Going Colin One Better

Colin Kaepernick Kneeling During the National Anthem

Why does our beloved country have such a stupid and unsingable national anthem? Whenever I hear it, I not only take to my knees, but my head hovers within ralphing distance of a toilet bowl.

The tune itself comes from “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century English gentleman’s club of amateur musicians. Just to show you the high quality of the original source, here is the first stanza—sung, of course, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

To Anacreon in heav’n, where he sat in full Glee.
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That he their Inspirer and Patron would be,
When this Answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
No longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot
And, besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

Francis Scott Key, the Perpetrator of Our National Anthem

The only question I have is: Was Francis Scott Key drunk when he wrote the gosh-awful lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and possibly stoned as well for using the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”?

Compare the barroom ballad that is our national anthem with the Hungarian “Himnusz,” composed by Ferenc Kölcsey:

So pardon me if I continue to take to my knees.

You Don’t Ever Want to Dance with Me

My Cousin Peggy and Me in Hungarian Folk Dance Costume

This is partially adapted from a post I wrote for the late lamented Multiply.Com in March 2010.

That’s me at the age of five with my pretty little first cousin Peggy. Both of us are wearing Hungarian folk dancing costumes—but I’m not quite sure about how those cowboy boots fit in. Knowing what a stubborn little cuss I was, I probably insisted on wearing them instead of the traditional black leather boots.

Stubbornness was very much a part of my early years. I did not like being photographed: Many of my early snapshots show me glowering at the camera. And I most certainly didn’t like to dance. Even in those days, I had no idea how to move in time with music without punishing the feet of my partners. Of course, that made me fiercely unpopular with all my dancing partners; and that didn’t make for enjoyable dancing lessons.

Notice how thin I was in the above picture—so thin that it was around then that my parents took me to St. Luke’s Hospital for observation. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with me and predicted that I would eat my parents out of house and home. (I did.)

I have always been a little out of step. As much as I enjoy listening to music, I recall with pleasure the anecdote about Ulysses S. Grant, who is supposed to have said, “I know only two tunes: One is Yankee Doodle, and the other one isn’t.”

Although I played the alto saxophone for many years, it was with little pleasure. By a fluke, I became first saxophone in my high school band; but Chuck Matousek, who played second sax, was much better than me. He could play “Night Train” from memory: I couldn’t play anything from memory.

 

 

“An Instant of Artistic Grace”

Van Cliburn on the Cover of Time Magazine on May 19, 1958

Some artistic careers blaze brightly like meteors before being snuffed out, leaving nothing behind but a crater. Such was the short but brilliant musical career of Van Cliburn who went to Russia at the height of the Cold War, and performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, which he won handily. After getting an eight-minute standing ovation, Van Cliburn reminded Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov o “som kind of angel.” In The Ivory Trade (1990), Joseph Horowitz wrote:

His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were recognized everywhere. People hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was showered with flowers and personal mementos. Women wept when he played, and students shouted “First prize!” Outside the conservatory, militiamen were used to maintain order. His pandemonious victory, announced April 14, confirmed the popular verdict of days before. The Cliburn furor was of unprecedented, unrepeatable, incomprehensible proportions.

Van Cliburn in Moscow. Note the Roses Strewn Across the Stage.

And then what? Cliburn went back to Texas to live with his mother, performing occasionally—but with considerably less éclat. After the ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, and a few concerts with diminishing returns, that was just about it.

What his fans did not, could not know at that time, was that Cliburn was gay. Had that become publicly known, he would have been reviled by the same public that seemingly adored him. It is such a pity. Today, his sexual preference would be met with a shrug (though perhaps not in Russia). In 1998, he suffered the indignity of being sued by his long-time domestic partner, mortician Thomas Zaremba, for palimony. The case was thrown out of court as palimony is not recognized by the State of Texas, He died in 2013 in Texas at the age of 78, years after his last successful concert.

Stuart Isacoff, in his book When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath calls his Moscow concert “perhaps the best concert of his life … an instant of artistic grace.”

L. A. Writers: Ry Cooder (?!)

Master of the Slide Guitar and ... Writer?

Master of the Slide Guitar and … Noir Writer?

So you think I’m kidding, do you? You think I don’t know that Ry Cooder is a musician? Aha, but in 2011 that same Ry Cooder wrote a book of short stories published by City Lights, entitled Los Angeles Stories. These stories, set between 1940 and the 1950s, are not only great L. A. Noir, but they sing with their own unique brand of chicken skin music. John Lee Hooker puts in an appearance, as does Charlie Parker. And the stories are rife with musical references:

Four Chinese girls were sitting at the corner table laughing and drinking. They were all excited about the dance hall where they’d been and the swing band they saw and the musicians they liked. I knew the place, the Zenda Ballroom, on Seventh and Figueroa. Tetsu Bessho and his Nisei Serenaders played there every Monday night. Jimmy Araki, the sax player, he was sharp. Joe Sakai was cute. The girls spoke English with a lot of hip slang, like musicians use, and as far as I could tell they were no different from any other American girls, except they were Chinese.

In fact, Cooder has a real ear for the race and ethnicity of his characters, from black musicians to Mexican Pachucos to white trailer trash to Chinese cooks.

Born in Santa Monica, he also has a great sense of place. We see Chavez Ravine before Dodger Stadium was built, the old Bunker Hill neighborhood, Playa Del Rey, Venice, and even Santa Monica.

