Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas!

After a crazy end of the semester, we managed to get out of town for the holidays. Will catch up with everyone's blogs when I get back.

Meanwhile, one of my new favorite Christmas songs. If you don't own the Vince Guaraldi Trio's original soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, I highly recommend it. The sound quality on the new, remastered version is simply stunning, and the music itself may be the most beautiful Christmas jazz ever created. Here's "Christmas Time Is Here," from the original show.

May you all have a beautiful and and joyful (and hopefully relaxing) holiday season.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Gershwin Friday: The Gershwin Playlist

George Gershwin, working on the score for Porgy and Bess, 1935.

I've totally been Gershwin-ing out the last two weeks. If nothing else, my obsession produced a Finetune playlist of over 500 performances of Gershwin compositions.

If you like Gershwin, give it a listen and let me know what you think.

It includes some of my all-time favorite Gershwin performances:
  • Billie Holiday and Lester Young on "The Man I Love," which many consider their best work together.
  • Chet Baker singing and playing "But Not For Me."
  • Janis Joplin doing "Summertime."
  • Thelonious Monk's solo turn at "Nice Work if You Can Get It."
  • John Coltrane's two Gershwin cuts - "But Not For Me" and "Summertime" - from the same album that produced his famous version of "My Favorite Things."
  • Willie Nelson's acoustic version of "Someone To Watch Over Me," from his wonderful album Stardust, which basically introduced me to Gershwin.

The playlist contains a virtual who's who of jazz musicians, from the early days until now: Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, and on and on. It also includes a number of great singers: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Caetano Veloso, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, etc.

And, of course, it includes a lot of Fred Astaire, as many of the songs were originally written with Fred in mind, and sometimes with Fred on hand, either for Broadway musicals like Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face, or Hollywood films like Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress. The critic and musicologist Wilfrid Sheed wrote in his new book, The House that George Built, that, after all this time, Fred Astaire is still probably Gershwin's greatest interpreter.

You'll find all of the well-known songs - "Summertime," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Our Love Is Here To Stay," etc. - along with more obscure Gershwin songs, some of which I had never heard of until I started doing research for the playlist. One interesting tune I discovered is called "Mischa-Yascha-Toscha-Sascha," which, according to Wikipedia, is "Gershwin's only finished work based on a Jewish theme, and the title is a reference to the first names of four Jewish-Russian violinists, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel and Sascha Jacobsen."

There are also many of Gershwin's classical works, including Leonard Bernstein's well-known versions of "Rahpsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris." And I've got Oscar Levant, Gershwin's friend (though that's probably not the best work for Oscar) and his most famous interpreter for the classical compositions.

And there are even a few piano rolls of Gershwin playing his own tunes.

Oh, a word of thanks to Paul Wiener, whose own Finetune playlists actually inspired me to go Gershwin-crazy: Dylanesque, with 147 Dylan songs, and Summertime, with 115 versions of Gershwin's most recorded tune. [Q: How many jazz muscians does it take to play "Summertime"?
A: All of them, apparently.]

Hope you enjoy the Gershwin Fest!

Meanwhile, since we're about to get hit by a major winter storm, I decided I needed some "Summertime." Ella and Louis doing one of my favorite versions of the song from Porgy and Bess.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pieces of Eight

Steve Caratzas has tagged me with this meme thing.

"The assignment: To write about certain topics in blocks of 8."

I've added two questions, so that there are now EIGHT. (Symmetry!)

8 passions in my life:

La Reina
French music

8 things to do before I die:

Spend time in Buenos Aires
Spend time in Ireland
Do the Camino de Santiago again
Learn French
Learn to play the piano
Play (on the piano) and sing Fats Waller songs
Figure out what I want to be when I grow up
Finish this bloody post

8 things I often say

I don't understand.
That's interesting.
You've never seen _____?!?!?
Te quiero
What about turkey burger?
Brooklyn Lager
Oh, for Christ's sake, TACKLE the guy!

