Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Work Song
There can’t be too many points on which RuPaul and President Bush agree but our President’s obsession with hard work is uncannily close to “You better work,” RuPaul’s admonition in his hit, “Supermodel.” A musical expression of our president’s obsession is “Hard Work,” Harry Shearer’s brilliant and hilarious remix of soundbites from the 2004 presidential debates — more than 20, according to one source — with a smooth jazz groove. And who could forget the compliment to former FEMA head Michael Brown: “Heck of a job, Brownie.”
Darned if he isn't at it again. We learn from news reports from Katrina—The Anniversary Tour that President Bush is out there working hard and praising those who are hard at work. In her Wednesday, August 30, New York Times column, Maureen Dowd reported that Bush told a crowd at a high school in New Orleans, “I’ve been on the levees. I’ve seen these good folks working.” He amplified that observation in the speech he gave in New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina’s Landfall, saying, “The Army [Corp of Engineers] has been working nonstop — and I mean nonstop — to repair the damage and make 350 miles of the system stronger. … They’re extensive. They require a lot of work, including rebuilding I-walls with T-walls. That strengthens the foundations of levees.” I’m sure we’re all glad to have that cleared up.
It’s a real concern of his, that people work hard, because if they’re working hard then progress is being made. Or something. It also establishes their bona fides, because if they weren’t serious, good people, they wouldn’t be working hard. They’d be slacking off, goldbricking, and generally goofing around. Lost in this chain of reasoning is that it is possible to work hard and get nowhere, work hard and reach a dead end, work hard and fail miserably. Even evildoers work hard, after all.
Did Bush work hard at Harken Energy, or later as a shareholder of the Texas Rangers franchise? As governor? Maybe he did. Maybe that’s where he learned the value of hard work. But it sounds more like something he reaches for when he has nothing else to say, something to accompany a slap on the back or a shoulder punch, a good-ol’-boyism he picked up in Midland. What puzzles me is how his advisers can have such a set of tin ears that they don’t hear that this meaningless verbiage is evidence of a mouth stuck in fifth gear while the mind spins helplessly in neutral.
It’s great that our President read Camus’ The Stranger on his vacation, but when he latches onto the Hard Work mantra he seems a lot more like the one of crowd described in the Texas saying “You buy ’em books and buy ’em books, and they just chew on the covers.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Power to the Pols

If Joe Lieberman wins the election in November — and I sincerely hope that he doesn’t. I can’t decide if he’s a schmuck or a putz. — it will go a long way to proving a long-held contention of mine, that the Democratic Party’s decline began when the party bosses turned over the power of selecting candidates to the party’s rank-and-file. Case in point: John Kerry. Primary voters decided he was more electable than the other candidates. It was his gravitas, it was reported. Well, the gravitas thing may have worked on the floor of the Senate but it didn’t play so well in the rest of the country.

Of course, there were several other factors that kept Kerry from winning, and he certainly didn’t lose by much. Among the factors working against Kerry were the Vietnam War issues that he didn’t address adroitly enough, his too-heavy reliance on advisors, and ballot measures tailored to bring cultural conservatives to the polls, but the bottom-line issue, in my opinion, is that voters didn’t like him enough to repudiate Bush. The primary voters were wrong again.

From what I saw, Edwards had the charisma and the message, as well as the fire and the quick-wittedness, to take on Bush-Cheney-Rove but apparently he was seen as not seasoned enough. It’s a damn shame. So if Lieberman wins (a poll last week gave Lieberman 45% to Lamont’s 43%, with the rest either undecided or for Schlesinger), maybe it will be time to start a discussion about giving political professionals more control over the candidate selection process.

UPDATE: Call it a psychic reading or a strange coincidence but as I was writing this post a ruling in a similar situation was being handed down in New York. According to The New York Times (N.Y./Region, August 31, 2006), a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on Wednesday, August 30, that the New York State system of choosing State Supreme Court judges based on nominating conventions was unconstitutional. The ruling upheld a lower court decision ordering that primary elections be held until a new system is set up by the state legislature. “Critics have long contended that the practice effectively robbed voters of their say in who made it to the bench,“ reporter William K. Rashbaum wrote.

