Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The American Century

I don't remember writing this, but I ran across it while looking for something else, and I decided it wasn't bad, so I'll reproduce it here, now that the disastrous Bush presidency is winding down, and dragging the American Century into ashes with it. Let's hope Obama proves a phoenix, and meanwhile, this must have been my New Century piece for the Woodstock Times, since that's the folder I found it in.

The US emerged from the American Century as the military superpower, the dominant mercantile power. And the arts? How did we compete on the world stage? A better question would be what did we contribute, but hey, it’s the fin du siecle Americain, so let’s go for it.

Because of the limitations of language, literature is always parochial. But Modernism, which dominated the first half century, brought American players to the world stage. In poetry, they included Pound (who encapsulated Modernism in three words: “Make it new”) and Eliot, but these colossi have faded in influence as the century wanes, to two of their contemporaries, Stevens and Williams. Actually, the American figure who most influenced international modernism in poetry was Whitman, whose work only began to be widely known as the century turned.

In fiction, the century belongs to Proust and Joyce, though Hemingway’s impact on short fiction is international. In drama, O’Neill was important, but the real American Century in drama happened between the 20s and the 50s, with the new musical theater of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein.

The last burst of modernism, in the 40s, was the first significant appearance of American painters on the world stage, an era that began with Pollock and the abstract expressionists, and ended with Warhol and the pop artists. One of the biggest stories of visual art in the century, though, was the collection of it, and the prices paid for it, which was an American/imperial/mercantile-driven phenomenon.

Dance is something we mostly imported, except for modern dance, where Duncan, Graham and Cunningham defined world forms.

Movies are the American form (starting with British immigrant Chaplin), and in film it’s been so totally an American century that one starts looking for exceptions. How many Americans have the vision of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa? But with the probable exception of Bergman, their influences were American.

In music, it’s been an American century, and the course of music is perhaps the most instructive. Armstrong was one of the most important figures of High Modernism, though no one knew it at the time. Music in the first half-century was assimilationist, European immigrants like Gershwin and Berlin consciously trying to make an American tradition.

But a funny thing happens to imperial cultures. They become dominant through military/mercantile might, and at a certain point, they begin to realize that they may have lost their souls, and at that point, they often turn to the cultures they’ve subjugated. So it was with America: the empire strikes back, and from the most systematically oppressed American subculture came the greatest American art form, the most important world art form of the 20th Century: the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. I’ll go out with a few names: Armstrong, Handy, Smith, Ellington, Johnson, Leadbelly, Jordan, Holiday, Parker, Coltrane, Domino, Williams, Little Richard, Presley, Franklin, Mayfield.

Singapore, Jazz and me

From the syllabus of a course in the American Studies program at the National University of Singapore:

Lecture 10
Popular Music

Michael Baers, "Rock and Roll," in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Volume 3 (Detroit: St. James Press, 1999): 235-238. NUS Library Holdings
Geoffrey O'Brien, "Rock of Ages," New York Review of Books (December 16, 1999): 40-46.
Tad Richards, "Jazz," in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Volume 2 (Detroit: St. James Press, 1999): 529-531. NUS Library Holdings

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Expecting Rain

Thanks to Expecting Rain, a wonderful site of links to web articles on Dylan and other musical figures, for recognizing and linking to these deserving pieces by my students.
From Kim Shannon -- and Kim, in this paper, has done exactly what one would hope for in teaching Freshman Comp students to look at literature from specific critical points of view: she has used her historical/biographical perspective to illuminate "Shelter from the Storm" both for herself and for the reader.

In “Shelter from the Storm," the narrator first describes himself as “a creature void of form.” Dylan has always felt a need to reject his natural identity and form his own. He then rejects this new identity in search of another one, and the cycle goes on. Ellen Willis, in Cheetah magazine, described him as “obsessed with escaping identity” (qtd. in Shelton 374). When he was a child, he rejected his Jewish heritage and his family, lying to people that he was an orphan who went around America with nothing more than a harmonica and a guitar and fended for himself. He told so many of these lies that the boundary between fact and fiction became blurred even in his own mind (Mellers 111). Perhaps the 2007 biographical film I’m Not There describes this identity crisis best, proposing that there were six “versions” of Bob Dylan, the young wannabe Woody Guthrie, the teen rebel aspiring to be the anarchist rebel Arthur Rimbaud, the protest singer, the rock star, the celebrity trying to balance fame and domestic life, and the born-again Christian, chronologically.

The transition from Woody Guthrie to Arthur Rimbaud happened after he legally changed him name from his birth name, Robert Allen Zimmerman, to Bob Dylan, and was acknowledged by new reporters while playing as the opening act for John Lee Hooker in New York (George-Warren). The evolution from Rimbaud to protest singer came with the release of the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Salas 130). After this phase, he began to reject each version of himself as soon as the world began to accept it. He threw off his protesting adherents with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964 which rejected his protest writer reputation for a more self-centered theme (Marqusee). In addition to this, at the height of his folk career, when he was considered the “young poet-king of American folk music,” he played the ever-famous concert at the Newport Folk Festival in which he went electric at the “sacred annual congress of acoustic purists” (Cave). This completed the transition from protest singer to rock star, but after being renounced, accepted, and finally exalted for his bold decision, he retreated from the mass of followers who he had created. The legendary motorcycle accident of 1966 is said to be not an accident at all, but an excuse to escapxe the worries of the working musician (Shelton 374). It was Dylan’s way of getting away from the stress of the celebrity life and trying to deal with issues at home. This is when Dylan wrote Blood on the Tracks, when he was in his troubled celebrity phase. At this point, there was no creature more “void of form” than Dylan. He had tried all different selves and was satisfied with none of them. This was his constant “storm” that he struggled with throughout his life, and that he was finally coming to acknowledge in “Shelter from the Storm.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Elliot Carter, Bettie Page, Fame and Mortality

Happy birthday to Elliot Carter, the great composer just turned 100. And as the NY Times points out,

Classical music tends to lionize the great composer cut down in youth, but Elliott Carter made a mockery of that trope on Thursday. Mr. Carter, the dean of American composers, celebrated his 100th birthday, on the day, with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Elliott Carter arrived early for Thursday night’s Carnegie Hall concert. Daniel Barenboim was to play Mr. Carter’s “Interventions.”

He had a piece on the program, of course, but not some chestnut written when he was a student in Paris in the 1930s or an avant-gardist in New York in the 1950s or a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1960s or a setter of American poetry in the 1970s or a begetter of chamber music and concertos in the 1980s.

Mr. Carter wrote the 17-minute piece, for piano and orchestra, just last year, at 98. In fact, since he turned 90, Mr. Carter has poured out more than 40 published works, an extraordinary burst of creativity at a stage when most people would be making peace with mortality.

His first opera had its premiere in 1999. He produced 10 works in 2007 and six more this year.

All of which made me bow with admiration to Mr. Carter, and to think about my own creative life. I'm still on the sunny side of 70, but not by much, and I don't think I've lost anything creatively -- I like to think I'm still developing, as a writer, as a graphic artist, and as a teacher. Writing a note to the NewPo list, I said "I wonder sometimes if my relative lack of success -- no real laurels to rest on -- has been a spur to my creativity." Anny Ballardini responded with some kind strokes -- which I wasn't really fishing for -- and I amended my original thought: "I'd say, then, that it's maybe a combination of the respect of at least some of my peers, and the lack of laurels, that keep me motivated."

You certainly need that respect...someone has to be out there letting you know that you're not just wallowing in self-indulgence. So my thanks to those editors who have liked my work -- most recently Jim Cervantes in Salt River Review -- and thanks to Anny, and Marvin Bell, and Rachel Loden, and Peter Jones, and Bob Berner, and Dennis Doherty, and Fred Koller, and others whose opinion matters dearly to me, most of all to Don Finkel, whose memorial service in St. Louis is today -- a tribute to Don and his wife Constance Urdang, whom he now joins. I wish I could be there. His kids, Tom and Liza and Amy, know I'm there in spirit.

