Blog, Books, Music

The Gone

Yesterday I got in touch with Alicia Mayer, the grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, in connection with some research I’ve been doing on some MGM movies from the 30s. I was having a hard time locating his papers, which I assumed were archived someplace. Not so. According to Ms. Mayer, his papers were all “burnt by his second wife and her lawyer.”

That puts them right up there with Cassandra Austen, Mrs. Stephen Foster and all the other maniacs who have gouged holes in our artistic heritage. But then wonderful stuff has gone missing for so many reasons….

Refused publication, James Joyce threw Stephen Hero into the fire; Nora retrieved 1/5 of it.

From 1856 to 1896 Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann exchanged more than four thousand letters, almost all of which he destroyed just before his death.

Julius Caesar wrote a play called Oedipus — who knew and where is it

Gogol burns Part II of Dead Souls — well-known — rewrites it completely and burns that too — less known

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci representing Orpheus pursued by the Furies is ruined while being restored in 2001

Emile Zola burns all his letters from Paul Cezanne; Cezanne destroys his portrait of Zola (tiff?)

Check out Henri LeFebvre’s incantatory Missing Pieces for many, many more of the the same. It’s the eeriest book you can imagine.

Song of the Day: Scatman Crothers





Blog, TV

Artificial Intelligence

World History for 11 points!

In 1521, after the excommunication of this religious reformer, a Holy Roman Emperor summoned him to appear before a conference. The conference demanded that the reformer recant, but he refused. Tell me:

1 The name by which the conference is known

2 The name of the religious reformer who appeared before it

3 The name of the Pope who excommunicated him

4 The name of the Emperor

Drawing four blanks? In 1958 dairy farmer Harold Craig answered every part correctly on his way to stockpiling $106,000 in winnings. And he did it on live television!

But then he was cheating.

To me there are two amazing things about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. One is how the producers, sponsors and networks ever believed that an ever-widening conspiracy of several hundred people wouldn’t spring a leak. The other is how riveting the surviving shows are even when you know they’re fixed. Here’s the  famous match-up between Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel on the show Twenty-One. Even when you know they’re acting — when you know the bank vault containing the questions is cardboard — it’s great TV:

Van Doren v. Stempel, brought to you by Geritol

The collapse of the quiz shows — which at the time were bigger than I Love Lucy — began on a May morning in 1958 when Marie Winn stepped onstage to play Dotto. Miss Winn (Janet Malcolm’s sister as it happens) was cute as a button

so it’s easy to understand why the producers wanted to keep her around. Unfortunately while she was on-air, a standby contestant (“Skinny Eddie” Hilgemeier) found her little notebook in the dressing room — the one containing the answers she was giving live at that moment (“‘The Cask of Amontillado!'”). Thus began the quiz shows’ toboggan to disaster. Even Patty Duke, 11 years old at the time, was found to have been pre-fed answers for the $64,000 Challenge by producer Shirley Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s sister as it happens). Two grand juries and a Congressional investigation later….

But fixed or not, look at the level of knowledge contestants back then could plausibly be expected to possess. When Charles Van Doren successfully named the seven British prime ministers between the wars and the three countries that border on the largest lake in Africa and what kind of milk Pecorino and Gorgonzola cheeses are made of (cow, reindeer, goat, sheep, buffalo, zebra [!]), eighty million people thought sure, he could know that.

Shakespeare for 10 points!

Many people who are famous in history and legend appear in Shakespearean plays. Name the plays in which the following famous people appear:

1 Joan of Arc


2 Agamemnon


3 Cardinal Wolsey

How we doing?

Song of the Day: Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster




Blog, Books


Famous Last Words:

“Mrs. Tope’s care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner-cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; then falls to with an appetite.”

A few hours later, as Victorian novel freaks well know, Charles Dickens stroked out at age 58. He left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, and no outline to indicate where the story was going. Edwin has disappeared, that’s all we know, and like Dickens he’s been missing ever since.

However much this drove the reading public crazy (and it did, and continues to in its quiet way), it caused particular pain to Samuel Luke Fildes, the book’s illustrator, who suddenly lost a really good gig. But then he saw an opportunity:

He called it Empty Chair and it sold like hotcakes.

Artist Robert William Buss took one look and saw an opportunity. The print inspired him to create a great big painting he called Dickens’s Dream:

Dickens Dream - Robert W. Buss

…The dozing author, as you see, visited en masse by a bunch of his characters.

