Bowie

I wanted to post something about David Bowie. This isn’t for you…this is for me.

I didn’t post anything last night because my very first impulse, after my involuntary “Aw, goddammit,” was to start listening to lots and lots of Bowie music. I actually hit YouTube before I hit iTunes; it’s so hard to separate the music I love with the showmanship that always blew me away (and vice-versa).

I Tweeted out links as I watched. And whaddya know: my Twitter timeline was filling up with links exactly like mine. This is the form of self-care that hundreds of Bowie fans independently chose. We didn’t run to our blogs to write some kind of a think piece, we didn’t create memes…we didn’t even come up with a hashtag. We sought solace in Bowie’s artistry, and of course that’s what we did: as lifelong fans, we knew we’d find it there.

This is the first video I played (and I know I came back to it over and over again, until I finally went to bed at 6 AM). It’s from the 1992 Freddy Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium and it’s a recurring and perennial personal source of pure, mainline joy:

Honestly. If there were a nation where Annie Lennox and David Bowie were queen and king, I would have renounced my US citizenship immediately. I wouldn’t even have asked where this country is or if there were any jobs there. Don’t you want to live in a country either or both of those faces are on all of the money and stamps?

I love this video for what it is — two humans creating art at a level that no human will ever exceed — and also for what it says about David Bowie. In 1992, Bowie’s breakout album was twenty years in the past. Here, he wasn’t being trotted out as a nostalgia act, to perform one of his Beloved Hits. Okay, well, sure, fair point: “Under Pressure” was one of his 1981 hits (duetting with Sir Fredrin Mercury, of course). He’s onstage with Annie Lennox at the start of her remarkable, and still forceful, solo career and from the performances, it’s impossible to tell who’s hungrier to make good.

I associate David Bowie with a kind of “delightful restlessness.” In 1992, he had many classic anthems and number one hits behind him, but an amazing career ahead of him. If you listened to “Aladdin Sane” for the first time in 1982, it would offer as few clues about the tone and shape of 2002’s “Heathen” as a 1996 Motorola StarTAC would about Instagram.

David Bowie features in one of my earliest complete memories. It’s 1979, and my parents have brought us kids to my mom’s sister’s house on a Saturday night. The grownups are in the living room, enjoying grownup interaction, talking and smoking late into the night. They’re having a great time, partly due to the fact their two sets of kids have been shooed away to play in the basement and other parts of the house.

I’m in the room of one of my cousins and a few of us are watching “Saturday Night Live,” which for a kid at any point in the Seventies was akin to sneaking a cigarette. I don’t think anyone born after 1980 can really grasp that. The grownups, with their laughter and cigarettes, had let their guard down. “Saturday Night Live” was still in its first (possibly edgiest) cast and it was as far away from the family-friendly “Carol Burnett Show” as anyone at that time could imagine. I loved that show, too, but SNL was the kind of comedy where if you uttered one of its catchphrases inside the house, your parents would ask you where you had even heard that.

I say “first complete memory” because I can recall almost every detail of it and around it. The night is burned into my memory because I saw something I had never, ever seen before:

The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie (Saturday Night Live) from Supernova on Vimeo.

A man in a plastic tuxedo. Two men…in dresses. And one of them appeared to be from outer space. He certainly sang as though he did.

The video is amazing (but holy mother of god, what terrible shot choices the live director made!!! To this day, I can’t watch it without shouting “**** the keyboard player! STAY ON BOWIE AND THE BACKUP SINGERS, YOU IDIOT!!!”).

I was at the perfect age to be exposed to something like that. I was still far enough from adulthood that “strange” always equals “interesting and worthy of further investigation.” Grownups think they know enough about the world that they frequently react to something new by thinking “oh…it’s one of…those” — with “those” being something you don’t know anything about, but might have been taught to have some sort of opinion about regardless.

No, Young Andy thought that these three men were very, very interesting.

It must have been a few more years before I started building my own taste in music. As a Snotty Teen™, I gravitated towards “music that nobody else in school thinks is popular,” a policy that I can’t 100% defend but which nonetheless paid huge dividends. It wasn’t long before I rediscovered the man in the plastic tuxedo, as well as the man from outer space behind him who, in the interval had acquired a plastic tuxedo of his own (Klaus Nomi), who went on to a distinctive, and sadly short, recording career before dying in 1983).

Discovering Bowie in the 1980s was like discovering the Discworld or Cadfael mysteries late in the game. There’s just so much material out there, and in the space of one school semester, you can binge on a story that originally played out over well more than a decade. How the hell did Bowie’s original fans manage to wait a whole year between “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust”?!

I listened to Bowie in all of his personae before I caught up to him in his 1980s mainstream pop phenomenon persona.

Bowie was an important influence. I didn’t adopt a Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke persona (I never had the right bone structure to pull off either look). His effect on me was more powerful and subtle. When I discovered David Bowie, it was like thick curtains on a huge window were being pulled apart and a set of tall, double doors had swung open: it was the beginning of my understanding of just how much bigger the world was than my room, my house, my school, my town. And that isn’t even meant as a dig against the Boston suburb I grew up in. His work urged and challenged me to open my mind, revealed to me that the things I can’t imagine are by no means unimaginable…and that elsewhere, people were expressing themselves in radically different ways and pursuing beauty across vectors and paths of which I was totally unaware.