8 books I read recently

Jonathan Gould - Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America
Stephen Colbert - I Am America (And So Can You)
Robert L. Mitchell - The poetic voice of Charles Cros: A centennial study of his songs
William Rees (ed./trans.) - Penguin anthology of French poetry, 1820-1950
Kenneth Rexroth - One Hundred Poems from the French
Lee Server - Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing"
Mark Maske - War Without Death: A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football's NFC East
Thomas Merton - Zen and the Birds of Appetite

8 films that mean something to me


Top Hat

To Have and Have Not


Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Pierrot le fou

Christmas in Connecticut

El Espíritu de la colmena
[Spirit of the Beehive]

(And for 8.5 . . . 8 1/2)

8 songs that mean something to me

Bob Dylan: "Blood on the Tracks"
John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy: "Spiritual"
Jerry Jeff Walker: "London Homesick Blues"
Lester Young: "Blue Lester"
Fats Waller: "My Very Good Friend the Milkman"
The Beatles: "Tomorrow Never Knows"
Maurice Ravel: "Pavane pour une infante défunte"
George Gershwin: "Rhapsody in Blue"

8 living people I'd like to have as dinner guests

(Taking for granted that La Reina would be co-hosting . )

Charlotte Gainsbourg
Jim Jarmusch
Subcomandante Marcos
Juliette Gréco
Hank Jones
Penélope Cruz Sánchez
Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso
Bob Dylan
(or Willie Nelson if Bob seems like he's gonna get all aloof and nasty that night.)
(or Tom Waits if Bob's gets all aloof and Willie's too stoned to find the house.)

8 people who I'm passing this on to

I don't even know eight people to pass this on to. How about 4?


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Meet the Beatles . . . Mr. Ginsberg

Currently reading Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, which has received favorable reviews. It's pretty good, though not as good as expected. A little too much about the 19th century industrial history of Liverpool and not enough about the Byrds hanging out with the Beatles in 1965.

At the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four wound up meeting several important cultural figures from the United States. Some of these encounters wound up influencing the group both artistically and personally.

In August 1964, Bob Dylan came to their room at Hotel Delmonico in New York City, where they shared a joint, the first time the Beatles had ever tried marijuana. Over the next year, John Lennon's songwriting became increasingly influenced by Dylan's work. And George Harrison and Dylan would go on to become lifelong friends.

In July 1965, the Beatles spent a week in Los Angeles, resting in a luxurious and secluded house in Benedict Canyon, off Mulholland Drive. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and other members of The Byrds paid a visit to the group, along with Peter Fonda. John, George and Ringo tried LSD for the first time (though John and George had experienced LSD inadvertently earlier that spring when a dentist spiked their coffee with the drug at a party.) Lennon, in particular, became profoundly influenced by the drug, taking it "as often as twice a week" over the course of 1966. It also had a big impact on Harrison, though he became disillusioned with the whole drug scene after visiting Haight-Asbury in 1968. Ringo rarely took it again. McCartney didn't take the drug until a year and half later, though he would become the first Beatle to publicly acknowledge that he had turned on.

That same week, they were invited (after a year of arrangements) to the Beverly Hills mansion of their idol Elvis Presley. This encounter didn't go over as well. Gould says it was marked by "little warmth" between the group and Elvis, who obviously "resented" the Beatles. One of the guys in the Presley entourage couldn't tell the guests apart and kept addressing them: "Hey! Beatle!" George, however, "shared a joint and discussed Hindu philosophy with Elvis' hairdresser and spiritual adviser."

Allen Ginsberg reading at the Royal Albert Hall in London, June 5, 1965. Over 7,000 people attended the event.

I already knew those stories. The one I had never heard before concerns an astonishing cultural encounter between the Beatles and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, which also took place in 1965, only weeks before their journey to Los Angeles.

According to Gould, the birth of the countercultural movement in London, which came to be known as the Underground, "could be traced back to June of 1965, when a group of poets including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Christopher Logue gave a reading at the Royal Albert Hall that attracted an overflow crowd of more than seven thousand people, most of whom had never imagined that there were so many other kindred spirits living in London at the time."

As it turns out, Ginsberg was staying at the the home of Barry Miles, whose book shop Indica (after cannabis indica) served as the hub of the counterculture scene. Miles, who was a friend of Paul McCartney's, "had developed at least a nodding acquaintance with every scuffling poet, writer, artist, filmmaker and avant-gardist in the city . . . [and] he began to serve as a kind of staff intellectual and librarian to McCartney and his fellow Beatles."

