Zing! Vecht! Huil! Bid!

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artist. hero. life messenger. Dutch Guy!

In the iconic Weimar swan-song movie ‘Cabaret’, liberal-democratic 1933 Deutschland throws itself a final champagne-soaked party before the Nazis come in and churlishly stomp the balloons with their jackboots. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, a satin-draped Liza Minnelli delivers, from the stage of a nightclub, a vivid 11th-hour lecture on the evils of sitting alone in a room. She waves her arms around, Minnelli-like, shakes her cropped Minnelli hair and using her weird guttural Minnelli vibrato to great effect, preaches hedonism to the martini-quaffing sophisticates at their tables, a doomed pre-war demimonde who seem not to need the lesson. What good is sitting alone your room? she asks them. Life is a Cabaret! It’s a chastening song, particularly for those of us who favor sitting alone in a room. But the point is well taken. Life is happening out there.  Get out of the house! For some that ‘s easier said than done. Some of us are trapped behind plate glass, figuratively and otherwise, straining for a glimpse of what the rest of us take for absolute granted. We may all be stardust (CSNY ca 1968) but that message is a hard sell to some. We’re not all made of the stuff that pours into the evening boulevards, we don’t all feel the sparkle. To some the Aurora Borealis is an enormous mildew-stiffened shower curtain. The complicated world is cluttered with half empty glasses.

Enter Shaffy! In 1933, the last year of the Weimar fest (and the last year for quite a little while that fishnet stockings would figure in Berlin nightlife), a future lovable shaggy-dog Dutch troubadour with the unlikely name of Ramses Shaffy was born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Half-Egyptian, half French, his dad would leave him, his mom would contract tuberculosis, and the fates would see him shipped off to an Auntie in Holland. This wounded high-school dropout’s self-discovery and reinvention as a young artist in the gezellig candlelit clubs and gathering places of Amsterdam, his rise as a beloved truth-telling cabaret figure in his own right, his lifelong artistic partnership with Lisbeth List (their Shaffy Cantata is a completely strange and surprising choral poptart – you must hear it) – these are the subjects of a lengthier essay. If you can imagine.

In 1972 Shaffy would pen a song of such ringing clarity and uplift it would define him;  a crazy diamond called ‘Zing, Vecht, Huil, Bid, Lach, Werk en Bewonder!’ I have come to adore it. It’s a song whose theme and accompanying melody I carry in my pocket like a talisman. It says everything. It’s narrative power is undeniable, it’s pure and transparent lyric an embrace, its urgency to redeem an indecorous 1000 watt light bulb without a shade.  The tune unfolds like a supernova on a slow boil. By the end it’s throwing off whatever powerful rays a supernova throws off. The first time I heard it, my sketchy command of Dutch gave me pause. Could he really be singing what it sounded like he was singing? Can you really yell something that transcendently simple in a pop song? The title is the chorus – a command, delivered in a fever of joy. First, though, the verses tenderly catalog the various shades of remove that define the ‘quietly desperate’, as Thoreau has called them.

‘For the one in the corner, behind glass, for the one with the slammed shut windows, for the one who thought he was alone; you must know this now; we are all together.’

‘For the ones with the firmly shut books, for the ones with the soon-forgotten names, for the ones who seek in vain; you must know this now; we are all together!’

The band America tried this sort of outreach with Dan Peek’s pleasant but fairly limp tune ‘This is for All the Lonely People.’ Their advice? ‘Don’t give up until you reach for the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky.’ Uh…thanks America. It always sounded to my teenage ears a little iffy. So I have to reach for this thing, this silver cup? And then, I guess..die trying? What, do I fall off the chair or something? I don’t want the Highway in the Sky yet! Just give me the freaking silver cup!  Shaffy’s remedy is more declarative, and in the mesmerizing video of the song has the added benefit of being shouted though a radiant, unrehearsed smile of solidarity.

Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/ Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/  But not without us.