As I got a little older, he became a celebration and an endorsement of oddity. It’s okay to be weird; indeed, there were places where people appreciated David Bowie’s David Bowie-ness, which implied that there were places where Andy Ihnatko’s Andy Ihnatko-ness would be at least noddingly-tolerated, no matter how I choosed to express it.

And as I got much older, I saw him as an aspirational example. Predictability and repetition are career enhancers if you’re selling coffee or delivering packages. If you’re in a creative field, it’s death for your artistic self and it also means that you’re breaking a promise to your audience. Predictability and repetition are passion-killers. With every practically every new Bowie record, I could see the sweat on his brow as he tried to dance on uneven ground with unsure footing. And pulling it off brilliantly. I might have thought that a certain track (or, to be honest, a whole album) wasn’t very good. But I could never believe that it wasn’t exactly an album that he hadn’t invested himself in. And that’s why I remained a lifelong fan.

If I claimed that I apply these lessons to everything I do, it’d be self-flattery and an act of fraud. But I try to claw hard for the next yard of creative earth, as Bowie seemed to. And based on the personal stories I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere, he had that kind of influence on lots of people. 

I’m not sorry that he seemed to spend the past decade laying low. If anything, it pleased me to imagine David Bowie, in his 60s, enjoying his life and his wife and his family. He owed me nothing. And yet each new album, or video, or appearance was a joy.

Mommm…” I’d message a friend, with a link to a new video. “David Bowie’s bein’ weirrrrrd againnnn…”

But of course, I meant it affectionately. Bowie never stopped being “weird,” which is to say that he never stopped engaging me, forcing me to stop, and savor, and think. He never seemed to care about giving me what I want. He always seemed determined to give me what I wanted next.

Bowie Jump Interactive poster  cwob

This concert poster (for a multimedia CD-ROM…hey, remember those?) has been hanging in my office for over twenty years now. Yes, I stole it. Stole the hell out of it. I saw some of these tacked up outside of the Moscone Center during Macworld Expo 1994 and I just pulled it down and strolled off with it and didn’t give it a second thought.

“I bet Ion intended for people to take these,” I thought. And when I’d worked its thick staples free from the wall, I didn’t stick around, in case someone with the company or event security was trotting up to correct my supposition.

I don’t always take home the posters and prints I’m given at conferences and conventions. I keep even fewer. Only one will be on my wall for as long as I live in places with walls.

This poster sits at the intersection of two of my most important childhood influences: Apple, and David Bowie. I can’t even use the iPhone I bought three years ago but I expect I’ll be listening to “Hunky Dory” and “Station to Station” in their entirety until the day I die.

One more thing about David Bowie: he was nice enough have been born a baritone. I’m forced to enjoy Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” from a respectful distance. But David Bowie invites me to sing “Fantastic Voyage” along with him. That’s very generous, I think, particularly when you considering how often I’m singing along while I’m naked and showering.

Tim Cook on the iPad Pro: | The Independent

Tim Cook: Apple CEO on the company’s latest venture – the iPad Pro:

The iPad Pro is the most expensive tablet yet, £679 and up. At a time when iPad sales are flat, was he tempted to do as some competitors have done and released, say, a £50 tablet?

“No, there are no good £50 tablets. We’ve never been about making the most, we’ve been about making the best. This was a way of making a product that people can do a lot of things with. I think it will attract a lot of PC users and people who are not currently using Apple products. And I think it will be a reason for people to upgrade who love iPad and who have been waiting for something very different and now here it is.”

(Via The Independent.)

Oh, and high school trombone players have a new role model:

“When I was younger I played the trombone and I just remember turning the pages. The score always got dog-eared and was perched on a music stand which was invariably terrible. It would fall over or pages would go flying.”

There are (who knew?) wireless foot pedals which can automatically turn the onscreen pages for you, it turns out. So would this new app be enough to rekindle the Apple CEO’s passion for playing a musical instrument? “Well, I think I’m the only person who could listen to me do that.”

Actually, if Tim decided to release a trombone album with all the proceeds going to a worthy charity (something that promotes STEM education, say) I’d buy a couple of copies. Wouldn’t you?

Diana Damrau interview

“Princess Di“:

Her voice drops a bit as she reflects on the life she has chosen. ‘Singing is such a whole experience for body and mind and soul,’ she says. ‘You have to have control over your body, but you must have the artistry to guide you, to go for the beauty. That’s what we want. If you sing the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, or something like that, you have other goals. But usually, it’s the beauty. We are longing for beauty — and to touch people, and to be able to do this, it can take time. You can be brilliant in technique, and that impresses people. But it’s not the whole thing. It takes a long time to be able to combine these things, and you need time to grow. And’ — she sighs a little — ‘people are not too patient.’

(Via Opera News.)

I have so much respect for this woman’s profound talent and her artistic perspective. As someone who has to create stuff, I find something inspirational in most of her interviews.

