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Amazon Advent 04 – “Artistic Roll Call” (Bill Hicks)

Album Art

Artistic Roll Call

Bill Hicks

Rant In E-Minor

Genre: Comedy

I’m going to wind down my “Comedy (But Let’s Acknowledge Them For Something Other Than Their Comedy)” thread by dropping the parenthetical. Bill Hicks died in 1994 at age 32 and he still looms large. His comedy was so very intense. But his anger wasn’t just a prop; it was a lens that brought a clarity to every thought he expressed and intensified the light he was shining on an idea.

“Artistic Roll Call” is…really something. Mr. Hicks has some rather strong opinions on Jay Leno and the direction that he chose for himself and his comedy. Yes, I know: the thought “Jay Leno is to comedy what Olive Garden is to dining out” is as overplayed today as “Hey, what’s the deal with those tiny packets of peanuts they give you on airplanes?”

It’s noteworthy for two reasons: first, this was recorded sometime just after Leno had taken over the Tonight Show. At the time, he was talking about something that was very much on his mind, as opposed to going to a cheap and easy putdown.

Secondly…oh, wow. Just listen to him. This is an outpouring of genuine anger. Anger that a once-great comedian had chosen to change his comedic voice into a marketable product. Disappointment that Leno had seen any value whatsoever in doing commercials.

And it went even deeper than that! The rest of Hicks’ work makes it clear that this bit also reflected his frustration in our national character. Why did Leno make these choices? Because they work. Broad, harmless humor entertains way more people than the stuff that’s targeted and meant to bruise. Why was Leno shilling Doritos? It was a Sound Business Decision. A big check for not a whole lot of his time, and all the while, it got his face out there in front of people.

I don’t agree with everything Hicks says on the CDs and videos of his standup. He also had a great bit about the JFK assassination: “If you go to Dealey Plaza, there’s a museum on the sixth floor,” he says. “They’ve recreated the so-called ‘sniper’s nest’ exactly the way it was on the day of the assassination. And you know it’s completely accurate because…Oswald isn’t in it.

I’ll go ahead and embed this clip. Warning: The audio isn’t work-safe.

Let’s not get into a long digression about the assassination. To conspiracists, I will just ask “What about the long, skinny package wrapped in brown paper that Oswald brought in to work that morning?” (yes, that really happened) and move on.

I’m also not 100% on board with bashing Leno at least not (holy mother of God) this savagely. True, I haven’t had any use for his comedy since he stopped doing the Letterman show. But being a comedian isn’t like being a company CEO, where you’re well-insulated from the fallout from your decisions. Leno appears to be happy. He gets to work on cars, tell jokes at 11:30 PM, and also do several standup gigs a week. I think the canonical line on Jay’s career comes from Bill Carter’s terrific book about the Late Night Wars II, quoting a producer who acknowledges Jay’s ratings but then says “at the end of the day, though, who would you rather be? Jay Leno…or David Letterman?”

Yes, his material is about offering audiences some distraction, not depth. But Leno doesn’t seem to care about that. So…shrug.

I’m fascinated by the construction of this rant, though. It’s utterly brutal. There aren’t even many jokes in this bit. He just keeps expressing his anger and his disappointment in different and novel ways. We shouldn’t call it a rant. It’s not unfocused, out-of-control rage; the bit works because Hicks is in full control throughout. A great standup comic is just like a great magician. It’s all about maintaining control of the audience. Hicks proceeds through his material, but always with his antennae fully extended and maintaining a sharp, moment-my-moment read on where their perceptions are, and how best to manipulate those perceptions.

And that’s how he avoids turning anger and frustration into a tool towards uncovering greater truth, instead of a catchphrase that lets the audience and himself avoid it entirely. Sam Kinison was funny as hell, but he asked so little of an audience. When he screamed into the microphone, the audience was relieved, almost; it was his signature, on the level of Steve Martin yelling “Well, ex-cuuuuuuusssseeeee meeeeeeee!!!” Late in his career, the scream was a welcome sign that this was all stagecraft. The knives onstage are all made out of rubber and that soon, the curtain will rise again and Caesar will be alive to take his bows.