It’s a lovely sentiment but I’d be astonished if most voters, even educated, politically savvy ones, were dedicated enough and had enough time to research who would make the best judges, on the State Supreme Court or any other court, for that matter.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

T’aint Funny, McGee

WARNING: Spoilers abound.
Where did I ever get the idea that Transamerica was a comedy? Blame it on the TV ads, which featured Felicity Huffman (Bree Osbourne) delivering what were the only funny lines of the movie, and the premise, which I picked up from the reviews—pre-op transsexual bails her (unknown to him) son out of jail and with only a week before her final operation, drives from New York to L.A., reuniting with their families along the way. Supposed to be a lighthearted look at the travails of gender dysphoria in 21st-century America, the movie turned out to be not a comedy at all. Yes, there were some amusing lines, but they were never laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it didn’t play all that well as a television viewing experience, though it was, overall, effective and consistently interesting.
In my definition of a comedy, physical violence immediately disqualifies a movie or play, and Transamerica has a couple of scenes that go right over the line that separates funny from serious. In one, a character is knocked out, and kicked when he’s down, if I remember correctly. In the other, a punch to the face leaves an ugly red bruise.
Also keeping Transamerica from being a comedy is its muted quality, which comes from Bree’s character. Huffman’s performance is impressive but Bree is, frankly, not all that much fun. Sweet, thoughtful, mysterious, even, but her lid is on pretty darn tight. Huffman is convincing, without question, especially after seeing her in “Sports Night,” which was about as far from Transamerica as you can get. The same could be said of “Desperate Housewives,” of course.
Her family also sabotages the comedy, while posing a serious plausibility problem. Her over-the-top domineering mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and nebbishy-though-apparently-successful father (Burt Young) made my teeth ache. From what sitcom planet did they descend? The tattooed and pierced sister (Carrie Preston) must have been left on their doorstep by escapees from a desert commune. The scenes in Phoenix may have been dramatically necessary but were largely wince-inducing.
Another problem was that as Bree’s character unfolded during the film, we learned precious little about her. It was as if the screenwriter found her transsexuality fascinating but beyond that couldn’t figure out what made her tick. Bree works as a waitress in a small L.A. Mexican restaurant and does telemarketing at home, she went to college for about ten years but never graduated, and she’s half Jewish (her father, so it doesn’t really count). She had a girlfriend in college, when she was Stanley, though she described it as “sad” and “Lesbian.” No friends, apparently, and she doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or outside interests.
Bree’s clothes are conservative and her speech is guarded. When she first meets Toby, her son (Kevin Zegers), and he thinks she is a Christian missionary it’s completely plausible. Perhaps a scene in church was cut, along with scenes with friends, as slowing down the action. The result is that Bree is revealed piecemeal and whole aspects of her character are unexplained. There’s her sly, even sarcastic, humor that slips out at times and seems to be a remnant of a cynical youth. When she says she’s happy or that everything’s fine, it is clear that she isn’t and it’s not. Maybe, we think, the operation will fix that (pun intended).
Probably the most interesting change Bree experiences in the course of the movie’s 103 minutes is the development of her parental instinct. When she first hears about Toby’s existence, he’s little more than a minor detour on the path to the operation. By the time they get to Phoenix (cue Glen Campbell?), Bree is thinking of how she can guide his life, couched as a corrective to her own growing up. As the movie ends, she’s trying to teach him how to behave like a grownup; his grudging response suggests that he could allow her a place in his life, though she may not get to be quite the mother she’d like to be.
The Hollywood expression “Give the puppy a limp” seems to apply to Transamerica. Supposedly, a producer is telling a screenwriter how to make a character more appealing. “Give him a puppy,” the producer says. “Give him a limp.” “Give the puppy a limp?” the confused writer asks. “How the hell do I know?” says the producer. “You’re the writer. You make it work.” Bree got the puppy (long-lost teenage son who’s a hustler) and the limp (pre-op transsexual), and Felicity Huffman delivers a bravura performance, but it still leaves Transamerica as a good movie that falls short of claiming those extra Netflix stars.

