Peter’s Little Sister and the Transformation of The Nutcracker

Near the end of 1890, and fresh off the box office success of his ballet The Sleeping Beauty, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (we’ll call him Peter) was saddled with a commission that would nearly kill him. The Director of the Russian Imperial Theatres asked that Tchaikovsky re-team with his Sleeping Beauty partner; choreographer, Principal Ballet Master, arguable Father of Russian Classical dance, and maddening fussbudget Marius Petipa. The commission was issued under the tacit imprimatur of the Tsar. They got to work.

As had been the case with The Sleeping Beauty project, Tchaikovsky left the selection of source material to Petipa and was both surprised and pleased when the choreographer told him the “festive” new ballet would be based the on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman, the Stephen King of his day, had written a typically macabre story dealing with the strange fate of a nice guy named Hans Peter, the nephew of the Mr. Drosselmeyer whose appearance opens the ballet.

Peter T in a rare moment of repose

Through a series of bizarre reversals, an evil spell traps Hans Peter in a huge-headed, grimacing nutcracker. (It’s worth noting that the staring, blockheaded Nutcracker that has come to be cozily associated with knit socks, roasting chestnuts and garland began initially as a hideous figure of dread and mystery in the original Hoffman story. Go figure).

Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Hoffman’s writing and his interest was piqued at the idea of adapting such oddness to a ballet – until he read Petipa’s treatment, at which point the composer’s shoulders slumped. Much of the strangeness and charm had been drained from Hoffman’s fever dream by popular French author Alexandre Dumas’ mellower translation. Dumas was by then widely read, his Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo page-turners having established him as a hot pop-literary property. It only made sense to marry Dumas’ beach reading sensibilities (so to speak) to Hoffman’s bizarre but thrilling imagination. It was from Dumas’ softened version of the story that Petipa had created his narrative.

Peter’s adored and doomed little sis, Aleksandra

Dumas’ version reduced the Mouse King’s heads from seven to a more publicly palatable one, for instance. Added to that disappointment was the tightly-wound choreographer’s exacting list of dance intervals to which Peter’s’s score would need to cleave like a glove. The composer saw little room for musical invention and began to wrestle with the material, attempting to shoehorn in any creativity the choreographer’s strictures would allow. Tchaikovsky complained so loudly about the Nutcracker assignment at one point, the Imperial Theater’s director helplessly apologized to him for having commissioned the thing.

Progress on The Nutcracker absolutely crawled, complicated by the composer’s ever-present lifelong neuroses, and then compounded by Peter’s sudden breaking off of a 15 year letter-writing relationship with a woman with whom he had never even stood in the same room. Tchaikovsky’s long-planned trip to the U.S. to conduct at the Grand Opening of Carnegie Hall (yes, THAT Carnegie Hall) – fell right in the middle of the Nutcracker writing, and threatened to further bog the project down. He boarded a train for the coast, and passage to America. A dark catalyst was about to re-energize his writing efforts, and finally color The Nutcracker with all the hues of the ascendant human spirit.

In April of 1891, while traveling through Paris on the way to his American gig, Tchaikovsky received the news that his beloved little sister, Aleksandra, had died. He slid immediately into a deep depression, from which depths he asked for a deadline extension on the Nutcracker project, which was granted. He returned from the States and continued his now-depressed attempts at fulfilling the Nutcracker commission, but if it had seemed hopeless before, now it was becoming truly impossible to proceed, absolutely haunted as he was by the terrible death of his Aleksandra.

But then something turned.

As he dwelt obsessively on Aleksandra and their youthful Christmases together, Tchaikovsky began to identify the Nutcracker’s Clara with his departed sister. His paralyzing grief began to find coherence in the Nutcracker project, and he turned to the assignment with a new, almost crazed enthusiasm—spinning from the pain of a bereaved brother a lush orchestral score with all the melodic longing, melancholy and bittersweetness he was otherwise unable to express. Tchaikovsky poured all his sadness, all his shining anger, all his aching sense of life’s interrupted glory into the music, into the melodies. He filled Pepita’s exactingly timed dances with such melodies as would ring down through the ages. Tchaikovsky completed The Nutcracker in a fever of productivity. Two years later the star-crossed composer was gone.



space flower

Blossom the Dynamo!!

