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I’ve a Bee in My Bonnet for Pop Sonnets

*Pop Sonnets - Eric Didricksen

If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:

Wannabe

Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:

A lonely maiden from a hamlet small—
A boy within a woeful city reared:
They both at midnight left their port of call
T’ward any destination volunteered.

The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” and songs by Katy Perry, Beastie Boys, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Green Day, even Britney Spears can be found among the Bard of Avon’s supposed works as channelled through Didricksen. Enjoy this rapturous take on “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars:

Uptown Funk

Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!

Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—

“Alas, I’ve been Rickrolled!”

Never Gonna Give You Up

A Difficult Man

Dad

My father and his monkey friend, 1979.

My witty, bright and difficult father would have been 76 today. He was creative and talented, and he had a way with words. He also had serious problems with alcohol and anger, and he treated his child, his wives and his siblings with sarcasm at best, with arrogance and disdain as a matter of course, and with violence at worst. He was very good at one thing, though: he was extremely generous to down-on-their-luck people to whom he owed nothing.

My parents met when they were students at UC Berkeley. When my father was a psychology teaching assistant at Cal, he worked with autistic kids before most people had ever heard of autism, but shortly after he married my mother he became disaffected with his professors and left his promising career in psychology behind. My parents fell in love and married quickly, before my mother realized what a volatile and combative man he could be. My father’s alcoholism became  apparent as soon as they were married, but by the time my mother realized what sort of man she had wed, she was pregnant with me. His violence toward her began even before I was born. By the time I was four months old, he had already hurled his glasses across the room in a fit of rage when I, who had been born two months prematurely and was still  tiny and fragile, would not stop crying. My mother had left me alone with with him for the first and only time during my infancy so she could go grocery shopping. She came home to find him fuming and holding his broken glasses. Mercifully, they separated shortly afterwards. His bad health and alcoholism  were already losing him jobs by then, and he stopped paying child support forever shortly after my first birthday. But my mother realized that even without his help, raising me on her own was the best decision she could have made.

Yet my father was not always bullying, threatening, drinking or shouting. When my mom was pregnant with me, he made me a beautiful cradle out of an old barrel. He was  good at making something useful and beautiful out of nothing. Years later, from discarded bicycle parts he created usable bikes for himself and his poverty-stricken friends so they could have free transportation to school and work. He was disabled by serious health problems and unable to work for more than short periods of time for most of his life, and the benefits he received for being a veteran with serious health problems (he’d lied about his age to enter the Navy at age 16) didn’t go very far. But out of a few hundred dollars a month in disability payments, he paid the rent for his room in a dingy, sad hotel and spent the rest on cheap canned foods, books and used clothes so he could keep himself and his neighbors warm, fed and educated. He fixed their broken appliances, helped them write their résumés, computed their taxes, babysat, and, occasionally, he hid their drugs for them when they were afraid of getting raided by the cops. He had almost no respect for authority, and this caused him enormous problems throughout his life but made him popular with his  troubled friends.

My mom had wisely left him as soon as she realized that his violent streak made him a danger to me, but she welcomed him to our house to pay me visits once I was a precocious toddler who could talk and follow orders. She figured I’d be physically safe around him at that point, and I was. But sometimes he’d show up two hours late, other times not at all. His brother, my beloved Uncle Steve, drove across the Bay Area several times a year to retrieve and sober up my dad, who was sometimes still drunk at 10 a.m.  Steve would make sure my dad took his desperately-needed medications, feed him and calm him. Then Steve chauffered my father to my home and chaperoned our meetings. Steve made jokes to lighten my dad’s spirits and distract me from my father’s dark moods and sarcasm, and he bought us deli sandwiches and took us to parks to walk and talk and look at nature. It was Steve who drove my dad back home and soothed him after we said goodbye. If it weren’t for my dear uncle, I would have almost no memories of my father, and my father would have had little idea of who his sensitive, expressive, hungry-for-approval daughter was.

Dad was angry, bitter, depressed and occasionally delusional, and for years at a time he’d refuse to see or talk to me when he was ashamed of his behavior. He would become angry at me for expressing dismay when he called me in one of his drunken stupors to promise things he would never deliver, to tease and sometimes mock me, and to tell me ugly stories about his raw adventures among the downtrodden. I had to trick him into seeing me and my daughter when she was a baby, and though he fell in love with her immediately, his mental problems caused him to withdraw from us again immediately afterwards. He died a few months later having only met her once. No matter how much I wanted to make him a part of my life, he usually refused. I tried to be as perfect, entertaining and gregarious as possible every time he showed up. I could not call him because he was often without a working phone, but I created elaborate cards and drawings for him, and spent hours decorating the envelopes I sent to him with intricate drawings to try to entice him to communicate with me. It rarely worked, and over time I finally realized that this rejection wasn’t about my value as a person but was based in his own fears, pain and self-loathing.