No such luck with Hicks. I enjoy his performances for the sounds from the audiences as much as anything else. Unified cheers and laughter are rare; usually, the laughter is mixed with discomfort, and there are many nervous silences. During the “JFK” bit, I feel as though Hicks is angry at me. I want to clear my throat and stammer and say “Well, all right, I believe what the government is telling me about the JFK assassination, but I don’t believe everything they tell me. Except when they tell me what kinds of food are safe to eat. And what level of regular maintenance is OK for an airplane. And…”

(Oh, crap.)

“Don’t worry,” he reassures the audience, when he senses that he’s dug himself into a deep hole. “I’ll start telling d*** jokes soon.”

I mentioned earlier that I respect the fact that Leno made his choices and accepted the consequences. The same’s true of Hicks. Leno wanted an audience, to the extreme of completely desaturating his act to an institutional shade of beige. Hicks wanted authenticity, to the extreme of making it hard to create material that would fill every seat in a US theater. Or, pursue any source of income away from the stage of a comedy club. Barring an absolutely stunning statement of theological reversal, Hicks couldn’t have pursued TV (unless it was unsponsored, and aired on a network owned by an independent company).

If he’d lived, I think his decades of onstage sincerity and integrity would have finally paid off. Not because American audience are any more enlightened today. Oh, wow, my head spins just thinking about what he’d be saying about our “Hope And Change” President’s use of drone strikes!

This is an age when you can do almost as well with a small audience of people who absolutely love you as you can with a large audience of people who think you’re marginally less objectionable than whoever’s on the other channel. His access to his audience wouldn’t have been controlled by any large company (a network, a promoter, a record label). He could sell tickets, audio, and video directly to his fans.

And the power of social networks to spread something around to millions of people isn’t compatible with “bland and populist” material When was the last time someone Tweeted a link and said “Oh, wow, you HAVE to see what Leno said in his monologue last night!”?

Hicks seems like a reminder that you often have to keep the faith that a longterm equity investment will eventually pay off. All of the Hicks standup material we have is, alas, all of the material we’ll ever have. The point of view and the voice he had built after 15 years was amazing. And it was strong footing for whatever he would have built on top of it.

32 seems to be an age when many successful creative people get a little antsy and bored, and they start questioning what’s been working so far. They’ve built up a hell of a lot of knowledge and experience. What do they want to do with it? Often, they either try to use those same skills in different ways, or they try to augment what they have by developing a different set of skills.

When you listen to a few hours of Hicks’ released standup, you come away (a) hoarse from laughter, (b) profoundly impressed, and (c) aware that there was some distance between Hicks and the audience. He feels a frustration with the world, and the people in those seats are part of the problem.

Richard Pryor, at the height of his powers, often found a way to quietly suggest — so subtly that you didn’t even think of it until long after — that you and he were there in the room to start working on a solution. Parts of his standup films are genuinely cathartic.

So I wonder what he would have built by age 50. The knowledge that you have an audience can drive you to narcissism. Or, it can drive you towards introspection. Here you have 1000 people who will be hanging on your every word for 70 minutes. What should you do with their attention? What would you like them to be thinking about the next morning?

It’s perfectly fine to send an audience away thinking nothing more substantive than “I definitely got $75 worth of entertainment for my $50 ticket.” One might even make a credible case that people pay $50 to attend a comedy show with a view towards laughing hard. I’m fascinated by Bill Hicks, but the fact that most of the other comedians I love “merely” entertain me shouldn’t be considered a mark against them.

And of course, dying young is the ultimate rose-colored filter. Every brave person becomes a colossus and every talented performer becomes a genius. All because of the feats they never had a chance to achieve, and the works they never had a chance to create. The bizarre dementia of a fan is that we keep expecting great things from the ones we worship, even long after they’ve died.

Preview “Artistic Roll Call” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy from Amazon after clicking that link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of store credits, which I will then spend on silly and wonderful things.

And yes, I’m quite aware of the dissonance of praising Bill Hicks and then encouraging you to buy things from large corporations. I’m not willing to sell my artistic soul like Jay Leno. But I’m willing to rent out parts of it in exchange for camera equipment.

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.)