19 July 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Criticizing the Critics

I’d like to revive something the late critic B.H. Haggin used to do: criticize the critics. For the most part, critics don’t acknowledge the existence of other writers in their pieces, aside from the occasional vague reference to other opinions. It’s a professional courtesy not to question another writers’ opinion, I think, a sort of honor among thieves. However, I’m not a professional and I can say whatever I please. The July 10 issue of The New Yorker had a couple of choice places to start this project: “Farewell Symphony,” Alex Ross’s encomium on the departure of Daniel Barenboim from the Chicago Symphony, and “Westward Ho!,” Joan Acocella’s paean to Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?
In my opinion, Daniel Barenboim is one of, if not the, least talented musicians before the public today. Clearly, since he’s music director of the Berlin State Opera and principal guest conductor of La Scala, many other people don't share this opinion, and it’s true that I saw this view first expressed in Haggin’s writing, but nothing I’ve heard in all the years since has changed my mind.
Take, for example, his contribution to the 30th anniversary celebration of Live from Lincoln Center recently broadcast on PBS. In the madly kaleidoscopic segment of concerto performances, Barenboim’s few measures stood out for the leaden quality of the playing. There was no phrasing, musicality, or even interest in what he did. He looked the part but based on his playing he could just as well have been some guy from the audience in a tux, called up at the last minute to take the place of an indisposed soloist.
I have to think audiences respond to his bella figura. Just listen to the Mozart Two Piano Concerto in E-flat, K.365, he recorded with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1975, my exhibit A of Barenboim’s astonishing shortcomings as a musician (available in Decca/Londons Mozart Piano Concerto box set). Ashkenazy’s entrance after the orchestra introduction is everything it should be: beautifully played, tastefully phrased, technically secure. Then Barenboim comes in and instead of answering it in kind, produces an elephantine response, painful to hear.
Another recording of the Concerto is available on the BBC Legends label (BBC 4037-2), taped live at a Proms concert with Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and Sir Clifford Curzon playing the other piano. Listening closely while following the score to keep track of who was on which piano, it was clear that Barenboim’s playing was consistently less sensitive, less interestingly phrased, less varied than Curzon’s. It’s not always out-and-out bad, which surprised me, but it isn’t really good. It is Curzon who I wanted to hear more of, who made Mozart interesting and engaging. For example, in the solo in the last movement that starts at measure 113, Barenboim’s playing isn’t cleanly articulated, especially the dotted notes. Sometimes he’s just sloppy, as in the sixteenth-note runs at measure 418 in the same movement.
There’s also a video of the same Concerto with Barenboim and Sir Georg Solti, who plays the first piano part and conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in a 1990 performance. It is also available on CD (Decca Eloquence 476 2451). I was only able to watch a few minutes, but I would recommend it to anyone who would like to see Barenboim in action. Perhaps you will hear that he uses only three dynamic levels: forte, mezzoforte, and pianissimo. Compare his playing to Solti’s, who shapes the melodic line by varying the dynamics. Barenboim does precious little within the phrase and waits until the end to dramatically reduce the volume to a whisper. The Live from Lincoln Center clip suggests that his playing hasn’t changed in more than 30 years.
I would say that Barenboim’s leaving Chicago would be cause for celebration, but that wasn’t why Ross wrote his piece. We are told that the performances Barenboim conducted over three valedictory days were variously “grimly eloquent at the outset and electrically triumphant at the end” in Beethoven’s Ninth, “vividly executed” in Carter and Boulez, and contributed to an exit that “could not have [been] more graceful.” But read between the praise and you will find these cavils:

“The Mahler Ninth felt like a recapitulation of Barenboim’s Chicago career. The first movement was rocky at times, orchestra and conductor never quite settling on a central pulse—that stuttering-heartbeat rhythm that signifies the composer’s knowledge of his own approaching death. [A questionable assertion, but let it go for now.] Yet the playing was passionate in the extreme. There was an engaging wildness in the middle movements, together with more disagreements about tempo. (Some musicians have long been frustrated with Barenboim’s habit of setting new tempos on the spur of the moment.)”