After he died, I spent a lot of time at the sad hotel in which his life had ended. He was a hoarder, so it took me weeks to clear out his single room of all the tall piles of possessions: the small appliances, the books that covered his bed two feet deep so that he was forced to sleep sitting upright; the canned goods and free weights and dressers full of warm clothes; the manuscripts and letters to the editor and the letters to himself that disclosed the depth of his mental illness to me after his death. But while clearing things out, I met several men who had lived in his building and valued his friendship immensely. They told me of the kindnesses he offered them, and after I’d donated most of his clothes to the thrift shop across the road, I realized I should offer everything else in his room to the men who lived alongside him. They were thrilled to have his typewriters, his radios, his food and books and Playboy magazines.

His friends spoke of him as being both cantankerous and immensely generous. My father’s siblings and my mother, who had known him in better times, were happy to learn that despite burning every familial bridge thoroughly and repeatedly, he had managed to salvage some essential good within himself and show it to a few souls even less fit for the world than he. These stories and his writings, which disclosed to us just how far his thinking had strayed from reality, helped us to recognize how much his retreat from us had been a response to his self-hatred and his fear of harming us again. Though he’d blamed us all for his distance and unkindness at one time or another, we knew that he was picking fights in part to have an excuse to keep away from us to avoid doing further damage to those whom he loved.

No matter how many years I spend trying to understand what made him break so many promises and do so many cruel things, I will never entirely understand what caused him to disintegrate so seriously. But I do know that within him was a man who cared deeply about the earth and about animals, who honored labor and learning, who championed progressive values and believed that we all deserved dignity and respect, even if he himself didn’t always treat others as he should have. He loved me as deeply as he could love anyone in the world, and he was delighted and soothed by having met my baby girl. And as hard as my life has  been at times, I am still grateful that he and my mother gave this life to me, in all of its painful, scary, magical, beautiful glory.

For all his many faults, my father helped to teach me to love nature, wordplay, movies and pickles and storytelling. He helped me to always hold a place in my heart for those who falter, who fail and who are too afraid to reach out for help. He helped me to see why some people self-medicate and don’t communicate with those whom they love most in the world, even when they want to. Through his failures I learned to be more careful about judging those who screw up, to have more respect for those who live on government assistance of one sort or another, and to have sympathy for those who come back from military service plagued with violent thoughts and dangerous tempers. Even when such people disappoint or scare or frustrate me, I can usually remember that underneath it all, they are just fragile people with fears, troubles and pains I can’t understand that cause them to do harm when they want to be helpful, and to break things when they want to build them.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thanks for giving me life.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.

I Don’t Care Much

Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:

I don’t care much
Go or stay
I don’t care very much
Either way
Hearts grow hard
On a windy street
Lips grow cold
With the rent to meet
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.

When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more  quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.

After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.

Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.

I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.

The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.

The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”

The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998;  the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.

Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.

Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:

Words sound false
When your coat’s too thin
Feet don’t waltz
When the roof caves in
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

Another beautiful song about streetwalkers is Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” which was considered bordering on scandalous when it was introduced in the musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway in 1930. There are many fine versions of this song; the Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday versions are classics. My own favorite is the simple version recorded by Elvis Costello with nothing more than an acoustic guitar early in his career. The song is sung to passersby as a come-on, much as flower sellers or strawberry sellers used to hawk their wares:

Love for sale,
Appetizing young love for sale.
Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that’s only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who’s prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:

Let the poets pipe of love
in their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I’ve been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love.

During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.

Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by  Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:

I walk along the street of sorrow
The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette
Can take a kiss without regret
So they forget their broken dreams
You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow
When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and gigolette
Wake up to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams

Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.

It may seem contrarian of me to write about the darker, sadder side of love and desire just in time for Valentine’s Day, but so many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love over the Valentine’s Day weekend, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Skip the new film about the sadist whose stalking, assault and abuse of a young virgin are painted as “romantic” by a passion-starved populace. Instead, drown your sorrows in a few of these songs about the darker side of love, and then get up, go out and be the loving, kind and openhearted sort of person you’re looking for. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love long after we ourselves are gone. Enjoy these angst-filled musical gems, but don’t let yourself become jaded. Be your best self and keep loving.

How Normal is “Normal” Drinking?