If there is anyone cooler than Blossom Dearie, for gawd’s sake let me in on the secret. And I don’t mean post-irony-cool, like Tony became after his manager-son paired him with k.d. Lang those years ago and rebranded him as a hipster-cred New Lounge Badge. <note: I worship Tony and am truly grateful for his autumnal renaissance>. Blossom is an element on the True Periodic Table; a building block. Blossom’s relentless pursuit of melody as a life/art theme floors me. Her style stands my hair on end. From her standards treatments to her own gorgeous oddball compositions (“Hey John” lovingly documents her crossing paths with Lennon on a talk show. “Sweet Surprise” lives up to its naif title every single listen, year after freaking year, and her beautiful fugue-state paean to “Dusty Springfield” is as happy-making a tribute to anyone or anything you’re likely to hear), Blossom ruled the Elliptical Artist Orbit. In this clip she follows the ageless gumdrop “I Wish You Love” with a four-handed improv session alongside her quietly excited French host. Adoring and adorable. Naturally Europe hugged her with airport greeting-lounge-strength at a time when to be a ‘jazz’ artist in the U.S. often meant you couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.  She’s ours, though, baby!! Now Blossom’s gone, but you wouldn’t know it. Begs the question yet again (to my mind) – where does the love go? Whence the warm energy of this lovable sprite? Answer: the Hubble Deep Field.

Bee Geezus II


Mention the Bee Gees and time stops. Your suddenly chagrined companion will pause to reflect. The reverie is typically an unpleasant one; gold chains nestled in Barry Gibbs’ chest hair, three unsmiling grown men with their arms crossed, standing back to back in satin like Charlie’s Angels, lapels that could lift a fighter jet, and John Travolta strutting cockily down a Brooklyn street in white, jewel-crushing bellbottoms, aiming his dumb dimple and triumphalist double-wide yap at passerby. This is upsetting. The Bee Gees are not “Stayin’ Alive”. The Bee Gees are not “If I Can’t Have You”. These three doomed faux-Aussies are emphatically not “You Should Be Dancin’ (yet another bullet from the Bee Gees Nadir Period whose suffix-apostrophe illustrates how far they had fallen by the mid-seventies). Song titles that drop their final ‘g’ in a gambit for insouciance have always inspired contempt in me, as they should in you. Just sayin’. What the Bee Gees ARE is ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’, ‘Massachussetts’, and the jarringly unhip “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You’, wherein a man on death row both pays penance and says goodbye to his love in a weirdly heartbreaking paean to loss and earthly regret. The brothers’ wordless start-and-stop harmonizing on that one should be enshrined in the Louvre. “Message” was a global radio hit; this in 1968, the year after the Youth Revolution’s high watermark had been codified by the tie-dyed nihilism and public screwing of the Summer of Love. The Brothers Gibb were the nerds at that party, eschewing shiny marching band regalia and the Billy Shears Mystery Tour at a time when psychedelia and stoned self-importance ruled.

They were often accused of riding on the coat tails of the Beatles, but their life-informed balladry was always of an entirely different species both in approach, and in the glorious femininity of its floral compositional style (he blathered unwisely). If there is a Beatles song like “Run To Me” I haven’t heard it, and it’s unlikely it would have occurred to the Fab Four (whom I adore) to pen a tune about a mine cave-in, as did the Bee Gees in the very un-sixties, starkly beautiful “New York Mining disaster, 1941”. The last gasp of the Old Bee Gees Order can be heard in the evanescent (and nowadays reflexively derided) “How Deep is Your Love”, also from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, but a gorgeous filigreed ghost of what was.

