What Song in My Head?

April 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every day, like many people, I wake up with a song in my head and follow along with what’s left of my singing voice and stumble into the kitchen for a cup of coffee that Andrew in his completely wondrous pattern of living has set to go off at the same time every morning, which is too early.  In trying to mine this song-in-the-head phenomenon for meaning and/or occult properties (is the song a version of a prediction?) — and after many, many years of it —  I haven’t been able to figure where the songs are coming from or what they’re trying to tell me.  And because it’s music, I don’t ask questions.  Music is like unconditional love, and songs — I don’t think — are like dreams which all feel like a call to action as much as a personal synthesis of hope and fear.  A song doesn’t want you to do anything except listen to its being.

A lot of the songs in my head are literal — i.e., they seem to be triggered by a word or set of words that I heard on the radio (in a speech or report from the street), or on television.  Or they may be literal in terms of objects recently observed:  cars, flowers, little boxes, little boxes.  A lot of them are love songs because I love somebody.  Or it can be a song about what the day literally represents in time.  “You Must Remember Spring” might be in my head on the first day of it, for example, embarrassingly.   The only annoying fact that a lovely habit of song in the head can carry inside its secret is trying to figure out how a song I hate or never even think of ever got in there.  Of course, it’s the over-saturation of that song, the stubbornness of a way too familiar chord progression; the playing on the radio, etc., etc., that forces some sort of sound mirror to capture the bad song and sing it back to me inside.  But that bad song only reminds me that I’m a consumer when — in terms of music, anyway — I want to think of myself as a connoisseur.

And there is no music more fitting for a connoisseur than the music that Stephen Sondheim writes.  His theater music (notice, please, I dodged show tunes) has been in my head on more mornings in my life than any other music.  Of course, I’m a complete and overly ambitious advocate of his work, but there is something else, too, that I can’t put my finger on, that must be part of the reason “Every Day A Little Death” or “Pretty Women” or “Sooner or Later” gets broadcast to my brain at least once or twice a month.  I don’t have a life that is in any way like the lives (desperate, many of them) Sondheim writes about.  But the music — the way the music sounds — the syntax of the music — feels as though it recognizes something in my body and comes looking for it.

And here I am, in my being.  It’s morning.

Of thee, I sing.

Three Songs

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first time I heard the music, I thought Nina Simone was a man of course, with that deep amazing voice but also something in the phrasing.  That ambiguity made me listen to her singing even harder.  Most women didn’t sound like that (they still don’t sound like that – okay, Macy Gray sort of sounds like that but who is Macy Gray?) and the songs she sang were so unclassifiable:  of her time, but way outside of time; somewhere else.  Somewhere very high that I could feel but could barely reach.

In the ‘70’s, I had the amazing accident of meeting Nina Simone after a concert she played in the US to make money to settle her famous debt of back taxes.  She was standing in the vestibule of the Village Gate, smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine.  It was very dark and rainy outside and the only light that filled the space we were standing in came off the reflections of rain and windshields of the traffic passing by the front of the club.  Simone’s album Baltimore had just come out and I asked her how she felt about Randy Newman, who’d written the title track.  She told me how gifted she thought he was and how strange it was more singers weren’t doing their own versions of his songs.  “He’s not commercial,” I said, which I felt, as soon as I said it something I certainly didn’t have to tell Nina Simone who was patently uncommercial before there was even another word to differentiate one from the other.

Then she asked me if the Brasserie Restaurant was still open 24 hours and I said, to my knowledge, it was – open and bad food.  She laughed.  She asked me if I wanted to go with her but I was too shy and I said no.  But mostly, I knew that if I went, I would have broken the spell that was only about a chance encounter in a vestibule in the rainy light after a concert.

She gave me her empty wine glass and got into the shiny black limousine that had been waiting the whole time we were together and  drove away.  It was the first real intimacy I ever had with an artist and the new feeling of being in the presence of greatness washed over me like a storm.  It’s wrong what choirs preach, some people are different than other people.

Of all the goofy advisories in popular music none may be more true than the greatest thing that you could ever learn is just to love and be loved in return – the epiphany in the song “Nature Boy”, a recording of which exists by the genius jazz singer Kurt Elling.  I love Kurt Elling.  Kurt Elling is the new jazz singer that I love.

I heard him on some college radio station and have wondered – the way I always wonder at something I love immediately – where was I when that happened?

Kurt Elling will never love me in return, I know that.    We will never meet and I will never break my fan’s anonymity again, ever since I broke it once only to meet a mean and soul-crushing dismissal by Keith Jarrett in the kitchen of the Village Gate when I was 20 years old when I asked him if he taught piano and he said … it doesn’t matter what he said … I don’t approach jazz musicians.  I just approach their music.  And besides, I don’t love Kurt Elling in the romantic way.  I don’t even have a crush on Kurt Elling.  My love for Kurt Elling is the love that lasts:  I love what he talks about when he sings.

