Archive for January 2010
This morning I went to the doctor. Checked in, sat down to wait in the reception area. A few minutes later two women walked in—an elderly mother and her adult daughter, dressed in an Upper East Side kind of way, long wool coats, colorful knit hats. The mother had trouble walking; the daughter had to support her. They stopped at the front desk, and the receptionist asked for the older woman’s insurance card. The mother fished an enormous wallet out of her purse and handed it to her daughter. The daughter started to rifle through all the cards and papers in the wallet—this wallet was packed with things—and then pulled out what looked like a ’70s-style Kodachrome photograph. She squinted at it and said, “Is this a picture of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles?” The mother looked over at it and said, “Hmm? Oh, yep.”
The summer before Vampire Weekend’s first album was released, we read that they were playing a Sunday afternoon show with some other acts at a small bandshell by the East River. A friend of mine was instrumental in organizing the day’s lineup, and I called him that morning to see when Vampire Weekend came on, but our cell phone connection was crackly, and I misunderstood the time he gave me. We arrived just as the band was finishing their encore.
We did see Vampire Weekend play a few months later, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and we liked the show so much we wanted to see the band again. But by the time its debut album was released the following January, the quartet was playing larger New York venues, and tickets sold out within moments. I noticed that the next stop on their tour was at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, about an hour’s drive from my parents’ house. Maybe this show wouldn’t be too crowded, I thought. I imagined that the Vampire Weekend fan base was still mainly local, and that the hype wouldn’t have spread as far north as the Berkshires. So I hatched a plan that we would drive up to Williamstown on the Friday night of the show, and when it was over drive to my parents’, where we would spend the weekend.
We left New York in the late afternoon. We took the Taconic up north, and night came on, and we ate the sandwiches we had packed as we wound our way through the mountains on back highways. We used to drive through the Williams campus once or twice a year, when we would take my parents to the Clark Institute, a small, companionable museum near the college that has a modest collection of Impressionist paintings. I went to a university in a big city—our campus was divided by an expressway—and so I had become a little infatuated with this isolated school surrounded by hills and farmland, with its stately nineteenth-century buildings and trim lawns. When we arrived, though, we learned that the Vampire Weekend show, which was to have been in one of those stately buildings, had been relocated to a larger and very contemporary dining hall. There must have been a lot of excitement about the band building on campus.
I should say right here that at the time I was 39 years old. And so, despite all of my excitement and planning, I found myself somewhat embarrassed to be pressed between 19-year-olds in a college cafeteria, with its tables stacked and its condiment station pushed to one side. The room was hot, and there was no stage—the band was going to play at the same level as the audience—and when the show started I couldn’t see anything. I became grumpy pretty quickly, but we slipped out of the crowd and made our way to the back of the room, where there were fewer people and the sound was better. There were some heaters by the window that some students were standing on, so I stood on one too, and the view was good. I could see the band and also survey the crowd. A large group, mostly boys, pushed toward the front, crowding the area where the band played and making polite mosh-like motions. The rest of the students were scattered along the margins, chatting, texting friends who were on the way to the show or possibly just across the room. The whole crowd seemed hopped up on hormones, and the girls were doing little peacock dances and laughing and running around. Everyone was happy. I was happy. The band played through all of the songs on their album, plus the b-sides, with gusto. They were great, and I loved them; I still love them. I bought an “A-Punk” t-shirt on the way out. Did I mention that I was 39?
It was around midnight when we started the drive to my parents’ house. I had promised my mother that we wouldn’t take the Petersburg Pass, a direct route through the mountains back into New York State but possibly treacherous on a winter night. We went in a roundabout way, north to Bennington and west over flatter territory. The roads were deserted. The fields were white with snow, and our headlights lit up the tall trees on either side of the road. The world seemed to glow. When we pulled into my parents’ driveway, the lamp above the kitchen door was lit, and a sliver of light came through the curtains from the room beyond, where my mother was sitting up in her nightgown and slippers, waiting for us.
A few months later, my friend Kate told me that when one of your parents dies, it draws a before-and-after line in your life. I think of that night, and that drive to my parents’ house, as the last night of the before. Over the weekend my mother complained of some unfamiliar joint aches and numbness in her feet. It was the final weekend that I would see her living at home. Six weeks later, she was admitted to a local hospital, and a month after that, she died of a rare inflammatory disease that shut down the major organ systems in her body one by one.
I didn’t talk much about the music I listen to with my parents, but when I did, my mother remembered the names. “What’s an A-Punk?” she asked that weekend when she saw me sorting clothes in the laundry room. (I had to admit that I wasn’t sure.) I still have a message on my answering machine that she left us a few weeks after the Vampire Weekend concert. She was in severe pain—nerve damage was spreading throughout her legs—and her voice on the recording is gravelly. But she wanted to tell us that she had been watching television, and there had been an announcement that Vampire Weekend was going to be on Saturday Night Live. We might want to find out more about it, she said. Hope the day is treating you well. Take care.