Los Angeles Stories consists of eight tales, one better than the other. Insofar as I know, this is the only fiction he ever wrote; but I hope it is not the last. He has a great turn of phrase, as in “I am happy to have a little luck once and [sic] a while…. Too much, and fate pays a call. La Visita, my grandmother called it.”

There’s even nifty song lyrics:

Too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
Yes, too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
It have wrecked my life an’ ruint my happy home

When I first got in town, I was walkin’ down Central Avenue
I heard people talkin’ about the Club Rendezvous
I decided to drop in there that night, and when I got there
I said yes, people, man they was really havin’ a ball, yes I know!
Boogie!

I might cut you, I might shoot you, I jus’ don’ know
Yes, Johnny, I might cut you, I might shoot you, but I jus’ don’ know
Gonna break up this signifyin’,
’Cause somebody got to bottle up and go

I know that they gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. In my humble opinion, Ry Cooder is even a better writer. Believe it!

 

The Reluctant Saxophonist

Not One of My Happier Memories

Not One of My Happier Memories

There are three things that I absolutely cannot do—and they are all connected to music:

  1. I cannot play music well.
  2. I cannot move in time to music.
  3. I cannot sing or carry a tune.

It took me ten years to discover these things, ten long years. It all started at a music store in downtown Cleveland (very near Prospect and Ontario). I was a little boy who was moderately interested in playing a musical instrument, say a trombone, for example. My parents and the sales clerk both agreed that a trombone would not suit me because I did not have buck teeth. Are buck teeth a requirement for trombonists? I wondered.

My parents talked me into choosing the alto saxophone. I was snookered into it, not even knowing what a saxophone looked like or sounded like.

I was soon to find out. The first thing I found out was that reed instruments like the saxophone are very mucky. All the gook in the mouth congeals around the reed, adding occasional squeaks from hell.

Then I found out I had to take lessons (with Jack Upson on East 4th Street) and practice half hour a day. And to make matters worse, my parents’ favorite piece of music was “The Londonderry Air,” which they called “Danny Boy” after the first line of the lyrics. My brother Danny was sure to add to my pleasure by smirking through the piece.

At Chanel High School, I was in the marching band. A marching band with only about 25 participants is pretty sure not to make a big impression, especially when the only thing anyone could hear was the drums. Because I memorized the scales, I was appointed First Saxophone, even though Chuck Matousek, who got Second Sax, was far better than me. He always played “Night Train” on the bus on the way to the football games. Me, I couldn’t play without the music in front of me. I had zero improvisational skills.

My big chance was in college. I was 600 miles from home, so I didn’t practice. I made a desultory attempt to join the Dartmouth Marching Band, but then said to myself, “Who’s going to know if I just quit?” And so I did. It turned out to be a good decision, though my parents were cheesed off when they discovered the truth.

The Soundtrack of Your Boring Life

Living in the Moment

Living in the Moment

There appear to be two types of people. A distressingly large number of younger people appear to be hooked up to a sound feed consisting of the dominant sound icons of current popular culture. Whenever I hear snippets of other people’s music, I feel chagrined. When I am attached to an MP3 player, say during a long flight to South America, what I listen to are the symphonies of Sibelius, Mahler, and Bruckner. (I may diversify into some Jazz classics when I get around to copying them.)

But pop music and rap music? Not for me. When driving, I like music that serves as a background to an increased situational awareness, not as a replacement for my consciousness.

Today, I rode the Expo Line into Santa Monica. Virtually everyone under a certain age was hooked up, listening to pop music and operating their smart phones at full intensity. Needless to say, these people were living in their own self-imposed bubbles, not looking out the window or paying attention to the announcements.

The other type of person is someone like me. I live in the world, not in a self-imposed bubble.My dumb phone does not have Internet access, nor is used for texting or sexting, nor even photography (though it has the capability). The only reason I had it with me was in case I needed to call Martine about our lunch plans.

Is there any advantage to living in the pop culture bubble? Perhaps it’s a form of escape from the world, with all its confusing signals that are so insistent for our attention. But is this escape not dangerous? And can a diet of Taylor Swift or hip-hop music dull one’s senses to the world around us? I imagine it’s a way to introducing oneself to peers, indicating that one is cool … one is attached to the good stuff … one is wearing the right clothes … has the right hairstyle … is, in a word, safe.

Maybe I’m a bit dangerous. At least I would like to think so.

The Folk Singer

With Folk Singer Juan Carlos Balvidares, “El Caminante Argentino”

With Folk Singer Juan Carlos Balvidares, “El Caminante Argentino”

In 2011, Martine and I encountered a folk singer in front of the Café La Biela, sitting in the shade of an Ombú tree. I remember his singing vividly and so was delighted to encounter him again at the same place on the day after I landed in Buenos Aires. Señor Balvidares is the author of numerous tangos, milongas, zambas, vals, and chacareras. He has traveled around the world singing his songs.

This time, I bought a CD of his music. You can get some idea of his style by looking at this YouTube site. Click here for him performing in the barrio of San Telmo.

I have written previously about the late Carlos Gardel and his great tangos of the 1920s and 1930s. Balvanera may not have Gardel’s dulcet tones, but his music is an authentic and living link to the songs of the gauchos of the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas. Although he plays largely for tourists today, I enjoyed listening to his music—then and now.