Mr. Sondheim & Me

My longtime readers may remember that I wanted somebody to work with Stephen Sondheim on his show Evening Primrose, but nobody took me up on the idea. I thought that it was a great opportunity. I thought that reuniting John Collier’s story with Sondheim’s songs would be a public service, and a worthy act for anyone capable of it.

When such capable people demurred, I decided to take the task up myself. I labored on it for weeks. Maybe it was easy because the story and the songs were both so great. The work was light and joyous. It presented some bizarre problems that I think worked out beautifully. I had never done anything that made me so pleased, or that I was so proud of.

I then found Mr. Sondheim’s agent, and sent him my inquiry. I wasn’t going to try to stage it on Broadway or anything like that. I just wanted a little workshop, or maybe even a little run at a community theatre. It didn’t even have to be open to the public. As far as I was concerned I was asking for licensing more than permission. I assumed I’d either have the rights in hand in a few days when they got back to me, or I would have to submit my script, which was my dream because he would then see my work.

The agent I contacted wasn’t the current agent, so he forwarded it to the current agent, who called the maestro himself.

My whole rejection took less than three hours. Nobody wanted to revive the piece — James Goldman’s widow was to have a say in any revival. Mr Sondheim didn’t want a staging of work he did for film.

The whole affair was a bust from the start, or a bust long before the start. It seems I was the only person who wanted a revival.

My next step was calling Collier’s people. I thought that I could take the music out and run it as a straight play. But the rights were tied up.

What do I do now?

I have one if the finest things I’ve ever written — a genuine labor of love burning a hole in my hard drive because I will never be able to use it.

The lesson of the story might be something about licensing, or something about how one’s literary crushes might might have the same lack of interest as one’s regular crushes. And it’s best to ask them out before making plans concerning them.

Or maybe it’s a lesson in having a secret — a beautiful thing that the copyright laws and America’s greatest composer conspire to keep from the world.

My Podcast

I have a podcast up with the great Nate Beyer about the beat writers — Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We previously did one on Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicals. Please check it out. And, when you do, ignore the fact I call the character ‘Spender’ ‘Spencer’ throughout.

Also I have missed having a blog. If anyone misses me, let me know and I may start blogging again.

On a Night Like That I should Have Just Kept my Eyes on the Road

First Published November 14th, 2015

Last week, at night during the terrible rains, I passed the movie theatre in the middle of town and thought I read ‘Bela Fleck‘ on the marquis and I said ‘What could be cooler?’

But the next day I drove by, in the day when it was sunny, and saw that it read “Ben Affleck’ and I said ‘what could be lamer?”

The buzzkill has lasted all week

Armasist Day, 2017

I bought this pin last year from a friendly old soldier in front of St Pancras station in London.

All of the older English people I met had positive, if somewhat erring, views on Americans. He and I chatted a bit and I tried to buy one of the poppies he was selling.

I reached in my pocket and pulled out some shillings, farthings, and whatever other kinds of nonsense coinage they use in the UK.

And the old soldier said ‘for what you have in your hand you can get this pin.’ So I handed over my sovereigns, or whatever they were, and thanked him.’

As I bid him good bye he said ‘careful crossing the street.’ (Street crossing is a notoriously dangerous undertaking in the area north of France and south of Iceland).

I said, mistakenly thinking I was funny, ‘I will. I already nearly took out one of Her Majesty’s cyclists today.’

His whole mood changed from joviality to bitterness. ‘Her Majesty doesn’t have any cyclists,’ he said. ‘Nor taxi drivers neither.’

#killingamoment
#armasistday
#pins
#oldsoldiers
#hermajestyscyclists
#farthingssovreignsandshillings
#hermajestyscabbies

Jill by Philip Larkin

Book Review:

Jill (1946) by Philip Larkin.

