Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Persistence of Memory

I spent yesterday evening in the company of nine attractive, sympathetic, and chatty women whom I had not seen in at least twenty-seven years. They were all classmates of mine in elementary school. One of them, the most well-organized and motivated of the lot, maintains a Facebook page dedicated to Resurrection of Our Lord School’s Class of 1971, and every so often she schedules an informal get-together for those of us still in the area. Everyone is invited, of course, but the groups end up consisting of women, with the occasional token male. Last night, it was my turn.

We met for dinner at the Rhawnhurst Café, a bar and grille near my apartment that I was told has been there forever, but which I had never set foot in before. (I’d been missing out. The portobello sandwich was excellent.) Three of us Lisa, Susan, and I  sat at one end of the tables rehashing memories of nuns, lay teachers, games of spin the bottle (which I was never privileged to attend), and the trouble we inevitably got into simply by being children in a harshly disciplined environment.

It felt as though we were piecing together a single, collective memory out of fragments each of us has carried for years. Lisa claimed to remember very little, but what few memories she did have were vivid  like the time she and a girl named Maria made a dash for the school roof, only to be caught on the stairs by the principal. I would expect something like this from Maria, the principal told her, but not from a straight-A student like you.

Yes, we must beware of the company we keep  one of the endless life lessons drilled into us by Catholic education. Maria died of cancer a few years ago, and it hurt to learn that. Lisa has a Ph.D. in psychology, so I guess the adventure on the stairs didn’t undermine her character too much.

I was the only one who remembered the time we were herded in the gymnasium/auditorium for a performance by a pair of opera singers. Neither Susan nor Lisa even believed it had occurred until Diane, sitting nearby, confirmed my story. Lisa insisted she there had never been had never been introduced to an sort of culture in her entire eight years at Resurrection. (The music we were forced to sing at children’s Mass was insipid.) Diane didn’t remember the opera itself, but I did: it was the one about the marriage proposal that keeps being interrupted by phone calls. It was only years later that I put a title to the performance The Telephone, by Gian Carlo Menotti. A better first exposure for kids, I suppose, than Götterdämmerung.

All these years later, what I don’t remember is the accompaniment. Was it a recording or a live piano?

The talk went on from six-thirty until after nine. I stopped at Rita’s for a vanilla cone, which I enjoyed slowly as I walked home. It was the most beautiful, most comfortable night of the summer.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Frank Zappa plays the bicycle

FZ's classic appearance on the old "Steve Allen Show," offered here as filler between real posts. I do wish, however, that Allen had resisted the urge to make lame jokes. It was fun enough without the commentary, and Steve Allen was never funny, anyway. Gary Moore was much more respectful to John Cage.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time to break with tradition

The poor little Windsor born the other day will most likely be named something safe, dull, and Anglo-Saxon. Oddsmakers in the UK are taking bets on the usual monickers like George, Henry, Edward and Charles.

They should name the kid Trayvon.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Howard Kaylan's memoir, "Shell Shocked"

Cover art by Cal Schenkel
A few nights ago I finished reading Shell Shocked by Howard Kaylan, front man of the '60s pop group The Turtles and later a member of one of the many incarnations of Frank Zappa's Mothers. The book is a breezy, swift read, but it left me feeling rather sad and deflated. Kaylan and his singing partner, Mark Volman, turned their talent for close harmonies into a few No. 1 singles, and they've spent the past 40 years trying unsuccessfully to recapture that early success.

Kaylan blew through his Turtles money quickly. An indifference to the business end of things and trust in the wrong people led to the band's early demise. The Zappa period lasted less than two years and ended abruptly on December 10, 1971, the night Frank was pushed off a stage in London.

At the age of 25, it seemed, Kaylan was washed up. He and Volman worked their way back, touring state fairs, providing background vocals to any number of big-name artists, churning out instantly forgotten albums, and writing songs for "Strawberry Shortcake," but it feels like The Death of a Salesman, the laborious journey of a modestly talented man whose achievements don’t justify his optimism. And through it all, there are the affairs, the failed marriages, and lots and lots of drugs.

The book is valuable as window on the workaday underbelly of the music business, and a cautionary reminder that not everybody can be the Beatles.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

George Carlin on political language

Carlin gave this speech to the National Press Club in 1999:

CD Sales benefit Friends of Fox Chase Cancer Center

David Cohen is a Philadelphia guitar player whom I once interviewed for Ticket and with who once accompanied me to a set by Rickie Lee Jones in Sellersville. I haven't seen him since that night, but he got in touch not long ago and told me his wife had died. He also said he has recorded a CD of original music and is donating a portion of the profits to the Friends of Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia. Here is a portion of the press release he sent:

The music recorded for the release DAVID COHEN: GUITAR was composed during the first year after the loss of David's wife Tatyana to ovarian cancer. The CD contains eleven tracks the first ten of which came from the emotional journey of living and coping in the fog of grieving. The CD is not mournful in scope or approach and is actually quite the opposite. The music is an intimate celebration of love, life and the brave battle that Tatyana put up in the face of fear, horror, pain and the torture that encompasses ovarian cancer.

CD available through CD Baby and iTunes.

