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Monthly Archives: November 2015

“It’s music you’ve never heard.”

It is this date in 1967, and a prizewinning poetess is listening to the radio.

Not the classical music she usually listens to, but pop songs. Ones that make her think of a particular person in whom she seems to be developing a romantic interest.

She doesn’t entirely warm to the songs — they “(bleat) like a goat,” in her words.

But their effect is strong enough to make her evoke images of teenage couples in parked cars (“everyone is in / a delight at this ardor”), and to end her poem with a sing-songy, childlike rhyme (the only rhyme of her own doing in the piece):

I am in a delight with you, Music Man / Your name is Dr. Y. My name is Anne.

To a pop geek, reading the untitled poem is a little like hearing Badfinger or Big Star: The work itself is a pleasure, but the tangled backstory makes it hard to enjoy.

The poetess, of course, is Anne Sexton. The poem — dated November 18, 1967 in The Complete Poems — would not see print until 1978, four years after Sexton’s death by her own hand.

And later allegations that Sexton had an affair with her psychotherapist in the 1960s (a subtext that leaks out of this poem at every corner) can make a reader cringe.

Perhaps this is an oversimplification too easily drawn — I’m good at those — but it seems from this distance like the deeply troubled Sexton needed the highest standard of professional treatment, and didn’t get it.

(Assuming this link works as well for you as for me, you can read the poem and come to your own conclusions about Sexton’s mood. The following poem in the Dr. Y series, dated December 4, 1967, makes mention of sperm and adultery and begins, “I am no longer at war with sin.”)

Being both a pop geek and an incurable fantasist, I of course tried to put myself at Sexton’s writing desk and recreate the diet of music that helped these besotted words reach paper.

It is charming to imagine a person bent over her blank paper, deep in thought, with pop radio in the background, both feeding her imagination and playing away ignored … but we’re looking at a well-known poet summoning the muse, not a teenage girl doing her homework.

I could turn the long-lost radio back on again, thanks to the ARSA database of local radio play charts, which includes airplay lists from mid-November 1967 for two major Boston Top 40 stations, WRKO 680 and WBZ 1030. Sexton lived and worked in Weston, Mass., Boston’s most affluent suburb, so it seems like a fair bet to think she was tuned in to the sounds of the city.

WBZ’s chart for the week ending Nov. 11 and WRKO’s chart for the week ending Nov. 23 are fairly similar.

Both feature Ray Charles’ version of “Yesterday” in mid-chart and heading up. Sexton paraphrased the song in her poem, and presumably, Brother Ray must have made an impression on her. He tended to have that effect.

The poem also quotes the Peggy Lee chestnut “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” which suggests Sexton’s radio was not exclusively tuned to pop stations. The ARSA database shows no record of anyone having a rock-era hit with the song, which was most recently and notably covered by Diana Krall.

The WBZ and WRKO charts, as charts tend to be, are thick with love songs; and one wonders whether Sexton thought of Dr. Y when she heard “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Daydream Believer,” “Please Love Me Forever,” “It Must Be Him,” “It’s You That I Need,” or a dozen other soundtracks to ardor, teenage or otherwise.

The charts also cough up a Sixties oddity: Victor Lundberg’s patriotic spoken-word hit, “An Open Letter To My Teenage Son,” leaped a remarkable 25 spots over the course of a week to claim No. 5 on the WBZ chart.

One would like to think the arrival of “An Open Letter” signaled the point in her writing sessions where Sexton stubbed out her cigarette, turned off the music, and went to cook dinner or pick up the kids.


This could be the night.

A night or two ago I got a sudden yen to hear the Modern Folk Quartet’s “This Could Be The Night,” a song I discovered during a long-ago VHS viewing of the classic ’60s concert movie The Big TNT Show.

A Phil Spector production, “This Could Be The Night” is one of those bubblegummy pure-pop songs that crosses my mental transom maybe once a year or every other year, and delights me every time it comes up.

It was a weird coincidence, then, when I checked Wikipedia’s list of recent deaths yesterday and saw listed Eddie Hoh, drummer for the Modern Folk Quartet.

I didn’t know anything about Hoh’s career; from Wiki’s telling, he was an active session drummer with an extensive list of credits until a point in the early ’70s when he strung himself out and dropped out of the music world. A shame, if true.

Also shameful: While “This Could Be The Night” made a memorable intro song to The Big TNT Show, Spector apparently made the decision not to release it as a single. So if you didn’t see the movie (or buy one of a couple Spector compilations over the past 20 years that included the song), you might not know it well.

If you don’t know the song, here’s your inner teenager’s next earworm. (S)he can thank me later:

Encore Performances: New Orleans Nights, the morning after.

RIP, Allen Toussaint. From the old blog, November 2010.