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:





And hey…Happy Labor Day!

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.


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?


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.

“Carol Of The Bells” by Rush Coil (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

Album Art

Carol of the Bells

Rush Coil

8-bit Christmas

Genre: Electronic

You’re all very correct to think so highly of me, sensation-seekers. Not only do I have an unfailing moral compass, but I often subject it to abnormal magnetic fields just to test its unfailing-moral-compassness, so that I can then make adjustments, as necessary.

Witness this selection. Also witness the fact that the link goes not to the Amazon MP3 Store, but to iTunes. See, there was a differrent track that I wanted to recommend, but it hasn’t been formally published anywhere (more on this, anon). So I went off looking for something similar that I liked just as much, and I found this track by Rush Coil on iTunes.

Cool. Then I went to Amazon.com for the link. Alas, they don’t have it.

Were I the possessor of a fallible moral compass, I’d have chosen something else. “Screw you, the trusting reader of my work!” would have been the statement. “Don’t you feebs realize that the whole point of this Advent Calendar exercise is to line the velvet pockets of my Amazon account with gift credits, so that I may purchase things like a Novelty Electronic Yodeling Pickle without ever asking myself ‘Why the hell do I waste me money on crap like this’?”

But no. I assure you that the primary purpose of here is to share music that I actually, genuinely like. And the prime mover for choosing Amazon instead of iTunes isn’t the kickbacks (though they’re very, very nice. It’s because I know that anyone can click an Amazon link and hear the music sample and buy it without having to download and install a separate app. If it were an iTunes link, you could only do two of those three things.


Listen to “Carol Of The Bells” on the iTunes Store.

Allow me to close off this meta portion of the post by confirming that my strength is as the strength of ten men, for my heart is pure.

Onward to the song itself. It’s been a slow build, but “chiptune” music (songs that sound as though they were being played by the soundchips in vintage game consoles) has steadily made its way from Novelty to Meme to a legitimate, established genre. And I can honestly say that I like this version of “Carol Of The Bells” on its own merits, not because it’s such an odd way to arrange and record a tune.

I guess the lesson is that “on its own merits” is a very, very complicated thing, even with more traditional music. Pandora.com has got it exactly right: there’s a molecular profile to every song that links it backwards to every song you liked before you heard this one, and forwards to every song you hear after it. And the metrics of this phenomenon go beyond tempo, instrumentation, and vocals. There’s also a sense of time and place.

“American Graffiti” was the first big pop-culture phenomenon that underscored how powerful the phrase “Gosh, this is just like the stuff I liked when I was a kid” is in influencing what we like as adults. It’s true that your favorite songs in high school and college will almost always remain your favorites as you enter your thirties and forties and fifties. They have their own merits, yes, but they’re enmeshed with other pleasant memories, like a wad of gum in a shag carpet.

(Bad simile, Ihnatko: a shag carpet is a pleasant memory for no man or woman. Except for those who owned a carpet store in 1972.)

This sort of reaction isn’t quite as mainstream as “This song was playing on the radio the night I first made out with the woman who would one day become my wife.” But “Oh, man, this is just like the game that I spent all summer trying to beat in high school!” works, too.

(Aside: and “Carol Of The Bells” is clearly the soundtrack to a “jink your spaceship up and down and left and right, and shoot at waves of attacking aliens” kind of game. Other chiptune songs are clearly “sidescroller combat games.” Games are so burned into your subconscious that you can even pick out the nonviolent “momentarily stun the cartoon lizards and pick up the flowers” games as well.)

Let’s not get mired in that junk, though. I like chiptune music because by necessity, it launches a very clean and no-nonsense attack on the melody. It’s why a four-piece jazz combo can accomplish things with a song that a spongy 40-piece orchestra can’t. Every instrument and every melodic line is front-and-center and there’s no room for extraneous flourishes.

I mean, I’d love to get a hold of the soundtrack to the “Batman” Game Boy game. I long ago gave my Game Boy and all of its carts to a nephew (your correspondent can be quite a dope). But a vid of this game is up on YouTube. The music is a little sparser than I remember it, but yup: I’d definitely buy this track if it were available anywhere.

