Warren Beatty Reacts to “You’re So Vain” (A McSweeney’s Castoff)

In which I house a homeless monologue

Here follows a piece which was rejected by not one but TWO online humor mags, one being the illustrious McSweeney’s Internet Tendency of Boston. Given the double distinction, I felt it merited self-publication. It is, I think, no meaner than the song.

It was a yacht party, Carly. Not sure what you expected of me. I was trying to make a good impression, which frankly was none of your concern given that we’d broken up a while ago. So maybe I erred on the excessive side. You know, we can’t all grow up in high society, flirting our way through those kinds of shindigs every other weekend. And what does it say about you that I worked my way into a class that you were born into and I’m more famous? Huh? You want to fix me with your judgment funnel, fine. I’ll funnel you right back. And not in a sexual way this time.

I mean, I didn’t know you were going to be there. And if you’re suffering from any delusion that I cared, well, you can get your head out of the clouds in your coffee right now. Believe it or not, there were other important people in my life while we were together, and since then all of those people have been bumped a spot higher on my list of priorities. I commend you for punching up, but I do not need that kind of negativity clouding my aura.

You seriously think just because you fit your side of the story into a catchy little pop song and enlisted your new BFF Mick Jagger to help you melodically bash me that I’m suddenly going to regret the choices I made? Well, you thought wrong. Also, that album cover looks like the paparazzi caught you coming out of a Wegman’s.

Oh, and as to what I was wearing: the scarf was a gift from my good friend Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, right before he faked his own death so he could resurface later under a different name and make movies about stealing historical American documents. And the hat was an antique! It wasn’t even supposed to dip below one eye; that’s just the way it fell! Attributing all that to strategy–honestly, you give me too much credit. I had to keep checking the mirror to make sure I could see well enough not to fall flat on my face in the middle of the dance floor and endanger everyone in the vicinity. My head is smaller than you’d have it be, in multiple senses.

Hmph. Probably think this song is about me. Don’t insult my intelligence. It could only have been about me. That isn’t vanity, it’s a basic familiarity with my own life. If anything, you’re the vain one for belaboring the point long after the relationship ended. Move on, lady. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a communist movie to write, direct, and star in.

Image: No Secrets (1973), the album containing literally the biggest secret

Album Review: SONGS OF INNOCENCE

In which I celebrate an uncelebrated curio

Surprise!

You thought you’d left this album in the dust, huh?

Apple product users will remember it as the one that automatically streamed when U2 released it nearly six years ago. As an involuntary addition to millions of music libraries, it was also largely unwelcome; people griped about wanting to delete it and generally didn’t give it a chance. The physical release a month later moved only 101,000 units.

I kept it. I figured a U2 album must be at least okay, even if I wasn’t a die-hard fan. Still, I didn’t listen right away, but absorbed it bit by bit over the course of years, returning every now and again out of a semi-conscious desire to know it better. All the signposts of my “getting into” an album were present: the instant hook (“Volcano”) followed by a gradual incorporation of the other tracks. Then on Twitter this week, I mentioned the long gestation of my relationship to the record, which was met with a request for a review.

So here I am, giving an album that is not new the mulling-over it deserves. (Or the mullin’-over…the Larry Mullen-over…)

My instinct was to associate the title with Songs of Innocence and Experience (the 1789 poetry collection by that guy William Blake), an instinct supported by the Innocence + Experience Tour in 2015 and the could-have-been-predicted follow-up album Songs of Experience in 2017. I’ve always liked Blake, so I appreciated the reference, not least because I understood it, which was already more than I usually got from this band.

Understanding has long been my problem when it comes to U2. It’s not that I don’t think they make good music or even that I don’t like it; I just have yet to figure out what any song is about. They’re all kind of about religion and kind of about Ireland and kind of about existence… (I admire Bono for refusing to be boxed in by conventions of concrete language, but at what cost?) In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a lyrics person, so if I can’t engage with a lyric I need to do some work to make a connection. Now, given how U2 excel at instrumentation and arrangement, I’m often distracted from the lyric I’m unsuccessfully trying to parse apart by the ambient sound. A sound I feel like I can fall into and it will wrap itself around me. You know, ambient.

And this record brims with ambience. Each song has a groove that invites you to slip in before you realize it. You are, as “Every Breaking Wave” puts it, “helpless against the tide”–in fact, marine themes (ocean, beach, sand) pervade the whole, creating an undertow in which you can’t help but be dragged along. Additionally, the orchestration and sequencing give the impression of an ebb and flow, a rise and fall; instances of building (vocally/instrumentally/both) and of sudden release, exploding into revelation. We listeners are caught in the current. Heck, we may be drowning and we would never know.

These factors–combined with the lyrical through-line of giving in and giving up, bowing to the nonsense and the madness–ironically produce one of the most integrated and linear statements I’ve heard from U2. Here are the highlights.

Favorite track: “Volcano”

As I mentioned, this was my point of entry: friendly, accessible, a straight-up rock & roll song all the way up to the affirmation “you are rock & roll” in the bridge. The deep, propulsive bassline seized me from the beginning; the guitar, especially at the chorus, is brash and joyous in the dissonance it causes against the bass and vocal melody; the drums are heavy on the two and four. It’s danceable, helped along by the rhythm of the lyrics–a bit of a throwback to “Vertigo,” now I think of it. Coming at the album’s midpoint, this track is the axis upon which it revolves, and it’s bold and fun enough to shoulder that responsibility. I also just love the line (as linguistic and musical phrase) “Do you live here or is this a vacation?”

Favorite line: You’re breaking into my imagination / Whatever’s in there is yours to take. : “Song for Someone”

On an album full of ear-catching lyrics, of which this song boasts several–reminiscent of the Smiths, if only for the repeating plea not to let the light go out–this is the jewel. Part of the beauty of these moments is their brutality, their jagged edges, the violence bound up in them. Bono often draws subject matter out of the ugliness he has witnessed in his environment (the album closes with a number called “The Troubles”). In this case the aggression of the image is juxtaposed against a jarringly gentle delivery: the narrator adopts a stance of passivity, making no effort to resist even the invasion of his own mind.

Favorite chord progression: “California (There Is No End to Love)”

You know what a sucker I am. This is another high-energy track, with a driving, tripping drum line and lots of power chords. The “Ba-Ba-Barbara, Santa Barbara” intro is a nice tip of the hat to the Beach Boys; here ends any indication of the Wilsonian influence, though the overall effect is strangely similar–a sunny, breezy mix, the sonic equivalent of racing up the PCH. A listener’s interest is held by the equal-parts-major-and-minor chordal structure, the way the latter half of each verse differs just slightly from the former half, and the same with the refrain. I forgot how much I liked this song until I returned to it.