The brothers stumbled tragically into disco at the mercantile behest of producer Robert Stigwood, who was bankrolling a movie based on what turned out to be a largely invented New Yorker article about Brooklyn’s very real 70s underground dance culture. For that film, fellow Aussie and longtime producing partner Stigwood asked his boys for more of the ‘R & B’ the guys had featured haltingly on their recent “Main Course” album (listen to “Edge of the Universe” from that record. I beg thee, listen to “Baby As You Turn Away” as Barry tastefully explores, in a melodic swoon, his newfound falsetto. If you’ve a lick of sense, skip the risible “Jive Talkin'”, whose street-cred-seeking apostrophe foreshadows the coming sorrow). The boys obliged Stigwood, and were themselves as freaked as the rest of the world when the shoestring-budgeted little movie took off like a ballistic mirror ball.

The accompanying mayhem and largesse rang down a curtain, as often happens. Inevitably, disco fell out; lavishly and with much ado. The torch-carrying mob rose up to murder its emissaries and the Bee Gees were first in line to the gallows. They are hanging there still. Later, impish little brother Andy would come over to the states and make pop waves and grace the cover of Tiger Beat Magazine before sampling a little powdered sugar and taking it to heart, in fairly short order passing away in hospital at the age of 30, almost before his broken mother’s eyes. Bee Gee Maurice would die suddenly of a knotted intestine some years later and the grief would stun the surviving brothers into what would turn out to be an unbroken silence.

In a documentary made just before the very end, Barry and Robin, looking weathered and defeated, vow before the camera that they really want to get back into the studio, come in from the wilderness. The unintentionally elegiac documentary ends with Barry and a gaunt, bewigged Robin obliging the videographer with a couple roughly harmonized lines of old school, Pre Fall Bee Gees, looking at each other across the ages and smiling tiredly. Soon thereafter, dulcet-voiced twin Robin would slowly succumb to cancer, joining Maurice somewhere, it’s nice to think, though evidence is scant.

Now big brother Barry, 66 at this writing, is left to recollect. When the Brothers Gibb were wearing button-down shirts and blue jeans, singing songs like “To Love Somebody” and smiling unguardedly at the camera, Robin cupping his ear in performance to capture that inimitable harmony, they might not have guessed at the steamroller they would become, and how the later Disco Big Bang would poison their legacy. For some of us who know the boys by their gorgeous earlier efforts, the question still remains, and we can assume Barry asks it of himself every day on waking; how CAN you mend a broken heart?

The Greatest Discovery

E and B groter
clueless glory-teens stumble onto ark of the covenant. Bernie’s haircut notwithstanding.

G*d have mercy on me. Among the unlikeliest of songs in the rock n’ roll canon is a hair-raising little tune called The Greatest Discovery. One gets a throat cramp knowing that this scraggly early triumph preceded world domination, then reportedly a darkling period that featured a lot of John and Taupin crawling around on shag carpets sniffing pitifully for the leftover dregs of various coke bacchanals; stardom wiped its feet on the fledglings and they foundered willingly into the pit, for a while.  But the first meetings? Their mutual awakening to the power of songwriting? Jesus. This very early Elton song clenches my fists and inclines my head, sums up perfectly why Bernie Taupin is a teenage idyll, a marble statue of a Kid Before the Fall sitting in a desk chair by a tensor lamp.  Like all Taupin’s very early stuff this small, adolescent bit of dumb puffery reads like it was scribbled in a spiral notebook between math homework and parental orders to brush teeth and get jammies on.  The devastating, high schoolish little verse isn’t much to look at, really shouldn’t have been married to a chord progression, doesn’t properly earn the right to a melodic treatment, staggers forward ineptly with accidental rhymes, slant rhymes, sophomoric bits of Yeatsian pretension and all the clunkiness one gets from a hunched teen with a Ticonderoga # 2 behind a closed bedroom door. It is a detonation, though. A marvel of reaching, halting boyhood, this cloying Mother’s Day paean to a new life in the house, as explosive as Brian Wilson’s wrenchingly autobiographical primal scream ‘In My Room’, in it’s way. Elton J has spoken in interviews of why the early and mid-period John/Taupin songs sound the way they do. Taupin didn’t know meter from Peter. His unrestrained, heartfelt teen verse most often took the form of a-metrical narrative lines or hurried couplets meant to capture a feeling. Read the lyics to Grey Seal and know that Elton is the hardworking Lord of supple melodic reverse engineering. The Greatest Discovery seizes me every time I listen to it, heralding the early union of these two misfits and their powerful willingness to be uncool. There’s a great vid in studio of the song being performed on BBC in 1970, linked to the photo above, though E’s apparently nervous producer Paul Buckmaster hits some painful bum notes on the cello opening. if you can find the original track from the eponymous ‘Elton John’ album, that’s the one. This and many many other imperfectly articulated tunes from earlier epochs are an antidote to these end times of tinfoil pop tarts stamped out of metal like license plates.