If you’re not an opera fan, try out “Forever,” her first album of Broadway and film standards. It’s been in heavy rotation on my phone for the past year and a half.

Love and Hate and a CD

Due to a clerical oversight (related to the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations; just a guess), there are some albums that can only be purchased on CD. This is the brief tale of one such CD, and the two opposing emotions that it inspired.

 

“I love technology and all it stands for.”

My music library is managed by a specific Mac in my house: a 15″ MacBook that fulfills the roles of Desktop Machine and Hub Of The Whole Works. Because this Mac is gracious and accommodating (and because I’ve configured it to work this way), any music that I add to its iTunes library becomes available to me everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Everywhere in the house, because this library is linked to wireless speakers, Rokus, Apple TVs, home media servers, and Plex servers. And! Everywhere in the world, because I’ve got iTunes Match and Google Music set up on this Mac. My iPad, my iPhone, my Android phone, or any machine with a working web browser can get access to damn-near the whole works whenever I want, right from the cloud.

(This is why I buy my music from the Amazon MP3 store. The track’s a 99 cent, high-bitrate unlocked file no matter where you buy it…so buying it from Amazon puts it into three cloud music libraries with the same single mouse click. One copy in Amazon Cloud Player, one copy via iTunes Match, one copy uploaded to Google Music. All thanks to the helper app that automatically downloads my purchases and puts them in my iTunes library.)

It’s a swell system and I’m regularly reminded how cool it is to be living in 2014. I was tidying the living room and came across my “Unsung Sondheim” CD. I almost forgot I had this! I wanted to listen to it right away. But it wasn’t in my library; for some reason, I’d never ripped it.

I could have spun the disc on my DVD player, but this wouldn’t have solved my “Sondheim CD is not in my iTunes library” problem. I could have ripped it on the 13″ MacBook that I was using in the living room, but then I’d need to move the files into the other library eventually. I could have moved into the office and done my work there…but then it wouldn’t have felt like Sunday, would it?

But the system works great. I took the CD into the office, started the rip, and then went back to my lazy (but hopefully still productive) Sunday in the living room. In roughly the time it’s taken me to write these few paragraphs, the files appeared — everywhere — and I started listening to it through my wireless speakers.

I did take a moment today to reflect on how cool all of that was. I hadn’t been able to listen to this album because it was physically locked onto this one physical object, which I’d obviously misplaced shortly after it arrived in the mail. Ripping a disc hasn’t really changed much since 1998. Modern music management makes you realize that music files tied down to one music library isn’t that much of an improvement over their being tied down to a disc.

Today? Ripping it into this one library makes it available to me anywhere and everywhere, without any further action. This is exactly the way I want things to happen and it’s magically simple.

love technology.

 

“I hate technology and all it stands for.”

But I only have two external USB CD/DVD drives in the house and I knew that neither of them were attached to the office MacBook. I fetched one of them and went into my office.

Bloody drive wouldn’t mount the CD, for some reason. I could hear the motors struggling to pull the disc in, and it sounded like the device wasn’t getting enough power. Damn.

Try another USB port? Damn.

Well. My brain was set to “listen to Sondheim” mode, not “troubleshoot a problem” mode. Switching modes requires a soft reboot, so instead of trying to make this drive work I muttered a Level 2 curse (of the five intensities available) and prepared to get up and grab the other drive.

Then I remembered that this is a 2011 MacBook Pro.

It has an internal optical drive.

Goddamn Apple. It has beaten my spirit and forced me to accept their bizarre reality that people shouldn’t ever expect to find an optical drive in a laptop, because that would be insane who would ever want a laptop with an optical drive aren’t you embarrassed I know I’m embarrassed for you honey let’s just forget you said that.

I slid in the CD. My MacBook made a mechanical internal sound that I dearly miss from every other Mac I own. Remember when computers reassured you that it was working by making soothing, reassuring mechanical noises? My first computer was an Apple II. Every day I’d start it up and the CHUGGACHUGGACHUGGA swisshhh…swissshhhh…thip-thip-swisshhh told me that magic was about to happen. iTunes started crunching the music without any fuss.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy that sort of thing. Electrons only make noise when they’re very, very upset with you.

I know I’m not mad at Apple. I’m mad at myself for allowing Apple to brainwash me.

At least there’s hope: I did catch myself before I left the office to get the other drive. Still: goddamn it. I hate technology sometimes.

 

“I hate technology and all it stands for.” (postscript)

…And for some damn reason, WordPress stripped all of the paragraph breaks from this post after I made a quick edit and clicked “Update.” You wouldn’t think that restoring them by hand would be a chore, but yeah. When your attitude towards formal structure is as lighthearted as mine, however, you can become your own worst editor.

(“I did the best I could. Could you check this copy and make sure it still makes sense? To you, I mean?”)

It could have been worse. Remember the days before autosave? It’s rare when something you’ve written just flat-out disappears to the land of ghosts and winds. Still, it happens sometimes.

I marvel at how upset I get when a glitchy piece of software eats something I’ve written. It’s usually something short and eminently disposable, like an extended comment on someone’s blog post. But the fact remains that it’s three or five hundred words that I thought about, wrote, and edited, and when I got to the very end and clicked “Send,” some goddamn app said “Ha ha! No you didn’t write anything! What? Oh, really? Well, its your word against mine now, jerkface!!!”

