Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TBT: The Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer in the City."

It was ninety degrees in the shade yesterday, so this may seem an obvious choice. Maybe too obvious. Still, I like the song. It's worn well.

In the photo at left the band are (from bottom to top): John Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky, Joe Butler, and Steve Boone. Yanovsky left the band in 1967 and Sebastian in '68, both to pursue solo careers. Yanovsky died in 2002. The group disbanded in 1969, but in 1991 Boone and Butler, along with Jerry Yester, who had replaced Yanovsky in '67, re-formed the band. The Lovin' Spoonful continue today with Boone, Butler, Yester, Mike Arturi, and Phil Smith.

Note: when I first posted this, I misidentified the order of the band members in the photo, and misspelled "Yanovsky." My friend and rock maven extraordinaire Michael Simmons set me straight, and I've corrected the post accordingly.

Photo: Wikipedia.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Steeleye Span at B.B. King's, New York, July 23, 2015.

When my wife said Steeleye Span were to appear at B.B. King's I was surprised, thinking the group, an old favorite of mine, had broken up years ago. They did break up in 1978, when lead singer Maddy Prior wanted to pursue a solo career. Nevertheless, Maddy later reconstituted the band, of which she is now the only original member. In the photo above the band members are (from left to right): guitarist and vocalist Julian Littman; fiddler and vocalist Jessie May Smart; Maddy Prior; bassist Nils JerusalemP, who recently joined the band in Seattle as a replacement for Maddy's son, Alex Kemp, who, according to Maddy, had some "paperwork problems" entering the U.S.; and drummer Liam Genockey.

The band opened with "Blackleg Miner," a song about a nineteenth century coal miners' strike. A "blackleg" was a strikebreaker, or scab. The clip above, made some years ago, shows an earlier lineup of musicians. Maddy carries the vocal by herself. At the performance last week, the other band members joined in harmony. Maddy, who will celebrate her 68th birthday on August 14, has a voice that is every bit as strong and in command of its full range as when she was younger, but the harmony vocals gave this song more of the "oomph" it needs.

Their next song came from my favorite of their albums, Commoners Crown. "Long Lankin" is a typical old English ballad, telling of betrayal, child murder, hanging, and burning at the stake. Some of Steeleye Span's songs, lovely as they are to hear, have very dark lyrics. This is because Medieval England, from which place and time these songs originated, was, for many, a place and time where life, to borrow the words of the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, could be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The clip above is audio only; it starts with an image of the album cover, then goes to solid black. Dark indeed.

"King Henry" starts darkly: the King finds himself in a haunted house in the company of a horrific female ghoul who, in the words of Julian Littman, who introduced the song and took the lead vocal, forces him to "kill his household pets," which she devours, then to join her in bed. It ends on a bright note, though; he wakes up the following morning to find next to him the loveliest woman he's ever seen. It's good to be the King.

The band ended the concert (except for a lovely a cappella encore, the title of which I can't remember) with "Thomas the Rhymer." This song has a theme common to many of its vintage: a man, or sometimes a woman, is captured by an elf or fairy queen or king, goes through some sort of ordeal, and returns changed in some way. In the case of Thomas, it was supposed to be having the gift of prophecy. Another song, "Tam Lin", as done by another great English folk rock group, Fairport Convention, tells a tale of a man saved from the ordeal by the intervention of his lady love.

I didn't know what to expect of this concert, and was prepared to be disappointed. I was very pleasantly surprised. Maddy Prior is still in top form, and the new band members performed admirably. Special mention goes to Jessie May Smart, whose fiddle playing was extraordinary, and to Nils JerusalemP, who obviously has learned the band's repertoire quickly and adeptly.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

TBT: The Tams, "What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am?"

California in the 1960s had the Beach Boys; the East Coast, from Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia, had Beach Music. The Tams, from Atlanta, along with Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, exemplified this easy rolling, party friendly style of rhythm and blues. Two versions of the Tams survive today.

Perhaps the best remembered of their hits is "What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am?" Hear it below:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tania Grossinger, 1937-2015

Tania Grossinger's autobiography, Memoir of an Independent Woman, begins with the following paragraph:
I was born in Evanston, Illinois on February 17, 1937. My mother, Karla Seifer Grossinger, had, in her seventh month, been hospitalized for observation. The pregnancy, her first, was not going well. My father, Max, had been admitted to a separate wing ten days earlier with a second heart attack. She overheard two nurses speaking outside her door. "Isn't it a shame that Mr. Grossinger is dying." My mother told me this story when I was six years old; it was one of the rare times she ever mentioned my father. She begged the nurses to let her see him but was warned she might lose the baby if she left her bed. Two minutes later they picked her up from the floor. My heartbeat was undetectable, and a caesarean section was performed, ostensibly to bring out a dead fetus.
From this inauspicious beginning came a woman who would, over the course of her life, become friends with Jackie Robinson and Betty Friedan, and have meaningful encounters with John F. Kennedy, Hugh Hefner, Ayn Rand (who played a joke on her), and Johnny Carson, among others. Details are in her book; my review is here.

This morning I was greatly saddened to learn of her death on Sunday, July 19, at the age of 78. I wish I had been given more time to spend with her; not just to hear her stories of the good (and not so good) and great she had known, but to appreciate her own magnificence,

Addendum: my fellow Lion's Head alum Maureen O'Brien has these words:
RIP Tania Grossinger. You were amazing. I will always remember your infectious smile, laugh, sensitivity, smarts, and heart. Thank you so much for being my friend, Village neighbor, Lion's Head pal and non-stop cheerleader. You and your wonderful books will never be forgotten. You were one of the greats. xoxomo

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A tour of the historic Brooklyn waterfront, with the Working Harbor Committee.