“I had an adverse reaction when I first heard the great Chicago orchestra under Barenboim, a decade ago. There was a crude and chaotic quality to the sound: you could still hear the vehement aesthetic of Georg Solti, Barenboim’s predecessor, but it lacked Solti’s precision. Barenboim conducted with a broad beat, trying at times for profound effects that either he was unable to articulate or the orchestra was unwilling to execute.”

“Pride filled Barenboim’s voice as he declared that he had gained that trust—for much of his tenure, there was resistance from factions in the orchestra—and that he had just received the unofficial title of Honorary Conductor for Life.” [Perhaps he just wore them down over the years.](italics mine)

I’d suggest that Ross was really hearing Barenboim’s conducting in those passages, but that over the years he let down his critical guard. When Ross says “although [Barenboim] had gravitas even in his youth, something in his work has deepened,” it is more likely only Barenboim’s acting ability that has deepened over the years. I don’t think musicality can be taught to an unmusical person, any more than someone can be taught to be a good writer.
The fact that Ross takes Bruckner’s symphonies seriously is further proof that he’s reacting to Barenboim’s stage gestures and demeanor since Bruckner is a prime example of a composer whose chief ability lies in creating impressive sounds that don’t add up to anything. A hit single, a guitarist friend once told me, has to have a sound and a hook and Bruckner’s symphonies have both. Unfortunately, while he wanted desperately to write symphonies, he couldn’t assemble the pieces into a coherent whole. But there are those, like Ross, who are convinced he was a worthy successor to Beethoven and predecessor to Mahler. He characterizes Bruckner as “a composer who carved out his music as if it were cathedral limestone.” To my ears, the cathedral is imposing, all right, but it is hollow inside, which perfectly describes Barenboim’s playing and conducting.
Alex Ross seems like a really nice guy, which is not the first qualification I think of in connection with criticism. When I read his blog, The Rest is Noise, I get the sense that he’s a big ole’ classical music fan who wants to do his best to encourage composers, musicians, and listeners to get out and write, play, and hear more music. Now that’s a great attitude and essential in keeping the business going but I think a critic better serves music and the music business if he starts out committed to the belief that guiding readers to the most accurate and most exciting performances of the best music is his primary reason for writing.