Or you can visit David's website.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Russian program, Van Cliburn Tribute

For Ticket this week, I've written a single preview of two concerts — an all-Russian program, and a tribute to Van Cliburn. I was somewhat out of my element here. It's no secret that the Russian romantics annoy me. I like only a few of Tchaikovsky's small-scale works, and I have no Rachmaninoff in my record collection. None. Not a single prelude. Van Cliburn's career never really penetrated my consciousness, either. He was retreating from the concert life by the time I came along, and his choice of repertoire could be questionable. (The Yellow River Concerto? Seriously?) Fortunately, the Russian program includes Rimsky's Russian Easter Overture and The Rite of Spring, and there is some Wagner and Strauss in the Cliburn concert.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Voice of the Eagles

Merrill Reese, who has been calling the games of the Philadelphia Eagels on radio since 1977, will appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra July 24 at the Mann Center. He will be the emcee for a program titled "Symphonic Sports-tacular!" — complete with the exclamation point. There will be music from the Olympics and Monday Night Football, filmed highlights from great moments in Philadelphia sports history (such as they are), and a fireworks display. It's a flagrant attempt by the orchestra to broaden its appeal and get more people into the seats, and that is all to the good.

I interviewed Reese, as well as Peter Schickele, for a preview in Ticket. Talking to Schickele was a lifelong dream, of course, but the talk with Reese was more enlightening, probably because each of us was taking a step outside his comfort zone. I've been a fair-weather football fan at best, and I haven't been able to make myself watch it since the news of players' head injuries came out. Reese was open and congenial, however, and he kept the conversation moving. When I was at a loss for questions, he told me about his children. His son Nolan is a visual effects editor who worked on Iron Man II and The Lone Ranger — though I would think he’d rather cross that one off his résumé

One thing I didn’t know — and the sports fans in the newsroom didn’t know, either — is that Reese keeps track of the chaos on the field with the help of a spotter. While he’s watching the ball, another guy in the booth is looking elsewhere, at the blockers and linebackers and the secondaries. This guy never speaks, but if a player does something worthy of comment, he will point to the player’s number on a chart and describe the action to Reese using one of thirty-five hand signals. The play-by-play men may sound omniscient, but they have an extra set of eyes.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where have all the scandals gone?

Two months ago, you couldn't turn on the TV or read a paper (if you still read papers) without tripping over the latest scandal inside the Obama Administration. There was talk of impeachment, the curse of the second term, and, most outrageously, of Nixon. Now, they have all gone away. The reporting on Benghazi emails turned out to be flawed, and the IRS, we learn, was scrutinizing left- and right-wing groups more or less equally. What was sold as an ideological vendetta seems, as some cooler heads predicted, to be nothing more than a case of an overworked, underfunded bureaucracy looking for a shortcut. (If you want to blame the stampede on the herd mentality of the news industry, you have my blessing.) There is still the problem with the NSA, but Republicans who can usually be relied upon to savage Obama over every little contretemps have backed off for fear of looking weak on national security.

Over at New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait has a helpful summary of how the air went out of the balloon.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A chat with Prof. Peter Schickele

Yesterday, I interviewed, by phone, Peter Schickele, creator of the unfortunately immortal P.D.Q. Bach, about his scheduled appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 24. (He’ll perform “New Horizons in Music Appreciation,” his play-by-play analysis of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with sportscaster Merrill Reese, the Voice of the Eagles, as his color man.) Much of what we talked about will find no place in the article I still have to write, and I’d like to throw some of it down here, as chips from the workshop.

I asked Schickele what drives a serious musician to comedy (thanks to Renee for the suggestion), and he said that in his case, it was the other way around. He was funny as a kid, and he began studying music seriously only in his teens, when he picked up his mother’s old clarinet.

“My mother once told me I was entertaining people since I was a year and a half old,” he said. “That came first with me. What happened during my teenage years was I got more and more interested in music for its own sake. All my life I’ve done both the serious and the funny things.”

His catalog of so-called serious works is larger than his P.D.Q. Bach catalog, he said, and the latter contains more than a hundred pieces.

It seems perfectly in character that Schickele’s earliest musical hero would be Spike Jones, and when he was 13, he formed his own band, called Jerky Jems and his Balmy Brothers, which was a direct imitation of Jones and his City Slickers. The band consisted of two clarinets, a violin (played by Schickele’s brother), and tom-toms.

“I still have the first piece I ever wrote, which for some reason is called ‘The Sheik of Kalamazoo,’” Schickele said. “It sounds vaguely exotic. When I wrote it, I was not only writing an original piece of music, but I was also learning how to write music down.”

At the time Schickele began playing clarinet, his family was living near Fargo, North Dakota, in the sprawling if underpopulated metropolitan area known as Fargo-Moorhead. (Moorhead is over the state line in Minnesota.) When he eventually went for lessons, his teacher told him that he had developed so many bad habits that he should start over with another instrument. The teacher recommended the bassoon. Schickele took the suggestion, but he suspected an ulterior motive: there were no bassoonists in Fargo-Moorhead, and the local orchestra needed one. Schickele, along with another boy who had been talked into lessons, became the bassoon section.

“I never harbored any illusions of wanting to be a professional bassoonist,” he said. “The great thing about being a bassoonist is that that are needed. There’s always a shortage of bassoonists, whereas clarinetists are a dime a dozen.”

Of all the pieces he has written as P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele said, he holds a special place in his affections for P.D.Q.’s only full-length opera, The Abduction of Figaro.

“My own favorite P.D.Q. Bach pieces are sort of love letters to the composers they sound like,” he said. “That one is definitely a love letter to the big five operas of Mozart.”

For the record, my own favorite Schickele gag may be found at the beginning of The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach. It’s a reproduction of the manuscript of a song that consists of the words “front is” repeated over and over. The name of the song, of course, is “Front Is Piece,” a fragment from the Songs Without Points.