After she died, I told a friend of mine about the message. He said that it was the coolest message in the history of moms and answering machines.
I swear that I didn’t intend to write about two videos with so much bare flesh back to back. This one is practically NSFW, no less. But “Apple Pie Bed” is a true earworm, the kind of song that plays in my head when I’m falling asleep, and then when I wake up at three in the morning is still playing in my head, which leads me to wonder, was it playing all those hours in between? Was it scoring my dreams? Now it’s the afternoon, and it’s still there. The lyrics are self-deprecating and hangdog in a wry way—my favorite line is “All I could hear since the dawn of man was the ocean in a cola can”—but the music is the cheeriest thing I’ve heard in an age, and it’s put a spring in my step all day. Lawrence Arabia—whose real name is James Milne—is from Christchurch, New Zealand, a city whose name I love even though I’m not religious.
MTV came to our town early, in 1981, just as I was teetering on the brink of adolescence. It played videos by all manner of new wave bands, even the most fly-by-night operations, so it seems likely that they would have shown this promo clip from Paul Weller’s post-Jam project, which came out late in 1983, when I was a junior in high school. The Style Council were a relatively big deal among American new wavers—later, when I was introduced to the group in college, everyone seemed to know about it already. But I never happened to tune in while “Long Hot Summer” was being broadcast, and I’m not sure if I would have been able to handle it if I had.
MTV was by no means a hotbed of homoeroticism, but I took what I could get. There were little moments of three or four seconds each that I waited patiently for—Sting stripping down at the end of the “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” video, a surprising flash of bare bum in Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” anything with Adam Ant. But the “Long Hot Summer” video—which I only saw for the first time a couple of years ago—is practically gay porn. Paul Weller was in his mid-twenties when this was filmed, and beautiful in a newt-like way. He knew it too: He can’t wait to get his clothes off and stroke his belly on the banks of the Cam. Those two singing silhouettes at the end—every time I see this video, I think, are they gonna kiss? (There’s also an “uncut” version—sorry, I promise not to work blue too often—in which Weller and his bandmate Mick Talbot, lying on their picnic blanket with their heads close and their bodies pointing in opposite directions, fondle each other’s earlobes. It used to reside somewhere on YouTube—now all I can find is the video’s “official” version, though I don’t know at what point the editing out of that scene happened, back then or recently.)
I went back home for the break between my freshman and sophomore years, and I determined that “Long Hot Summer” was going to be the season’s “theme song.” I must have gotten this idea from sentimental movies like Summer of ’42, in which a young person came of age and gained wisdom to the accompaniment of a leitmotif that he heard repeatedly in passing, flowing out of open windows. I imagined that when I was older and looked back to that summer—that is, the summer that lay ahead—I would remember how “Long Hot Summer” was always playing on my car tape deck as I drove around learning life lessons. When it was time to go back to school the following September, I would think, “The long hot summer’s just passed me by!” The trouble was that when that summer actually came, I kept forgetting to play the song. I put it on a few times, but it got on my nerves before long.
I’m a sucker for this kind of thing—songs that mention other songs or other musicians, like this one, a kind of updating of “Leader of the Pack” or another girl-group teen-death melodrama, with a contemporary pop-fan twist. Emmy the Great is the stage name of Emma-Lee Moss, a singer-songwriter who is part of the same loose group of young London folk musicians that I referred to earlier in my post about Johnny Flynn.
[Note: Because this video is from EMI, I can't embed it here and you have to click through to YouTube to watch it. Please do that—EMI will make two cents. Then you can come back and read the post.]
I used to have this wish about Blondie, one of my all-time favorite bands—that they hadn’t broken up in 1982, that they’d maybe taken a couple of years off, gotten all of the substances and bad vibes out of their systems, and then reunited to continue making fantastic new wave pop albums in the mold of Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat all through the 1980s and ‘90s. (As it was, they reunited in 1997 and have since put out two fantastic new wave pop albums—but all that lost time!) It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’m able to see that if my wish had come true, it would have been disastrous. Blondie existed, the first time around, in an era before everything looked shiny and packaged. In the late 1970s, music sounded great, but almost everything else—magazines, videos, Solid Gold—looked kind of crummy. Those crummy things weren’t polished enough to cover up the fact that Blondie actually were goofballs—in other words, that they were human. They were silly like us. If you were walking down the street and someone stopped you and asked you to be in a video for what would be the lead-in song on the number one album in America, and then placed you in front of a camera and asked you to lip-sync the lyrics and, I don’t know, do something with your hands, anything, you’ll come up with something—well, you wouldn’t know what to do either. You too might act out the line “I can’t control myself” by miming seizures. You too might pretend that you were holding an invisible telephone, and shake it by your ear.
