Erik Satie Makes a Joke

Erik Satie by Suzanne ValadonFor most of my life, I’ve dismissed Erik Satie as a composer who created pretty but ultimately uninteresting music. Like most of the opinions I developed as a teen, this was wrong. And over the last few months, I’ve been listening to a lot of his work. It’s magnificent.

The other night, I was listening to Embryons Desséchés. It’s pretty typical of his mature work. But right at the end of the piece, he makes a joke. And it was wonderful for me to hear because I don’t usually get musical jokes. While it’s true that I know a lot more about classical music than most people, I don’t actually know that much about classical music.

What’s more, musical jokes are like regular jokes: they don’t age well. Satie’s joke only works in the context of the move out of the Romantic period. And I only get the joke because I’ve spent so much of my life fuming about the excesses of this most-played and least-fulfilling period of classical music.

Find the Joke!

Before I explain the joke, see if you can’t hear it in the third movement. You should at least note that the ending seems out of place with the rest of the piece.

Slapping Romantics for Fun and Profit

Even in this one movement, you can tell that Satie is messing around. He skips around in terms of style — as he does in the piece as a whole. The first movement even previews what he will ultimately do in the third.

So as I listen, I enjoy hearing Satie having fun bouncing around stylistically. And then he says, “Hey! Remember this?!” And he provides one of these ridiculously extended endings that I love to hate.

This is usually said to be a direct attack on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. That does seem to be the case, but I think Satie means for his attack to be broader:

Erik Satie’s Other Jokes

Apparently, Satie was making more jokes than this one. In particular, he ridicules the music-hall song “Mon rocher de Saint-Malo” (“My rock of Saint-Malo”), which you can hear quoted very clearly in the first movement.

This isn’t really a musical joke, however. You can only see it in Satie’s notes on the score such as, “‘It was a very nice rock! Very sticky!” But even if musically it had been more than a quotation, I wouldn’t have noticed it. I don’t recall hearing the song before. And I have no context within which to find it funny. Apparently, the song was very popular at that time and Satie was not a fan.

Humor Ages Poorly

This is a problem with all humor. In fact, I developed my approach to theater in an effort to find an audience for my jokes. I found that people didn’t find my jokes funny because they couldn’t understand them. So I got the idea of creating theater to teach the audience so that they would then laugh at my esoteric jokes. How well that works is open to debate.

The good thing about music is that by the time people don’t understand any jokes placed in a piece, they’ve also gotten to the point where the joke doesn’t stand out as odd. A great example of this is Mozart’s Ein Musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke). Most people think it sounds fine. To me, it sounds clunky and certainly not the work of Mozart at this late stage of his career. But I have little doubt that he and his friends screamed with laughter when they performed it.

I’m just glad that I was able to pick up a notable musical joke for a change. And I did laugh — a lot!

Betty Hutton

Betty HuttonI’ve gotten into the habit of posting little things that occur to me on Facebook. But I’m in the process of leaving Facebook. It really is an evil dump. And it bugs me that I’m creating free content for it.

Few songs feel me with so much energy as “Murder, He Says” written by Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh for the film Happy Go Lucky (1943). It is sung by Betty Hutton who co-starred in the film.

Hutton was never what I would call a movie star. Her focus was more on live performance although she had a number of hit records like the Hoagy Carmichael song Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. If you watch the video for that song, you can tell that Hutton was something of a goof.

Her biggest success was probably in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun — a role she was born to play. I’m just not that fond of musicals like that anymore. (I loved them when I was a kid!)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

The film I most associate her with is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). It was one of the handful of Preston Sturges classics made during World War II. In it, Hutton plays a classic girl who can’t say no. She wakes up one morning having remembered that she married a soldier the night before but can’t remember his name (except that it had a “z” in it). Later, she learns that she is pregnant.

The film is a maze of absurdities in its attempt to justify what everyone watching knows is about premarital sex in the age of the Hays Code. If you get a chance, you should watch it. The plot doesn’t make much sense. But Sturges’ dialog is as witty as ever and Betty Hutton is her usual effervescent self.

Murder, He Says

Here is Hutton performing “Murder, He Says” for the troops:

Don’t See Randy Rainbow Live

Although I went out of my way to not have this site’s automatic twitter posts tag Randy Rainbow, many of his fans noticed. They were so angry I figured I must have written something really bad. But I’ve gone back and read this article. It’s fine. Unlike most of the press that Rainbow gets, however, it is not glowing. I have yet to see what I think of as a real review of his act. And that’s just not taking him seriously as an artist.

The complaints were mostly about my criticism of Randy Rainbow’s dismissiveness. People apparently can’t read. I was accused of calling him an “asshole.” I did not. (No one seems to have taken the time to even glance at the link.) I was also accused of calling his fans idiots. I did not. These people clearly didn’t like my less than rave review and latched onto fragments that gave them the best option for attacking me.

Not one person evidenced any understanding of the two points I was making. It was tribalism and nothing more. And that’s all art is for most people. Apparently, Good People never criticize anything about Randy Rainbow. Only “shitty” writers and general “douchebags” do that. And that’s fine. But it says a lot that not one of these people who were so upset could bother to leave a comment. Twitter really is the perfect medium for a country that lacks nuance.

–Frank Moraes (20 April 2019)

Randy RainbowLast night, I went to see Randy Rainbow. I got a free ticket. But it was extremely troubling.

It’s hard to write this because I had a great time last night. The show was funny and the band was great. But part of me can’t watch a show without seeing it from a professional and political standpoint. And on these fronts, it was pretty bad.