The thing I wrote is still fresh in my mind. I could re-type it in a fraction of the time it took to write it originally (and truth be told, it’ll probably be stronger than the first version). But it’s so hard to make myself do it all over again. It feels like something was stolen from me. Words? Time? I don’t know, but that’s the mindset.

Also, I somehow bristle at the very thought that I need to put that time in all over again. It’s like walking up to the takeout counter at a sandwich shop, paying $8 for a sub, and then when they finish making it they say “That’ll be $8.” No. Go to hell! I already paid for this once and if I pay for it again, it’s like I’m telling you it’s okay for you to behave this way!

I don’t have kids and I can only imagine the level of eye-rolling that would ensue if I said “If I lost a child, would I just shrug and make another one? This is something special I took pride in and cared about. I don’t just cynically crank these things out because it’s part of a business plan or something!”

I’m a pro, so I’d probably try to take the edge off by ending it with “Who do you think I am…Kris Jenner?” Even so, I know that people without children shouldn’t compare anything in their lives to having children.

Instead, I’ll say that having to redo something I’ve written due to a software glitch is maddening and upsetting in a way that few other simple problems can madden and upset me. The closest I ever came to actually throwing a computer against a wall and jumping up and down on whatever remained was when Word ate an entire 12,000 word book chapter that I’d written in a long, joyous and grateful single day of totally-in-the-zone productivity.

I was exactly as upset as George Brett was, when his ninth inning home run was declared an out, to end and lose the game for the Royals. And for the same reasons.

 

 

But I didn’t throw anything against anything. I remembered this Mister Rogers song, or at least the message. You’re entitled to your anger sometimes, and sometimes you can’t even choose to not be angry. But you can choose what to do with your anger.

 

 

I chose to yell a whole hell of a lot and wave my arms around until my throat and my arms were a little sore, just to open up a relief valve (note that I was alone in my house). Then, I chose to take the next day off.

When I reviewed Microsoft’s first music player, my leadoff paragraph stated that using the Zune was about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face. The line was so widely-quoted that it became a question on “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”

I’m not saying that this was my revenge for what Microsoft Word had done to my book chapter. I take my work too seriously to let that happen. But the book author from a few years earlier (unshaven and a little smelly after a sixteen hour workday, and still wearing the same shorts and tee shirt he’d slept in the night before) pumped his fists and cheered and promised to take me out to lunch the next day.

It wasn’t much of a gesture. We had joint bank accounts. But it was nice of him, anyway.

I am now doing a “select-all” and “copy” on this blog post so that if WordPress screws up again, I can sigh and shake my head and fix things with a simple “paste.” We live, we learn.

Push the button, Frank…

On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

Sondheim Week! Day Three: “Send In The Clowns”


Album Art

Send In The Clowns

Original Broadway Cast

A Little Night Music (Original Cast Recording)

Genre: Broadway

I’m practically going to have to insist that you say — right out loud, and in a goopy voice — “Ladies and gentlemen…Welsh singing superstar Mister Tom JONES!” before you click the “play” button on this video:

You can go ahead and play this next one without any sort of buildup:

And sure, why not: here’s another version of “Send In The Clowns”:

I’m starting this one off with three videos because it’ll save us both a lot of time. By now, I’m sure you understand why, as a kid, this song inspired a display of eye-rolling that even a panel of contemporary teenage judges would have described as “excessive.”

Could you blame me? And can I blame you if you consider “Send In The Clowns” to be hopelessly cheesy and schmaltzy? Most of the performances we all get to see fell into one of these three categories:

  • The “Tom Jones,” in which the performer is just making their way from the green pin to the red pin, no matter how weird the mating of singing style and subject is, or
  • The “Muppet Show,” in which the director of this TV special or variety show glances at the title of the song and budgets $500 for rental of clown costumes or $300 for rental of actual clowns to flop around behind the singer. The show’s writers see this on the show rundown and they begin the numb process of developing some business for the clowns to perform behind the singer. “And then, the red clown is all like, ‘Where is the blue clown? I just loaned him fifty dollars. Green clown, let’s you and me go looking for him…'” And then there’s
  • The Krusty Option. The performer knows very, very well that this is an emotionally-punchy song. Holy cow does he know how emotionally-punchy it is. “I am going to sing the holy crap out of this one,” he declares to the director. “Push in close when you see me close my fist because that’ll be my signal that I’m going to make myself cry at the end of the next line.”

Remember, when I was a tiny tot, TV variety shows were still all the rage and “Send In The Clowns” was a legitimate hit song. I saw this song performed on TV a lot.

As I mentioned yesterday, I didn’t become a real Sondheim fan until I became an adult. I’ve already described my first obstacle: instead of listening to actual Sondheim, I was basing my opinion on what I thought Sondheim music was like.

My second obstacle to appreciating his work was the lack of context.

Many musicals are collections of tunes that happen to suit the moods of various scenes throughout a story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a song like that. It means that you can sing “Brotherhood Of Man” from “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and enjoy it as-is. You don’t even need to wonder if the sentiment being expressed in the song is meant to be taken sincerely or sarcastically.