Buss died abruptly before he could complete the work, leaving another work of art unfinished. But better this way, don’t you think? Really beautiful and ethereal. In any case, it makes for a super-challenging 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The pieces are spread on a table in my living room as we speak. So far the puzzle remains unsolved.

Song of the Day: Iris DeMent

Blog, TV

Double Doody

I learned yesterday that Carl Bernstein, the legendary Watergate reporter, won a Howdy Doody lookalike contest when he was a boy. My first horrified thought was that he might have looked like this:

For this was in fact the original Howdy Doody who alarmed households across America beginning around 1950. Fortunately he only lasted a couple of years. Much acrimony developed between Buffalo Bob, who thought up the character, and Frank Paris, who made the puppet, Paris growing increasingly incensed about his revenue share. One day in 1952 he snatched Howdy and disappeared from the studio four hours before airtime. What to do? When the show went on at 5 pm, Buffalo Bob explained that Howdy had left town for a while to cover the presidential election. They put up a big map tracking his whereabouts. He then filed reports (unseen). Meanwhile Clarabell, Big Chief Thunderthud and the others picked up the slack, until Howdy reported that seeing one of the presidential candidates up close had inspired him (Howdy) to have plastic surgery. Puppeteer Velma Dawson went to work and created the addled redhead we know today, with 48 freckles, one for every state in the Union. Howdy was really pleased with the results:

He still doesn’t look like Bernstein to me.

Song of the Day: Eva Cassidy



Blog, Life on Tomorrow's Moon, Photography

Children of the Corn

Last fall a new book of mine, Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon, arrived on little cat feet from Red Hen Press. In other words, it appeared in silence, much like the moon itself, but I commend it to your attention if for no other reason to learn why the moon is responsible for every thought and thing you possess.

In the meantime check this out (click on it):



And this:


They’re by Midwestern photographer Julie Blackmon, just a few of her very trippy pictures of the young.

More here:

Julie Blackmon’s Website

Limited editions, pricey, but…Ok, I bought one. It was my second foray into buying fine-art photography, the first being this:

A Dennis Stock photo, Eartha Kitt up front, James Dean behind, in a dance class at the Katherine Dunham studio in New York. I could become an eager collector, I think. All I need is the money and the walls.

Song of the Day: The Tractors

Blog, Books


I discover I’m mentioned in Adam Gopnik’s latest memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate, when he describes going to meet photographer Richard Avedon for the first time. Apparently I was there:

“….His name comes back to me as two oddly matched monosyllables, like a title: Pope Brock…”

Well, his name comes back to me as four syllables that sound better read backwards, Kinpog Mada.




Blog, Music

Gershwin Hatches the Egg

Pick hits from my program last week: In 1924, three weeks before he premiered Rhapsody in Blue and shot to fame, a show featuring the music of George Gershwin premiered on Broadway. Not the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, who at that point was still loitering around stage doors hoping to break in; words by Buddy deSylva (“April Showers,” “Look for the Silver Lining”) instead. The musical was called Sweet Little Devil, a show so obscure today that when people talk about forgotten musicals they forget this one. Nevertheless, in 2012 — 88 years after it bloomed and died — a guy named Tommy Krasker, listed as “former archivist to the Ira Gershwin estate” (wasn’t that Michael Feinstein?) resurrected the score, assembled some Broadway performers (Rebecca Luker et al) and produced the first cast recording. Granted, it’s a little vapid around the edges, but a couple of numbers really caught my ear. Given my severe technical limitations, the best pathway I can suggest is to pull up the album (Sweet Little Devil) on Spotify and go to numbers 6 (“The Jijibo”) and 14 (“Matrimonial Handicap”), which are the utmost in my opinion. In the first you can really hear that yearning, bluesy Gershwin sound which is just about to get very famous. A musical egg is hatching….




Blog, Music

Standing in the Shadows of Stax

Last week I came upon two major examples of The Song Behind the Song. Like so many things, they were complete news to me. They both involve R&B hits from Stax in the 60s: “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the totemic “Mustang Sally.” For decades I’d been going around believing that Albert King introduced the first (followed by the acid bath it got from Cream) and Wilson Pickett the second. I’ve been grateful to these people. I still am. But if we take these covers and lift the lid….