Professional Entertainment

The crowd that came out to see Randy Rainbow last night was scary. I thought that I liked his work. These people were crazy in love. During the question and answer section of the show, I suffered greatly from pena ajena. The questions were embarrassing. One example, “If your mother ever wants a break, I’m willing to step in.” Rainbow dealt with the question well, “You know I’m in my 30s, right?” (He’s fast approaching 39. Vanity, thy name is Randy!)

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience ate up the performance. But my seat cost $55. So I had expectations even if I wasn’t the one paying.

Problems With the Show

Probably the worst part of the show was that the sound was horrible. All the canned sound (more on that in a minute) seemed to come from one speaker. And the EQ was off. There wasn’t enough bass and there was too much treble. It made me uncomfortable. And even though I was otherwise enjoying the show, I probably would have slipped out if I hadn’t been packed in on both sides.

More annoying when it came to the ticket price was the fact that roughly a quarter of the show was pre-recorded video. And these weren’t recorded for the show. They were mostly standard Randy Rainbow YouTube videos. I’d seen half of them before.

And they’re good. (Of course, blown up on a big screen they don’t look so good.) But I could stay home and watch it for free. I think it says a lot about Randy Rainbow’s contempt for his audience that he doesn’t think he needs to program a full 90 minutes of live material.

Canned Music

The live songs always include canned music — mostly background vocals. I don’t particularly like this, but I understand it. I wouldn’t even bring it up except that when Rainbow is singing live, he is usually up on the screen singing as well.

It also highlights the fact that Randy Rainbow isn’t that compelling a live performer. His singing is fine but his gestures are muted — designed for nightclub performances, not a large theater. I think that having a giant screen is meant to make up for this but it only made the live Randy Rainbow seem smaller. It was also extremely distracting.

Often, when performers don’t have a great stage presence, they make up for it in other ways like having outrageous costumes. Rainbow does this to some extent, but not nearly enough. His costumes are more along the lines of prototypes. Like he’s saying, “If this were a real performance, I’d have an amazing costume here.”

Another factor that makes it less than it could be is Randy Rainbow’s dismissive personality. His attitude toward the audience is the same as it is toward Trump. And I kept remembering a headline in Current Affairs, People Who ‘Pretend’ to Be Shitty Are Frequently Just Shitty. Although given his audience, I can’t necessarily blame him.

Commodity Machine

Truthfully, the show would be far better if Randy Rainbow just performed show tunes with his exceptional band. I was especially taken with Justin Vance on sax, clarinet, and flute. He really added to the feel that there was an orchestra on stage instead of just a four-piece combo.

Of course, such a show wouldn’t be popular. It certainly wouldn’t pay for the caliber of the band. But that’s the point. The entire Randy Rainbow organization is a commodity machine.

Randy Rainbow Merch

There are a half-dozen different Randy Rainbow t-shirts you can buy. They are low-quality and made in Honduras. But hey, a good-quality t-shirt might have taken a dollar off the profits.

So perhaps you would like Randy Rainbow glasses? How about socks? The t-shirts are $30 but the socks are a real bargain at just $20.

For only $5, you can get a “what the fuck you guys?” bumper sticker, which is more or less what I thought about this exercise in non-productive capitalism.

Making Money

The two young women selling all the Randy Rainbow stuff were working very fast to meet the demand. It made me start to do some rough calculations.

There were 1,633 seats at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Seats were $39.50, $45.00, and $55.00. Based on where I was sitting, I would say these represent about 30%, 50%, and 20% of the total seats. The place was packed, so that’s roughly $75,000. I figure rental is $10,000 for the night. The total cost for labor is $10,000 — if Randy Rainbow pays really well. And let’s give him another $10,000 for misc expenses.

That means, even without at least a few thousand dollars from Randy Rainbow merch, the production netted $45,000 playing in a small city. I don’t begrudge Randy Rainbow. Get it while you can!

Capitalism Destroying Art

But the whole thing highlights many problems with capitalism. First, Randy Rainbow is making an excessive amount of money while producing relatively little material. And he’s fast approaching the point where he will not have to produce anything at all.

Then there is the fact that people have to pay $40 just to get a bad seat at this event. And they are apparently paying it because of Randy Rainbow’s celebrity. I too went in eager to like it. But had I paid, I would have felt let down. There was maybe $15 up there on stage. The extra $25 to $40 was what we pay because the market can bear it.

Whatever. Randy Rainbow remains an interesting creative artist. And the people love him. But there really is no reason to leave the house. You can buy all that crap from home too.

YouTube and Twitter are the perfect venues for Randy Rainbow.

Image and Capitalism

Female Classical MusicianElizabeth referred me to a very interesting academic article, Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians. It finds that when the judges can’t see the performer, women musicians do markedly better.[1] This is not surprising.

You probably remember that widely cited study about people with black-sounding names receiving fewer interviews than people with white-sounding names. A more recent study has called it into question. The researchers claim that the results may not indicate race but rather social status. Personally, I don’t find the study all that compelling. But even if true, it just indicates a different kind of prejudice — one that just happens to correlate with race in this country.

I’m interested in this question on a very basic level. I’m interested in the way that things like height, weight, and perceived attractiveness affect how people are rewarded. This is not because they are particularly important. Instead, I’m interested in the ways in which even on the most facile level, meritocracy is nonsense.

Image and the Workplace

Consider someone needed to do data entry. All that matters is typing skills. There are two candidates. One of them is sullen and ugly with a typing speed of 100 wmp. The other is chipper and attractive with a typing speed of 90 wmp. Just based upon the work that needs to get done, the first candidate should be hired. But we all know it is the second candidate who will be hired.

