The Human Value of Cultural Preservation

DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE
by Amanda Petrusich
Scribner, 272 pages

Earlier this year, the journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan revealed an unethical streak by invading the home of blues historian Robert “Mack” McCormick and pilfering photographs and personal items that the octogenerian autodidact had painstakingly acquired over decades and generously shared. McCormick’s health was fragile, but that didn’t stop Sullivan who, with the conquistadoral impulse of Joe McGinniss cracking open William Styron’s special sealed crab meat to make an omelette, happily appropriated McCormick’s findings for a New York Times Magazine cover story.

When outsiders commit such brash invasions under the guise of “journalism,” one tends to hold a certain mistrust towards those working the same territory. But I’m pleased to report that Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price (which comes saddled with a Sullivan blurb) is a more sensitive and fair-minded portrayal of 78 record collectors and blues enthusiasts. Petrusich is kind but keeps her distance. She does not encroach upon or judge her subjects, never painting them as freakish. She heeds their advice and is never condescending, even when they belch in her face.

This courteous approach allows her to unpack bountiful history — such as the rise and fall of Paramount Records, one of the biggest producers of records featuring black performers in the 1920s and the 1930s — and behavioral insight into this winning group of passionate enthusiasts. We get a good sense of how collectors exuberantly grill each other like “two high-achieving middle school students” over recent purchases and learn of the harrowing fog-shrouded drive into the Shenandoah Valley. Because some sessions weren’t recorded at the precise speed of 78 rpm, collectors have adopted such homespun remedies as affixing a Popsicle stick near the needle to get a more lucid and robust playback. We are privy to the common expertise shared between knowledgeable collectors and ethnomusicologists, with both offering theories over whether or not Kid Bailey Brunswick is Willie Brown (“imagine Willie Brown singing toward the top of his range maybe on a day when he wasn’t stirred up by alcohol and rowdy buddies in the studio”). Along the way, Petrusich is candid enough to contend with her own music listening issues as a young critic:

I’d dutifully memorized facts about amplifier settings and pedals and filters and microphones and producers and years of release, even when it felt depressing and hollow, like I was methodically teaching myself exactly how to miss the point.

The vital question of what happens to our brains when we listen to music has been vigorously pursued by Daniel Levitin, but Petrusich’s declaration does lead us wondering about the collector’s temperament. Why do some people become full and rejuvenated when basking in the meticulous details? Is there something about the visceral lawlessness of old time blues that makes them feel music differently? Does collecting or wallowing in the obscure fulfill a human need to master the world, whether as an action of an expression of expertise? Or is it a trap, comparable to Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” where obsessive collection results in inevitable despair or destruction? Petrusich levels, by her own admission, some shaky Asperger’s charges near the end of her book, but her vivacious reporting is better at answering these questions more than any armchair psychoanalysis.

There are fruitless trips to flea markets, a journey to the NYPL Performing Arts branch to explore its 78 collection, and, most exotic, an elaborate scuba diving expedition (complete with Petrusich taking classes) to seek out the potential remains of old records at the bottom of the Milwaukee River, recalling William T. Vollmann’s obsessive search for Mexicali tunnels in Imperial. This vicarious approach shows how the hunt for something esoteric attracts a peculiar yet essential type of person who faces unanticipated responsibilities. Petrusich meets Nathan Salsburg, who helped to salvage the hillbilly 78s of another collector just as they were being dumped, buried in a mess of ketchup and trash, which included a rare recording of a throat-singing cowboy. When Peterusich attempts to wade through this dead collector’s correspondence, she is at a loss to pinpoint the methodology behind his passion. The documents that collectors leave behind may not be sufficient enough to convey the motivations that triggered the pursuit. The burden falls on those who fall in love with the music (or the collecting bug), willing to make the lifelong plunge to keep something appreciated by a diminishing subculture alive.

Much ink is rightfully spilled about Harry Smith, the eccentric filmmaker behind the six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, arguably the playlist to end all playlists. Smith’s grand collection, pulled from his mighty stash of blues and country 78s, represents the clearest example of a collector leaping from formidable obsessive to influential tastemaker. But Petrusich is taken with how Smith’s “face is approximately 80 percent glasses” and how he “appears to be about ten thousand years old.” Who cares for the preservationists and the collectors? They are quietly celebrated for their tastes, but maybe they deserve something louder and more human than mere gratitude. Petrusich’s book is a good start.

Terry Teachout (The Bat Segundo Show #525)

Terry Teachout is most recently the author of Duke. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314.

[PROGRAM NOTE: There are a few modest errors in this program, all of them spoken by Our Correspondent. Our Correspondent referred to the “National Front,” when he meant the “Popular Front.” He misstated the year of Duke Ellington’s comeback concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was 1956, not 1959. There are also a number of moments where Our Correspondent refers to Duke Ellington as “the Duke.” We strive to keep this show as accurate as possible and apologize for these errors.]

