Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

So asks the singer of this venerable Frank Loesser tune, covered many times over the years, but first recorded by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra in 1947. Issued toward the end of Kyser's career and at the beginning of the bebop era, it has a characteristically fine vocal by Harry Babbitt, backed by The Campus Kids (consisting of, at the time, I believe, by Gloria Wood, Loulie Jean Norman, Diane Pendleton, Charlie Parlato, and Jud Conlon). Sweet, romantic, and old-fashioned, the song was issued at the end of the Swing Era, which would be all but snuffed out by the recording ban that began early in 1948 and lasted for almost a year.

Incidentally, Gloria Wood, one of “The Campus Kids” backing group on this recording, achieved fame by going on to record many classic jingles for TV commercials, among them the jingles for “Chicken of the Sea” and “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat” commercials. Covered many times by many different artists, I was unable to find Kyser’s recording of “What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?” on the web, but it is available as a download on iTunes and at

So what are you doing New Year’s Eve?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cat People

There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Schweitzer, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” If you have to ask what Schweitzer means, to lift a phrase from Louis Armstrong, you’ll never know. At the conclusion of his Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of the human experience of nature, referring to “the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and spiritual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one sometimes exchanges with a cat.” If only one could approach the vicissitudes of life with the calmness and serenity of a cat.

While it is not precisely clear when the word “cat” began to used to refer to another person, most certainly it emerged from American jazz culture. Bob Yurochko observes:

Another phenomenon that rose from bebop [in the 1940s] was a new language or slang used by musicians called “bop talk.” Musicians communicated with each other with words like “hip,” “cool,” “man,” “cat,” or “dig” to form their own lexicon, which became part of the jazz musician’s heritage. Boppers became so aloof that many of their social and musical antics were largely exaggerated, finding much disfavor elsewhere in musical circles. (A Short History of Jazz 103)

To be fair, many of these words were probably invented or perhaps popularized by Louis Armstrong, as Gary Giddens observes in his book Satchmo. To call someone a “cool cat” became a statement of approbation. (Incidentally, a “hepcat,” in Forties bebop culture, was any person who admired, or perhaps played, jazz and swing.) Robert S. Gold calls the word “cool” the “most protean of jazz slang terms” and meant, among other things, “convenient . . . off dope . . . on dope, comfortable, respectable, perceptive, shrewd—virtually anything favorably regarded by the speaker” (A Jazz Lexicon, 65). Since the word “cat” was so strongly associated with jazz culture, as well as the expression “cool cats,” there developed, in comics and cartoons, the practice of using anthropomorphized cats as symbols of jazz musicians. Bob Clampett’s cartoon “Tin Pan Alley Cats” (1943), for instance, features a caricature of jazz musician Fats Waller as a cat – see a discussion of the cartoon here.

Hence it follows that not every song about a cat (or kitten, or pussycat) is really about a cat of the feline sort.

Some Cat (As Opposed To Scat) Tunes:
The Beatles – Leave My Kitten Alone
Bent Fabric [Bent Fabricius-Bjerre] and His Piano – Alley Cat
David Bowie – Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Harry Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle
Petula Clark – The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky)
The Coasters – Three Cool Cats
Elton John – Honky Cat
The Grateful Dead – China Cat Sunflower
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Phenomenal Cat
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Nashville Cats
Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
The Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat
The Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut
Norma Tanega – Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


There’s an old rule of thumb in the film business, “Never take your name off a film.” The reason behind this adage is simple: If the film turns out to be great, you’re considered brilliant. If the film flops, it is quickly forgotten, meaning nobody will remember it, and therefore your involvement in it. The same logic dominates the field of rock criticism, for no rock critic worth his salt wants to miss the boat, that is, wants to fail to miss The Next Big Thing—to condemn the artist or band that might turn out to be the next Elvis or Velvet Underground. Anxious critics therefore praise everything, because anything might be The Next Big Thing, and who wants to be wrong? It is therefore easy to praise bands such as Mudhoney and artists such as Fiona Apple, because if you’re right, you’re a genius, and if you happen to be wrong, few will remember. Ours is the age of the timid critic, whom seldom expresses indignation about anything. For who can claim that posterity will not one day validate everything?