In this case, people will complain that it’s a drag to be around sullen people. First, those who think that have never had a data entry job. But beyond that, I think the same would be true if the job were done remotely. As I learned in a career class in high school: the candidate who is hired is the one the employer likes the most.

I’ve seen this in the freelance writing world. Writers do not like to update their pictures. This is, not surprisingly, most true of female writers because they are most judged on their appearance. This is far too common to be simply a question of vanity. Image = money.

Capitalism and the Ugly Person

This is a fundamental failing of capitalism. Without capitalism, people will still be discriminated against. But their livelihoods will not depend upon their attractiveness. And they will be better able to find meaning in their lives outside their value in the market.

It’s funny how capitalism makes all our social problems worse. Yet we are just supposed to accept it because “Stalin!” Or “iPhones!”

The Music Biz

It’s shocking the degree to which personal attractiveness dictates the careers of classical musicians. You might have noticed how opera changed from the 1960s when the singers tended to be overweight to the point now when most singers are hunka hunka burning loves.

Or look at almost any recent instrumental star like Tine Thing Helseth (who is nonetheless great).

But it’s worse than that. The rise of child stars in classical music is part of this. They have always existed but now that there are more and better ways to monetize them, they have exploded.

What drives me crazy, is the tendency of musicians (Especially pianists and violinists!) to sway and close their eyes and do everything else to communicate to the audience who very much they feel the music. Rubbish! That’s image over music. (It’s also a classical music audience that is mostly tone deaf.)

Back to Reality: Managers Are Dumb

All of this brings me back to an interview I was at where the guy being interviewed was clearly incompetent. But he was a good-looking, ex-military guy. And he was very confident. I knew he would be useless, but the owners loved him.

This problem only gets worse the more inequality there is in the economy. When you have millions of dollars, you can stand to waste some of it in the name of surrounding yourself with the cool people. If that means your employees type 10 percent slower — or even that they never get any work done at all — no big deal.

Capitalism: all your worst prejudices realized!


[1] There is something odd that goes on in semifinal rounds. You can read about it in the paper if you are interested. If anything, however, it is further indication that women are discriminated in getting seats in symphony orchestras.

Why “Solsbury Hill” Still Works

Peter GabrielNot another song post! Sorry. It just turned out that way.

My favorite Peter Gabriel song is “Solsbury Hill.” There have been other songs of his that I’ve liked more, but “Solsbury Hill” is the song that continues to engage me.

Lyrics

Part of this is just the lyrics. Despite being very “literate,” I don’t usually pay attention to lyrics. It’s only after a long time that I can get past the much more profoundly moving music to note them.

But in the case of “Solsbury Hill,” the lyrics are so clear and musically connected that I followed them from the start. What’s more, the refrain says it all:

“Hey!” he said. “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home!”

There is obvious religious subtext here. But it’s deeper than that. Acceptance is a great thing. Recently, I became accepting of losing my biggest client. I knew if it happened, it was going to be painful. But my relief in accepting it was so profound that the future looked easy. And my client is still around. Things are going well.

That’s a relatively trivial example, of course. And acceptance isn’t always a good thing. For example, a sudden improvement in the mood of a depressed person can be an indication that they have decided to kill themselves. In general, I think that’s a bad thing. But it isn’t always. And we all should work on accepting death.

Music

I bring up the song now, however, because it has an interesting rhythm.

It’s said to be in 7/4 time with a bit of 4/4 at the end of the chorus. What this means is that it has the same 7-beat patterns over and over with a 4-beat pattern during the refrain.

But this is not quite true.

The song alternates 3/4 and 4/4. Yes, 3 + 4 = 7. But consider Pink Floyd’s “Money”:

It’s in 7/4 time. It is built on that irresistible 7-beat bass line. You can divide it into 3-beat and 4-beat sections. And although the 4-beat section would work on its own, the 3-beat section would not. It really only works as a 7-beat line.

“Solsbury Hill” is very clearly a three-beat section and then a four-beat section.

Notice both the repeated guitar and synth/flute phrase: they are three beats and then four. In the case of the synth/flute, it is 3 beats and then a whole note.

This is key to what make the song work. This switching causes the listener to yearn for some kind of resolution. There is a feeling that things aren’t quite right. And then, on the refrain, it resolves with two measures of 4/4. And it is done with the same lyrics that define the song:

“Hey!” he said. “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home!”

Why It Works

This is an exquisite musical orgasm. But it is brief. Almost as soon as it happens, we are dragged back to that nagging 7/4 section.

I think this is key to why I continue to yearn for this song. It’s about acceptance both lyrically and musically. It’s about resolving conflict. And it doesn’t just show it; it takes us through an actual journey of acceptance and resolution.

The Search for a Decent Version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest”

Cat Stevens“The First Cut Is the Deepest” was a huge hit song for Rod Stewart in 1977. It reached #21 on the US charts but stayed at #1 for four weeks in the UK. But even if you haven’t heard that one, you must have heard some version of it. Singers love it. I’m pretty sure every pub band knows it.

But there’s something interesting about the song. It was brilliantly written by Cat Stevens (Steven Demetre Georgiou, Yusuf Islam) back in 1965. Yet I have yet to find a version that I really like.

PP Arnold

Before Stevens could release a version of the song, it was recorded by PP Arnold. In 1964, she became a background singer and dancer for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She was just 18 years old — already with two children. Two years later, she quit the band and went solo. She was in the UK at the time and her career has been focused there.

The following year, she released the first version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” Supposedly, she paid Stevens £30 for the song, but I doubt that means anything other than the right to record it first. Stevens would still get royalties.