A Direct Line to Heaven
Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography may not be on the same level as Barenboim’s conducting, but it is not at all the great white hope of Russian dance that Joan Acocella thinks it is. “Russia is in the torturous process of catching up with twentieth-century modernism, from which it was isolated for more than half a century, and Ratmansky was made by God to help it do this,” she said. God? Really? Who told her this?
Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons was part of the New York City Ballet’s latest Diamond Project, a program that commissions new ballets for the company. Acocella starts her piece with a perceptive critique of the Diamond Project and its latest products, a mixed bag at best, she says. I saw just one other of the seven pieces, Christopher Wheeldon’s Evenfall. It was on a program with Robbins’ Ma mère l’oye and Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (to Bach’s Two Violin Concerto) and in that company it didn’t stand a chance. (Well, with the Balanchine at least. The Robbins is entertaining but embarrassingly sentimental.) After seeing Evenfall and a subsequent performance of Klavier I’m starting to wonder about the fuss that’s been made over Wheeldon. Evenfall did not hang together at all. It looked like an homage to Balanchine, using Bartók instead of Stravinsky, but it made me think that maybe Balanchine was right not to set a ballet to Bartók. Acocella summarized it as a piece “in which women in filigreed tutus bent over and stuck their butts up in the air to Bartók’s beautiful Piano Concerto No. 3.” Fair enough.
But then she goes right off the deep end with Ratmansky’s Seasons. It clearly touched her at some profound level but the work itself doesn’t live up to her reaction to it. At its best it was reminiscent of Robbins’ piano ballets, and come to think of it, at its worst it was too. To start with, there were the costumes. The five couples came onstage — strolled onstage, to be accurate —in simple costumes reminiscent of Russian peasant dress. “Wass very Rooshian,” I told a friend. “Wass all very Rooshian.” The couples were color-coded and the women wore a version of the traditional headdress, though it was not decorated as in the traditional peasant style. Finally, we have an answer to the crucial question Steven Sondheim raised in “Ladies Who Lunch”: “Does anyone still wear a hat?”
As the couples stroll onstage they greet each other, talking about something or other — the harvest, perhaps — before they start to dance. In the ballet’s 12 sections the couples enact stages of the peasant year, accompanied in five of them by a singer. The music, by Leonid Desyatnikov, was dissonant sometimes, melodic other times. Acocella heard “not just folk material but also jazz and Steve Reich—and Stravinsky” in the music, making for a curiously mixed bag at best. It was not, apparently, composed for the ballet.
Wendy Whelan was the featured soloist, though Jenifer Ringer, a wonderful dancer, was also in the cast I saw. Whelan returns at the end in white, which is the color of a wedding gown but also — gasp! — the color of a shroud. Also very Rooshian.
To Acocella, Ratmansky “takes on the great themes—love, grief, marriage, death—and looks them straight in the face.” But there’s a Marie Antoinette-playing-at-being-a-shepherdess quality in a work choreographed by the director of the Bolshoi Ballet and danced by some of the world’s most sophisticated ballet dancers for a New York City Ballet matinee audience that takes as its subject the life of rural Russia. At the same time, and I realize this sounds completely contradictory, it is very New Masses: The simple peasants are closer to the truths of life, love, and death than we decadent bourgeois and we could learn so much from them if we would only take the time to sit at their simple, peasant feet.
What’s fascinating is that Acocella sees the ballet clearly but, bless her, she takes it seriously. Also, she has the advantage of program notes that translate the texts of the songs. Here she describes one of the sections, quite accurately:

“The ballet wears no tragic mask. The dancers often do regular, unsentimental, ‘street’ things. They run around; they knead charley horses out of their legs; they chat with one another. Even in the most mystical passage, nothing gets too heavy. Here is the lyric:
“For you, the body, there is but one lot . . .
To go under the earth, to feed worms.
And me, the soul, I’ll go repenting.
I went near Eden, I didn’t get there . . .
Our Eden, it’s a mighty merry place,
Birds are singing, flowers are blooming,
Oh, on the flowers angels are sitting.
“To this song Jenifer Ringer enters, her expression rapt, her arms groping. She is searching for something—Eden, heaven—and everywhere she turns she comes up against some obstacle. Three men partner her, but they are not men; they are just the arms that support her quest, and block it. In the ballet’s most beautiful moment, the men become the angels on the flowers in Eden. They sit on the floor in a neat little row, and she steps into their hands, then onto their knees, as she walks out into the air, into the void. ‘I went near Eden, I didn’t get there’: she doesn’t get there, but no tears are shed. The whole thing, as serious as it is, looks like a children’s game, which I think is what Ratmansky is saying about the hope of heaven. The thought is Russian, the manner Western. The casualness is a bit like Jerome Robbins’s. Still, you are stabbed in the heart.”
Or else you’re not. As for the ballet’s “most beautiful moment,” didn’t Paul Taylor do the same thing in Esplanade 30 years ago? “No new steps, only new combinations,” Balanchine said. And sometimes not even that.
Acocella may have let her head get ahead of her critical gut with Ratmansky but she was right on the money the next week in “Secrets,” her review of Diana Vishneva in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle. (See sidebar, below.) I’m not sure which New Yorker critic Edward Gorey was talking about when he said, “She knows who danced Giselle in 1897 but she can’t see what’s in front of her face,” but on the evidence of this piece he wasn’t referring to Acocella. (That would leave Arlene Croce as the next most likely candidate.)
She saw the performance with Angel Corella as Albrecht; I saw Vladimir Malakhov a few days earlier. The effect was the same: “a show that left people sitting dazed in their seats afterward.” In the second act pas de deux, the Met audience was as quiet as I’ve ever heard them, transfixed by the dancing of the two principals. They slowed the tempos w-a-a-y down and turned in a breathtaking performance. Here were the true “angels on the flowers in Eden” of Russian Seasons.
Burning Down The House
Another New Yorker critic in that July 10 issue was Hilton Als, who wrote about Richard Greenberg’s The House in Town, presented by the Lincoln Center Theater. Als took his review as a springboard to psychoanalyze Greenberg through his characters, a temptation critics often give into. In the climax of the review, Als condemns Greenberg for projecting his fears of contemporary Manhattan women on the play’s protagonist. That’s a serious charge, but if we take it at face value, we’re facing the slippery slope of assuming that a character’s moral shortcomings are a reflection of the writer’s neuroses. Is Sweeney Todd about Hugh Wheeler’s difficulties with authority figures? Moving away from the theater, what does that say about the screenwriters of Heathers (Daniel Waters) or Mean Girls (Tina Fey) and their views of women?
Critics are a lot like families: You can’t always live with them and you can’t shoot them. If only they agreed with us more often.