I see live music so infrequently that I feel compelled, when I do, to review it.
Plus, it appears that the local paper’s music critic was busy reviewing the Never Shot Never and The Maine show at Crocodile Rock.
So, in case anyone on the interwebs wants an opinion of the show I attended, here’s mine:

Last night I went to Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center for “New Orleans Nights,” a multi-performer concert headlined by the legendary songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint.
Most of the 900 people there were sixty-somethings who seemed to be attending because they had season tickets at Zoellner, not because they particularly longed to see the man who produced the original “Lady Marmalade.”
(Toussaint never got around to “Marmalade,” alas; that might have been entertaining. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The Joe Krown Trio (Krown on Hammond organ, Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and Russell Batiste Jr. on drums) kicked things off with four songs — two fine, Meters-y funk instrumentals, and two blues tunes with Washington on vocals.
Washington, to me, was a discovery; he maintains his own solo career as a blues performer, and I made myself a mental note to go see him if he ever blows through here on his own.
Krown plays a solid, soulful B3, while Batiste is a swinging (and entertaining) drummer — more of an ass-kicker, not one of those laid-back, minimalist Zig Modeliste kind of guys.

They were joined by trumpeter/singer Nicholas Payton, as well as a bassist and percussionist, for six more songs.
Payton is one of those young-turk jazzmen who is not content to express himself merely by rattling off chorus after chorus of bebop.
This is all well and good … but his horn playing is better than his singing or his songwriting.
Most of his vocal tunes were kinda Quiet Storm-y, and (except for one that was specifically about New Orleans) seemed to lack any specific musical or lyrical connection to the Crescent City.
Guy has both chops and ideas on the horn, though.

Break time with the grandees.
And then, Allen Toussaint took the stage for a 45-minute set that included a little of everything — some old Toussaint originals with full band accompaniment; a song or two from Toussaint’s Elvis Costello collaboration; a duet with Payton; a solo cover of “City of New Orleans;” and one of those flaky New Orleans piano solos.

New Orleans piano men have it easy in some ways.
Their style was in large part codified by the screwloose Professor Longhair, whose solos might include anything from “Danny Boy” to mutant Ninth Ward rhumbas.
So a N’awlins piano player has free rein to indulge in just about any melodic segue or tempo change he can conjure up.
Toussaint, who is a capable if not revelatory player, engaged the crowd with a lengthy musical game of three-card monte that folded in scraps of classical, boogie-woogie and no fewer than six Christmas carols — finishing, natch, with “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Toussaint’s instrumental duet with Payton followed the same deconstructive vein, taking “Summertime” down any number of avenues. At worst it was simply curious; at best it was near-mesmerizing.
I’d love to hear a tape of that someday.
(By contrast, his solo piano-and-vocal version of “City of New Orleans” was played straight. It was affecting enough, though y’know, I’ve yet to hear a version of that song with any of New Orleans’ wacky funk. I guess that would be contrary to the lyrical tone of the song, but it would be fun to hear someone try.)

At 72, Toussaint remains a more-than-serviceable singer; it surprised me that he didn’t make more of a splash as a solo performer back in the day.
The old tunes (including “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “Get Out Of My Life, Woman”) had plenty of life.
He closed with a punchy version of “Southern Nights” good enough to erase anybody’s associated memories of bell-bottoms and 8-tracks, followed by a slow blues that highlighted some tasty solos from Washington.

There are, alas, only two shows left on the “New Orleans Nights” tour — one outside Washington, D.C., and one in Toronto.
I would still recommend seeing Toussaint on his own; or the Joe Krown Trio for jazzy B3 funk; or Washington playing blues; or Payton in a setting where he just plays jazz (if he does that sort of thing.)
For $25 it was a more-than-worthwhile evening of music … not the swingingest of crowds or settings, I suppose, but so be it.

Five For The Record: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Animated prime-time special featuring the characters from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. First aired Nov. 20, 1973, two days before Thanksgiving, and has been shown annually since. The 10th “Peanuts” prime-time special and the last of the Holy Trinity of “Peanuts” holiday specials (the others being 1966’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas).


And here’s why I like it:

1. A quick death. Thanksgiving is lousy with football — from high-school rivalries to embarrassing Detroit Lions losses — so it’s appropriate that this one opens with the Lucy-holds-the-football gag. Offered the chance to kick the football, Charlie Brown responds:

“Hold it. HA! You’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and kill myself.”

So, thirty-one seconds into the show, the Everyman lead character with whom we are all supposed to identify is already contemplating his own death.

Yes, I know he is speaking metaphorically. But he picks the ugliest, bleakest possible metaphor — he doesn’t say, “I’ll land flat on my back and hit my head.” When you’re as put-upon as Charlie Brown, why not take every situation straight into the crapper from the get-go?

I love “Peanuts.”

2. The theme. Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas is rightfully celebrated, but it’s not his only memorable music.

I’ve long liked the theme song to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The main theme reminds me of a Moebius strip; its return to the home chord makes perfect sense, and yet the path it takes to get there never fails to surprise me. And the gentle, drifting middle section reminds me of leaves falling, or even early snow.

(Guaraldi also gets extra points for some tasty, desolate Fender Rhodes-ing elsewhere in the show, as well as for the clavinet-driven “martial” music that accompanies Snoopy and Woodstock’s pilgrim scene.)

3. With friends like these. We all know how Lucy and Peppermint Patty, ostensibly Charlie Brown’s friends, dump or impose on him at various points in the show.

