakers in the living room while you contemplate a room full of torn wrapping paper and decide to have another gingerbread donut instead of cleaning it up right away.

Listen to “That Spirit Of Christmas” on Amazon MP3.

Sing it with me: “As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. All purchases you make after clicking it will result in Amazon sending me a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. Which, I assure you, will be spent foolishly.”

“Christmas Time Is Here” – Amazon Advent Calendar day 22

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Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal Version)

Vince Guaraldi Trio

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Genre: Holiday

We’re at Kringle Minus 6, people! Clearly it’s time for me to stop diving deep into the back-catalogues and give up any attempt to make myself seem like the Ahmet Ertegun of my generation. Although yes, admittedly, inserting a reference to one of the 20th century’s seminal discoverers and promoters of musical talent is definitely a nod towards hipness. It’s a fair cop.

But look, we can’t waste precious minutes arguing over my desperate need to mask my own straight-from-squaresville tastes! We’ve got limited time left to talk about Christmas songs! So screw it: I’m going obvious. Yes, it’s That Song We All Love from That Christmas Special We Can’t Even Pretend We’re Sick Of.

Don’t think I don’t know what just happened. You’re on the Internet and you’ve just read a blog post in which the author has made a definite statement of some kind. You’re like a largemouth bass who’s just seen a jelly worm at the end of a Red Devil spoon lure splash down in front of you. You just have to snap at it, even as your rational brain says “No good can possibly come of this.” You’ve already clicked the “Reply” button and pasted in a mockingly dismissive LOLcat that you encountered on a gaming board a few days ago, haven’t you?

Fine. I know you have to keep proving to yourself that you ride at the gates of dawn and that your likes and dislikes cannot be predicted by any Earthly king. I suppose that this video clip does absolutely nothing for you, then.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Are we agreed that “Christmastime Is Here” is a tough, tough song to cover? It’s so indelibly associated with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Plus, it’s perfect for a children’s chorus: it feels as though it was written and arranged to ensure that it can be sung well by 24 middle-schoolers whose vocal abilities range from “she’s good enough to become a serious student of vocal technique” all the way to “that one, with the hair: we’ll just give him two red sticks to bang together.”

That’s not a slam against the song, mind you. I mean, dammit, this song works. It seems as though the only way you could ruin it is by trying to turn it into a showcase of anybody’s talents as a singer, arranger, or producer. Would any singer — even an American Idol finalist — accept and implement the direction “Don’t think. Just sing”?

Am I starting to get mired in nostalgia, here? God, I hope not. I’m at least thirty years too young and have been in several wars too few to get nostalgic about anything. And yet this song puts me right back in my parents’ living room, having counted down the days to the Charlie Brown Christmas airing for two weeks. It also puts me right back on a stage at the far end of a middle-school gym, standing on a folding metal riser, trying to pick out my grandparents in the audience while the music teacher gets more and more frustrated by her ability to make all of us focus, and getting closer and closer to losing it right there in front of the principal.

Well, it’s Christmas. It’s the appropriate time to stare out the front window at the snow and feel a little Wistful about things. And it’s at least more genuine if you get nostalgic about a (rightly) beloved Christmas special instead of, say, caroling door-to-door. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of my actual childhood. It isn’t someone else’s memory of a Traditional Christmas. I’m glad I have memories of lying on my belly on my parent’s forest-green carpet, instead of freezing my butt off singing about the arrival of the Christ child to a neighbor who was too polite to say “Didn’t you see the mezuzah nailed to my door frame when you stepped up to ring the bell?”

Listen to “Christmastime Is Here” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Continuing another Beloved Holiday Tradition, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, all of the purchases you make during that session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I promise to spend them joyously and foolishly.

“And I Wonder?” by The Slackers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 19)

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And I Wonder?

The Slackers

The Question

Genre: Alternative Rock

Maybe the most sophisticated version of the Turing Test for any given technology is actually the simple question “Is it capable of helping us and screwing us at the same time?” Then and only then can we say that a machine is truly Human.