What Kurt Elling Talks About When He Sings

Kurt Elling likes harmonies that emphasize the notes that are in the shadow – notes you might hear in back of the ones that are actually in the song.  On one of his recordings Kurt Elling reads poetry while the jazz is playing in back of him – like the beats used to do in the ‘50’s.  Those were the days – jazz and poetry taking off their clothes in front of each other.  We’re so guarded about art now.

We’re So Guarded About Art Now

I read an article once in the newspaper about how the downward economy has affected artists, which I thought was such a strange thing to say.  It’s like wondering how the downward economy has affected poor people.  Poorly, I imagine.  Poorer.  It said artists, because they have no money (as opposed to a time when they did have money?) can now do things they really want to do.  Art, I imagine.  Artier.

Kurt Elling says:  “There are times when fans will stop me after a show and say things like, “I’m so glad to hear a Christian Jazz musician who is able to speak up for God, “ or, “Thank you for being such a strong Christian.” Then I have to stop them and say, “I’m sorry, but while I am a Christian in many ways and refer to that tradition, I am also not a Christian; just as I am both a Jew and not a Jew – a Muslim and not a Muslim.”  Then they’ll ask, “What does that mean?” And I answer, “It means I am an artist”.

Did I Ever Really Live?

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spring is so much in the air today that everything is happily confused.  My dog won’t take her usual nap and is walking around in a dizzying sort of way — stopping every now and then to look hard at the mere air, and then back again on her hunt for whatever it is that French bulldogs know is out there.  And I’m confused too, sitting in a tee shirt and sweating a little while I’m writing this — both windows open.  It’s too early for the air conditioner and even though the day actually calls for it, there’s something conceited about turning it on before the official start of — I suppose — summer.  I used to be embarrassed about air conditioning because it’s one of those comforts that so many people in the world simply don’t have, but now that I have a dog that requires it (she can’t stand the heat, and she isn’t allowed in the water), I don’t feel so bad.

Spring is also — for me, anyway — a season of remembrance.  And for somebody who has been outside of drinking life for more than 20 years, some of those remembrances take place in old haunts — like the Tijuana Cat – a Cuban gay bar on Restaurant Row in New York City during the 70’s and early ’80’s.  As it was with every bar where my boyfriend worked during those years, I drank for free and spent the nights at the Cat listening to a language I couldn’t speak (the boyfriend spoke fluent Spanish that he’d learned from a former boyfriend of his).  It was a great bar:  full of happy noise in the form of the lives of beautiful Cuban men, most of whom had just gotten to this country to live:  off the boat and into the Bar:  the international symbol for queer, whether you are a drinker or not a drinker.  Tijuana Cat was also a kind of makeshift cabaret (one pin spot, an old stool and an upright piano that teetered on the edge of a tiny stage) and it showcased two truly astonishing singers:  Blassy, a well-known Cuban diva, and a 70-year-old black dynamo named Dawn Hampton.  Like every great singer, Dawn’s nightly repertoire consisted, in part, of songs most people were hearing for the first time and after listening to her renditions from the obscure, we all wondered why those songs had never become part of the American popular music canon.

One of those songs was “Did I Ever Really Live” by Allan Sherman and Albert Hague.  It’s a song from a failed musical called The Fig Leaves are Falling – the title of which alone projects its demise – that lists the necessities of life (“you’re born, you weep, you smile, you sleep, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall”) but forgets in that popular song naiveté to put love on the list.  Without love on the list, the song hauntingly asks, did I ever really live?  I hear the song in my head every week or so – almost as much as I hear, lately, Adam Guettel’s “Fable” from The Light in the Piazza.  I also hear junk, but that’s not important – junk gets in between one song to another.

There’s a wonderful rendition of “Did I Ever Really Live” recorded by Mark Murphy that I’ve been listening to lately and there’s also a strange (but worth looking at) rendition on YouTube by Pat Paulsen from an old Smothers Brothers TV show.  He kind of clobbers the song because the serious eyes of this otherwise very funny performer don’t really know how to look into the camera.  But the song still comes across because it’s that good and that powerful.  It could have easily borrowed any body.  I liked “Did I Every Really Live” most when it borrowed Dawn’s body.

The Sondheim Tapes

March 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

In early recovery, I was sponsoring someone who ended up sponsoring me.  Bob F. was the house manager of a theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and before that he had been a sheriff in a town in Connecticut that I forget the name of, if I ever knew it, which I don’t think Bob ever told me.  Bob was sponsoring me because he knew a lot more about how to be in a relationship than I did and I wanted to be in a relationship with somebody.  I was sober now.  It was time to meet some fellow citizens!