Sidebar: Thinking About Giselle
Giselle is quite a dichotomous little ballet. The first act is stereotypical, colorful, and melodramatic, while the second act is Romantic, monochromatic, melodramatic, and moving. It is also fascinating, and it is still influencing ballets today.
As the American Ballet Theatre program notes point out, Giselle is the oldest ballet still in the active repertory, premiered in 1841. The current ABT production, however, owes more to a Petipa version reset by Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1987. If the structure is reminiscent of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, with a first act in which the story is set forth with more mime than dancing and a second act which is nearly nonstop dancing, that may reflect more of the Petipa/Maryinsky influence than surviving aspects of the original 1841 version. Also familiar from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are the royal characters who parade around in lavish costumes attended by a stage full of courtiers, the young prince with an attendant who has not independent life of his own, a unison dance for demi-soloists (think of the “Dance of the Young Swans” in peasant costume instead of tutus and feather headpieces), and a curse. In Giselle, it is Giselle’s weak heart instead of a fairy with a grudge but the plot hinges on it just the same.
Giselle’s determination to dance despite the fate that awaits her may have inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, published in 1845, reworked in the 20th century in Powell and Pressburger’s movie, made just over 100 years after the ballet. (And doesn’t Victoria Page’s ghost appear at the end of the film? I’m not quite sure as it has been several years since I last saw it.) The twist that Andersen introduces to the story of the demonic shoes is that in Giselle it is the men who are danced to death by the women, spirits who have killed themselves after being jilted or betrayed.
Another aspect of the ballet that has resurfaced in modern times is the interplay between members of the corps, who wave to each other as they enter, cross the stage, and exit. The intent is to establish a sense of community among the dancers before the action takes place before their (and our) shocked gaze. They are surrogates for the audience, most of whom are unknown to each other before they take their seats in the theater. This interplay was a central motif of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and the subsequent dances he created to Chopin, as well as Goldberg Variations and even Ma mère l’oye.
Closely associated with Robbins as this vocabulary was, after Peter Anastos’ wicked satire, Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet, it might have seemed like choreographers would leave it strictly alone. However, Alexei Ratmansky’s commission for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, Russian Seasons, shows that even today they find it just as appealing.