Big Deal


Okay, so the autumn sidewalks are littered with the crispy husks of the dead, these dumb survivalist earthworms. Darwin’s champions. They lay around like the fallen, as if there’s been a desperate and cinematic battle of some kind. In fact they were caught out in the sun. With the rain they came out to revel, and were trapped on the sidewalk when the cloudburst passed. These things that have survived every extinction event the exhausted cosmos could throw at them don’t have the sense to go home when the rain stops. There is clearly a mechanistic virtue in stupidity and self-abnegation. These guys preceded the dinosaurs and handily survived the Flood despite having not been invited aboard Noah’s Yacht. It would have taken them another three years just to make it up the gangplank, drowning everyone.  Our temporary perch atop the food chain is clearly more Sears-Roebuck than ‘what a piece of work is a man!’  If these crispy idiot worms can both precede and follow us, what good are we. Period.

On the bus the older woman regards with furtive, fleeting, desperately curious glances the baggy pants teen drooped like a weakened sunflower over his phone, his neck parallel with the floor as he smiles thinly at something on the little screen. We lavishly imagined but do not have rocket cars, nor moon bases. There was one jet pack at the LA Olympics. This is the actual future. We have supernaturally fabulous telephones. This says what needs to be said about us. What would moon bases have said? ‘Escape! Explore! Live! Climb You Sonofabitch!’ Our pouring the intellectual magic and firepower of the race into telephones says ‘Enough, already. We’re not going anywhere’.

Liz Taylor acted her ass off in Butterfield 8 and the Albee movie, a couple of for instances. In the end (in the middle, actually) she couldn’t act her way out of a moist paper bag and embarrassed us with her perfume commercial.  She doesn’t owe us anything and g*d rest her. But that heavily painted moment at the very end of National Velvet? When she catches up to Mickey Rooney and stands alongside him in that garish sunset? The long shot? The music blares shamelessly. That is what they should have sent on the now-interstellar Pioneer, our metalloid message in a bottle. Heartbreak should have been the keynote of that message. Not a golden LP with Brahms or whatever. Barely sufferable bittersweetness and heartbreak. Liz and Mickey, kids at sunset. And the horsey.

Sea birds drift with casual purpose above a dawnstruck ocean, like bugs. More languid, though. They screw and they eat. These are the kingdoms, animal and plant.  From dandelions to squid, we’re not the serfs, we’re the kings, all of us.  But let’s not wave our scepters too grandly. Screw and eat. It’s still glory.

An office complex is festooned with pink ribbons. Cancer Research Supported Here. The ribbons are our testimony.  Why do we cling? This eyeblink hardly merits all this art and chatter. This is likely only a staging area. We awaken, see that we’re awake, and are shown the door. The door is set in the ground. Then some time later we’re adrift in ancient space and maybe later still reconstituted into extragalactic flowers or monsters or bacteria. We’ll see each other again under another sun and not realize it.  As explained with heartbreak and gusto by Frankie in the Rodgers and Hart resurrection tune Where or When.

Diana Ross? What happened? Why did she sing Upside Down? Whence her mojo? ‘I Hear A Symphony’? ‘Where Did Our Love Go’? What the hell happened? In her disco period she couldn’t even keep time. Did we do this to her?  Her and Liz? Or was she all along riding on the wings of song with not much of her own to offer? When the songs died out from under her she fell, Icarus with big staring eyes. Do you know where you’re going to? Wasn’t it me who said nothing good’s gonna last forever?

