Handel With Care

 

 

He was stubborn, astute, determined, cunning, art-loving, gregarious, solitary, humorous and wonderfully compassionate and generous in his dealings with the Foundling Hospital, the Fund for Decayed Musicians and the Lock Hospital for women in distress.

-Review, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius, Financial Times, September 29/30, 2018

 

Fund for Decayed Musicians? I had to look that up. Turns out it’s legit, and has a much nicer name now.

You’ll have to look up the hospital on your own, though.

 

Scaling Up

 

 

This week’s Science class got me thinking about Frank Zappa. All I knew about him was that he was a good musician and that he’d given his children names that, uh, never made my shortlist. So I watched a documentary on him.

An interesting cat, to be sure, but I’m afraid music based on the chromatic scale is not my thing. A guy in the film decried how it’s dismissed as “wrong note music,” but that sounds (tee hee!) right to me.

I was impressed that, for his fifteenth birthday, Zappa asked to make a telephone call to Edgar Varèse (no, I’d never heard of him either). I think for my fifteenth birthday I asked for the “Armageddon It” cassingle.

 

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There was mention in the documentary of Eric Dolphy, which always reminds me of this passage in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Not only does it capture how I feel about the chromatic scale, it will sound right to those who’ve ever tried to chat with me:

It was as though we were speaking in different languages. If the Dalai Lama were on his deathbed and the jazz musician Eric Dolphy were to try to explain to him the importance of choosing one’s engine oil in accordance with changes in the sound of the bass clarinet, that exchange might have been more worthwhile and effective than my conversations with Noboru Wataya.

 

 

Reading Comprehension

 

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Last summer Rod Stewart came through Boston for a private concert. The newspaper mentioned he’d dined someplace downtown. I was surprised because I’d been there once myself, for a fundraiser. It’s one of those shiny Irish pub simulacra.

The thing was, the article said he dined there twice. I remember thinking: Huh? I’d have figured Rod Stewart tours fine restaurants via champagne swilling sediari.

All of this is not to express concern for his standard of living, but rather to illustrate my default state of incomprehension. It’s not just politics or etc that baffles me, I can’t even read the About Town section without scratching my head.

Being, into the bargain, an ESL teacher – a job where incomprehension is not wholly absent – and dad to two four-year-olds, which… well, the other day Twin 2 pointed at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and said it looked like a cowboy hat. You get the idea.

So I trust you will indulge me when I say how proud I am to have read and understood this sentence:

One of Mexico’s favorite ways to express anger is from a viral 2010 commercial by an Egyptian dairy company called Panda Cheese that features a panda wreaking havoc on an office.

 

 

PS listen to this gem, from a half-century ago. Those horns! PP Arnold! What happened, Sir Rod? I don’t understand.

 

G.I. Blues


 

Concerned about the prospect of a third world war now that China has invaded Vietnam, Maurice, 29, expresses the fear that he could be eligible for an emergency draft call since he is a U.S. resident.

– “The Bee Gees Are Earthly Angels,” Rolling Stone, May 17, 1979

 

It was sixty years ago today that Elvis Presley entered the Army. I knew he’d been drafted, but didn’t know he’d manned a machine gun on the East German border. Turns out he was a very good soldier, as this BBC program recounts.

Now, I say this as a genuine fan of the Gibbous brotherhood, and I don’t wish to impugn the man. But had he been inducted, I’m not sure we’d have seen Maurice serving, à la King, in a scout platoon.

 

 

About that event that preoccupied Maurice:

The Chinese invasion turned out to be a disaster for Beijing, however. Over the course of a month of fighting, China lost almost half as many soldiers as the United States did in all of its war in Vietnam. There is little doubt that if Deng had not decided that the “lesson” for Vietnam was complete, the Chinese losses would have increased even further.

– The Cold War, Odd Arne Westad

 

The lesson may have been complete, but evidently not learned:

“We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979,” the source said, referring to China’s brief invasion of Vietnam to punish Hanoi for forcing Beijing’s ally the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia.

– “‘Give them a bloody nose’: Xi pressed for stronger South China Sea response,” Reuters, July 31, 2016

And the new National Security Advisor is also, alas, an advocate of rhinointervention:

Last month, Bolton made a similar case for launching an attack, known as a “Bloody Nose” strike, against North Korea.

 

Just say no(se).

 

Ill Communication

 

I get ill all the time, but no one wants to hear about that.

– Paul Theroux

 

I was in Dick’s Sporting Goods recently and found myself laughing in the aisle. Twin 2, who has begun to suspect her father is unusual, asked what was so funny.

“They’re playing a silly song,” I told her.

