Tag Archives: Music

Dylan: The Man Who Knows Which Way the Wind Blows

“Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows”

—From “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor folksinging musical legend Bob Dylan with a Nobel Prize in Literature is inspired.

One of history’s most influential songwriters and lyricists,  Bob Dylan has meandered through the musical disciplines of folk and protest songs, blues, pop and rock and come out the other end with his own amalgam of raw, bleating authenticity, intimacy, cynicism and wordplay. It’s hard to think of a voice that has threaded its way into the world’s consciousness more powerfully over the past half century.

The Nobel Committee has long sought out fresh voices that speak to the human condition in original and insightful ways. In past years the committee has honored writers who have explored enduring topics including folk tales, race and feminism, violence, poverty, segregation and myth through prose, poetry, reportage and social criticism. This year marks the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to a musician for his lyrical output. Since the prize was established in 1901, the Nobel Committee has sought to celebrate voices that express eternal conflicts, awaken minds and deepen compassion, and the work of Bob Dylan encompasses all of these themes.

Dylan’s voice was the urgent social conscience of the 1960s. The stripped-down simplicity of his musical messages was disarming, yet he convinced the world to recognize folk as a sophisticated medium and a driving social force. With his storytelling, Dylan altered the way we think and hear, and in so doing he changed the world.

 

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams

Jessica

[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.

Sly and Sardonic Lounge-Noir Jazz

While going through my old CDs this week I came across a fun album from 1998 by New York-based jazz group Dave’s True Story called Sex Without Bodies. The group, which described itself as a “lounge-noir band,” morphed a bit over time but was always anchored by writer/composer/guitarist David Cantor and singer Kelly Flint. They played jazz with a cool Greenwich Village underground jazz-club vibe: spare, dry and witty. Flint’s jaded vocals and Cantor’s sardonic lyrics bring a smoky edge to their songs.

Sex Without Bodies starts with the cynical anti-love song “Spasm,” which was featured in an episode of Breaking Bad:

Look at my lips
They’re just dying to taste you
Look at my teeth
They’re just aching to bite
But as for my heart
It’s a big empty chasm
‘Cause this ain’t the real thing
It’s just a spasm

The characters Kelly Flint inhabits are droll and blasé, but they’re relaxed enough that the group’s music isn’t so much dark as overcast. An hour spent with Dave’s True Story is like an hour  in an underground bar quaffing excellent cocktails with a good-smelling man who sports precise facial hair and offers to show you his etchings.

Four songs into the album is my favorite of their tunes, “I’ll Never Read Trollope Again,” the story of an avid reader of fiction whose favorite author is Victorian writer Anthony Trollope:

I was sitting in a quaint cafe
With a favorite tome and some cafe au lait
But my luck ran out when you came my way
Now I’ll never read Trollope again

You spied the cover as you slithered near
And said “The 1800s—that’s my favorite year.”
And then you sat right down and now I fear
That I’ll never read Trollope again

Near the end of their album is a cover version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song which perfectly matches their louche, ironic yet somehow upbeat manner. Despite its cynical heart, the album is not a downer. Turn down the lights, pour yourself an artisanal something-or-other and see what you think of it.

They’re All The Same

Here’s another stylish and catchy French-language pop hit from Belgian singing star Stromae, whose moniker comes from switching the syllables in the word “maestro.” All of Stromae’s videos are little works of art. Earlier this year I shared his beautiful and moving video “Papaoutai,” which I first saw on French TV when visiting Paris last year.  “Tous Les Mêmes” (“They’re All the Same”) was another number-one hit in France and Belgium recently, and it mixes delicious Latin rhythms, a hip-hop sensibility, world-weary cynical lyrics about gender stereotyping and fun visuals.

Knocked Out by Whiplash

Whiplash Close

J. K. Simmons (left) and Miles Teller in Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash

On rare and special occasions, I will walk out of a movie theater quivering with excitement about something I’ve just seen, my heart racing and my synapses tingling as my hands fumble for my cell phone, so anxious am I to call someone right away to rave about a cinematic work of art. I’ve often seen performances that moved me and thrilled me, but when a whole film is crafted with power, tension, exceptional acting and directing, a fine script, masterful editing and a thrilling story arc, I walk away transported and inspired. I felt that way after seeing modern classics like The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain, and this week I felt that kind of thrill after seeing the new indie film Whiplash, which stars Miles Teller as a promising young jazz drummer and J. K. Simmons as his sadistic mentor and tormentor.