“And I Wonder?” is one of the songs I bookmarked last night on Pandora while working away from the house. It’s good stuff: peppy, with a ska/rocksteady sort of vibe. I also have a lot of affection for music that clearly wasn’t beaten to death by heavyhanded production. I could believe that this group just set up some mismatched microphones in the apartment of whichever band member had the most-sympathetic neighbors and then they recorded it on someone’s MacBook in just three takes.

When I got home, I looked through everything I’d bookmarked and I bought the track after another listen. This morning, I did a quick Spotlight search on it, just so I could drag it into a couple of different playlists, and that’s when I saw the other copy that I’d bought from another store a couple of years ago.

See what I mean? In the old, analog days I didn’t have anything like Pandora, which can extrapolate an endless stream of new music that’s likely to please me, after I name just a single artist as a starting point. Thank you, digital music! But back in the Nineties, by the time I wound up at a CD store I’d forgotten all about that great song I’d heard on the radio or at a party. I was unlikely to buy anything at all. And I certainly couldn’t buy something so quickly that I wouldn’t realize that I already owned it. So go to hell, digital music!

But I could never stay mad at you, Pandora. It seems like I only discover new music in three different ways: via Pandora, when it’s used as a soundtrack to something (such as a TV show or a YouTube video), or when I occasionally go out on Twitter and say “Recommend a song. One song only, please.”

Pandora offers discoverability and vocabulary. You’ve sampled “And I Wonder?” and you liked it. It occurs to you that a lot of the music you like is kind of similar. How do you Google for “music has kind of the same thing going on as this other song right here?” You have no idea how to describe it.

Pandora gives you the opportunity to turn to the side of the box the song came in and read the list of ingredients:

Features Of This Song:
ska roots
a subtle use of paired vocal harmony
mild rhythmic syncopation
a busy horn section
major key tonality
electric pianos
classic rhodes sound
subtle use of acoustic piano

So if you memorize that list and then walk into a city record store and tell the clerk “I’m looking for music with ska roots, a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation…” you’ll definitely not come across looking like some hick who buys most of his songs from QVC in the form of windup music boxes shaped like porcelain clowns.

It’d be fab if other aesthetic tastes worked this way. I’ve only ever drunk two beers that I liked enough to finish off, and wines are a real scattershot sort of thing. If I’m trying to find a soda pop I like, I know how to describe it. I can say “I like colas with natural sweeteners, a slight acidic tang, and a slightly peppery aftertaste. I hate citrus-flavored sodas.”

But if I enjoyed a glass of wine at a restaurant, I have no idea how to describe it to a clerk at a wine store. “Glass bottle,” I’ll say. “It was definitely in a glass bottle. The label had something like a horsie on it, or it might have been a dragon wearing a saddle.”

It works out for the best, I guess. When you walk into a wine shop and look like a blatant ignoramus, the clerk knows he’s not going to get more than twelve dollars out of you. You’re clearly not as vulnerable to the upsell as everyone who tries to bluff their way through the transaction by overconfidently misquoting phrases they heard Paul Giamotti’s character use in “Sideways.”

Listen to “And I Wonder?” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is tagged with my Amazon Associates ID. Click it, and any purchases you make during that session will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I swear to God that I won’t spend those credits on anything sensible.

“Shine On Your Shoes” from “The Band-Wagon” (Amazon Advent Calendar day 18)

Album Art

A Shine On Your Shoes

Fred Astaire

The Band Wagon

Genre: Soundtrack

I don’t want to get into the exhausting argument “Which is the greatest musical ever made: ‘The Band Wagon’ or ‘Singin’ In The Rain’?” It’s tiresome and unproductive and it misses the entire point of MGM’s Golden Age.

The point being that the only reason why “Singin’ In The Rain” is part of that question to begin with is to provide a framework from which to further clarify your understanding of why “The Band Wagon” is a true masterpiece.

Okay? Moving on.

Let’s say you’re having just a Biblically crummy day. And I mean “Old Testament” bible, not the huggy-lovey New Testament kind. The one where you’re not sure exactly how you’ve come to piss off God so badly, but if you have to drag your son and a big knife to the top of a mountain to make Him leave you alone…well, that’s just one fewer Christmas present to buy, isn’t it?

Rather, if Christ had been born before then, there’d be one less present to buy.