But what about the other part? What does success do to your creative juices? Richard Hugo once commented on reaching success rather late in his poetic life -- he said that for many years he sent out poems and got them back rejected, with no notes, and he didn't know whether he was any good or not. Then suddenly he got a lot of success, and a lot of acclaim, and he sent out poems and got them back accepted, with no notes, and he still didn't know whether he was any good or not.

A rocker of the 80s -- I forget who now -- who had achieved success in his thirties, after years of hardscrabble living, was asked how success had changed him. "When I get a bag of pistachios, I no longer get a hammer to open the ones in the bottom that haven't split," he said.

Tennessee Williams described it beautifully in his introduction to the print edition of Streetcar, which I don't have in front of me and will have to paraphrase from memory. He described an early career as an artist as scrambling desperately of the sheer face of a cliff, searching for tiny hand and footholds to keep going. Then, if you're lucky enough to make it, and you reach that rarefied plateau of success, you're still doing the same thing, reaching upward for handholds in empty air.

I haven't experienced it. But I'm guessing things change when you do -- that instead of trying to top, or extend, your creative output, you're to some degree trying to top your public acceptance.

I guess I had a little of it. When my first poetry collection, My Night With the Language Thieves, was published, Don Finkel wrote a cover blurb for it that said, in part,

Richards reconnoiters a fugitive terrain whoe inhabitants are disturbingly familiar and unsettlingly memorable -- particularly the women, lithe and button-breasted or forty with stretchmarks or old and bony, wise and tolerant or buoyant under you, as he put it, like a small craft.

That was high praise from someone whose judgment mattered to me, but I did go through a period where I caught myself being tempted, as I tried to work out new problems in new poems -- maybe I can just throw in one of those unsettlingly memorable women here? This, of course, was balanced out by the reviewer who commented on my "near-fetishistic interest in wonen's bodies." I asked friends about that, and they said nonsense, she was completely wrong -- there was nothing "near" about it. Anyway, I managed to fend that off, but it was so minor. What is the effect that significant recognition has on your work?

Hats off and happy birthday to Elliot Carter, who has not only continued but increased his productivity in his 80s and 90s.

And farewell to Bettie Page, a talent of a very different sort, but no less valuable in its own way, who died today at 85., and whose career, of necessity, was much shorter lived. The NY Times obit said that she

steadfastly refused to be photographed.“I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.”

This turns out not to have been 100 percent true. Here's Bettie at age 80, still wearing bangs and still beautiful.

And here she is as she wanted to be remembered, and as she is remembered, with a season's greeting to one and all. As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us every one," and as Bettie said, "Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Kids Are Alright: Dylan and Lowell

From Alison Gratto:

For example, in the lyric, “Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped, / What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top/ You're on the bottom,” he most likely means that the wheels of his marriage have stopped and now he and Sara are stuck at a standstill unwilling to be together yet bound not to be apart; this dilemma explains why he spent an entire summer away from her. By singing that, “Everything’s a little upside down,” he is also saying that things are not how they should be, for the past seven to eight years he and Sara had been happy, and now they weren’t. The lines, “I waited for you on the running boards, near the Cyprus trees, while the springtime/ turned Slowly into autumn,” is a direct reference to the fact that he spent all summer away from his wife and she never came to visit. Another indicator of trouble are the lines, “I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free, /I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me” implying that he’s had enough of their marriage and wants to be done with it. He’s comparing the tension between them to that of a “Howling beast,” which is not of positive image at all, showing that their marriage was not positive either. A further example of the tension in Dylan’s marriage are the lines, “She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me/ I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” In 1973 Dylan and Sara began building a mansion in California and it became so extravagant and over the top that it became a cause of friction in their marriage. Jonathan Taplin (a road manager for both Dylan and Dylan’s band’s manager, Albert Grossman) said, “That [house] was kind of Sara’s folly. Bob went along with it, but it just got out of control in terms of the cost of building it. I think from Bob’s point of view it was like, when is this gonna end? When are these people gonna get out of my house?” (Sounes 278). By singing about “a million bucks,” Dylan seems to be venting his frustration with the housing project and he may also be sarcastically switching places with his wife in this line, because she certainly would never have been able to afford to build a house like that if it weren’t for Dylan’s success. This theme of marital breakups is also extremely prevalent in the poetry of Robert Lowell; in fact one of his collections of poetry, For Lizzie and Harriet is completely about his failed marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick. In “Man and Wife” from Life Studies, Lowell writes about failed relationships. Similar to Dylan’s talk of tension, Lowell writes, “Now twelve years later, you turn your back. / Sleepless, you hold/ your pillow to your hollows like a child,” implying that though the marriage may have started off well (the first half of the poem deals with happier times) after twelve years neither can stand the other and nothing is working out—they cannot even lie in bed next to each other. Dylan also sings, “Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead,” which is very similar to Lowell’s disparagement of not being able to be in the same bed as his wife. Lowell was married three times throughout the course of his life, and according to author Richard Tillinghast, his work shows a preoccupation with, “Eros, marriage, and the family.” This preoccupation is prevalent throughout the hundreds of poems he wrote and stretched over many years; Life Studies was written in 1959 but he was still covering the same themes in Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet in 1973. For Dylan in the 1970’s and for Lowell throughout his career, the theme of relationships ruled, but it was not the only subject they breached upon.
In 1940 at the age of twenty-three, Lowell converted to Roman Catholicism and a few years later began using Christian imagery in his poems (Liukkonen). For example, in, “Mexico 2,” from For Lizzie and Harriet, Lowell writes, “Wishing to raise the cross of the Crucified King/ in the monastery of Emmaus at Cuernavaca—/ the monks, world-names for futurist crucifixes, / and avant-garde Virgins;” all blatant religious imagery. He also used religious language in, “Man and Wife,” stating, “Oh my Petite, / clearest of all God’s creatures, still all air and nerve.” In addition, Dylan used a significant amount of Christian imagery in, Blood on the Tracks. In, “Idiot Wind,” he says, “The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned,” and continues with this trend in the later song, “Shelter from the Storm,” with the words, “She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns. / ‘Come in,’ she said, / ‘I'll give you shelter from the storm’.” All the religious symbolism, particularly in Dylan’s case, implies that both artists were searching for something in their lives that they believed might possibly be found in religion. It appears though that neither found what they were looking for; Lowell did not stay Roman Catholic (Hunter), and Dylan was Jewish to begin with (although he celebrated Christmas) (Sounes 283). It is far more likely that both attempted to use drugs and/ or alcohol to find some meaning in their lives.
Political activism is an activity that both Dylan and Lowell participated in and used their art to get their point across. With the biographical aspect of, “Idiot Wind” discounted, the song could easily be a political statement. The line, “You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies,” suggests distrust in the government that could pertain to the Watergate scandal which was happening during the time Dylan was writing Blood on the Tracks (Marcus 441-442). Many of Dylan’s other songs also have overt political overtones, such as the 1962 song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Much of Lowell’s work, especially in History and Notebook contains political views and opinions. The poem, “West Side Sabbath,” from History for instance, relates his fear of things ranging from communism to the neo-conservatives (Richards). The Cold War was talking place during the time of writing, and most of the remarks in the poem can be traced back to it in some way. The line, “monochrome Socialism,” depicts an American political environment that believed anything that was not democracy was the enemy. He also mentions the, “Student-Left,” which was a new movement of peacefully protesting students such as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lowell calls it, “anarchists’ faith,” probably alluding to the fact that much of their belief system was based on philosophy and the influence of current artists including Dylan (Newfield). In 1967 Lowell participated in the March on Washington to protest the Vietnam War and his poem, “For the Union Dead” (1964) was written at the height of the Civil Rights movement about an all-black regiment in the Civil War and their leader, Colonel Shaw. In Notebook, Lowell carried around a notebook in which to write his thoughts (although he asserts it was not his diary or his confession) for a year. Being the highly politicized and controversial year of 1967 to 1968, the poetry has political overtones (Tillinghast 88-89). American poetry and music up to this point had focused on social issues, but by viewing the issues from a personal rather than outside perspective, Dylan and Lowell created something new.
Lowell and Dylan had similar life experiences and it therefore follows that their work is equally as similar. Both were obviously influenced by marital relationships, but they were also influenced by outside sources. For example, Dylan was heavily influenced by art teacher Norman Raeben. Dylan decided to take a drawing class in 1974 at a studio in Carnegie Hall, and instructor Raeben soon came to be a mentor of sorts to Dylan. He learned that he might have been looking but not really seeing things, both in art and life, and described Raeben as, “more powerful than any magician.” Consequently however, Dylan began to look at his marriage in a new light, stating, “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day, that’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it” (Sounes 278). It was after that drawing class that Dylan took off to Minnesota to write, Blood on the Tracks. Not surprisingly, “Idiot Wind” reflects Dylan’s annoyance: “Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at, / I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that/ Sweet lady.” Lowell was similarly influenced by an artist around him: poet William Carlos Williams. Williams was born in 1883, and began his career as a poet of the Imagist movement. Later he began to disagree with the values of other Imagists and sought to create an, “entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people” (William). Lowell became friends with Williams in the 1950’s, and in 1959 he published Life Studies, his personal break with all strict forms of poetry (Hunter). Williams said he was, “A tiger behind bars,” and it was Life Studies that released him (Ellman). Lowell’s disinterest in the typical poetic mold in Life Studies is very similar to Dylan’s in, Blood on the Tracks. Dylan and Lowell were both influenced by those whose art and thinking was already outside the normal realm, and that influence in turn drove them to completely redefine their art. The public response was, of course, incredible after the release of, “Blood on the Tracks” and Life Studies. Lowell won a National Book Award (Hunter) and Dylan’s album was called his, “Best…work in seven or nine years, or even his best work ever” (Marcus 440).
It is important to note the influence that Lowell and Dylan had on other artists, both during and after their era. Sylvia Plath is probably the most famous poet influenced by Lowell but she was not the only one. Anne Sexton, a confessional poet during the same general time period of Robert Lowell, struggled with post partum depression and was hospitalized more than once at the same hospital that Lowell and Plath were during their mental breakdowns. Much like Lowell, her time in mental hospitals and attempted suicide contributed to her poetry (Anne). For instance, her poem, “Her Kind,” is clearly about suffering from post partum depression and reads, “A woman like that is not a woman, quite. / I have been her kind” (Sexton). Dylan’s influence on the music industry is beyond comprehension and some artists such as James Taylor even owe their careers to his influence. For example, Taylor’s song, “Fire and Rain” is about the time he spent in a mental hospital and the suicide of a friend (Richards). He sings, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend /But I always thought that I’d see you again” (Taylor). Had Dylan not opened the door to this type of music, Taylor may never have written that song.

