Life During Virustime

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Within a couple of hours, everything changed. On Friday afternoon (a rainy day), in my English class–we were starting a unit on American musical theatre–my tenth-grade students were dancing and singing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” That evening, at 9:15 p.m., it was announced that schools would be closed as of Monday and that instruction would continue online.

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Although the rumors and announcements had been mixed up to that point, the closure did not come as a complete surprise. That morning, we had held the March 15 celebration–the commemoration of the Revolution of 1848–in individual classrooms. Class 10C gave the performance, which came to the classrooms through the speakers. I was upstairs with the ninth grade and my colleague Marianna. Here is a SzolnokTV video of the performance, the classroom broadcast, and the presentation of a special memorial award.

On Saturday morning, one of my ninth-grade students, Lilla Kassai, had an art exhibit at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library, one of my favorite places to go in Szolnok. I would have been in Budapest yesterday, but synagogue has been cancelled along with everything else, so I went to her opening. It was a beautiful, probing collection of pieces; I was especially taken by the eyes in the various portraits. She talked about each of her pieces to a rotating audience. Her mother, a colleague of mine (the school librarian and a teacher as well), welcomed me warmly and introduced me to family members. What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last chance to see Lilla’s art for a while; yesterday evening it was announced that Szolnok’s cultural centers, museums, and libraries would be closed indefinitely as of Monday.

Paradoxically, it’s harder to teach online than in person. This has nothing to do with technological ineptitude or insecurity. It has everything to do with the lack of physical presence. In a regular classroom, everyone is there, except for those who are absent. Any announcement or discussion is heard by all. Questions can be addressed on the spot. You can have dialogues. Online, you have to wait for people to connect and respond. For the most part, we won’t have real-time virtual sessions, though I hope to schedule a few; instead, there will be deadlines. Teachers will be able to work from home or school, but there will be no meetings with students in person.

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The rationale for this national decision (to continue instruction online), or part of it, is that we might be able to keep the school year on schedule so that graduation and final exams can take place. It’s uncertain whether this will work, or what will happen if it doesn’t, but we just have to give this our best.

There’s lots for us to do online: we can read poems, stories, and articles, watch films and newscasts, listen to songs, and more. We can work intensively on writing–and maybe start an online journal. But it’s possible, as always, that the plan will change tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks. So it’s better not to get too carried away with online plans–but then again, not to be overly tentative either. It would be a shame to hold back, to stick to the dull and changeable, and watch the months go by.

I can’t help thinking of “Life During Wartime”; hence the title of this post. It’s a world war against an invisible bug. It’s human to want to live normally–to get back to regular life as soon as possible–but “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

 

Song Series #8: Different Exiles

 

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Exile: by its usual definition, the state of being banned from your own country. But exile can be internal too. Or even a fact of life, a condition of the things you need to do. Music demands a kind of exile; while it brings people together (intensely), it also demands truth, and truth gets you in trouble, whether obviously or not.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Musical truth is different from what we know as “telling the truth.” The stories in music don’t have to match point for point with the facts of your own life, but the shape will be true, the rhythm will be true, and the words will speak to you even if you don’t know what they mean. When this happens, you’re already cast out–in the best of ways, since exile can be joyous too–and you can’t take it back. You go about your life like everyone else, but as soon as a certain song starts playing in your head, you suddenly unbelong to your surroundings. The world will not bend to the music or vice versa.

Every good song, in that sense, is a song of exile. But a few stand out for me in this way. I’ll leave out the obvious exile ballads, such as Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They are among my favorite songs, but their place in the “exile canon” is already clear. Instead, I’ll include Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime,” Dávid Szesztay’s “2120,” Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” and Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” (I had included “The Diamond Sea” in my previous post in this series, but I switched it over here.)

Nick Drake’s songs come back to me over the years; they are bare and raw and so perfectly formed and played. “River Man” seems to have to do with a world that has come to be too much, and a “river man” who knows a different way, but a way that may not be open.  The music creates a picture of it: the lingering vocals, the synthesizer against the acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, you sense the river more and more.