Author: Terry Teachout

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Subjects Discussed: Guther Schuller’s Early Jazz, vertical harmony vs. horizontal melody, the way Ellington used his musicians, David Hajdu’s Lush Life, Ellington’s exploitation of Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s ability to attract women close to his death, attempts to track Strayhorn’s true contributions, what pop songs reveal about Ellington’s composition skills, transformative art vs. plagiarism, the Cotton Club, playing racially segregated venues, broadcasting on CBS Radio, William Paley, Irving Mills as publicist and manager, Ellington’s terrible management skills, his tolerance of drunken and drugged up musicians, Paul Gonslaves, Ellington’s comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show with Herman’s Hermits, the decline of jazz and the rise of R&B, the ribald songs of the 1920s written by Jimmy McHugh, Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man”, Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, high-class talents writing smutty songs, Ellington’s emulation of pop, why Duke Ellington is sexy, the suggestive qualities of “Warm Valley,” Ellington’s remarkable promiscuity (and his adroit skills in using as many as four hotel rooms at once in one city), the influence of Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah, how Ellington surrounded himself with master musicians, viewing Ellington as the auteur of the band, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, why Ellington’s band members kept coming back, Cootie Williams leaving Ellington’s band for Benny Goodman, Raymond Scott’s “When Cootie Left the Duke,” Clark Terry, why Ellington’s best soloists didn’t function as well when they tried to make a break on their own, Billy Strayhorn’s body of work, the one interview that Edna Ellington gave to Ebony, the circumstances that caused Duke’s scar on his left cheek, why Duke and Edna stayed married, Duke’s philandering, Ellington’s fear and distrust of women, the value of Betty McGettigan’s oral history, networks of Ellington gossip, plausible vs. usable material, the mysterious Countess Fernanda de Castro Monte, fakes who contain multitudes, women who are prepared to lick the feet of geniuses, Ellington’s contradictory politics, Ellington’s idea of fighting segregation through paying people, his views on the 1963 March on Washington, Ellington winning the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, Ellington’s Popular Front activities, Jump for Joy, Ellington’s pecuniary political commitment, fame and money as the road to equality, being a member of the black bourgeoisie, Ellington’s devastation over not getting the Pulitzer Prize, the tight-lipped Teachout moment, John Hammond’s inept evisceration of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” the difficulties of synthesizing one man’s life, Mercer Ellington, quintessential connections between geniuses and their talented sons, the 1941 ASCAP strike, Herb Jeffries, John Garfield’s questionable suggestions about makeup, lighter skinned performers asked to darken their skin, Ellington’s sensitivity to questions of intra-prejudice, clueless white audiences and Duke, Ellington playing country clubs, the working life of a musician, Duke taking care of his fellow musicians, being beholden to marketing demands, a spontaneous 1940 recording in Fargo, North Dakota, the convergence of popular and sophisticated tastes.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to start with a very geeky musical technical question. You point out that Duke Ellington thought almost exclusively in terms of vertical harmony rather than horizontal melody, that his best-known tunes were little more than elaborations on the top notes of chord progressions. You quote Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz about him noticing, “The parallel blocks of sound he favors so predominantly are handled with such variety that we as listeners never notice the lack of occasional contrapuntal relief.” You suggest that this compositional liability, which Duke was, in fact, able to work around led him to rely on other composers, other musicians, other band members. And, of course, he didn’t always share credit. So I’m wondering. To what degree was Duke himself aware of this creative liability? How was he able to keep so many of his collaborators, and even the audience who was listening to him, in the dark about this for so long?

Teachout: Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Ellington was the biggest public personality in his band. I mean, his great soloists, except for Ben Webster, who was known to beat up people, tended not to have that kind of flashy personality. So even though, if you look at the credits of a song like “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” You see Johnny Hodges’s name on there. You’re not going to think Hodges. You’re going to think of Ellington. Because Ellington is the trademark of the Ellington Band. And this is even true in the case of Billy Strayhorn, a composer of equal quality and I think equal genius to Ellington. But Strayhorn is completely in the background, doesn’t appear with the band. Maybe a half dozen times in the band’s whole life. I’ve only seen one bit of film with Strayhorn playing with the Ellington Band at a gig. So even though for the last fifteen years or so of their working together their albums were jointly credited to Ellington and Strayhorn, and that’s to be taken very seriously, the fact is that if you don’t know the score, if you don’t know how important Strayhorn is, you’re going to assume that Ellington is the senior partner.

Correspondent: Yeah. And actually there’s also a wonderful book by David Hajdu, Lush Life, as well. Let’s talk about Strayhorn. He’s one of the tragic figures in this book.

Teachout: Yes.

Correspondent: He’s a man who has composed and arranged many of Duke’s finest moments. Duke, as we are implying here and establishing here, was an incessant credit hog. And he strung Strayhorn along for decades. So I’m wondering. What was it about Duke’s charisma? It was so formidable that he even attracted women when he came close to death, when he was ill. Which was really impressive, I gotta say! (laughs)

Teachout: (laughs) I was pretty amazed by that myself. Yes.

Correspondent: What caused people like Strayhorn and other people who were robbed of their credit — what kept them coming back to Duke?

Teachout: He was what he was. He was a genius. I mean, Strayhorn became what he became because Ellington was his model. And also we have to talk about the specific nature of Strayhorn’s life and personality and why it worked for him to work for Ellington. Billy Strayhorn was a homosexual. You were not a homosexual who was out and a public figure. Least of all if you were black in the world of jazz in the ’30s and ’40s. This was not an option for Strayhorn. And Strayhorn, who was completely at ease with his sexuality, wished to live his life the way he wanted to live it. So he made a kind of bargain — with himself, with the world, and with Ellington — that he would remain on the sidelines. Ellington would pay him — quite generously as a matter of fact. Strayhorn essentially had the equivalent of a drawing account and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. And in return for this, in supplying this music and writing hundreds of uncredited arrangements for Ellington, he just steps back into the shadows and lets Edward, as he always called him — “We’ll let Edward do that” would be Strayhorn’s line. And Ellington, unlike Strayhorn, was not only a creative personality, but a kind of theatrical figure. Now one of Duke Ellington’s greatest creations was Duke Ellington, the man who goes out on stage with the fabulous outfits and the baggy eyes and the gorgeous bass baritone voice and the catchphrases. And he charms your socks off. Now even if he couldn’t have done all this, he would have still been Duke Ellington the great composer. But because he served it up with all that frosting, people whom might not otherwise have been drawn to him and especially, when we talk about race again, drawn to a black man in the ’20s and ’30s, this is a different kind of black man. This is the elegant presentable fellow. And that is an important part of what Ellington was. And Strayhorn knew, consciously or not, that he needed this kind of front man to lead the kind of life he wanted to lead and be able to have that great Ellington Band play his music the way it played Ellington’s music.

Correspondent: Do we really know in 2013 the full extent of Strayhorn’s contributions to Ellington? Because it’s come out over and over in the last several decades. We have suddenly understood, “Well, he did this. He did this.”

Teachout: It’s completely knowable now. Because the manuscripts have survived. And a lot of people in Ellington’s life and in Strayhorn’s life, and for many years after it, speculated about who wrote what. Now it’s not a matter of speculation. We know right down to the fact that Billy Strayhorn wrote the last ten bars of Ellington’s Harlem, for example. That’s the level of specificity that we’re talking about. So there is a debunking line that’s gotten about, that Strayhorn was the power behind the throne. And that’s just not true. In the suites that they wrote together, Strayhorn would normally compose maybe between a third and a quarter of the numbers. They were not written jointly. The movements are separate. There’s a Strayhorn movement. There’s an Ellington movement.

Correspondent: You describe that moment in the hotel room where they’re trading off. One’s asleep. The other composing.

Teachout: It’s a wonderful story.

Correspondent: There’s a monster movie playing in the background.

Teachout: It’s an unusual thing to have happen. So Strayhorn’s contribution is immensely important. And he didn’t get, for these complicated reasons we’ve talked about, complete credit for it. But most of the music that we believe is written by Duke Ellington is written by Duke Ellington, including virtually all of his major instrumental works. The real problem of attribution with Ellington is the pop songs. For me, that was the big surprise. When I started to go systematically into the Ellington output, I heard stories about this. I heard stories about that. But suddenly, as I looked at the work as a totality, the light went on. And I realized, “Well, of course! It’s the pop songs. Because he’s not a natural melody writer.” It stands to reason that that would be where he went. To those natural melody improvisers like Johnny Hodges.