The Kids Are Alright: More Dylan Papers

Just as a reminder, these are Freshman Comp papers from students at a state college -- a very good state college, but they aren't English majors at an Ivy League university. So keep that in mind as you consider the question of whether today's kids are capable of writing and of thinking analytically. This is from Pam Ousley:

Rotolo herself expressed in her novel A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties that Bob Dylan had “something about him that broadcast an intensity that was not to be taken lightly.” This intensity is characteristic of both the famous and the music-making, but probably more the latter. Musicians – unlike actors, for example – are obligated to create a persona that is reflected in their lyrics, sound, appearance (Rotolo recounts that “Bob chose his rumpled clothes carefully” on the day the pair was photographed for the cover of Freewheelin’), and actions. Any movement away from the established persona is evaluated by the musician’s fans and may cause rejection by existing followers. This pressure is enough to create paranoia of any external force – such as a lover, family member or band member – that has the power to repress or overshadow the musician’s persona. There is also proof of Dylan’s need to stand alone in the very fact that very little has historically been known about Dylan’s lovers as individuals, rather than as Dylan’s carry-ons.
All of this biographical data is relatively meaningless without reference to Bob Dylan’s songs, where he presents it with more truth – in terms of his own feelings, not necessarily in terms of accuracy – than can be found in the media. There, in the lyrics, lies the psychology of Dylan as affected by his life and fame. First, let us look at “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” a song on the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Without even researching the song’s intended meaning, it is obvious to the listener that it is about feeling immobile in a small town environment. The characters and setting, though seemingly familiar to the songwriter, are dream-like in their phantasmic vagueness. In the song, Dylan states that he has “no sense of time,” a characteristic of a dream state, whether induced by drugs or sleep. But the dreaminess of the song is no indicator that the content of the song is irrelevant to Dylan’s life. In fact, it is indicative of the true meaning – Dylan got in trouble with the law for marijuana in Mobile, but if he had been in Memphis, there would have been no disagreement because it was friendlier to the music culture. Throughout the song, Dylan travels through numerous stages to reach a final resting point, when he succumbs to his environment and his illusional perspective. He has given into the dream, foregoing any introspection into his personal problems. Freudian analysis of this state of mind becomes particularly necessary at the very end, when the conscious mind of the songwriter has chosen to shroud the latent meaning of the dream even more opaquely.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More Dylan Papers

From Jeremy Strahan:

This brings us to the song “Simple Twist of Fate”. With the knowledge of Dylan’s breakup in mind, the lyrics seem easy enough to understand, as the song immediately opens with two people together in a relationship where love would be quickly found and lost. The persistent use of “wish he gone straight” is Dylan’s own acknowledgement of his faults, placing some of the blame of the breakup on his own shoulders, and perhaps revealing drug use as one of the reasons for the breakup. This, coupled with phrases like “emptiness inside”, “born too late”, and “lost the ring” reveal just how devastated Dylan was over his disintegrating relationship with Sara. However, that much can be gleamed simply from Dylan’s own voice throughout the piece, as he speaks line after line in a mournfully melancholy tone. The theme of regret is further emphasized by the quiet pacing of the guitar and added effect of the harmonica. However, there is something else, more hidden, that the song portrays. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was far from spontaneous.


Dylan himself called John Wesley Harding (1968) “the first biblical rock album”, and with good reason (Mark 193). Two of the songs contain direct scriptural references; “The Wicked Messenger” comes from Proverbs 13:16-17, and “All Along the Watchtower” is a condensation of Isaiah 21, 6-9, and 11-12, dealing with the fall of Babylon and coming of the apocalypse. This album is stuffed with critiques of American materialism and lack of true spirituality, showing that Dylan’s eventual conversion is not as radical a change as some make it out to be (Mark 109).

A significant portion of the lyrics can be stretched and turn the song into a journey of faith and not of a relationship. The diction is particularly revealing, using the words “sin”, “emptiness”, and the intriguing phrase “born too late”. If we assume the male character to be Dylan himself, it becomes clearer. The women’s gaze that makes him “wish he’d gone straight” can be seen as the savior or an angel of some sort. He is enthralled and filled with a sense of wonder and awe, almost enough to make him confess right on the spot. But he cannot turn away yet; Dylan’s vices still overwhelm him. When he is left alone in the room, we get a sense of Dylan's separation from society, and how he tried so hard to ignore it. He is pondering the state of his life in that room, wondering if there was still a chance to be saved from it all. He wants to fill what is missing from his life. He wants to belong. He was “born too late”, but wants to be born again. His lust for another chance borders on sinfulness, but the ending “maybe she’ll pick him out again”, implies that there is still hope for salvation. Next time, he would be ready to accept the divine calling.

Good stuff from my students: Bob Dylan paper

The research paper assignment was to write about Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album from one of four critical points of view: political, psychoanalytic, historical/biographical, or New Criticism. I've gotten some wonderful papers, and I'll be posting a few excerpts here.

