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Crazy Cat

Last week being pledge-drive time at the station (wmpg.org, 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?

 

Blog, Music

Iron Womb

Last week I was putting together a set of songs for my show (Dog’s Dinner, Wed eves. 8:30-10, wmpg.org) on the subject of Mexicans, walls and so forth, for example this gem from Tom Russell:

Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?  

In the course of my researches I discovered that the U.S. Border Patrol has been quietly commissioning pop songs for Mexican radio on the subject of illegal immigration — specifically, how trying to slip across the border will be a horrible mistake and probably get you killed. Some of these numbers, like La Bestia Norte (aka Death Train) have gotten really popular on commercial radio:

La Bestia Norte

It’s so catchy the lyrics come as a surprise:

…The threatening snake appears/

Her scales made out of iron/

Her womb as well…

And we haven’t even boarded yet.

If this stuff is selling — and it is — and if we the people are producing it — and we are — where’s the money?

Where’s the Money?

 

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Blog, Music

Ondrej Goes to Hollywood

Ondrej Havelka and His Melody Makers, whose music I’ve featured on-air a couple of times, are like Max Raabe and His Palast Orchester only weirder and farther east. Havelka, a Czech, has been fronting a live-wire retro-swing band since 1995, sleek, chic, everything you could ask for, but what really sets Havelka apart is his videos. They’re trippy black-and-white reinventions of old movies, or what would have been old movies if they’d ever gotten made, scenes he meticulously creates and then blows apart with invasions of song and dance. He’s got all the moves. He can do the Fred Astaire cane thing, the Donald O’Connor hat thing. He’s a brilliantly skilled anarchist, just the thing I guess for an area like Eastern Europe though God knows we could use him here if only to cheer ourselves up. A couple of clips for your delectation and amusement. You’ll love these, I promise:

OPSO – Sám s děvčetem v dešti

Me to tady nebavi

Charlie, My Boy

 

Blog, Music

The Long Fingers of Claude Debussy

In the early 1960s an album called “The First Family” appeared, comedy bits making fun of the Kennedy White House. Vaughan Meader played JFK. It was the hottest record in the country for a while. (After Kennedy’s assassination, Lenny Bruce’s first words onstage were, “Vaughan Meader is screwed.”) Anyway, one cut from it satirizes the TV tour that Jackie Kennedy gave of art works in the White House. On the album she goes from painting to painting saying, “Well, there’s this one….and this one…..and this great big one here…..and this little teeny one down here….” I’m reminded of that as I sit here about to broach the subject of Debussy’s influence on Bix Beiderbecke. The young man from Davenport, Iowa is fiercely remembered as a great jazz cornetist of the 1920s, but less so for his amazing (and stranger) piano compositions which began with things like the whole-tone scale and got more complicated from there. Others have delved into the technical aspects of this influence. All I can do is point and say, “There’s the link! You can hear it!” But what a thing it is to hear:

Voiles by Debussy (from Preludes, 1910)

“Voiles” was inspired by the famous “scarf dances” of Loie Fuller….

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….though probably not one as fast as this:

Loie Fuller Dancing With Big Scarves, 1896

Actually Loie Fuller is sometimes erroneously credited with performances by Papinta, The Flame Dancer:

Scarf Dance Wrongly Attributed to Fuller

But that’s neither nor there. My point is, Compare “Voiles” with this:

In a Mist by Bix Beiderbecke (1927)

Not all of his contemporaries fell back in awe. In his memoirs clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow wrote: “Bix was already reaching out beyond the frontiers of jazz into some strange musical jungle where he hoped to find Christ-knows-what….Over and over he would play the peculiar ‘modern’ music that was like a signpost to him showing him where he thought he had to go. These musical tangents, leading to a dozen different detours, were all scrambled up with the jazz in Bix’s head, and that mess led him finally to compose “In a Mist.”

For the record, Bix left behind three other such messes, less famous, in the same vein. They too are wonderful:

Candlelights (1930)

Flashes (1931)

In the Dark (1931)

Unlike “In a Mist,” these recordings are not by Bix himself because he didn’t live long enough to make them.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins mentions the Debussy-Bix connection in his afterword to Dorothy Baker’s jazz novel from the 50s, Young Man With a Horn. Pick it up and blow out of Squaresville.

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Blog, Music

Ornithology

I’m early on reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (900 pages, journey of a thousand miles), a fact I’m sharing because I came across a mention in it of a song called, “Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private With a Chicken on Your Knee?” Immediately wondered if this could be a real song, looked it up and so it is: first presented by Eddie Cantor in the 1918 edition of Ziegfeld Follies, released the following year by one “Eugene Buckley,” an alias apparently though why he would want to hide his involvement is a mystery because it’s a great record.  Here it is, one of the big hits of 1919:

Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private With a Chicken on Your Knee?

 

Blog

The Rising of the Moon

And so it begins. My new book — Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon — appears tomorrow, and I’ll be voyaging around the country in the coming weeks giving readings. Please come if you’re in the neighborhood for any of these. The Griffith Observatory in LA is where they filmed the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause, and there’s an unbeatable view from the plaza there. Arrive at sunset….

September 16, New York City, KGB, 7 pm

September 17, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 5 pm

September 24, Los Angeles, Book Soup, 4 pm

September 25, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, 7 pm

September 28, Cambridge, Mass., Porter Square Books, 7 pm

October 12, Portland, Maine, Print Bookshop, 7 pm

October 16, Atlanta, A Cappella Books, 7 pm

October 27, Chicago, Book Cellar, 7 pm

November 13, Baltimore, Pratt Library in Roland Park, 6:30 pm

November 18 or 19, Miami Book Fair

 

An excerpt appears in the September issue of Nautilus magazine, now online. I don’t know about the writing, but the illustrations are really far-out.