Correspondent: Pop songs not only reveal Duke’s limitations. It also reveals how much he plundered from other people.

Teachout: Yes. That’s right. But there’s another side of it. It also reveals what his essential contribution is. In a song like “Sophisticated Lady” — that’s the most striking example of this — the main strain is by Lawrence Brown, the trombone player. The bridge, the release is by Otto Hardwick, the alto saxophone player. But it was Duke Ellington’s idea to take these two bar fragments and put them together in a 32 bar pop song and harmonize them and orchestrate it and create the total composition that we know as “Sophisticated Lady.” So who wrote what? The question is, and the answer is, Ellington didn’t write the melody. But it is his composer’s mind that took these two found objects, if you want to put it that way, and transformed them into the song “Sophisticated Lady.” So it’s a complex attribution problem. You can’t just sum it up by saying, “Oh yes. Duke Ellington was a plagiarist.” Duke Ellington was never — in the sense that a literary person normally uses the term — a plagiarist. He didn’t steal without telling you and then you looked up six months later and your work was in print under his name.

Correspondent: He was not the Jonah Lehrer of… (laughs)

Teachout: No, sir. Not in the slightest. Was he scrupulous? Not always. And sometimes he was entirely unscrupulous. And sometimes unscrupulous things were done in his name. A fair number of Strayhorn pieces — the royalties were copyrighted in Ellington’s name. But there’s no reason to assume that Ellington himself was responsible for that. It may, in some cases, just have been sloppy bookkeeping. But when Strayhorn finally did look into this, he was horrified and it led to a temporary break between the two men and ultimately to the renegotiation of billing that created the later Ellington/Strayhorn compositions where they always get equal billing.

Correspondent: I’m abashed almost to say this. But I have not once mentioned the Cotton Club in more than 500 shows of Bat Segundo.

Teachout: (laughs)

Correspondent: So thank goodness you wrote about it, Terry!

Teachout: Now’s the time.

Correspondent: Now is the time. And I wanted to get into this. You know, here was a segregated venue. A place that paid its performers quite handsomely.

Teachout: And mobbed up to the eyebrows.

Correspondent: That’s right. Langston Hughes railed against how most whites who attended the Cotton Club saw the cabarets rather than the houses of Harlem. Duke played there. But he didn’t really mention this other aspect of the Cotton Club in his memoir, Music is My Mistress.

Teachout: Right.

Correspondent: But he also broadcast on CBS Radio from the Cotton Club. This risk taken by William Paley. And he got the attention of the press simultaneously by playing midtown clubs. So he has these broadcasts through CBS that give him that national attention while simultaneously it had me wondering. Was there any other way for Duke to make his way to CBS without the Cotton Club? Was he going to face racial segregation no matter what path he took?

Teachout: Oh sure. Remember. We’re talking about 1927, 1928. Black bands get paid less. They get inferior gigs. So suddenly Ellington gets this break. And it’s an extraordinary break. The price he pays for it is he’s coming into a segregated club in the middle of Harlem, where the only way that a black person can get in is if he is very famous and then they put him in a table in a corner. Preferably in the shadows. But in return for that, the Cotton Club’s got a national radio wire on CBS. Every rich person in New York is going to hear him. The word gets around. And that radio wire suddenly puts Duke Ellington in your living room, no matter where you live. So I think the biggest break that ever happened to Duke Ellington was meeting Irving Mills. The second biggest — and it’s related to this — is going into the Cotton Club. That and Mills’s publicity campaign, presenting Ellington as a different kind of black man — you fuse those together and you get the root to the great success that Ellington had by the ’30s.

Correspondent: But when Mills was no longer around, Ellington seems to collapse. Did he really take any hard lessons? Did any of the hard lessons he learned from Mills get taken to heart in later years? Because I was reading this book and my mouth was agog at what a terrible organizer he was. He tolerated his band coming at odd hours. Any hour. Even not showing up to the actual gig. He tolerated musicians who were hopped up on heroin, who were alcoholic.

Teachout: His was the most irresponsible band maybe in jazz. But you have to remember that Duke Ellington had a very clear sense of priorities. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a band that would play his music every night. He was willing to put up with an enormous amount of nonsense from extraordinarily gifted players. Because they were the particular guys that he wanted on the stand at the time. He was never a businessman. And when he worked with organized businessmen after Mills — well, Mills really ran the show. But after that, they had to do things within the parameters of the way Ellington wanted them to be done. You know, if you’d brought in a hardass manager in 1956 to transform the situation with the Ellington Band, probably the first thing you would have done would have been to fire Paul Gonsalves, this man who was simultaneously an alcoholic and a heroin addict, who would nod off on the bandstand. But if you made that smart business decision, then you wouldn’t have had Paul Gonsalves on the bandstand for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where he plays a million choruses and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and the crowd explodes and Ellington is on the cover of Time Magazine. So I think in the long run, Ellington wasn’t interested in money. He wanted an operation that would allow him to lead the life he wanted, which was a life on the road, a life where a lot of women were passing through his life, a life lived in hotel rooms, and a life where his music gets played every night. He didn’t want to be a millionaire. He wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

Correspondent: But before that 1956 Newport appearance, he is really on the skids. I mean, it seems as if he is not going to come back. But even with that Newport appearance that is a huge sensation, he’s going onto Ed Sullivan and he’s sharing the bill with Herman’s Hermits.

Teachout: Well, yes, the world has changed. Ellington predates the Big Band era. But it was the booster rocket that made him the culture celebrity that he was in the ’40s. But he outlived it. After World War II, first big bands themselves become financially dicey. And then the whole flavor of pop music changes. You have rhythm and blues, which soaks up the black audience that was formerly in jazz. You have rock and roll becoming the lingua franca of modern music. And so by ’56, Ellington was perceived pretty widely as yesterday’s news. And it wasn’t just him. It was everybody who was playing that kind of music. This incredible good fortune that he had, of coming into the Newport Jazz Festival and getting on the cover of Time Magazine, which pretty much insured that for the rest of his life people who didn’t necessarily know much about jazz would know who he was. And you mentioned Ed Sullivan. Television exposure generally, but Sullivan in particular, is enormously important to Ellington in those last twenty years of his life. Because he is, as we said earlier, this personality. I looked through thousands of photographs to choose the ones for the book and they’re all good. You can’t take a bad picture of Duke Ellington. So you put a guy like that on television. And television was made for him. Just like it was made for Louis Armstrong. So even if Ellington went on Ed Sullivan — maybe he wasn’t playing particularly what you wanted to hear or the bill was an odd mixed one — the fact was that it was going out to the largest audience in television.

