Friday, January 28, 2011

Buddy Holly & The Late Italian Renaissance

I have often been amazed how Buddy Holly
anticipated the changes in song writing that
Bob Dylan was to personify in the mid-1960s.
(Of course it was The Beatles who really made
it stick as they entered their middle and late
periods and proved its commercial viability.)

The comparison might seem strange as Holly's
song never grew lyrically complex, and he
very seldom developed a song much beyond two
verses, but the complexly sensitive male singing
Well All Right is completely alone among the
rock stars of his time.  He is petulantly self-assertive,
but he also realizes the woman he's speaking to is
as fully alive (with her own desires and inner life)
as he is himself. 

And it's practical knowledge:  the man who
sings Words of Love has a very sophisticated
ability to talk to women - again  unique among
his fellow greats singing lines like "She's sure
fine looking, man; she's something else" - this
after comparing his love to his car.

Even Rave On anticipates a vocabularly 30 years
or more in the future.  (And again the woman
takes the initiative. )  But Rave On reveals some-
thing else about Holly:  not only did he anticipate
the future, but by some strange coincidence, he
developed a style of singing very close to the
Sprezzatura so highly prized by composers of
the late Renaissance such as Caccini, Cavalli,
and most notably Claudio Monteverdi.

Sprezzatura means something like negligence,
but in a good way, and the freedom with which
Holly's voice bent and spread out against a
disciplined bass line would have allowed
Monteverdi to trust one of his composition's into
Holly's hand with confidence:

For comparison sake compare Holly's singing
on Rave On with what starts around the :40
mark of Monteverdi's  Zefiro Torna, 
e di soavi accenti  from his 8th Book of Madrigals.

Rave On

Zefiro Torna, e di soavi accenti.

Buddy Holly continues to astound over
fifty years after his death.  He has the most
densely compact career of any rock 'n roll
great, having in just a handful of years and
songs reached back into the centuries and
looked forward into the decades.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Baby, We All Gotta Go Down

She was at a concert - for a band she'd be embarrassed
to own up to - and she was not enjoying herself either,
when suddenly a song caught her ear, a boisterious
song, Baby, We All Gotta Go Down, and she immediately
started to cry. 

The old men singing it on stage did not appeal to her,
and she could not understand why it made her so emotional.
She could not shake the song from her memory, and again
it made her cry for something lost she could not name.
She bought an old vinyl disc of another band playing the
song, and since she had no other way to play it she took
it to her mother's house and played it there on her antiquated
turn table.

Her mother wasn't at home, and her father had been gone
for years, so the house was empty when she arrived. 
She went straight to the turn table without taking off her
coat and could not understand why she was shaking as she
put the record on.

Not wanting to scratch the grooves of the song itself,
she put the record on at the beginning and let it play
to her song, but when the song was finished, she picked
the needle up carefully and placed it precisely at the
right spot, even though her eyes were filled with tears.

It was on the 3rd play that she noticed her mother
standing in the room.  Her mother was crying too.

- Why, the daughter asked, what is it about this

- Do you remember your father?

- Of course not.

He had died before she turned 3.

-Oh, yes you do, answered her mother, he used to
sing this to you everynight at bedtime.  You hated
going to sleep and absolutely refused until he sang
you this, Baby We All Gotta Go Down.  You
wouldn't let me sing it after he died, and you lay
awake for hours with a dim hall light on,
refusing sleep.

The daughter looked up out the window: part of
the landscape was missing; it had grown dark,
and what was missing comforted her.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Samuel Johnson, Internet Star

In the history of Coffee Culture, one man stands above all
others - no not that shepherd monk who realized the goats
right after eating coffee beans were suddenly alert and
happy - but Samuel Johnson.

The first European coffee houses were in Venice, and it's
 not hard to guess why.  Venice was the most cosmopolitan
city in the world in the 17th century, and La Serenissima
had no qualms about adopting Turkish habits. 

In England, various coffee houses developed into such
institutions as The London Stock Exchange, Lloyds of
London, Sothebys, and Christie's.  A king of England
even tried to close them for fomenting sedition, but
they survived, some even sprouting up for Tories, to
counterbalance the ones catering to Whigs and radicals.
Significantly they were places to read political literature
too.  Political movements formed among their tables. 