Max Ernst called this tendency to praise everything “overcomprehension,” and it dominates the field of rock criticism. In the history of rock, there have been bands and artists that have been consistently subject to “overcomprehension”—so-called “critical darlings” or “critics’ faves”—contemporary examples would include Lou Reed, for instance, or P. J. Harvey. The latter artist avers she grew up listening to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart—in other words, impeccable credentials. And the former figure, well, he was a member of VU. But perhaps the better way to become a critics’ fave, other than to invoke the proper artistic inspirations, is to be easily amenable to fashionable critical ideas, such as “schizophonia,” “recontextualization,” “grafting,” and so on. Critical endorsements typically employ the language of fixed-form expressions, such as “Beatles-like melodies,” “Byrds-like harmonies,” “the psychedelic experience of early Pink Floyd,” “the appeal of vintage British pop,” “the turbulent grunge of Nirvana,” “pioneering electronic artistry like the Velvet Underground,” and so forth.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun

On this day in 1975, Ted Nugent—currently on the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—was threatened by a gun while playing a concert in Spokane, Washington. An audience member by the name of David Gelfer raised a .44 magnum and pointed it at the rock star, but fortunately for the Nuge, police (and perhaps audience members, I’m not entirely clear) overpowered the gunman and stopped the possible murder. Gelfer was later charged with “intimidating with a weapon.”

John Lennon’s murder, on 8 December 1980, was still five years away. Lennon was murdered in America, where, according to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Hence the right to bear arms is an unalienable right, as essential to the American way of life as money and automobiles. I support the Constitution, and have no wish to see it modified or altered. But I also recognize that all values and rights require sacrifices—as Emerson observed, “Nothing is got for nothing.” John Lennon’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but his death can be understood as a sacrifice to the American way of life.

He wasn’t the only figure associated with rock culture in America whose destiny became bound up with the gun. It is now widely accepted that Dylan’s motorcycle crash in July 1966, while it actually happened, was exaggerated in terms of its physical injury in order to allow Dylan to remove himself from public life—for his personal safety. In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Al Kooper says as much, averring that he was afraid to tour with Dylan after 1965 because he didn’t want to play John Connelly to Dylan’s JFK. Thus the fear of being shot and killed by a deranged fan was a very real one, many years before the murder of John Lennon. I’ve been unable to find out whether David Gelfer’s gun was actually loaded—perhaps his gesture was merely an unfunny practical joke—but if it were loaded, Ted Nugent might have become the sacrificial victim that John Lennon later, not by choice, became.

The lives of many figures associated with rock music have ended by the gun: Sam Cooke (1964), Johnny Ace (1954), Arlester “Dyke” Christian (1971), Terry Kath (1978), Felix Pappalardi (1983), and Marvin Gaye (1984). The gun has also been used to achieve self-murder: Danny Rapp, of Danny and The Juniors, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983. Country singer Faron Young also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (1996), and Wendy O. Williams, vocalist for the short-lived Plasmatics, killed herself with a gun in 1998. And famously, on 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered having murdered a rock star with a gun, the closest one he could find: himself.

Some Wit and Wisdom of Ted Nugent (see the complete article here):

Ban guns? Don’t try it. The National Rifle Association, formed 138 years ago, is dedicated to the self-evident truth of self-defense.

With increased NRA memberships, with guns and ammo sales surging along with concealed weapons permits, never in the history of mankind have more people possessed more firepower.

Fortunately, this level of defenselessness is incomprehensible to about 100 million Americans who own guns.

Because of them, and the NRA, the lunatic fringe left touches the issue of gun control at its own political risk.

Fresh from escaping the tyranny and slavery [sic], our brilliant, sensible Founding Fathers wrote down the self-evident truth that the right to self-defense is God-given.

And write this down: To “keep” means it is mine. You can’t have it. To “bear” means I’ve got them right here on me.

“Shall not be infringed” echoes that beautiful “Don’t tread on me” chorus. Sing it.

Self-defense is the most powerful, driving instinct in good people everywhere. To deny it is evil personified.

All the evidence tells us that calling 9-1-1 is a joke. For those of us for whom self-defense is no joke, we’ll call 9-1-1 after we’ve defended our families. We’ll tell authorities to bring a dustpan and a mop to clean up the dead monster we just shot.