Whiplash was originally mounted as an 18-minute short film written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, which he presented to great acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in hopes of attracting enough funding to make it into a full-length film. The gambit worked, and the full feature film was created with a tiny $3.3 million budget and went on to win 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s top audience and grand jury awards. I must warn you, it starts out at a heart-palpitation-inducing level of energy and anxiety and only builds from there. My pulse was still pounding 20 minutes after the film ended—watching it is a bit like having a 107-minute anxiety attack, so don’t expect a light evening at the movies. The film editing by Tom Cross was outstanding—there was power, energy and intensity in every moment thanks to the way Cross and director Chazelle framed and cut each scene. The cinematography by Sharone Meir was also evocative, sometimes claustrophobically close, and together Cross, Meir and Chazelle built the energy levels during the practice and performance scenes to almost painful heights.

Chazelle was himself a jazz drummer in high school, where he had an intense music teacher who was the inspiration for the character of the hectoring, threatening music conservatory jazz band leader played with astonishing power by J. K. Simmons in Whiplash. Miles Teller, who impressed critics with his performances in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, was himself a talented, self-taught rock drummer in high school, but to play the driven, obsessive, arrogant young jazz drummer in Whiplash, the normally lighthearted, enthusiastic Teller had to learn the very different jazz drumming style. He became proficient enough to make audiences believe that his character Andrew Neyman might just be a prodigious, one-of-a-kind talent, a Buddy Rich for the new millennium. His drumming scenes are riveting, and as we watch him wince, writhe, sweat and even bleed all over his drums, we know we are watching a dangerous but exciting metamorphosis. That really is Teller playing, too, though performances were teased out of multiple takes and edited seamlessly by editor Tom Cross. For several years Hollywood insiders have touted Teller as one of the young actors to watch, and he will soon be part of a major franchise as he’s been given the role of Mr. Fantastic in the new Fantastic Four reboot. He’s a fine actor, and in Whiplash he also gave the most thrilling drum solo performance I’ve ever seen on film.

Whiplash

This film spoke to me with particular power because I myself had an intense, bullying, sometimes violent mentor as my first choir director when I was a child. I attended an elementary school famous for its excellent choir, and couldn’t wait till I got to fourth grade so I could audition. I had been steeped in music my whole short life, attending my mother’s voice lessons with her, listening to her sing and play piano while I took my baths each night, borrowing records from the library to enjoy with her, sitting in the orchestra pit with my mom while she accompanied local musical productions on the piano and turning the pages when she played and sang at weddings. My mother’s friend Owen Goldsmith was not only a choir director but also a composer and arranger, and Mom was the first person to play and sing many of his compositions, so I would sit on the floor of his home drawing or enjoying his books of Addams Family cartoons while the two of them made music late into the night. I sang at the piano with my mother most evenings from the time I was two till I went to college, and during all my visits home until she died years later. When we got together she sang harmony, I sang the melody, and we sang everything from show tunes to European art songs, folk songs to pop songs, hymns to novelty hits. When I was 13 she married a violinist and conductor, and yet more music and musicians came into our lives, including a wonderful evening spent with singer Marni Nixon in our home the night before she sang with my stepfather’s orchestra.

When I auditioned for the choir, the tall, trim, imposingly grim-faced Mr. Kerr had me sing a few intervals and melodies while he sat at the piano. He showed no emotion but, despite his taciturnity, he was pleased with me. I was invited to join both the primary and the honor choirs. Within minutes of my arrival at the first rehearsal, it was clear that I was in for more than I had bargained for.

Mr. Kerr ran the choirs in his spare time; it was an unpaid position but one he cherished. He was primarily a fifth grade teacher famous for his friend Roscoe, a wooden paddle which he was happy to use on the bottoms of children who displeased him. He made a show of adding notches to Roscoe each time he hit a child with it. By the 1970s, he had to secure the permission of parents before he could smack their kids, but several of the “difficult” kids in my class (including a deaf boy with ADHD) were regularly smacked while I was in his fifth-grade class.

Mr. Kerr was no less harsh in his responses to any failure by choir members to follow his strict and unwavering laws. If a child showed up late to a rehearsal for any reason, he was not allowed in. The doors were locked and he could not enter. If someone missed more than two rehearsals, she was dismissed from the choir, end of story. When  people talked back, they were yanked out of place by a red-faced, bug-eyed, looming Mr. Kerr, dressed down completely and were booted out of the choir.