Correspondent: But I think we’re straying away from the point I’m trying to get from you. We were talking about how Ellington was a terrible organizer while simultaneously he’s facing the reality of rock and roll becoming a dominant part of the culture and rhythm and blues taking away the audience. I mean, he faced Frank Sinatra before. If he was yesterday’s news, could any amount of mad organization revive his career? I mean, he had so many shots there with the Newport thing and all that.

Teachout: If he’d lived another fifteen years, I don’t know what his life would have been like. He and Louis Armstrong, who died around the same time. Early to mid ’70s. Remember that Armstrong made the last number one pop single, “Hello Dolly,” which was jazz. After that, never again. So they may have died at a particularly fortuitous moment. It would have gotten harder for Ellington. The bookings, they weren’t drying up. But they were becoming more difficult in the ’70s. You know, part of genius is having good timing. And maybe he knew when to make the exit.

The Bat Segundo Show #525: Terry Teachout II (Download MP3)

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Review: Mozart’s Sister (2011)

Classical music is an estimable topic that I feel disinclined to write about. This diffidence has little to do with any shortage of enthusiasm or background knowledge (you’ll find Saint-Saens, Telemann, Cage, and Mozart all in my music collection, often played in rhythmic counterpoint to activities both sinful and innocently quotidian). It may reflect a quiet desire to keep this joyful terrain unsullied by scabrous assaults of the overly examined. It may have something to do with certain upper-class exigencies which I identify as ridiculous – the requirement to dress up and spend a lot of money just to hear a thunderous orchestra play something you love, the paucity of robust alcoholic beverages, the prohibition on spontaneous enthusiasm within dull and often overpraised buildings designed almost exclusively for fuddy-duddies, and the unshakable vibe of being sized up by condescending assholes pegging you as some bumpkin who inexplicably sneaked past the velvet rope. Whenever I have the pleasure of attending a swank cultural affair for something I am genuinely excited about, there remains a small part of me that wonders if I’ll suffer a fate not unlike the poor couple losing the necklace in the Guy de Maupassant story. A decade of my life gone because of a misunderstanding.

That sounds like hyperbole. Maybe I can explain it another way. I can summon words to describe or connote how I feel about tangible experiences, specific people, books, movies, and even pop music –- perhaps because these all feel sufficiently democratic and translatable. But if I am to be truthful here, it’s also because I have little to lose. I don’t wish to suggest that these topics are less significant simply because I can relate them with greater ease and facility. I know that I can get worked up enough by the Dorian mode in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to write about it somewhere down the line, but I can’t see myself writing about well temperament or Pythagorean tuning anytime soon. I can approach Finnegans Wake and The Tree of Life, amalgamating my genuine enthusiasm for these works of art with some detailed theory. Yet for classical music, it’s the emotional experience which counts more than any theory. I leave such expatiations (or perhaps expiations?) to minds greater than mine.

This sharp contrast between privileged appreciation and mass entertainment, which I am admittedly identifying from a highly subjective vantage point, may be one reason why cinema’s offerings about classical music remain, to my mind, fairly lackluster. Perhaps I complain because the music itself is loaded with greater life than some slanderous biography, but this is not altogether the case. The sole exception (indeed, one of the few directors who went well out of his way to claim this turf) may be Ken Russell, the underrated auteur who worked his way from bizarre television docudramas (see this glorious opening for The Debussy Film, if you don’t believe me) to such fearlessly libertine flicks as The Music Lovers and Lisztomania. Whether depicting Tchaikovsky confronting his sexuality on a moving train or Richard Wagner as a reanimated Nazi Frankenstein with a machine gun/guitar, Ken Russell valued eye-popping entertainment over historical accuracy. And if one examines the best classical music biopics (Amadeus, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Hilary and Jackie), one discovers additional resistance to the dry facts of life. Let’s face it: the classical music biopic, perhaps more than any other biopic subgenre, is at its best when the slander runs deep.

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It wasn’t a surprise to see writer-director Rene Féret take silly liberties with Mozart’s Sister, suggesting not only that Maria Anna Mozart (played by Féret’s daughter, Marie) captured the romantic attentions of the kid who would grow up to be King Louis XVI (the monarch who eventually lost his head altogether), but that this Dauphin would ask young Maria Anna (disguised as a boy and singing quite high without skepticism from the heir apparent) for fresh compositions. The Dauphin was shy in real life. And at one point in the film, he remarks upon this shyness. Yet Féret has cast the somewhat vigorous Clovis Fouin in the role. Fouin doesn’t so much as quiver. He doesn’t so much as cower or blush. He’s some hipster plucked from the 20th Arrondissement, waiting for a ripe moment to languorously puff on his nonexistent Gauloise. I hope he was paid well.

Yes, it’s true that the Mozart Family traveled around Europe. But isn’t it convenient that the Mozarts break an axle a few miles from an abbey? And isn’t it convenient that the Dauphin’s sister is there (along with a few sisters more, who happen to be conveniently visiting)? And isn’t it also convenient that Maria Anna becomes an inadvertent messenger between clandestine lovers so as to kickstart a plot that isn’t in the history books and that isn’t even good enough for a trashy potboiler. If Féret had offered us something extremely preposterous along the lines of Russell, I might have gone along for the ride. But Féret has besmirched the Mozarts: not because he has offered us historical horseshit, but because it’s such ho-hum historical horseshit.

Féret’s mythical Maria Anna apparently plays the violin, but is confined to the clavichord by her father Leopold, who insists that women are unfit to be real musicians. Yet if Leopold was such a repressive patriarch, why did he give Maria Anna top billing in the advertisements he wrote for his family? It was Maria Anna reaching a marriageable age that felled her career. And that age was eighteen, not fifteen (as it is suggested here; or perhaps younger, given that we see Maria Anna have her first period and thus “become a woman”). It was also Maria Anna who surrendered control of her life to her father, including choice of suitors. While musical scholars have debated the question of what precisely Wolfgang owes Maria Anna, and it is clear from the documents that Mozart and his sister were very close, Féret’s film isn’t especially interested in using this preexisting information to build an enticing story. And if Maria Anna is such a thwarted feminist icon (so repressed that even her neighbors ask her to stop playing the clarichord when she’s on her own teaching piano later in the film), why doesn’t this film show her teaching young Wolfgang a few lessons (in anticipation of her own teaching) or picking up some of Leopold’s tricks? Well, it doesn’t really suit Féret’s convenient untruths, which establish Maria Anna as someone on backup vocals and clavichord to Wolfgang’s fiddling. In other words, if you’ll pardon my tacky yacht rock comparison, Maria Anna is Michael McDonald to Wolfgang’s Christopher Cross. And I’m pretty certain she was a bit more than this. We see Leopold teaching Wolfgang composition, with Maria Anna trying to listen in behind a closed door. But does this really represent the truth when one considers that, in 1764, it was Maria Anna who wrote down Wolfgang’s first symphony when Leopold fell ill?