Sondheim musicals are meant to exist in the air and gravity of their specific home planets. A pretty song is a pretty song no matter how you experience it. But when you hear one of Sondheim’s tunes as it was intended, with forty minutes of story and song in front of it and an act break and another hour of story and song after it, you get to experience its full impact and can appreciate its true purpose.

Outside of its rightful place in Act Two of “A Little Night Music,” “Send In The Clowns” is hard to parse. The sentimental nature of the lyrics and the musing tones come straight through. Fine, but what’s the cause? If these are the words of a teenager who’s been dumped after a second date, the sentiment is thin and drippy and overly-theatrical.

Is he or she singing it alone in a room? Is this an interior monologue? If so, it’s rather self-pitying, isn’t it?

It can easily be played for cheap, simple emotional manipulation…either on the part of the performer looking for love and approval from a live audience, or a character who just wants the world to know how how much they’re hurting, and is speaking out of a selfish desire for sympathy instead of a desire to express feelings sincerely and come closer to a larger awareness.

Let’s try this again.

“Send In The Clowns” is sung by Desiree, an actress whose success, fame, and glamor are distinctly on the wane. She sings it to Fredrik, an attorney. The two were lovers fourteen years ago. When her touring company performed in a theater near his home, they got together and reminisced about the old days. The two made love and considered getting back together, despite Fredrik’s wife and Desiree’s current lover (himself married).

This is the song that comes after Fredrik has told Desiree, with regret, that he’s too smitten with his teenaged wife to leave her for Desiree. He knows (I think) that he’s making a lame explanation but even so, he’s not leaving his wife.

The context transforms the song. They’re inside Desiree’s bedroom. The door is shut. This is a moment of intense emotional intimacy and the words that they exchange are for each other and each other alone.

She’s not moaning, she’s not pitying herself, she’s not trying to pull on anyone’s heartstrings, she isn’t even trying to get Fredrik to reconsider. She’s being honest about her reaction to the way their second affair has ended, in language that only he and she can appreciate, using the only opportunity she will ever have to be open with another human being about these thoughts. And she’s using theater analogies because she’s a woman who’s worked on the stage for two decades. This is just the way that her thoughts are expressing themselves.

So: no disrespect to Tom Jones (hell of a strong baritone) or The Muppets (to whom we all owe a debt that can only be repaid by passing the “Mahna Mahna” song along to succeeding generations until the heat death of the universe). But they couldn’t have possibly done “Send In The Clowns” justice.

Like most Sondheim songs, “Send In The Clowns” has an intrinsic beauty and dignity when it stands as a lone tree. But if you want to appreciate it in full, you need to feel the grass around it and hear the river behind it and sense the dappling shadows of the other trees surrounding it.

Did you notice the simplicity of this tune? According to ““Finishing The Hat”” it was written specifically for the actress playing Desiree in the original production. This role was written with a late-middle-aged actress with a talent for light comedy in mind. Sondheim knew that the chances of finding such an actress who could also sing was a longshot, so he didn’t write a solo for Desiree.

When he discovered that the actress they’d cast actually had a good voice (“small but silvery, musically and smokily pure”), and the director decided that, dramatically, this scene should belong to Desiree and not Fredrik as originally intended, Sondheim wrote this song to use the strengths of Glynis John’s voice. The smoky tone of her voice made it difficult for her to sustain a note for very long; thus, he wrote this song as a series of short phrases.

I eat details like that up. The idea of the artist flying free and unfettered is almost purely a romantic notion. More often than not, creators need to work their muscles against resistance, such as space limits or the fact that Papageno is a little bit tone-deaf and needs to hear the phrase he’s about to sing before he’s called upon to sing it, or the need to move a scene from a garden to a parlor because they can’t afford to shoot anything outdoors. Or, the creator needs to dial back a “brilliant” innovation because the audience just isn’t getting it.

The personal life lesson I take away from “Send In The Clowns” one is that I often tell myself I don’t like something and move on, without exploring why I don’t like it. I bet I miss out on a lot of great stuff for that reason. I still need to protect myself from bad versions of “Send In The Clowns” as seriously as a parent would protect an infant from werevampires, but I’m sorry that I shooed away awareness of Good Versions of this song for most of my adult life.

Preview “Send In The Clowns” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

All right, I’m aware that after encouraging you to hear a Sondheim tune within its original context, I’m actually contradicting myself by encouraging you to sample this one song. Go ahead and buy the whole Broadway cast album of “A Little Night Music.”

In my defense, I’m posting this link out of selfish interests. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking this link results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. “You know what would really tie this kitchen together? A xylophone.” I will think one morning. And before any sensible part of my brain can have any voice in the decision, I’ll go right ahead and one-click such a thing…all thanks to your clicking these links.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

Sondheim Week! Day One: “Getting Married Today”


Album Art

Getting Married Today

Original Broadway Cast

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Genre: Broadway

All morning long, I’ve been reading blog posts about everyone’s favorite childhood Sondheim Week memories. I’m sure I had the same reaction as you did:

“It’s that time of year? Again? But the stores have only just taken down their Jerry Herman decorations!”