Some Marvels

Batman and Robin

Lorenz Hart

Miserably closeted, self-hating and almost constantly booze-sickened, Larry Hart could nevertheless write a song lyric like a crazed angel, and his stupefying lines (married to Richard Rodgers’ unbound melodies) adorn many many many of the tunes that comprise the Great American Songbook. When Hart dashed out a lyric he did so with such single-minded enthusiasm that he was known to leave the bathtub overflowing as he pursued the perfect line he’d only sat down momentarily to scribble. You can feel Hart’s light bulb going off over these things. His short conflicted life ended in a literal NYC gutter within days of his having been pushed away and his longtime partnership dissolved by tune-twin Richard Rodgers, who could no longer bring himself to write and work with the scary, ruinuos drunk Hart had become. They’d penned a canon of the most enduring and melodically insane pop tunes the world has seen, but on this night Hart seated himself on a storm-swept sidewalk outside an 8th street bar, bombed out of his sorry gourd, having been earlier refused entry to his own show, what would be his and Rodgers’ final Broadway collaboration, ‘A Connecticut Yankee’.  Rodgers had given strict and panicked orders not to allow his increasingly drink-maddened partner into the theater this opening night, and the celebrated lyricist was dead within two days, of pneumonia. Rodgers would go on to form an iconic partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II and redefine the American stage musical, those two all but inventing the idea of show songs as actual bearers of a play’s narrative and not just pretty placeholders sprinkled through the acts. But never again would a songwriting team crank out with such seeming ease the context-free uber pop Rodgers and Hart alchemically produced without pause for two decades. Though the language of critical praise hadn’t advanced sufficiently to allow for overspill (favorably comparing McCartney to Schubert, for instance, as happened within a short 25 years or so), the critics unanimously praised Rodgers’ melodies at a time when Melody was a commonly understood artistic element and the successful songwriter’s Grail, RIP.  He and Hart became very wealthy and very famous indeed. Even this ascent wasn’t enough to staunch Hart’s lifelong hemorrhage of self-opinion. Despite the ghastly hangovers and daily torment (or maybe due to them), Hart’s lyrics are hardened spun glass. His stuff can make you both swoon and bark out loud with laughter in the same stanza; lyrics whose life-informed undercurrent of bitter regret has given these songs a darkling piquancy that ripens them with age. It Never Entered My Mind is a tune around which someone ought to construct a religion. Please listen to that within the next 48 hours, preferably Julie London’s exasperatingly sexy take on it. Rodgers and Hart also wrote (among many many others) Manhattan, Where or When (a moving, smokily melodious  reincarnation tale of two reconstituted old pals meeting in another age and having the pleasing sense they’ve met before; Sinatra chose it as the last song he would ever sing to a dying Sammy Davis Jr. at Davis’ mute final public appearance, a star-studded tribute. Frankie sang the absolute balls off it.), My Funny Valentine, Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered), and the miraculous I Wish I were in Love Again, in which performing seals are conscripted to offer a sensible lesson on how pain can exalt. Hart was a doomed Magus who never made it out of the 40s. We owe him..

Abyss Resurrection Marvel

Ed Harris Convincingly Shouts His Ex Back From The Dead in The Abyss

The Abyss is a movie about non-terrestrial intelligences from a deep sub-oceanic trench hazing the freaked occupants of a sunken oil rig. Okay? The film features hyper-articulated water tentacles, giant glowing jellyships and a water-breathing argonaut. Still, the audience wants believable. The scene in which Ed Harris resurrects his drowned ex-wife with shouting has invited sophomoric titters of ridicule since the movie’s release in ’89. In the shot, the crew are gathered despondently around the dead woman and witnessing with some disgust the actions of her manic ex as he pleads for his recently despised ex-wife’s life. The thing is, the scene is actually hair-raising and jumps out of the film like an Olivier moment amid 2 or so hours of otherwise capable acting. Harris takes the game up several notches and seems not to be acting at all. He gets lost and it’s a heart-wounding bit of cinema ~ 3/4 of the way through a pretty good sci-fi movie, but the setting could have been anywhere. His desperate death rasp, his veil of tears, his clasped hands and prayer-rattle at the end of the resuscitation? You stare. It gives me Wet Eyeball Fire. Can you really shout a loved one back from the dead? Uh, yeah?? The scene has been widely mocked, even by the most ardent suspenders of movie house disbelief, but is in fact one of those cinematic miracles that happens when all the stops are pulled out. Ed Harris!! In this movie and elsewhere. Don’t try to make me feel stupid about this.