Look, I’m hardly a Mozart expert. But when the historical record proves more compelling than the reductionist drama, one has to wonder why these prevarications were offered in the first place. If Féret wanted to make a film about a repressed woman composer, there were plenty of other stories to dwell from. Presumably, Féret settled upon Mozart’s Sister because it was the most dependable title for film financing. While I appreciated Féret’s punkass effrontery in offering Barry Lyndon-like slow zooms (although, to be clear, he is no Kubrick), I was not impressed by his middling efforts to sift and synthesize from the available record in a manner that mostly bores. Here was an opportunity to translate an elite interest for the hoi polloi, but Féret, in flattening the story and avoiding the juicy bits, only furthers the chasm.

The Bat Segundo Show: Marisa Meltzer

Marisa Meltzer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #328. Ms. Meltzer is most recently the author of Girl Power.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Liz Phair is running away.

Author: Marisa Meltzer

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You quote Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, in which Douglas notes that the women performing in the 1960s gave voice to all these inner warring selves. But she also notes later in her book — not quoted by you — that this period of music also captured the way that young women were caught between this entrapment and this freedom. Now some of the examples you use in the book, such as Phair, Bikini Kill, riot grrl culture in general, they tend to suggest more of the latter than the former. What do you think is the ultimate distinction between, say, the music of the last twenty years versus almost this second wave reaction to the 1960s?

Meltzer: That’s a hard question. You know, I’m reading her new book right now. And it’s all about the ’90’s and the past few decades. So I’ve been thinking about her a lot, but not so much the ’60’s. I think the distinction is that there’s so much more feminist rhetoric in culture now that, after the ’70’s, you had this postfeminist era — which is not a word that I’m a fan of. But in everything from advertising to music to television, there’s all this lip service and references to feminism and empowerment. But I don’t know how many actual empowerment there is. To me, that’s the difference. I think it’s really easy to think that we’ve come a long way musically or politically because there’s so much feminism around us. But I don’t know if it’s so substantive.

Correspondent: On the other hand, empowerment has been rather easily co-opted by marketing forces.

Meltzer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And so the question of what empowerment actually provides within this music, I suppose, is subject to the fluctuating market forces that may actually abscond with the inherent self-righteous truth of this message.

Meltzer: Yeah. I mean, the word “empower” is also just one of those words that, at this point, I don’t even know if it has much meaning. I feel like it’s been drained away by marketers. So it’s something that I have a lot of suspicion towards.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it begs the question of whether a phrase or a word — whether it be “riot grrl,” “girl power,” “lady” as you point out later in the book — if the terms are constantly shifting, then are the terms essentially meaningless? Or must one gravitate towards whatever terms are presently fashionable among young girls, or among culture at large, and just attempt to play this game of leapfrog?

Meltzer: Yeah. I do think that there is a certain amount of leapfrog. I think that there is a lot of fashion. I think of my mother’s generation — the baby boomers. And none of them describe themselves as girls. Whereas all of my friends — many of them in our thirties or even in our forties now — constantly use the word “girl” to describe ourselves, to describe other people, to describe people who are older than us, younger than us. And you see some real generational divides. And then you also see in divisions in terms of culture, where there was “grrl” and “girl power,” and suddenly that was taken over, and you had to start calling everyone “lady.” I hope that those terms don’t seem compulsory. But I do think that there can be a certain amount of feeling — it’s kind of like a password or a code. I think that — especially the term “lady” for the past few years — it was “Oh, you’re going to love this great lady.” Or “Have you seen this lady that’s making cupcakes at the flea market or the pop-up shop?” Or whatever. I think there’s a certain shorthand to it. But is it necessary? No. But I think that if it makes you feel good, if it makes you feel as if you’re in on something.

(Image: Shayla Hason)

The Bat Segundo Show #328: Marisa Meltzer (Download MP3)

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RIP Mark Linkous

Rolling Stone: “Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous has committed suicide…Linkous’ dramatic, lush music often came from a place of pain. In 1996, Linkous actually died for two minutes after ingesting a dangerous mix of Valium and antidepressants while on tour in the U.K. behind Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. He recovered, but the incident left him crippled — he laid unconscious for 14 hours, cutting off circulation to his legs. He suffered a heart attack when medics attempted to straighten his legs, and underwent seven surgeries to save his damaged limbs. But after the incident, he recorded 1999’s Good Morning Spider, 2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life and 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.”

The above video was directed by Guy Maddin.

Gordon Lightfoot is Not Dead

Several major news outlets erroneously reported that Gordon Lightfoot was dead. None thought to perform the basic journalistic task of confirming the news against, oh say, a medical examiner or a coroner. Perhaps everybody wanted to believe that Gordon Lightfoot was dead. His music, after all, has fulfilled some marvelous need for schmaltz.

But I’m very pleased to know that Gordon Lightfoot is still alive, still determined to honor us with his unique brand of cheese and sensitivity. Let us all then celebrate the magnificent force known as Gordon Lightfoot, letting the inspiring message of “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” bask our souls in this grim economy.

A Special Musical Interlude from Stacey Q!

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Fun Facts!

The song was recorded on a TASCAM 85-16. (Source)

In 1986, Tampa Bay DJ Bubba the Love Sponge of WFLZ managed to talk a women out of suicide. She had called in to request “Two of Hearts” as her last song. (Source)

Stacey Q played a character named “Cinnamon” on an episode of The Facts of Life and sang the song at the end. The episode was called “Off-Broadway Baby” and was the fifth episode in season eight. It originally aired on November 1, 1986. A video clip from the episode can be enjoyed on YouTube. (Source)

There was also an episode of Full House in which Kimmy and DJ try and get an autograph from Stacey Q. (Source)

“Put a foursquare disco beat under the music, and Americans might dance to it; exchange a long, intricate melody for a short, repeated hook and more Westerners will think it’s catchy. But follow that recipe too closely, and you end up with Stacey Q singles.” (Source)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #279.

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and reports indicate that he is loved, in turn, by the actor James Franco.

segundo279

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Evading the pomp and circumstance of cultural taxonomies.