29 June 2006

Pandora Opens the Box
Feeling out of touch with current music? I sure am. Some time around 1995, I mostly stopped buying new pop, rock, and country CDs, in part because I ran out of space to store them but also because I lost interest in trying to follow popular music. Most of what I heard sounded like stuff I’d heard before, only not as good. NPR is all right as far as it goes for hearing new music, but it barely scratches the surface of the thousands of CDs released each year. If that describes your situation and there isn’t a good rock radio station in listening range—there isn’t in New York City—and you can spend some time at the computer, I’d suggest that you point your browser to, a high-tech way to hear music you’re likely to like.
Pandora is the computer equivalent of a friend with good taste, a site which takes your favorite groups or musicians and creates a personal radio station that programs them and musicians like them. Pandora uses the 423 criteria devised by the Music Genome Project to categorize and organize popular music to select other songs and performers that share those criteria. The more musicians you input, the more songs it selects. Or you can listen to your friends’ stations, or the most popular stations.
The music is continuous, with a few seconds of silence between the cuts. Information about the artists is accessible through a link under the album art or generic image that appears as each song is selected. If you really like something you hear, you can order it from Amazon or download it from iTunes.
To create my station, Music-o-Rooney Radio, I started with Marshall Crenshaw, then added Thelonious Monk to spice up the mix, and Chris Hillman to expand the selection to the country-bluegrass universe. Adding Chris Hillman to the roster brought in a heavy bluegrass representation, as well as some alt-Country artists, which is fine but I’d like to find a way to make it more of an occasional thing. Those major keys and modal progressions are hard to resist, though.
The resulting mix included some artists I’d never heard of, though they’ve been around for decades: John Strohm, who was in the Blake Babies in the late 1980s and is now an entertainment lawyer; Sloan, which is a group, and Dan Colehour. I don’t know if I’d buy CDs by any of them but the tracks were good, interesting, and I was glad to hear them. Their songs were chosen, Pandora explained, because they feature “a subtle use of vocal harmony, meandering melodic phrasing, major key tonality, melodic songwriting and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project.” “Meandering,” I guess, is the opposite of “monotonous.” I don’t know, I just think it’s interesting.
On the jazz side, Monk brought in Steve Lacy, whom I’ve known about for years, and Elmo Hope, whom I can’t have heard much though his name is familiar. Then the jazz cuts disappeared for a while. It seems like Pandora concentrates on one genre at a time; the rotation through your favorites isn’t as random as it might be. Jazz seems to be less well covered than rock or country. Pandora doesn’t have any Dave Frishberg or Roberta Gambarini, though I was able to add Fats Waller. A somewhat annoying aspect of the jazz selection is that you can’t get discographical information. Want to know who’s playing on that track? Well, you can see the CD it’s drawn from and maybe figure out who the musicians are and when it was recorded, but mostly you just have to enjoy the playing.
To give an example of what Pandora is like, turning on the radio today loaded jazz for the first eight selections. Starting with Louis Armstrong, moving through Eddie Lang, Coleman Hawkins, and a track from Freddie Redd’s music for The Connection, the jazz set ended with Charlie Parker’s Ornithology. The next track was Marshall Crenshaw’s Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time), one of my favorite songs but jarring in that context. If I were going to try a segue like that I’d have done an ID, recapped all of the tracks I’d played, and added an intro to the new segment of pop, Western swing, bluegrass, and alt-Country. Maybe Fats Waller’s It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie would have been a better lead-in but that’s what you get when a computer program is the DJ.
An in-depth article about the Music Genome Project and Pandora can be found here:
Call It What You Will
One day when I was otherwise unoccupied at a temp assignment, I came up with some titles for Weblogs. Since I have no use for them, I’m sharing them with the world.

Being Obstructionist (an accusation Hyacinth Bouquet sometimes levels at Richard)
With Castanets Blazing
Crammed With Incident (the first of a series inspired by The Importance of Being Earnest)
Something Sensational
Comment on the Platform
Ready Money
Oddities and Curiousities
Aged in Wood (an homage to All About Eve)
Picking Oakum Underwater (a riff on S.J. Perelman's description of writing as a cross between picking oakum and eating a banana underwater. )
Foul Copy
Slug Read Blues
Cold Read
Any Old Iron?* (first in a series inspired by The Highly Esteemed Goon Show)
A Crack in Eccles’ Skull
Who’s a Charlie?
Back From the Dead (“Minnie Bannister, back from the dead!” “Yes.” “How long are you staying?”)
Legion of the Bored
After That, Everything Was Wonderful (said by a friend of a friend when recounting a date that had gone well)
Summer Shutters (Eddie Cantor’s comment on seeing a Native American’s costume in Making Whoopee)
An Exclusive Postcode (Hyacinth again, describing the block where she and Richard live)