By comparison, here’s gun control a la Ted Nugent: Put the second shot through the same hole as the first shot.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Golden Days Of Yore

Music critics have observed, correctly I think, that the most successful pop songs have always been sentimental. For an illustration of this insight, one need look no further than the Beatles. As Simon Frith observed (“Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music”):

Twentieth-century popular music has, on the whole, been a nostalgic form. The Beatles, for example, made nostalgic music from the start, which is why they were so popular. Even on hearing a Beatles song for the first time there was a sense of the memories to come, a feeling that this could not last but that it was surely going to be pleasant to remember.

I thought of Frith’s insight while running a few last minute errands on this Christmas Eve, during which a local radio station played Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Like many of the Christmas songs that are now standards, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” dates from the World War II years, first sung not by Sinatra but by Judy Garland in the musical Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), in which she sings the song to her little sister, played by child actress Margaret O’Brien (see it here), during a scene set on—what else?—Christmas Eve. Although filmed during the war, in 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis is set in a nostalgic and sentimentalized past, late in 1903 just a few months prior to the opening of the Saint Louis World’s Fair—more properly the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—in April 1904. The title of the film is an allusion to a popular song recorded in 1904 in order to popularize the Saint Louis World’s Fair, “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” or, in its truncated form, simply “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Although the Exposition was dedicated to scientific progress—mathematician Henri Poincaré gave a lecture at the Exposition, and various “primitive” cultures were on exhibition in order to emphasize the virtues of industrial civilization—40 years later the Exposition was used as an illustration a simpler, and better, America. Such is the strange distortion of history characteristic of the sentimental impulse.

Perhaps given the long delays and difficulty of air travel this holiday season, pre-9/11/01 America, although not a decade past, is now considered nostalgic. No doubt it shall be someday.

Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were near to us, will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Do On Grass

“The green grass grows all around” is the title of a well-known children’s song, and in fact as a declarative utterance the lyric is quite true, as some form of grass is known all around the world, to all human cultures. For centuries certain grasses, when cut and dried and called “straw,” have been mixed with adobe to form bricks. Hence grasses, while a major source of food around the world, have many other uses, such as feeding animals—it has been estimated that grasses have been grown as food for domesticated animals for close to 10,000 years—and, of course, for lawns. In early twentieth-century jazz culture, a "joint" (a marijuana cigarette) was referred to as a “viper.” I cannot say precisely when, but at some point marijuana, or “Mary Jane,” become known as “grass,” which is how I remember it being called in the 60s. But marijuana was also referred to as “weed” as well, so marijuana, a plant which contains a pleasure-inducing drug, seems to elude conventional nomenclature. It is known as both “grass” and “weed.”

While grass is the name for marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) in the drug culture, grass is also the plant used for lawns, that most coveted of American possessions, a sign of invidious distinction. In Arthur Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman laments he has no lawn, for in the crowded neighborhood where he lives, there isn’t enough sunlight for things to grow. Grass needs sunlight like rivers need rain. Willy’s desire to have a green lawn, and to raise a garden, isn’t simply a desire to belong to the middle class, but also expresses a desire to return to an idealized past (although for Willy that past is fictive, but he’s convinced himself otherwise). Grass is used in this way, as a metaphor for home but also a highly idealized past, in the song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hit for Tom Jones in the mid-60s. The singer sees his childhood home, which he has not seen for a very long time. His parents, as well as his beloved, Mary, greet him as he steps from the train—they have come to meet him. He sees again the landscape of his childhood, including the old oak tree that he once played on. It is “good to touch the green, green grass of home.” But the green grass of home is only a dream: he has not returned home, but awakens in prison. He sees the four drab walls surrounding him and realizes that he was only dreaming. In fact, he is on so-called “Death Row,” and it is the day of his execution. His dream has foreshadowed his fate: he shall return home, but only to be buried. “Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.” Green lawns also cover the dead. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Safe in their alabaster chambers, / Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, / Sleep the meek members of the resurrection, / Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.”

Green Grass And High Times:
Animal Collective – Grass
The Friends of Distinction – Grazin’ in the Grass
George Jones – When the Grass Grows Over Me
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Green Grass
Tim McGraw – Where the Green Grass Grows
The Outlaws – Green Grass And High Tides
The Pretty Things – Grass
Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
XTC – Grass