Author: Carl Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Celine Dion and incompatible tastes, Elliott Smith, the questioning of canonical knowledge, Paul Valery’s concept of taste composed of a thousand distastes, TV on the Radio, choosing sides when dismissing trash, defying the stereotypes of Celine Dion fans, snobbish record store clerks and zealous fans, anti-snobbery, false dichotomies and cultural advantage, culture and existing power structures, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the Internet and the music industry, fans and cultural capital, Immanuel Kant and “common sense,” cultural consensus, the Beatles, questioning Wilson’s party criteria, middlebrow aesthetes in newspapers, separating the person from the artist, the relationship between vituperative feelings and meeting people, the celebrity-industrial complex, Dion’s 2005 appearance on Larry King, whether or not Larry King mocks his guests, judging a person on a handful of eccentricities, whether it’s possible to see the “real” Celine Dion, reinforcing celebrity image, whether or not personal information about an artist can affect your opinion about the art, Michael Jackson, “classic” vs. contemporary pop culture, the expiration date of scorn, that damn song from Titanic, Celine Dion in Vegas, music and emotional frames of reference, the problems with the word “social” being applied to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the problems with “hip,” coolness and judgment, the Mountain Goats, the perceived “hipness” of alt-music boosters, authenticity, “keeping it real,” and civil disagreement.

(Note: Video excerpt forthcoming.)

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

wilson2Correspondent: But look at the Beatles and Elvis. I mean, this would seem to me to confirm the ideal conditions. It would be very difficult to find someone who is a music lover who hates the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis. I mean, there’s a fairly common consensus. Even if you don’t love them, you can at least appreciate the achievement of these bands that just went in and likewise captured the popular consensus. And this is a little bit different from Celine Dion.

Wilson: It is.

Correspondent: In which there’s an artistic criteria likewise being applied. So how do you separate this?

Wilson: I mean, it’s different than Celine Dion. And it’s different than Stockhausen. Right? So look at them as poles of a spectrum and the Beatles and Elvis as being somewhere in the center of that spectrum. By the end of the book, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book about taste and different ways of thinking about it and criticism. And the thing, that at the end of this whole process of immersing myself into a different taste world than my own, was that where those big aesthetic disagreements arise, my tendency at this point is to suspect that really it’s a problem of terms. That people are arguing on a different set of assumptions than one another, but that their conclusions are perhaps equally valid. But that doesn’t mean that I think now that Celine Dion and the Beatles are equals. And it would be a whole other sort of chapter of this exploration to figure out where to find some kind of more objective set of measurements for greatness. But if you’re using populism and anti-populism hand in hand, what you do find with people like Elvis and the Beatles, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles — you know, they kind of win all of those contests. I’m not saying everything’s the same.

Correspondent: Then what accounts for the aberrative impulse for Celine Dion then?

Wilson: I think that there are things that are confirmed both by elite opinion and populist opinion. And in those cases, it’s kind of good to think, “Oh, well, whichever direction you come from, this gets through the gates.” What explains what doesn’t get through one set of gates and what doesn’t get through another set of gates. And so the book is more concerned with aesthetic disagreement than aesthetic agreement. And it’s a question of when we have these fights. When you’re at a party and somebody’s saying, “This is great,” and you’re saying, “This is terrible,” what are you really talking about? And my suspicion is that you’re talking about something that has more of a deeply autobiographical root than it has any connection to some objective set of markers. But that’s not to say that there might not be works of art that are more profound and universal than others.

Correspondent: But see, Carl, this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. Because you’re applying a criteria here where if I go to a party to express a particular opinion about music, I’m immediately going to focus in on Celine Dion and absolutely damn her to the skies. When, in fact, in my case, I have not actually thought about Celine Dion in any serious capacity until I read your book. I mean, I largely ignored her. So this is why I’m a little suspicious. I mean, I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m a little suspicious of how you’re applying such a broad brush to how we have tastes and how we express those tastes at parties.

Wilson: Well, it might just be that Celine’s not the best example for you. But maybe Whitney Houston is a good example for you. I think there’s a whole category…

Correspondent: I ignore her too!

Wilson: But that just, to me, speaks to the aesthetic world that you live in — it’s well cordoned off enough from places where you might have to deal with that. But, I mean, the places where I use as examples in setting this up is, in the media, the people who are representatives of our tribe. You know, the aesthetes. Which are middlebrow aesthetes in terms of who’s writing a column in the newspaper. Celine is a very favorite whipping boy.

Correspondent: Whipping boy. Have you looked at her lately?

(Photo credit: David Waldman)

BSS #279: Carl Wilson (Download MP3)

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Billy Joel: “Fuck You”

A few days ago, I openly pondered why Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust” was released to the airwaves. I vowed to track down the people responsible, but, frankly, I forgot about the issue altogether. But tonight, Billy Joel responded from Australia (where he is now preparing for a few tour dates) through one of his Robert Burns LLC email accounts with the following comment:

Here’s my ‘ouvre’ – Fuck You. Sincerely, Billy Joel

Presumably, the jet lag that Mr. Joel was suffering from caused him to misspell “oeuvre.” Or perhaps he is not accustomed to typing. But I’m disappointed. Frankly, I expected more from Mr. Joel. Perhaps some lengthy explanation on why he steered down this regrettable musical path and gave us “A Matter of Trust.” Perhaps a defense of the endless F Sharps and C Sharps within this particular song. Yes, it can’t be easy to take some constructive criticism when you’re sitting on millions of dollars. And it can’t be easy when you’re a major pop star now relying on AutoTune to sing the national anthem on live television. But let us give Mr. Joel the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Mr. Joel is suggesting with his answer that his entire career has been predicated on saying “Fuck You” to the general public. And if that’s the case, then I thank Mr. Joel for his candor. Perhaps things would be different if a little bit of this “Fuck You” attitude was in the new material. But “Fuck You” is Mr. Joel’s explanation. And “Fuck You” represents Billy Joel’s career from 1985 onwards. Which is a pity. Because I actually kind of liked his early stuff.

Name That Tune!

Not long ago, I listened to a remarkably wretched piece of music, perhaps dating from the late 1980s, while waiting for someone. Now I had not heard this song for a number of years. It was sung by a needlessly husky New Age-like Michael McDonald-sounding singer. Perhaps it was McDonald for all I knew. The song was certainly written and recorded with the intention of being played all the time on easy listening radio.