By this time, Ginsberg had already become good friends with Bob Dylan. It was an important relationship for both men, as well as for the broader cultural milieu of the 1960s, as it allowed Dylan to meet other important poets and artists, which gave him a certain intellectual cachet, while Ginsberg would have access to one of the key figures in the world of rock and roll, which helped bring his counterculture message to a broader audience. The two remained friends until Ginsberg's death in 1997, working on several projects together over the years. So, if the shape and feel of Rock and Roll and the Sixties were fashioned in large part by the connections - both artistic and personal - between Dylan and the Beatles, the Dylan-Ginsberg connection also played an important underlying role, fusing popular and intellectual culture.

Robbie Robertson (of the Band), poet Michael McClure, Dylan, and Ginsberg in front of City Lights Bookstore, 1965.

So, did a kind of triangle of influence develop between the Beatles, Dylan, and Ginsberg?

After the enormously successful Royal Albert Hall event, Ginsberg asked Barry Miles to invite the Beatles to a birthday party for himself.

It's interesting to note that the meeting with Ginsberg took place a few weeks before the Beatles took acid for the first time. Perhaps the outcome would've been different if they had met him after the trip to LA.

Here's Gould's report on the encounter between some of the 20th century's cultural giants - The Beat Meets The Beatles:

As it turned out, the meeting was very brief. John Lennon and George Harrison accepted the invitation and arrived at the party with their wives. . . .
So far, so good. John and Cynthia. George and Patti. A famous American poet. A swinging party in London. But . . .

[They] beat a hasty retreat
when they were greeted
by Ginsberg,
who was naked
except for
a "No Waiting" sign
that was hanging by a string
from his genitals.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Greatest American Rock and Roll Songs

This is my final installment in a series of posts on American Rock and Roll. In the first one, I took at look at the 20 Greatest Musicians. [See also: Jeff's list at Aún Estamos Vivos.] In the second, I came up with a list of 20 Greatest Albums.

Trying to determine the Greatest Rock and Roll Songs is an impossible task for one person. There are simply too many possibilities to come up with a good list. That didn't stop me, of course, but I recognize that the process is flawed.

UPDATE: Normally, I'm not one to come up with a list of the "Greatest" anything. As Steve suggested in his comment, it may be better to stick with a "Favorites" list. But I wanted to explore something different in this series of posts. To go beyond myself, if possible. There's a different thought process involved in trying to determine the "Greatest." The idea was to be more critical in my thinking about the music. To see if I could overcome personal prejudices and be more objective. I didn't fully succeed in the end. (Let someone else argue for Madonna!) But I enjoyed the experiment. [I'm also not comfortable dealing in strict categories like "rock and roll," as opposed to Soul, R&B, Blues, etc. Nor do I like nation-specific lists. Again, though, it was an experiment to challenge my normal thought process.] So, while it may be impossible for one person to come up with a list of the Greatest American Rock and Roll Songs, I'll say that these 50 choices would be the ones I would submit to a group of people trying to determine such a list. And just for the record, a list of my favorite songs (or musicians or albums) would look very different from what I've offered.

In the end, it looks like I've come up with a playlist for a Classic Rock station, which is the last thing I wanted. But, really, some of these tunes have been played to death for a reason: they were great. Still, I'm particularly interested in getting suggestions from the rest of you, especially for more recent tunes. (That is, after 1974.)

A lot of great rock and roll comes from musicians who weren't necessarily our best artists. And maybe they never produced a consistently fantastic album. But they had moments of brilliance, blessed little epiphanies of kick-ass rock and roll. Maybe that's due in part to the early and powerful influence of radio and the singles format, I don't know. Few people probably remember Mountain, and fewer still could name one of their albums, but as soon as you hear "Mississippi Queen," you know the gods of rock and roll were working overtime that day.

I've chosen 50 songs, because it was impossible to limit myself to 20. Also, I wanted to give you a chance to hear the songs yourself, so I created a Finetune playlist, and that requires a minimum of 45 songs, with no more than 3 songs per artist. I could've easily chosen more than 3 by Dylan or Hendrix, but it seemed like a reasonable limit to work within.

I don't have any numeric order this time - I'm just giving you the playlist, which is alphabetical by musician. And I'm not discussing any of the songs.