Other moments worth listening for:

  • The chant-like chorus of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”
  • The melody, like a divine inspiration, of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
  • The mile-a-minute image effect of “Raised by Wolves”
  • The central line of “Iris (Hold Me Close),” rising like…something out of the ether (not sure of the exact expression, but you know what I mean)
  • The moment when you stop trying to determine what “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has to do with Joey Ramone
  • Basically everything, because Bono really lives up to his namesake phrase at fifty-four

Belated as this meditation may be, someone had to do it; the album has been detrimentally overshadowed by a perhaps ill-advised marketing strategy. I don’t believe it deserves to bear that mark forever. On the other hand, barreling into our lives the way it did might have been an attempt to render its lyrics literal and teach us the value of surrender. To paraphrase “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” complete surrender must be the only weapon we know.

Image: cover of the Island/Interscope Records release, 9 September 2014

A Love Letter to José Carioca, Rio de Janeiro

In which the past catches up with me

My dear Joe,

We met at least twenty years ago, so I’ve always considered you a friend, but it’s different now. Aside from the standard byproduct of aging that causes one to see the hallmarks of childhood in a new light and with a new appreciation, I happen to have spent much of this year cornered in my apartment by the impossibility and/or fear of travel, calling on the far reaches of the internet to transport me to those childhood haunts. See, we have these things called streaming services and–oh, but all this means nothing to you in early-1940s Brazil. The point is it led me back to you.

And boy, am I glad. You haven’t changed a whit, you’ve only shown me how I have. The diligent animators paint you to life in the final few minutes of Saludos Amigos, and Donald Duck encounters you and wonders who you are and what’s going on in his barely-intelligible manner, and it takes me about ninety seconds of screen time to fall head over tail feathers in love with you. Your pronunciation of your own name and hometown, by way of introduction, is possibly the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard. (I was downright disarmed; I had to rewind.) And you puff up a little with pride as you do so, but it’s still modest? A modest pride? I don’t know. Evidently all my powers of language fail where you’re concerned. Anyway, then you realize this hapless duck you’re talking to is a movie star, whose work is familiar to you,* and you exclaim, “O Pato Donald? O Pato Donald!” and go off in rapid overexcited Portuguese, and by the time you start strumming your umbrella like a cavaquinho** I’ve lost track of where I am. What’s more, you’re tenacious: you manage to sustain a friendship with said hapless duck, carried over into The Three Caballeros, in which you spend an even longer stretch of time with him and somehow hang onto your patience despite his endless questioning and skirt-chasing. I mean, we all knew Donald was obnoxious, but he comes off almost irredeemably so beside such a gentleman as yourself. You, sir, can handle your cachaça. But then, if you can’t be a healthy influence on him, who can?

Honestly, you should see the look on my face as I write.

Even just laying eyes on you overwhelmed me with what you call saudade. A very romantic nostalgia indeed. You are the best-dressed bird I know, more debonair than you’ve any right to be in that hat and bowtie, and if I were ever to smoke a cigar it would be because you make it look effortlessly cool (I do have perfectly cool human friends who smoke cigars, but none has been sufficient to persuade me). I love how whatever you touch becomes a musical instrument, most often your umbrella (proof that the best characters carry umbrellas–see also: Mary Poppins, Jiminy Cricket), and how the art of duplicating and harmonizing with oneself is apparently second nature to you. All handy talents when paired with an impeccable taste in music. I love your natural and shameless bilingualism, which sets you apart both in and beyond Disney. You switch like it’s nothing, you normalized it before normalizing things was a trend. I love how taken with Bahia you are: your perspective of it left an impression on me back before my brain was developed enough to grasp the concept of place. Speaking of, I love that you live in an actual location which I could conceivably visit (someday). The Disney universe is full of lovely fake kingdoms. Thank you for giving me a lovely real one.

Also, that one-eyed thing you do. Irresistible.

I love that you’ve seen stuff, you know? You’re not some innocent. You’ve been around the block; you’ve learned where to be and when to be there. You have no reason not to be sure of yourself, and so you are.

I may love your sense of adventure the most, your knack for sweeping us up into shenanigans while we’re none the wiser. Any man who can do that is a keeper in my book. If that man is a charming, well-spoken, properly stylish parrot, so much the better.

Wait, though, it might be your dancing that I love most. Do you understand my dilemma? Ugh. I’d just pick you up and squeeze you if I could.

I’ve since been blessed with real-life friends who reflect a more detailed and practical–and admittedly up-to-date–picture of the culture you described to me. I’ve also had the good fortune to experience more of the world at large. But please take my gratitude for guiding me early on, for planting the seed so long ago. And if you want to take my heart, too, well, why not. You’ve earned it.

Beijos,

Cecilia

*Audience aside: I love an in-universe reference. Characters recognizing each other from elsewhere in the canon is something I am a fan of.

**Portugal’s answer to the ukulele, important to me for personal reasons.

Image: Really, people, how can you NOT?

How *Am* I?

In which I do not seriously ask that question, thank God

Language is weird.

My relationship to language learning has always been marked both by eagerness and a measure of trepidation, an uncertainty born of having to consciously try. I grew up in a monolingual household–it’s been at least two generations since either side of my family was truly bilingual–and thus have attained varying levels of proficiency in other languages through concentrated study, largely in an academic context. Mingling in Berlin’s international community, I am often presumed to be Italian, as in hailing direct from Italy rather than via two generations of assimilation statunitense. I am confronted by identity dysphoria every time I speak that language: although I consider myself fluent, I cannot claim to be the native speaker my name might suggest, and even a moment’s hesitation in composing a thought or sentence aloud reminds me that I acquired Italian over nearly a decade of coursework. (Before that, at the still-relatively-old age of eleven, I studied Mandarin, of which I’ve retained a few things that have carried me further than you might guess.) So as I continue my study of languages I know and would like to know, there is a constant current of doubt just below the surface, doubt in my own ability to master the mechanics of whatever it is I am speaking or writing or reading or understanding.

Now, I do love the thrill of the chase, and I do have some natural intuition for authentic pronunciation. This, then, is the devil’s pact I’ve made: a certain facility for picking up the tics and tricks that make a language what it is, paid for with a certain lack of self-assurance which comes and goes in waves. Hey, if I can build wonderful, unique, improbable, fruitful friendships with people all over the world, I can handle a little discomfort.

Besides, it yields a whole lot to think about, and not only because my current place of residence is requiring major linguistic adjustments. One advantage to Italian–besides its obvious bellezza–is the door it unlocks to its sister languages, whose differences are often just subtle enough to trip you up. I get an extra satisfaction from a lesson in French or Portuguese because I feel I’ve leveled up, made progress toward cracking the code that separates one Latin derivative from another. Lately, in fact, I’ve spent at least as much time thinking about Romance languages as I have about the definitely non-Romance language I am tackling for more immediate purposes. But all the secondary languages I’ve immersed myself in have left me puzzling over one key phrase in my mother tongue:

How are you?

Let’s put aside what a difficult question this is to begin with and look at the phrase itself. How are you? It’s a knee-jerk component of meeting and greeting in the English-speaking world, something that leaves people’s mouths automatically, almost perfunctorily. Most tellingly, it is not the Come vai/va? of Italian or the Wie geht’s? of German. It is not How is it going?–we say that too, just not as readily. It is a personal question, and it carries a sense of permanence to it, unlike in these other languages which acknowledge temporality and transience more fully. It becomes a more difficult question than it need be because it connotes a state not of short-term faring, but of long-term being.