In the 1980s I listened to Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime” endlessly (and heard her play it once in concert); I loved and love its syncopations, the lovely raspy vocals, the guitar sound, and the connecting stories, all leading up to the last verse:

And now a tired conductor passes by
He takes my ticket with a sigh
I don’t think he meant to catch my eye
But he doesn’t turn away.
He says “I have a daughter as old as you
And there’s really nothing anyone else can do
Do you play guitar…well good for you
Me I play the violin”
I imagine him with his hair jet black
Does he hide his fiddle in the back?
He gauged his words as the train went slack:
The New York train stops here

But I don’t forget the factory
I don’t expect this ride to always be
Can I give them what they want to see
Let me do it twice —
The second time for me.

‘Cause these windows make a perfect frame
For New York buildings like upright trains
They hold me as I hold the rain
Fleeting shadows on a dime.

It is a song of exile because the narrator, the musician, is always on the road, as are others, like the train conductor who maybe “hides his fiddle in the back.”

Now for Dávid Szesztay‘s “2120,” one of my favorite songs on his album Dalok bentre. (I heard him play on Saturday night in Szeged; you can read my review here.) The video, directed by Pater Sparrow and starring Szesztay and his family, is brilliant, eerie, beautiful and sad, but I recommend listening to the song on its own first, since there are so many ways to hear and understand it. The refrain does so much and rhythmically with the simple words “Kinn meg fagy, kinn hagytak” (“Outside and freezing, they left you outside.”) And then, at the end, the repeated “mozogjál” (“get a move on,” “hurry up”) contains its opposite; it stays instead of moving on, or it does both at the same time; the word turns into something else, something beyond leaving and staying. I have been listening to this song and the whole album over and over.

I have included Joni Mitchell in this song series before–“Coyote,” from the same album as this–but it’s impossible to leave out “Hejira” here.

I know, no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Now for Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build. As for its exile, it’s the passage of time and the sight of the diamond sea that make you unable to come back. “Time takes its crazy toll.” The two go together; not only will you eventually see the diamond sea, over the course of time, but over time it will also have its effect on you. The music takes you through this.

And that concludes the eighth installment of the song series.

I took the photo on Saturday night in Szeged.

“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

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An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling there just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs have a wonderful mix of sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

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The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

I made a few edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

Caroling with Pizzazz

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On Friday, Class 11C (the eleventh-grade Hungarian-English bilingual class) gave spirited caroling performances all day long, visiting one class after another–and, in the long break, treating us to a special performance in the teachers’ room. I had trouble deciding which pictures to include here, but many others took pictures and videos, so anything I post here will be supplemented or superseded elsewhere.

The show was long in the making (they rehearsed weekly for over a month, and then more frequently as the day approached). Three teachers–Anikó Bánhegyesi, Mariann Banczik, and I–worked with them. First, we decided which songs they would like to sing. I taught them a few, and they suggested a few and made the final selection. Then we worked out the underlying story, which was refined over the weeks: There would be a fake Santa and a real Santa; the impostor would tell everyone that they weren’t getting any gifts, and then the real Santa would defeat the fake Santa with Rudolph’s help (but then let him rejoin the group). Then the “Christmas presents” would be brought in.

Then came the choreography, which the students worked out to the last detail. By the time the last few rehearsals rolled around, things were looking and sounding pretty good. Still a few glitches, a few things to figure out, a few things to remember not to forget.

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But I didn’t realize how much thought and care they were putting into their costumes. Everything lit up and came into color on Friday.

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And then the performances began–energetic, beautiful, funny, and full of joy. People enjoyed them so much. There were many ovations, Hungarian style (with the audience clapping in rhythm).

The teachers’ room was one of the highlights. Another was the gym. Each room had its own character and shape; the performers figured out immediately how to make the most of each space.

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Here are a few more photos, for the fun of it. Congratulations to the 11C Carolers!

 

Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.

Dancing Into the Dance

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This was my third year attending our school’s annual Kati Day (on Friday) and ball (last night). On “Kati Day” (the saint day for Katalin, and the culmination of a week of serious silliness at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium), the ninth-graders compete against each other in performance (after a week of campaigning with costumes, stunts, games, and acts) and then are “initiated” into the school in a humorous ceremony. At the twelfth-graders’ ball, members of the eleventh grade officiate; the principal gives an address, the seniors get pinned with ribbons (symbolizing a step toward graduation and adulthood); and they (the seniors) perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, families. There’s dinner too, and time to get hungry for it.