Drink

Image source: Washington Post/Wonkblog, “Paying the Tab” by Philip J. Cook

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 9.8% of all U.S. deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 to excessive drinking, and alcohol is involved in 5% of all U.S. deaths of people under the age of 21. the U.S. alcohol-consumption average is 556 drinks per year (under 11 drinks per week, or 1-1/2 drinks per day), those figures are misleading. Almost 30% of the U.S. population never touches alcohol, and another 30% only drinks on special occasions—once every two weeks at most. That means the other 40% of the population is downing all that liquor.

While the number of alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) in the U.S. is lower than rates across most of Europe and in much of Central and South America, it is significantly higher than the rate of AADs reported by the United Kingdom and Ireland, despite the high incidence of binge drinking in the UK. This is likely to reflect a difference in the definitions of “alcohol-related” deaths among nations. While rates of binge-drinking vary widely across the U.S., the overall prevalence of binge-drinking among U.S. adults in 2011 was 18.4%. Britain’s National Health Service estimates that over 50% of Britons binge-drink regularly, though official estimates are in the 28% range. In Ireland binge-drinking is a weekly event for 21.1% of the population, and 39% engage in it at least once a month according to official estimates, but underreporting of alcohol use is standard and expected in self-reported surveys. One would expect the number of AADs in these countries to similar to or greater than those in the U.S., but their definitions may vary from that of the CDC, which says, “These deaths were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, and health effects from consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and motor vehicle crashes.”

While many people have a genetic predisposition to become alcoholics,  the amount of liquor people consume is strongly influenced by social situations and peer behavior: people tend to see their friends’ behavior as the norm and assume that consuming anything less than their most inebriated friends makes them moderate drinkers. According to the CDC, heavy drinking constitutes 8 or more drinks per week for women (just over one drink per day) and 15 or more drinks per week for men (just over two drinks per day). Binge drinking corresponds to four or more drinks on a single occasion for women (which is equal to just under one bottle of wine) or five or more drinks on a single occasion for men (just under a six-pack of beer). Even moderate drinking (one drink per day for women, two for men) significantly increases risk of breast cancer as well as liver, colon and esophageal cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat. Moderate alcohol use also aggravates mental health disorders (including depression) and increases injury risk. About 70% of drinking-related deaths involved men.

Researchers note that the data on alcohol consumption used to calculate alcohol-attributable deaths  were based on self-reporting, which means it’s quite likely that U.S. alcohol consumers underestimated their consumption. Britain’s National Health Service says that people around the world tend to underestimate their drinking by about 40-60%. Also missing from the estimates were data on the deaths of former drinkers. Since former drinkers may have stopped drinking because of alcohol-related health issues that ultimately cause their deaths, it is likely that their absence from the study artificially lowers the number of deaths caused by alcohol, which brings the number of U.S. deaths alcohol-related deaths to well above one out of ten adults and one out of twenty minors.

Mary Lambert Has No Secrets

Seattle singer and poet Mary Lambert is best known for writing and singing the musical element of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s gay rights anthem “Same Love,” a beautiful paean to marriage equality overlaid with Macklemore’s spoken word performance. She performed the song alongside Madonna at this year’s Grammy awards ceremony while Queen Latifah presided over a mass gay wedding. Lambert has also recorded an expanded version of the song without Macklemore’s spoken voiceover called “She Keeps Me Warm.”

Before becoming a singer, Lambert had some success as a spoken-word artist and poetry-slam regular in the late 2000s, and much of her music has that same sort of coiled, hurting, on-the-verge-of-tears feeling to it that is an important element of the poetry slam tradition. Her latest hit song, “Secrets,” is significantly more bouncy than “Same Love,” but no less heartfelt. She begins by listing personal traits that others might be ashamed to own, including her bipolar disorder, her emotionalism, her weight and her lesbianism. But she then embraces these labels, refuses to hide who she is anymore and says she doesn’t care if the world knows what her secrets are. “So what?” she asks with repeated, cheerful defiance. It’s such a positive, openhearted celebration of self-acceptance and tolerance. Shame? Self-loathing? Denial? We’re so over it.