These are from Hannah Ward:

Independently, “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” offers a great deal of insight into the politics of relationships. As a linear story, it is revealed that all the characters have repressed emotions or motives symbolically presented in the song. The Jack of Hearts is a commanding character, earning attention from all walks of life as soon as he arrives in town. Clearly, he presents a fa├žade in order to appear trustworthy; Lily likens him to a saint and the lyrics also state “There was no actor anywhere better than/ the Jack of Hearts.1” He is blatantly referred to as an actor, not only because he is actually an outlaw, but because his multilayered intentions are masked. It is also stated that “He moved across the mirrored room.” The mention of the mirrors suggests the theme of truth; because the mirrors act as reflecting agents, they show both the surface appearance and the masked truth that the characters can no longer hide from. Though his lifestyle is immoral and he’s a typical western bank robber, his position of villain is actually quite questionable; Big Jim and the Judge seem far more threatening and the Jack of Hearts is actually willing to risk being recognized to meet up with Lily, a possible lover. Rather than evil, he seems clever, capable of disguising his intentions, and incapable of settling down. This is further emphasized through the fact that he looks like the Jack of Hearts and looks like a saint; his true motive is never on the surface.


Rosemary deeply conceals her contempt for her lifestyle. She too desires escape, reflecting female oppression. She seems well off, yet she cannot even earn the attention of her husband. Several symbols surrounding her reflect her rejection of reality; she wears false eyelashes, drinks a great deal of alcohol, and also deals with the confrontation of her own reflection. Yet her reflection is viewed within a knife, most likely the one used to murder Big Jim. The fact that she killed him with this knife shows a very personal connection because she was viewing herself within it. Therefore, she commits murder to obtain truth, or an actual sense of justice.


The other prominent motifs of the song, which often overlap, are playing cards and royalty. The Jack of Hearts is obviously representational of deceptive love. The young man equated with the heart suite displays a more tender side. Yet the fact that he is always a playing card adds the element of risk and bluffing. Big Jim and Rosemary are king and queen, cards of a higher position in most games. However, Rosemary is described as “a queen without a crown.” The lack of such a symbol makes her position questionable. She is technically of a high social position, yet her royalty has been taken away through her husband’s affection for another. Even Lily is described as a princess, youthful and fair in comparison to Rosemary. The allegory of royal figures within the Midwestern United States suggests further social tension as the roles of the wealthy are portrayed in a negative light. The fact that they’re cards also emphasizes luck of the draw situation, as if they are undeserving of such positions.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Simile and Metaphor: Walking Around

I talk a lot in my comp classes about language as a tool for drawing distinctions, and one of the units I use for this lesson is two translations of Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the first by Ben Belitt, the second by Robert Bly. My questions are – what, in general terms, is the poem about? What do both of these translations have in common?

The answer I generally get, and it’s an acceptable answer, is some version or other of “Life sucks.”

Now what about the differences? When do the two versions of Neruda really start diverging from each other?

If I’m lucky, I’ll get an answer like “Stanza four.” It’s a good answer – the level of violence is escalated in the Bly version beyond what it is in the Belitt version. In each case, the narrator is talking about a violent fantasy which he will never enact, but which gives him a tiny measure of satisfaction, a small connection to a life that’s worth living. But Bly won’t be satisfied with finishing a nun; he wants to kill her. My students often go straight there – “kill” is a word that wakes them up.

I say this happens if I’m lucky, because if we start there, I can start directing them backwards…”I can name that tune in three notes!” Does the divergence happen earlier?

Well, yes. Someone will point out Belitt’s desire for a little vacation from things as opposed to Bly’s desire for nothing, or for nothingness – only to lie still like stones or wool. And that’s a good one too, but…earlier?

They’ll take me back another step – what about the Belitt character, relatively involved with life, actually going to a movie and dropping in at the tailor's, vs. the Bly character who walks into tailorshops and movie houses, but with no indication that he actually interacts with the tailor or sees the movie.

But finally…I can name that tune in one note. By the end of the first line, you are looking at two different poems.

And they always get it – the Belitt guy leaves himself an out. He’s tired of being just a man. He can conceivably transcend himself, become something more. The Bly guy is a total nihilist. From there, the rest of the divergences really start to fall in line. Belitt can maybe pull himself together, make something of his life, if he just gets a little vacation from things. Bly doesn’t have a chance. His only ambition is to lie still like stones or wool.

So all of this is my regular schtick with this particular unit, but this time around, we started to look at another place where the two personae diverge – Belitt’s “I won't live like this--like a root in a shadow” vs. Bly’s “I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,”and here you have, in a nutshell, as good an object lesson as I’ve found in the difference between a simile and a metaphor – and one that my freshman comp students were able to pick up and absorb. Belitt is taking a stand – he has the choice of living like a root in a shadow, or breaking out of that shadow. Bly may not want to go on being a root in the dark, but he’s never going to break out of that darkness – which, in any case, doesn’t have the border that a shadow does. If you are a root in the dark, there’s no hope.

Then we went back up to Bly’s earlier simile – “The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool” – and they could see the difference there, too. The simile tells us he’ll never have that perfect stillness of stones or wool,

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Snowfall at Opus 40

Just a dusting. But snow is here.

Jazz on Jazz

Starting an informal list, with the help of my core of jazz main men, Peter Jones, Mike Kaufman and Larry the Fluff Audette, of jazz composers saluting other jazz musicians.

My first three:

John Coltrane -- Mr. P.C.
Charles Mingus - Goodbye Porkpie Hat
Dizzy Gillespie - Woody 'n you

From Mike:

Thelonious Monk -- In Walked Bud
Benny Golson -- I Remember Clifford
Dave Frishberg -- Zoot Walked In

From Peter:

Charlie Parker -- Billie's Bounce
John Lewis -- Django
Duke Ellington -- Concerto for Cootie
Charles Mingus: Jelly Roll Jelly

and more from me:

Raymond Scott -- When Cootie Left the Duke
Jelly Roll Morton -- King Porter Stomp
Fletcher Henderson -- New King Porter Stomp

Just a Little Further, Father

This is interesting. While most distinctions between words blur with time, further and farther -- at least according to Hubpages -- was always blurred, and it's only recently that grammarians have started clarifying the distinction -- farther refers to miles, further to everything else. I'm not sure why I should particularly trust Hubpages, but at the moment I have no other corroborating source.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Battle of the Decades

No one was happy about it, but Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring the redoubtable Teddy Penergrass, won out. with 5 votes, with Hammer and Neneh Cherry each getting 2, and The Stripper one. I was the only one to vote for Mickey Mouse.

The new batch:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and we can be thankful for having lived through (to varying degrees) the American Century in Music, one of the most fruitful, varied and innovative eras in the history of music. And you can be thankful for me, filling your ears and minds with some of the best and some of the worst in that tradition. And if, over the last couple of weeks, you've cursed me for some horrible selections, perhaps this one will remind you of how much more painful it is to have to choose between a selection of great and distinctive stylists.

40S ON 4
Glenn Miller
(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo

50S ON 5
Everly Brothers
Devoted To You

60S ON 6
Sam Cooke
Chain Gang

70S ON 7
Baby, What A Big Surprise ('77)

80S ON 8
Debbie Gibson
Shake Your Love

90S ON 9
Black Box
Everybody Everybody

Well, we have three on the lower tier and three on the upper tier, and they divide where the fogey meets the road. None of the lower three are awful, though they all have aspects of awfulness. Chicago had a style and a sound that was considered original at the time -- jazz/rock -- but it was a sound that almost no one did well. Miles did, of course. Chicago blended the wimpy end of rock with the tame end of jazz, to no particular advantage. Does anybody really know what time they're going on for the next show? Does anybody really care? If anyone is interested in hearing what jazz/rock should have and could have become, amd you can find the album, check out Brute Force. Their only album was produced by Herbie Mann, and described by Downbeat as Pharaoh Saunders meets Sly and the Family Stone. The jazz was free and adventurous, the rock was gritty and groove-based. The great Stan Strickland was their tenor player.