The invisible telephone thing might be my own issue. Playing air guitar, we all agree, looks dorky. Air drums, same thing; air bass, worse. Pretending that you’re singing into an invisible microphone, borderline. For most people, the embarrassment stops there. But I cringe whenever I see anyone holding an invisible anything. Swinging an invisible bat or an invisible golf club—don’t like. I even squirmed a little in my seat watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, in a scene where the title character raises a toast to a group of other forest creatures by hoisting an invisible glass (because they were underground and starving or because foxes don’t drink alcohol, I can’t remember which). I squirmed until Mr. Fox, finishing the toast, mimed dashing the invisible glass onto the floor, and then made a “tish” sound, the sound of breaking, and then I was relieved. That knowing “tish” said, “We humans do this, we pretend we hold invisible things, it looks goofy but we do it anyway, it’s okay.”
In 1978, Deborah Harry was the most beautiful woman on the planet, and here she is, dancing with an invisible telephone receiver. Therein, I think, lies Blondie’s considerable charm. Ten years later, the band’s label would have hired someone to choreograph her within an inch of her life. They would have brought in backing dancers. They would have said, “Don’t—don’t do that phone thing with your hands.” With each new record, it would have been expected that Debbie would have a new “persona,” like Madonna. The guys would have been given florescent shoes and ankle-length coats, like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Blondie got out while the getting was good.
I read somewhere that in Blondie’s early punk days, Debbie used to be the one who had a car and drove everyone home after late nights at CBGB’s. That’s how she looks in this video. She looks sexy, but she also looks nice. She looks like the kind of person who’d give you a lift and wait to make sure you got in your doorway safely.
When I watch this clip, I imagine this conversation. “Let’s film Debbie in her dressing room, putting on make-up. That’ll look hot.” “OK. Three, two, one, rolling … wait, shouldn’t someone take that white plastic shopping bag out of the picture?” “Nah, it’s fine the way it is.” This is one of the better Blondie videos.
I like Friendly Fires well enough to watch their videos, but not much more than that. They’re not half bad looking, and the lead singer, Ed Macfarlane, does a campy gyrating dance that makes me happy. In this video, though, the camera spends far too much time on that floating grey balloon, or whatever it is. (They made a second video for the song, here, and that version is even worse.) It’s the lyrics that I love, as banal as they are. I have a copy of this song on my iPod, and I sing along when it comes on in the car, and then my boyfriend and I fall into a discussion of which major European capital we’d most like to settle in—Paris, London, Rome—when we strike it rich. I’m on it, I promise.
In 2002, I was fortunate enough to interview the jazz singer Blossom Dearie for Newsday, the newspaper where I was then an editor. I had been a fan of Blossom’s since the late 1980s, when I worked at a Boston bookstore that also sold, somewhat eccentrically, a selection of albums by jazz and cabaret artists. My friend and co-worker Tess discovered a Blossom Dearie tape on the wall of cassettes. We loved the picture on the cover of Blossom, sitting at a piano wearing tortoise shell glasses, looking a little bit like a librarian. But the music inside was better than anything we could have imagined. Blossom sounded a little bit like a librarian too. Her singing was soft and clear and crisp—no brassy belting. But the music swung, as they say in jazz circles. Also, the Broadway standards Blossom recorded were sometimes funny, like Rodgers and Hart’s “Everything I’ve Got”: “I have eyes for you, to give you dirty looks/I have words that do not come from children’s books.”
That album, Blossom Dearie, from 1956, was one of her first, and the first of a great six-record run for Verve, the classic jazz label. (I’m guessing that the clip above is from 1958—the year that “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” a song from Oklahoma!, appeared on her best album, Once Upon a Summertime.) There wasn’t “very much steam” about those recordings, though, Blossom told me—“they’re just getting off the ground now.” She went on to play mostly supper clubs like Julius Monk’s in New York and Ronnie Scott’s in London, recorded a few albums in London in the late 1960s, then started an independent label to release her own music. She famously sang a couple of songs—“Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Figure 8”—for Schoolhouse Rock, a series of animated interstitials that once ran between Saturday morning cartoons. When I met her, she was in her late seventies, and was a year into a long-running engagement at Danny’s Skylight Room, a slightly offbeat combination of cabaret and Thai restaurant just off Times Square.