Of course, in Italian (for example) there is also Come stai?, which, transliterated, would be How do you stay? This is less common than How do you/does it go?, but even so it suggests the temporary. The verb stare deals in temporary matters, existing in one place or situation on the way to another. You may express feelings of irritation or weariness or stress–heck, contentedness or excitement or peace–and simultaneously communicate, with your choice of verb, that these are only of the moment. For states of permanent being, there is another verb–essere–which allows me to say Sono una ragazza (I am a girl) or Sono un’americana (gotcha, Deutschland!).

Meanwhile, when one says in English that they are tired, there is no linguistic distinction between this and the fact that they are thirty years old. In fact, this highlights the Romance family’s further accounting for all sorts of states: Italian uses avere (to have) to discuss age, as in Tu hai trent’anni. In English the one verb covers everything. For all nonnative speakers know, those states of being we know to be temporary could last forever, because there is no verbal signal otherwise. To my knowledge, the only way of remaining thirty years old forever is to drink from the magical spring in Tuck Everlasting, and the only way of remaining tired forever is…to live in the year 2020. *laughs weakly*

Anyway, all this to say that the more intelligence I gather about the differences in language structures, the less I envy ESL students. I reckon almost no language provides a steeper uphill battle. Gallivanting about, proclaiming ourselves to be this or that…it’s inaccurate and probably a bit arrogant to act so declarative. We could stand to take a leaf out of the Romance and/or Germanic books. Come to think of it, the phrase we English-speakers should bring back is How do you do? Not only does it at least allude to a more temporary phase of life, it’s classy as hell.

Image: from “Broad City,” S02 E08

Singular Sensation

In which Broadway’s Broadwayest musical turns 45

There’s no shortage of subjects I could chase this week. The album Taylor Swift surprised us with that no one was emotionally ready for. The utter circus my expat life is becoming as I wait on important answers from oversaturated offices. The fact that I’m using my limited access to Disney+ to keep rewatching The Three Caballeros. But there is one thing that really demands to be discussed today, which I’ve done enough long-term planning to feel able to speak to even in my addled state.

I can pull myself together long enough to say that on this day forty-five years ago, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s A Chorus Line, conceived and directed by Michael Bennett, had its Broadway premiere at the Shubert Theatre. Following that, it ran for 6,136 performances and has since sparked a film, multiple revivals, and an enduring widespread respect for the sheer electrifying power of choreography. It’s a show about theatre geeks, by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks–and, as with movies about Hollywood, those babies sell themselves.

It’s a masterpiece of personal story, a tapestry of the life arcs of its characters, founded on a series of interviews with real Broadway chorus members, eight of whom went on to join the original cast. I believe it was the actress who inspired the character of Connie (known for the trouble with being “four foot ten”) who said that if she didn’t get the show she had just auditioned for, she would have so little money left that she would be evicted from her apartment. And although my stakes have thus far mostly been lower than that, I thought it would make sense to examine this show in terms personal to me.

As usual, it started in the car with my dad. Much of my musical education took place there. I absorbed Randy Newman’s “Four Eyes,” They Might Be Giants’ Flood, literally all of the Mamas & the Papas. You’d be amazed at the impact a daily drive of fifteen minutes to and from school can have over a run of years.

I was about ten when, en route home one day, he flicked through a series of tracks and said, “Now, I can’t play this with your sister around because it’s got a swear word in it.” In hindsight I doubt my younger sister would have cared, or even noticed; that’s how it was for me, my interest in certain lyrics induced by the grownups’ aversion to them and attempts to shield me from them. (Don’t overthink it, grownups!) Anyway, he pressed play on the story of a woman’s struggle in an acting class whose toxic environment constantly made her feel as if she were…nothing. I had experienced similar feelings among my peers at school, and I was cheered to hear about people with theatrical aspirations like mine.

The line that uneased my dad came at the end of the first verse of the song proper:

They all felt something

But I felt nothing

Except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd

That admittedly made me sit up straighter. The two show credits to my name were rather wholesome: a school production of The King & I (as Anna) and a children’s-theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (as one of three narrators). I had the bug, but I knew I also had a long way to go. Maybe someday I would get to–or be brave enough to–sing a line like this.

Cut to May 2017, when a friend who had played Jack to my Cinderella in a local production of Into the Woods tipped me off to an audition for a nearby community theatre’s summer staging of A Chorus Line. This was it! A shot at the show whose peculiar lines I’d been spouting haphazardly since that day in the car. So many lines.

If Troy Donahue could be a movie star, then I could be a movie star.”

Little brat. That’s what my sister was. A little brat. And that’s why I shaved her head. I’m glad I shaved her head.”

and the existential

Tits! When am I gonna grow tits?” (As of eighth grade, that had turned out not to be a concern.)

I hadn’t had a real-life frame of reference for the majority of these observations as I was memorizing them. I thought they were funny, even if some of the jokes went over my head. But they had accompanied me through an adolescence as tumultuous as any the characters mentioned in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” and through college where I felt misunderstood all over again in different ways, and now at nearly twenty-two I considered myself slightly more in the know. I had something of a sense of what was going on in this thing called the adult world. At the very least I understood the jokes. Not going for it would be doing myself a disservice.

I had always been a strong dancer, if rarely the strongest in the room. But even if it hadn’t been a while since I’d danced in a formal context, this audition would have challenged me like none other. I was nowhere near the strongest; I may have been among the weakest of the girls (don’t get me started on gendered double standards). And once I was cast as a dancer who is cut after the famously taxing opening number–and as the understudy for Val, of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” notoriety–the challenges only continued. Wonderful challenges, to be sure, especially where the choreography was concerned. It occurred to me that I had spent so long turning over every aural detail of that original soundtrack that I had a loose concept at best of the visual mechanics of the show (well, except for the spangled finale ensemble, which I was quite excited to put on). So watching it come to life, and physically taking part in it, was a unique and invigorating experience. As I mastered and perfected that opening routine, I felt I was leaving the best of myself out there with it. I was digging right down to the bottom of my soul to see what I had inside. Not forgetting the chance I had to directly engage with my beloved libretto: I even got to sing “I really need this job / Please, God, I need this job / I’ve got to get this job.” My whole heart was in those three lines too.

The book (or script), which I had never heard, struck and moved me over and over again as rehearsals went on. I wasn’t sure how faithful the stories were to the lives they represented, but some were truly heartrending. Paul’s recollection of finding a home away from home. Cassie’s plea to be rescued from a washed-up Hollywood career. These characters want to be important, want to reach someone, if only one person–the director. The setting is iconic in its sparseness, a bare stage and a mirror, giving the impression of a liminal space where anyone can have a voice and take up the space they deserve, even if they won’t all be rewarded for it. As we polished and then performed our production, it seemed we were getting at some essence of life, imperfect and often disappointing and ultimately fleeting though it might be.