Debbie Gibson was awful, but she was young and cute, and she was actually the youngest female artist ever to reach number one with a song she wrote, produced and performed. Needless to say, she didn't do any of them well, but she did in time develop into a pretty solid professional, and it's hard not to have a certain modest affection for someone who could say of her early pop idol career, "You never get a chance to be that cheesy again."

Black Box were Euro-House, which is different from Euro-Disco in that...er...well...in that their records misdiagnosed a strange and near-fatal illness each week. They were awful in that they hired a supermodel to lip-synch their vocals on their videos, but otherwise they weren't bad.

OK, on to the good stuff. I'll do them chronologically, since choosing between them is so darn hard, and I'd rather put it off till the last minute.

Give yourself eight minutes of uninterrupted time to watch the Glenn Miller video, because it's that good. They go through the song once with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires. And that's good, though not great. Beneke's voice, like his saxophone, was the perfect vehicle for Miller's arrangements. He was whitebread, but he was the epitome of whitebread, and nobody ever did it better. Larry the Fluff has another opportunity to vote for him, as it turns out, and with another novelty song (I had this sneaking suspicion that we'd done 'Kalamazoo' before, but I can't find it in my files). Anyway, Tex Beneke looks like the archetype for Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, and he makes for a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience. Then, as he finishes, and you think the song si probably finished, the Nicholas Brothers show up. They sing as well as dance here, and I love their singing, too, but the dancing is on a whole other level. If Fred Astaire was the grace, and Gene Kelly the athleticism, the Nicholas Brothers were both. And if Glenn didn't swing like Basie, he swunbg enough to put the Nicholas Brothers into orbit. If you can't get enough of the Nicholas Brothers -- and who ever could? -- check them out with Cab Calloway here --

If this isn't the very best of the Everly Brothers, it's right up there close. The Everlys were as musically tight as Glenn Miller, and they were perfectionists to the same degree. I somewhere have a CD of Everly Brothers outtakes for those first Cadence sessions, and the versions of "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Bye Bye Love" that hit the charts were between their 15th and 20th takes -- these two young kids, trying to explain to seasoned professionals like Chet Atkins what they wanted, and finally getting through to him. The outtakes -- even up to the final outtakes -- are wonderful, and a lot of artists would have been satisfied with them. But they were wonderful in the way that earlier family harmony groups like the Delmores and the Louvins were wonderful. The final takes were a new sound, and it was all theirs.

Is this the best of Sam Cooke's songs? Who knows, who cares? Sam Cooke was such a triumph over his material. These mostly dumb little novelty songs that no one else could have made into great records. Or a chain gang song that's so clearly not out of any chain gang experience. If you want an actual great song, it's "Touch the Hem of His Garment." None of it mattered. It was Sam Cooke, and that's all that mattered, and our experience of his voice caressing those lyrics almost makes us believe that they were great songs.

I was pretty sure I was going to end up voting for Sam. But it's Glenn Miller and the Nicholas Brothers.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Battle of the Decades

Many complaints over the last BOTD -- a general attitude that this was a weak competition. It's my belief that anyone can vote for a good song -- it takes real musical acumen to choose between lesser tunes. And it wasn't even such a bad group. If Joni Mitchell backed by Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker can only finish third, that should tell you something. But Joni only picked up three votes.

The Madonna-loving whippersnappers were insufficiently impressed by La Isla Bonita to give it more than four, although it's certainly not Madonna at her worst.

So the Forties picked up this round, even though I couldn't link to the actual recordings. Some voted for Jimmy Dorsey's soaring sax, some for the melodic charm of "Jersey Bounce," and some out of loyalty to New Jersey. Jimmy and "Jersey Bounce" picked up six votes, and the laurel.

So...you thought the last batch was bad -- wait'll you see this one. Actually, I didn't think the last group was so bad. There was merit in all three of those selections. OK, there was no merit at all in any of the others. But since I have a finely honed death wish, I'll post it, especially since I'm heading down to see Charis and Wendy, and I can be attacked by them in person. And don't forget, the real test is voting when you have nothing to vote for.

We almost had another Eastern Seaboard tribute this time around -- I'd just C&P'd a new list, when my computer froze, and I had to reboot, and we lost, among other numbers, Harry James and Helen Forrest doing "Manhattan Serenade."


40S ON 4
Dick Haymes
It Can't Be Wrong

50S ON 5
David Rose & His Orchestra
The Stripper

60S ON 6
Mickey Mouse March

70S ON 7
Harold Melvin
Bad Luck ('75)

80S ON 8
Neneh Cherry
Buffalo Stance

90S ON 9
MC Hammer
U Can't Touch This

We surely would have done better with Harry James than with Dick Haymes -- he was everything that was boring about the 40s, so much so that I can't find this on YouTube or anywhere else, and you're not missing anything. But the rest of this crop is so bad, they almost make Dick look good. "The Stripper" is pure kitsch, and dumb kitsch at that. MC Hammer is cookie cutter rap.

Neneh Cherry is better, but when you're a fogey, rap is rap.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had Teddy Pendergrass, and he was one of the great romantic voices of soul, and he'd be a worthy vote.

What is "Mickey Mouse Club March" doing in the Sixties? Annette had already left by then. For that matter, what is "The Stripper" doing in the Fifties? That doesn't seem right to me either. Well, after a moment's research, it is and it isn't. "The Stripper" was originally released in 1958, as the B side of Rose's version of "Ebb Tide," but it didn't become a hit until it was on the sound track of "Gypsy" in 1972.

Does anyone ever wonder who all those orchestra leaders from the 50s were? The ones who had one or two hits on the charts? Who was Ralph Marterie? Frank Chacksfield? David Rose? Hugo Winterhalter? Percy Faith? Ray Anthony? Frank Weir? Russ Morgan? What were they all doing with orchestras? What did they do with those orchestras the rest of the time? Play proms and debutante balls? If the classic big bands of the 30s had all had to disband because of economic hard times, what was the economic story for these bozos? I know some of them, like Les Brown, had radio gigs for people like Bob Hope, but that doesn't explain the whole phenomenonlet.

Anyway, I vote for Mickey Mouse Club. It meets Jon's criterion of iconicity. And if anyone else cares to join me on this, you're as welcome as can be.

Opus 40 Thanksgiving Weekend

If the weather is good, we will be open.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Opus 40, Fall Foliage

A recent visitor, Mr. John Hubbard of Hamilton, NY, sent us a bunch of pictures he took during a visit at the height of the fall foliage season. I loved them -- I'd never seen the fall colors here captured so well. Mr. Hubbard has allowed us to use them, so I've posted a slide show.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Battle of the Decades

No surprise on the last one (which I didn't get around to posting here) -- it was a walkaway for the Beatles with very tough competition. Nine votes for Let it Be, 3 for Fortunate Son. Glenn Miller, REM and Sarah M. all pulled down one each, and all had great songs.

Here's the new batch, and I predict a wide spread.

40S ON 4
Jimmy Dorsey
Jersey Bounce

50S ON 5
Trini Lopez
If I Had A Hammer

60S ON 6
Jan & Dean
Dead Man's Curve

70S ON 7
Joni Mitchell
Free Man In Paris ('74)

80S ON 8
La Isla Bonita

90S ON 9
Janet Jackson
Black Cat

Trini Lopez in the 50s? That can't be right. Well, at least it wasn't "Lemon Tree." But it displaced some actual 50s song that might have been good.

I never loved Jan and Dean, but the song does have nostalgic appeal. Janet Jackson is all flash and no substance. She has about as much sex appeal as Mary Lou Retton, and a particularly ordinary voice. It's good flash, but that ain't enough. So these two go out together.

So we move on to the finals. Madonna has flash and substance to spare. And I actually had not heard this song before, and it's wonderful. I love the Spanish guitar. Jimmy Dorsey gives us another white swing guy. Glenn Miller had a sound all his own, but Jimmy was the better jazz musician (although I do have a recording of Coleman Hawkins' first session, with the Mound City Blowers, featuring Miller on trombone). I couldn't find Jimmy's version of Jersey Bounce on the Web, but last.fm has a bunch of other waxings http://www.last.fm/search?m=all&q=jersey+bounce. The classic Benny Goodman version, a great one by Gerry Mulligan, and an unbelievably great one by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. There's also a version by Glenn Miller, in which he shows that when he's up against the jazz greats, he can't compete.