Wait, I forgot: Holy Trinity. So, the part of God that was going to have His first birthday in a thousand years or so was already there. And He would have been all-knowing, so even pre-birth, he’d be expecting a present on December 25.

(No, that’s the pagan holiday. Will He be more upset with me for worshiping a tree, or for forgetting to celebrate the the date that He knows I understand to be His birthday?)

Cripes. Can you understand why people back then got so mental about figuring out God’s laws?

But I digress. “Shine On Your Shoes” is one possible answer to the “Crummy Day” problem. You can play this song and it’ll get you bouncing in your seat and possibly — if you’re absolutely sure you’re alone in the room and that nobody can see through the windows — dancing across the floor.

You can even go out and get a shoeshine.

Yeah, it’s silly. But there’s some wisdom, there. I’ve always liked that scene from “The Hustler,” where Fast Eddie is shooting pool against Minnesota Fats in a marathon match for huge stakes. After hours of play, Fats is completely on the ropes and close to defeat. So he calls for a break. He goes to the men’s room where he puts on a fresh shirt, washes his face and hands, spritzes on a little cologne, and then steps back to the table.

“Fast Eddie,” he beams, “Let’s shoot some pool.” You know that he’s going to come back with the win and of course, that’s exactly what happens.

Yeah. I’m having a hideously bad week. A song like this one reminds me that while you can’t completely control the events that are contributing to a bad mood…your moods are at least 90% voluntary. A warm-reboot can work wonders and something as simple as a fresh shirt or a $10 shoeshine can push that button for you.

Just now, for example, I’ve fixed myself a bowl of oatmeal with three strips of chopped bacon in it. I can’t tell you what the key to happiness is, but the keyhole appears to be bacon-shaped. You’re free to conclude whatever you wish from that.

Anyway. Back to the movie itself. So many of these MGM musicals seem to have made very…odd…choices in music. “Why did they even pick some of these weird, completely out-of-place songs?” you wonder. It becomes clear when you learn about “jukebox” musicals, where the whole thing is meant to celebrate the work of, or at least line the pockets of, one specific composer.

This is why, for example, “White Christmas” is such a bum steer. It’s all Irving Berlin music. Fab composer, no lack of talent there…but by the time they got around to making this movie, the only Berlin songs left were the cuts of the cow that are normally put into hot dogs. It explains why two of the most talented singers of the 20th century had to be good sports and sing songs about about a the lack of aftercare in the military pension program, and one’s desire to use snow as a haircare product.

And yet so many movies have pulled that kind of stuff off so well. “Shine On Your Shoes” is a song about the use of footwear maintenance services as a viable treatment protocol for stimulating dopamine pathways. You’d think that if the movie were going to use it at all, they’d stick it in the “musical within a musical,” where the cast can sing pretty much anything they want without having to justify it. But no…they found a way to make it serve a purpose in the story. All scenes in a story need to either define character or advance the plot. This song establishes Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire’s character) as a guy who’s capable of feeling genuine melancholy, but also of putting it in perspective and doing something about it.

I might be wrong here but I’m getting a weird vibe from some of you. Like you’re about to post that I’m wrong wrong wrong and that “SIngin’ In The Rain” is in any way a better musical than “The Band-Wagon.”

Well, I didn’t want to have to do this but you leave me little choice:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duLFwcsc6Nc

Don’t you feel foolish now? Thank you; it speaks well of your character that you now admit how wrong you were.

Listen to “A Shine On Your Shoes” (from The Band Wagon) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. After you click it, every purchase you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I promise to spend them on wonderful and foolish things. Like an electric bicycle. But only if it turns out that Amazon doesn’t sell an electric unicycle.

“Por Una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel (Amazon Advent Calendar day 16)

Album Art

Por una cabeza

Carlos Gardel

Remasterizado año 2010

Genre: Latino

1992’s “Scent Of A Woman” had two positive impacts upon our culture. First, it expanded the vocabulary of any valid Al Pacino impression. To “It was you, Fredo. You’re the one who broke my heart” and “Say hello to my little friend!!!” the movie added the guttural exclamation “WROOOO-hawrrrr!