The version is good. Arnold has a great voice. But the production leaves me cold. It’s produced by Mike Hurst who goes full Phil Spector Wall of Sound in the chorus. That’s especially true with the background vocals, that destroy the strength of Arnold’s voice.

Norma Fraser

That same year, reggae singer Norma Fraser released a version. Bob Marley asked her to join her band, but she remained solo even though she recorded with him, Peter Tosh, and just about everyone else in the reggae scene. She was part of the Studio One stable, which pretty much says it all.

Her version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” is fine. But I’ve never found reggae to be able to milk all the emotion from a song. And that’s what I’m looking for in the song. It appears to be what most producers are looking for too — hence the common over-production of the song.

This is a simple version and, frankly, one of my favorites.

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens didn’t manage to get the song out until the end of 1967 on his second album, New Masters. Like Arnold’s recording, this version is produced by Mike Hurst. And it’s better. the chorus isn’t overwhelming (although I could do without the strings, which become unbearable toward the end). The lead guitar is also annoying. And Cat Stevens just doesn’t have a very compelling voice at this point in his career.

Still, it’s listenable.

Love Affair

On Love Affair’s debut album, The Everlasting Love Affair, they recorded “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” It features a horn section in the chorus. I rather like it. It’s no wonder it didn’t become a hit. (Love Affair released a very good version of “Everlasting Love.”)

Keith Hampshire

The song has been recorded too many times to mention. But the next notable version was by Keith Hampshire in 1973. (It was recorded in 1971.) That was three years after Stevens conquered the world with Tea for the Tillerman. I love Hampshire’s voice, but I hate this version. It was produced by Bill Misener but is Phil Spector all the way. It’s worse than “The Long and Winding Road” — pretty much the gold standard in over-produced, sentimental trash.

I suppose it triumphs a bit just because of Hampshire’s voice. But even if Spector wasn’t a murderer, he belongs in jail.

Rod Stewart

This version has the advantage of being recorded in 1976 (released in 1977). This is after the British invasion and everyone trying to sound like Phil Spector. It’s still the time of the singer-songwriter, so the production of this song gets that treatment. So it’s not as annoying as most of the 1960s versions.

Just the same, it’s pretty anemic. Despite the swelling string section, the chorus always feels like a letdown. But Stewart was always chasing the current top-40 sound, so it isn’t surprising that this version of the song doesn’t hold up.

Papa Dee

I wasn’t aware of this version of the song. Papa Dee is a Swedish musician — kind of soul with some rap although he does straight reggae too. He’s really good. He doesn’t do the song quite the way I would prefer, but it works better than any other version I’ve heard.

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow released a cover of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” because of course she did. It is a solidly inoffensive cover of the song. It’s basically just an update of the Rod Stewart version with predictable results (mega-hit). I don’t find it compelling. And really, Crow’s affected voice has not worn well.

Maybe It’s the Song

Maybe I’m wrong to think that “The First Cut Is the Deepest” is a great song. After all, some of the best musicians of the last 50 years have recorded it without my liking it. And I’ve heard tons of other versions and they are all derived from one of the above.

I see two problems with all the versions of the song. First is that with a line as great as “the first cut is the deepest,” I think it should have an edge. The second is that the chorus should attack. Most all the versions are too “nice” and they depend upon the production to make the chorus work.

Now I wonder if it isn’t that I just love that line. It deserves a more appropriate song, I’m afraid — Maybe written by Dee Dee Ramone or Iggy Pop or Nick Cave.

Wow! Copyright Ran Out for a Change

Wow! Copyright Ran Out for a ChangeThis year, works of art created in 1923 went out of copyright and are now in the public domain. This is a big deal because it hasn’t happened in decades because when copyright was about to run out in 1999 (on works published in 1923), the US government extended copyright protection for another 20 years.

Let’s think about this for a second. What does it mean, socially, for a work to be in the public domain? Obviously, it means that the work belongs to everyone. But why? I think it is because everyone knows it. To use the most important example, does anyone know who created Mickey Mouse? (It wasn’t Walt Disney.[1]) For 99 percent of people (that’s no exaggeration), the answer is no. But they sure do know who Mickey Mouse is!

But this is just a way of thinking. I’m not arguing that we use it as a test. If it were, it would allow the most famous people to hold onto copyright longer — exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do. (For example, most people around me know that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday.”) Once a work of art becomes suffused in society, it is in the public domain — whether the law agrees or not.

Public Domain Is Too Far Behind the Present

It has been a troubling irony that as society has sped up — as art has changed faster — works have gone into the public domain (legally) slower. Just look at the films that have just now been put in the public domain. They are all in black and white. They are all silent.

Meanwhile, films gained sound. They gained color. Video was invented. And now films are largely made on computers. And yet all that we legally allow into the public domain are films so old that children can’t enjoy them. Indeed, the only people who enjoy them are people who take film serious and understand its technique and history.

Good News?

Last year, Timothy B Lee wrote a very optimistic article, Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 Copyright Extension Probably Won’t Happen Again. Basically, it all comes down to the fact that a lot of defenders of freedom (the real kind; not the libertarian kind) have sprung up like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are fighting back.

But I think there is another issue. We are now at the ridiculously long 95-year copyright. The stuff being released is so old it has virtually no value as a commodity. As a result, the bad PR is probably not worth the little money the corporation can squeeze out of these works. Is any corporation really going to release a DVD of Safety Last!? It’s doubtful.

So most corporate copyright holders just don’t care. Maybe Disney will make an effort to protect Mickey Mouse from the horrors of pornography.[2] But without the entire industry lobbying and claiming “No one will make movies anymore!” it isn’t likely that Congress is going to act.

