Remembering Miss Winehouse (Cabaret Music pt.2)

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 alternative music (not the Seattle stuff, real alternative music), 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 stations 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 she hadn’t yet been crushed beneath a heavy stack of gossip.

It used to be pretty consistently on the radio when I woke up and drove to work in the morning. She doesn’t write in a morning mode, unless by morning on means 3 a.m. Pretty soon I had my own copy of the album, and I became aware of the gossip and the baggage. The British seemed more interested in her bad behavior, smoldering eyes  and beehive — and who really can resist the latter two? — but none of that matter much to me.  I had fallen in love with that voice, and the songs.

The songs had an edge to them that were lessened but all the things that critics like about them — the cursing, the Mark Ronson production, and all of those dull remixes.  Maybe they did vault her to the top of the charts, and if they did they neither her nor her music any favors.

She wasn’t a repository of kitsch and slander, although she seemed to attract both.  She was a cabaret singer of the highest caliber.  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, but there aren’t enough 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 it.  If she wanted to be the bad girl she would have to reject some of the good, and so she wanted and she rejected.

When she died, a friend of mine marveled at her enviously, 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.  Couldn’t then.  She 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 a cop out. it is only a waste.

Luckily for us, there is a BBC album that is pure and sound, edgy and unkitschy

Auden’s Music con’t

It seems the British Library has been thinking about Auden’s songs too, and produced a handy guide to them. 

The blog I posted last week didn’t include any introduction to them whatsoever and I had been planning on doing a little one in case anyone​ was curious about what I was talking about. 

I don’t suppose that many people are familiar with Auden or cabaret music these days, but it seems I did suppose so when I wrote that entry.

Auden’s Songs (Cabaret Music pt. I)

I can’t find a suitable version of Auden’s cabaret songs.  I can find some well-done versions, but they are all done in the operatic style.  It may have something to do with Britten’s settings, or the simple fact that Britten did the settings, which are musically fine, but don’t really reflect how good the lyrics are, or the nature of the material.

Opera can ignore bad writing, because it is about the performance, but the same is not true here — the quality of the song depends largely on the quality of the lyrics. That is the story of popular music in the first three quarters of the 20th century.

There was a sentimental movie in my youth that featured one of these songs read aloud at a funeral as if it were a poem. Whoever wrote the screen play showed good judgement here (if not anywhere else).  The lyrics aren’t poetry (there is a very big difference and Auden wrote on the subject) but they do function better on their own.

It doesn’t have to be the case. Certainly, we can imagine these songs would be better if they had been scored by Kurt Weill, or George Gershwin, but it ain’t necessarily so. The music is better than sufficient, but the songs themselves need to be sung in different voices — the baritones and contraltos they were meant for. The ones that could deliver the wry jokes with the sly winks they need.  The songs need to be transposed into a different sensibility (and perhaps into keys low enough for us to hear the words).

But, alas, the song are, and have always been, the property of the classical world.  It is a world of composers and of performers, but not of lyricists. It is a world where changing a key is an act of impiety, where a great performance treats the voice as an instrument, but it is far away from the world where these songs belong.

There Are Days when Poetry Is Required

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
--W.H. Auden

Rejecting the non-Proustians

Note: First Published 1/16/16

There are many who are dedicated non-Proustians who do nothing fail to read, and talk about failing to read, Proust all day. I may bear some superficial resemblances to this group. But plan to become a full nonnon-Proustian when the time and cookies are available.

Thanks for the Song

A few of my friends called me when Leonard Cohen died.  Even one or two who didn’t particularly like him.  I was an admirer, but I was surprised that I was the person that they thought of.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been.  While I had never gotten around to reading his first novel, I had read all of his other books and I know almost all of his songs by heart. I didn’t consider myself any kind of super-fan, just an appreciator.  But now I find myself critiquing his obituaries that seem to think that he only wrote one song and I am feeling like a bit of an evangelist.

I came to Cohen at a dark, unemployed place in my life ten summers ago.  Everyday I would walk down to the library to look for a job (I didn’t have a proper internet hook-up at home), but I was too dispirited to be very effective (I can’t imagine what I sounded like on the phone interviews I did).

That year the library was having a book-sale and, in a moment of extravagance, I decided to pick a few books up.  I only had 50¢ on me, but it met the suggested donation amount for two books.  One was a  novel by a famous writer of my youth — and it was a fine novel but not one that  really did anything for me.  The other was the The Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen.  I must have been the very last person on earth to be introduced to him through his poetry.  I think that I just picked the book up because I recognized the name and couldn’t place it.  In another age he perhaps could have been a great poet.  Sadly, his era was a bad one for poets.  They were constrained to writing nothing but safe, conservative free-verse with its bland (yet simultaneously embarrassing) bouts of self-expression. It was a minor art, practiced by dilettantes, for an audience of almost nobody.  When I read those poems I could feel him breaking out of those restraints.  It is hardly a surprise he became a song-writer.  Song was the great medium for anyone of his generation who had anything to say.

I took the book home and devoured it front and back several times.  It was by far the best two-bits I had ever spent. I soon realized who he was and that I knew some cheesy covers of a few of his great songs — Hallelujah, Bird on a Wire, Suzanne, and maybe a few others. Soon I was to discover songs that I loved much more than these — One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, Alexandra Leaving, Everybody Knows.

Discovering him made me incredible joyful.  I bought his greatest hits album. I got a job.  I may have even decided not to marry a girl when she called his voice ‘creepy.’ When I burned my old CDs recently  I made copies of many of them to listen to in the car (I didn’t want the originals to get scratched) I realized that I didn’t put his name — only the titles — on his albums.   He is the only musician for whom my enthusiasm hasn’t flagged.

I have been lucky enough to have never met my heroes (although I once walked passed Seamus Heaney on a subway platform).  But once, in a dream about something else entirely, I bought a drink for Cohen who was off at the bar with his girlfriend.  I asked the waitress to bring him a round and thank him for the song.  Not even in the dream did I look back to see how he reacted.  In his great songs, and in the Beautiful Losers, he constantly gave us a good example on walking way from good things when they ended.  To embrace the pain and exit as poised and graceful as possible.  There comes a time when we all have to pack up our regrets, straighten our ties, and walk off to wherever it is we have to go.

 

 

 

Questioning the Emperor

I recently saw this line from Marcus Aurelius quoted on an inspirational poster (I haven’t bothered trying to authenticate it): “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking …”

I’m not saying that it isn’t true.  I’m just saying that these are easy words from a man who owned a literal empire