It seems to come sooner every year, doesn’t it? And the crass commercialization of what was originally meant to be a spiritual reflection of the healing power of musical comedy can turn almost anybody cynical about the whole thing.

But a funny thing happens. You realize that your grumblings about the giant inflatable Hal Prince in front of the drugstore was mostly for show. You didn’t want to let on that the first time you saw the iconic “Follies” posters hanging in the shop windows, you were instantly transported back to that shiny day in second grade when Mandy Patinkin dropped in as a surprise during a school assembly and sang two numbers from “Sunday In The Park With George” and then one from “A Little Night Music” as an encore.

Oh, sure…now you realize that it was just the gym teacher in a Mandy Patinkin costume — a shabby rental version that circulated around all of the schools in the district during the week, at that — but I ask you: does that knowledge diminish the magic of the moment? Or prevent you from wanting to dress up as Mandy Patinkin or Elaine Stritch for your kids some day?

I’m just saying that you never get too old to be affected by the Spirit of Sondheim Week. I’m kind of ashamed to have never celebrated it publicly before now. I hope to make up for it this year by keeping Sondheim Week in my heart the whole week long, just like Greg Evigan promised at the end of that 1988 holiday special that ABC never seems to run any more.

I really wanted to embed a clip from that show. I still get chills every time I see him racing through the now-unfamiliar streets of his hometown, tearing down the omnipresent banners for “Gavin Macleod’s ‘Aqualung: A New Musical'” and desperately calling for the angel who’d granted him his hasty, angry wish that Stephen Sondheim had never been born.

Alas, Sony issues a takedown notice to YouTube three seconds after anyone posts anything from that show. So I’ll link to something else that’s relevant: this clip of a student singing the patter song from “Company” on a BBC television show.

Degree of difficulty: she’s performing in front of Sondheim himself, during a master class televised to all of England, in a venue where Sondheim will interrupt and correct you if you’re doing anything wrong at all.

Did you just have one of those Sympathy Vomits? I sure did.

I love everything about this clip. It’s obviously a terrific performance; not just well-sung, but well-acted. I love the shot of Sondheim leaning out to get a good look at her while she performs. He’s grinning like a composer who knows that his song is being performed right,. His eyes are narrowing like seasoned NASCAR spectator who knows exactly how dangerous this particular race is and is wondering if this next, tricky curve is where she finally buys it.

I also like to imagine her parents watching at home or in the audience. What a wonderful moment for her. I’ve no idea what became of her after this televised master class. Even if her passions led her somewhere other than musical theater, she has this glorious memory of doing something very tricky in front of the one person in the world who can give her a categorial pass/fail. This is like the Marshall McLuhan scene in “Annie Hall,” for real.

I have a new appreciation for this song thanks to Sondheim’s two-volume set of annotated lyrics: “Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made A Hat.” Sondheim goes through all of his music, show by show and song by song and his notes focus on the song- and show-making process.

It’s not as though I was blind to the fact that songwriting is work. It’s just that I figured, you know, he just sort of sits down and writes these things. But of course, the artist’s ideal is to reveal the art and obscure all of the technique.

The video gave you the context of “Getting Married Today.” The bride is having a panicky meltdown on her wedding day. Sondheim’s notes in the book break down her breakdown. For example: why do none of the lines rhyme, as the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs do? Because, he explains, her brain is going in a million directions; her thoughts aren’t orderly enough to form rhymes. Sondheim also talks about the need to help out the singer and string together words that can be sung rapid-fire. I feel foolish for thinking that he just wrote the words and left the rest as a problem for the performer.

There’s another thing I like about this song: the role was originated on Broadway by Beth Howland. The name might not be familiar to you. She went on to play the ditzy waitress Vera on the sitcom “Alice.” And if the sitcom “Alice” isn’t familiar to you, you’re probably over the age of forty. It aired from the mid-seventies to the mid-Eighties.

In my personal understanding of the real world, performers like Beth Howland are the closest thing to actual superheroes. I knew her in her secret identity, as a name I kind of could remember from a show I sort of watched when I was a little kid. But later on, I learned that “mild-mannered sitcom supporting actress” was merely her secret identity: in her superpowered guise, she originated a role in a Sondheim musical before she moved to LA and got into TV. To me, that’s as close as I’ll ever get to finding out that this reporter I know at the Sun-Times is actually Superman.

We can refer to this as The Charles Nelson Reilly Effect. On TV, he was far more mild-mannered than Beth Howland. As far as I knew, he was famous because he was on TV, he was on TV because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because the man in the suit who introduced him at the start of “Match Game” said he was. How on earth can a man have starring roles in the original casts of two of the most famous musicals from one of the most famous eras of Broadway history, and that doesn’t come up in the introduction?

That’s like being introduced to “a retired college professor” at a dinner party and then, a week later, the host asks you if you enjoyed spending two hours with Neil Armstrong.