And I'm going with Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, and the recently departed and mourned Michael Brecker. I don't think Joni Mitchell is a great lyricist. Her lyrics are always a little pretentious and forced for my taste. But she's a great singer, and a great composer, and boy, can she put together a band. Michael Brecker kicks ass here, and Joni kills.

A Walk Through Opus 40

A lovely video tribute on YouTube by 1Pablo247:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

David McDonald on Opus 40

Who's the real Marxist? Unsurprisingly, it's Woody Guthrie. And the song about the lady and the gypsy is not necessarily promising material. The Clancy Brothers' Gypsy Rover wimps out completely. In the first place, she doesn't have a husband to leave. She has a fond lover, but he wins the election for upper class twit of the year -- he doesn't even compete. It's left to her father to chase after her -- score one for the patriarchy! The father loses...sort of...but not really. The ersatz gypsy turns out to be the lord of the land all over, and if there's a message there, it's that the poor man can't win. Not only is the aristo going to get the woman, he's going to co-opt the poor man's rough-hewn charm.

The Gypsy Davey is a real gypsy, and not a sly whistling singing seducer like the Gypsy Rover, either. She just feels his magnetism -- the magnetism of the proletariat -- and goes.

In a way, though, the wraggle-taggle gypsies are an even better paradigm, because the rejection of the soft life of the aristocracy doesn't even depend on sex appeal. And this is a wonderful lyric -- it's basically the same story, but look how it begins:

There were three gypsies a come to my door,
And down stairs ran this a-lady, O.
One sang high and another sang low
And the other sang bonny bonny Biscay O

Then she pulled off her silk finished gown,
And put on hose of leather, O
The ragged ragged rags about our door
And she's gone with the wraggle, taggle gypsies O

It was late last night when my lord came home,
Inquiring for his a-lady O
The servants said on every hand
She's gone with the wraggle-taggle gypsies, O

Why does the lady throw herself headlong into the life of the wraggle-taggle gypsies? What is the strange harmony the gypsies sing? Is she bewitched, if not seduced? They are gypsies, after all. And who's the narrator here? It's not the lord. Is it a servant, a major domo? Or some sort of weird Mercedes McCambridge-type lord's sister?

I still like Woody for working class hero. I like that it's the boss, rather than his lordship -- this is a solid anti-capitalist message.

After that, they're all co-opted to one degree or another. Conway Twitty's cowboy is the macho stud who can give the lady what she needs. She'll go back to her rich guy husband, but she'll never be his again, and you know she'll be putting on those tight fitting jeans and going out prowling for the cowboy, or some cowboy, again. But although he protests his credentials too much -- he's a cowboy, he's a good ol' boy, he's a peasant -- he's never a real egalitarian. He feels just like a peasant who just had met a queen, in his mind she's still a lady. There's more awe than class warfare.

And John Denver is just a wimp, a hands-acr0ss-the coffee table wimp.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Clean Hands

A student wants to write a paper on “Lay Lady Lay,” but she’s supposed to be writing from a political perspective, and she doesn’t see how you can possibly approach “Lay Lady Lady” with a political interpretation. I tell her I’ll give her a lot of leeway -- maybe there’s no chance. But on my way home, all I can think of are political interpretations of “Lay Lady Lay.” And that just with the few lines I can remember.

I generally figure I can write anything I want in this blog under the safe assumption that my students don’t read it. I generally figure I can write anything I want under the safe assumption that nobody reads it. But Skye, if you happen to find this, I guess it’s a gift.

“Lay Lady Lay” is powerfully erotic charged – it exists in an erotic moment, and it’s easy to see why no would wanna step back and consider its political implications. You wanna be her, about to tumble into that big brass bed. You wanna be him, aflame with desire.

But who are these people? She’s a lady. And who is he? Just from the couple of snatches I remember of the song, his hands are clean. Who comments on the cleanness of his hands? Not an aristocrat. He’d take it for granted. So he’s a workingman, a peasant. He’s the Gypsy Davy. He’s the Cowboy and the Lady, the cowboy and the lady in tight fitting jeans. It’s class warfare – the aristocrat who can’t give his wife the earthy delight that she needs (I find myself assuming the Lady is married). It’s the basis of racism, and all class snobbery – the fear of losing our women to them, the fear of the conqueror that the soft life of the ruling class has robbed them of their virility.

The reverse of that – the aristocrat and the milkmaid – can play itself out in one archetype as the Cinderella story – poor girl uses her sexuality to raise herself in class, but she’s still the loser in gender politics, she’s still subservient. The other reversal, in the traditional gender archetype – the cowboy gets the lady to say yes – his earthy sexuality brings her down to his level, and she loves it, The milkmaid gets to say No to the aristocrat. She leaves him unsatisfied…she keeps the upper hand. Sarah Palin – in her scenario, at least – says No to the foppish, white wine-and-brie-loving Obama. You want me, but you can’t have me. I’m fucking Grandpa instead.

If there’s an element of class anger here, there’s sexual politics too. She’s Milady; she’s Madonna. And he’s there to turn her from Madonna to whore, the two archetypal roles. He’s going to lay her across the brass bed of a New Orleans whorehouse.

But the Gypsy Davy, like Jody in the army archetype, has got the girl and gone. Gone for good. Even here, there's a hierarchy. Jody's a bottom feeder, the Gypsy Davy represents freedom, escape from the whole capitalist trap, as well as the sexual virility that comes with it. The cowboy, on the other hand, doesn’t get to keep the lady, but she’ll never really belong to the rich rancher again.

None of this is the case with Clean Hands. He’s still begging. He is, in the terms of the other stories we’ve read this semester, the supplicant student of Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant,” not the jolly coachman-seducer of Maupassant’s “Confessing.” He’s Keats’s bold lover – all of which makes the song so erotic. Desire is erotic. The Gypsy Davy, the Cowboy, Jody – they really are about power. The erotic moment is past for them. And we know what happens if the Bold Lover wins his goal. The Madonna doesn’t become the whore; the fairy becomes the demon. The sexual conqueror becomes the sex slave. La Belle Damn Sans Merci has him in thrall.

It’s Clean Hands’s vulnerability that gives him the intensity of desire. He can’t know what colors the aristocrat has on her mind. He can tell her that, like Marie Antoinette, she can have her cake and eat it too, and the magic of the moment of desire allows us to forget that Marie Antoinette couldn’t have that either.

But getting back to the political, by pleading for the lady, Clean Hands is buying into the capitalist system, the hierarchy of power. He wants her because she's a lady, because she's the unattainable, because she's a step up the ladder.

OK, Skye -- that's a start. Next time I'll actually look at the rest of the song.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fruit Flies and Popular Girls

I've been pretty consistent in keeping this site focused on the arts and education, and keeping it out of politics -- there are too many other good sites covering that area. But Sarah Palin's attack on fruit flies pushes over into education, so I can't resist.

Research money on fruit flies a waste? Here are some of things it can but:

Huntington's disease

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on Monday that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have cured fruit flies of the genetic disorder Huntington's disease.

Birth Defects

A Queen's University study of fruit flies may revolutionize the way birth defects are studied.

Fundamental secrets about the development of human embryos

Fruit flies ... are essential workhorses in thousands of biomedical research laboratories around the world. Decades of study have revealed that the tiny insects, which bear little resemblance to people, nevertheless share much of our genetic heritage. Fruit flies possess strikingly similar versions of the genes that promote normal human development and, when altered, contribute to disease.

"Nobody would have predicted that an arcane fruit fly that had a leg sticking out of its head would have revealed fundamental secrets about the development of human embryos," said Charles Zuker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.

On Sept. 6 at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute campus in Chevy Chase, Zuker and a distinguished group of researchers joined forces to extol the virtues of the fruit fly as a model system in biomedical research.

