Friday, October 27, 2006

Don’t be a luddy-duddy!
A friend recently asked my advice about an investment suggested to him by a salesperson with one of the larger multinational financial services companies. I thought there were some problems with the vehicle, a unit investment trust, though it might not be a bad choice for someone in his circumstances. But it reminded me of the archetypal encounter between salesperson and prospect portrayed in W.C. FieldsThe Bank Dick. It seems likely that Fields was reliving the days before the 1929 stock market crash, when fast-talking brokers unloaded soon-to-be-worthless stock on eager would-be investors, lured by a flowery spiel promising a life of luxury and ease.
The Bank Dick

Egbert Sousé.................... W.C. Fields
J. Frothingham Waterbury...... Russell Hicks
Og Oggilby.............................. Grady Sutton

Pardon me, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury.
Very glad to know you. My name is Sousé, accent grave over the e.
I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts, I think you’re the very man.
Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share.
SOUSÉ backs into a table, impaling himself on a fork. Squealing, he removes it.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. A telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it. The point I’m trying to make is this —
SOUSÉ takes hat off hatrack, puts it on.
The point I’m trying to make is, these shares sell for ten cents. It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.
WATERBURY mimes blowing foam off beer
I can almost see the foam, yes.
Ham and cheese on rye —
With mustard. We have plenty of mustard at the house, yeah.
Yes. And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap. And he says, “Sign here, please, on the dotted line.”
I’ll have a fountain pen by that time.
And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean.
They do, eh?
I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds.
WATERBURY removes a handkerchief from his pocket, wipes his eyes.
It must be tough to lose a paisley shawl.
SOUSÉ takes the handkerchief from WATERBURY and dabs at his eyes in sympathy.

Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.
I’ll take it.
Fine, fine, fine.
* * *
SOUSÉ walks to the bank in a big hurry.
SOUSÉ finds OGGILBY in the vault.
Og, my boy, I’ve got you set for life! I don’t hang around that Black Pussy Café for nothing. I met a poor fellow who is in trouble. There’s something the matter with his grandmother’s paisley shawl. He has five thousand shares in the Beefsteak Mine and you can buy them for a handful of hay!
Hay? And they’re worth. . .
Ten cents a share. Telephone sold for five cents a share. How would you like something better for ten cents a share? If five gets you ten, ten’ll get you twenty. Beautiful home in the country, upstairs and down. Beer flowing through the estate over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.
Beer! Fishing in the stream that runs under the arboreal dell. A man comes up from the bar, dumps three thousand five hundred dollars in your lap for every nickel invested, says to you, “Sign here on the dotted line,” and then disappears in the waving fields of alfalfa.
Gosh! Do you think he was telling the truth?
You don’t think a man would resort to taradiddle, do you? Why, he sobbed like a child at the very thought of disposing of these shares. How does a bank make its money?
By investing.
That’s the point. You don’t want to work all your life. Take a chance. Take it while you’re young. My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Huffnagle, took a chance. He was three miles and a half up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of alighting on a load of hay.
Goll-ly! Did he make it?
Uh. . . no. He didn’t. Had he been a younger man, he probably would’ve made it. That’s the point. Don’t wait too long in life.

I’ve never done anything like this, and for another thing, I haven’t got the money. Of course, my bonus comes due in four days — that’s five hundred dollars. I could buy ’em then. And then with all that money I made I really might be worthy of your daughter’s hand.
Women really appreciate the fine things in life. You don’t want to die and leave your wife and children paupers, do you? Borrow the five hundred dollars from the bank. You intend to pay it back when your bonus comes due, don’t you?
Oh, sure.
Surely. Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a moon-calf! Don’t be a jabber-nowl! You’re not those, are you?
No. Well, I guess there’s no way you could confuse it with stealing, is there?
[Chuckling] Nothing could be more absurd.
Well, all right, send him in.

Note that Sousé’s invented uncle is named Effingham Huffnagle, an alternative spelling of which might be F---ingham Huffnagle. Fields was always trying to slip double entendres past the Hollywood censor and frequently succeeded. Just one example in The Bank Dick (the title is another one), is when he says, “I don't hang around that Black Pussy Café for nothing.” Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue — “an inadvertent peccadillo,” Fields might call it — but based on the frequent appearance of pussycats in his movies I don’t think it was inadvertent at all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anna Russell (1911-2006)

I note here with sadness the passing of Anna Russell, the funniest lady in classical music. I was privileged to see her perform at Carnegie Hall twice. The first time, in 1965, the hall was nearly empty. The second time, for her farewell tour in 1984, the place was packed and the audience was in stitches. She had impeccable timing, an upper crust British accent that made everything funnier (to American audiences, at least), and knowledge of music and musicians that skewered the pompous, the pretentious, and the just plain silly.