Never have I been more insecure onstage than when I was doing A Chorus Line. And my instances of onstage insecurity are few and far between. Even given my familiarity with the score, I was faced with constant effort and constant failure at a hitherto-unknown rate. If ever the opportunity presents itself, I’ll gladly do it again. If not, I’m grateful to have had this show, witty and fretful and heartfelt, to guide me through my life up to this point and eager to track my evolving relationship to it going forward. As befits my music-nerd persona, I’ve also had tremendous fun hunting down cut tunes like this one. Good old Hamlisch will never let me down.

One of the things I appreciate most about A Chorus Line at the end of the day is its balance of escapism and realism. It allows both performers and spectators to entertain the fantasy of working in show business while even more potently pointing out the trials of the industry and the varied barriers that can spring up in the path of anyone who dares to try to live out that fantasy. Realizing art by this method is a special sort of pain, and a special sort of joy. These personalities, these songs, and these images inhabit the pain and the joy better than just about any show I know. Almost half a century on, it’s the one.

Images: from the 1975 production

Washington Irving, Berlin

In which I ruminate on an eerie visitation and the man behind it

Excuse me while I congratulate myself on that terribly clever title. A writer I love overlapping a composer I love overlapping a city I love which happens to be where I live? Oh, Cecilia, you crack-up. *pats own back*

Just kidding. (Sort of.) If I refine half the charm and wit of the inimitable Washington Irving, I can die a happy woman. Or maybe, if I’m lucky, I can be spirited away a happy woman. Who knows?

Anyway. The point being that something happened to me last week. One night, totally unbidden and unprovoked, I vividly dreamt the events of Irving’s famous short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” An entirely unoriginal dream–it struck me odd that it should occupy the space where my plenty active imagination usually made up its own stuff. But it prompted me to give it (and some of his other stories) a reread, and remember how much I liked his narrative voice, and…feel quite unnerved the more I dwelt on it, really. A tale of a Connecticut native who is an interloper in a strange community, distinguished for both knowing/teaching things and singing, and who rather takes pride in being erudite, trying to insert himself where he doesn’t belong? Subsequently run out of town by a sly opponent who knows just how to manipulate his fears and weaknesses? Whyever should that make me nervous?

(Put another way: the only thing separating me from Ichabod Crane is about a foot and a half in height. And while I do fancy myself the well-intentioned heroine of my own story, I am forced to reconsider this self-perception when I question whether Ichabod is a hero–a protagonist, yes, but his intentions don’t necessarily seem pure, and not only because he keeps comparing women to food. Whatever. Let’s just say I haven’t gone out at night lately.)

But it’s more than that. It’s the fact that this particular vision should visit me on the two hundredth anniversary, just about to the month, of the story’s publication. 1820. Compounded by the fact that I too am a writer who is getting more ambitious with her fiction…who has in fact described a character as a “scarecrow escaped from a corn maze,” incidentally evoking Irving’s description of Ichabod as a “scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.” Am I being possessed? Have I been SINGLED OUT?

Hold it. What am I saying? It’s all coincidence. No reason to suspect a larger force at work. No need to be superstitious. Right?

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t put it past this author fellow. Playing tricks on people from beyond the grave? Typical. As will soon be demonstrated.

Irving (1783-1859) was a Manhattan native and a real city kid, at least for a while. His father (also a Scotsman) and mother (an Englishwoman) named him after the general, who actually had just been inaugurated as President when he met and gave a blessing to six-year-old Irving. Like many people of eventual renown, Irving was no star student, but that was okay by him because he preferred going to the theatre anyway. Remember how you and your fellow truants would hop down to the playhouse to snag tickets to the latest comedy with your own money when you were thirteen? Man, those were the days.

He was first published at age nineteen under the pen name “Jonathan Oldstyle” with a series of humorous social observations in the New York Morning Chronicle, whose co-founder was none other than…Aaron Burr, sir! Besides having commendable taste, Burr apparently overlooked the young writer’s Federalist leanings–tying him to Burr’s frenemy A-dot-Ham–enough to forward clippings to his dear daughter Theodosia. (Irving and Theodosia Burr were born a matter of months apart; my cherished alternate history is that that they fell madly in love, married, and had a giant family, and Theodosia never boarded the ship that was lost at sea. Why let the truth get in the way?)

From there he did what it seems like all men of means did at the time: study law and pass the bar (by the skin of his teeth, mind you). But he had also taken up the infinitely more engaging practice of fiction writing; and why bother with a legal career when he could mess with his growing readership by inventing a character, treating him as real, and developing his personality to the point that he all but crossed the veil? Not to mention he had caught the travel bug, touring Europe, veering from the beaten path, honing a uniquely savvy and conversational persona which put him in demand among the courts of society. Irving’s priorities were cemented, however, on a journey closer to home: up through the Hudson River Valley, where the communities–Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, etc.–brimmed with old folktales and ghost stories, the stuff of a writer’s dreams, just begging his transcription.

And transcribe he did…but not before fleeing the country again. Well, “fleeing” in the sense that the War of 1812 impoverished his family and he went to stay with his sister and brother-in-law in England. (Birmingham, to be precise, best known for these lads.) It was here of all places that, a decade after Knickerbockering his hometown into his own personal fandom, he crafted The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A great name befitting a great collection: it featured both “Rip Van Winkle” (whose action takes place overnight–well, not exactly, but that’s the point of the story–and which Irving wrote overnight) and “Sleepy Hollow.” His New York publisher would release it in seven installments, the last of which would appear in mid-1820; meanwhile, the collection would leak in London due to lax international copyright laws, prompting Irving to consult his friend Walter Scott’s publisher, who took on the collection in two installments as well as the British rights to all of Irving’s subsequent works. Much of our modern copyright legislation is thanks to Irving.

I wonder if Geoffrey Crayon is considered an ancestor of the Purple Crayon of “Harold” fame. As usual, I digress.

The Sketch Book made Irving more popular than ever. He rode its coattails, gallivanting between continents (he was more of a Dresden guy than a Berlin guy, for which I will not judge him), attempting to woo some ladies (eighteen-year-old Emily Foster, whom he pursued indefatigably despite what should have been a major takeaway from one of his own stories) and inexplicably ignoring others (among his admirers was Mary Shelley–the Mary Shelley! If only he had appreciated what a power couple they would have made!). But bachelorhood served him in the end: it freed him up to dash off travel essays, assist the American minister in London in negotiating a trade deal with the British West Indies, and serve as Minister to Spain under President John Tyler. Couldn’t tie this one down, no sir!

Upon his long-anticipated return to the United States, he somehow found the energy to complete a multi-volume biography of his beloved namesake, which required several trips between his Tarrytown estate Sunnyside and Mount Vernon. In retrospect, this appears a fair use of that remaining energy, because he died less than a year after finishing the final volume, aged seventy-six and ensconced at Sunnyside. He was mourned and revered by friends, contemporaries, and imitators like Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville (the critical-but-probably-just-jealous Edgar Allan Poe was already dead). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, unofficial keeper of collective memory, didn’t let the funeral go by without a proper elegy.