Blossom wasn’t so easy to interview. I asked her about the humor in her songs. “Which songs are you referring to?” she asked, a little skeptical. I mentioned a few: “Rhode Island is Famous For You,” “Give Him the Ooh-La-La.” “There’s a little humor in those songs,” she admitted. She said that she had learned about rhythm from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. I cited a phrase she had written in the liner notes to one of her early records, about the “economy” of her playing and singing—was this something she had also learned from other singers? “Nope!” Just something you developed on your own? “That’s right.” Through trial and error? “No, just … from God.”
Of course, I mostly wanted to talk about her years on Verve. But she wasn’t so much interested in discussing that. She had just released a CD of Brazilian-inspired music, and she was planning another one. She wanted to talk about playing at Danny’s, the crowds that came to see her. “We’ve got to get up to the present time here,” she said. But, I said, New York in the 1950s! London in the 1960s! “How many people are interested in that?” she asked. Lots, I said. She shrugged. I asked her if she had seen Kissing Jessica Stein, a movie from the previous year that had used a number of her songs on the soundtrack. She hadn’t. “Did you see it?” she asked. “It’s an art film,” she said, decisively. We broke the ice a little when I said that I had grown up in Albany. She was born and raised in a small town in the Catskills, only about thirty miles away; she used to visit Albany with her parents when she was young. We both used to shop at the same Montgomery Ward.
I complimented her on her voice, which was almost as clear as it had been fifty years ago. “Thank you!” she said. “I’ve just had my tea with honey.” How did she take such good care of it? I asked. She laughed. “I drink a bottle of Scotch a day, and I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. And I stay up very late. And I carouse in the Village.” Blossom died in 2009 at the age of 84.
“Passing me by, passing me by,” writes Nicholson Baker in A Box of Matches. “Life is.” This morning I woke up and thought, was it yesterday that we saw Kurosawa’s Stray Dog at Film Forum? No, it was six days ago. In the evening I roasted some fish in the oven, and when the timer went off the fish wasn’t quite done. So I reset the timer for two more minutes—too short a period to go do something else. The parsley was chopped, the pine nuts toasted. And so I stood in front of the oven and watched the seconds on the clock slip away. Today was warm, and soon it will be like winter never happened. This song is by Mac McCaughan’s Portastatic.
Now, this band, this band I should have listened to back in the 1990s. I would have loved it, if I had let myself, which I might not have seeing as it wasn’t on Matador or Sub Pop. It doesn’t much matter, because I love it and listen to it a lot now. I was introduced to it by my friend Nathaniel. When he told me a few years back that he was a fan of its music, I thought, oh, it’s that kind of band whose name I used to always see floating around. Its songs were probably included on those free sampler CDs that came with CMJ New Music Monthly, and I probably skipped over them, out of sheer, stubborn, youthful lack of curiosity. I had to admit to him that I didn’t know the first thing about the Innocence Mission. The associations I had, that it was intimately bound up with its era, weren’t exactly wrong—its songs were played on Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five. This song, “Bright as Yellow,” the band’s biggest hit, has that shiny but woozy ’90s production style.
The video is totally ’90s too—the camera wavering in and out of focus; the flickery film projected on the band members; the big, empty, Shaker-esque rooms of an old house in the country. And yet, isn’t it beautiful? It all works for me. The smile on Karen Peris’ face, the way she interlaces her fingers and twists them around—I see that they might be affected, a little bit of stage business to play up the atmosphere of childhood wonder the video is trying to convey. I see that and I override it. I love the smile and the fidgety fingers. Her eyes, her voice, are genuinely bright and clear and guileless, and they genuinely lift me up, even if just for the duration of the song.
I like Glow, the album this song comes from, but I rarely listen to it, only because, after the burst of attention the Innocence Mission received in the middle of the ’90s, the band went on to make better music. Its last two albums of original songs—Befriended, from 2003, and We Walked in Song, from 2007—have been close companions during the past few years of my life. That woozy production is stripped away. The songs are about parents dying, about missing friends that have moved away, but also about small moments, a picnic in a state park, “walking around New Orleans looking for a birthday cake.” There’s a lot of real life here—“Beautiful changes I feel sometimes/In the middle of the late morning dishes” is one of the lines I like best.
This is a more recent video, of their song “My Sisters Return From Ireland,” the last track on We Walked in Song, and it probably cost a millionth of what it cost to make the “Bright as Yellow” video. In fact, it was most likely pieced together on a laptop. It makes me think of my part-Irish grandmother, who never traveled outside of the United States, or outside of the Northeast, for that matter. When I was a kid I used to think about travel a lot, and I would ask her where she’d most like to go, and she would look off into the distance a little and say, “I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland.” This song seems to be about staying home, maybe because you have to, and daydreaming about a faraway place, even worrying a little about what you would be like if you were to actually get there.