Days later, the manufactured melody has become a dreaded earworm. What is most curious about this insipid little song is that, perhaps in an effort to protect myself, I have deliberately blanked out on the lyrics. Maybe I just don’t want to remember. Or perhaps this reflects a certain trauma related to the song that may come up once I have discovered its identity. But the phrase “matter of touch” seems to be there. Here are the notes in question for the main verse, which repeats about four times in the song:

F# / F# / F# / F# / F# / G / F# / E / D / C# / A
F# / F# / F# / F# / F# / G / F# / E / D / C# / A
(one octave lower) F# / A / C# (suspiciously similar — perhaps deliberately so? — to the beginning of the crescendo of the Carpenters’s “Close to You”)
A / B / C# / C# / C# / C# / C# / B / A / C#
A / B / C# / C# / C# / C# / C# / D / E / D

Now in that last line, this McDonald-like warbler ends this tune with the lyrical fragment in question. It could be something along the lines of “But it’s really just a matter of touch.” That sounds right, although I suspect it’s dreadfully wrong.

Do you know what this song is? And if you have had to endure it at any point in your life, have you experienced any specific trauma related to it? What I think we need to do here is determine what the song is, track down the people responsible (I will make phone calls; don’t you worry), and find out why this tune was emitted over the airwaves. There is, I suspect, a big story here that may yield unexpected truths.

[UPDATE: The ever helpful Doug Finch has correctly identified the song as Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust.” Rest assured, there will be efforts to track down Mr. Joel and get him to answer for this atrocity. This particular song in his oeuvre is the least Billy Joel-sounding — a fey cross between Michael McDonald and Bruce Springsteen. More TK.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Pale Young Gentlemen

Pale Young Gentlemen appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #242. The band is currently touring across the United States, and has just released its second album, Black Forest (tra la la).

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with unexpected discrimination during the economic crisis.

Guest: Michael Reisenauer (of Pale Young Gentlemen)

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Reisenauer: We’ll actually write through entire songs and entire arrangements, and then cast them away and then start over.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: That happened a lot with this album. As the songs started fitting together, certain things didn’t work at all anymore, didn’t work for the mood of the entire album anymore. So we had to change the arrangement so it fit better. Drums are one of the things that I have absolutely no knowledge about.

Correspondent: So you defer to Matt.

Reisenauer: I can’t play them. So he’ll play things. And he’ll do things. “Don’t do that anymore.” “That’s bad.” “That’s great.” Or “do that again.” You know, that kind of stuff.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Do you have any input on specific sounds? Or is that all Matthew? I note, for example, there’s that sound during “The Crook of My Good Arm,” where you have something that sounds between a cowbell and a gas station bell.

Reisenauer: Yeah, I can tell you what that is. I was having trouble with that song, and so I decided I’d just demo it in my apartment on an eight-track. So I just had the guitar line. And I was just messing around. And I was headed at a table. And at the table was a Pottery Barn-like fruit bowl. And so I just took the end of a handle on some scissors and banged on the inside of it.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: We used that on the record too. We brought that bowl into the studio.

Correspondent: It was that bowl.

Reisenauer: With the back of the scissors.

Correspondent: Did you try any other bowls out?

Reisenauer: No! It was the perfect sound right away.

Correspondent: It was one bowl and it worked out.

Reisenauer: Yeah, we didn’t mess with it at all.

Correspondent: Are there any other percussive scenarios like that? Where you banged on something and it turned out to be just that particular one? A divine act of serendipity?

Reisenauer: (laughs) Nothing like that on the album. We tried other various things. Matt had an idea for a song using a wrench. A ratchet wrench going KWHLEKT. Like that. That kind of stuff. But it didn’t end up fitting well for the album.

BSS #242: Pale Young Gentlemen (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #235. Levitin is most recently the author of The World in Six Songs.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recalling a traumatic musical episode from his marriage.

Author: Daniel Levitin

Subjects Discussed: Songs that straddle multiple categories within Levitin’s taxonomy, neurological response vs. societal perception of a song, the original eight categories, oxytocin, “I Walk the Line,” Nine Inch Nails, hypothetical subspecies of comfort songs, angst and emo, Janis Ian, social comparison theory, joy songs and advertising jingles, chemical levels rising in relation to specific musical genres, serotonin levels and music, cortisol, responding to Steven Pinker’s “auditory cheesecake” controversy, Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, the evolution of language and music, David Huron’s “honest signal” hypothesis, attempts to predict hit music, advertising and music, insincere pop music, smart audiences, the pernicious use of music, the use of Van Halen’s “Panama” to get Manuel Noriega out of his bunker, music used to torture people in Abu Ghraib, and using music in ways that it wasn’t originally intended.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We have six categories. Can you name a single song that can be applied for all six categories? Have you considered examples along these lines?

Levitin: I’m sure if you gave me enough time, I could.

Correspondent: You have thirty seconds. (laughs)

Levitin: (laughs) Well, I’m going to go with “I Walk the Line.” Because I think it’s a very rich song. In the book, I make the case that it crosses two categories.

Correspondent: It really walks the line here.

Levitin: Right. At the surface level, I believe that it looks like a love song. A guy singing to the woman he loves, “Because you’re mine.” There’s a “you” in it. “Because you’re mine / I walk the line.” I’m not cheating on you. But the point I make in the book is that really I think at a deeper level, he’s not really singing it to her. He’s singing it to himself. It’s like a musical string around his finger reminding me of all he has at stake here. “I find it very, very easy to be true / I’m alone when each day is through.” I don’t think so. I don’t think you’ve been alone every night. And I don’t think that you find it that easy to be true. I mean, I think it’s a struggle. And he’s reminding himself of all that he has at stake. That’s a knowledge song. Self-knowledge.

Now at the same time, I think that you can argue that there’s an element of comfort here. People who have been in a similar situation take comfort in hearing it expressed this way. I listen to music often because the songwriter helps me to understand feelings that I haven’t been able to articulate. The right song comes on. Aha! That’s how I feel. And I find that comforting.

Correspondent: I’m wondering also if identifying song by the six categories is a matter of identifying perhaps a dominant and a recessive category for each particular song. Perhaps a stronger song is more likely to have at least two categories attached to it. Or maybe some songs are utterly simple and just intended to serve one purpose. I mean, it all depends on any number of factors. Maybe you can talk about this a little bit.

Levitin: Well, I think the other aspect of it is that it’s not that the songs themselves fit into six categories. It’s that these are the six ways that people use music. The six ways that people have had music in their lives. The six ways that they use to communicate with one other.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about comfort songs. You cite specific personal examples. But I wanted to give you a personal example that I had as a teenager. I had a tendency to blast Nine Inch Nails quite loud. It was a comfort song to me largely because I would listen to this man who was utterly depressed. And I’d say to myself in a sad state, “Oh, you know, there is someone who is worse off than me.” And it was a way for me to corral my emotions with reason. However, the examples that you use in the comfort chapter tend to be people who are looking just for emotional comfort, but not this association between reason and emotion. And I was wondering if it’s very possible that we could be talking about two subspecies of comfort songs.