For on the PA system was Run-DMC’s “You Be Illin’,” which contains one of balladry’s more lamentable parables:

Dinner, you ate it, there is none left
It was salty – with butter – and it was def.
You proceeded to eat it ’cause you was in the mood
But homes you did not read: it was a can of dog food!

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This in turn was the Alpo madeleine of a memory from college. I had gone to a department office to drop off a paper. How I laughed at the sign on the door:

Closed Due to Illness

 

***

 

Now then. Your help, if I may: would you please let me know what’s your favorite idiom?

One of my resolutions is to teach my students an idiom a week.

My favorite is “barking up the wrong tree.” That combination of ardor and error – I do believe it captures something essential about la condition humaine. (Don’t worry, I just tell the kids it means you’re mistaken.)

NB a previous colleague left a book filled with pages of idioms, more than I can teach, so I don’t need suggestions – rather, I want your favorite one.

 

PS it does not go without saying – there are scoundrels among you – that I request your favorite idiom appropriate for children.

 

The Nimrod Variations

 

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Jules, if you give that… nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I’m going to shoot him on general principle.

-Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction

 

Listening to Radio Free Amazon the other day I was all: But soft, this is my jam! But the thing was I didn’t know what it was. So I lifted myself off the couch to investigate. Such are my sacrifices to Apollo.

It was “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Nimrod was once Merriam-Webster’s word of the day. Check out the accompanying brief podcast. Maybe I’ve spent too much of my life in middle school, but I defy you not to crack up when the guy says “the legendary nimrod.”

Anyway, this documentary on the legendary Elgar is aces. Success did not come easy for E, but he had that Growth Mindset.

 

 

Sic Transit

 

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I watched a documentary on Chicago the other night. Quite a career, transforming from a rather terrific horn band – with Hendrix-approved guitarist – to earnest power ballad millers.

I did spill my bedtime tea when I saw Peter Cetera wearing, in this video, a Bauhaus t-shirt. It’s got the artwork from their “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single:

 

 

Admittedly, not as shocking as learning Serge Gainsbourg once autographed a copy of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” for Albert Speer, but still.

Here are some other melon-twisting musical facts I have of late accumulated:

  • The guitarist for the Police is 75
  • Pete Townshend was an editor at Faber & Faber
  • The drummer for Culture Club auditioned for the Clash

Well, that’s enough to lay on you for now. Until next time, Gentle Reader, know this: you’re the meaning in my life.

 

 

Triomph

 

There is so much crap in this world, and then, suddenly, there is honesty and humanity.

-Ryszard Kapuściński, The Soccer War

 

If you were to recommend a band to me, and describe them as a Thai funk/surf soul trio, my central nervous system would probably execute some sort of armadillo maneuver.

And if you were to utter the dread words “jam band,” it would then summon the officer with the football.

 

Mercifully Professor Missionjmk used none of the above to recommend Khruangbin. I attended their show Saturday night and holy moly they were good. Easily the best Thai funk/surf soul jam band trio I’ve seen from Houston.

 

 

Seriously, they are the real deal, and they are on tour now.

 

 

Talent Agencies

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1. Frank Sinatra Has a Grievance

The situation was not helped by the attitude of the American Federation of Musicians, the US equivalent of the MU [Musicians Union], who sought to block any application for a foreign band to tour the US. It was a tactic that proved remarkably successful. In the 1920s, over fifty American bands toured the UK, yet not a single British band worked in America during the same period.

I saw a documentary on Frank Sinatra and there was something about how his first show in London was delayed because of objections from the Musicians Union. I remember thinking “Well, that’s the British and their unions for you.” But I just read the above in Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and now apparently must revise my history.

 

2. Stupefied Stupefied Stupefied

One of the unexpected events of this summer was Black Grape releasing, after two decades, their third album. I haven’t listened to it yet, probably because I’m still in shock. Let’s just say, it had been some time since I’d wondered what they were up to. I did see them in 1995. Kermit was absent, so it was a bit like seeing Hall instead of Hall and Oates, but it was still pretty good.

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 3. Keep, Ancient Lands, Your Storied Pop

A foreign artist seeking authorization to perform in the United States must navigate a system that involves a pair of government departments. Homeland Security, created in 2003, evaluates the initial application and then, if approval is granted, the State Department, assuming it is satisfied with the results of an in-person interview with the performer, issues a visa at an embassy abroad.

U.S. Visa Rules Deprive Stages of Performers,” The New York Times, April 11, 2012

Kermit did not make it stateside at all, if I recall correctly, for he was denied a visa due to his criminal record. Regrettable, yes, but understandable, given America’s pride in the scrupulous behavior of its musicians.

Getting a visa is indeed no joke. I was unaware of the travails of UK musicians who look to our fair shores. (Apparently solo artists have to prove that they are “extraordinarily talented,” whereas groups just have to be “exceptionally talented.”)