McAloon And Smith

All The World Loves Lovers

Paddy McAloon’s family outing Prefab Sprout (comprised of Paddy, his girlfriend Wendy and bass-playing, jug-eared brother Martin) scampered lithely onto the scene in 1984 with an indefinable prog-folk thingy called Swoon, an album brimming with gorgeous melodies (that again!), hyper-literate wordplay and unearthly arrangements never quite heard before or since. It was a somewhat turgid thicket of high art with a couple of glowing palliatives in the mix (listen to ‘Cruel’ from that album if you ever get the chance; magnificent – ‘Cruel is the gospel that sets us all free, then takes you away from me‘). Then T. Dolby came along and had Paddy sit down and play him some of his new stuff on guitar. The resulting high-pop-watermark, an album called Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the States, because marketers recognize us as literalist clods) was a crisp 4/4 color wheel with such songs as can make your spirit gasp like a surfacing pearl diver (sorry). By the time the Sprouts recorded Jordan: The Comeback the gloves were off. All The World Loves Lovers from that album is a beautifully faceted hunk of chandelier-pop, sprinkled tastefully with confectioner’s sugar and just possibly a demure thimbleful of meth (to bowdlerize Ms. Poppins) so lifting is this danceable hymn. The bass just chugs along, every so often Wendy weighs in with the unembarrassed one-note proclamation ‘Love’. It soars. McAloon is a bitchin, literate lyricist who doesn’t play dumb however naked the sentiment; one of those songwriters who wears his heart on his sleeve and then leads with his sleeve while walking around, shopping, doing laundry etc. Every song he writes waves its arms like your giddy friend at the airport. You approach smiling and he rushes over and desperately embraces you with his eyes squeezed shut. This isn’t for everybody, but I’m into it, big time.  ‘All The World’ takes a transporting 4 minutes to mesmerize with an embarrassingly bald truth. We love love!

Great Expectorations Marvel

Stylish Spitting

This modern world is many things to many people, and we are daily stunned by a new innovation or piece of super shiny crap. These days people go to their deaths typing behind the wheel of a moving car. This is the future, Nostradamus. Even you missed it, and who can blame you? Typically the driver’s last message to the world is something like ‘I’m typing and I’m driving’. So if nothing else there is a helpful surfeit of meta-irony anymore. In the wake of these tragedies the heartbroken are known to express their otherwise unspeakable grief through tweets, as in “Heartbreaking Tweet…”. If we had half a mind left as a culture, the very phrase ‘heartbreaking tweet’ would have us laughing till our asses gasped. Alas we do not have half a mind as a culture, and neither has this Guilded Age of witless advances managed to stamp out world hunger or eradicate poverty, but g*d what gadgets! These modern times somehow seem only to have increased the number of men in sleek pricy jeans and sunglasses who launch slobber balls as a fashion statement. To my mind this oral tradition began around the time the iPhone became the First World’s must- have. Maybe just coincidence. Or maybe all that jawboning at the bottom of a wifi funnel has overstimulated the male salivary thingys. You’ve seen this guy walking our streets and sidewalks, hands in pockets, staring straight ahead with a studied nonchalance. Without warning a strangely coherent wad of goomba loops balletically from his unmoving yap and falls to earth in a tiny ballistic arc. Excuse me, but wtf? What and why are you spitting onto our crosswalks, outdoor markets and street corners? And may I approach you and ask that very question without you pushing me down to the ground with a hand on my startled face? I marvel.