On June 11 my wife and I went on another of the Working Harbor Committee's "Hidden Harbor" tours. A year ago we took one that left from the west, or Hudson River side of Manhattan and went past lower Manhattan, through the Buttermilk Channel between Brooklyn and Governors Island, then across New York Bay to the Kill Van Kull, which lies between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. Passing under the Bayonne Bridge, we went into Newark Bay, where we saw the huge complex of piers and cranes and the container ships docked there. See a photologue here.

Last month's tour went from Pier 17, adjacent to the South Street Seaport on the Manhattan side of the East River just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, and focused on the Brooklyn waterfront. After leaving the dock we headed north, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge (John Roebling, 1883; photo above).
Shortly after, we went under the Manhattan Bridge (Leon Moisseiff, 1912).  Behind the bridge is DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), once an industrial area but now filled with art galleries and studios, high end retail, tech company offices, and mostly very expensive residences.Near the shoreline is part of Brooklyn Bridge Park; at left is an apartment building under construction, revenue from which will help to fund the park's maintenance.
The self-unloading bulk carrier Sophie Oldendorff was discharging her cargo of crushed stone from Canada at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Yard opened in 1806, and from then until the mid 1960s built and serviced many U.S. Navy ships, including the battleships Maine, whose sinking in Havana harbor in 1898 helped to lead to the Spanish-American War, and Missouri, on whose deck Japan signed its surrender, bringing World War Two to a close. The Yard is now an industrial park controlled by a Development Corporation. In addition to docks and a ship repair facility, it is home to many industrial operations and to Steiner Studios, one of the largest production studios outside the Los Angeles area.
Proceeding upriver (technically, the East River isn't a river, but a tidal strait connecting Long Island Sound and Upper New York Bay) we passed under the northernmost of the three bridges connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan: the Williamsburg Bridge (Leffert L. Buck/Henry Hornbostel, 1903). When completed, it was considered by many to be an eyesore; later aesthetic judgments have been kinder. Beyond the bridge in the photo above is the former Domino Sugar Refinery, now, like so many former industrial buildings along the Brooklyn waterfront, being converted for residential use.
We went to the entrance of Newtown Creek, which serves as the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens.
Returning to the Navy Yard, we passed a base for FDNY fireboats.
We also saw Kennedy, training ship for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, in drydock for repairs.
Continuing southward, we went under the Brooklyn Bridge again, then passed Jane's Carousel, in its pavilion designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The colorful structure in the foreground is Tom Fruin's "Kolonihavehus." These are located in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The tall building in the background is One Main Street, formerly part of a cardboard box manufacturing complex and now residential.
This is Fulton Ferry Landing, the Brooklyn terminus of Robert Fulton's steam powered ferry from Manhattan. The steam ferry began service in 1814, but oar and sail powered ferries had plied the same route since the mid 1600s. The steam ferry led to the development of Brooklyn Heights as America's first suburb. Although the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, ferries continued to operate until 1908. Their death knell was sounded by the subways. Today, ferry service is back and ferries to and from Manhattan, Governors Island, Queens, and other Brooklyn locations dock at nearby Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The white building with the tower is a former fireboat house, now occupied by the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. The red brick building at the right, with fire escapes, has at different times been a railroad headquarters and a toilet bowl factory, and is now apartments. The white vessel with the canopy tied to the pier at right is Bargemusic, a popular venue for chamber music concerts. The taller red building at center is the Eagle Warehouse, completed in 1893 and designed by Frank Freeman, a prominent Brooklyn architect who worked in the Romanesque tradition of Henry Hobson Richardson. The building was named for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, edited for a time by Walt Whitman, the headquarters of which had earlier been on the site. Today, like many other commercial and industrial buildings on or near the Brooklyn waterfront, it has been converted to residential use. The tall beige buildings in the background were part of the Squibb pharmaceutical manufacturing complex, are now owned by the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society, better known as Jehovah's Witnesses, and used as part of their administrative and printing operations, As the Witnesses move their operations upstate, they are slated to be sold, no doubt for conversion to residential use.
We passed Brooklyn Bridge Park's landscaped Pier 1 (these were former commercial shipping piers, now converted to parkland) and one of Danish artist Jeppe Hein's "Modified Social Benches," part of his "Please Touch the Art" exhibition.

The Japan Coast Guard training ship Kojima (PL 21) was docked at Pier 7, just south of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Laura, a small container carrying freighter, was at the Red Hook Container Port. The demise of this small port has been predicted for some years, as it lacks a railhead and vast acres of storage space, but most importantly, it sits on waterfront land desirable for residential development. Plans for expansion of container port operations in Brooklyn may save it.
Here we're entering the Erie Basin, named for the fact that it was where schooners laden with Midwestern grain discharged their cargo into grain elevators which then loaded them onto oceangoing ships that carried it overseas. The schooners got the grain in Albany, transshipped from Erie Canal barges (hence "Erie Basin") and carried it down the Hudson River. The barges had gotten it in Buffalo from ships that carried it eastwards through the Great Lakes.
The Erie Basin area has many nineteenth century warehouse buildings. The one on the left houses a supermarket on the ground floor; the one on the right has been used for art shows, and the trolley car in the foreground is of the PCC type previously used in Brooklyn.
This retired Lehigh Valley Railroad barge is now a waterfront museum.
After passing Erie Basin, we came close to the famous (or should it be infamous?) Gowanus Canal; from there I got this long-lens shot of the elaborate Gothic entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery.
Continuing southward, we saw the docks where barges from New Jersey load and unload freight cars destined to or from Long Island or New England. 
Looking south, we could see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964), connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. From here, we returned to our dock in Manhattan.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

TBT: The Grateful Dead, "Cumberland Blues."