Discipline was harsh and consistent and we lived in constant fear of his displeasure. But he was an exceptional musical director whose singing and performance instruction still informs my performances today. There was no excuse for being sharp or flat, for missing an entrance or ending a phrase sloppily. Every eye was on him at every moment. We all stopped at exactly the right moment, held our carefully shaped vowels and only cut them off with consonants at the very last second. Breath was properly supported and there was no whining nasality, there was no swooping up to notes, and there were no “blatty” broad vowels. Phrases were meant to be held no matter how hard it was to keep them going; there were no haphazard ragged breaths. If breaths needed to be staggered, he would tell us exactly how to stagger them through each section so there were never too many people breathing at the same time, and he knew when anyone, anywhere had made an error. Any child taking a breath in the middle of a word risked sudden death.

There were no fidgety hands or wandering eyes, no looking out at the audience, no breaking focus or slacking off on energy until the end of the song when he signaled to us that we could at last stand at ease. Every child wore a spotless uniform of cornflower blue skirts and white blouses for the girls and matching light blue blazers and black slacks for the boys. Each right hand grasped the matching left thumb and our hands were held in front of us in this folded position whenever we were on the risers. Knees were slightly bent so that we didn’t lock them and faint for lack of enough oxygen flowing throughout our bodies and to our brains—usually. When someone fainted during a performance, the show went on.

We sang intricate scat-phrased versions of Bach bourrées, learned many Latin hymns and movements from various major composers’ Masses, a score of spirituals, folk and holiday songs, and the occasional pop song. Each song was explained to us carefully; we had to think about what we were singing and why, what each inflection meant, what each phrase called for in order to get the point across. When we sang “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass” our plaintive cry nearly made us weep; sometimes we even made Mr. Kerr cry. When we sang in Latin or Hebrew, he made sure we knew what every word meant. When we sang folk songs or spirituals, Mr. Kerr put them in context and explained what place they had in the lives of those who had written and sung them. And yes, most of the songs we sang in this public school choir had religious overtones, but that was never questioned in the 1970s.

We were the top children’s choir in our division and we won gold medals and blue ribbons. We sang on the radio and on local television. I was the only soloist during the three years I was in the choir, and sat with my family on Christmas morning as we listened to me sing over my aunt’s stereo speakers. It was exciting and shocking to hear myself on the air, but Mr. Kerr wasn’t about to let it go to my head.

He was determined not to let any favoritism show; I may have been given a solo and permission to join the choir early, but I was not to be given any praise or encouragement beyond that. When out of fear I once responded to his telling me that he wanted me to sing another solo with a demurral, he said fine, no more solos ever. He never offered me another. He saw what I thought was a one-time refusal to sing due to nerves as a challenge to him and as an example of my going against his directive: he was my captain and I had refused a direct order, and now I was a bad example for the troops.

I worked so hard for him, but it was never enough. I was deathly afraid of letting down my teachers or my mother, herself a teacher in the same school district, so when I was in his fifth grade class as well as in choir, I made sure my grades were better than anyone else’s. Yet he dismissed my efforts and instead praised my closest academic rival, Ricky, when he spoke to my mother during a parent-teacher conference. He spoke admiringly of what a boy’s boy Ricky was, how he wasn’t a “pantywaist” like other boys. My mother came home disgusted and offered to move me out of his class. I begged her not to; I wanted to be in his choir no matter what, and I’d live through the humiliation and anxiety I felt every day in his class rather than have him look down on me for pulling out from under his iron thumb.

Mr. Kerr was an angry martinet, but he knew how to get the sound he wanted from his choir. He knew how to make us pay attention, how to make us understand what we were doing and why, how to keep our energy up and finally how to lead us to give captivating performances.

I still resent him for reducing children to tears, screaming at us and calling us names, for hitting us and humiliating us. It was wrong and damaging. But when I consider the lessons I learned from him about how to put a song across, how to follow direction, how to support a tone and project it, and how to work with a large group as if we were one entity—he was able to teach these skills like nobody else I have ever seen. Partly we worked as hard as we did out of fear, it’s true, but mostly I believe it was because of the intensity of his focus, his dedication, and his teary-eyed ecstatic face when we performed as he knew we could. I hated his methods and don’t know whether on the whole he did enough good with his amazing choirs to balance out the harm he did to so many fifth graders cringing under his tutelage. But all the kids I knew who studied music under him knew what it was to be real musicians. His methods were disturbing and I think often immoral, but there was no questioning the loyalty or the power of his choirs.