Levitin: What do you mean? The connection between reason and emotion?

Correspondent: Well, by listening to Trent Reznor, I would be able to immediately understand that my own particular emotions were somewhat folly in some sense. And the rational part of my teenage brain would kick in. And I’d say, “I’m beating myself up here for no reason.”

Levitin: Kind of like listening to Morrissey.

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly!

Levitin: “I want to kill myself.”

Correspondent: Any of the emo.

Levitin: “Everything’s bad tonight.” (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly. I mean, should we draw two types of distinctions in comfort songs along these lines? I mean, we have to factor in emo. We just do.

BSS #235: Daniel Levitin

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The Bat Segundo Show: Brent Spiner

Brent Spiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #233. Spiner is most recently a producer and performer on the album, Dreamland.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ducking his head and dodging paranoid crooners.

Guest: Brent Spiner

Subjects Discussed: Natural reverb, conversational limitations, co-owning a recording studio with Dave Way, being a control freak, the shaky profitability of the music industry, self-distributing a CD through Bellarama, David Byrne’s DIY article, the lack of response from magazines and newspapers vs. the response from blogs and online sites, being restricted by self-production, the distribution for Ol’ Yellow Eyes is Back, getting mechanical rights for the songs, merging “I Love You” with “Nice and Easy,” the difficulties of getting Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” DJ Giagni, tap dancing and footfalls, sound effects, maracas that appear on the left speaker, arguments for and against the older man-younger woman musical trope, certain elements that are holding back Dreamland from being transposed to a live performance, the belting quality of Spiner’s voice, wrestling, Spiner’s extraordinary claims as an opera singer, Mark Hamill as a figure to help smooth over the rancor between two popular science fiction franchises, growing up in Houston, the demolition of the Shamrock Hilton in June 1987, Cecil Pickett and the brothers Quaid, Randy Quaid and Actors’ Equity, Spiner’s complex feelings for Rutger Hauer, Hauer and Whoopi Goldberg, taking umbrage with YouTube commenters, working with Maude Maggart, signing on for a six-year contract for a show that rhymes with “car wreck,” committing to a project without knowing when it will end, Threshold, negotiating the limitations of television, the relationship between art vs. commerce, why Spiner moved to Los Angeles, Superhero Movie, living like a college student vs. an adult lifestyle, and the trappings and consistent struggles of being an actor.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I should observe that you grew up in Houston.

Spiner: Yes.

Correspondent: Of course, for a long time, the Shamrock Hilton was there.

Spiner: Right.

Correspondent: And what is rather unusual is that it was demolished in June 1987, which almost exactly coincides with your big break on the show that shall not be named. I was wondering if you ever contemplated this connection, and whether the hotel [in Dreamland] may have jumped out because of this. Why did you choose the hotel? And what of the Shamrock Hilton?

Spiner: You know what, Ed, I’m not sure what the question is really. And I’m not even sure you know what the question is.

Correspondent: No, no, I’m just throwing associations at you.

Spiner: Yeah, you know what?

Correspondent: I figured that you can handle this.

Spiner: Let me say, and I will say the word, I did Star Trek purposefully because of the demise of the Shamrock Hotel.

Correspondent: Yeah. I knew it.

Spiner: There was no other reason that I took that job. When they told me…

Correspondent: …that Houston was dead to you.

Spiner: Yeah, Houston was dead to me once the Shamrock Hilton was gone. But let me just say this. How do you know about the Shamrock Hilton?

Correspondent: I just am curious.

Spiner: Are you from Houston?

Correspondent: No, I’m not. I’ve never actually been in Texas, aside from, I believe, a layover. But I just knew about it. I knew that big people came through there.

Spiner: Yup. Oh! Please.

Correspondent: And so I figured you hung out there.

Spiner: I did.

Correspondent: When these big people made their way through there.

Spiner: I once saw Mel Torme at the Shamrock.

Correspondent: Really?

Spiner: At the Shamrock pool. Walking fast. And even more importantly, I once saw Jock Mahoney doing chin-ups outside by the Shamrock pool.

Correspondent: Did you talk with these folks when you were there?

Spiner: You know, I didn’t. I wish I’d talked to Jock Mahoney, which is another story altogether.

Download BSS #233: Brent Spiner (MP3)

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Misheard Lyrics — The New York Times Edition

New York Times Corrections: “Because of an editing error, the TV Watch Column on Wednesday, comparing coverage of Senator Barack Obama’s trip overseas with coverage of Senator John McCain, gave an incorrect title in some copies for a Frankie Valli song used in a video by the McCain campaign to mock reporters’ coverage of Mr. Obama’s trip. The song is ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ — not ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.'”

One can only imagine the 20-minute conversation that occurred because of this slip-up. A poor copy editor, no doubt feeling the vicious sting of too many twelve-hour days, received a terrible phone call at his apartment last night, just before placing his well-earned spliff between his lips.

OMBUDSMAN: You call yourself a copy editor! This is inexcusable!

COPY EDITOR: Wha…what?

OMBUDSMAN: The Frankie Valli reference, you cocky son of a bitch! It’s “Off You,” not “Off of You.” How old are you, son?

COPY EDITOR: Uh….twenty-eight. Look, can we talk about this tomorrow in the office?

OMBUDSMAN: The New York Times never sleeps! We’re journalists, you arrogant incompetent. Twenty-eight? Just as I thought! You’ve never even heard of AM radio, have you? You’re too young to know who Frankie Valli is! Well, this time, you’ve gone too far! Our readers depend on us for accuracy. And if you can’t be bothered to get it right…

COPY EDITOR: It wasn’t a Frankie Valli profile.

OMBUDSMAN: That’s not the point. You think you’re hot shit, son? Let me give you a two-word sentence to improve upon: You’re fired! Clean out your desk tomorrow.

COPY EDITOR: (sounds of crying) It was just a throwaway reference. Please, sir, I’ll download the top 500 Boomer hits on iTunes and memorize all the lyrics. It won’t happen again.

OMBUDSMAN: Only if you can lick my boots while you’re downloading.

COPY EDITOR: I’ll send a letter of apology and some flowers to Frankie Valli. Please, sir, anything!

OMBUDSMAN: We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning. I’m glad you understand the gravity of this situation. In the meantime, I’ll have another copy editor print up a correction for the morning edition.

COPY EDITOR: Thank you, sir! I’m sorry.

OMBUDSMAN: This is the 21st century, son. There’s no place for gratitude in journalism.