It was a special year for me, since I am the “vice form teacher” for Class 9C (who won first place) and teach students from every twelfth-grade class (A, B, C, and D). Also, knowing students better and being more familiar with these traditions, I could see, more clearly than in previous years, that not every student felt comfortable participating in them. What do you do if you’re asked to do something that you feel awkward or even pained doing? When everyone else seems to be having a great time? To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of these traditions. They teach you how to dance into the dance. As I see it, that is part of the meaning of these days: that they have room even for people who don’t feel fully part of them.

In life we often come up against things that we don’t want to do. We have several choices. We can walk away, say “sorry, that’s not for me,” and go on with life. We can try to change our feelings about them. Or we can walk into them as we are, finding a way to participate without giving ourselves up. This third way offers flexibility; without it, the choices would be grim. Walking away may be necessary at times, but if it’s the only choice you perceive, you can end up isolating yourself and ignoring real possibilities. Trying to make yourself enjoy things may occasionally work, but often it will just lead to more stress. Finding your own way into it requires imagination, and that’s part of the beauty of it too.

The headmaster gave a speech about entering adulthood. If I understood correctly, he said that adulthood requires two things (among others): the ability to concentrate and the ability to exercise fantasy. The second isn’t commonly associated with adulthood; to the contrary, people think of adulthood as the end of fantasy. But it’s precisely in adulthood when fantasy becomes necessary: for raising children, imagining possibilities in life, and seeing a situation from different angles. In this sense, finding your way into the dance requires fantasy too (and the ability to concentrate, for that matter).

Even teachers have to find their own way to participate. A few don’t attend–maybe they can’t, or maybe once in a while they opt out. A few cheer for every act and take dozens of pictures. A few relax, talk with their colleagues, and enjoy what there is to enjoy. A few are fully involved as form teachers–leading the students during the pinning ceremony, and maybe even dancing too. A few take this time to say hello to former students who come back to visit.

I was a mixture of the second, third, and fifth of these. I was thoroughly enjoying it, and also had a chance to talk a little with colleagues and say hello to former students. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be rude to leave at 8:45, since I had a ticket to go hear Krisztián Grecsó and Róbert Hrutka in concert at the Tisza Mozi at 9. As it happened, people were just starting to leave at 8:45, so I left too, walked quickly to the Tiszavirág bridge, clattered over it in my semi-high heels, arrived at the concert just on time (in a packed hall–it is good that I got the ticket in advance), and got absorbed in the music and readings. Grecsó read stories, a poem, and novel excerpts in between the songs, which were sometimes duos and sometimes Hrutka’s solos. They also joked quite a bit and had the audience laughing, but there were sad parts too. It was a gorgeous performance. This video, from a different performance, gives a sense of what it was like. One of my favorite songs that they played starts at 2:14 (the video gives just an excerpt, though, in two parts). I look forward to hearing Grecsó read from his new novel, Vera, when he returns to Szolnok on October 12. (He will give readings at both Varga and the library.)

So it is possible–not always, but often–to find your way into something, to participate as yourself. There’s something profoundly rewarding about doing so. As an editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE once said, “It took a lot of time, but I think we finally saw the cake.”

Image credits: I took all the photos; they are all of last night’s ball, except for the three at the bottom, which are of Kati Week and Kati Day. The video was filmed and posted by OrosCafé (camera by József Dancsó, editing by Ádám Patakfalvi).

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs–and others–but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the challenge. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference, but as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs; many others circle around them.

The first is Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” It’s gentle slowness gives each word, each note more than you will hear in them at one given time: this grief, this anger and forgiveness, and beyond that, the witnessing of damage done. “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back, she was nobody’s wife, well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth….” Many have debated what this song is about in Cohen’s own life, but to me that isn’t the real question; rather, the question is what happens within the song. The backing vocals–by Corlynn Hanney, Susan Mussman–have no words and drift slightly behind; they sound like memory itself. But it also makes the song sound like a reflection, as though Cohen were partly singing to himself. I used to play this song on guitar often. It was true to me, although I had never experienced the story in the lyrics.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. When they played it in Törökszentmiklós in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song creates the feeling of an old memory. As though I could ride it into babyhood, into those first sensations of the world, and then forward again into age and knowledge. I love Cesaria Evora’s deep, caressing voice and the way the words dance against the rhythms.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s majestic “One More Cup of Coffee”–with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the first and fourth selections.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Radio

Antique-Radio-1

The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and which we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

northern-northern

Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always verge on wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come even closer to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from settling on a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep me delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is about as anti-music-video as they come; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” (“Even I’ll adore you”) raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.