Director Chazelle takes the stereotype of the brutal directorial dictator further than my own choir director ever did, but the questions he makes us ask ourselves will be familiar to anyone whose child is involved in a rigorous, competitive activity. Whiplash requires that we consider whether the delirious joy of creating a masterpiece that pushes an artist beyond his previous limits justifies the monomaniacal arrogance, drive and willingness to risk everything it may take in order for that young person to achieve mastery. What are the acceptable limits to abuse, debasement and ego destruction of another in the service of pushing someone beyond all understood boundaries and into a whole new realm? Can the dehumanizing pain and occasional complete ego destruction that come with breaking someone down in hopes of driving him to new heights ever be justified? How much sacrifice, humiliation and defeat should we allow anyone, let alone a very young person, to experience in order to push the limits of creation or expression or athletic prowess?

Teller is the ostensible star of this film, but the greatest thrill of it comes from the tension between himself and his co-star J. K. Simmons, who is mesmerizing and horrifying as the charismatic band leader Terrence Fletcher. He draws young Andrew in, gives him hope and builds up his ego, and then systematically dehumanizes his young protégé, giving just enough encouragement to mess with the young man’s mind before again dragging him through Hell. This disturbing character’s occasional bursts of warmth and insight and his touches of vulnerability make him one of the great villains of cinema—it’s that touch of humanity in the monster that makes him even more frightening, because then we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in him. Simmons is already on the year’s short list of shoo-ins for an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, so fine is this performance and so crucial is it to the arc and power of the story.

But it is Teller who must convince us that he has the audacity, sheer talent and burning ambition to make stardom a possibility. His face is wonderfully expressive as he shows us the gamut of emotion from fear and insecurity to modest pride to rage to shame. Teller was in a life-threatening car crash in 2007 that left him with many noticeable scars on his face and neck, scars that were not covered up for this film, and which give him a raw, real, vulnerable quality that helps to balance the moments of extreme arrogance that his character must burrow into in order to do what he has to do, but which also alienates those with whom he craves connection.

In interviews, J. K. Simmons and Teller come across as bright, warm, incredibly likeable actors, and Simmons says they had a great chemistry on the set that made it easier for them to get through the harrowing scenes in which Simmons was abusing Teller. Teller has a light-heartedness that allowed him to let all the abuse roll off his back, and Simmons is a warm, funny, modest man whose strong features and booming voice belie the affable fellow underneath. He is used to playing supporting roles and is skilled at making his costars look good. He had a long career as a stage actor and singer. Simmons played Benny Southstreet in the 1992 stage revival of Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher, which I was fortunate enough to see live on Broadway that year. He has a fine singing voice, which he demonstrated during an episode in which he played neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in the prison-based television show Oz. Simmons is familiar for roles such as the father in the film Juno and as the spokesman in the Farmers Insurance ads. He’s a regular on the TV series The Closer, he plays newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and is the voice of Cave Johnson in the video game Portal 2. He only became a regular screen actor in his 40s after twenty years on the stage, and he credits Sidney Poitier, with whom he acted in one of his first film roles, for being a gracious and generous mentor to him.  Seattle area readers will enjoy learning that Simmons’ sister, Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, is a writing professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and is director of the  Community Literacy Program.

Whiplash is named for the Hank Levy jazz composition that, along with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” is at the musical center of the film. It is indeed a wild ride that threw my head back and made me dizzy. I can’t wait to see it again.

Taylor Swift: Deeper Than You Think

taylor

Recently I saw Taylor Swift interviewed on The Graham Norton Show, and she was charming and poised though she seemed a bit ditzy. She held her own, though, when John Cleese repeatedly and rudely interrupted her; she waited patiently as he totally derailed her interview and stole her segment after having had a whole segment of his own, and then she moved on with professionalism and courtesy. She has excellent manners, I thought.

The following day I heard an interview with her on NPR that showed evidence of the articulate, tactful young woman that I’d heard in previous interviews. I was impressed by her self-awareness and by her respect for and deep understanding of her primary audience demographic: teen and preteen girls. The interviewer said, “You have a huge platform among a very vulnerable, impressionable set of the population. And I wonder if you think about turning your lens outward, turning it away from the diary page, and sending a broader message to girls who would be really receptive to hearing about big ideas and the big world that’s outside. … Do you ever think about writing about other experiences, things that might turn girls away from themselves in a different way?”