And note, creative development is still accelerating. So in 20 years, the stuff that falls out of copyright will be even further behind the times.

My Proposal

From what I know about publishing (which is a lot), I have developed what I think are extremely fair terms for copyright owners. (Note I didn’t say “content creators,” because most owners did not create any content.) Copyright should last for ten years from publication with an optional extension of 10 years. So the maximum copyright length would be 20 years.

I actually think making the extension 5 years is fairer. But I’m trying to be really nice.

This would more than keep the film, music, book, and art industries going. The vast majority of the money they make is in the first year of publication. In fact, if corporations acted like normal people, they wouldn’t even care after 5 years. The amount of money that comes in is trivial at that point.

But as I’ve noted many times before: if a corporation could make an extra dollar by exporting its entire workforce, it would do it without thought. That’s corporate-think. And it is really something that we should fight as a society.

Good News!

So if the corporate world is really done pushing copyright to be longer and longer, we have an opportunity. We can now go on the aggressive. We can push for copyrights to be reduced.

In Lee’s article, he implies that the 56-year copyright of decades ago was reasonable. It wasn’t. And the author’s life plus 50 years was not reasonable.

We can’t allow the absurd modern copyright length to blind us from the fact that in the modern world, a copyright length of ten years is more than enough. Anything else is just corporate welfare.


[1] Yes, I don’t think much of vague notions about “ideas” when it comes to creative productions. I have millions of ideas. It all comes down to how it is rendered. And when people like Stan Lee and Walt Disney try to take credit for these things, I bristle.

[2] This is a common argument made. It is, of course, not why Disney cares about this issue. It’s all about money. It’s always all about money.

“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” Is a Feminist Song

Carol ChanningGrowing up, the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Carol Channing were more or less the same thing. I know that Marilyn Monroe performed the song in the filmed version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And Jo Stafford recorded a version of the song three years before that. But Channing originated the role on Broadway. And it has since been her signature song. (Yes, she’s still alive — turning 98 this month.)

There are lots of ways to interpret the song. It is certainly one of the most cynical songs in the history of popular music. But the real question is what we are to make of the singer.

Is the Singer Sympathetic?

In the musical, it is sung by Lorelei Lee. And it is clear that she is meant to be sympathetic. It starts with her boyfriend’s father sending a detective to track her on her trip to France. He’s afraid she is only dating his son for his money. At the end, because this is a musical comedy, the father learns to respect her and gives his consent to marry.

This is all interesting but it is hardly a case for the song being a feminist anthem. In addition to everything else, the lyrics were written by a man, Leo Robin. (The music was written by Jule Styne, which I mention only because he is probably my favorite musical composer of that era.)

Gender Realpolitik

But the truth is that the song is an illustration of a woman accessing the world as it is and then taking control. It’s gender realpolitik.

The song starts:

A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
A kiss may be grand
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat
Or help you at the automat

Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

It’s odd that I never listened to the lyrics all those times I heard Channing perform it. It wasn’t until 1982 when T-Bone Burnett released a subdued version that I was forced to see just how menacing those lyrics were. And hidden beneath them is fear of a society that doesn’t treat girls the same as boys (this is quite explicit in the play).

The following year, Emmylou Harris released Burnett’s arrangement on her album White Shoes, which is great:

Feminist or Anti-Man?

The rest of the song is the same:

There may come a time
When a lass needs a lawyer
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
There may come a time when a hard-boiled employer
Thinks you’re awful nice
But get that ice or else no dice

He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend
That’s when those louses
Go back to their spouses
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

(The full song includes an introduction and a third verse — both of which are wisely omitted by most performers. Channing uses yet another verse after the first that is quite good, but I’m not going to discuss it.)

The second verse could be seen as more anti-man than feminist. But I’m not sure that’s a distinction that matters. As with all relationships, the person with the most power acts the worse. To me, feminism ultimately becomes humanism.

I’ll admit that I’m jaded. A woman who understands that a sexual relationship is ultimately an economic exchange is one that has my respect. But you don’t need to see the song as quite that cynical. This is not a “sex for diamonds” transaction.

The implication is that she’s quite happy to be in the relationship. But since she can’t be a wife, she’s going to see to her retirement.

Modern Feminism?

Obviously, the song is not modern feminism. But for 1949 ethos it does push forward. Instead of telling young women to hold on to their virginity in order to get a husband, this song says, “Go ahead and live your life. But men are awful so protect yourself.”

What’s more, it seems a lot more progressive than Sheryl Sandberg’s ridiculous Lean In philosophy. I would say that Sandberg is pitching the same “wait until you’re married” notion. It is, “Play the rules like a man and they will treat you right.”

They won’t. Get that ice or no dice.

The Early Career of Steve Forbert

Steve ForbertIn 1998, the Timberline Lodge outside Portland, Oregon was filming a number of acoustic sets of notable musicians. One of them was Steve Forbert. But the lodge was snowed in. No one could get there, so I was one of maybe 5 people in the audience. I sat about a foot away from him as he performed. It was a magical moment because Forbert had been a hero of mine since I was in my teens.

In Loudon Wainwright’s great “Talking New Bob Dylan,” he pegs Forbert pretty well as a variation of Bob Dylan:

Yeah, I got a deal and so did John Prine
Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line
They were lookin’ for you, signin’ up others
We were new Bob Dylans, your dumb ass kid brothers
Well, we still get together every week at Bruce’s house
Why, he’s got quite a spread I tell ya, it’s a twelve step program.

Discovering Steve Forbert

I was at the mall recently and over the sound system, I heard little Steve Forbert. It reminded me how much I used to like him.