As someone who’s seen a lot of British bands in America, I have new respect for their dedication (and expense) in making it here. So I won’t name any names. But – at risk of ingratuity – I must record that not each seemed distinguished by exceptional talent. The fault, dear Britain, is not in our fifty stars…

 

 

The Southern Affront

 

A famous Australian children’s author was detained upon arrival at Los Angeles recently. She described the experience:

I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness.

I haven’t read her books, but even if they’re that bad, this is no way to greet a visitor.

 

We Have Always Been At War With Australia

In 1942, the Allies slipped off their axis at the Battle of Brisbane.

(There was also an unfriendly match next door at the Battle of Manners Street. Gotta go with the Kiwis on this one.)

 

Strategic Mercy

When the world knows our fury, no worries, Australia fair:

We’ll save Australia
Don’t want to hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an all-American amusement park there
They’ve got surfing, too.

 

Tactical Brilliance

American munition, Australian delivery:

 

(Paul Auster on Foster’s would be the converse, I guess.)

 

The Heuristicks

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If you need more than one reason to do something, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, don’t do it. Otherwise, you’re just trying to convince yourself.

I like his reasoning.

I’ve been watching ABBA documentaries lately, and Taleb’s wisdom comes to mind. There seems an awful lot of explaining why ABBA are so good. They doth affirm too much, methinks.

Here’s one reason: Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, Benny sits and waits for dragons:

I’m a knight of armor, you know? I have to sit here and wait for the good notes to sort of come from somewhere. And if I’m not here they’re not going to come. It’s like… there’s a dragon in a cave, right? And you know it’s in there, but it’s never coming out, so you have to sit outside and wait for it. And you know if you sit there long enough, it’s going to come out; if you go home and take a nap, you’ll never see it, because that’s when it’s coming out.

 

Continue reading “The Heuristicks”

The National Anthem

 

1. Who’s on First?

Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”

We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.

I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:

Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!

Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”

I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.

If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.

 

2. Of Thee I Sing

Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Still, though:

  • Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
  • One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
  • There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
  • The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
  • William (Het Was Echt Niets)

 

3. Love and Crockets
  • It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
  • Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
  • I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)

 

Phantom Power

 

Valentine Strasser seized power in Sierra Leone when he was twenty-five years old. At that age I ruled nowhere, perhaps because I was busy listening to Super Furry Animals’ Radiator. Its track “Placid Casual” discusses the coup:

Freetown rocked in Sierra Leone / When Valentine Strasser danced his way to the throne / Gunpowder smoke took a heavy toll / But they weren’t placid casual and so they lost control.

This might not be the most perceptive analysis of Strasser’s reign, but it’s probably the best in modern Welsh psychedelic rock.

 

Continue reading “Phantom Power”

Rock of Ages

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I saw a kid in the hallway wearing a t-shirt with a c. 1983 Def Leppard graphic. I got such a kick out of this I told her I love the band (not exactly true, but also considerably distant from untrue).

It later occurred to me that her wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt would be the equivalent of me, as a kid, wearing a Bill Haley and the Comets t-shirt.

 

I mentioned the above encounter to Missionjmk, who has forgotten more than I will ever learn about music. He shared with me a splendid anecdote – StoryCorps Hall of Fame-worthy, if you ask me – about U2’s singer and bassist hitchhiking in America. They were picked up by a young man blasting his car stereo.

Rise up, gather round for Bono’s account:

It sounded like the end of the world, it sounded like Godzilla was stomping right alongside the car. There was the most incredible bass drum and snare sound I’d ever heard… I looked at Adam, and Adam looked at me. We had never heard anything so loud. It was Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and it sounded about twice as loud as “Where the Streets Have No Name.” We took note! I think we both made a mental note that next time we had better go after a more sonic experience on our records.

(From U2: A Diary, by Matt McGhee)

Bono shouldn’t be too hard on himself, at least about that. “Where the Streets Have No Name” forever dwells – along with Def Leppard’s “Photograph” – on Intro Olympus.

 

PS it’s also pretty much how I enter the classroom:

Gardening at Night

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If you offered me a free ticket to the Beatles – and Frank Sinatra were opening, after which Abraham Lincoln would deliver a brief address – only three words could prompt me to refuse: Madison Square Garden.

MSG the Dread (per my friend Jeff’s excellent epithet) is not improved by sitting atop an even worse abomination, Penn Station, a place that gives you an idea of what life would be like if America survived a Soviet nuclear attack.

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And just when I thought Penn Station could not be more dispiriting, I looked up and saw this. It’s not a great photo (hard to unpocket and work the camera when stunned on an escalator), but it’s an outline of the old, glorious Penn Station, and the caption reads YOU ARE HERE.

That’s just cold.

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Continue reading “Gardening at Night”