Swift replied: “We are dealing with a huge self-esteem crisis. These girls are able to scroll pictures of the highlight reels of other people’s lives, and they’re stuck with the behind-the-scenes of their own lives. There’s nothing that’s gonna turn girls away from themselves at age 12. I think that it’s really important that I speak about things in interviews that I’m passionate about. I have brought feminism up in every single interview I’ve done because I think it’s important that a girl who’s 12 years old understands what that means and knows what it is to label yourself a feminist, knows what it is to be a woman in today’s society, in the workplace or in the media or perception. What you should accept from men, what you shouldn’t, and how to form your own opinion on that. I think the best thing I can do for them is continue to write songs that do make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel. Because, at that age — really at any age, but mostly that age — what can be so overwhelming is that you’re feeling so many things at the same time that it’s hard to actually understand what those emotions are, so it can turn to anxiety very quickly. I’m 24. I still don’t feel like it’s a priority for me to be cool, edgy, or sexy. When girls feel like they don’t fit into those three themes, which are so obnoxiously thrust upon them through the media, I think the best thing I can do for those girls is let them know that this is what my life looks like. I love my life. I’ve never ever felt edgy, cool, or sexy. Not one time. And that it’s not important for them to be those things.”

Impressive.

Uninsulated Wires Laid Bare: The Genius of Joni Mitchell

Joni

In 1993, Joni Mitchell painted an impressive self-portrait in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, with Joni wearing the same clothes, in the same position, and even with the bandaged ear shown in one of Van Gogh’s most famous self-portraits. The following year, she released an album with this self-portrait on the cover: Turbulent Indigo. The song of the same title is a dark, angry, stunning homage to Van Gogh. Bold strokes of surprising bass, the brooding undercurrents in Joni’s guitar playing and Wayne Shorter’s splashes of golden sax shimmer throughout the song, sparkling as Van Gogh’s yellows do against his swirls of indigo.

Even without lyrics it would be delicious to listen to, with the roiling darkness and the occasional splash of reedy sax, but the words are some of Joni’s best. She taunts the people who know Van Gogh only for his cheering sunflowers and golden wheatfields and who want a mindless, untortured, chirpy version of Van Gogh in their homes, an easy, breezy Vincent. She mocks those who can afford to collect him now, who have his work in their homes and feel as if they’re somehow close to him as a result, but who would have bolted their doors against the actual man, the depressive, angry, brooding Vincent who sometimes fell into bouts of insanity. In the final verse, she lets him speak:

“I’m a burning hearth,” he said”People see the smoke / But no one comes to warm themselves / Sloughing off a coat / And all my little landscapes / All my yellow afternoons / Stack up around this vacancy / Like dirty cups and spoons / No mercy Sweet Jesus! / No mercy from Turbulent Indigo.”

Some found her bold to paint herself into his most pained self-portrait and to allow herself to speak in “his” voice, as if she were equating her genius or her pain to his. The self-portrait is startling, but well-executed and witty. The song is evidence that she is a genius in her own right. Those who only paid attention to Joni when she had big radio hits in the 1960s and early 1970s but found her too hard to follow during her later, jazz-infused period missed out on a whole world of tastiness. The reedy soprano of her “Blue” album (sometimes touching, sometimes painful for me to listen to) and her marvelous 1974 album “Court and Spark” has mellowed over the years into a burnished, glowing alto. I can hear the cigarettes in her voice, which saddens me, but I do love the richness and warmth of the register she slid slowly into over the years like a hot, perfumed bath.

Her lyrics are intricate, dark and sometimes upsetting, but they’re true poetry, not just singsongy filler like so many songwriters’ words. Some work better for me than others; several songs on the “Turbulent Indigo” album have lyrics that feel forced in places (such as “You Were Not to Blame” in which she lashes out at men who abuse women), while one, co-written with her old friend David Crosby, is a real gem: “Yvette in English.” The tune and words are lyrical and lovely, but the lyrics are especially captivating and poetic. Mitchell and Crosby write of a “wary little stray,” a woman who slips into a Paris café and catches the eye of a man who falls for her instantly, taken by her fragility, her insecurity and the delight of dancing with her. We feel his sadness at having her leave him by a “bony bridge between left and right,” one of the lovely, slender bridges that cross the Seine between the left and right banks. The words and images of this song, the rhythms of Mitchell’s guitar, and again, Wayne Shorter’s ethereal sax floating above it all, make it a song I can rarely listen to without listening to it again, immediately afterward, because I so hate hearing it end. A little taste of it:

“Burgundy nocturne tips and spills / They trot along nicely in the spreading stain / New chills, new thrills / For the old uphill battle / How did he wind up here again? / Walking and talking / Touched and scared / Uninsulated wires left bare / Yvette in English going, / ‘Please have this / Little bit of instant bliss.'”

