Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My New Old Hero

... who is, of course, Billy Preston. Who's Billy Preston?

1. A session pianist for the Beatles (Get Back, Let It Be, A Bunch of Stuff on the White Album)
2. The creator of dazzling keyboard-driven instrumentals (Space Race, Outta Space)
3. The writer and performer of some of the most interesting 70s soul songs (Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles)
4. A damn fine songwriter (You Are So Beautiful)
5. Many other things

In this blog entry I will address each of these themes, followed by a general discussion of what makes Billy Preston so cool. Finally, I will demonstrate that Billy Preston is awesome, and has always been my hero, even though I didn't know it.

1. As an electric piano nerd, I have a special place in my heart for Billy Preston - his playing on the Beatles' album Let It Be (1970) constitutes the earliest recording of a Fender Rhodes, the most famous electric piano. In this respect Preston plays a similar role to one that one of my other heroes, Ray Charles, plays for the Wurlitzer electric piano - "What'd I Say" (1959) being the song that popularized Wurlitzers, and electric pianos in general.

2. The two instrumental songs mentioned above are great, though dated. I'm not sure if this adds to or distracts from their overall quality. Whatever. "Space Race" in particular has a beautiful melody. And "Outta Space" exploits everyone's favorite trick of running a Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal. Did I mention I was an electric piano nerd?

3. "Nothing from Nothing" was on a few commercials several years back. I'd never heard it before then, and was struck by its simple elegance. Though firmly a creature of its time and place, it transcends 70s soul with gentle musical wit.

4. His most famous song is undoubtedly "You Are So Beautiful," but hardly anyone (including myself scant months ago) knows he wrote it. He also recorded it, and his recording is at once more restrained and more soulful than Joe Cocker's famous version - if there were a musical equivalent of "chewing the scenery" it would apply perfectly to the Joe Cocker recording. Incidentally there have always been rumors that Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys' drummer, co-wrote this song. This is part of the posthumous apotheosis and hagiography surrounding Dennis Wilson ("he was the only Beach Boy who could surf," etc.), which makes me skeptical. Unless Preston himself were to confirm it, I would take it with a medium-sized grain of salt.

So this adds up to quite a career, albeit a quiet one. One consistent quality of his music is a seeming effortlessness that I find in a lot (but not all) of the music I like. Sometimes when I hear a great song for the first time I feel either like I've known it for my whole life, or that it sounds inevitable - of course that song goes like that; how could it not? My only qualm is that if a songwriter achieves this sort of grace, the result might seem unoriginal or boring, and might even escape attention. But I feel Billy Preston's music avoids this pitfall.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My 15 Minutes

I am an excellent time-waster (anyone who writes - or reads - yes, that means you - a blog must be). One of my time-wasting strategies has been to enter the New Yorker's weekly cartoon caption contest. To my utter shock, I am a finalist in this week's contest. Here it is:

"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

The brain is excellent at seeing the downside of something good. Here's what my brain came up with:

1. It's not the best one, and perhaps not even one I'd want the world to see with my name attached. That word 'booty' is problematic, after all. Furthermore:

2. I've really enjoyed submitting these, and I feel it would be silly to continue doing so now that one has made it into the magazine. Thus I've decided that instead of submitting them, I'll just post my caption ideas right here. That's right, folks, for the price of an internet connection you can see the intermittent contributions of an actual published cartoon caption writer.

Through next Sunday (11/27/05) you can even vote for my caption - or against it. [Update: too late now.] That first caption is pretty damn funny too, after all. If it wins I won't feel too bad. [It didn't. Neither did mine. The one that did was the one that everyone I know thought was the least funny. Do I feel bad? No - hoi polloi may not have chosen me, but the editors of the New Yorker did. Which, incidentally, is cooler.]