The song was, of course, “Romeo’s Tune” — the only song of his that was ever a hit as far as I know. Of course, I haven’t followed his career for about two decades. But unless all his intelligence and talent left him, I can’t imagine how he would have found himself in the top 40 again. Anyway, I figured it would be a good idea to start with it because most people don’t know who Steve Forbert is.

“Romeo’s Tune” is off his second album, Jackrabbit Slim. So I’m going to jump back below because I love his first album.

But the nice thing about Steve Forbert’s hit song is that it is fully in keeping with his other work. It’s a wonderful song. And as a lyric writer, he’s more of a poet than almost any songwriter I can think of. “Let me smell the moon in your perfume”? That’s such a lovely enigmatic line!

Goin’ Down to Laurel

Alive on Arrival - Goin' Down to LaurelOkay, let’s go back to the beginning of Steve Forbert, Alive on Arrival.

I remember reading that the agent who originally snagged Steve Forbert found him playing in a punk club. Although in a certain way, that seems bizarre, in another way, it makes perfect sense.

To me, punk isn’t about a style of music, but an approach to music. Listen to that first Bob Dylan album and tell me if that doesn’t sound punk to you. Steve Forbert on album doesn’t sound so very punk, but he does live. It’s the production. Most of his albums have been really beautifully produced, and that is not very punk.

I mentioned this because I am presenting “Goin’ Down to Laurel” first. Forbert was born in Meridian, Mississippi. It’s a town of about 40,000. And Laurel is about 50 miles south of it — with a population of a bit less than 20,000. But there were more people in Laurel when Forbert was growing up — it’s been falling steadily. So maybe when he sings, “It’s a dirty, stinking town,” he is right.

But what I find fascinating about the song is that he is singing as something of a bad boy — or at least a confident one who is in his element. He’s going down south to see a “little girl” who he says is “a fool” for loving him. And I suspect that as long as he was in Mississippi, he was that person. But the same album has the songs that he clearly wrote after he moved to New York. I’ll highlight one of those songs later. But for now, just bask in self-assurance. And remember it.

Big City Cat

After the last Steve Forbert song “Goin’ Down to Laurel” where he plays the bad boy, I wanted to offer a very different track off Alive on Arrival. The song is “Big City Cat.”

It’s a funny song. He’s talking about his life after moving to New York. Most of the song is just about the feel of the big city with its sights and sounds. The only indication that things are not going that well is when he says, “I’m getting so skinny it hurts to sit down.” This reminds me of once a few years ago when I got down to 99 pounds and it did indeed hurt to sit down.

But the whole song turns into a kind of musical version of The Zoo Story toward the end. He’s living in one of those dreary places with a shared bathroom. And some kind of “lunatic” has been following him. Now the guy is hanging out in his hallway, leading to him being afraid to use the bathroom.

But he ends the song with the wry observation that this is all that he wanted, “I’m supposed to be happy; I’m here where it’s at; I’m a face in the crowd; I’m a big city cat!” Yeah, maybe Laurel wasn’t such a dirty stinking town after all.

Say Goodbye to Little Jo

Jackrabbit Slim - Say Goodbye to Little JoOkay, now we move back to Steve Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim. It was his most popular album because of “Romeo’s Tune.” But it also had “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” which I think got a fair amount of play — at least on AOR stations.

It’s a lovely song. It’s about a break-up. The implication is that it’s kind of a pep-talk the singer is giving to himself: let her go; don’t be a jerk; it’s your own damned fault anyway. There’s also the implication that Little Jo was the one. Break-ups before were easy enough to get through, but this one is going to be different.

This song reminds me a lot of Jules Shear. But that’s hardly surprising. There’s a reason why I admire the two of them so much. But this song has the emotional complexity that I associate with Shear. It’s kind of like one of my all-time favorite Shear tunes, The First Freeze After The Fall. But that song is more about grabbing hold of the pain and cherishing it. That’s in “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” but it isn’t the focus.

Cellophane City

Little Stevie Orbit - Cellophane CityNow we move to Steve Forbert’s third album, Little Stevie Orbit. It’s actually a very upbeat album — even a bit unhinged at times. But the song I most remember from it is the subdued “Cellophane City.” It’s one of the songs that brings to mind William Goldman’s line about Hollywood, but which applies equally well to the music business, “No one knows anything.” It sounds like a hit to me — at least on AOR. It wasn’t.

Typical of this period of Forbert, the production is exceptional. Or it is just the kind of production that I most like in popular music. Sure, I may admire the more flashy production of Bob Ezrin and Jim Steinman. But its music like this that I listen to again and again. It is probably because it is really creative, but it never crosses that line of being an end in itself. I think Forbert brought that out in producers, given he had different ones.

The refrain in the song “cellophane city” gives the wrong impression about its meaning. It’s really not about some Peyton Place. It’s about one man and how he deals with the infidelity of what sounds like a wife, “He stood in the kitchen, she told him a lie; she left around 7 and kissed him goodbye…” But he gets over it.

The last verse is definitely the best because it puts the man’s previous behavior in context and shows that there is a better way:

You try to be Jesus, you try to be boss
You pulled a few tricks and you hang on a cross
This sepulcher is emptying, yeah all is at peace
We know you’re with Magdalene and you’re sailing for Greece.

That’s right: everyone knows; no one cares; get on with your life. Martyrdom is for chumps. Like a lot of Steve Forbert songs, it manages to be didactic but without the listener knowing it. So there you have your lesson for the day! And a really beautiful song:

Lost

Steve Forbert - LostSteve Forbert’s fourth self-titled album was, well, weird. It was all over the map. Whereas his earlier albums were incredibly consistent, he decided to spread out on this one. I can’t blame an artist for wanting to do this. But from the standpoint of a listener, it can be a bit disconcerting. It didn’t do well. It led to him losing his record contract.