Mitchell writes movingly, painfully, hauntingly about depression and loss. She can write with humor and joy and raw power, too, but the deep understanding she has of difficulty and vulnerability, of those uninsulated wires laid bare, and the way she underscores them with that slightly ravaged voice, those amazing tunings and chord voicings on her guitar, the surprising rhythms, the way she leaves us hanging with unresolved lyrics or chords at the end of a line—she’s so much more than the folkie of “Both Sides Now” or the esoteric jazz fan of her Mingus years.

Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, and Night Ride Home from 1991 are perhaps my favorites of all her albums. Wild Things Run Fast was a revelation to me after hearing the sometimes screechy, folky Joni of the 1960s. It was an delightful, sometimes funny, sometimes pensive mix of rock and jazz and pop, not what I expected at all. I’ve listened to it so many times and it still satisfies. Night Ride Home is an album I can listen to endlessly without tiring of it, especially “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free),” a surprising song about the relationship between Mary Magdalen and Jesus; “Cherokee Louise,” about having a best friend from the wrong side of the tracks who lives a life in turmoil; and the lilting, contented “Night Ride Home,” about the joy of riding through a dark night with a lover over the open road, with the thrumming of crickets all around. When I haven’t heard the rolling, insistent guitar that ripples through “Passion Play” for a few months and I listen to it once more, I get chills all over again.

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

With the Lights Out It’s Less Dangerous

NirvanaPhotos

Above: Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yay!

When Nirvana released the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, it helped make them into rock gods. Ironic, isn’t it, since the song was Kurt Cobain’s dig at mainstream culture. According to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was all about: the mass mentality of conformity.” But the song, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked ninth in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, was too catchy, sexy, moody, hard to understand, hard-edged, frayed and nearly perfect to escape the clutches of the mainstream. Its hard-to-decipher lyrics were skewered by Weird Al Yankovic in his parody, “Smells Like Nirvana,” which featured lines like:

What is this song all about?
Can’t figure any lyrics out
How do the words to it go?
I wish you’d tell me, I don’t know

In a 1994 MTV interview, Kurt Cobain said of the parody, “Oh, I laughed my butt off. I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. He has some good people working for him. . . . They really know how to reproduce things to the T. He had the exact same setup. It’s the same video with him in it. It’s great.”

For an entertaining roundup of horrible cover versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you must check out April Winchell’s awesome multimedia site full of free audio clips that will keep you listening and chuckling in amused horror for hours, long after you’ve exhausted the “Teen Spirit” covers in polka, disco, Paul Anka and Gregorian chant versions. Winchell (daughter of the late ventriloquist Paul Winchell, who was also the voice of Tigger for Disney for many years) has a radio show in Los Angeles and has put together a very funny Web site complete with the best collection of odd aural pleasures I’ve found online: corporate training tapes, celebrities like Leonard Nimoy and Farrah Fawcett singing (they really shouldn’t), Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven,” Abba song covers in Hindi, Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line” in German,  a whole section devoted to terrifying Christian recordings—you name it.

The original “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a perfect blending of droning, captivating, chant-like repetition; buzzing power chords; barely understandable but still compelling lyrics and ragged-voiced angst. It encapsulates suffering, cynicism, dry humor and teen alienation. It felt fresh 15 years ago, and it still sounds fresh and raw today, despite being named the Most Played Video on MTV Europe in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records. Even though it’s one second over five minutes long, it doesn’t feel drawn out; its pacing, its bridges, even its repetition make it somehow stronger rather than monotonous. The layering of instruments makes for a great, pulsing wash of sound, but within the layers are subtleties, long-held and echoing guitar notes, a threatening bass line, and Cobain’s growling voice matching the bending notes and jagged timbre of the instruments around him, so his voice becomes an instrument to match them. The melding of his own voice and the growling guitar when he says “Yay!” is spookily satisfying, and gave me the same little shiver after the hundredth listen that it gave me the first time.