I am not now, nor was I ever, a Deadhead. I will confess--it is a confession, as I have some friends among the rock cognoscenti who make hatred of the Grateful Dead a kind of verbal secret handshake--that I do like, indeed like very much, some of their stuff. Since they officially disbanded last week, this seems a good time to acknowledge that.

Workingman's Dead is an album I love. All right, I love it mostly because it was the first music I heard after a terrifying ride, helmetless, on the back of a friend's motorcycle along California's coast and cliff hugging Highway One for about twenty miles ("How fast were we going?" "Oh, about eighty on the straights.") in October of 1970. After we re-crossed the Coast Range and headed back into Palo Alto, we stopped at the house of a friend of my friend, who greeted us warmly and invited us in where his wife provided a bottle of liebfraumilch and a pipe filled with Mexico's finest.  Our host asked if we'd heard the new Dead album. We shook our heads "no,"and he put it on. Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore.... Yeah! I'm alive!

After I got the album and listened to it a few times, I decided that "Cumberland Blues," with its bluegrass accents, was my favorite. Hear it above.

Poster image: Brooklyn Museum; Wes Wilson.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Queen Mary 2 arrives in Brooklyn from England, celebrating 175 years of transatlantic service.

In July of 1840 RMS Britannia inaugurated the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's transatlantic liner service. That company would later become the Cunard Line. Today, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 commemorated that voyage on its 175th anniversary, arriving at her American home port in Red Hook, Brooklyn after a voyage from Southampton, England. She was scheduled to arrive at 6:00 a.m., and your correspondent got himself to Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Par to watch and photograph her arrival. In the photo above, the great ship was beginning to emerge from behind Governors Island.
The retired, now privately owned New York City fireboat John J. Harvey saluted Mary as she approached her berth.
The enormous ship had to be turned so that she would be berthed with her bow facing toward the sea. Meanwhile, the tug Kings Point was headed outward, as the high speed ferry Finest came in.
Here's Mary stern on, with Staten Island, an anchored Stolt tanker, and barges in the background.
Among the flotilla of vessels greeting Queen Mary 2 was the historic harbor tanker Mary A. Whalen, now owned by PortSide NewYork, headed by my friend Carolina Salguero.
The great Queen approaches her berth, ending an historic voyage. While she is used mostly for cruising, Queen Mary 2 makes a couple of transatlantic voyages each summer, keeping alive a worthy tradition.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

TBT: John Stewart, "July, You're a Woman"

And I have not been known as the saint of San Joaquin...

Last week my TBT was about the Kingston Trio, featuring a song from their early days, when Dave Guard was their lead singer. Some Trio loyalists disdain anything they did after Guard left, but I liked his replacement, John Stewart, as well, and think some of their best albums were made with him. He left the Trio in the late 1960s and made as his debut solo album California Bloodlines, which ranks in my top ten rock/folk albums of all time.

I love all the songs on that album, but "July, You're a Woman" is appropriate to the month.

John Stewart died a little over seven years ago. I remembered him here, and you can hear two more of his songs by following that link.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

William Ranney, "The Battle of Cowpens."

This painting, by William Ranney (1813-1857), considered one of the foremost American painters of the early nineteenth century, depicts an incident in the Battle of Cowpens, which took place on January 17, 1781 in western South Carolina, near the location of present day Spartanburg. In the painting, "an unnamed black soldier" on the left fires his pistol, "saving the life of Colonel William Washington" (a second cousin once removed of George Washington) on the white horse in the center.

I'm not sure of the title of this painting, or where it now resides. It was completed in 1845, no doubt based on accounts of the battle available to Ranney.

Cowpens was an important victory for the Continental Army, as it set back the British attempt to consolidate their earlier successes in the South--they had earlier captured Savannah in Georgia and Charleston and Camden in South Carolina--and helped to clear the way for the victory at Yorktown later that year.

Friday, July 03, 2015

TBT: The Kingston Trio, "South Coast"

I've written before about the Kingston Trio, who were favorites of mine in my youth, and whose music I still enjoy. Back when they were at the peak of their popularity, in the late 1950s through the mid '60s, folk music purists derided them as button-down shirt wearing poseurs; rich white guys getting richer off poor people's music. There was some truth to this, and today they would be censured, and rightly so, for their fake "Speedy Gonzalez" accents in songs like "Coplas" and "En El Agua." But the majority of their work was, in my opinion, quite good, and some of it superb. They can, I think be credited with introducing American audiences to what came to be called "world music."

"South Coast" is a song I've long liked, but I wondered if, as the Trio claim in their introduction to it during their performance at San Francisco's "Hungry i" club in 1958, which was recorded for their first live album, that it was "written 150 years ago." It wasn't; the lyrics were written by Lillian Bos Ross (1898-1959), author of The Stranger in Big Sur, with music by Sam Eskin and Rich Dehr. This isn't the only error in the Trio's intro; they also refer to "the Big Sur area of the Monterey Peninsula." The Big Sur is south of the Monterey Peninsula. Enjoy the song anyway.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

TBT: Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues."

Eddie Cochran had a hit with "Summertime Blues" (which is what the Mets are having now)  in 1958, when he was nineteen, and died in a car crash when he was 21. He's remembered for his snarling voice and his guitar virtuosity, as well as for other hits like "C'mon Everybody." If James Dean had made music, he would have sounded like Eddie Cochran. 
"Summertime Blues" has been covered a number of times, including by The Who and Blue Cheer.