But I think it’s a fine album. I do think it’s over-produced, and that’s too bad given his first three albums. But it has Steve Forbert’s usual range of emotion and wit. I don’t think it has a single bad song on it. There is a feeling I have a lot with him that I’d rather just listen to him alone with a guitar. He doesn’t need production, even if he was usually served well by it.

I’m going to highlight probably the most low-key song on Steve Forbert, “Lost.” I still think it is over-produced. But it’s such a fine song. And it’s from a perspective we don’t hear much in music — at least like this. It’s about the other man. The singer is talking to the ex of his new lover. The refrain is, “I’m lost in your sweetheart’s arms.” It’s what the other man in The Tennessee Waltz would sing.

He takes no pleasure in the pain he is inflicting on the other man. And he’s not even sure if the woman loves him, “Is she poison? Man, I just can’t tell.” But he’s so in love that he wants her to run off with him and get married. It reminds me of how I used to think when I was younger: that men should be willing to sacrifice their desires out of a kinship of manhood. Think of the ending of Casablanca. But if men can’t do that, they can at least be aware of what they are doing, as in “Lost.”

In saying this, I’m well aware that this a male-centric way of looking at relationships. This is partly why I no longer look at relationships in this way. (More important is that I just don’t see monogamous relationships as being that realistic or healthy.) But overall, everyone would be happier if they at least noticed the pain they cause others.

Steve Forbert Live

Steve Forbert 2015For years, I’ve looked to see if that 1998 concert ever came out on video. It didn’t. Part of it is on the album, Timberline Acoustic Series. But that’s just audio.

There is surprisingly little Steve Forbert live online. I am getting used to the fact that my tastes are not those of other people. Talking to Will a couple of years ago, I learned that he doesn’t think that much of Forbert. But I must note that in his old age, Will’s taste in music has really deteriorated. Then he made me listen to the Meghan Trainor song NO. All I could think to say was that it sounded like a Meghan Trainor song.

Anyway, the only suitable video I could find was the following 1979 performance at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey. It’s good, but I’ve already featured the first two songs of it: “Romeo’s Tune” and “Goin’ Down To Laurel.” And it limits his work to the first two albums. But it’s a fine performance. And it’s an excellent way to spend an hour.

Recent Work

Here is a short set from 2015 in support of his album Compromised, which is very good:

Butterfingers Irving — The 142nd Fastest Gun in the West

When You're in Love the Whole World Is Jewish - The Ballad of IrvingWhen I was a teen, I listened to The Dr Demento Show every Saturday night. I think it was a social thing: my closest friends all listened to it. I disliked a lot of the material that was played. And it was repetitive. Still, there were transcendent pieces like Doodles Weaver’s parody of “Eleanor Rigby.” But it was very rarely played. One song that was played quite a lot was “The Ballad of Irving.”

In order to understand “The Ballad of Irving,” we have to go back to 1964 and a surprising number one hit in the US by Lorne Greene. That’s right: Ben Cartwright (“Pa”) on Bonanza. It should not surprise you that this iconic American character was played by… a Canadian. But I digress.

Greene had a hit with the song “Ringo.” It’s about the drummer of a really famous band who has no detectable skill in anything at all. It’s about an outlaw in the old west. I rather like it. But then, I’m a sucker for this kind of sentimental drivel.

But the only part of the song that is sung is by a chorus that repeats, “Ringo! Ringo!” Otherwise, it is just Greene telling the story. Rather than recount it, you should just listen:

You can see why people would like it at the time. But you can also see why two years later, people would find it ripe for parody — especially since this kind of song became something of a thing.

Here Comes “The Ballad of Irving”

Those people were Frank Peppiatt, John Aylesworth, and Dick Williams. “The Ballad of Irving” tells the story of a Jewish gunman Irving: the 142nd fastest gun in the west. It was first released on the Bob Booker and George Foster comedy album When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish and “sung” by Frank Gallop.

The song is basically one long Jewish joke.

I Don’t Want to Be Racist

What’s strange is that the people involved with that album, and it’s predecessor, You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, mostly don’t have classic Jewish names. I know some of them were Jewish. Probably they all were. In general, one gets Jewish humor from Jews.

I bring it up because (1) Jewish as a race has never made any sense to me and (2) I would feel slightly more comfortable about it if it were created by Jews. I probably shouldn’t worry. It’s hard to imagine a group of Baptists putting out You Don’t Have to Be Jewish and When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Butterfingers Irving

Regardless of my natural liberal guilt, I find this song extremely funny — as I suspect most American Jews would too. There’s something very likable about Irving. I’m not Jewish. (I’m Catholic, which a Jewish friend told me made me half Jewish — a thought I rather like.) But had I been a gunman in the old west, I would have acted very much like Irving, the 142nd fastest gun in the west.

Son of Irving

Shortly after the success of “The Ballad of Irving,” the same songwriters wrote “Son of Irving.” The song was not a success at the time. But worse is that it hasn’t aged well because, at least to me, it is implicitly homophobic. And I do mean “implicitly,” because there is nothing in the song that really signals this. It’s about a moma’s boy.

But there’s something about him being thin, tall, and good-looking that makes me think that they were implying homosexuality.

Regardless, even though the denouement is as strong as it is in “The Ballad of Irving,” the song doesn’t work nearly as well. Still, it’s worth a listen — but you will have to look for it because it isn’t consistently available online.