While the music on Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind,” from which “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes, is classified as grunge, it’s really just a polished, pure and more accessible form of punk, slowed down enough to be grabbed and ridden on, but it channels the anarchic spirit of British punks like the Sex Pistols, whose seminal album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” probably inspired Cobain to name the Nirvana album “Nevermind” in their honor. (Some say it’s also a tribute to the Replacements song “Nevermind.”) Unlike American punk bands like the wonderful Ramones, whose screamingly fast-paced songs about sniffing glue and teenage lobotomy patients, punk rockers and beating on brats with baseball bats were essentially all in good, mindless fun, the Sex Pistols really were about anarchy, giving the finger to the establishment, protesting the moral bankruptcy of middle- and upper-class British twits, the monarchy and the conservative political leaders of the 1970s and 1980s. They were the real deal, and Cobain admired that twisted, angry, anarchic vibe.

That punk vibe was bent, reformed and polished into some of Nirvana’s best work, and their songs were musically inventive and attractively melodic enough to grab people who would never give straight punk a second thought while being honest enough to appeal to pure punks as well. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was essentially a crossover hit, and its success rather embarrassed Cobain, since it made him and Nirvana superstars beyond imagining and, it seems, beyond Cobain’s ability to handle the attention, the adulation, and being co-opted by the mainstream until he became a media darling largely against his will. His drug problems and ultimate suicide of course only fueled his legend and turned him into a mythic figure of alienated youth and artistic purity tarnished by too much interaction with the filthy mainstream, the same mainstream which his widow Courtney Love alternately woos and trashes.

So where does the title come from? Kurt Cobain dated Tobi Vail of the group Bikini Kill, she used Teen Spirit, a deodorant marketed to teen girls. Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall to imply that he was marked with his girlfriend’s scent, but Cobain didn’t realize the reference and thought he was being complimented on his spirit of youthful rebellion. Again, how ironic: his anti-mainstream screed also served as inadvertent advertising for a Colgate-Palmolive product aimed at the teen masses.

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Nirvana

The Wham of Sam: My Sammy Davis Jr. Ephiphany

Wham

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

A few months ago, I was doing a difficult job that lasted six weeks instead of the two I thought I’d signed on for. I was commuting about 10 hours a week (and I hate driving), and the job required intense focus on thousands of important details. I learned a lot, the people were kind and helpful, and the work they did was important, but I felt out of place, frustrated, and blue.

I tried reminding myself of all the things going right with the job: I was employed, working with good folks at an institution that improves people’s lives, making enough so that I didn’t have to work two jobs, and setting a good example for my daughter by showing that sometimes we do things we don’t enjoy in order to pay our dues, fulfill our obligations, be helpful, and earn a living. Of course, while my brain understood all this, my heart felt cranky and sad. I was frustrated that the talents I feel are the most valuable and worthy ones I have to offer weren’t being used to the extent I’d like to use them. And then I had my Sammy Davis Jr. epiphany.

To try to make the hours in stop-and-go traffic feel less gruesome, I realized I needed to find fresh and uplifting tunes. I love NPR (which recently featured an interview with Sammy’s daughter, Tracey, who discussed her new memoir of her father), but sometimes focusing on the latest events in Fallujah while stuck on a bridge for 30 minutes just feels too nasty and I need music. I rummaged through my CDs and found one I’d bought a few months back but hadn’t listened to much yet. It was a CD of songs performed by a man I must now admit I used to think of as one of the poster children of Vegas kitsch: Sammy Davis Jr. But the best part is the name of the album: “The Wham of Sam.

I must digress at this point. Are you already asking yourself, why would Laura buy Sammy CDs in the first place? Well, because I heard one of his songs in a store somewhere and was reminded what a fine voice and a great sense of expression, style, and warmth he had at his best moments. The many TV appearances he made during the 1960s and 1970s were so filled with Vegas schlock and corny overstylization that he was almost a self-parody by the time I started listening to music in earnest. He was doing campy, obvious, cool cat riffs during his showy performances on Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and The Tonight Show, and I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I’d loved his portrayal of Sportin’ Life in the film “Porgy and Bess” when I’d seen it on TV as a tiny kid, but I don’t think it’s been on TV since about 1970 so my memory is now faint, and I loved his performance as the Cheshire Cat singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” in a strange 1966 animated parody variation of “Alice in Wonderland.” His turn as groovy evangelist Big Daddy in “Sweet Charity” is a classic sixties moment that featured Sammy’s charismatic rendition of the song “The Rhythm of Life,” but somehow I forgot about that. The big hits he had when I was a kid, like “The Candy Man,” felt too cutesy and pat to me, and I dismissed him, with his goofy hipster patois and giant diamond rings, his membership in the Rat Pack, and his public support of Nixon was too bizarre. (I still shudder when I remember the much-publicized photo of Sammy’s adoring, awkward, full-body hug of Nixon.)