You know how Twitter has “verified accounts” for people who (for whatever reason) satisfy some metric of high-profile-osity? I favor the formation of federal agency to create a “Verified Interesting” designation. Yes, I know…everybody has interesting experiences or stories. But I feel as though someone who has walked on the Moon or who has been directed by Sondheim or was on the original Macintosh hardware team should be issued a laminated card containing this piece of information (in three languages) and ought to be required to present it every time they’re introduced to someone.

To make it worth the hassle, perhaps the card would also be good for a 20% discount on any speed recorded by any member of law enforcement on any interstate highway. So: if you were part of the work crew that restored the Statue of Liberty in 1985, the cops can’t ticket you for doing 75 in a 65 mile per hour zone. Just hand over the card along with your license when the trooper pulls you over, and be prepared to tell at least one good story about what it’s like to rappel down Lady Liberty’s face.

Preview “Getting Married Today” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why aren’t I linking to the same track on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play?

Partly because Amazon is the most ecumenical and simple way to preview a track without linking to a bootleg on YouTube. And mmmostly because I have an Amazon Associates account and if you buy anything at all after clicking on one of these links, I get a small kickback. Which, I assure you, will be spend on foolish things for my personal enjoyment.

See my other music postings if you liked this one and have time to waste.

Fixing iTunes Albums

It’s been said that the iTunes destroyed the concept of the Album. Why buy the whole album, when it’s possible to just cherry-pick the hits, or just the one track that was used in the episode of “House” you just streamed?

But subscription music services, Amazon’s insanely good MP3 album sales, and the iTunes Store’s own “complete my album” feature might be bringing albums back. After a long era of cherrypicking, I often buy whole albums because I road-tested them in Spotify, or because it’s so affordable (or I’m such a fan of the artist) that I’ll roll the dice on the whole thing.

Units of music in iTunes include Playlists, Songs, and Albums. It’s great at handling the first two but the third could use a little work.

What Apple has right now is pretty good. If I specifically want to listen to “Abbey Road” — this album is like a can of Pringles; I am only capable of consuming it in its entirety — I can search for “Abbey”, click the album from the popup of search results, and be looking at the album tracklist a moment later. If I decide that I want to listen to the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album after that, I can have iTunes play it next, as an album, in its entirety.

It all works great but you need to keep track of your albums in your own head. If you click on iTunes’ Album View and want to browse for complete albums to listen to, you’re in trouble. “Sweeney Todd” (two discs, 32 tracks) and Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings Vol. 1” (just three songs of the CD’s 13) look the same.

It’s an even bigger problem if (like me) you buy lots of soundtracks, classical music, and spoken-word albums. “Sweeney Todd” tells a whole story and those tracks want to be heard in their proper order. iTunes, alas, is prejudiced against album play. It’s very easy to play “A Little Priest” but not so easy to get the whole story, from Sweeney’s arrival in London and him being dead but still well enough to sing the finale, with every part in between in its proper order.

I wish iTunes could tell the difference between complete albums and the ones that are only represented by a few cherrypicked tracks.

It’s not a simple problem. I don’t like the idea of iTunes matching the hundreds of album titles in my library against the canonical online tracklists and then to the tracks in my library (seems like too much heavy lifting).

My idea is to have a new category of content dedicated to “verified albums,” at the same top-level hierarchy as Playlists, Tracks, Albums, Videos, et cetera.

Albums would be displayed in this category if it meets one of three criteria:

  1. User has purchased the whole album from the iTunes Store.
  2. User has used the “complete my album” feature at some later date.
  3. User has manually validated this album. I know that my copy of “Sweeney Todd” is complete. So I select the collection of tracks and click “Verified Album” from a popup. iTunes checks the contents against a canonical source and “blesses” the album.

So if I want to browse for a whole album to listen to (or copy to my iPhone), I can head to this specific zone, where the content is guaranteed to be complete. No chance that I’ll miss a track, or the two duplicate tracks that I bought separately will be mixed in with the tracks I ripped from a CD later on.

The Verified Albums collection would just be an organizational tool. Its tracks would still appear in “Songs” “Artists” and whatnot. But inside the “Verified Albums” view, albums are treated like whole units by default. I double click on the album art, and the album plays. Or, yes, I click to open it up and then can select any single track.

Just a thought. At minimum, writing this blog post has caused me (when verifying the existing mechanism for locating and playing albums) to crank up “Sweeney Todd” again. It has taken me until “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to write this blog post and I suspect I’ll be listening all the way to the end of the bonus material.

Like I said: Pringles. Trust me. “Sweeney Todd” is without a doubt the best music about cannibalism you’ll ever hear.

Side note: that’s an Amazon link and it’s another example of how profoundly odd Amazon’s “AutoRip” promotion is. If you buy “Sweeney” as an MP3 album, it’ll cost you $16.99. But! If you buy the CD, you’ll get all of the MP3s immediately as a free bonus…and you’ll pay a buck and a half less.

Plus, a few days later, you get a package in the mail. The CD will probably sit on a shelf in your house until you suddenly remember it’s your sister’s birthday and you haven’t bought her a gift or anything.

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


Album Art

White Wine In The Sun

Tim Minchin

Ready For This? (Live)

Genre: Miscellaneous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I absolutely freakin’ love Tim Minchin.