Which brings us back to the chiptune track I wanted to recommend. It was an version of “Mele Kalikimaka” arranged by “Mafialligator,” a (god-damned) genius on Something Awful’s forums. He’s released four annual collections of Nintendo-ized holiday music, under the series title “A Very 8-Bit Christmas.”

The bad news: no, you can’t buy “A Very 8-Bit Christmas” on iTunes or Amazon.

The good news: it’s a free download, according to the descriptions on Something Awful.

The bad news again: …but there’s no new release this year. And the older releases are old enough that they’ve aged back behind Something Awful paywall.

So I’m in kind of a pickle, here. And not the electronic yodeling kind. I’ve located other download links for the albums. But are they legit? I dunno. I’m going to post one set of links here, because as near as I can tell the content is behind the Something Awful paywall only as a “it costs us money to host these files” sort of thing, and not because access to these tracks is an exclusive perq of Something Awful membership. I’ve also been unable to find any links to Mr. Mafiassassin’s own site.

Also: this particular page-o-links contains a whole list of chiptune Christmas music collections, not just the Very 8-Bit releases.

The Page Of Chiptune Christmas Links In Question.

But head straight to the “Very 8-Bit Christmas” links first. Did I say that I was going to recommend “Mele Kamikimaka”? I meant to say “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” No, wait: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas…”

Yeah, there are plenty of winners, here. Mafialligator has real skills as an arranger. He’s not just copying down notes from a simplified set of sheet music. These are true, polyphonic performances.

These tracks get plenty of airplay in my house during the holiday season. When I set up and decorated my Christmas tree this year, I was listening exclusively to an “8-Bit Christmas” playlist.

(Streamed to my Apple TV from my iPad via AirTunes.)

(My parents and grandparents would recognize the melodies and the phrase “decorated my Christmas tree.” The rest of that would have required extensive explanation.)

Well, as I said, I went ahead and selected an iTunes track even though the link won’t win me a single sou in associate-link kickbacks. But if you’re really keen on kicking my back a little, or you’re just wondering if I was making up that thing about the Yodeling Pickle:

Yodelling Yodel Pickle TOY Novelty Retro Gag Gift

This link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. And after you click it, all of your Amazon purchases will result in a commensurate percentage of the final tally coming back to me in the form of gift credits. The fact that I was well aware of the existence of this consumer item indicates the fine, fine ends to which I will be applying these credits.

“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

Album Art

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.

“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone (Amazon Advent Calendar day 21)

Album Art

Feeling Good

Nina Simone

Feeling Good Hit Pack

Genre: Vocal

Most of the popular cover hits are songs that have already been nationalized by our socialist cultural system. Nobody “owns” it and everybody’s free to do their own thing with the song, free of preconceptions.

But some songs become the iconic property of one performer. Don’t record your own version of anything that Janis Joplin had already made into a major hit, for example. It almost never turns out to be a wise move. Previous soul singers poured the concrete for “Piece Of My Heart,” but it didn’t fully set in the public consciousness until Joplin put down the whisky bottle and picked up the microphone.

It’s not even a taste issue, honestly. It’s about pre-programming. There’s nothing wrong with a talk show set in which the guest sits to the right of the host’s desk instead of the left. And yet…yeah, everything’s wrong with that. This show could feature the ghost of Johnny Carson interviewing Jesus Christ, who’s there to plug his upcoming Comedy Central roast plus deliver some important tips on how to prepare for the upcoming armageddon. It wouldn’t matter. I still couldn’t focus on his instructions on what to do when the ground beneath my feet dissolves into a pool of fire until he moved to the other side of the desk.

Similarly: anybody who tries to do “Piece Of My Heart” has to deal with the simple fact that for at least the first minute, my brain will be thinking “But that’s not Janis Joplin.”

It’s not your fault, Ms. American Idol Finalist. It’s my fault. Until you fail to do anything constructive with it, at which point I will option-click on Pandora’s “Thumbs Down” button until the icon switches to a different finger, and then I’ll make my full displeasure known.