With one exception.

I've included Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from Woodstock. Obviously, Jimi produced many other songs that were musically superior. But there's always been something profound to me about this performance. Here was an African-American musician, only a few years after the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and only 16 months after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., taking the national anthem - at the height of the Vietnam War - and transforming it into something utterly and uniquely his own. It's as if he had imagined a new America and by sheer creative force poured out a sketch of it through his guitar. This was a new country. A more inclusive country. A rock and roll country. This was the America where I wanted to live. I still play it on the fourth of July when I can. It's truly a revolutionary song.

[Marvin Gaye's version may even be better. Recorded during the "Sexual Healing" period, he gave us a recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that you could make love to. I kid you not.]

One other note - I was considering: Link Wray's "Rumble," but Finetune didn't have it. (That's terrible!) I haven't heard it in a while, but in my memory, it seems like it was a pretty damn good song. According to Wikipedia, Pete Townsend said of Wray and the tune: "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar. . . . I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard it, and yet excited by the savage guitar sounds." So, there you go. I need to get a recording of it again.

So please offer 5 or 10 of your own "Greatest American Rock and Roll Songs." If they aren't on my own list of 50, I can add them to the Finetune playlist. (As long as they have them.)

Rock on!

Original List of 50 Songs

Aerosmith: Back In the Saddle
Bill Haley & His Comets: Rock Around The Clock
Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue
Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna
Booker T. & The MG's: Green Onions
Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run
Buddy Holly: Peggy Sue
Chuck Berry: Johnny B. Goode
Chuck Berry: Roll Over Beethoven
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Born On The Bayou
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Fortunate Son
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Susie Q
Elvis Presley: Heartbreak Hotel
Grand Funk Railroad: I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home
Grateful Dead: Uncle John's Band
Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
James Gang: Funk #49
Janis Joplin: Me and Bobby Mcgee
Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit
Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Balls Of Fire
Jimi Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner
Jimi Hendrix: All Along The Watchtower
Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Little Richard: Good Golly Miss Molly
Lou Reed: Walk On The Wild Side
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Free Bird
Mountain: Mississippi Queen
Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit
R.E.M.: It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Ray Charles: What'd I Say Parts I & II
Roy Orbison: Oh, Pretty Woman
Santana: Black Magic Woman
Sonic Youth: Kool Thing
Steely Dan: Deacon Blues
Steely Dan: Reelin' In the Years
Steppenwolf: Born To Be Wild
Talking Heads: Psycho Killer
The Allman Brothers Band: Ramblin' Man
The Allman Brothers Band: Statesboro Blues
The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations
The Byrds: Eight Miles High
The Byrds: So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star
The Doors: Light My Fire
The Doors: The End
The Ramones: Blitzkreig Bop
The Velvet Underground: Heroin
The Velvet Underground: I'm Waiting For The Man
Yo La Tengo: Heard You Looking
ZZ Top: La Grange

UPDATE: I kept wanting to fiddle around with the damn list. After being taken to task by Steve for my first two changes, I've decided to go back to my original 50 songs. Instead of changing that list, I offer some additional possibilities as suggested by others or by myself. These have been added to the Finetune playlist:

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Run Through The Jungle [Had to replace "Born on the Bayou" because of the 3-song-per-artist limit.]
Eagles: Hotel California
Janis Joplin: Piece of My Heart
Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Stooges: I Wanna Be Your Dog
The Mamas & The Papas: California Dreamin'
The Velvet Underground: Sweet Jane
The Violent Femmes: Blister in the Sun

Simple rock song? Or explanation for the origin of the universe?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Huckabee Rising

According to a new Rasmussen poll of likely GOP Caucus Goers, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has taken the lead in Iowa, with 28% of the vote, just ahead of Mitt Romney, who has 25%. (Rudy 12%, Thompson 11%, Ron Paul 5%, everyone else <5%.)

Hendrik Hertzberg's article on Huckabee in this week's issue of The New Yorker is one of the Most Read on the magazine's web site.

The New York Times featured three articles on Huckabee over the last few days, including yesterday's "Success Is Testing the Huckabee Campaign" and Michael Luo's article on Wednesday: "In Iowa, Mormon Issue Is Benefiting Huckabee.