“Born Under a Bad Sign,” it turns out, was written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and first recorded by Bell himself. As you may know, he was one of those almost-major figures on the Stax roster back then with a couple of important hits to his credit. This wasn’t one, in his own rendering:

Born Under a Bad Sign 1 

But Albert King made it famous. This is partly because King’s version is a lot better, as you can tell instantly from that four-note power climb at the start —

Born Under a Bad Sign 2

But it still wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t such a great song, one of those twists on the blues that seems like the blues at first but is really a fabulous thing of its own. William Bell has just released his first Stax album in 40 years, in which he revisits the song himself:

Born Under a Bad Sign 3

You can hear another 40 years of a man’s life in it for sure.

As for “Mustang Sally,” I now discover that Sir Mack Rice, who died last summer, wrote and recorded it with modest success (#15 on the R&B charts in — what else — 1965) before Wilson Pickett lit up the sky the following year:

Mustang Sally 1

Mustang Sally 2

Again, two bars of Pickett’s cover and you know that musically you’re in the presence of greatness. But without Sir Rice (knighted by his producer) we wouldn’t be.

A little research reveals that Aretha Franklin, his piano player on the demo, convinced him to change the title from “Mustang Mama.” And you thought she couldn’t get any cooler.

Truth to tell, when I want to listen to this song these days — and I can’t go too long without it — I find myself creeping back to Andrew Strong’s cover in The Commitments:   

Mustang Sally 3

Yeah, I know he’s white, but still.


Blog, Music

Judy Judy

Among the great women folk singers of the early to mid Sixties, Joan and Judy (Baez and Collins) come quickly to mind, but not Judy and Judy, the other two. Judy Roderick and Judy Henske were stinging and original in ways that didn’t slot in commercially at the time. They didn’t sound like angels, and they messed around in some scary blues country, and they didn’t land on Hootenanny, or not for long.  Their opportunities were thus relatively small and their bodies of work slender; but (to sort of quote Spencer Tracy) what they produced was “cherce.”

Roderick came out of Colorado, played the major coffee houses, wowed the folk elite. (“Her phrasing, tone and above all her originality are unmatched,” said Dave Van Ronk.) She put out two albums, one for Columbia, one for Vanguard, before drifting to the margins. Her monument is the second, Woman Blue (1965), title cut here:

Woman Blue


Tracing back to Blind Lemon Jefferson, this song (aka “I Know You Rider”) was picked up by a number of 60s artists (Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna et al) but Roderick’s version was the starkest and most influential. Her take on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” comes straight from a cold street corner. And, unlike some of her peers, she knew how to work with a band:

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Judy Henske was a more raucous performer than Roderick (“Take me down to the Tin Star/Lay my body on the bar”), but in a different mood the raw depth in her singing must have made the New Christy Minstrels scatter like pigeons.  “Till the Real Thing Comes Along” has been covered with elegant skill by any number of singers over the years (“I’d work for you, slave for you/I’d work my body to the grave for you….”). Henske’s version is the only one I’ve ever heard where you instantly believe those words:

Till the Real Thing Comes Along

That’s from her High Flying Bird album (1964), varied and unclassifiable, which was exactly the problem. Known as “Queen of the Beatniks,” she was reportedly the inspiration for Annie Hall — she and Woody Allen were a duo for a while — but who knows? It fits her profile:


Thankfully, on the evidence of more recent work (Loose in the World, 2001), Henske went on to become a blowsy broad of the highest caliber.

For a choice slab of her early career, check out Rhino’s 2-CD retrospective, Big Judy.




Crazy Cat

Last week being pledge-drive time at the station (, it’s never too late) I brought back some old favorites and didn’t get into new A material. So instead of talking about tunes from the playlist I thought I’d pass along an arresting link from our friends at Open Culture. Here it is, “Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Used to Treat Mental Illness:”

Twisted Cat Piano

Inevitably this device reminded me of the work of Louis Wain. He was an English artist who thrived during the years leading up to the First World War painting almost exclusively cats. He painted them in costumes, driving cars, playing golf and so on. This was a brand-new idea at the time, and his work became wildly popular; it went a long way in fact toward turning cats from barn-dwellers to house pets.

In mid-career, however, Wain had a schizophrenic break, and he spent the rest of his life in institutions. He kept painting cats. But now they were very, very different:



Amazing stuff. But would you want it on your wall?