“Feeling Good” is somewhere in the middle. Even if you don’t know who Nina Simone is, you associate the song with this performer and this specific recording of the tune, where the singer is backed by heavy orchestration that keeps a certain reverent distance from the vocals. But there’s been no shortage of terrific covers of the song.

I bring this up because today’s selection was going to be the version that Muse released last year. I love it, but ultimately I recognized that what I really love is the Virgin Atlantic ad that used it for the soundtrack:

Yeah, it’s sexist. But it’s well-done sexism. I’m willing to give it a pass, in the same way that I’m willing to overlook the Italian-American stereotypes in “The Godfather” but not the ones in the old Olive Garden commercials.

No, when you see this ad, you’re not offended by the imagery. You want a goddamn gin and tonic. And you want to have sex with a goddamn enemy double-agent. And you want to goddamn track down a goddamn Russkie rogue general who’s stolen a ****ing nuclear missile and kill that sonofabitch with an iPhone and a camera battery and an pack of gum that click together to form a pocket-sized magnetic railgun that propels slugs at hypersonic speed!!! **** yeahhh!!!!!!!

(pant pant pant pant)

So you see what I mean. It’s a lovely cover song, don’t get me wrong. But when I listen to it without the visuals…yeah, it’s not as satisfying. Muse’s intense, 007-driven interpretation is out of sync with the lyrics. Also: I always do a half spit-take when a random verse of a song inexplicably uses the “old-timey recording/radio broadcast” audio treatment. It has a real “Hey, what does THIS button in Garageband do?” impact.

I guess it just demonstrates how high the stakes can be when you try to do a cover of an established song. If Muse’s version was the first time you’d ever heard “Feeling Good,” you’d think it was a killer production. But then you see what others did with the exact same ingredient and what once seemed Fab now seems…well, just sort of okay.

And yes, a second slam against The Olive Garden is implied within that last sentence. I leave its extraction to you, the reader, as an exercise.

Listen to “Feeling Good” at the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, my Amazon Associates code is embedded in that link. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon Gift Credits…which I will spend on heroically silly things.

“Creep” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 20)

Album Art


Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Creep – Single

Genre: Alternative

You’d like to think that your musical tastes are fair, pure, and shrewd. You’d like to believe that you simply have an ear for good music and that if you applied a controlled, peer-reviewed scientific protocol for evaluating a song and deciding whether or not it’s worth ninety-nine cents to you, you’d find that the same input data would draw the same results every time. You’re not swayed by the fads of the day or by whatever mood you happen to be in at the time.

But of course, that’s rubbish. The tracks in your music library are the residue of that one specific moment in time when the song seemed to make sense to you. If you’re lucky, most of those tracks will continue to justify their places in your playlists and they’ll receive continued play. Inevitably, though, you’ll find yourself scrolling through the whole library and asking yourself “Why the hell did I buy this Celene Dion track?!?” and then the whole Incident will come rushing back to you.

(Lesson learned: if you agree to dog-sit your friend’s adorable terrier for a whole month, you should plan on a short period of emotional vulnerability after you give him back. It only lasts until you stop expecting little Corby to leap up at you and lick your face every time you come back home.)

(Shut up.)

And that’s just your personal life. You’re also being influenced by the culture at the time and by the trends that are controlling all of the popular music. For example, each generation’s youth-oriented anthems have had a slightly different response to a parent’s question “Why didn’t you go to school today?”

The 50’s: “I was way, waaaay too drunk.”

The 60’s: “Your generation went to school every day…and look how you screwed up the whole planet.”

The 70’s: “…Huh?”

The 80’s: “**** you and your ****ing corporate mother****ing manipulative bull****. I don’t have to ****ing go to school if I don’t ****ing want to. Did I say ‘**** you’ already? I feel like I haven’t said that. Well, my apologies if I’ve covered that ground already.”

The 90’s: “Because I’m stupid and I’m ugly and everybody hates me and I’m probably just going to kill myself next week anyway so what’s the point?”

When Radiohead released “Creep” in 1992, I was probably right in the middle of their target demographic. But I rejected it completely. Nirvana had proven that Self-Loathing Mopiness was extremely marketable. Dozens of labels noticed this. By the time “Creep” was all over the radio I’d had enough of that kind of music. Fortunately, music companies aren’t technically required to destroy all copies of every track that’s no longer a Top 100 hit. “Creep” resurfaced this year as the soundtrack of a brilliant teaser trailer for “The Social Network.”