Addendum: Paul Scanlon, who's probably forgotten more about rock music than I know, reminds me of Eddie's best song, "Cut Across Shorty," which I'll include as a TBT bonus (it's still Thursday, if only barely):

Saturday, June 20, 2015

R.I.P. Wendell Holmes

In the early 1980s some friends and I used to go to a place called Dan Lynch on Second Avenue between 12th and 13th streets (the location is now a taco joint) on nights when there was live music. One of the regular groups there was the Holmes Brothers, whose repertoire was a compelling mixture of blues, gospel, and R&B. The group consisted of Wendell Holmes on guitar and vocals, his brother Sherman on bass and vocals, and Willie "Popsy" Dixon, who died this past January, on drums and vocals. After attending several performances, my friends and I got to know the group, and would socialize with them between sets.

The clip above shows the Holmes Brothers performing "Amazing Grace" at the Kitchener Blues Festival in Kitchener, Ontario in 2010. Today I learned the history of this widely beloved hymn. The author of its words, John Newton, was a slave ship captain who saw the error of his ways and became a clergyman and an ardent campaigner for the abolition of slavery.

This clip is of the Holmes Brothers doing "Feed My Soul" with another Dan Lynch regular, Joan Osborne.

Finally, here are the Brothers, with Joan Osborne and other backup singers, doing "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" on Letterman.

Wendell Holmes died yesterday. Goodbye to a favorite musician, and friend.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

TBT: Ornette Coleman, "Lonely Woman."

Ornette Coleman, who died last week, was, along with Eric Dolphy and others, one of the jazz musicians who took the music a step beyond that of the post World War Two era. He could coax sounds from a saxophone, and other instruments as well, unlike anyone else.

In the video above, he plays "Lonely Woman" at Jazz à Vienne, in 2008. He's accompanied by Tony Falanga, bass; Al MacDowell, electric bass; and Denardo Coleman (his son), drums.


Dare I keep being optimistic about the Mets?

Let's see. They storm back from a bad outing by Gee, now designated for assignment, to win the rubber game of a series with the Braves. Syndegaard pitches well, gets little support, but they manage to hang on and beat the Jays in the 11th. Harvey, subject to rumors of problems following his Tommy John surgery, pitches well in a 5-3 victory in the second game against the Jays. The front office projects David Wright back soon after the All-Star Break. And they enjoy a two game lead in the NL East.

It all looks so good. I hope this observation doesn't collapse their Schrödinger wave function.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

TBT: Jan & Dean, "Sidewalk Surfin' "

It's not officially summer for another ten days or so, but it sure feels like it already, so here's some summer music. Well, truth be told, this song actually charted in October of 1964, a time I remember well. I had just started my higher academic career at the University of South Florida, and there was a guy there; a tall, slender, blond guy; who had something I'd never seen before: a skateboard. He'd ride it around campus; the local terrain was slightly hilly, so he had lengths of sidewalk he could skate down.

"Sidewalk Surfin' " was Messrs Berry and Torrence's attempt to expand the demographic for surf music into more urban territory. As the story goes, Jan Berry tried to write a song about skateboarding, which was just becoming popular at the time, but came up blank. He turned to his friend Brian Wilson who, with his lyricist partner Roger Christian, came up with a song to the tune of the Beach Boys' then recent hit "Catch a Wave".

Bust yer buns!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Of God, children, and she-bears.

The Deity and I, you might say, got off in a bad way. When I was five or six, my mother would read to me from a book, published in the late nineteenth century, Bible Stories for Children: Volume 1, The Old Testament. Judging by its publication date, I can surmise that my great grandmother probably bought this book to read to my grandmother, who had in turn read it to my mother, then passed it on to her for my edification. The New Testament volume probably went to Mom's older sister, my Aunt Dorothy. This had a profound effect on the early development of my attitude concerning religion.

Instead of gentle Jesus, my introduction to Abrahamic faith focused on the stern though frequently providential God of the ancient Hebrews, his relationship with his often rebellious chosen people, and his merciless measures against those who opposed them, or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nineteenth century Bible Stories text, though intended for children, did not stint on the harsher aspects of this narrative. One delightful bedtime story was derived from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter Two, verses 23 and 24, rendered in the King James Version as follows:

23 And he [the prophet Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
This was rendered in more up-to-date prose ("tare" I think was replaced by "slew"), and accompanied by an illustration quite similar or identical to the one at the head of this post. I know that I reacted to this with horror. I must have said something to my mother, though I can't recall what, nor can I her reply. I'm sure she tried her best to be reassuring, probably saying that God would never do such a thing to a good kid like me. Whatever she said, although I may have faked it, I wasn't consoled. I lay in my bed that night thinking that I hated God, and thinking that, at any moment, God might destroy me for that thought, just as he had the children of Bethel.

In doing a Google search for pictures related to this story, I found this image of a painting by the seventeenth century French artist Laurent de la Hire, which depicts something not mentioned in, but implied by, the Biblical account, The Children of Bethel Mourned by their Mothers:

In recent years, I've sometimes asked Christian friends if they're familiar with this story; usually, they say "No." Once, I was in an on-line discussion with a conservative Christian* who allowed that the King James rendition of Elisha's tormentors as "little children" might not be accurate; that a better translation might be "young people." Indeed, the New International Version of the Bible says they were "youths" (though the New Revised Standard Version, used by the Episcopal Church, calls them "small boys"). But does it really matter whether the victims were the Rugrats or Beavis and Butthead?

