Words and Music

Titanic Under Alles

I’m fresh from seeing a very strange movie called Titanic. It is indeed another film about the sinking, the difference being that this one was made in 1942 under Hitler’s regime and all the characters speak German. The movie elevates English greed and bumbling to towering heights, and the lone voice of sanity is (totally fictional) First Officer Pederson, the only German on board, who practically begs the stupid owner and the stupid captain to slow down because if we hit an iceberg at this speed then oh the humanity. Production notes: the film was conceived and propelled by Goebbels despite the enormous costs as a great propaganda vehicle. Partway through the filming the director, Herbert Selpin, made some complaint about the regime so Goebbels had him killed. A new director came in to finish filming the traumatized cast. Finished at last! Time for the premiere! But by then the Allies were bombing Germany all up and down so  Goebbels blocked its release on the theory that the public might be  demoralized by a film full of death and panic when they were getting so much of it right outside.

But, to return to first principles, it’s watching characters like buffoon John Jacob Astor and his idiot countrymen freaking in German that stays with you. The sinking stuff (water pouring in etc.) is very well done.

Song of the Day: Norah Jones, Sinking Soon

Stolen Rembrandt — keep your eye out — big reward


Words and Music

Too Misty

Outstanding creative writing advice via Muriel Spark. This is the opening of her novel Finishing School:

“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

Song of the Day: In a Mist, Bix Beiderbecke

Words and Music

Wondrous Italian Clarinet Player and Some Russians in Evening Wear

Now and then I come across a song on Youtube I’d love to play on my radio show, but something vital would be missing without the visuals.  So I happily bring you here:

First, Hetty and the Jazzato Band, an Italian swing outfit. They’re all good, but the clarinet player is the coolest thing ever:

Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano

The second group is called The Sexican (I think). From the comments section I’m guessing they’re Russian though I don’t usually picture Russians doing this stuff with their bodies:

Cuarto de la Banda

Weird and expensive.


Words and Music

Goat Testicles in Other Hands

I got a check this week from my agent, payment connected to my book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flim-Flam. It’s for translation rights: the book’s being translated into Russian and Korean.

Now, there’s been no explanation forthcoming as to exactly why Charlatan, which was published ten years ago, has suddenly attracted the interest of our brothers and sisters over there. On its face, you wouldn’t think the story of a notorious quack of the 1920s and 30s who made millions of dollars implanting goat testicles into impotent men as a virility booster, would be a big draw in those markets. Why would someone who was also a genius media manipulator, who drew massive crowds at political rallies and filled their heads with pernicious nonsense, why would a person like that be of interest to…. Hey, wait a minute….

Personally, I’m just looking forward to seeing the book in two entirely new alphabets.

Song of the Day:  Cyndi Lauper Sings Carey




Words and Music

Rosa Bathurst

I was in Rome not long ago and went to visit the graveyard where Keats and Shelley are buried. While there I discovered a large monument with this engraved on it:

Beneath This Stone Are Interred The Remains Of Rosa Bathurst Who Was Accidently Drowned In The Tiber On The 11 Of March 1824. Whilst On A Riding Party; Owing To The Swollen State Of The River, And Her Spirited Horse Taking Fright. She Was The Daughter Of Benjamin Bathurst Whose Disappearance When On A Special Mission To Vienna, Some Years Since, Was As Tragical As Unaccountable: No Positive Account Of His Death Ever Having Been Received By His Distracted Wife. He Was Lost At Twenty Six Years Of Age. His Daughter Who Inherited Her Father’s Perfections, Both Personal And Mental, Had Completed Her Sixteenth Year When She Perished By As Disastrous A Fate. Reader Whoever Thou Art, Who May Pause To Peruse This Tale Of Sorrows, Let This Awful Lesson Of The Instability Of Human Happiness Sink Deep In Thy Mind.- If Thou Art Young And Lovely Build Not Thereon, For She Who Sleeps In Death Under Thy Feet, Was The Loveliest Flower, Ever Cropt In Its Bloom.- She Was Every Thing That The Fondest. Heart Could Desire, Or The Eye Covet, The Joy And Hope Of Her Widowed Mother Who Erects This Poor Memorial Of Her Irreparable Loss. “Early, Bright, Transient, Chaste as Morning Dew”, She Sparkled, was Exhaled and Went to Heaven.

Thunderbird/Thelma and Louise



Words and Music

Went to See the — No, I Can’t Say It

“Actors’ Equity Association…announced this week that it would cease using the title ‘Gypsy Robe’ to describe one of its most cherished insider rituals – the passing of a colorful patchwork garment from one chorus to another on a Broadway show’s opening night – citing the potential  offense to Roma people.” — NYT

I don’t think they completely thought this through. If it’s such a terrible word, how can the musical Gypsy ever again shame a marquee? They’ll have to change the name. But to what? I know: how about Ramblin’ Rose? They’d have to work out the copyright business with whoever wrote that song and of course there’s the massive Nat King Cole association to cope with — or no, probably not since our cultural memory has dropped to practically zero….Might have to wait till Sondheim’s dead…. But as for inserting the number itself, that should be easy. Herbie’s always needed a song of his own.

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Embraceable You




Words and Music

Melodious Veep

You know the song “All in the Game”? (“Many a tear has to fall/But it’s all in the game….”)

It’s been covered by everybody, from Jimmy Witherspoon to Van Morrison to Roland Kirk.

Turns out it was written by this guy:

Charles G. Dawes, vice-president under Calvin Coolidge and recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize.

That is to say, he wrote the melody in 1911. Forty years later somebody named Carl Sigman came along and added lyrics. In 1958 Tommy Edwards took it to #1….

All in the Game

“Shine Little Glow Worm” has a similar history. But that’s for another time —




Words and 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





Words and Music

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




Words and Music


Dickens’s Dream

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 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 (the character) has disappeared, that’s all we know, and like Dickens he’s been gone 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 also saw an opportunity. The print inspired him to create the grand-scale painting above….

…The dozing author visited by a host 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