U2: The Most Popular Unpopular Band in the World

U2 teens

The teenagers who formed U2 in 1976: Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Bono (then Paul Hewson), The Edge (then David Evans)

I’m rolling my eyes over the recent international Internet brouhaha over the free download of U2’s latest album “Songs of Innocence” to half a billion iPhone users. People are spewing such torrents of venomous virtual spittle in the direction of both U2 and Apple that one would think Apple had automatically deducted $100 from everyone’s iTunes account or forced a computer virus onto us all to destroy our iPhone software instead of providing millions with a musical gift created by one of the most popular musical groups on earth. I find this manufactured outrage ridiculous and feel embarrassment for the complainers. It’s like finding a magazine you didn’t order in your mailbox or a free box of cookies in your grocery bag—would you complain? Honestly, getting those free gifts would be worse—if you don’t want them, they waste resources, where as digital downloads need only be ignored or erased if they don’t strike your fancy: no calories, no wasted paper, just an intended treat that you can leave alone if it doesn’t bring you pleasure. In most cases, wouldn’t you be delighted to get a little something for nothing that you could sample and perhaps even enjoy?

New Yorker Cartoon of the Day Sept 16

The New Yorker’s Cartoon of the Day, September 16, 2014

Nobody would call this U2’s finest album, but it’s not a flaming pile of garbage, either, and critical response to the actual music is generally positive. It doesn’t have the urgency, intensity, pathos or power of their best work, but some of the songs (“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “Raised by Wolves”) are catchy, pleasant enough and have some of the satisfying, pleasing style and characteristic sounds that have helped U2 sell over 150 million albums worldwide and won them 22 Grammy awards. Bono says they returned to the music of their youth for inspiration. “Songs of Innocence” is a nostalgic look back by the band toward their early years, and its title is an apt reference to a book by the great mystical Romantic poet and artist William Blake. “I found my voice through Joey Ramone,” Bono said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “because I wasn’t the obvious punk-rock singer, or even rock singer. I sang like a girl — which I’m into now, but when I was 17 or 18, I wasn’t sure. And I heard Joey Ramone, who sang like a girl, and that was my way in.”

Yet growing legions seem to be taking great delight in deriding the immensely popular band for, well, everything. But U2 has always had detractors who turned up their noses at their religious, political or social views; hate Bono’s glasses; find the band’s latest tunes derivative; mock Bono’s passionate squawks at the top of his register; find Bono’s warm baritone register pompous; make fun of the Edge’s hidden hairline; thought the band was too rebellious; think the band is too bourgeois; hate them for being too popular; hate them for not supporting the pet cause of the moment; hate them for supporting pet causes too loudly, et cetera, et cetera.

So why the anger at Apple over a surprise gift? Some complain that their privacy was invaded when Apple downloaded content to their phones. (Such silliness; you users agreed to downloads from Apple when you bought your coveted iPhones, and you each got a free present—poor you.) Others are angered because they think that giving away an album for free says somehow that music is worthless and undercuts the value of all downloaded music everywhere. But U2 was paid for their music, just directly by Apple instead of by iPhone owners. Apple and U2 certainly didn’t think the music was worthless—Tim Cook and U2 were proud and excited and felt that they were offering something of great value that would bring people joy. And people did check it out: 33 million users listened to the album in just the first six days after its release. Yet some complained that Apple chose to feature a 38-year-old band whose best years are likely behind them instead of giving a big boost to the career of a new group that hasn’t already earned over a billion dollars in sales of albums and concert tickets. (Pharrell Williams was mentioned in some quarters, but after writing and performing on “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky” and “Happy” among other big hits over the past 18 months, hasn’t Pharrell received plenty of attention on his own?)  Apple was trying to share music by a band that already had a huge following, something that many people have shown a great interest in, a band with millions of fans who might otherwise have to shell out good money to buy their latest album, which would have sold respectably had it been sold on iTunes instead of given away. They specifically wanted to feature a really big band because it has a really big fan base, so more people would likely find it a gift of greater value. Furthermore, U2 has a long history of association with the iPod and iTunes. There was even a special U2 edition of the iPod sold in 2006. It seemed to Apple and U2 like a nice nod to their shared history. But thousands of iPhone owners are moaning as if Bono personally deleted Candy Crush Saga and all the contacts from their phones.

Most of the vituperation being shared online is aimed at the band itself, as if it had sent out boxes filled with live snakes instead of agreeing to share its music with vast numbers of listeners, something nearly every band in the world would have been happy to do if given the chance. Why be angry with a group of popular and talented musical artists for trying to widen their reach at no cost to fans or potential fans? The indignation and U2-hatred filling the ether over mass free distribution of art seems to me to be the folly of spoiled owners of luxury goods who are in a mad hurry to find something to rip apart.