Still if  the Golden Age of the Coffee Shop is now usually
taken to be centered in late 18th century London, the reason
was simple:  Johnson & Boswell.  Johnson was there to
talk, and Boswell was there to take it all down.
(For those who are sticklers for historical accuracy,
we're talking about the legend that has shaped our
collective imagination, not the historical record.)

In his own life, Johnson was first a writer, an
essayist who wrote and published his thoughts
under the brand name, The Rambler.  It would be
easy to call it a proto-blog.  So lets do it.  There
were others, most famously The Tatler and The
Spectator.   But even in his life, he found himself
becoming more famous for his conversation than
any other accomplishment, except perhaps his

The problem with conversation of course is that it
doesn't have lasting power.  If Boswell had not
written down so much of Johnson's conversation,
Johnson would not hold the place in literary history
he does.  To say Boswell wrote the Life of Johnson
is misleading.  More accurately he collaborated
with Johnson, so much of the biography is Boswell's
writing down as accurately as possible what
Johnson said.

It's impossible not to see in Johnson's writing career
an anticipation of what happens to so many writers
today when they go on the net.   To our point in
history - it's bound to change - most writers come on
the net first looking to promote carefully crafted,
painstakingly put together work; but especially with
the rise of social media sharing tools, they find themselves
caught up in something which feels much more like
conversation than old media writing in which the
author(ity) lays down the line.

And the computer is there to be Boswell and capture
all our ephemera.  More and more writers, especially
those who don't have agents to list in their twitter profiles,
are beginning to think of a legacy in their tweets and
posts, many put down quickly or written under great
emotion, or aimed very directly at a specific person -
and almost all designed to be read soon, very soon, after
they are written.

Given how quickly so many other writers are also
adding to the superabundance of thoughts and life
captured on the web, a writer knows that if a message
doesn't reach people right when it comes out, it's
highly unlikely it will find an audience later.

But of course, the net is basically free.  We can store
our work there - where it can be found (how lucky
Emily Dickinson was that no one threw her desk out) -
and someday, some conscientious reader or scholar
following a series of intriguing clues, will discover
the real work, the essential  writings, the ones
stored on the net,  but not of the net.

The hope is not completely idle.  The Life of
Johnson has led to some to want to read The
Work of Johnson.  It's doubtful his Life of Savage
would be have been read by even half the small
number of very appreciative readers who have
taken it on if Boswell had not not digitized
Johnson's conversation and posted it in
The Life Of Johnson.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Three Filmmakers

John Ford
The Searchers

Nicholas Ray
Bigger Than Life

Hurt McDermott
Nightingale In A Music Box

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Alone On A Hill

Like many artists I was a miserable child.  I was born
in Rio de Janeiro.  Between 2 and 3 years old, my
mother got sick with what they thought was lung
cancer.  She could not take care of me, and she had
just had my younger sister.

I was sent to my Aunt's house in Mississippi.  I did
not speak English, and most nights I woke up
screaming, 'BEESHU (phonetic spelling) which
meant bogeyman in Portugese.

My mother's lung mass turned out to be tuberculosis.
She was given a new lease on life, and 3 months
after I'd been sent away to a foreign country (the U.S.)
where they spoke a foreign language (English)
I was reunited with my parents in the States.

They had moved back.  In 3 months I had forgotten
all my Portugese and spoke only English.  I was clearly
depressed, and after that I was a mess.  I was teased a
lot, and my misery was what made me feel special.
I often cried myself asleep.  My mother would come
sit on the edge of my bed, trying to figure out what
to do.  I took a perverse pride in the other kids not
liking me and thinking I was weird.

Then one day I was walking up the hill to a neighbor's
house.  I often picture myself pushing a bike on this
occasion, but I don't think I actually was.  Out of the
blue I thought,  "Do you really want to be like this -
miserable - the rest of your life?"  I was a little
surprised to realize that the answer was no.

Things didn't suddenly get easier for me overnight.
I continued to struggle, but it was the turning point
of my life - alone on a hill when I asked myself a
question and was surprised to find over the next few
months and years that the answer meant something.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Hour You Realized

The hour your realized
 you were to be disappointed

The moment hardly seemed
 like anything at all,

Compared to the drama
 with which you later invested it.