But I wasn’t quite sober enough.  In those first sleepless days of sobriety, I would get crushes on guys who were very newly sober and whenever that would happen, Bob, the good sponsor, would ask as a way of gauging the seriousness of the crush (and thus the potentially disastrous aftershock of being crushed by the crush) did you give them the Sondheim tapes yet?  He was referring to that moment where – because these crushes were always on people who were too young to know Stephen Sondheim’s music – I had come to a kind of musical rescue, turning my beautiful boys on to a beautiful kind of music they would fall madly in love with.  More than any composer I know, Sondheim’s music is in my head more than other music and I wanted my objects of obsession to hear it, too.

I loved being Stephen Sondheim’s secret messenger (though, I strongly suspect, as a group of gay men, we are legion), not only because the composer meant so much to me in my own life, but because anyone who truly appreciated him was somehow – in my humble recovering opinion – a sophisticate able to see another man as a diva, as much as the old way of seeing a woman that way.

But my dead twin trumps me when it comes to the iconic composer.  Kevin wrote letters to Sondheim and I have a shoebox in my closet full of the letters Sondheim wrote back.  The correspondence started when by brother wrote a love letter after seeing Sweeney Todd.  I don’t know what Kevin said but it must have been interesting enough for Sondheim to have written back.  Kevin was a bit of a serial letter writer and much like the fate of messages shoved into bottles, it was always a surprise whenever a message had actually reached its destination – made golden by an actual response. I remember the letters from the fiction writer Joseph Hansen to my brother as particularly filled with writerly advice – advice of someone who traveled quite a bit and was very much in the world, as opposed to my brother, who rarely left his room. You have to get out of your house and see how other people live he told him in one letter.  Kevin wrote back two words to that advice:  Emily Dickinson.

My brother’s back and forth with Sondheim was, thankfully, advice-free.  But it was also inspiration-free or, at best, inspiration-lite.  I never understood why Sondheim kept writing back because most of those letters were merely answers to Kevin’s letters and never elaborated on the public life or remotely approach the private life.  The juicer news (two standouts: a snide remark he made during Madonna’s Dick Tracy recording session about her artistic worth, and a story about Barbara Streisand taping phone calls with him in the name of “posterity”) came out when Sondheim would call my brother occasionally at the lighting store where Kevin worked in Elmsford, New York.  I don’t know what to do with the shoebox of Sondheim letters, but like Kevin’s empty wicker suitcase, I know not to throw them away.  They both sit in the darkness of their past – not saying very much about Sondheim, not saying very much about my brother.

Whenever Sondheim would call Kevin at work, someone else would answer the phone and make Stephen Sondheim calling for Kevin sound like the joke they all believed it was.  There couldn’t actually be a real Stephen Sondheim calling a clerk in a lighting store.  And my brother left the collective response alone because it was easier than saying that there was a real Stephen Sondheim.


March 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m starting this new blog with a homage to “Back on The Block” released by Quincy Jones.  I love that recording. It flies in many different directions and the singers on it are just terrific and young and full of surprises which Jones has, as a producer, always been a master at making happen. Actually, I’ve been in love with Quincy Jones for most of my life. It began in a classroom in a school that sat at the beginning of Harlem (unofficially — 110th Street, which, of course, is below the “official” 125th Street). I sat there with his daughter, Jolie Jones, back in the sixties and the school was called New Lincoln — one of those great schools where you got to call your teachers by their first name. The best thing about calling your teacher by her first name is that whenever you have a fight with her about anything, it’s taken much more seriously because you get to say, “But, Harriet!!” back to her “Michael!”.

The school had once been a prison, and I actually think it’s gone back to being a prison though I haven’t been up there for a long time and the school closed long ago. Jolie was a beauty in those days when beauty wasn’t a somewhat vicious commodity the way it is now. And she was funny, which made her physical beauty even less obvious because the humor deactivated the glamor. And her father wrote music for the movies which was something then that I had always wanted to do (I actually bought soundtracks, when they were real soundtracks and not the silly compilations of soft-cock rock they are now). I also wanted to be an astronomer, but I didn’t know any astronomers and here was someone in my immediate world who had a father living out loud the dream I was having so it was much easier to want to be that than wanting to be a stargazer. At that time, Quincy Jones had only written the soundtracks to “The Pawnbroker” (his first, I believe), and “A Deadly Affair” — a complex, immediately forgettable movie starting Simone Signoret and James Mason. But that music, Quincy’s music, was unforgettable because it came out of a jazz tradition and movies didn’t generally have that kind of music playing on top of them — unless, more often than not, they were foreign movies. (I don’t believe it when anybody says jazz is an American invention. I’m convinced it came out of France). I saw every movie Quincy Jones ever wrote orchestrations for, whether they were good or not. It didn’t matter. More than the director, or the actors, or even the writer, I wanted to know what Quincy had been thinking about.

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