At age five-going-on-six, when I first heard this story, I was soon to be introduced to the kinder, gentler side of Christianity: sweet Jesus, who liked children and lambs, went around telling scary but instructive stories, and died a gruesome death to protect kids like me from the wrath of his father. This seemed satisfying for a while, at least until adolescent rebellion

Several years ago we were guests at a seder given by the mother of one of my daughter's friends. The Passover story is another troubling one for me, involving as it does the slaying of babies and children whose only offense was to be the first-born offspring of parents of the wrong sort. It had been some years since I had last participated in this festive meal, so I had forgotten this portion of the Haggadah:
Midrash teaches that, while watching the Egyptians succumb to the ten plagues [of which the slaying of the firstborn was the tenth], the angels broke into songs of jubilation. G-d rebuked them, saying "My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?"

As we recite each plague, we will spill a drop of wine--symbol of joy--from our cups. Our joy in our liberation will always be tarnished by the pain visited upon the Egyptians.
Then, at the Good Friday service at Grace Church, one of the clergy recited the Solemn Reproaches, a litany which is similar in its call-and-response structure to the Dayenu litany of the Haggadah. The penultimate of the Reproaches was:
I grafted you onto the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with mass murder, and Holocaust. I made you joint heirs with them of my covenants, but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt.
To this, as to all the other Reproaches, the response by the congregation was:
Holy God, holy and mighty,
Holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.
The "Holocaust" element in the Reproaches is obviously a very modern addition, though a welcome one. The reference in the Haggadah to Midrash indicates that the reference to God's mourning the Egyptians may have originated in the second through ninth century C.E.; many years after the Exodus story was committed to writing. Faith traditions evolve. Does God evolve with them? Certainly our understanding of God does.
* For Fray alums, the person in question is "Locdog."

Thursday, June 04, 2015

TBT: Harry Chapin, "W*O*L*D."

Harry Chapin grew up in the neighborhood I've called home for the past 32 years, Brooklyn Heights. His singing skills were honed in the Grace Church Youth Choir and the Brooklyn Boys Choir. He died in a car crash in 1981, two years before I moved here.

I found his first hit, "Taxi", unsettling. It charted in 1972, as I was near the beginning of my career, and its story of youthful dreams washed away in a cold bath of reality was scary. I did like the song's having a narrative arc. Most of Chapin's songs were like this; he gave his third album for Elektra the title "Short Stories." One of the songs on that album is "W*O*L*D":

I first heard "W*O*L*D" on WNEW-FM, then New York's great album-oriented rock station, sometime in 1974. The DJ (was it Vin Scelsa?) wondered aloud if the title was a play on WNEW. That would seem logical, Harry being a New Yorker, but the song was about being a DJ at a small town top 40 AM station. Like "Taxi" it's about growing older and facing that frigid reality bath, with respect both to career and relationships.

Harry Chapin wrote most of the songs he recorded (although his only number one hit, "Cat's in the Cradle," was written by his wife) and therefore can be considered part of the genre of "singer-songwriters" who became popular in the late 1960s and early '70s; other examples are Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Rock critics were, as a rule, disdainful of this group. Reviews of their work often included descriptors like "precious" and "self-indulgent." Lester Bangs, in an essay titled "James Taylor Marked for Death," wrote:
DECIDE whether you want to jump and caper with music that's alive or molder in the Dostoyevskian hovels of dead bardic auteur crap picking nits out of its navel and so sickly that to see it shake its ass would be a hilarious horror indeed.
As I've recounted in an earlier post, one night at the Bells of Hell I had a "Bless me, Lester, for I have sinned" session in which, among other things, I confessed to liking Gordon Lightfoot. Lester's response was, "Hmph! I know Gord. Do you know what he does when he needs inspiration to write a song? He goes to the hardware store and stares at the labels on cans of paint." He didn't give me a penance; if he had, it would probably have been to listen to something like the album Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Void-oids five times. I did go through my set of Lightfoot albums looking for song titles incorporating color imagery, but came up blank.

Lester, if you've broken away from frugging on the head of a pin long enough to read over my shoulder, please understand that there are times when I "want to jump and caper," but also times when I want to sojourn in "Dostoyevskian hovels." In other words, I'm not taking "DECIDE" as a command. No disrespect: to be true to what one believes is most admirable. I am made of less adamant stuff. And Harry, if you're having a peek, the only thing I can't forgive is your having unwittingly launched the career of Billy Joel, who tried to channel you in his first hit, "Piano Man".

'Bout changes 'n' things.

I first saw New York City in December of 1951. I was five years old, and my mother and I came here to embark on the S.S. Washington for a voyage across the Atlantic to join my father, an Air Force officer who had been sent to England for a tour of duty. We were in town for a couple of days before we boarded the ship, staying at the Henry Hudson Hotel on West 57th Street. The hotel was, at that time, used by the government for military personnel and dependents awaiting shipment overseas. It was convenient to the liner docks along the Hudson River; in 1951, almost all transatlantic travel was by sea. Our room faced an air shaft, and spanning the shaft was a steel girder with a flat top and a gently arched underside. I thought it looked very "New York."

We had dinner at Longchamps, where I was given a "Manhattan," which was ginger ale with a splash of grenadine and a maraschino cherry, served in a Martini glass. I felt very sophisticated. Longchamps is long gone.

The high point, in two senses of the word, of my first stay in New York was going to the observatory on the Empire State Building. I looked down and saw the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, then the world's largest ocean liner, docked at the Cunard pier on the West Side. Looking to the north and east, I saw the Chrysler Building, with its spiked helmet top, almost at eye level and a good deal taller than anything else in that direction, including the (then) RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.