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

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


Album Art

Mr. Fancy Pants

Jonathan Coulton

JoCo Looks Back

Genre: Pop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which I promise to spend on foolish things.

Maybe fancy pants. Maybe a “Superman” statue.

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

Album Art

Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis Just Sings

Genre: Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read all about it here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry: Danny Gans.

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

Yeah. See what I mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Advent Calendar 2012: The Preamble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Licking fingers.)

(Continuing.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011

2010

2009

2008

And hey…Happy Labor Day!

“Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” by “Weird Al” Yankovic (Amazon Advent Calendar day 19)

Album Art

Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me

“Weird Al” Yankovic

Alpocalypse

Genre: Pop

Last time, I talked about novelty versions of pop songs. I believe (checks notes) ah! Yes, as I suspected: I said critical, sweeping things about an entire genre, and dismissed it out of hand mostly because I, personally, have no taste for it.

This statement is by no means invalidated by my lifelong appreciation for the work of Sir Alfred Yankovic (I know the New Year’s Honours List won’t be announced for another week yet, but look, who are we trying to kid?). I honestly think he’s the present-day successor to Gilbert & Sullivan. Like W.S. Gilbert, he’s a deft lyricist who often composes songs that point out the foibles of current society. Like Arthur Sullivan, he freely, but not exclusively, bases his music on familiar tunes.

“Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” works great at face value. It’s every frank conversation you’ve ever wanted to have with That Guy in your address book after his forwards have finally exhausted your last scrap of patience. But do take a moment to really listen to it as a piece of music. Appreciate the agility of the lyrics and don’t ignore that it’s been set to a lovely little tune with a graceful structure.

I’d pegged this song as a wAG original. But no less an authority than Wikipedia informs me that it’s an style parody of the music of Jim Steinman, who (ibid) is a songwriter best known for passionate first-person anthems like “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and most of the music from Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell.” I suppose the common thread to Steinman’s most familiar songs is that they’re being sung by characters who really, really want you to know how much they’re feeling what they’re singing.

Sir Al made a shrewd choice in singing “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” with more of a plaintive tone than an aggressive one. Think of the context: as with many of Steinman’s signature songs, the singer is speaking directly to one person. As with none of them, however, the singer knows he has the option of just creating a new filter that automatically routes everything from that address to the Junk folder.

It’s been noted that Lord Al’s career has far, far exceeded those of the performers he’s parodied. It’s easy to see why: by definition, he’s always learning new styles of music. Thus, his act has never atrophied, grown stale and irrelevant, or resigned itself to the dustbin of nostalgia and PBS concert specials.

Plus, it forces him to keep working at it. Over the course of three decades he’s gone from figuring out the chords to “Another One Bites The Dust” to acquiring a vast portfolio of skills as a performer, composer, and arranger. I would be very, very interested in seeing a musical or a movie with an original Yankovic score. I can’t imagine it being anything less than good.

Try or buy “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking that link will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I will spend on gloriously silly things.

“Is There Anything Wrong With That?” by Helen Kane (Amazon Advent Calendar day 11)

Album Art

Is There Anything Wrong With That?

Helen Kane

Betty Boop Best Of

Genre: Jazz

This is a fun song. Remember fun songs?

No? Me, neither. I blame the fact that we all grew up eating regular, nutritious meals; we were guaranteed an education through age 18; there were laws prohibiting the use of child labor; there was general (though not universal) consensus that bigots and racists were all ignorant ***holes; and though there were wars going on here and there, they weren’t happening on US soil and none of us were likely to be forced by the government to go out and fight them, unless we’d explicitly chosen that sort of thing as a career path.

Things were different in the Twenties. I suppose this is why they needed tunes like this one. Yup, that’s the Helen Kane, better known as the “Boop-Boop-A-Boop Girl,” singing. Her popularity inspired the Betty Boop character.

(How much cooler are today’s artists than Cab Calloway was in the Thirties? I’ve done a complex calculation and come up with the answer: None. Exactly zero point zero more cool.)

“Inspired” is, of course, is a very special word, children. It’s an eight-stroke keyboard macro that usually saves you the trouble of typing out “Well, yes, of course this idea was stolen lock, stock and barrel from this other person…but thanks to a lack of funds for legal counsel on the part of the plaitiff and the lack of shame on the part of the defendant, it was the final legal opinion of the presiding judge that he was tired of hearing testimony and wanted to go home so he dismissed the case.”

“Is There Anything Wrong With That?” tells the touching story of a flapper girl who repeatedly and cold-heartedly leads wealthy men on, enticing them to give her jewels, furs, and other expensive gifts in the empty promise of favors of an intimate nature. But it’s the Twenties, so it’s OK, I guess.

One day, this lady will have learned that looks are fleeting and that wealthy suitors are a non-renewable resource. There must come a time when she has to grow up and start making more responsible choices, such as committing an unspeakable act of emotional blackmail to secure a quickie wedding without benefit of a prenup, or (if the suitor is famous enough) figure out how to parlay the relationship into a reality TV show.

Hey, speaking of pimping oneself out: Try or buy “Is There Anything Wrong With That?” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy anywhere on Amazon after clicking that link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I promise to spend on fun and foolish things.