That Irving became the first true American Man of Letters without a full-length novel to his name is, in my opinion, the biggest flex in the New World. This man carved a permanent niche in the public imagination on essentially a series of short stories alone. Okay, and an unmatched talent for naming things. And a dynamic personality. Pretty powerful–almost unheard of to this day. He has been somewhat eclipsed by, say, Mark Twain, his successor in American documentation and humor; but it was his trailblazing which gave Twain that forum to begin with. He proved that a person could write for a living, the echoes of which plague today’s university creative-writing programs. He seems not to have done anything outright cancel-worthy, or at least not to be guilty of individual vices so much as societal ones. He understood, in life and in work, the necessity of an elaborate prank. Most importantly, he helped secure a young nation’s place on the world literary stage and spread the word that its artists had something meaningful to contribute.

And now, a nice round two centuries after the story I led with, he haunts my dreams and/or waking thoughts. Oh well. I suppose I could do worse. Now, if you’ll excuse me once again, I am going to go eat a Katrina Van Tassel, which is my recently-adopted name for a peach.

Image: watercolor by George Bernard Butler, Jr., commissioned by Irving to commemorate the time he got #blessed by the Prez

A Moment Alone in the Shade

In which I contemplate a pilgrim’s progress

I would bet a ten-dollar-Founding-Father bill that you expected my title to refer in some way to the room where it happens. Well, kids, I’m full of surprises. Besides, there is no longer one ‘room’: everyone who has witnessed the production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton available on Disney+ has created a happening in their own room. Funny the concepts that break down under quarantine restrictions.

I compare the experience–my experience, anyway–to a pilgrim’s progress in that it represents a milestone on my journey from getting to know the soundtrack to finally witnessing the show live onstage in the flesh. When that last will happen, at this point, I can’t even guess. But this glimpse into the mechanics of the show, the staging and the emphasis and of course the dynamic performances from the very cast members I’d heard on the soundtrack, goes a long way. Even if, until that in-the-flesh moment, I will never be satisfied. (Boom!)

One of the fascinating things about the sensation that is this show is that my situation represents most people’s: that of being financially (or otherwise) unable to attend a performance and thus bonding with fellow soundtrack devotees. We can sing it by heart, we know every drum triplet and handclap and syllable uttered by Lafayette/Jefferson, but beyond that we have only the odd bit of fan footage or official production still to go on for a visual reference. Polar-opposite to other shows, our common ground would be having not seen it, having prepared ourselves in every way possible for the moment that we could. Prepared not to throw away our shot. (Boom!)

I mean, until now. Disney+ is as much of a shot as we’re going to get for the foreseeable future. And what a shot it is.

The stream of continuous motion, from the revolving rings of the stage to the subtle motions of the ensemble dancers; the alarmingly fluid light cues that spot each person as if they were born to be in that place in that moment; the almost uninterrupted music, treating applause and reactions practically like afterthoughts–every element of the production serves to evoke a life that was truly non-stop. (Boom!!! Goes the cannon!) The constant driving energy highlights the standstills even more starkly, like the unanticipated emotional rawness of “History Has Its Eyes On You” or the breathlessness of the…Philip thing.

And yet the energy comes across differently anyway; it’s a special kind of transference when it is transferred to one girl alone on a couch in her apartment (for example). In this instance there is an overwhelming feeling of intimacy, a request for the sole viewer to take away what she wishes to, what applies most to her. So, while the triumphant collective “Yorktown” and the tender twofold “Dear Theodosia” are certainly thrills, it feels summarily like the moment alone in the shade that Washington envisions in “One Last Time.” All of this is for you. The nation we’ve made is for you. Take a moment, or two hours and forty-five minutes, to survey it, to ponder it in all its beauty and imperfection.

That’s what spoke to me. Along, I should say, with everything else.

Among my favorite of the performers, nigh-on impossible with such a stellar cast: Renée Elise Goldsberry, because I love a singer who really opens her mouth; Daveed Diggs, who not only raps circles around everyone else but struts circles around them too; Anthony Ramos, the most convincing nine-year-old-who-is-not-nine that I’ve ever seen; Oak Onaodowan, who goes from Tough (as Hercules Mulligan) to Stuff (as in “stuffed shirt” James Madison) with ease; and the ensemble member who plays The Bullet as well as a host of other fatal premonitions–she’s everywhere if you keep an eye out for her.

Oh, and Leslie Odom Jr.? I think I’m in love with that guy. Not in any practical sense, of course; but longtime readers will know that I have a weakness for singers who clearly exhibit effort, and the terrifically demanding role of Aaron Burr will occasionally leave him expanding and contracting like a balloon. A balloon of talent. That’s Leslie.

After all this, the Auteur himself comes across as the weak link, if only because he is surrounded by highly trained Broadway performers. Still, the material is his brainchild; he knows it better than anyone, and he uses it to his advantage.

Some other observations from my two-hour-forty-five-minute epiphany:

  • Lots more equine talk than I remember. Hamilton writes to Congress about a starved Continental Army having “resorted to eating [their] horses.” Lafayette is famously “taking this horse by the reins.” And Hercules Mulligan warns “lock up your daughters and horses”–does that mean…is he…? You know what, let’s stop that Pony Express of thought right there.
  • Nowhere is the revolving stage more effective than in “Ten Duel Commandments.” Well, almost nowhere. Anytime a duel is involved, really.
  • Maybe there doesn’t need to be so much hopping up onto wooden blocks…
  • I need to figure out how I feel about tenor belts. I’m not crazy about belting in general as a vocal technique. Even so, there’s no denying old Jonathan Groff knows how to do it.
  • Boy, do I love all the Beatles references in this number!
  • King George is the piragua guy of this show. In and out a few times, a potential show-stealer if he plays his cards right. I do remember that character being my favorite part of In the Heights, so.
  • All right, the women in “Non-Stop”…whoop, there goes Angelica, just rolling away…and here comes Eliza…what a stage, just watch them go
  • I would have had Jefferson make his entrance during the instrumental break in “What’d I Miss” just before his vocal entrance, but that’s just me. I’m sure Thomas Kail (director) had his reasons.
  • Aw, I wanted a bed in “Say No to This”! Let’s get sexy!!! (whatever, the song is pretty sexy as is)
  • I wonder how many times those “Room Where It Happens” dancers accidentally kicked Leslie in the face. He’s looking all right, so I suppose not many.
  • Lin wearing glasses looks like a Puerto Rican Benjamin Franklin. I was waiting for him to show up in all this.
  • Somehow there’s more sitting down than I expected (the opposite of 1776). I guess I figured the energy of the music would keep everyone on their feet the whole time. But then I guess they might pass out.

Grand total: a spectacle so complete it’s sickening. The score is hard to beat, hard even to find fault with. It really knocks you off your feet. And, with today being the anniversary of the little duelio in Weehawken, there’s no time like the present to immerse yourself in it.

Don’t say no to this. I couldn’t if I tried. In fact, a second watch will be in order very soon.