John Kemp, a working-class scholarship boy attends Oxford in the Fall of 1940. He avoids any meaningful work while trying to impress his classmates, a clout of uncivil, good-for-nothing, worthless toffs.
I tried to stop reading this book several times because reading it is the literary equivalent of standing still while being punched in the face over and over with a bare fist. Luckily the mood changes drastically in the second half when the eponymous ‘Jill’ makes, or doesn’t make, an appearance and the bare fist is replaced by a cricket bat.
But I kept coming back to the book, almost eager for the new bruises.

***
NB:

Speaking of cricket bats, Larkin does manage to avoid talking about sport to the great relief of any reader.

Dull descriptions of unfathomable games are standard features of both British and American campus-novels and this book is relatively free from it (some tennis is played off stage but we are spared descriptions). I don’t know why this particular vice is so prevalent but not even the first Psmith novel is free from it.

#philiplarkin
#jill
#campusnovels
#cricketbats
#psmith

A Drink and a Song (Tom Collins & Bell Bottom Blues)

NOTE: This is an unrevised entry from my old blog published June 17th, 2016

NOTE: This is an unrevised entry from my old blog published June 17th, 2016
As a boy I used to scoff at Derek and the Dominos’ Bell Bottom Blues, because it was painfully dated. But I was a ten-year-old kid wearing a florescent-yellow shirt and a backwards baseball cap so the joke is on me I suppose. As I grew up I came to be really touched by the song.

It wasn’t dated anymore than Greensleeves.

I even came to understand the bell-bottomed thing. There is an odd tendency to associate people with their clothing and the incidental costume of their day can have a huge effect on how we perceive a figure — think of the mid-century male icons in their single-breasted double-buttoned suits or twenties women in their short skirts and bobs. When I was a snotty-nosed kid, these things meant a lot to me but now I can’t imagine why.

I am sure you readers have your own personal associations with these things. When I was a young boy a common insult was ‘your mother wears combat boots,’ but I was an adolescent in the 90s, and ever since, I have found combat boots cute and even feminine on women. I’m sure that nobody a day older or younger than me would understand that, but every individual is trapped in the aesthetics of his time and there isn’t much to be done about it, except to wait and see if these temporal prejudices ever fade.

While we all should be happy that the song was written in the era of bell bottoms and not combat boots, I suspect it wouldn’t matter all that much. But it was in the spirit of understanding the old-timerish ways that I first decided to try the Tom Collins.

I hadn’t heard of it till I was out-of-work for a while and I had a discussion with an affluent old Yankee who, while regaling me with tales of his yachting days, told me that the best breakfast a man could have was a lobster and a Tom Collins. I wrote Tom Collins, and yachting off at that moment, largely because I was unemployed and this guy came off like he moored next to J.F.K., and he may have. I’m not sure how we got to talking, or if he had any idea of the plight I was in, but, intentionally or not, there was a bit of taunting in his words.

Not long after that I tried ordering one at the Abbey Lounge in Somerville, but the bartender had forgotten how to make it. I did try it myself later, and learned to make it decently. And somehow the drink and the song got entwined in my conscience.

The Album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970), that Bell Bottom Blues is on, is an odd, uncomfortable piece. There was a lot of gossip around it because it is an offering to a woman to make her love a man and leave her husband. It’s weird to do such a thing so publicly, even if the Man is Eric Clapton. If you missed the subtext of the album it has a thesis statement in the song “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?.” I suppose now people may be made uncomfortable by its constrictive sexuality and proprietary assumptions about relationships.

But good art makes you uncomfortable sometimes, a little like a Tom Collins, which if made with a whole lemon (as it should be) if far tarter than most people can handle. They prefer the lemon juice from the plastic lemon which is false-tasting and bland. To enjoy some things, one has to learn to savor a little sting.

Notes:

* It occurs to me as I type that ‘your mother wears combat boots’ is a homophobic slur. I’m not sure why that took my 38 years to figure out.

*Is there a mixed drink to go with Greensleeves? I can’t think of one.

*How did this drink and this song got entwined in my conscience? I have no idea, but it gave birth to this blog series, so be grateful.