Look Away Marvel

Band Pics With One or More Members Looking Off-Camera

When in the long history of band photography did it become de rigueur to have a member or members looking away as if dreamily distracted by the wonderment we dance floor peons can only vaguely apprehend? For decades we band pic looker-atters have had to contend with this madness. Incredibly, and after all this time, the bands themselves seem not to know they are following a trope that is about as hip as The Wheel of Fortune. Notice this phenom next time you are leafing through your local news and arts journal. You’ll see several local bands with a singular askance-peeking rebel operating like a fifth column within the larger group.  All of whom considered themselves rebels till they eagerly ran to snatch up their Thursday afternoon edition of the local rag with themselves on the cover, where to their chagrin they see that Carl has singled himself out as the band’s  sidewise-glancing Token Mystic; the Death Metal Walt Whitman. It’s time to put a stop to it. Then I might start to miss it. These hideous conundrums define me.

Cunning Linguists

Human Language

Someone’s lippy yap moves around a little; a wet hole ringed with jagged bones and featuring as its star attraction a pink pseudopod, clicking and sliding and writhing around in there like a crazy serpent, producing moist antediluvian nonsense-gargling that oughtn’t mean ANYTHING AT ALL.  And we are able to interpret this wet gibberish with crystal clarity.  We can even recognize it coming out of the radio, and you can’t even see the mouth parts moving around in that instance. Does this make sense? Profoundly, no. Burroughs was right.

This has been a random sampling of many things I hold to be marvels. Not brief enough by half, I know.  Interesting, huh. At what do you marvel? At.

Nancy Sinatra Jr.

Nancy Sinatra Jr.

A sun-drenched Saturday and I ask my 11-year-old daughter if she wants to go out and get donuts.

“Yes!” She disappears into her room for 10 minutes, emerging in an outfit that would make Paris Hilton stammer. Her short-shorts are so tiny that at a glance she looks like a semi-nude dwarf in a cummerbund. She’s wearing dark brown pointy boots that reach halfway up her bare legs. I’d hoped to grab a glazed donut with my adorable 5th grader, not Barbarella.

“What…why are you dressed like that?”

“…like what?”

I want to say “Like the Diminutive Saucy Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s forgotten classic ‘Self-Actualized Girl Gangs of Oz'”.

“I don’t know if you should dress like that to go out with me to get donuts.”

“Why not? This is how I dress.”


She’s right, of course. Any weekend you can see it at the city parks, a Bruegel riot of swarming go-go dancers and their bedazzled/stupefied preteen male counterparts, struggling to grasp a feminine mystique that will yet elude them even as their teeth sneak away and they are felled by old age.

“Dad, let’s just go-ah!”

We go. Walking into the donut place I feel the accusing eyes of all affronted patrons are on Stella, this strutting half-pint Bardot who has just learned how to add fractions. In reality no one blinks. A couple of the patrons glance up from their newspapers and smile warmly.



Was that ‘morning’ or ‘mourning’? I fear the presence of a Child Protective Services mole at one of the tables, pretending to read the morning paper while secretly talking into his lapel. ’Ethically bankrupt dad has just entered restaurant with underage member of the Tom Jones Dancers. Send backup.’ If I had a moral compass it would be spinning like a mad propeller. I feel I can telepathically register the thinking of the rest of the angry fritter-wielding mob.

>We’re so sorry for your loss.<

What loss?

>The loss of the responsible partner in your charade of a marriage, who while alive would have known better than to let her daughter walk around like that in public.<

She’s not dead, she’s at the gym this morning.

>Oh. That explains it. Also, good parental modeling. While your wife is at the gym trying to improve her body and spirit, you are here with mini-Racquel, buying her a raised glazed.<

…to which I have no cogent telepathic response.

Tonight again I’ll read Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter while she sleeps, and one of these glorious mornings she’ll awaken and put on the neck-high frontier dress I bought from I just know it. There is hope.

Zing! Vecht! Huil! Bid!

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).