But when I heard him singing over the speakers at some chain store I thought, damn, no wonder this man was so popular. Listen to the feeling he puts into that line! What clear, clean enunciation! What sophisticated, tasty phrasing! So I swallowed my pride and hung out at a CD store listening station for a half hour, listening to selections from a number of his albums. I bought two, one of ballads and one of swingier songs. What a good move that was. But then I got distracted and hardly listened to them.

Anyway, back to my commute-hour epiphany. I popped “The Wham of Sam” into my CD player, and right there, boom, I was hooked with the first song, the star of the album, “Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The horns grabbed me immediately, and the energy, which starts out high, somehow continues to build with every measure of the song. The band arrangement by Marty Paich is fabulous, swingy in the style of Sinatra’s terrific “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” album (one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone–it was arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle).

“Lot of Livin’ to Do” is big and brassy and has something new going on at every turn, but the band never outshines Sammy, whose phrasing is exactly right. His syncopation is so sure and it builds right up to the payoff moments. He knows when to pull back a little and when to let it rip. The intonation and enunciation are beautiful, but beyond his technical chops, he works the lyrics just right. He’s thinking about what he’s saying, he means what he’s singing, and I believe every word. He was sizzling and I was thrilled, sitting right there in a traffic jam at 8:30 a.m., bouncing up and down in my seat.

I must have listened to that song six times in a row on the way into work. The words crept into my brain and Boom! I had a revelation. The words aren’t Shakespeare; they’re standard upbeat lyrics, and the song was originally written for the musical “Bye Bye, Birdie,” which is fun but not Sondheim, you know? But somehow, sung with that bravado and joy and excitement and underscored by that hot band, the lyrics spoke to me:

“… [T]here’s wine all ready for tasting / And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new / Gotta move ’cause time is a-wastin’ / There’s such a lot of livin’ to do. / There’s music to play, places to go and people to see / Everything for you and me / Life’s a ball if only you know it / And it’s all waiting for you / You’re alive, so come on and show it / There’s such a lot of living to do.”

I heard it, and I believed it. I figured, hey, this slight man had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a glass eye, grew up without his mom, had to deal with racism from day one, and had to perform in hotels that he was barred from sleeping in because of the color of his skin (until he became a big name and helped break the color barrier in show business). And man, did he love life. He ate it up and went right over the top, drinking and smoking and skirt-chasing too much, and hanging out with some unsavory folks, yes–but he also took a song like “Lush Life” and sang it like he’d lived it. Damn, he sang every song as if he lived it. And meant every word.

He brought fun and swing and life into everything he sang. Sometimes the hipster kitsch of it was too much for me, and sometimes the low-brow, I’m-gonna-please-everybody style of his later years felt like he’d dumbed-down his act, especially considering what sophistication he was capable of. His desire to please everybody and be up, up, up all the time cheapened his rep in the eyes of many of us, but the joy he brought to life, the beauty he found in it and made for others, and that devotion to wringing every drop from it reminded me how lucky I was and how many wonderful things are around for me to enjoy. I thought it seemed a sin to waste another day in disappointment that I’m not doing more exciting work, and I vowed I’d make good things happen, find them, make sure they’re a part of every day of mine, and every one of my daughter’s days, too. I figured if Sammy, who had so much garbage to contend with, could take his talent and shoot it off like fireworks, why can’t I take whatever gifts I have and make something fine and exciting of them, too? I may not be the dynamo Sammy was, but I don’t have his struggles either. And one doesn’t have to be a superstar to find something splendid in each day, or to make fine things happen.

So from that day forward I’ve reaffirmed my dedication to finding and doing good work, to making beauty, to learning something good and doing something kind each day, to being grateful for the opportunities to enjoy life more and to worry less about my dwindling savings (and how long it takes to find good jobs), and to writing regularly and with purpose. In a roundabout way, I have Sammy to thank for getting me off my tush and starting my  blog. The wham of Sam, indeed!