The metamorphosis of biology into a science offering numerically precise descriptions of nature

The metamorphosis of biology into a science offering numerically precise descriptions of nature has taken a leap forward with a Princeton team's elucidation of a key step in the development of fruit fly embryos -- discoveries that could change how scientists think not just about flies, but about life in general.

Use of fruit flies in the International Space Station to learn what space travel does to the genes of astronauts.

Fruit flies, genetic malfunction and human disease.

But what really tickled my curiosity is why Sarah decided to pick on fruit flies, of all things. Fruit flies have been a lynchpin of biomedical and genetic research going all the way back to Mendel.

Then it hit me...that's precisely why. She vaguely remembers hearing about them in high school science, and she hated high school science -- all the popular kids hated it. Besides, she and her popular friends probably used "fruit fly," like "fruit bat," as a gay-bashing insult, so she thinks this is just something to snicker at.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Handicapping poetry

I've been asked to speak to a group of students this Wednesday as part of a symposium on "Writing for Publishing." They want me to talk specifically on poetry, so I have to figure out what to tell them. Well, I pretty much know. You can't write poetry with an eye toward getting published. If you try to, you might get published, but you'll never write anything any good. You write for the poem -- to fulfill your obligation to that poem, to find why it matters and bring that out, So the real question is -- what do you do with the poems you've written? Writing poetry is inspiration and work, technique and passion, and that's all that should matter. What comes after is strategy and marketing, and at that point, these are virtues. You're not betraying your art in the slightest by being good at selling yourself, or your work.

If you're a slam poet or a performance poet, the path is basically the same as that of a musician. Start in small clubs, build up a reputation, go on to bigger venues.

If you're a printed word poet, you can submit work to magazines, you can enter contests, you can network whenever you have the chance, and if you have the temperament, you can make more chances. If you go where poets are -- writers conferences, summer workshops, elite graduate progams -- you'll meet more poets than if you don't, and people will start to know who you are. You can start a poetry-related blog, and try to get links to other blogs -- you'll be more successful here if you have something to say than if you're just making an online place to self-publish.

Submitting work to journals that publish poetry -- you need to know what the field is. There are a couple of good annual directories of poetry markets -- Poet's Market and Dustbooks Guide to Poetry Publishers. There are also a lot of good web sources, but these two books are the best and most complete. I read Poet's Market like the racing form, looking for clues to help me in picking winners. First, bloodlines. Many magazines list a few of the poets they've published. Are these poets you like? Poets you'd be pleased to get between the covers (of a publication) with?

Second, stamina. If the magazine has been around for ten years or more, it's likely to have a more substantial reputation, and less likely to fold between the time you send work to them and the time you get it back.

Third, class. In the racing form, this means the size of the purse the horse is racing for. In poetry, there's no purse. It's a strange profession in which you give away your primary product in the hope of ancillary revenues -- teaching jobs, fellowships, reading circuits. So class here means circulation. How many people might actually read your poem? Pick a magazine that has a circulation of 1000 over one with a circulation of 200.

Contests are very popular these days, and they can be a good way to go, although I haven't done it myself. You'll have to pay a small entry fee to most contests, so think about whether you want to make that investment. If a contest is sponsored by a legitimate magazine or organization, and if it has judges with decent credentials, you can assume it's probably on the up and up. A few years ago, there was a scandal about contest prizes all being won by friends or former students of the judges, but most places have now been shamed out of that. Many of the contests are chapbook contests, and if you have a body of work you're pleased with, look into them.

A book of poems? That's for later. Start with the first steps.

Wow...well, I guess that's what I'm going to say.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Battle of the Decades

THE '40S
Peggy Lee

THE '50S
Fats Domino
It's You I Love

THE '60S
Tom Jones
What's New Pussycat?

THE '70S
Earth, Wind & Fire/The Emotions
Boogie Wonderland

THE '80S
Queen of the Broken Hearts

THE '90S
Billy Idol
Cradle of Love

An overwhelming -- and gratifying for me -- vote for Margaret, for warmth, intelligence and musicianship. REM second with three votes, although Fred Koller suggested "REM are the Monkees for gen x slackers." Which is a putdown of sorts, but where does it leave me, given that I'm on record as liking the Monkees? One for Lee Michaels, One for Madonna, coming up surprisingly short in the intergenerational battle of the divas.

Another great pop diva of the 40s up this time around, but I don't that she'll get the same type of support.

And since I'm not sure who I'm supporting this time, instead of my usual elimination stratagem, ending with my winner, I'll just go through them at more or less random.

Well, I'll probably eliminate Loverboy first off. They aren't so much worse than the others in the "Well, Dick, I'd give it a 76 -- it's got a good beat, you can dance to it" sweepstakes. But I couldn't really listen to it all the way through.

Billy Idol's got a good beat, and you can dance to him, and he has a girl in his video who takes her shirt off, and he takes his shirt off, and he snarls a lot, and he's entertaining enough.

Earth Wind and Fire have a great beat, and you can really get down to them. Plus they have all those great 70s outfits, and some nice playing, and some great grooves.

Manana is a dumb cutesy song, and more than a little racist, but it does have Peggy Lee, and Lordy lord, she was pretty back then.

Can I really even be considering voting for Tom Jones? Come on, admit it, some of the rest of you are tempted, too. This is a guilty pleasure, and while you can get a YouTube of Tom performing it in concert (really awful), the recording plus Japanese anime is the best way of experiencing it.

No YouTube for Fats -- I have a link to the song on Last.fm. It's not Fats at his absolute best, but it's plenty good.

So I'm between -- God help me -- What's New Pussycat, and Earth Wind and Fire, and Fats. Stay tuned while my good taste angel and my bad taste angel battle this one out.

And...since this was sent out...bad taste has triumphed, and I went with the Pussycat, in spite of this from my daughter Wendy:

I am sorry, but you have all lost your minds. This is a crappy choice and there is nothing I want to vote for - and certainly not What's New, Pussycat? Alexandra had the best out of all - she is thousands of miles away. She could have pretended her email was down, thus saving herself from her humiliation. I guess I will go with Billy Idol, if no abstentions are permitted - but I would prefer to abstain. If it is good enough for Sarah Palin's family, it should be good enough for us - oh wait, it wasn't good enough for them either.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Saxophone Colossus

The blog 17 Green Buicks has a list of important jazz albums, including G-Man, the album recorded live by Sonny Rollins at Opus 40 in 1986, and acclaimed by critics as one of the best jazz albums of the 80s -- one of the rare albums to capture the strength of a live Sonny Rollins performance.

This was also the concert where Sonny fell and broke his foot, got up and finished the gig. You can see it on YouTube -- the Green Buick guy links to it. I added my reminiscences to the third of the YouTube segments.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Keats and the Squirrel

My students, writing on “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” have all started with the withered sedge and the dearth of birds as symbols of desolation, which of course they are. But the landscape is not described entirely in terms of desolation. It’s desolate for the knight, but not for the squirrel. And someone is enjoying that harvest. It’s the opposite of “Grecian Urn,” where the townspeople are frozen in time on the pilgrimage to the sacrifice, and the little town is empty. Here the knight is frozen in place, forever unable to partake of the harvest.

This also suggests that the narrator is just passing through. He’s seen signs of the harvest before he gets to the barren place where the knight loiters. Real life and real nourishment aren’t that far away, but it doesn’t seem as though the knight is ever going to get to them…and it seems as though that’s his choice. He’s loitering. Did the word have the same connotations in Keats’ time? Apparently, yes. the OED quotes Sir Walter Scott in 1814: “Officers…loitered in the hall, as if waiting for orders.” The knight doesn’t seem to be waiting for orders; he’s already gotten them from the pale kings and princes. Don’t bother to try to go anywhere.

The knight is in thrall to his world between illusion and reality. The sedge is withered, not because he’s in a place of perpetual barrenness, but because the harvest is done and winter’s approaching. The traveler knows this. He is presumably going to keep going, on to a farmhouse where he can get some good bread or other fruits of the harvest. And he seems to know that there’s nothing much he can do for the knight.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who Has Websites?

The brilliant (and under recognized in this country) French filmmaker Pascal Aubier has his own website -- unfortunately for his American and British and Canadian and Australian fans whose French may not be up to snuff, it's only in French. This also means, I've discovered, that if you don't have your Google search engine set to "Search for pages written in any language" (under Preferences) his website won't be listed.

At least he has a website. Francois Truffaut, as near as I can make out, doesn't. Neither does Jean-Luc Godard, although he does appear to have a MySpace page. Nor Eric Rohmer. Nor Bernard Tavernier. Has the idea of individual websites not occurred to French filmmakers yet? Or anywhere in Europe? There's an Ingmar Bergman website, but it seems to exist only in English -- and I have reset my preferences to "Search in any language."

The Bergman site is a fan site.

Do filmmakers not have their own sites? Individual movies do -- you can see them included in all trailers these days. Martin Scorcese doesn't, though there are several Scorcese fan sites. The Coen brothers do. Neil LaBute doesn't. Jon Avnet doesn't. There are a bunch of Tarantino fan sites, but he doesn't have his own.

Why not?

So Aubier is in the vanguard. But not in English.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Battle of the Decades

The Beatles won the last BOTD convincingly, but hardly unanimously. Chuck Berry got strong support, and both Mariah Carey and Benny Goodman got well-deserved votes. Nothing for Barbra Streisand, though she was worthy too.

Well, they can't all be choices among songs and artists of this level, and I'm afraid this one is not. But here goes:

THE 40s
Margaret Whiting o/Paul Weston
It Might As Well Be Spring

THE 50s
Johnnie Ray with The Four Lads

THE 60s
Ray Charles Singers
Love Me With All Your Heart

THE 70s
Lee Michaels
Do You Know What I Mean

THE 80s
Madonna -- True Blue

THE 90s
Shiny Happy People


It could be worse. As I was copying and pasting this, some of the songs turned over, and we had Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Disco Duck, and the Ames Brothers.

For you whippersnappers, the Ray Charles Singers are not Ray Charles, and in spite of the psychedelic video, they ain't psychedelic either.

And I can get rid of Lee Michaels almost as easily. He was the harbinger of the new spirit of FM radio, which was that it was starting to get a little boring. This isn't the worst song ever recorded, but who wouldn't change the station when it came on?

You might not turn off Johnny Ray quite so quickly (or you might turn him off more quickly). He was kind of horrible, kind of mesmerizing. He was sui generis, and also almost totally deaf, which may or may not explain his singing. Anyway, "Cry" was his ur-song, and it became famous for its naked display of emotion by a male singer -- was he unmanly? Was he the new man? This YouTube video also has his version of "Just Walking in the Rain," originally recorded by the Prisonaires, who were maybe the original gangstas, in that they were real prisoners, let out on a work-release program to record a handful of great songs at Sun studios. You can sample them here; http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=prisonaires&search_type=&aq=0&oq=prisona

This brings us to the two whippersnapper numbers, probably destined to be the big vote-getters this time around. Did Madonna ever make a bad video? If she did, it wasn't this time around, especially the booty-shaking trio at the beginning. She didn't make many bad records, either. However, I think I'd give REM, and their strange take on the world -- David Byrne meets the Marshall Tucker Band -- the nod here.

But I have to go with my dear friend Margaret Whiting. No one sang a pop song like she did, found the meaning in the words the way she did. When the Kool Jazz festival replaced Newport, and moved to New York, they called Margaret and asked her to appear in an evening of Tribute to the American Song. "But I'm not a jazz singer," she told them. "I only sing the melody."

"Exactly," they replied. "And do you know how hard it is these days to find someone who can do that?"

Margaret never stopped being herself, never stopped being true to the great songs of her father and her mentor Johnny Mercer, and was never a fogey, either. Her championing of the First Amendment rights of the erotic film industry led to meeting the love of her life, gay porn star Jack Wrangler. They've been together since 1976, married since 1994, and he's successfully produced shows for her and others.

A memory: when I started working with Margaret, I took Jon and Claudia to an upper West Side cabaret where she was featured. Somehow, the cabaret had neglected to provide an MC, and Margaret was stuck in the wings, waiting for someone to introduce her. Jon took the bull by the horns and introduced her from his seat at a table. She gratefully came out, graciously thanked him, and gave one of her always-great shows.

Here's my bio of her from The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g1epc/is_/ai_2419201301

The YouTube video pairs her with George Shearing; Last.fm has just a clip of "It Might as Well Be Spring."

My vote, and my heart, to Margaret Whiting.

Concert cancelled

Sadly, the Dennis deYoung concert has had to be cancelled.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

October Concert at Opus 40

Front Line Productions is presenting a really big show at Opus 40 on October 4th, featuring former Styx lead singer Dennis deYoung. It will be a gala evening, including an auction and a cocktail hour featuring local legends the Big Smoothies. This will be a very special evening here -- our big concert of the year (though it's not really ours). But the people at Front Line are good folks, and professionals, and we're looking forward to a long relationshipwith them.

For ticket information, 866-525-9190, or www,woodstockfundraiser.com.

Yes, it really is a fund raiser. For the Make-a-Wish Foundation and St. Mary's of the Snow School, right here in Saugerties.

Hope to see you at the concert!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Film Noir

I'm self-publishing my collection of Film Noir drawings, featuring three stories -- The Lineup, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Heat. I've posted some of the drawings here in the past, but I think this is a very good looking collection. You can order it here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Woodstock Museum's Free Festival

The 9th annual Woodstock Museum Free Fim Festival gets underway August 29, at Woodstock's Town Hall. That first Friday night, at 10 pm. there'll be a showing of Woodstock: Can't Get There From Here, David McDonald's excellent documentary, which features me talking about Opus 4o, and about the death of Dick Stillwell.

Much else of interest, including a film by WM's Nathan Koenig and Shelli Lipton, Woodstock Downunder, about Nimbin, Australia, "the village that was founded on the values of Woodstock Nation" -- Saturday, August 30, at 9 pm.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Battle of the Decades

THE 40s
Rendition Quartet
Eagles Medley

THE 50s
Malcolm Yelvington
Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee

THE 60s
Tom Jones
It's Not Unusual

THE 70s
Heart of Glass

THE 80s

THE 90s
Corona & Ice Mc
The Rhythm Of The Night

This one skews heavily toward the whippersnappers (sorry, fogeys!), starting with a fast elimination of the Rendition Quartet, whose number had already finished by the time I got the 40s channel. Could they really have been singing an Eagles medley in the 40s? Does H. G. Wells know about this? By they time I got to the 40s channel they were playing a barbershop harmony quartet, so I'm guessing the Rendition Quartet was more of the same, and maybe so retro that they sounded retro even singing Hotel California. Or maybe "Eagles Medley" means something totally different. Maybe I don't care.

I keep waiting for that 90s song that will blow me away and convert me to whippersnapperdom. This isn't it. Corona - nice voice. Song...if I had to listen to her sing "this is the rhythm of the night...night...night..." once more.....

In spite of someone commenting on Squeeze's video "people who like this song are gay,queer, geekish and dorkish and lesbian!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! " I like this song. But I don't love it. And I'm sure Malcolm Yelvington was a fire-breathing young rockabilly when he first recorded this song, but age has lost him his edge. It's still one of the all-time great songs.

Tom Jones in second place? Well, I really liked this song when it first came out, before Tom Jones became...well, Tom Jones. (To my credit, I never liked Engelbert Humperdinck.) Listening to it now, he sounds like...well, Tom Jones.

Blondie's far and away the best of a weak field, but she might have been first in a strong one, too. Well, not a really strong one. But she's smart, cool, self-possessed, and hip. She's probably the template for the emotion-dead singers who came after whom Alex keeps voting for her, but that's not her fault. And a good song, probably her best.