Most beautiful cover of “Moon River” ever:

Moon River

 

 

 

Blog, Music

South America Stole Our Name #2

Randy Newman has a new album out, Dark Matter, his first in nine years. One cut that especially struck me is called “Sonny Boy,” which tells the story of Sonny Boy Williamson I, the blues-harp pioneer, and how his name and legacy were appropriated (ripped off) by one Aleck “Rice” Miller, who came along later and billed himself as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Today even serious blues fans get them mixed up. I assume Van Morrison, who has covered both of them, knows the difference. Newman does. But they’re two of the few. So here, as far as I can untangle it, is the deal:

Sonny Boy I came out of Madison, Tennessee. Not only did he turn the blues harp into a lead instrument, he also came up with the call and response technique of playing — bursts of harp between bursts of lyrics — that virtually every practitioner’s used since. Based in Chicago, he began his recording career in 1937 with “Good Morning Schoolgirl” on Bluebird. Take the impact of that, multiply it about a hundred times and you’ve got the scope of his career. It was cut short, way short, in the summer of 1948 when he was killed by stray gunfire walking home.

By then Rice Miller was already slip-sliding around pretending to be him. Great player in his own right, no question; thief, also no question. And once SB I died, SB II could keep saying “the one and only” and be telling the truth now, if you think in terms of how many Sonny Boy Williamsons were currently breathing.

Rice Miller recorded great sides for Checker (“Don’t Start Me Talkin’,”Your Funeral and My Trial,” many more) and he cemented his legacy-sucking reputation in Europe riding the blues revival of the 1960s. Miller took well to success. He was spotted in England wearing a two-toned suit with a bowler hat and umbrella. On the other hand, he apparently set fire to his hotel room trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator, so it’s not like he went totally uptown.

Herewith samples of their work, I followed by II.

Jivin’ the Blues

Your Funeral and My Trial

SB I was the big innovator.

Actually this recalls the big Pinetop pile-up. But that’s another post.

 

 

 

Blog, Music

Nina Simone and the Inexplicable Grammy

On last night’s show I played the title cut from Nina Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue (1958). It’s a Rodgers and Hart song introduced in the 1935 Broadway show Jumbo in which, at the conclusion of each performance, Jimmy Durante lay on the stage and an elephant put its foot on his head. Shorn of Jumbo, the song has had a long, long life as a favorite of jazz greats, but Simone’s version is especially striking because it’s done as a quodlibet. This — as I learned two days ago — is an interweaving of melodies from different songs to create a new whole (a sophisticated mash-up, in other words). In her case, she combines Rodgers’ melody with that of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. It is a thing of strange and surpassing beauty:

Little Girl Blue                                                       maxresdefault

I realized then that I had another quodlibet in my stock of tunes which I’ve played from time to time, far different from Simone’s. It is in fact the cheesiest quodlibet ever conceived — by Bing Crosby’s musical director, Alan Copeland — and a Grammy winner in the category of Best Contemporary Performance by a Chorus in 1969:
You have to think the judges heard it once and then couldn’t get it out of their heads. Or maybe that’s just me.

 

Blog

The Old/New Weird America

Penny Lane’s mind-rearranging documentary NUTS! — about goat-testicles titan Dr. John Brinkley, the ur-Trump of 1930 — started the year as a prize-winner at Sundance (Best Editing, I mean the six animators alone…). It’s streaming now over Amazon and iTunes. And as the year-end lists come rolling out:

Richard Brody’s “Best Movies of 2016” at The New Yorker
Weirdest Pop Culture” at The Verge
Ten Best Documentaries of 2016” at Flavorwire
Best Documentaries of 2016” at NonFics
The Best-Reviewed Women-Directed Films of 2016” at Women and Hollywood

All this despite the fact that I turn up in it as a talking head…

The Book

 

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Blog

On Ignorance

Night before last I dreamt about the (noxious, worm-eaten) electoral college. Specifically I was protesting that Hillary Clinton, though prevailing in the popular vote, had lost the presidency because of this awful system, leaving us with — why even try to describe him? — on his way to the White House. Since ordinarily my dreams are of the Breugel/Bosch variety and moving at medium to high speed, I was surprised my subconscious was so completely on the news. But then maybe dreams are becoming the last place reality can huddle for warmth. Today I see that the Oxford English Dictionary (in an unacknowledged lift from Stephen Colbert) has named “post-truth” its International Word of the Year, referring of course to the great cresting waves of lies and nonsense sweeping us into the future. I thought of that wonderful Oscar Wilde line from The Importance of Being Earnest — “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone” — but only because that observation now is itself nonsense, or at least long out of date. Ignorance today — if we’re sticking with plant similes — is like a combination of kudzu and Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. According to BuzzFeed, during the last three months of our presidential campaign false headlines, hoaxes and hyper-partisan blogs garnered more than 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments, compared to the 7.4 million produced by the top 20 stories in the mainstream media. How tragic is that? On the other hand, if it turns out that news of Trump’s election is itself a hoax, maybe I’ll finally leave the house.

Excellent non-political dreaming:

Roy Orbison

Dion and the Belmonts

Max Raabe and der Palast Orchester

 

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