The photo above shows midtown Manhattan, circa a year ago, as I photographed it with a zoom lens from the Brooklyn Bridge. Much has changed since 1951. Of the large buildings visible in Midtown, only the Chrysler Building remains from that time, and it was being overtopped by 432 Park Avenue, ten blocks further uptown. The overtopping is now complete, and I've expressed my dismal opinion of it here.

As I noted in my post about 432 Park, I'm distressed about the displacement of mostly young, creative, artistic people from what had been their traditional haunts, starting with Greenwich Village, where I used to live, and for which I blame myself, having been one of the yuppies who spelled its doom by enabling landlords to charge higher rents. I've reminisced about the Village, or at least about a particular bar, here; my friend Dave Coles and I have have both mourned it here.

I started this post over a year ago, but got distracted by other things, as well as by my inability to see where it might be going. It's still a work in progress; I'm going to let this be a teaser for some later posts in which I'll try to discuss the issues more extensively and, I hope, intelligently. I have been spurred to thinking about these matters by a couple of pieces by people I like and respect: one is Tim Sommer's "New York City and Taylor Swift (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Change)"; the other is Francis Morrone's "No, New York City is not Losing its Soul". Both make interesting, provocative points that I will return to in later posts. Morrone, in particualr, points out that I'm giving myself too much credit--or should that be, claiming too much blame?--for the demise of bohemia in the Village. That process, he writes, began long before I arrived.

I've stolen the title for this post from an album by Eric Andersen, a singer whose songs I've long loved.
In the clip above, made in 2011, he sings "Violets of Dawn," probably his best-known (and often covered) song, at a venue called "Music on Main" in Woodbridge, New Jersey,  As "Crossbow0106," one of the commenters on the YouTube clip, puts it:
Eric is one of very few artists I've heard that over time has adapted his songs to his voice. His voice now works perfectly with "Violets Of Dawn", a little fragility that resonates with beauty. His "young voice" worked with this song also, but I love that Eric can sing this 50 years on or so and it sounds just amazing. Bravo! 
Maybe Woodbridge, or some place like it, is where you have to go now to get the music characteristic of a Village venue in the 1960s. Or, as Bob Dylan put it, on "Talkin' New York" back in 1961, "So long, New York; howdy East Orange."

Thursday, May 28, 2015

TBT: The Bobby Fuller Four, "I Fought the Law"

Back when I was in law school (1967-70) at this time of the year, as final exams were finishing, lots of calls went from my classmates to the two big Boston top 40 AM stations, WMEX and WRKO, requesting this 1966 hit by the Bobby Fuller Four, a group that gave a harder edge to the Buddy Holly West Texas rockabilly sound.

The song was later covered by The Clash, completing a bridge from Buddy Holly to '70s punk.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Mets aren't toast...yet.

Back on May 11 I blithely suggested that "[s]hould the Mets play .500 ball for the rest of the season, they would end with 86 wins, which could give them a shot at the wild card." I took this as a baseline assumption, based on .500 being the pre-season consensus of what their prospects were this year. I went so far as to say they seemed likely to do better than that, assuming the reasonably prompt return of David Wright and others from the D.L., and no plethora of new injuries.

I didn't expect the Mets to go into a vertiginous nosedive in which they would lose ten out of fifteen, including losses in all their road games; swept 4-0 by the Cubs and 3-0 by the Pirates. On top of this came the news that Wright had been diagnosed with spinal stenosis. G.M. Sandy Alderson is trying hard to seem optimistic, saying "I'm hopeful that we'll see him back sooner than some are speculating."

The Mets' travails had me in a bit of a funk. I remembered this Crain's editorial, and thought about the long series of players the Mets had acquired as free agents or in trades--Kevin McReynolds, Vince Coleman, Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar--to name some (and, yes, I'd include Mike Piazza in the list), in search of quick fixes that didn't happen. I wondered if Granderson and Cuddyer would be added to that list. I also wondered about the decision to go with Wilmer Flores (photo), with his nine errors so far this season, at shortstop. This seemed to be grounded in a privileging of offense over defense, in turn based on the theory that it's home runs, not crisply turned double plays, that draws crowds to the stands.

In any event, the notion that the Mets could simply outscore their opponents despite having sketchy defense clearly wasn't working. In the fourteen games from May 11 through 24 they were outscored 68-42. Part of this is the fault of poor outings by pitchers at the top of the rotation, but problems at the plate were obvious. Some of this could be attributed to Wright's absence, but those who had done much to make up for that earlier in the season--Duda, Flores, and Lagares--were now having trouble reaching base.

It occurred to me that one contributing factor might be the sadistic-seeming string of twenty games without a break, beginning on May 8 and continuing through tomorrow, May 27, But the longest string of losses--five in a row from May 11 through May 15--happened early in the long march. This did make me curious enough to find out if a couple on Staten Island (possible Yankees fans?) were still doing the MLB season schedule. The answer is: no, they're not. In 2004 they were replaced by The Sports Scheduling Group, a company located in Butler, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.

The Mets' win over the Phils yesterday brightened my spirits a bit. Colon, who got shelled the last time he was on the mound, got his seventh win of the season, and his second hit. Should he return next year, he will be denied any trips to the plate if the NL adopts the designated hitter rule. No, I can't write a baseball post without mentioning my disdain for the DH. Also, Flores' bat proved decisive with a three run dinger, and he made no errors. It's not the end of the world just yet.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

TBT: B.B. King, "Sweet Little Angel."

B.B. King, who died one week ago, was perhaps the best known blues artist of the past several decades. He wasn't my favorite; I preferred the harder edged style of, to name some examples, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, and Koko Taylor. Still, King's subtler but still emotionally compelling singing, along with his vocally evocative guitar, made blues more accessible to a wide audience. As the New York Times obituary linked above notes, what he considered his "breakthrough" performance was at the San Francisco rock venue the Fillmore Auditorium in 1968.