The song is such a natural fit for Facebook and the rest of the social-networking experience that it seems incredible that nobody had ever used this song that way before. Just look at the lyrics:

I don’t care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul

I want you to notice
when I’m not around
You’re so very special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here

See what I mean? Facebook and Twitter and the rest aren’t inherently good or bad. I reckon that most of its users regard it as simply part of a balanced breakfast of social interactions. Facebook is the bowl of Choc-O-Berry Cookie Blasters in the middle of a tray of fruit, milk, juice, whole-grain toast, and a small plate of liver.

But too many people use it as a shabby, last-ditch outlet for the fundamental human need to say things and feel as though people are listening to you. Nobody knows your name at work and you’re certain that if you quit today, the new guy could sit through a training video and then do your job just as well. Or maybe you’re a kid, and your older sister with the drug problem and your younger brother with the good grades get all of your parents’ attention.

Whatever: Nobody ever interrupts you on Facebook. And at any given moment, no matter where you are, you can thumb a few buttons on your phone and see that there are 18, 32, 71, 139 people listening to everything you say.

That’s not really a good thing. “I want you to notice when I’m not around” is the line in the song that resonates so well with how social networking can be abused. Virtual communities are so attractive because they’re just so easy. You might even have 100,000 Followers on Twitter. That’s a thrillingly high number and isn’t it lovely that they sometimes say nice things to you?

But what have you done for them?

Aha: that’s the point. These people notice when you’re not around and they make you feel Special. But they’ll never phone you at midnight to ask if you could meet them at a parking lot 40 miles away and jump-start their car. They’ll never ask you to help them move. They’ll never come to you for support when someone they love is terribly sick and they’re scared. You’ll never be required to sit on the opposite side of a table at a restaurant and help them walk through a decision to end a relationship that isn’t working out.

When you’re in the middle of doing nothing at all, do you find yourself thinking about these people?

When you say or do something selfish via Facebook and you wind up hurting someone — and it doesn’t matter that you were simply careless and thoughtless — do you have to acknowledge your actions and deal with the consequences?

World Of Warcraft allows you to battle powerful people and creatures in close combat. But it’s all fake; there’s no chance of getting hurt. Facebook is a fantasy game of a different sort. It simulates social interaction, while removing all of the personal risk as well as most of the consequences of your behavior. That’s what makes it such a shabby substitute for the real thing. It’s not enough to want others to notice you and hear you. The goal is to give as good as you get.

The movie trailer brought “Creep” back to my attention at a time when that kind of song wasn’t part of a popular trend. I think my larger problem, though, was with the song’s original arrangement. It was laid out like a traditional rock song, which didn’t work for me. You can’t sing about how lonely and cut off from Society you are when you’re clearly surrounded by musicians and standing in front of 3,000 screaming fans, can you?

Further, it’s too aggressive. The lyrics are profoundly self-loathing and the anger should be all inward, not out.

I much prefer the solo, acoustic version, which came out on a reissue of “Pablo Honey” recently. This one comes across more like a problem that the singer thinks he’ll never solve, as opposed to the reason why he ordered all of those guns off of the Internet.

This third version in the “Social Network” trailer is haunting. Despite my earlier protestation that this song shouldn’t be performed by a whole band, “Creep” displays some powerful shading when it’s sung by a choir of young women. One person singing about loneliness is sad. A dozen or two people singing those lyrics at the same time can be profound. It illustrates the irony of the problem. Your feelings of being completely disconnected and cast out from society only underscore how human you really are. Everybody feels that way.

I’d like to believe that if any of these singers were able to shake themselves out of their self-loathing long enough to look around and see the other people in the room, maybe someone would say to another “OMG! You’re a creepy loser whom nobody would ever like? Me too!!! We should totally hang out!!!!”

(And then maybe the next tune would be something from “Mary Poppins.”)

Listen to “Creep” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers on Amazon MP3.

As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates ID. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I swear to God I won’t spend them on anything necessary or sensible.