The basic food groups of Life in a pop chorus, and an assurance. And just incidentally a tidy summation of the Dutch national character, as I’ve come to know it. The Dutch have humor suffused with a kind of informed, nourishing darkness; an artful satisfaction with the quotidian; bracing guileless love, the strength of steel. Oh, and all those tulips. None of the spokes on the Wheel of Life are lost on the Dutch. Shaffy’s litany should be in their national charter.

I’m a huge Sinatra fan, he of the heartfelt, personally penetrating song interpretation. But I have never seen a performer put a song and message across as wholly and triumphantly as Ramses Shaffy does this one. He is an artless singer and a stranger to stage presence. What power Shaffy has is indefinable.  At around 2:40 in the vid you can glimpse the power; he is reaching an inner crescendo on the last verse, barely containing himself. (you can see the vid by clicking the image up top; but wait)

For the one with the open expression
For the one with the naked body
For the one in the white light
For the one who knows we are together.

He then lets his imprecating gaze linger pleadingly for an instant, staring straight through the camera as if to say “You, you”. His face and vaguely Egyptian eyes urge the message through the glass to his shuttered benefactors. You can see the effort, the televised effort to link. When he bursts very unprofessionally into a warm smile and pulls away, it’s such a moment. By then he is so taken with his own message he is shambling. He turns his back to the audience and lopes like a hurried teenager to his mildly befuddled, beehived backup singers, spins happily on his heel and faces the audience in an endearing posture that can only be called “Prom Date Photo’, his mic raised awkwardly, his chest puffed out, his grin that of a dear beatific idiot. As Shaffy’s exultation increases, the middle singer in particular looks at him worriedly, or is just possibly in thrall to his carbonated, toothy unprofessionalism. ‘This is a job, dude.  What‘s all this?” He wheels on the studio orchestra and you see his bony back exhorting them with the message. He’s beside himself. It’s a strange and moving thing to see.

In later life Ramses Shaffy’s incandescence would dim, as seems to be inevitable in these cases. He would succumb to drink in his late-middle age, then very publicly be swept up in a kind of drink-enhanced Alzheimers called Korsakoff’s Syndrome, making addled public appearances and eventually living in a sort of convalescent group home; the outer flame apparently snuffed by the most mortal and ordinary poisons. He would finally manage to throw off the demon booze in his autumn years and then would be stricken with cancer. The thanks he got.

But holy cow! When he shouts out his message, (and he is still shouting it out) the flame isn’t sputtering, nor will it. Who would dare write a song chorus like this? “Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!”

But not without Us (Maar niet zonder ons).

 