Below is a clip of King doing "Sweet Little Angel," one of my favorites of his songs:

Photo: B.B. King following a White House performance; Eric Draper, photographer (Wikimedia Commons).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

TBT. A salute to American Idol: the Dollyrots, "Because I'm Awesome."

The news that American Idol will be going the way of all pop culture phenomena after one more season brought to my mind a delightful send-up of the show in its salad days; one that ends with a Simon Cowell look-alike cringing in terror of imminent castration. This is the video of "Because I'm Awesome" by the Dollyrots:

The Dollyrots (not to be confused with the Dolly Dots, a Dutch girl group popular in the '80s), have a style that's been described as "bubblegum punk." The group consists of a husband and wife--Luis Cabezas, who plays guitar, sings, and jumps around a lot, and Kelly Ogden, who plays bass and sings--and whatever drummer they happen to be working with. They've had more drummers than Spinal Tap, though I don't think any of them died in a bizarre gardening accident, choked on someone else's vomit, or underwent spontaneous bodily combustion.

Cabezas and Ogden met when they were students at New College in Sarasota, Florida, at the time a branch campus of my alma mater. They now call L.A. home. They have a daughter, River, who was in utero when they made their album Barefoot and Pregnant. They also do a nice cover of Melanie's 1971 hit "Brand New Key," which I'm including as a bonus, since it also counts as a TBT:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Taking the Measure of the Mets at (almost) mid-May

Quotation of the day:
"This is the National League. You have to be on your toes."
--Mets third string catcher Johnny Monell (photo) quoted in today's New York Times.

Monell was called up last week to back up backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, who became the starter when Travis d'Arnaud went on the DL. In yesterday's game at Philadelphia, the rubber game of a tied series, Terry Collins rested Plawecki--he decided to rest some starters in this third game of a sadistically scheduled twenty straight games without a break--and started Anthony Recker. In the eighth, with the Mets holding a 5-4 lead, Monell was the only lefty batter on the bench, so Collins sent him to the plate and he produced a two run double that gave the Mets their 7-4 margin of victory.

The Mets' record is now 20-11. It's no longer the best in MLB; it's only the third best in the NL. The Cards are 22-9 and the Dodgers 20-10. In the comparison that's most important to me and to most New Yorkers, the Mets are one half game ahead of the 20-12 Yankees. Still, they are below the fold in the Times sports section.

Should the Mets play .500 ball for the rest of the season, they would end with 86 wins, which could give them a shot at the wild card. It could even give them the NL East title, provided the Nats, now 3 1/2 games behind and playing .531 ball, don't do much better than .500 for the rest of the season, and neither the Braves nor the Marlins catch fire. The prospect of the Mets continuing to play at their present sizzling .645 rate, which includes a twelve game winning streak, seems unlikely. The chances of their playing better than .500, though, seem reasonably good, provided that third baseman David Wright and lefty reliever Jerry Blevins come off the DL in good shape and stay that way, starting RHP Noah Syndergaard lives up to the hype, and they're spared a further plethora of injuries (always a chancy assumption with the Mets). Closer Jenrry Mejia is serving an eighty game suspension for failing a banned substance test, but Jeurys Familia, with thirteen saves so far, has proved a most capable replacement.

Monell's quip sums up why I prefer the NL game to the dumbed down version played in That Other League.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

TBT: Ben E. King with the Drifters, "This Magic Moment."

Ben E. King, born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938, who died one week ago today, is most remembered for the haunting ballad "Stand By Me", a hit in 1961, later featured in Rob Reiner's 1986 movie of the same title, with a screenplay by Stephen King. Before going solo, Ben E. King had been lead singer of The Drifters, a protean R&B group which still exists after many personnel changes. The Drifters were formed in 1953 by Ahmet Ertegun to serve as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter. McPhatter was drafted in 1954, and sold his interest in the Drifters, along with the name, to George Treadwell, a jazz trumpeter and talent manager.

Treadwell did not pay the musicians well; this, along with the draft and personal problems caused many changes in The Drifters' membership between 1954 and '58. Several former members joined in a group they called "The Original Drifters"; a version of this group still exists today. In 1958 Treadwell fired the remaining non-original Drifters, then hired Ben E. King and three other musicians from a group called the Five Crowns and made them The Drifters.

With King as lead vocalist, The Drifters had several hits. This was partly attributable to King's vocal talent and partly to Ertegun's having entrusted the production of their recordings to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the two men behind, as songwriters and producers, so much of the best R&B of the late fifties and after. The King-led Drifters scored first with "There Goes My Baby," a mournful ballad with string accompaniment that made it to number two on the pop chart and number one on R&B in 1959. They made it to the top of the pop chart in 1960 with what is probably their best remembered song, "Save the Last Dance for Me." My favorite, though, is "This Magic Moment" (video above) released earlier in 1960, which charted at number sixteen. The "woo-woo" strings are cheesy, but the song showcases the dynamics and warmth of King's voice.

Ben E. King portrait by Mira Sasson.

Monday, May 04, 2015

You graduate; you don't graduate your school.

For some time now I've been getting periodic email updates from a blog called "Law Prose" from Bryan Garner, who seeks to improve lawyers' use of language. Being a usage scold (right now I'm riled up over apostrophe abuse in some documents I've been reading) I always peruse Garner's posts, so far always with appreciation. Most of them are on matters relating to the drafting of legal papers, but his most recent one is on a more general pet peeve of mine. I cringe whenever I read or hear something like "John Doe graduated Princeton in 1995." No, no, no. John did not "graduate Princeton"; he graduated from Princeton.