Image: Lin & Chris; more where that came from

Stones Studies, Part III: The once and future Mr. Jones

In which I am blinded by one brief shining moment

Let me tell you about my favorite member of the Rolling Stones (though I can’t seem to shut up about Charlie, so). He’s dead; he’s been dead a long time. Fifty-one years to the day, in fact.

As the received wisdom among fans goes, “no Jones, no Stones.” Indubitably so. Brian Jones founded the group, and it was his vision and drive which constructed the platform they needed to make an impression. By the same token, it was his insecurities and indulgences which nearly toppled them from the great heights they reached.

From whatever angle you look, Brian was a force of nature, the band’s own Jenna Maroney: armed with formidable musical instincts, eloquent presentation, mild sociopathic tendencies, and a perfect blond head. Apparently he got his start on the clarinet, which gives me delightful mind’s-eye images of a little boy astounding his classmates by nailing the glissando intro to “Rhapsody in Blue.” (Don’t fact-check me.)

Initially he had the steepest goals for the group’s lineup (it took a little while to solidify), their repertoire (mostly the blues, his one true love), and their fortune (making phone calls, signing contracts, locking down gigs). He was most interested in, and best at, giving interviews–he had a real audiobook voice–so the host of whatever fishbowl they were trapped inside would gravitate toward him. Thus he was often the known quantity on their travels.

And he played a mean guitar. Six-string, twelve-string. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix looked up to him. (Quite the compliment given his stature, for which his bandmates frequently mocked him; the things short people put up with…) Besides that, whenever a unique instrument popped up on a recording, like a marimba or sitar or dulcimer or mellotron (or even recorder), he was its master. He was arguably the primary composer of “Ruby Tuesday.” His innovations were briefly unparalleled and universally admired.

But he had other aspirations, other ideas for staying relevant beyond what he did in the studio. He was dropping acid before his peers had access to it, frequenting the most exclusive clubs, and soon enough jet-setting with Anita Pallenberg, the sophisticated and dangerous X factor who would simultaneously tie the band together creatively and fray their bond from the inside out. His drink/drug hobbies turned into habits and he grew paranoid about slipping from his bandleader’s pedestal. To be fair, he was slipping, as one does when one bails on rehearsals, recording sessions, even shows. I dare say Keith became as good as he is by being repeatedly left high and dry, forced to play for two. What events Brian did attend made it plain that he was no longer the center of attention, no longer the celebrated one. He took out his intensifying anxiety on Anita, verbally and physically, until she was driven into Keith’s arms and Keith finally confronted Brian during their legendarily shady Marrakesh excursion. Kind of like in Always Be My Maybe when Randall Park punches Keanu Reeves for Ali Wong, only less funny. (Is it any wonder, having dealt with this madness, that Keith went from looking like a nerd to looking like he could kill you with his bare hands?) As if all that weren’t enough, Brian had to watch his other bandmate Mick accomplish what he was supposed to be accomplishing, which was to ingratiate himself with the elite and assume the role of greatest influence and direction and desirability. The fact that Mick and Anita were also doing a film and had to have sex for real in one scene didn’t help Brian and subsequently prompted Keith to say of its late director, “Best work he ever did, besides shooting himself.”

I wish I were making this up. The art that emerged from this period was groundbreaking, but obviously it broke more than just ground. When people stereotype rock stars, the odds are they’re imagining a version of this story.

So, after a string of events testing the limits of what a mortal soul could bear, Brian formally checked out from reality at Cotchford Farm–a country house previously belonging to A. A. Milne–surrounded by his human and chemical companions of choice. He was fired from the band in June 1969, having done the odd bit of work for the next album. Less than a month later he was found at the bottom of his swimming pool, aged twenty-seven, ruled a “death by misadventure” though accounts vary. 5 July was the Stones’ big free concert in Hyde Park (their better big-free-concert idea that year by a long shot): Mick read out stanzas of Percy Shelley’s “Adonaïs” before releasing a swarm of white butterflies from the stage. I’ve never been a fan of those Romantic poets, but this seemed a poignant sendoff. (Meanwhile, the only Stone to be present at both the firing and the funeral was–you guessed it–Charlie.)

His passing shook the musical community. Pete Townshend and Jim Morrison penned elegies to him. He also wound up being the first of several musicians in a short time frame to die at the same age, a true founder even in death.

A couple years would pass before the group memorialized him in a song, and it didn’t disappoint. I talked about “Shine a Light” last week; it’s an emotional experience for me, evoking the complex and bittersweet memory of a person whose life differed drastically from mine yet with whom I empathize nonetheless. In my more vulnerable, attention-seeking moments, I know his pain; at bottom, borderline megalomania aside, this was a man who wanted to matter.

Part of what draws me to Brian is an odd feeling of kinship. Not in the sense of being a tortured genius–I am neither overly tortured nor a genius–but in that he reminds me of my late-high-school self, the self who first got into the Stones. I was racking up distinctions, leading a pretty charmed artistic life, and growing perhaps a bit complacent. Don’t get me wrong, senior year remains one of my single best years to date, rich in relationships and activities and anticipation: as another artist put it, “when I was seventeen, it was a very good year.” But the transition to upperclassmen status brought with it a fear that I too would become irrelevant, that the posts of respect and sway I had worked so hard to attain might somehow be undermined–resulting in a bout of corrosive jealousy, an occasional diva moment, a spiral of selfish delusion. I can recall writing an angry (private) letter in an effort to expunge the negative energy, which took a long time to achieve the desired effect. I calculated my words, phrased things with the end of establishing dominance out of some twisted sense of entitlement, though I strove outwardly to be humble. And this was school, a far cry from the complications of adult success, no substances involved unless you count coffee. Power, of any kind, corrupts.

I am trying to be a good person. I was trying to be a good person then. I believe Brian Jones tried to be a good person. All that trying doesn’t keep us from sometimes succumbing to our inner darkness and doesn’t absolve us of what happens when we do. Brian’s story moved me from the start possibly because I intuited our similarities, even if my articulation is only in retrospect. As we push to hold more people accountable for their actions, I could never posthumously excuse him for the violence he perpetrated against his partners or the harmful publicity stunts he pulled in a struggle against his own fading glory. That said, I want to acknowledge his contribution–short-lived, momentous, impossible to overstate–and the shame that such a promising figure had to become such a tragic one. These sentiments are not new; they continue to follow him as any interesting person’s stories follow them. And the legacy he left behind is now the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. This must be a life worth remembering.

I hope he has found peace and forgiveness wherever he is. May the good Lord shine a light on him.

Image: the beautiful and damned, January 1967

Stones Studies, Part II: Character portraits, best practices

In which I dip into the cult of personality

Welcome back. Or, if you’re new here, welcome (and go get up to speed).

As I’ve mentioned, in paring down a fifty-plus-year career to what resonates with me, I arrived at the material spanning 1968-72, give or take a bit on each side; okay, let’s say 1967-73. That’s the gold mine. If you ask me, they’ve never done better.

My evidence relies heavily, though absolutely not wholly, on the character vignettes which dominated the period. These songs leave an enduring impression by functioning as short stories propelled by specific situations, problems, or personalities. What’s more, they often do double duty as analyses of contemporary social ills, and there were a lot of those. Now, any band that was paying attention would have done that: commentary has been a major purpose of art in every age and society. But the Stones made it stick in a special way–and this I attribute to them, to the blend of talent and ambition and chaos that defined them at the time.

Take the year they had in ’67, which more or less clarified the need for what followed. It was inconsistent but not necessarily unsuccessful. The first album, Between the Buttons, altered its track listings for the UK and US releases; both sound very English, because they were doing very English things (and doing them well), but the UK one explores idiosyncratically English themes. “Back Street Girl.” for example, is a portrait of an aristocrat who goes to great lengths to ensure the secrecy of his affair with a lower-class woman. People call it a put-down, and I guess they’ve got a point, but it’s always just struck me as heartbreaking. It’s in waltz time, it’s accentuated by a vibraphone which sounds like a Wurlitzer organ (courtesy, naturally, of Brian Jones); the cumulative effect resembles a music box of broken dreams. Hardly a put-down in the vein of some preceding songs. (I like to construe “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid as a kind of response to this song.) For what it’s worth, it was the only song on the album that Mick Jagger liked. As I say, experimentation was crucial to things coming together in earnest.

Also on this album (both versions) is “Miss Amanda Jones,” an upbeat portrait of a girl who rejects the strictures of the upper-class debutante world in favor of a carefree lifestyle. One of my favorites, I might add. It features its share of criticism–“Hey girl, don’t you realize / the money invested in you?”–but it describes a sexist world without being sexist. I’m pretty sure that was just Mick the adventurous lyricist learning to approach a situation from multiple angles simultaneously.

Songs like these already demonstrate a shift away from the reportage of “Mother’s Little Helper” the previous year–an excellent song in its own right, but only in its wake do we hear a pivot toward first-person narration and the unreliable vantage points it invites. Put another way, had the song appeared two years later, we might have heard it from the perspective of the mother herself (though more likely we would not have heard it at all, because drug busts).

The rest of that year was rather marred by the failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was basically their attempt at a Sgt. Pepper (John Lennon was like “seriously?”). They got desperate to fit a mold that they weren’t going to fit, that they had in fact spent their career thus far casting themselves in opposition to, and they were suppressing their natural selves. Hell, their songwriting duo lacked the time and energy to operate on all cylinders between dealing with said drug busts and accompanying prison time.

Speaking of which, it was actually lucky they hadn’t learned their lesson by the next year, because Mick and then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull’s arrest for cannabis possession on 24 May 1968 was great publicity for the concurrent release of their newest single and best song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Did you read that right? Yes: their best song, ever.* A three-minute-forty-two-second encapsulation of their finest qualities. A musical Bildungsroman. A thesis. There are enough proclamations of personal history (beginning at the beginning with “I was born”) to support that reading; the chorus is an even more fundamental statement of identity, augmented by the curious idiom “it’s a gas.” I have always been intrigued by this choice of catchphrase; it sounds like something from the ’40s or ’50s (I had to look up its origin). So it lends the character an anachronistic air, existing out of time, free to travel at will. He’s already a quirky variation on Keith Richards’s gardener, whom Keith had nicknamed “jumping Jack”–the abstract word-painting in the verses, including the quasi-Christlike image of being “crowned with a spike right through [his] head,” only adds to the quirk. Much of the imagery is quite violent, in fact, but we steadily return to the jarring conclusion that “it’s all right.” It occurred to me that part of the appeal of this lyric is the absence of women. No misogyny to get prematurely indignant over; the object is missing. A lot to think about here.

Except it’s tough to think when you’re caught up in that dynamite sound. Keith had finally discovered open tuning (a technique Joni Mitchell had made sexy years ago, but whatever), giving the guitar its glorious timbre, leaning into the root and fifth of the central triad. Unlike the glassy, smooth effect Joni went for, this effect is rough and crackling–in conjunction with Charlie’s hollow drums (sounding not unlike the toy kit he would play on “Street Fighting Man”), which he chugs on like the engine he is; and Mick’s maracas, which he keeps at like his life depends on them for the entire second half of the song. Meanwhile, Keith also takes up the bass (another foreshadowing of “Street Fighting Man”), freeing Bill Wyman to add the Hammond organ, which brings out the triad nicely at the end. And it was the last recording to boast a significant contribution from Brian Jones, this time on rhythm guitar.

Astonishingly, though, the most important thing about this track is that it signified to the world that the Stones were back. It served as a grand reintroduction (a resurrection, if we run with the Christ theme). They had tried their hand at several styles and genres and got a bit lost competing with their peers. Now they were funneling that energy into being themselves. And it shows. They identify closely with it–they’ve performed it over 1,100 times, the most of any song. Makes perfect sense. I like to call “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” the granola of songs: it’s crunchy and it energizes you.

Once the world was riding that high, the group were on the ascent. That fall’s LP, Beggars Banquet, upped its portrait game singlehandedly with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Its lyric, I told a friend recently, is airtight, the height of dramatic monologue. Robert Browning is green with envy in his grave. It’s a self-contained course in global conflict from the Crucifixion to the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution–all out of order, though, as its narrator isn’t bound to any chronological rule. Everything is intentional: of all the monikers this figure goes by, Lucifer denotes the fallen angel, God’s former right-hand man, who has some good in him despite having been maligned over millennia, counterbalancing the overarching message that humanity fancies itself “good” when it is actually responsible for many of the listed atrocities. See what they did there?

On the heels of the hardworking text, this track ushers in a new personality for the band to inhabit: the jam band. It ends after a couple solid minutes of Mick doing his thing and everyone else maintaining the background “whoo-whoo” (they are flagging; he is not). Later, “Stray Cat Blues,” whose lyric you could not pay me to discuss, goes on for a minute and forty-five seconds until Keith’s guitar sounds to me like a chair scraping backwards against the floor…in a cool way. They would stretch this personality onto Let It Bleed with “Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (bonus points for being choral); and even more so onto Sticky Fingers with “Sway,” “Sister Morphine,” “Bitch,” “Moonlight Mile,” and the aforementioned “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (bonus points for being jazz). This period demonstrates the peak of both their synchronized musicianship and their power to surprise.

Fun fact: “Sympathy” began life as a slow Dylanesque pilgrimage through its lyric. Can you imagine? The narrative wound up a bit too linear and the theme too united for that to work. Another track, “Jigsaw Puzzle,” adheres more recognizably to the Dylan model; each verse meditates on a different subject, including the band members themselves, and we never really find out what the jigsaw puzzle is, although we can take a guess.

Beggars Banquet, it should be noted, not only sustained but expanded the social-commentary trend with “Street Fighting Man,” an expression of perennial relevance. If you’re looking for a portrait there, look no further than the straight-up personification of ideas: “…my name is called disturbance / I shout and scream / I kill the king / I rail at all his servants.” Mick’s lyrical catalogue was becoming a damn portrait gallery.

One year and one member replacement later (hi there, Taylor) came Let It Bleed, my favorite of their albums. It accomplishes a tremendous amount in nine tracks: each track is unique (hell, Charlie’s drum parts alone are unique to each track!); there’s no filler whatsoever (I appreciate their continued allegiance to covering old blues tunes, in this case Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”); and enough band mythology has accumulated at this point to lend the recording process some contour and history. Not all of it pleasant: a twenty-one-year-old Merry Clayton *might* have miscarried due to the physical exertion of hollering her head off on the “Gimme Shelter” solo, and Brian Jones departed the band and this plane before the record hit shelves–more on him next week. But you can hardly call it boring.

The opener and closer, respectively “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” are twin giants of the pop canon. In between, the group bend genres–like the countrified (and I believe original…?) take on “Honky Tonk Women”**–and carry on with the portraits–like “Midnight Rambler,” which presumes to be about the Boston Strangler with nary a reference to strangling (only shooting, stabbing, and raping). Clearly that character tradition had been trending darker since “Sympathy.” Elsewhere, Keith gets his first lead vocal on the tender ballad he wrote for his hard-won muse Anita Pallenberg, “You Got the Silver.” Speaking of surprise, we’re pretty quick to forget their ability to write a heartstring-tugger, but several songs from this period pick up where “As Tears Go By” left off (see also: “Wild Horses” and “Angie”). Then there’s “Monkey Man,” Mick’s ironic retort to the public assumption that the group were strung out (heroin = the monkey on your back), an observation that people who purposefully see you as the bad guy will soon enough turn you into the bad guy. I love this track. It trips and blusters and is still somehow graceful. Everyone is in top form. The four-and that Charlie pounds out when your guard is down; Keith’s slinking harmonized riff; Nicky Hopkins’ deft piano flourishes…and I must admit, at the risk of exposing myself for a basic bitch, there is a seductive thrall about a singer who can screech “I’m a monkey” and make you believe it.

The Let It Bleed track I haven’t yet mentioned is “Live with Me.” I will do so now in tandem with possibly my single favorite Stones track, the opener of 1972’s Exile on Main St., “Rocks Off.” These are two prime examples of the final point I’ll make about this period: for all the lyrical conventions the band supposedly cemented, they buck those conventions regularly. The former is a classic stomp–I had it in mind when I wrote about Charlie–full of all their endearingly obnoxious isms, except it’s an offer of domesticity. It uses some trademark coercive language, but with the end of…commitment. What? Mick singing about settling down? That’s not a thing! Or is it? The latter–rendering “Monkey Man” a self-fulfilling prophecy, as by now a few of them were on the hard stuff–refers to doing so much heroin that you can’t get it up. A Stones song about being unable to perform sexually. Who’d have believed it?

Both tracks are a ton of fun besides. To shout out Nicky Hopkins again, he really makes them, particularly “Rocks Off,” which has a piano riff to rival any (and those horns). If nothing else, the track would be brilliant simply for the line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” I think it’s a contender for all-time best album opener. But I digress, which I really can’t afford to do at this late hour.

Another, sadder, component of the history they were collectively accruing was the need for closure in regards to the trials they had survived while others had not. Three years after Brian drowned, “Shine a Light” appeared as Exile‘s penultimate track. It was a tribute to him and to his bandmates’ affection for him despite how difficult and distant he could sometimes be. It reduces me to sobs every time; it’s laced with haunting imagery, and if the dam hasn’t burst by the verse about the angels, the line “Thought I heard one sigh for you” finishes me off without fail. Certain vocal effects even mimic submersion in water. I’m reminded of a friend who drowned when we were teenagers, the first peer of mine to die, how his body looked at the wake. I’m reminded of a host of people who aren’t physically dead but who have been estranged from me over time, whom I still wish the best. And I’m reminded of Brian himself, for reasons I’ll delve into next time. Heavy themes.

In the ill-advised hope of summing all this up, let me reiterate that this roughly five-year run had many moments which illuminated the past, present, and future of popular music. It’s a source of far-reaching inspiration, not only in the work itself but in the philosophy behind the work. I hope to be learning from it still when I am very old.

For now, unless your name is Keith Richards, you are susceptible. Wear a mask.

*To those who would call me crazy for thinking any song tops “Satisfaction,” I would reply that context is everything. Rousing fuzz-box anti-capitalist anthem that it is, “Satisfaction” is a very British Invasion song, representative of its era; it made them an entity to look out for, but it gives a sort of in medias res impression, like a snapshot of a group still on the way to becoming themselves. “Flash” feels timeless, like an arrival at the sonic persona that would carry them a long way forward. And can you say it didn’t work?

**If you’ve heard “Give Your Best” from the Bee Gees’ Odessa, released the same year, they sound almost identical. It’s that fiddle.

Check out the playlist!

Image: somewhere, sometime in 1970. Mick Taylor on the far right. He didn’t last long, through no fault of his own; I’m guessing merely because one Mick was plenty.

A Birthday Salute to Paul Laurence Dunbar

In which I mark a poet whose work has occupied my mind

Allow me a moment out of my other endeavors to devote to a topic of true import.

A few months or lifetimes ago, as social institutions and governments responded to the pandemic by mandating masks in public, it didn’t take long for a poem called “We Wear the Mask” to surface in the recesses of my mind. Of course it had nothing to do with contagious disease prevention; I knew it came from the pen of a Black writer (whose name escaped me) and dealt with the Black experience in America.

Luckily, I recovered his pertinent details just in time to commemorate his birthday. Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to achieve widespread prominence–and one of the most prominent still–was born on this date in 1872 to formerly enslaved parents. He grew up between Kentucky and Ohio and went to high school in Dayton, where he was voted class president and class poet. (Class poet! Oh, how little we value wordsmithing anymore!)

Though he struggled to find meaningful work due to entrenched discriminatory systems–he finally became an elevator operator, which I for one find pretty dapper–he dedicated himself to writing on the side and soon had published enough poems in various publications to win some wealthy and well-connected admirers. The subsequent course of his literary career spanned multiple collections of poetry, several short stories, three novels, and the libretto of an operetta, “Dream Lovers” (with the musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor–what a name). He also took a six-month reading tour of England when he was twenty-five (goals).

Tuberculosis afflicted him on and off for much of his life; he died from additional complications of pneumonia in 1906, aged thirty-three and internationally renowned. While much of his work received critical acclaim, he was known chiefly as the premier Black voice of American poetry, and it’s easy to see why.

“We Wear the Mask” spoke to me in the early throes of a large-scale viral threat. Since the breakout of protests across my home country, it’s only spoken louder. By now it might as well be shouting itself hoarse. And while no life should have to be exceptional to matter, this one merits a spotlight today: for its keen chronicling of the daily condition of a recently freed people; for its unflinching observation of a nation which hadn’t (and still hasn’t) sorted out what that freedom really meant; for its crystalline testimony to the power of poetry.

Thank you for your gift, Mr. Dunbar. May we all absorb a fraction of your sympathy.

Image: from the Library of America