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Icarus Dissembling

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Graham approached cautiously, a wild, sickening fascination drawing him forward.  The icon was an airplane. An airplane.  And fastened there a ragtime aviator, lovingly rendered; tweed cap and vest, goggles, billowy shirtsleeves, knickers, gloved hands outstretched and pierced by…joysticks?
He clapped a hand to his mouth and stumbled backward. From deep within the catacomb of gutwork his gorge readied itself anew for rising. He shakily moved forward and brushed his rancid fingers over the burnished silver convexity. On impulse then he saw fit to grasp the joystick piercing the tormented figure’s overlapping boots. He pulled back.  The knobless door recessed upwards into the ceiling with an electronic whisper.  Pastel colored light poured in from the next room and Graham leaped back to avoid being seen. He flattened himself against the wall, strenuously, the Single Bead of Sweat rolling momentously down his throbbing temple.  Martin Landau circa 1969.  From within the room a susurrus of voices chanted, or conversed.  Solemnly, rhythmically.  Graham strained to pick up what they were saying and leaned closer to the doorway.
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
What was this?
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
“The plane…does not…have time…to fall.”
Over and over.  And over.  It was chanting.  A room full of what sounded like a mixed crowd of men and women.  Chanting?  What was this about airplanes falling?
“The plane…does not…have time… to fall.”
Panic began politely to tickle Graham’s coccyx.  Do something.  Get out.  The chanting changed in modulation, tapered off without ceremony to be replaced by a generalized murmur, almost of disapproval.
“Who’s next to board,” a woman’s voice tremulously broke in.
“I”, someone responded.  A man….familiar…Jameson?
“Come forward.”  A chair creaked as someone rose.  Feet padded forward.
“Are you prepared?”
“I am not!”
“Tell it.”
The respondent sighed heavily.  What followed was clearly a recitation.  “A machine of that mass will stay aloft only by the most extreme applications of reactive airfoil faith. We trust the machine.”
“Oughtn’t we?”
“We ought not.”
“And why not?”
“A machine is but a limb, and the human limb operates at the whim of the ruined human.”
“Why ruined?”
“To place one’s trust in the elevator, the jackscrew, the artificial horizon, is to surrender sovereignty.”
“What must be done?”
“Daedalus must be sated.  To escape this mechanistic labyrinth, this ensnaring.  Daedalus must be sated.”   Graham rolled back along the wall, inching away from the door.  Whatever this nutty convocation was, it was exacerbating his condition.
“Have we a volunteer?”
“In the foyer.”
“Bring him.”  A dim and dust-covered light bulb flickered suddenly in Graham’s mind.  Time to go.  He gathered his energies.
“Luddites!” he hollered with cracking voice, and springing to the exit found his legs captured around the shins.  He hit the floor like a rolled carpet.  Grunting, he staggered to his feet. The booze informed his prone crouch, his pitiably crablike attempt at a defense posture.  A smallish Druidic claque of uniformed airline captains filed into the foyer, fingers laced in the manner of supplicants.  The tin wings on their caps glittered feebly in the dimness. A couple of them looked to be suppressing grins.  Dear Captain Jameson, dear lovely Captain Jameson stepped forward and took Graham gently by the arm.  A handsome brunette Doris Day with squarish shoulders took his other arm.
“Hullo, Graham,” Jameson intoned intimately.
“You’re not from England..” muttered Graham for the second time in as many hours, and raised a hand as if to call down a heavenly oath.  “Are you?”

The Various States of Aloha

Aloha and Bob 1942

 

My mother’s name is Aloha, and that’s just the beginning. She’s had an interesting and peripatetic (there, I said it) life. Her travels and her times have produced a card, a ham, a bon vivant and a wiseass. She and my dad were a matched set that way. As a preteen she would routinely climb out of her bedroom window in the wee small hours (as Sinatra would’ve described them) and roam the various Army bases she called home. No Army-issue bedroom window could hold her. Her return would usually be in the company of a base MP (Military Police) most of whom knew her by name within a few months of her family having arrived for the new assignment.

In one familiar story she creeps out of her parents’ Army quarters late one night and slinks by moonlight to the base movie theater where the scandalous Gable/Lombard film ‘No Man of her Own’ is playing. 20 minutes into the movie the MP’s familiar flashlight beam plays down the darkened aisle beside her. She looks up to see a resigned-looking white-helmeted base policeman standing beside her  “C’mon, Aloha,” he reportedly sighs. “Let’s get you home.”

Not Hawaiian

Aloha was born in Hawaii but is not Hawaiian. She was born at Schofield Barracks, the Army post that 17 years later would be laid waste by nervous Japanese pilots following the ill-advised orders that would eventually unplug their empire. Her father was an Army Colonel who had always adored Hawaii from afar and had finally secured his dream posting. In the full flush of his island fever, he and my probably less enthusiastic grandmother nearly named my mother after the last sovereign queen of Hawaii; Liliʻuokalani, which is unfortunately pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. In that case today my mother would be going by ‘Lili’, one hopes. It was a close call.

By 1942 she was a volunteer for the war effort in Florida, pushing crudely built model planes around a tabletop aerial map with a long stick, the better to differentiate, with the civil air authorities’ radioed help, the mean planes from the friendly ones in the air around the eastern seaboard. Cameras in space were still an Arthur Clarke daydream. She met my dad that year at a servicemen’s dance and the game was afoot.

Wheelus and Gadaffi

By 1969 she was an Air Force Wife. We lived on Wheelus AFB, just outside Tripoli, Libya; my father, my mother, my little brother, my big sister, and me. Quarters 4G, three blocks from the Mediterranean. We were there for all of a year and a half before Colonel Gadaffi rudely moved his belongings into the Royal Palace during one of kindly King Idris’ clueless junkets abroad. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to leave the country. Aloha managed to make a few waves in the time between our arrival at Wheelus and our gunpoint-inspired departure.

She spent much of 1969 with a similarly meddlesome gal pal, skulking around the foliage of the Base Commander’s expansive Air Force-issue home on a bluff overlooking the sea, snapping Polaroids of the Black Panthers sign that adorned his quarters’ front lawn, hoping to get him in hot water with the Air Force. They of course looked the other way despite his tacit endorsement of what was then considered a domestic U.S. terrorist group (but was in fact a strategically unconventional civil rights advocacy group whose business plan sometimes ran afoul of an entrenched, racially insensitive Establishment. Ahem). The commander, Chappie James, was already near-legendary and would soon enough be made the U.S.’s first black Four-Star General.  Some of my parents’ best friends were African-American Air Force peeps, but James wasn’t one of them. He fell out of favor with Aloha when he acceded to Libyan demands to imprison my mom’s neighbor.

Genevieve, Dan, and the Tuba Case Incident

General James, then head of NORAD, did famously finesse an orderly retreat from Wheelus AFB, an outpost of the Strategic Air Command. Chappie James foiled through negotiation what was meant by Gadaffi to be an embarrassing rout for the Americans and their base. Aloha was having none of it, though. As had many of the base’s residents, Aloha had objected to  James’ treatment of her neighbor Genevieve, to whose house arrest he had grudgingly agreed in the wake of her husband’s botched attempt to spirit a Jewish friend out of the country in a Tuba crate bound for Malta; a plot foiled on the tarmac of the Tripoli airport. Genevieve’s husband, Dan deCarlo, was my grade school principal on the base.

The newly installed Gadaffi regime—invigorated by the success of their recent coup—had been extremely displeased with his attempted rescue and in the placating atmosphere of the time our Base Commander had agreed to the new Libyan government’s terms of reprisal; orders to sequester the woman (a soft-spoken, unbowed French academic), strip her of all personal belongings, and send her out of the country to join her exiled husband in Japan following several months of housebound questioning.

Aloha and Stephanie Take the Wheel

Aloha and her mischief-making pal, when not busy trying to tattle on the Commander’s politically-charged lawn signage, contrived to smuggle Genevieve’s entire household out of Libya, incrementally, piece by piece. The success of the Aloha and Stephanie Moving Company reportedly involved some shameless flirting with the young, bashful and easily distracted Libyan guards. These stunts typify Aloha’s middle age. Still later she would become an avid scotch-and-water Bridge partner to my dad,  a gold-medal-festooned Senior Olympian in swimming, a Benson and Hedges-hoisting hostess to her dear friends and neighbors, all of whom have themselves left the stage. These various states of Aloha occupy her like the cozily concentric shells of a Russian nesting doll.

Judy Garland and Mussolini and Aloha

Aloha was very fortunate to have entered the world (Stage Left) in the midst of the sort of colorful epoch that favors the high-spirited. It was a time of intense feeling and color. Judy Garland and Mussolini were a couple of the players, for instance. It’s true that much of the intense color was ordnance blossoming brilliantly in the saddened skies over torn-up Pacific islands and ruined, smoldering European capitals. But these terrible conflagrations seize and enlarge the bruised human heart. It was, as a great Victorian artist with a poorly executed comb-over once remarked of another era, both the best and worst of times.

Aloha Lamour

Aloha is 89 now. Still possessed of her dark hair, her teeth and her attitude. She can’t pass the full length mirror in her apartment without stopping to strike a Dorothy Lamour ‘ready for my closeup’ pose; one hand on her hip, the other perched uncertainly atop her 89-year-old head. It happens without fail. Her humor is mine (antiquated and often indecipherable) and there are times we’ve had each other laughing so hard the Grim Reaper stirs, puts down his newspaper and takes notice.

I always make it a point to enter Aloha’s apartment with a wry comment at hand. When your aged, self-deprecating mom answers the door with one shoe on and one foot bare, the comic possibilities announce themselves and one would be a fool not to pounce. She happily jumps aboard, glancing down and guffawing, then breaking into helpless wheezing as I enter a soliloquy on the dignities of old age. If she could be summed up with a gesture it would be a bemused shrug. This endears her to some of her neighbors at the retirement village (fellow travelers through a wild and world-renewing fire), and others it bewilders and frightens.

There are moments I’ve thought my mother was going to laugh herself to death, times she couldn’t catch her breath as we both leaned into each other in helpless hilarity. When your physical machinery is 90 years old, raucous laughter is necessarily a more fragile operation. I expressed this concern once. We’d really got each other going, she was crying with laughter. Finally, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. She raised her hand to her chest, trying to draw air. I panicked.  “Hey! Hey! HEY!! MOM!! MOM!! MOM!!”

“What,” she coughed, waving me away.

“I thought you were going to leave us there for a minute!” I put my arm across her diminished little shoulder. She wiped her eyes and sighed through a rattling chuckle.

“Wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.

Brute Ingratitude

The Boston Marathon bombing was two days ago. The crowds are just coming around to the truth of it, just beginning to settle into this most recent episode of asymmetric stupidity and blood and spirit-breaking sadness.  People of faith are presumed to have fit the pieces nicely together before the smoke cleared. They may be right or they may be mistaken. We don’t know. A bereaved mother on the radio spoke to an audibly busy crowd of press and photographers, the squall of clicking cameras a familiar accompaniment to heads of state wordily saying absolutely nothing, and heartbroken victims of space and time trying to publicly articulate a dawning sense of the mindless chaos we inhabit. He Moves In Mysterious Ways, to say the very least. There are few things as mysterious as an 8-year-old being ripped to pieces by nails and ball bearings while watching a foot race. For two days I’ve imagined his attentive expression. He’s figuring things out trackside, mapping out another bit of the world through this singular experience. The world will now move on without him. Most believers are spiritually untroubled by the smallish waves of turbulence such wanton ugliness sends through the ether of Faith. Michael continues to row the boat ashore through the mild chop. All is right with the world; God is in His heaven. ‘The Problem of Pain’ as atheist turncoat C.S. Lewis called it, is a thorny one, but the discussion has been dulled by the obviousness of its keynote and the unadorned stone wall it forces us to dash ourselves against, over and over and over again. The world is awash with pain, yes. Much of it literally unbearable. Curiously, the Maker didn’t provide all his Creation the necessary equipment to deal with the heartbreak He either deals out according to His Plan, or passively observes from the celestial throne room. The Bible assures us that the very impenetrability of the veil of sorrow we regard from our prostrate position is further evidence of His mystery. You can say that again. The stricken, aged-sounding mom on the radio is likewise on her knees, brought low by the mechanics of random chance and what we can call the Universal Order. Her 29-year old daughter, “the best daughter anyone could ever have,” she sobbed, is gone. To paraphrase the poet Phillip Larkin, it’s not just that she isn’t here anymore; she isn’t anywhere. “I can’t believe this is happening,” the broken woman continues, seeming almost to be thinking aloud.  The cameras are heard to click away and you can practically see the water falling from her face. Whether He is a wizened, bearded giant in a long robe out somewhere past NGC 2392 , or a clean-shaven Programmer in the next quantum room, He can’t help us; or at any rate He won’t. The Word of God nervily says not to expect thanks for just doing what’s expected of us anyway (Matthew 5:46), but sometimes the brute ingratitude from On High is too much for the rational heart to want to bear. This is the fix we’re in. Pray for the victims.