Garner tells us that the original syntax, dating from the fifteenth century, was in the form "Christ College Cambridge graduated John" or, "more commonly," he writes, "John was graduated from Christ College Cambridge." This makes sense; the school graduates the student, not the opposite. In the nineteenth century, though, the "was" began to be dropped from the latter construction, thus going from the passive to the active voice and making "graduate" an ergative verb. (Hey, you learn something every day!) So it became "John graduated from Princeton." It's clear from this construction that John did nothing to Princeton (apart from receiving a diploma from it and, perhaps, leaving).

But then, Garner notes with sorrow, sometime in the mid twentieth century it became common to drop the "from," leaving "Jane graduated Yale," or the like. As he writes: "Although this wording is becoming increasingly common, it is best avoided." He continues:
As the Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh puts it, “When I hear ‘I graduated college,’ I want to answer ‘No, you didn’t.’ . . . [Y]ou call your education into question if you omit the from.”

Thursday, April 30, 2015

TBT: The Dovells, "You Can't Sit Down"

Sometime in 1963 I was with the Robinson High School debate team at a tournament held on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee. The evening after we arrived, my teammates and I were in a student cafe, having burgers and cokes. The cafe had a juke box and a small dance floor. A couple looking much like those in the photo, except that the woman was wearing a tartan skirt and black-on-white saddle Oxfords with white bobby socks, got up; the man put a coin in the juke box, and a very lively tune began. The couple did a frenetic jitterbug with lots of twirling and, if I recall correctly, the man lifting the woman by the waist and swinging her around.

.The song was "You Can't Sit Down," a '63 hit for the Dovells, a Philadelphia group whose biggest hit was "The Bristol Stomp" and who recorded on Cameo Records, part of the Cameo-Parkway group that was central to the Philly rock and R&B scene in the late 1950s through the '60s.

Monday, April 27, 2015

South Street Seaport Opens for 2015 Season

The South Street Seaport Museum has been an important part of my life since I arrived in New York as a permanent resident in 1973. At that time, I was working downtown, in the Financial Distrct, and could see the tall masts of a square rigged ship from the offices of the firm for which I was working. This piqued my curiosity; four crossings of the Atlantic by ship during my childhood had made me a maritime buff. During a lunch break I walked over to the Museum and became a member. I later toured the historic ships, discovered its book and craft shops, and participated in many of its activities. The Museum, though not its collection of historic ships, was seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and for some time there was doubt if it could survive. Now its fortunes have improved.

This past Saturday, April 25, I walked from my home in Brooklyn Heights across the Brooklyn Bridge to attend the official re-opening of the Museum's historic ship collection. Approaching the Museum on Fulton Street, I took the photo above, which could have been a scene from over a century ago. The masts of the barque Peking loom over the rooflines of Schermerhorn Row, a group of commercial buildings dating from the early nineteenth century, which now house the Museum's visitor center and galleries, along with several commercial stores.
One of the historic ships on display is the lightship Ambrose, which guided ships through the entrance to New York Bay from 1908 to 1932. In 1973 I saw my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a performance of HMS Pinafore, staged on the Ambrose by the Blue Hill Troupe.
On Saturday there was a musical performance in front of Ambrose: lively folk music by the Lobbyists.
Two women were on the crosstree of the foremast of the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard.
I boarded Ambrose and got this photo of her enormous bell, used to warn ships away when fog was thick.
Going insider her wheelhouse, I got this photo of her wheel.
This is Lettie G. Howard's bow, as seen from Ambrose. During her long career as a fishing schooner, she sometimes brought fish to the Fulton Fish Market, which was located at South Street. The market has since been moved to the Bronx. Lettie is now owned by the Museum, but shared with the New York Harbor school, which uses her as a training vessel.
Also from Ambrose, I got this view of visitors on Peking's quarterdeck.
Boarding Peking, I saw her builder's plate, showing that she was completed in 1911 by the prominent shipbuilders Blohm & Voss of Hamburg.
These two gentlemen were explaining the fine points of navigation on Peking's quarterdeck. On the table were charts of New York Harbor and its approaches.
This is Peking's mighty sewing machine, used to repair sails.
On the left is the Museum's working barge, used for ship repair duties. In the center is the schooner Pioneer, used by the Museum for harbor cruises. When my daughter was in middle school she took some instructional sails on Pioneer. On the right is the square rigger Wavertree, which will soon be going into drydock for renovation that will allow her to be the centerpiece of the Museum's collection.
After scarfing down a Korean beef hot dog, dressed with spicy kimchi, I took a walk back to Schermerhorn Row and the Museum's visitor center. Here, visitors were invited to participate in creating a mural.
As a regular Museum visitor I've known Jack Putnam for some years, as manager of the book store and craft shop, and for a time as operator of a ferry service the Museum offered from Fulton Landing in Brooklyn, near where I live, to the Museum's pier on the Manhattan side, near where I worked at the time. On Saturday I found him in the Museum's Maritime Craft Center, here holding the framework of a model dory he's making. Two completed examples are on the table in front.
There were more examples of the modelmaker's art in the Craft Center's window.
Next door to the Craft Center is the Bowne Print Shop, a restored 19th century printing establishment. The photo above shows one of its vintage presses.
Jack mentioned to me that someone named Tony was on Pier 16 working on a figurehead for Wavertree. I went back to the pier and found him carving away.
Captain Jonathan Boulware has served as interim president of the Museum for several years. On Saturday it was announced that he is now president. He read a letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio recognizing the Museum's importance in preserving New York City's maritime, commercial, and cultural heritage.