"Mr. Huckabee’s rise in Iowa — some recent polls now put him in a dead heat with Mr. Romney, who had led surveys for months — has been fueled by evangelical Christians, who believe Mormonism runs counter to Christian orthodoxy."
This morning's Associated Press's article "Huckabee Hopes for New Hampshire Boost," starts off thus:
"Barely a blip on New Hampshire's political radar screen a month ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is generating buzz, curiosity and speculation that a decent showing here could secure his spot in the top tier of GOP presidential contenders."
In fact, Huckabee is suddenly all over the media, with everyone talking about his sudden rise in Iowa - he was polling around 2% in Iowa back in May. Longtime political analyst Mark Halperin, now at Time, said Huckabee did the best at this week's Republican debate, and other conservatives agreed. National Journal has even come up with the term "Huck-a-mania" to describe what's happening. Everybody, it seems, now hearts Huckabee.

Oh yeah, he's also got Chuck Norris campaigning for him. Chuck's in Huckabee's new ad, and he showed up at the debate the other night as well, drawing more attention to Huckabee. The Norris angle is interesting enough that the Los Angeles Times wrote about it yesterday: "Is Chuck Norris Huckabee's secret weapon?" [First line: "Chuck Norris doesn't endorse candidates, he kicks them into the stratosphere."] Author Tina Daunt says that after Chuck announced his endorsement,
"Huckabee became the presidential example of tough-guy cool. You thought Fred Thompson was going to be the law-and-order candidate? He was looking like a worn-out hound dog Wednesday night as Huckabee strode into the debate with the still buffed-up, 67-year-old Norris by his side."
I've been puzzled all along why Huckabee wasn't doing better, especially when you look at the other Republican candidates. For months there were media reports about Evangelical "leaders" like Dobson not knowing which Republican to support. These hypocrites wouldn't even consider Huckabee, even though he's a Baptist minister and solid evangelical, because he didn't have enough money. Look for stories in the next week or so about God suddenly telling them to endorse Huckabee.

What's interesting is to see how many Liberals actually respect Huckabee, even though they disagree with him on various issues. He's been called likable, thoughtful and well-spoken (though not "articulate"). This has been going on for months in the Liberal blogworld, and the trend has carried over into the mainstream media pieces on Huckabee. I recommend reading Hertzberg's article for what he has to say bout Huckabee - it's a good introduction to the man - and how he says it. His conclusion, for example:
To all appearances, Huckabee’s gentle rhetoric is a reflection of temperament, not a stylistic tactic. Arkansans caution that he is capable of churlishness. But his history suggests that he prefers consensus to confrontation, that he regards government as a tool for social betterment, and that he has little taste for war, cultural or otherwise. He seems to regard liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw—merely as a political point of view he mostly disagrees with. That may not seem like much, but it makes a nice change.
The money issue is real - Huckabee hasn't been able to raise much at all. Despite going up against Romney's millions, however, he's now in the lead in Iowa or close enough in other polls to call it an even race. More importantly, he's getting serious media buzz at just the right time. What might he accomplish if he does start to raise real money?

A likable and conservative white male versus Hillary Clinton. Evangelicals energized by a Baptist minister running for President and Hillary being the opponent. A large group of Democrats and Independents discouraged by Hillary getting the nomination. (And I'm sorry - it's not just me. I talked to about a dozen people over Thanksgiving - New York area liberals from various backgrounds, many of whom didn't know each other. Not a single one liked Hillary. Her high "unfavorable" numbers don't come from the vast right-wing conspiracy alone - they often come from within her own party.) Could Huckabee actually be competitive against Hillary in the general election? In a Zogby Poll released this week, Huckabee defeats Clinton in a head-to-head matchup, 44% to 39%. Hillary actually loses to all five major Republican candidates, but she loses to Huckabee by the widest margin. [Obama beats all five Republicans, including Huckabee 46%-40%. Edwards beats four of the five, tying with McCain.]

I'm not sure Huckabee can win the Republican nomination. His lack of money will hurt him in the long run. He's going to need a win in Iowa, a good showing in New Hampshire, the fists of Chuck Norris, and the continued love of the media. But the Republican rank and file are still looking for someone they can get behind. That much is clear. Would it really be that surprising to see them turn to Huckabee?