But it is Linus, the one character reliably on Charlie Brown’s side, who gets him deeper into trouble by suggesting the idea of holding a special dinner just for Peppermint Patty and her self-invited guests.

Better answers might have included: “No, Charlie Brown. Call her back and make yourself heard if you ever want to stop getting stepped on,” or, “Tell you what. I’ll talk to her and get her off your back, and you can owe me a box of Zingers for my trouble.”

But nooooooo, for all his book-learnin’, the middle Van Pelt sibling can’t provide the necessary backbone when his friend needs it.

In that same conversation, Linus also gets off one of the best diss lines in the televised “Peanuts” canon:

Charlie Brown: I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner! All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.
Linus: (thoughtfully) That’s right, I’ve seen you make toast. You can’t butter it. But maybe we can help you!

4. The (first) supper. There are all kinds of ponderables here:

  • Even in the suspend-your-disbelief world of “Peanuts,” I love that they said: “Cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner? We’ll have the dog do that.”
  • The dog who’s human enough to cook knows what humans eat for Thanksgiving dinner. He cooks himself a nice turkey at the end of the show. But, pressed into service to cater to his master’s guests, he serves toast and junk food. (Charlie Brown and Linus make no effort to redirect him.)
  • What’s in the cherry-topped cups at the table? I don’t believe we see the kitchen crew assemble those, and they tend to get left out when people recall the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving menu. Wiki would have us believe it’s vanilla ice cream, and perhaps it is.
  • We don’t actually see the mystery ice-cream cups arrive at the table; they simply appear while everyone is blinking at each other, trying to come up with a suitable grace to say.
  • Snoopy is awfully quick to cower when Peppermint Patty berates him about his cooking. A more delightfully puckish, yet still totally characteristic, response would be for him to shrug and start eating her unwanted jellybeans.
  • A station wagon that seats six kids comfortably in the wayback is my kind of car. But where’s Lucy?

icecream5. Skies of America. One of the great things about Great Pumpkin is the backgrounds — wild, lurid autumn skies of orange and red and lavender and star-streaked dark gray. Most of the outdoor scenes in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can’t compare, with the skies the same uniform color of washed-out blue-gray.

At the end, though, Snoopy and Woodstock enjoy their own holiday meal al fresco, under a gorgeous salmon-pink sky gently shot through with clouds. (In a nice if probably unintentional touch, the sky gets gently darker when the turkey is served and stays that color throughout the closing credits.)

For the last two-and-a-half minutes of the show, there is no human speech — just a small-group arrangement of that wonderful theme, while two best friends enjoy a meal in an autumnal wonderland.

With no disrespect meant to Charlie Brown’s grandma, I know which dinner I would have wanted to attend.


Long players and parlor games.

The next 16 albums to be selected for the 33 1/3 book series were announced today … which means that, at various times next year, everything from Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee to Bjork’s Homogenic will be pulled, prodded and dissected at 30,000-word length.

The 33 1/3 series, published by Bloomsbury, offers a particularly cool platform for music criticism.

Each one of the series’ 100 titles is a guide to a single long-playing album, the artist who created it and the world surrounding it, written by someone who submitted a proposal to write about that album because they care about it.

And if you read Bloomsbury’s submission guidelines, you’ll see these books are no casual matter. It takes something like 4,200 words just to send in an acceptable proposal, and in the most recent submission round, they accepted just 16 of 605 entries.

So, these books are not the dashed-off written equivalent of the party bro who won’t stop telling you why you should like Blood Sugar Sex Magik. You have to care a lot and know a lot to pull this off. (It does not surprise me that I recognize several previously published authors as veteran indie-rock musicians.)

I do not imagine I’ll ever submit a proposal to Bloomsbury. I don’t think I have passion or time enough to make a proposal shine, much less a full book.

But it’s a fun parlor game to imagine:

If I were to write a 33 1/3 book about a single album, which one would I choose?

Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music: Whoever gets to this one before I do damn well better do it justice. Or, from the same bag, John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, 36 minutes of sax-and-drum-kit duets.

Jefferson Airplane, Bark: This putrescent jumble of an album so fascinates me that I’ve considered writing a whole bunch of individual blog posts about it, Edinburgh Exorcism-style. Not good; not close to good; a thoroughgoing period piece; oddly compelling all the same.

(I am not sure the 33 1/3 series requires that an album be good per se, simply that the writer be knowledgeable and passionate and that the book be at least somewhat marketable.)

Led Zeppelin, Coda: How do you assemble, market and generally consider a band album in the knowledge that there’s no band? I think that question raises a bunch of avenues that could be traveled down at some leisure.

Mississippi Fred McDowell, I Do Not Play No Rock N’ Roll: Hell, just the interview portions of this record deserve a short book to themselves (though the performances are spare and winning also). Another candidate from the blues file: Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers’ charmingly raw Natural Boogie.

Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, Get Dancin‘: Never owned this semi-novelty disco album. In fact, I might never even have been in the same room with a copy. Still, it’s just begging for 30,000 words, and if anyone is the man to throw away some portion of his life to do it, it might as well be me. (Never will have so many have owed so nothing to so few.)