The obituary in The New York Times was excellent (registration required and it’s probably on Times Select by now). Other good pieces are in The Telegraph, The Washington Post, and Opera News, which has a lovely photo of Ms. Russell in her salad days. A personal reminiscence from a Canadian point of view is in this piece from La Scena Musicale.

The picture below is of Russell and the Valkyries from a Canadian production of Die Walküre in 2004.

Some clips are posted at (here and here) for anyone who never saw her and for anyone who did. VAI has a DVD taped at her (First) Farewell Tour, television appearances from the 1960s and 70s, and a CD of her performance in Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s opera, Arcifanfano or You’re Always Too Old to Learn, with the great American soprano Eleanor Steber, as well as a live performance of some of her opera pieces from 1973.

It’s a cliche, but true nevertheless, that we will not see her like again.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time II: Fool in Love (Ike Turner)

I was talking about love and relationships a couple of days ago — in fact, I was explaining something about Yobo — and I quoted the chorus of Ike and Tina Turner’s astounding song Fool in Love:
You take the good along with the bad, Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad.
It reminded me that Fool in Love is one of my Top 300 Favorite Songs.

Here’s another song, like Love Potion #9, that has an unsurpassable, even inimitable, opening: Without any warning, like a volcanic eruption, Tina Turner shouts “There’s something on my mind. Won’t somebody please, please tell me what’s wrong?” And with four perfectly placed intro chords, the band starts playing and in close, gospel-inspired harmony, The Ikettes sing
You’re just a fool, you know you’re in love.
You’ve got to face it to live in this world.
You take the good along with the bad,
Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad.
You know you love him, you can’t understand
Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man.
The Ikettes, having explained exactly what the situation is, step back and Tina returns to the mic for the first verse. In her take-no-prisoners style, Tina explains how dire her straits are and I suspect that her audience understands that she’s talking about something more serious than being made to wear white flannel after Labor Day or not being allowed to use the right fork.
He’s got me smiling when I should be ashamed,
Got me laughing when my heart is in pain.
Whoa now, I must be a fool,
But I'll do anything he wants me to. Now, how come?
Back come the Ikettes to reiterate that she’s just a fool, and Tina has two more verses to explain that she knows she is a fool, but she loves her man so much that she can’t leave him, no matter what.
Without my man I don’t want to live.
You think I’m lying but I’m telling you like it is.
He’s got my nose open and that’s no lie,
And I, I’m gonna keep him satisfied. Now, how come?

Ways of actions speaks louder than words —
The truest thing that I ever heard.
I trust the man and all that he do,
And I, and I’ll do anything he wants me to do. Now, how come?
There are two things that I love about Fool in Love and that are a big part of making it one of my Top 300 Favorite Songs. The first is that Tina Turner’s delivery is completely at odds with what she’s singing. She doesn’t sound the least bit confused or perplexed, or in need of advice. Her powerful voice doesn’t convey any sort of weakness on the part of its owner. The second is that the Ikettes don’t second Tina’s supposed confusion. The words of the chorus chide, lecture, and advise. They rebuke the naive woman who doesn’t know about love or even how to live in this world. Most times the backup singers ratify the lead singer. Not here. Tina’s delivery and the words of the chorus provide the tension that keeps the song interesting no matter how many times you hear it.

A good cover of Fool in Love is by Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, and LouAnn Barton on Dreams Come True. Notice that it takes three lead singers to replace one Tina Turner. Nevertheless, they do a good job of delivering a solid version of the classic original.
I don’t remember exactly when I heard Fool in Love for the first time, but it was probably on Valaja Bumbulis’s show on KARL-AM, Carleton College’s student-run carrier current radio station. Valaja (a/k/a Linda Stephani) was a dedicated Ike & Tina Turner fan in the late 1960s, so even though I was born and grew up in New York City, I didn’t hear Tina Turner until I went to Northfield, Minnesota, hardly a hotbed of R&B outside the Carleton campus. But once I’d heard Tina Turner I became a fan, and was happy to see her subsequent success, especially once she ditched Ike. Valaja was definitely onto something.

I plan to write about other of my Top 300 Favorite Songs, including Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn song Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, Marshall Crenshaw’s Some Day, Some Way, Graham Parson’s Luxury Liner and Wheels, Candi Staton’s Victim, and Let It Be from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen concert album, so keep an eye out for those.