To be fair to U2’s detractors, I haven’t owned a new U2 album since I was given “The Joshua Tree” in 1987. While that album was a massive hit, garnering accolades, rave reviews and endless awards, it was never very popular with me. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t have the driving, intense fire I had loved in their earlier albums, and from then onward I haven’t followed them very carefully, though their radio ubiquity has meant that I was familiar with all their big hits. I’ve liked most of them well enough. But they didn’t move me like the earlier albums did. By the time U2’s members became international superstars with “The Joshua Tree,” I had been a fan for a long time, listening frequently and with great pleasure to their album “Boy” from 1980 and “War” from 1983. I loved the raw, fresh intensity of their earliest albums, which sounded like no one else’s. Bono’s voice had an urgent power, a ringing, plaintive quality that forced you to listen to it and made you want to know the story behind each lyric. Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums had the precision of a military cadence at times mixed with stunning syncopation. The Edge played with shimmering waves of reverb, his mesmerizing six-note arpeggios washing over each other as they echoed, crashing into each other like waves. Adam Clayton‘s ominous bass lines on songs like “New Year’s Day” grounded all the tenor wailing, squealing guitar and rat-a-tat snare drums that floated above it.

war

U2’s 1983 album “War,” which features the protest song masterpiece “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

The group channelled the Angry Young Man energy that was washing over New Wave and Punk at the time via groups like The Ramones and The Clash and singer-songwriters Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, and they spun it in their own utterly distinctive way.

By far their greatest song to me, the one that breaks my heart, is “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The opening track from their 1983 album “War,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” began with a syncopated, militaristic drumbeat. To get this sound, drummer Larry Mullen did his drumwork at the base of a staircase to produce more natural reverberation in the stairwell. The driving, marching cadence was soon joined by The Edge’s strange banshee guitar howls and piercing electric violin by guest artist Steve Wickham. Then came the plaintive, questioning voice of young Paul Hewson, by then known as Bono Vox (“good voice”) and later just as Bono, asking, demanding, pleading for an end to the brutal  violence and terrorist acts that were then tearing Ireland apart. The song was inspired by the sectarian and nationalist conflict based in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. Now often referred to as the Northern Ireland Conflict, The Troubles heated up and caused enormous enmity among various British, Northern Irish and Republic of Ireland factions from the late 1960s until the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998, and sporadic violence continued afterward despite the official end of the conflict. Terrorist bombings were all too common during this period, and the massive number of closed-circuit video cameras throughout London today are in part the legacy of British efforts to stamp out paramilitary terrorist attacks on London’s popular public gathering places by those who resented what they considered illegitimate rule by Britain over Northern Ireland. Brutality by government forces toward protesters inspired great hatred and many terrorist events and acts of resistance across ethnic, national and political lines. More than 3,600 people were killed during the conflict.

The U2 song is primarily a response to the “Bloody Sunday” incident in Derry, Northern Ireland (known to the British as Londonderry), in which British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders who protested imprisonment without trial. The band said that the song was in response to sectarian violence in general, and they were careful to emphasize that the song was not a rebel song, took no political stance and did not advocate for either side. U2 was anxious to discourage people from hardening their attitudes based on political lines. They hoped to remind people to consider the humanity of all involved and to put treasuring human life above treasuring political philosophy. In concert, Bono has often introduced the song by waving and planting a white flag, the symbol of an end to hostilities and violence. The song became one of their signature tunes, and is among their most beloved songs and most frequently performed concert tunes. Rolling Stone rates it 272nd on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

None of the tracks from “Songs of Innocence” is likely to make it onto anyone’s list of 500 greatest songs, but the album doesn’t need to be a milestone in music history to be a worthy effort. And while the members of U2 may be rich and famous and powerful enough to inspire resentment and jealousy from those less fortunate, they are still intensely competitive, creative, talented people whose hunger to perform and share their music has kept them touring and recording for nearly 40 years. They have worked hard and thrilled millions to earn their success; why denigrate them for wanting to continue to do what they love so much and have done so well? I don’t see Paul McCartney being thrown to the dogs for continuing to make albums full of pleasant but certainly not earth-shattering songs sung in a voice well past its prime; why can we not extend the same appreciation to a group of performers who are still creating lovely works that a huge percentage of the world’s population just received as free gifts and many will enjoy? Why not thank the gift horse that has provided us with beauty for all of these years instead of kicking it in the shins?

LauraGrey.com: A Fresh Start

Cuppa

With help from my crack web design team (thanks, Jeff and Lily!) I’m relaunching LauraGrey.com with a new look and new functionality. Now you’ll be able to find my essays, galleries of my artworks and links to interesting videos all in one place instead of going from one site to another. I’m reintroducing the site by including some essays from my blog’s archives; they’ve all been revised and include fresh new links. You’ll also find highlights from my previous online art galleries as well as new images of my recent paintings and assemblages. I look forward to sharing new content with you soon. Enjoy!

“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…”
“It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince