T-Bird of Happiness and Crashboat

T-Bird Tragedy and Joy

Oh, and here comes the holiday season like a runaway Edsel, excuse me. It’s always a little surreal how suddenly it shows up. Another year? Really? Is that Jack Frost nipping at my nose or the taunting, flicked finger of the Grim Reaper? “It’s almost Christmas!” the little ones yell with unbridled glee. Yes, you tiny, careless immortals; it’s almost LAST Christmas. How’d the year pass by so quickly? Just a week or so ago we were throwing ourselves into the ocean in full-tilt escape from the brutalizing heat wave that we were sure would set the mountains on fire. Now, a couple of puny rain squalls later, the inevitable “fall” weather sweeps in as an almost reluctant little cold snap, and we Santa Barbarans respond by excitedly dragging on our pea coats and diaphanous, utterly useless Donna Karan scarves. We swoop our gossamer “winter” accessories around our room-temperature necks like NY hipsters or movie actors, turning up our collars and stamping our feet as if to shake the snow off our galoshes, we’re so giddy at the change of seasons and the prospect of candlelight and mulled wine. It’s the one time of the year you can gulp Tramp Juice from a soup-bowl sized mug without the other guests remarking about it behind their sleeves. The whole demeanor of the town changes

“Ooh, it’s a little chilly, isn’t it?”

No, not really. But let’s live it up. We get maybe 80 of these. It’s time to get about the business of Holiday Cheer. And what’s not to love? The city workers begin dutifully stringing the lights up along State Street, great arcing stars making of our downtown a glowing arbor. Suddenly the shop fronts all have paper snowflakes in their window displays, faux-Victorian carolers hunch and yell in close-harmony at every street corner, the chill evening air takes on that seasonally pleasant aroma as the town’s fireplaces gently surrender a fragrant bouquet of crackling cherrywood, and frightening soot-covered chimney sweeps flash-mob the rooftops with mad, high-stepping dance routines. Chim-Chimney, Chim Chimney, Chim-Chim-Cheroo, if you damage my ridge vent I’m likely to sue. Soon enough that strangely phallic Christmas Rocket erects itself near the Arlington Theater, they throw some lights on it and we’re off and running.

But first…ah, yes. First there is Thanksgiving to get through, the weird, uber-American ritual whose most famous visual expression remains that nightmarish Normal Rockwell painting of an aproned matriarch proffering a slain and naked bird; recumbent, belly-up, beyond embarrassment (the bird, I mean), its truncated little wing-arms relaxed at its sides, its formerly strutting legs now stiff and shortened and dressed in paper anklets. In the iconic painting, which like most of Rockwell’s stuff is meant to embody and crystallize the rubberized American Soul, the homespun Ma and Pa figures stand at the head of a table crowded with strangely leering family members in da Vinci-like attitudes of conversation, but strangely feral; all teeth and eyebrows and clasped paws. It’s an unnerving work of art. In the upper left-hand corner of the photorealist painting is a grinning boy with a slightly reptilian expression, and seated beside him a little sister figure likewise stares down the length of the table like a drowsy viper. In the lower left of the painting a man is laughing maniacally at the empty air, displaying a scary set of choppers, while a sunlit pear with a suggestion of humanoid countenance looks balefully up at him from a bed of grapes. In the lower right corner a man’s haunted eyes stare back at the viewer. Even for the diabolically exacting Rockwell, it is a strange and unsettling hymn to the Holidays, one of the most singularly dread-inducing paintings this country has ever produced. What did Rockwell call this thing? Freedom From Want. My alternate title, you ask? Horn of Plenty Heebie-Jeebies.

But Thanksgiving means well, and however cynically plasticized and oversold the “gather and be thankful” vibe is this time of year, however much it is leveraged by the Commercial Sector to brace us for the aptly named Black Friday, all doubts fly up the chimney with the cherrywood smoke when you start mingling with family and friends in closed quarters while through the windows brisk, happy breezes stir the trees and foliage in blanched autumnal sun. As hard as the numbskull forces of human avarice try, they can’t completely wreck Thanksgiving. They can’t strip away, for instance, my hard-won memories of my mom coming over on those Thanksgiving mornings.

Per the yearly ritual I would have dropped in on my mom’s apartment at Villa Santa Barbara the evening before to remind her of our Thanksgiving breakfast the next morning. She would inexpertly and comically disguise her uncertainty as to who exactly I was, and we would have our usual bemused summit for a couple hours, watch the home movies for the several-hundredth time, bat the same over-familiar questions and answers back and forth. I’d long since stopped being maddened by mom’s endlessly repeated questions, and came to be charmed by a universe that oversaw our elderly parents exasperating us with the same ninny repetitions they’d had to suffer when we were mindless little non-stop blabbermouths. Fair play.

The next morning, Thanksgiving morning, I would stop in to nab mom for the drive over to our place and explain our Thanksgiving date all over again. “Hey! What are you doing here? And who are you, again?” She would laugh nervously at her own question sometimes, but she knew in her core that I was on her side, that we shared something. “I’m your son, mom. Jeff?” “Right!” she would laugh again, making comic gestures of dismissal, still not quite believing it. But she would grasp my arm, dance me into the elevator and veritably skip from the Villa Santa Barbara lobby to my car parked on the street outside.

We would take the long way to our place, the miraculous, palm-lined, ceaselessly stunning Cabrillo Drive, the unlikely Pacific sparkling off to the left like an over-earnest special effect. At our condo, mom would be greeted like royalty, Judie and the kids rushing her at the door. Mom’s face would be simultaneously aglow and bewildered, Judie’s Dutch broodtafel likely adding to her dislocation as it featured breads and cheeses and sliced meats and hard boiled eggs. This isn’t what the Indians and Pilgrims ate, is it? I can clearly picture mom sipping delightedly at her mimosa as the rest of us blab away in conversation she only half follows, her sated half-smile turning to each of in turn as we speak, her expression a sort of uncomprehending exaltation in the moment. She didn’t know I was watching her watching us, her indefinable love and gratitude shining like an aura. She’s gone. This year will be our second Thanksgiving breakfast without her, and I’m unspeakably grateful for the sometimes harrowing 14 years we had her in town.

Sometimes after Thanksgiving breakfast we would flop onto the couch and flip through a photo album, one of the weird old ones I’d known since childhood. It had a dissolving, nautically-themed cover and stiffened pages to which the fading photos had been sloppily fastened an eon ago with now-opaque squares of yellowing scotch tape. I’d seen all these pics a hundred times or more growing up. When I was a kid I was bored silly by the album (as by everything else to do with my parents), all the black and white snapshots of laughing men in government-issue khaki, lots of pics of my mom – the beauty, the dreamer – now an 89 year-old with failing faculties and loose-fitting flesh. Of course as I grew older I became forensically interested in what the album held, particularly a photo of my dad, now long gone, as a 14 or 15 year-old. Wonder of wonders.

And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons during that time, my parents, Bob and Aloha, drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, my dad there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the seated women are wearing scarves over their hair, and Capri pants, and beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Just a lovely thing! Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, happy yaps aimed skyward forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in a posture of hilarity (one! two! THREE!). Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and mom has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away, the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. Unlike the rest of the gang, she’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.

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Bee Geezus II

BeeJeezus

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?

Game Day

Game Day

Hello, Niederhoffers! You guys still up for game night? This Saturday? What say you? We had such fun with y’all the last time. If you’re game (get it? lol), what works best for us is an early afternoon meeting. Cynthia is preparing a luscious snack tray, and we’ve hired a pole dancing slime devil from Deneb IV whose arrival time by shuttle has been only vaguely estimated. You know how chronically late the slow-poke Denebians can be. But give them a saucerful of tranya and a pole — well, you’ve got a party. Woo hoo! Should be an eye opener for the kids.

Here’s a snapshot from our last gathering, where the rules-are-for-losers Schmidts of Triskelion cheated after about 1/2 hour of deceptively amiable play. Yeah, they choked us with those glowing collars again. We were, of course, fools to have agreed to wear them, but are we fools to believe people can change? Uh, yes?! Choke me with a glowing collar once, shame on you. Choke me with a glowing collar twice..shame on you again, Triskelion assholes! Lol! Ah, me. I trust your neck wounds have healed up nicely. Remember as you’re beaming over, the Feynman Portal duty-free shop sells an ointment that helps. Or it may be an unguent.

Looking forward to our get-together.

The Favershams of Beta Casium

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.

Zing! Vecht! Huil! Bid!

ramses0772

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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