Dr Demento Days

Dr Demento is still around. There seem to be umpteen Dr Demonto CD collections. It’s nice to be reminded of him. But I doubt I would want to listen to his show — or any of his CDs. It’s all too uneven. But I’m glad to have been introduced to all those songs — even the ones I hate like Shaving Cream and Wet Dreams.

60 Minutes Commits Child Abuse

Alma Deutscher - Artist's RenderingI saw that 60 Minutes profiled the child musician Alma Deutscher. I thought it odd. Very accomplished young musicians are hardly uncommon. I had season tickets to the Portland Symphony for a few years and it seemed every other performance featured some “great” 12-year-old on the violin or piano or glockenspiel. So why this child? Well, because she wasn’t just a performer; she was a composer. Oh, my! How exciting!

Now I should point out that I’m not using the word “prodigy” because that was a word that was used a lot about me: I was a “mathematical prodigy.” And I loved math. But I wasn’t interested in studying it 8 hours per day and my parents weren’t inclined to push me to do it. Instead, I spent time playing and drawing and putting on plays and generally doing anything that made me happy. I have a hard time believing any child wants to do one thing all the time. But I certainly can’t speak for Alma Deutscher. Nor would I want to. She speaks for herself, although she’s obviously been coached as much as Marjoe.

A Composer! Of 200 Year Old Music!

I was skeptical. Modern classical music is incredibly complex — even the bad stuff. The best stuff is filled with so much creativity that I had a hard time thinking that a 12-year-old would have much to offer. That was certainly true of Mozart. Nothing he wrote was really great until he was well into his 20s. (That’s right folks: Mozart wrote a lot of dreck in his early years.) Clearly, he had talent. But as with word writers, music writers need experience with life.

But I hoped that the compositions of this little girl were limited or even bad modern classical music. So I went to YouTube and found everything I could. I was sorely disappointed. She doesn’t even try to write anything from the last two centuries. Her music sounds like a precocious child’s version of the music before Beethoven. And that makes me think her performances aren’t anything more than her copying other performers. (That’s almost certainly true because it’s pretty much always true of young musicians; they haven’t had the life experience to add anything to the music.)

Great Composing Requires a Life Lived

Great composers do amazing things with their work. They communicate — in great detail. You might just hear a passage as sad, but they aren’t working in generalities. Many composers are known for putting musical jokes in their work. A great composer will tell you a story as clearly as the best writer or filmmaker.

Obviously, composers must study. Mozart studied counterpoint with Giovanni Martini, and the music he created afterward was far more interesting. But it was still years before he wrote anything I ever want to listen to.

But here’s my point: he was trying to write the music of his time. And this supposedly amazing child isn’t interested in any of the music of her own time. Most of it is no more interesting in the juvenilia of Mozart — which he wrote over 200 years ago!

The Classical Music Industry Sucks

This is not to knock Alma Deutscher. She’s a child. But it is a knock on the people who “enjoy” classical music. And it is a major knock on the people who produce classical music. As for her parents, well, I don’t know. But I suspect child abuse just as Marjoe Gortner suffered — just in a different way. I’d love to read the child’s autobiography when she’s 50.

This all makes me think that this poor young girl has been turned into a trained monkey by her parents and the classical music establishment. Almost everything she plays is something she’s written. I listened to her play a middling Mozart concerto that wasn’t really very well done. (She’s better on the violin than the piano.) Great for a little girl. Savaged by critics if performed by an adult. (She doesn’t seem to have even been told the purpose of a cadenza. And why an audience would applaud after the first movement, is unclear to me.)

There is no Brahms that I can find — much less Debussy — much much less Francis Poulenc — much much much less Elliott Carter! It’s almost all sweet music by the child herself.

What a Real Composer Creates

But I ask you, do you think the child composer of this:

Will ever grows up to be the adult composer of something this creative and great?

Not to mention Partita for 8 Voices.

I don’t think so. She might have. But not with all the adults who used her natural gifts to stick her two centuries before her own time. Sure, she’ll get better. But I doubt she’ll break from the music that made her famous. And at 16, she won’t be so cute. And if she’s lucky, she’ll have enough money that she can just quit.

Abused Child: Alma Deutscher

60 Minutes brought her on because they (and most classical music “lovers”) know almost nothing about classical music. Because they could have brought on someone like Masha Diatchenko, who at 15 actually seemed to understand the music she was playing. She didn’t seem like an abused trained monkey:

And listen to her at 23-years-old!

Maybe it’s an American thing. But I weep for Alma Deutscher. She’s being abused. And if she doesn’t know it now, she will soon enough.

Afterword

After reading this, I read the child’s Wikipedia page. It’s interesting that it contains not a single criticism, despite the fact that there has been quite a lot of criticism of her work. I suspect part of her marketing team makes sure that any criticism is removed. But there is much in there that makes the case that she is pushing against the prevailing trend against melody. This is preposterous. She has shown no sign of even being aware of current trends in classical music — or even trends over the last century.

Darius Milhaud once said, “Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.” I think modern composers know this. They don’t need to be taught by a precocious child. If they can be, modern classical music is over. But I don’t think it is. I think this child will have no effect whatsoever on the art of classical music. She might drag down the quality of what people listen to. Most classical music “lovers” may finally admit that they only like the music that doesn’t offend their archaic tastes. But the art will move along because of people like Caroline Shaw, even if most listeners aren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy it.

Pablo Casals on How to Appreciate Art

Pablo CasalsMy great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.

“Mr. Casals,” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals embracing me.

Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I palyed for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”

–Gregor Piatigorsky
Cellist, Chapter 17