[Another update: Bob Mankoff wrote the following letter. To whom, I don't know. Frankly, I'm a bit suspicious as to its provenance, as I snagged it from cyberspace. But since it seems to be Mankoff discussing my very caption inter alia, I thought I would post it for posterity. Post-erity.]

Dear Captioneer,

Thanks for all your submissions (over 200,000 to date). That's right, thanks for all of them. Even the ones that are, shall we say, terrible—oops, I meant not quite right for us. Making humor is, by its nature, an uneven enterprise, even for folks who do it for a living. Often, in looking over the contests, you'll find that someone who had a very good entry in one contest submits another that completely falls flat. To be funny demands a certain kind of courage: the courage to be silly, look stupid, and, many times, not even get the payoff of a laugh. If we ever do a book about the caption contest, I think a good title might be Captions Courageous.

At Caption Contest Headquarters at The New Yorker, we receive, along with thousands of submissions every week for the contest itself (average: 7,000), many e-mails and phone calls wanting to know more about the contest. Many of these fall into the category of "Why didn't I win?" Well, what can we say, but that with 7,000 entries a week—well you do the math. Actually we have no idea what the math is or how to do it, but you get the idea.

And, even if you have a good caption, it's going to end up competing with others of a similar vein. The fact is that while there are thousands of entries for each contest, there are not thousands of different comic ideas. For example, in contest #27 over 95% of the captions could be grouped in the following categories, here shown with a few representative examples.

"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Your idea is stupid!" "Your idea is stupid!"

"I thought we could use the additional feedback!"
"Even yes-men need yes-men."
"All right, let's just say we agree to agree!"

Parrots as clothes or objects
"Well, at least we didn't all wear the same tie."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"I put my parrot on the same way as everybody else, Bill. One talon at a time."

"Nothing we say leaves this room."
"Well I guess that's the last time I'll ever confide in a parrot."
"Can you keep a secret?"

"The parrot's okay, but if you ask me it's a peg leg that really says you've arrived."
"This is nice but I really prefer hands-on piracy."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

"Every meeting it's the same—'Motion carries—more crackers!'"
"We've got to get past this issue of who wants a cracker."
"Cracker for your thoughts?"

From these we ended up picking the three finalists:
"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

Each one represents a different angle on how to resolve the incongruity of the image in a satisfactorily funny way. Which one turns out to be most satisfactory and funny is a matter of taste, not truth. So enjoy the contests and the results, but don't take them too seriously or at least not so much that you have to call us about it.

Bob Mankoff
Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Best of Both Worlds

I bought two CDs - Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch and Antony and the Johnsons' I am a bird now. Both are wonderful, and both are wonderful for the same reason, though they are quite distinct. The reason? Both manage to create strange, idiosyncratic music that is nevertheless immediately appealing. Antony Hegarty combines his pseudo-operatic voice with lyrics exploring gender ambiguity, and wraps it up in a soulful Stax-Volt style. Regina Spektor is harder to describe; her songs are elegantly structured, rendered with a sort of minimalist panache.

So how do these two musicians combine radical originality with equally radical likeability? If I had the answer I'd be out making my own radical, likeable music instead of my bland, pleasant music. I think, though, that it lies in both musicians use of direct, well-crafted yet simple melodies and in their considerable vocal power. Thus their own strange aesthetic visions are rendered in a palatable - no, delicious - form. I suspect, too, that both reached this level of achievement through hard work; Antony Hegarty is only just now finding a mass audience at the age of 37, after well over a decade of honing his craft in New York's underground cabarets. Spektor, though younger, has obviously gone through a process of honing her craft; her early work consists largely of Billie Holiday imitations, which, though pretty, are nowhere near as interesting or as enjoyable as her most recent album.