*Why I chose the Abbey I have no idea of that either. The closest thing they were used to for a mixed drink was a Black-and-Tan. If you want on make it at home,it isn’t complicated: shot of gin, ice, the juice of a whole lemon, and soda to the brim of the glass. I prefer to make three and only use the juice of two lemons I find it reduces the tartness a bit, and making them in sets of three can be a good excuse for making new friends.

* It seems that on copies newer than mine Bobby Whitlock is listed as a co-writer, which kind of throws a doubt onto my assumption that this song is a real cry from the heart.

Tags: Baseball Caps, Yachting, JFK, Soda Water, Lemons, Limes, Discomfort, Generations, Gin, Thesis Statements, Florescent Yellow, Juice from a Plastic Lemon, Bobs, Breakfast, Cri de Cœur, Co-Writers, The Yankee Ethnic Group, Lobsters, Constrictive Sexuality, Short Skirts, Single-Breasted Suits, Combat Boots, Gossip, Homophobic Slurs, Bell Bottom Blues, Bell Bottoms, Have You Ever Loved a Woman?, In My Snot-Nosed Youth, Cocktails,

A Drink and a Poem (Gin-and-Tonic & Sympathy in White Major)

 NOTE: This is an unrevised entry from my old blog published June 10th, 2016

Sympathy in White Major

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.

While other people wore like clothes
The human beings in their days
I set myself to bring to those
Who thought I could the lost displays;
It didn’t work for them or me,
But all concerned were nearer thus
(Or so we thought) to all the fuss
Than if we’ d missed it separately.

A decent chap, a real good sort,
Straight as a die, one of the best,
A brick, a trump, a proper sport,
Head and shoulders above the rest;
How many lives would have been duller
Had he not been here below?
Here’s to the whitest man I know —
Though white is not my favourite colour.
–Philip Larkin, 1967

I once made three gin-and-tonics — one each for myself and two friends — according to the recipe in the poem. Each glass contained enough for all three of us. It was moment of indulgence that we weren’t quite ready for. But Larkin gets a pass on his American-sized cocktails, because he is British and the British like their gin.

People almost everywhere drink them. It is said that in some places the drink can kill a cow from miles off. Not only is this a fairly pointless use of a leisure-time (or at least non-military) beverage, but it obscures the only real point of these absurd little cocktails — bringing people together. These little drinks are for sitting around with friends and being unproductive (coffee is for doing things). And about making sure that the happening place is where you happen to be, hence all the odd ceremony regarding their making and consuming.

The anxiety of not being in the happening place is a feeling that I have written ofbefore, and one which seems rather unbecoming of a grown man, who should be more secure than that, at least when not thinking about his unworn dinner suit.  When I first read the poem I thought Larkin was a bit of a chump for writing about the subject, but now I think he displays the characteristic that he spent his career convincing us he didn’t have — courage.

But that night I did make it for myself and two friends (I keep better company in my life than he does in the poem), and we slowly sipped our drinks and talked all night. A night like that is worth as much as a fine poem or solitude.

Notes:

* I know that the spelling ‘gin and tonic’ is preferred over gin-and-tonic, but it is my article and I will format things how I wish. Gin-and-Tonic is clearly a single word and should be spelled as such. If “gin-and-tonic” were not a single word  the plural would be “gins and tonics” and few would ever commit that particular offense.

* Until I double-checked it, I thought this poem was Symphony in White Major — conflating it, I suppose, with Whistler’s painting. But the Poem isn’t that glum, even if it quite nearly as lonely.

* In British military history gin-and-tonic is counted as a medicinal remedy for malaria because of the quinine. If that were true why include the gin and garnish?

* On a second reading I realized that I assumed the reader would be up on Larkin-gossip. Forget the gossip, pour yourself a drink, and, for Heaven’s sake, use a lime.Wikipedia says British people often use lemon instead of lime. That is why you should never consult Wikipedia. This is a dangerous practice and pushes the gin-and-tonic close to Tom Collins’s domain. We will save our visit with Mr. Collins, However, for next week.

