Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tear-Water Tea From Poetry

One of my favorite reading pleasures is the children's series consisting of Frog and Toad Together, and Owl (alone) by Arnold Lobel.
I never read them as a kid but as a grown-up father to my daughter Laurel; no matter, I can pick up one now on my own and while away the contented....minutes!

Owl at Home consists of 5 stories featuring the logically challenged, somewhat obsessive homebody, Owl. I especially like the one entitled "Tear-Water Tea". On a frosty night, Owl gets a hankering for tear-water tea; but to get it he must provide his own tears. So he thinks of sad things like "mashed potatoes left on a plate because nobody ate them.", "a beautiful morning that nobody saw because they were sleeping." and, for me, the topper: "spoons that have fallen behind a stove and are never seen again." Eventually, Owl works up enough tears to get a decent batch which is then boiled and enjoyed in quiet contentment.

While at my day job at the library in the periodical section, I often am reminded of the "spoons fallen behind the stove" but in my version it's "literary or poetry journals that never get read because most people prefer to read about Britney's twisted childhood in US Weekly and the like, while waiting to get on a computer.". So I take it upon myself to peak into them whenever I can and read at least one poem all the way through.

Tuesday i found this poem by Tony Hoagland in the November "Tri-Quarterly". As a jazz musician and lover of words and (reasonably) accessible poems, i thought this to be a find. It also has some invisible, etheric thread of relation to Tear-Water Tea!


I was driving home that afternoon
in some dilated condition of sensitivity
of the kind known only to certain heroic poets
and more or less almost everybody else

the sun of the six pm glaring orangely through the trees
as through the bars of some kind of cage
and the poor citizens of Pecore Street waiting for the bus
with their sorrowful posture and bad feet-

I admit when I'm in one of those moods I find it
a little too easy to believe the trees are suffering
to see the twisted branches as arthritic hands,
and the Spanish moss dripping from their scabby limbs
as parasitic bunting.

Someone had given me a jazz CD
he had thought I would enjoy
but the song unfurling on the stereo that day,
it seemed a kind of torture music,

played by wildly unhappy musicians
on instruments that had been bent in shipping,
then harnessed by some masochist composer
for an experiment on the nature of obstruction.

But of all the shrieking horns and drums
it was the passionate effort of a certain defective trumpet
to escape from its predetermined plot
that seemed to be telling a story that I knew:

veering back and forth, banging off walls,
dripping a trail of blood
until finally it shattered through a window and disappeared.

For some reason I didn't understand,
it had to suffer before it was allowed to rest.
It was permitted to rest before being recaptured.

That was part of the composition.
That was the only kind of feedom
we were ever going to know.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Few Drops of Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch began his career in Germany as a comic actor and later took up directing, developing an international reputation by the the 1920's. Mary Pickford brought him to the US to direct her and he soon became a citizen of Hollywood. His "ouevre" in these years had moved from historical epics to "relationship" dramas and musicals with a certain flair for irony and whimsy.

Although the "Lubitsch Touch" seems to have been a Hollywood studio-concocted catchword it began innocently enough, describing flourishes that introduced a "continental" touch counter to the heavyhanded American approach.
Here, an early description derived from a now-lost movie:

"'Kiss Me Again' has many deft and delightful touches, the outstanding one being where Mr Lubitsch depicts a rain shower in a natural way. The average director resorts to a deluge after a glimpse of darkening skies torn by streaks of lightning.
Mr Lubitsch craftily shows a few spots on the pavement, and even when the shower comes, it is pictured as ordinary rainfall and not as a cloudburst."

Another Lubitsch "waterscene", this from "Forbidden Paradise", caught some attention in 1924. Under the moonlight, two lovers meet by a pond:

"You see the reflection of the two heads in the water as the lovers gaze into each other's eyes. Slowly, very slowly, their lips approach and just as the kiss is about to be given, a dawdling fish shatters the reflection."

As Lubitsch films progressed into the talkies new dimensions of expression came naturally to him, and he continued to find ways to say more in the new medium with elegant economy.

In "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) Miriam Hopkins (Lily) and Herbert Marshall (Gaston), masquerading in Venice as world-weary "nobility", are not aware that each is actually a master thief. They arrange a dinner rendezvous and over the polite chit-chat and relishing of the cuisine (Lily is perhaps gobbling it down a little too enthusiastically for a countess!) they gradually voice their suspicions that the other one is not what they seem. Meanwhile, their fascination for one another begins to steam up the screen as mutual "pickpocketing skills" become evident. Roger Ebert likens this scene to a kind of strip poker game (on a higher level of course!)

