L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, July 31, 2010


As I finish a new painting, it's hard not to notice the irony in what I've been listening to lately for my painting-music. The painting itself is typically frilly-

-but the music has been about as low-down as I get: Bessie Smith and several of her colleagues, the great women blues singers of the 20s and 30s. Mamie Smith, Margaret Johnson, Trixie Smith, Rosetta Howard, etc. Hard core blues only leavened, in the CD shuffle, by some Boswell Sisters and early Louis Armstrong.

One Bessie Smith recording in particular clings to me. There's something about the exquisite droning of the vocal line and the audacious text that keeps it replaying in my mind:

Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair

by George Brooks

Judge your honor hear my plea, before you open up your court
But I don't want no sympathy, 'cause I done cut my good man's throat

I caught him with a trifling Jane, I warned him 'bout before
I had my knife and went insane, and the rest you ought to know

Judge, judge, please mister judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, good mister judge, let me go away from here

I wanna take a journey, to the devil down below
I done killed my man, I wanna reap just what I sow

Oh judge, judge, lordy lordy judge, send me to the 'lectric chair

Judge, judge, hear me judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, send me there judge, I love him so dear,

I cut him with my barlow, I kicked him in the side
I stood here laughing ov'r him, while he wallowed ‘round and died

Oh judge, judge, lordy judge, send me to the 'lectric chair

Judge, judge, sweet mister judge, send me to the 'lectric chair
Judge, judge, good kind judge, burn me 'cause I don't care

I don't want no bondsmen man [?], to go my bail
I don't want to spend no, ninety-ninety years in jail

So judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the 'lectric chair.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Norma moment

Just dreaming of Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette (1938) and thought I'd post this image from a Hollywood, shimmering at its very starriest heights. The moment the dauphine and count Fersen first meet, on the staircase of a gambling house, Norma turning her full-wattage glamour on (a sadly dull) Tyrone Power.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I almost always wake up with some sort of song or musical passage rattling around in my brain. I never know what I'll find; it can be literally anything. What I got this morning stayed with me as I was hitting the trail: Fanny Brice's "Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love" from her second film, Be Yourself. Not at all, as it turns out, an encouraging tune for vigorous exersize. The rhythm is all wrong. It totally worked against my own; I felt like I was dragging a cannon behind me, up the hill. So I forced myself to switch to my old stand-by, that final waltz from Ciboulette.

It made me think that maybe what makes that particular piece work so well for me is the fact that it's in three quarter time. There's something about this time signature - I'm sure someone with a musical education could explain this - that feels like it's moving itself forward, tossing out its notes, ahead of itself, with never a chance to really catch up. It must have something to do with why we respond so readily to the music of a waltz, or anything in three-quarter time; we respond to it physically. We want to get up and dance or just move about or, at least, sitting in our seat, to wiggle our toes. Right there in the time signature is a vitality, a rhythmic propulsion. So, I find it perfect for regulating my pace and getting me to move just a bit more briskly.

After a while, I found that "Amour qui meurs!...amour qui passes!..." had somehow morphed into "Makin' Whoopee", the old Eddie Cantor song; a slightly more down-to-earth selection. And after a bit of that, I finished the rest of my hike to the strains of "High and Low" from the original stage version (1931) of The Bandwagon; which is not in three-quarter time, but constructed with more than its share of lilt!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Second day on the hill

I took another hike today. Grayer and more populated than my first of the season, but full-length; I was wary of overdoing it, last Wednesday, so I only did about three-quarters of my regular route. Happy that I appear to be in better shape than I thought I was. And happy that I've got my walking music back.

You'd think that I'd be content to revel in the quietude of the trail - nothing more than my footsteps and my breathing, the wind in the trees and vigorous birdsong above - but my frantic little brain will have none of that. So one of two things is continually unspooling as I march along: a particular musical passage played on a loop in my head or Madeleine Prévert's non-stop babbling.

If you're not familiar with my alter-ego, Mlle. Prévert, she's a glamorous, appallingly egotistical chanteuse. She believes herself to be Anglo-French - though she is neither - aged thirty-ish - certainly not that, either - and her existence is firmly stuck in 1936. I've performed Madeleine three times, now, and G has joined me twice, playing her feisty daughter, Penny. The problem is that, when la Prévert isn't actually singing, she spends all of her time spouting utter nonsense...emphatically; her entire life is written in italics! And last year, during most of my hikes, I found myself channeling the silly creature - in the woods! The very last place one would expect to encounter the rantings of this, the most urban and theatrical - and unnatural - of women. She chattered on and on and on until I was forced to give her her own blog, if only to have some peace. Thereafter, she spewed forth the most inappropriate and idiotic blather; hopefully some readers found it amusing. Oddly, after I stopped hiking, when the weather got too wet, we began to hear less and less from the old girl and, now, she hasn't addressed her public since February. That might be about to change. I didn't hear a peep out of her last Wednesday, but I think she is near. In amongst the trees, circling round, like a Patou-clad wraith. And today, on the trail, I do believe I may have caught a whiff of her (terribly costly) parfum wafting on the breeze.