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

Album Art

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:


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.

“Genius In France” by “Weird Al” Yankovic – Amazon Advent Calendar day 17

Album Art

Genius In France

“Weird Al” Yankovic

Poodle Hat

Genre: Comedy

Today’s artiste is a callback to two previous Advent Calendar selections.

I’m seriously convinced that at some point, “Weird Al” Yankovic talents will be fully appreciated. He’s most famous for his straightforward song parodies and he’s so successful at it that when choosing an example, I immediately think “No, not that one; everyone’s heard of it. Not this one, either” before settling on “Trapped At The Drive-Thru.”

As terrific as his song parodies are, nobody can build a successful 35-career in music just by piggybacking onto current hits. He’s a legitimately talented musician and performer. Long, long ago, my favorite tracks on every “Weird Al” album stopped being the song parodies: instead, I look forward to the style parodies.

Like this one. I’ll get the crass part of out the way first: this is a nine-minute song and in terms of metric tonnage per dollar, there are few greater values on the Amazon MP3 Store. The true selling point, though, is that it’s a masterful attempt to write a new song based on Frank Zappa’s musical DNA.

It sends you scrambling to see if the song is actually based on a Zappa original. I can easily be fooled like that. Even when I was 18, I wasn’t really plugged into what 18-year-olds were listening to at the time. When “Straight Outta Lynwod” was released, I didn’t even recognize “Trapped At The Drive-Thru” as an R. Kelly parody until months later.

What marks “Genius In France” so immediately and unmistakably as a Zappa style parody? Hell if I know. I lack the music geek’s vocabulary as well as the musicalolologist’s suede elbow patches. I can’t do anything more than cite the heavily-layered melodies and the sudden downshifts in tempo.

More than anything, though, it has Zappa’s sense of play. The song isn’t out to tell a story or establish a mood so much as it wants to bat around an idea for several minutes.

Here’s the thing, though: Yankovic does this on every album. DEVO frontman (callback #2) Mark Mothersbaugh once claimed that Yankovic recorded the best DEVO song ever: “Dare To Be Stupid,” from the album of the same name.

Just as with “Genius In France,” this is a clean hit. It seems like it’d be cheap to even call it a “parody.” Yankovic lifts nothing — it kind of evokes the back-melody of “Big Mess” — and exaggerates nothing. Yankovic just has a highly-refined ear for a band or composer’s signature elements, and enough chops as a composer and an arranger to articulate those concepts into brand-new pieces.

He’s as legit as they come. I’m tempted to compare him to a Brill Building composer. He’s definitely capable of hearing during breakfast that Phil Spector was looking for an uptempo number for the Ronettes and then writing something perfect for that group by lunch. Or maybe he’s like Sir Arthur Sullivan (of “Gilbert And…”) fame. Sullivan would be staring at the libretto for “Iolanthe” in front of him and think “You know, this score could really use something sort of Mendelssohn-ey right about here.” And off he’d go.

But “Weird Al” Yankovic’s true musical ancestor is Carl Stalling. He scored nearly every cartoon that Warner Brothers produced during its Golden Age. Every seven-minute opus had to mix original themes, popular melodies of the day, and flatly functional phrases to underscore that Wile E. Coyote has just spotted the Rocket Boomerang circling back towards him.

I’ve always wanted to see what Yankovic would do with a movie score. I bet he’d be excellent at it because the task seems to call for the same unique talents he puts into play on all of his original composition. Writing music that’s both Original and Evokes A Familiar Tone is like holding both Tea and No Tea at the same time…but that’s how you win the game.

Above and beyond all of that: I just flat-out love this song. If I didn’t know who Zappa was, I’d still be humming “If I were any dumber/They’d have to water me twice a weeeeek” after fishing crushed-up iPhone parts out of the garbage disposal.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: a real goddamn musician. So long as he keeps making albums, I’ll always find money to buy them. That’s been the case since way back when I bought cassettes with paper-route money. I don’t think any other performer has maintained that position in my musical tastes even half that long.

Listen to “Genius In France” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, anything you buy during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I shall spend foolishly and extravagantly on fun things.

“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.


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.