Tags: Cows * Malaria * Needlessly Prescriptive Opinions * Quinine * Symphony in White *Britain * Hyphens * Garnishes * Gossip * James McNeil Whistler * Lemons * Limes *

Remembering Miss Winehouse (Cabaret Music pt.2)

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
      –Edna St. Vincent Millay
        (From Figs from Thistles)

 

 

 

There was once a cool college radio station in Boston.

When I was a teenager it taught me everything I knew about the Blues, and older alternative music (not just the stuff on MTV). It even turned me on to a cappella music. Hold there for a moment, Gentle Reader, and do not scoff — it steered me well.

The station’ s last gift to me, before it died an undignified corporate death, was Amy Winehouse. It was when Frank came out and “Stronger than Me” was on heavy rotation. I didn’t know anything about her. I had never heard of her, and the infamy of her hobbies hadn’t yet eclipsed the fame of her vocation.  That song used to be pretty consistently on the radio when I woke up and drove to work in the morning. It wasn’t the perfect time to listen to her. She didn’t sing in a morning mode, unless ‘morning’ means 3 a.m., but the music stuck with me.

Pretty soon I had my own copy of the album, and slowly America became aware of the gossip and the baggage. The British seemed more interested in her bad behavior, smoldering eyes, and beehive —  but none of that matter much to me. I had fallen in love with the voice, and the songs.

The songs had an edge to them that were lessened by all the things that critics like about them — the cursing, the Mark Ronson production, and the deadening remixes. Maybe the pre-fabbed pop versions did vault her to the top of the charts — but it hardy matters — they did neither her nor her music any favors.

She wasn’t a repository of kitsch and slander — she was a magnet for them.

She was the greatest cabaret singer of our century. And, in the years since she died, the music has improved. Her voice and her songs have gotten stronger over the years, even if all of the celebrated ‘hip-hop’ influences have only become increasingly distracting and dated. There are a few unmarred tracks she did, on a a BBC album that is pure, sound, edgy, and unkitschy, but there aren’t enough.

It was her decision of course. She embraced all of the tawdriness — the weed, the sampling, the drum machines, everything. It is part of her and there is no separating her from any part of it. If she wanted to be the bad girl she would have to reject some of the good, and so she wanted and so she rejected.

When she died, a friend of mine was envious, because she joined the famous 27-Club, as if it were an accomplishment. I chalk it up to her and me getting older (we were in our early 30s) and our chances of living fast dying young and leaving good-looking corpses were up. But I can’t envy it now, and I couldn’t then.

My friend and I had come to the age when we knew that we weren’t going to live up to our early potential. It is a knowledge that still hurts. But wasting potential, letting the match burn itself to nothing before it lights any other fire isn’t a solution or even a cop out. It’s only a waste.

 

Hallowe’en on the Town with John Hewitt but Far from Home

Generally I would be at home celebrating tonight with a not-terribly-thought-out costume,  a smoking bowl of dark-and-stormy, and a few  old friends. But instead I’m braving the night, the weather, and the Fæ by bumming around London — a city that long ago forgot about Hallowe’en — by myself.

The odds are against me bumping into any of you readers whilst I’m on the town (and also against us recognizing each other if we did).  So, instead of offering you a bowl of anything, I’ll leave this old poem of John Hewitt’s here.

At least it’s not a bad night for coming and going, and maybe we’ll all end up wandering into the places where we ought to be.

 

IMG_20170515_125333465

 

Michaelmass Eve

It’s Michaelmass (I believe it rhymes with ‘fickle miss’) Eve, the day in which we celebrate the archangels, and the celebration of the day Satan fell from heaven onto a blackberry bush.

Not uncoinsidentily it it also the day old Scratch laid a curse on the whole species of shrubbery.

It is not advisable to eat black berries after today.