When Madeleine goes blessedly silent, I'll find a tune going on and on - fully symphonic - in my head. Last year's hit parade was topped by "Amour qui meurs!...amour qui passes!..." from Reynaldo Hahn's delicious Ciboulette. A grand waltz for soprano and chorus that is the climax and finale of the operetta, it turned out to be an excellent accompaniment to hill-scrambling; I expect mountain goats would find it delightful. Having a steady beat in your head makes those beastly little ascents so much easier to make, trudging along, manfully, in waltz-time! Last week, over-oxygenated and concrete-footed, I tried to access this piece, but could only do so sporadically. And when I did, I found myself dreadfully under tempo. It was less valse brillante and considerably more marche funèbre. Today was much better. I caught it and it stuck - happy trails!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

First day back on the hill

I did my first Forest Park hike of the season today. I'm making a late start but, then, so did the season. And I don't like walking about in mud and slime. They say it might make it to ninety-five degrees today, but it was just perfect for trudging up the hill, under the trees. It was so great, making my way along the same route as last year, negotiating the same ascents. (And the same nearly invisible roots and rocks that mine the path; it would be a slightly more transcendent hike if I didn't have to spend all my time, eyes to the ground, averting shame and grave bodily-harm.)

Beautiful. And very peaceful; I only encountered five souls in the time I was out. And one was un jeune homme, très beau - brun et aussi doux et juteux qu'une pêche. Yes, yes he was. And therefore easy enough to incorporate into my solitude.... He noiselessly galloped by - like a well-groomed pony - in black shorts and a neon chartreuse t-shirt. He didn't appear to sweat. He didn't appear to breathe. Such youth and grace is damned Olympian! To witness such perfection, such beauty is, for me, the most exciting and confounding thing. He mumbled something at me as he passed. Some sort of shy greeting. But it came out rather like "hurm-bel". A sweet little noise, but not any recognizable word. So I think the kindest thing would be to presume he is merely... foreign. Yes, I believe that would be the generous thing to do....

Coming back the other way, I encountered another fellow - handsome and shirtless - and he gave me a very jolly, open-faced "hello". But he was slightly sweaty and appeared to be actually breathing, so I judged him rather too mortal and therefore uninteresting. One must have standards, after all.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Enfant Gentil?

I spent a literary evening at the side of my wife, last night. I do enjoy being the consort whenever I can. I went with her to class - the Dangerous Writing workshop - enjoyed the wonderful writing and at the break they called it a night and had a little birthday party for Tom (Spanbauer). Then, most of us trucked over to a benefit for poet Walt Curtis. A few months back, Walt lost just about everything he owned in a fire, and this was one of several fundraisers in his honor.

The evening was long and rather...taxing, shall we say. We had all thought that Tom would be reading early in the program; one of the main reasons we went was to hear Tom and Kevin Samsell read. They eventually read, back to back, about three hours in. Before that, there was a lot of poetry slowly read - much of it unintelligible since, apparently, poets are unable to intuit the function of a microphone. The high point of this early part of the evening was Monica Drake, who read a great piece and gallantly fielded the rantings of the honoree.

Walt Curtis is known for being irascible, loudly whimsical, perverse. At least at big public functions. I hear he's quite charming in smaller, more intimate settings; I've never seen him that way. And last night, even though - or perhaps because - he was the one in whose honor the benefit was formed, he displayed behavior - loudly disruptive, antagonistic, insulting - that could only be described by employing the overworked phrase enfant terrible. A nearly elderly enfant, but still.... And I couldn't help but wonder why we laud such behavior in artists - poets - that we would condemn in a florist or a plumber.

We seem to think it's endearing that an artist might run amok that way. I think it goes along with that thing about artists being special. The role of an artist in modern art and literature. Not merely a craftsman, but special. And entitled - encouraged - to be loud and ridiculous. And it shouldn't really matter, I suppose; fools are often quite delightful. Entertaining, certainly. The problem is when we equate behavior with talent. And I think, all too often, we do. If the artist or writer acts extreme enough they're probably really good! We may not think this consciously, but the image of the brilliant, celebrated artist/author who goes about acting like a horse's ass is so deeply iconic, and is just the kind of thing that warps our expectations.

I can't really make any comment on Walt Curtis' talent or skill as a writer. I've only read Mala Noche, and I remember really enjoying it. (Though, I must admit that what I remember enjoying are the parts that related to my own life; when I read it, I'd just moved here from LA, and my experiences there had many parallels with his story.) But Walt is so loved and respected that I must assume he's a good writer. And beyond the nonsense, a good guy.

But I'd just like to make an obeisance to the artists and writers who work hard and are respectful and know how to behave in public. I'd really like to see a shift in the paradigm (I used the word paradigm, oh la!) of the artist's persona. What we think an artist looks and behaves like. I happen to know lots of artists and writers who are respectful and responsible and make amazing work. My wife is one of them. The writers she is in workshop with, who are kind and supportive - and fantastic writers. And Tom Spanbauer, a gentle, soft-spoken man of great dignity and grace, whose work is heartbreaking and fearless and...I honestly don't have the language to be able to describe the beauty and wisdom of his work.

So I'd really love to see a new image of a artist, a new icon of a writer. The sort of writer or artist I'm speaking of. A new terminology. Instead of the well-worn enfant terrible, may I suggest enfant gentil...? Or perhaps even enfant doux...?