*From a favorite English music hall song, sung on The Goon Show:

Any old iron? Any old iron? Any, any, any old iron?
You look sweet, talk about a treat,
You look so dapper from your napper to your feet.
Dressed in style, brand-new tile,
And your father’s old green tie on,
But I wouldn’t give you tuppence for your old watch and chain,
Old iron, old iron.
(Chas. Collins, E.A. Sheppard, and Fred Terry)(sheet music here)

Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time I: Love Potion #9
Love and Loss at 34th and Vine
One of my Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time is Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Love Potion #9, recorded by The Clovers in 1959 (recorded on June 8, it was released in July on United Artists) and a bigger hit for The Searchers in 1965. The laidback-but-totally-in-control singing and instrumental backing epitomizes ’50s cool and Jerry Leiber’s lyrics never fail to knock me out. Take the first verse:
I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth
You know, the gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad on 34th and Vine
Selling little bottles of Love Potion #9
The first great thing is that Leiber starts in the middle of the story. The singer doesn’t say what his troubles are, exactly, though we can guess they’re love-related from the name of the song. But there’s no lead in, no enumeration of what he’s been going through. It’s as if we were passing him on the street as he’s talking to one of his friends. A more linear writer might have started with a sad story of love troubles that led to the gypsy’s storefront but it would have been a less interesting song.
I told her that I was a flop with chicks,
I’ve been this way since 1956.
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign,
She said “What you need is Love Potion #9.”
Another great thing is the concrete images. The narrator has been a flop with chicks not for years but since 1956; Madame Ruth doesn’t work downtown, she has a pad at 34th and Vine (an intersection that doesn’t exist, at least not in Los Angeles); and she has not just one but a line of love potions, the most powerful of which is Love Potion #9.

Could Love Potion #9 be a sly reference to Chanel No 5, the famous perfume known by a number rather than a name? Chanel mentions on its Web site that the perfume’s packaging was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection in 1959. It’s possible that the publicity around the addition gave Leiber and Stoller the germ of the idea for Love Potion #9.

After Madame Ruth diagnoses the singer’s love trouble she’s ready to supply him with the cure. And she is one funky gypsy. No FDA-inspected laboratory for her, she just takes all the ingredients and goes to work in the kitchen sink.
She bent down and turned around, and gave me a wink.
She said, “I’m going to mix it up right here in the sink.”
It smelled like turpentine and looked like India Ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes—I took a drink!
In contrast to Chanel No 5, which the fashion house tells us “launches with bewitching notes of Ylang-Ylang and Neroli, then unfolds with Grasse Jasmine and May Rose,” while “sandalwood and Vanilla round out the fabled composition with unforgettable woody notes,” Love Potion #9 smells like turpentine and looks like India Ink. This is clearly a desperate man.

The potion goes right to work. The next verse follows right after the bridge (the instrumental break comes after this verse) so we don’t lose any time in learning what happened after the fateful drink.
I didn’t know [if] it was-a day or night,
I started kissing everything in sight.
But when I kissed the cop at 34th and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion #9.
(On the album, the last two lines are “I had so much fun that I'm going back again, I wonder what happens with Love Potion #10.”)

It’s a wonderful image, the poor guy kissing everything in sight (not a cow, though, as some misheard), but isn’t a love potion supposed to make someone fall in love with you? I thought the deal was that you slip to it some young lovely and then stand back, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Tristan und Isolde. Either Madame Ruth got some of the ingredients mixed up or the singer drank the potion he was supposed to give to the object of his desire. So if he was a flop with chicks before, he was damn sure going to be the same flop after he swigged down his bottle.

Love Potion #9 is poignant little story set to music. In close to 150 words and less than two minutes we move from passion to pain, hope to defeat. No one is changed, but maybe that’s the lesson: You won’t find love by drinking a gypsy’s cockamamie concoction.