It’s simple, punchy, and effective. If you just bark “WROOOO-hawrrrr!” when the room falls silent and it seems as though everybody is looking to you for some sort of reaction to what’s just happened, you’ll at least get a gentlemanly C+ for recognizing the moment and ending the awkwardness.

I’m convinced that lines like these are why every office is filled with Pacino impersonators and Schwarzenegger impersonators, but very few Jack Lemmon impersonators. Everyone knows and loves Lemmon but did he ever get that one, signature line that will autopilot you to 75% of the brand recognition required for a successful impression?

Moreover, is there ever going to be a social situation in which the perfect zinger in response to an offhand remark is “One summer, I was just a kid, we were playing in some divey hotel up in the mountains — we had a vocalist. Everyone in the band was making it with her, except me. I had a crush on her. She could sing ‘These Foolish Things’ and put you right in Paris. Before a number she’d lean over — a blonde girl, eyes, perfume, the whole whiff of her was out of the Lion House — and she’d whisper to me, ‘Light on the brushes…light on the brushes, kid.’ We’d throw our dreams around. How she was going to sing with Dorsey and how I was going to play drums With Goodman.”?

Answer: it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely.

“Scent Of A Woman” also gave Carlos Gardel a boost, via That Tango Scene that everybody remembers:

Of course everyone remembers it. It’s a beautiful moment. This is the job of every great movie scene: it documents the depressing distance between fantasy and reality. Any one of us would love to be on either side of that tango. You’d love to be that sort of dashing figure who can charm someone onto a dance floor by using a gentle, improvised sequence of Exactly The Right Thing To Say At This Exact Moment-s. You’d also — whether you’re a man or a woman — like to be the sort of person whom strangers, without any thought of personal benefit, are compelled to charm.

In the movie, they used a modern instrumental recording of “Por Una Cabeza.” This track here is the original, which Gardel made famous in the Thirties. What a strong, confident baritone. The song itself (composed by Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera) is so strongly identified with the genre that I bet if you walked up to any orchestra conversant in Tango and asked for “that one I heard in that thing” they’d probably strike up “Por Una Cabeza” without any further questions.

Like all songs whose lyrics are in a language I don’t understand, I was cautious before allowing myself to love it. Foreign-language songs can bite you in the butt. There you are, bopping along to a incredibly peppy French pop tune, eventually becoming so familiar with it that you can even sing some of the lyrics in the shower. And one day you learn that it’s about a guy who lights houses on fire and then gratifies himself sexually while watching the conflagration from behind a nearby bush.

Fortunately, the lyrics to “Por Una Cabeza” are quite sweet. A gambler is talking about how he keeps coming close to finding his true love, but in the end he always loses “by a head.” But it’s worth the gamble, so he keeps trying.

I first heard this song sung and performed by a substitute high school Spanish teacher. He was a proud and merry Argentinian who, clearly, had found a life that he really enjoyed. He was a legitimately talented teacher and he always found opportunities to talk about his home country. He played a pretty mean guitar, too.

One day, he told us the story of Carlos Gardel, an Argentinian cultural hero. Gardel had died Buddy Holly-style: young, in a plane crash, and at the very height of his career. During the flight (so my teacher explained), there was an argument between Gardel and another man over a woman. The other man at Gardel, but Gardel ducked and the bullet killed the pilot instead.

Oops.

Double-oops, actually. I was hugely disappointed to find that the whole story is an urban legend that spread in the Princess Di-style international hysteria that followed Gardel’s death.

To this day, though, I think of that story whenever the subject of TSA security comes up. I’m really not afraid of terrorists. I’m afraid of some idiot getting into an argument on board my flight and doing something impulsive and stupid.

It’s a rational reaction. To my knowledge, I’ve never met a terrorist. But I’ve met lots of idiots on planes, and they’re often sitting just one or two rows away from me. If this woman refuses to stop her seven-year-old-child from standing up in his seat and loudly singing whatever word and note comes into his disease-ridden mind…good God, what else might she be capable of?

Listen to “Por una cabeza” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. When you click it, any purchases you make during that session will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of gift credits. I promise to spend them on rank foolishness.