On the whole, I would say Spektor's music is more varied and interesting than Antony's, but perhaps less consistent; Antony's is simpler and catchier, but less original in terms of songcraft, and is ever so slightly monotonous. Ironically, I couldn't find his album at Kim's because it was filed under "Experimental," whereas Spektor is being marketed towards a more mainstream audience. Both, however, have been featured on NPR; I was thrilled to hear Antony tell Elizabeth Blair that his grandmother wishes his music were happier - my own grandmother said the same thing about my songs. So I guess me and him have that in common.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Wizard of [ɑz]

I caught the tail end of the "Wizard of Oz" the other night, and was struck, naturally, by the way the actors talked. Isn't that the point of the movie? Among four main characters there are three distinct styles of pronunciation - all of them rather stagey, but interesting nevertheless. Dorothy, I think, is meant to sound fairly generic. Unlike the other Kansas characters she has no Midlands twang, though her speech is rhotic to the point of exaggeration, that is, she doesn't drop "r"s after vowels. In fact she is the only main character who is rhotic - the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman have what strikes me as an old-fashioned kind of formal American English which affects a pseudo-British "r" dropping, though both actors are from derhoticizing Boston, which could explain it. Bert Lahr, the actor who played the Cowardly Lion, is from New York, and his character, fittingly, has an exaggerated New York accent. Indeed, it seems possible that the Cowardly Lion's lines were written to be delivered in such an accent; why else would his aria, as it were, feature so prominently the word nerve - "noive," and others that rhyme with it. The Cowardly Lion also has a grammatical feature that crops up twice that absolutely floored me - Seeing the witch he says, "Who's her? Who's her?" Then later, seeing the Winkies, he says "Who's them? Who's them?" I've never heard anything like this, but I wonder if it used to be a feature of New York English, and maybe other vernaculars as well. Case is tricky in English; like any speaker of real English I use oblique pronouns in situations where high school English teachers say you shouldn't, but not in this case.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Coolest Blog Ever Blug

In case you ever wondered what the best blog on the internet is, it is the following:
טאגבוך פון חיים טוביאס. It is in Yiddish, so I will translate a few entries, for the small minority of people who can't read Yiddish:


is very pretty with its various shapes and colors


It is cheap, easy, doesn't make you fat, and is satisfying and tasty

Toilet Paper

It is soft and cheap; I can clean myself properly with it and not bleed

The blogger in question is clearly a Hasidic Jew. Some have wondered if his simplicity is naive or deliberate; I lean towards the latter - though I think his childlike wonder is genuine, I think his strange poetic evocations of it reflect a high degree of sophistication, though quite possibly a homemade sophistication. While other Hasidic bloggers have tended towards dazzling displays of wit and knowledge, Chaim takes the opposite route, with charming and intriguing results.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Positive Anymore - What The Heck Does That Mean?

Well, I'll tell you. Have you ever heard someone say something like, "I just take the stairs anymore," or "Anymore you've gotta be careful going out at night"?

Chances are, you're thinking one of two things:

1) Of course - why are you even asking?
2) Of course not - why would anyone talk like that, and what's wrong with them?

The grammatical construction that provokes these two opposing responses is called "positive anymore," because in standard English you can only use 'anymore' in negative constructions. Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but I don't want to get too technical. Isn't it strange, though, that to some people these sentences seem perfectly normal whereas to others they seem to barely even be English? But that's just the beginning. I think that the groups of people who insist that Positive Anymore is nonsense aren't necessarily the ones who don't use it. This constructions flies under many people's proverbial radar. I have a story that highlights this: I was talking with three people from Denver, when one of them said something like "I really like radicchio anymore." Being a weirdo, I was compelled to point this out. Her landsleit were shocked that anyone would say something like that, but they were even more shocked that they had understood it without evening noticing. Strange, no? Stranger still is that this key feature of dialect can't be neatly summed up by geography - everyone was from Denver.

It's things like that that keep me going: details that show that beneath the calm surface of everyday life are eddies of surprise and wonder. That's what I hope this blog will be about. At least in theory. In practice it will be an outlet for my thoughts about language and music, my two main interests.

Read on and share your thoughts.