Lily: I like you, Baron.
Gaston: I'm crazy about you. By the way, your pin. (He returns her brooch pin - after appraising it.)
Lily: (after suddenly noticing she's missing it) Thank you, Baron.
Gaston: Not at all. There's one very good stone in it.
Lily: What time is it? (She allows him to search for his pocket watch before looking startled. She hands it to him from her purse - after resetting it.) It was five minutes slow but I regulated it for you. (He pockets the watch with a smile.)
Gaston: I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter. (She checks her leg, under the table, and then Gaston holds the garter up high and kisses it to prove his expertise.)
Lily: Darling! (excitedly, she rises and kisses him, flinging herself into his arms) Oh now, darling. Tell me, tell me all about yourself. Who are you?
Gaston: You remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?
Lily: Monescu.
Gaston: Gaston Monescu.
Lily: Gaston!*

Unable to hold back any longer, Lily and Gaston are on their feet and in each other's arms. He leads her to the couch and declares his undying love, in the smoothest Marshall tones:
I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. I'm mad about you. My little shoplifter. My sweet little pickpocket. My darling.

As Lubitsch dissolves the scene we see an empty couch in dimming light and a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
Only Lubitsch could carry off such a scene with the ABSOLUTE seamless ease despite the absurdity - no technological gimmickry or slapstick needed. He has the viewer poised in the palm of his hand.

Like a Lao Tzu description of the Tao, many could recognize the "touch" when they saw it, and it was undeniable that there was such a thing, but no one could conclusively define it much less pass it on or possess it.
The director Billy Wilder (along with Preston Sturges, and later, to some degree Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen) was much influenced by Lubitsch and had even worked with him in the 1930's.
Wilder on Lubitsch, "You know, if one could write Lubitsch touches, they would still exist, but he took that secret with him to his grave. It's like Chinese glass-blowing; no such thing exists anymore. Occasionally, I look for an elegant twist and I say to myself, 'How would Lubitsch have done it?' And I will come up with something and it will be like Lubitsch but it won't be Lubitsch. It's just not there anymore."

In Scott Eyman's wonderful book on Lubitsch* he includes an interesting commentary on a Wilder film related by Lubitsch's long-time scriptwriter,Sam Raphaelson. Again, a waterscene conveys the "touch".
"When Sam and Dorschka Raphaelson went to see Love in the Afternoon, they watched a scene wherein a water truck, dousing the early morning streets of Paris, soaks a pair of young lovers who fail to notice. Raphaelson leaned over to Dorschka and said,'What a mistake! Now if I were doing that scene with Lubitsch, we would have first shown the truck spraying water moving toward the lovers. But when the truck gets to them, the water shuts off. After it passes them, then the water starts up again. Now, that's the Lubitsch Touch'"

quotes above were gleaned from:
Dirks, Tim "Trouble In Paradise" see Tim's ABSOLUTELY MASTERFUL description of the movie at
Eyman, Scott "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter In Paradise".
Thompson, Kristin "Herr Lubitsch Goes To Hollywood: German and American Film After World War I"
Hall, Mordaunt "Appealing Touches In Film Directed by Mr. Lubitsch"

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ragtime Nightingale

Joseph Lamb was an anomaly among the ragtime composers; the son of Irish immigrants, growing up in an environment (Montclair, New Jersey and rural Canada) totally devoid of "ragtime" culture, he somehow flourished in a musical world of his own making and rose up like an exotic flower from a sidewalk crack.
Lamb was an intuitive pianist who had little formal training. His primary exposure to ragtime was through sheet music acquired in music stores and he was greatly enamoured of Scott Joplin's compositions. Prior to age 20 he began composing ragtime tunes inspired by Joplin but with a touch of his own originality.

Lamb frequented John Stark's publishing house in Manhattan where he unsuccessfully submitted a few original compositions.
In 1909 he walked in to Stark's and, according to his own reminiscence, "There was a colored fellow sitting there with his foot bandaged up as if he had the gout, and a crutch beside him. I hardly noticed him. I told Mrs. Stark that i liked the Joplin rags best and wanted to get any I didn't have. The colored fellow spoke up and asked whether I had certain pieces which he named. I thanked him and bought several and was leaving when I said to Mrs. Stark that Joplin was one fellow I would certainly like to meet. 'Really,' said Mrs. Stark. 'Well, here's your man.' I shook hands with him, needless to say. It was a thrill I've never forgotten. I had met Joplin and was going home to tell the folks."

Joplin asked if Lamb would care to accompany him for a walk and a chat, and subsequently invited him to come by the boarding house where he was living near Times Square the following week. Lamb played him some of his pieces and Joplin was very impressed with "Sensation - A Rag" calling it "a regular Negro Rag" - the ultimate compliment for Lamb. Joplin offered to add his own name on the title page of "Sensation" as an arranger to help sell the piece to Stark and the public. This thoughtful gesture placed Lamb's foot in the door and Sensation was the first in string of his rags published in the next 10years.

Considered today as one of the "Big Three" of Ragtime composers, along with Joplin and James Scott, Lamb did little to promote himself and disappeared into obscurity at the onset of the 20's when passion for jazz began to supersede ragtime.
In his words; "I wanted to keep my music in my private
life. I didn't want to make any money on my
things. I only wanted to see them published
because my dream was to be a great ragtime
composer." He rejected any suggestions to commercialize his music wanting to remain free to express himself without compromise.
He lived the remainder of his life near Coney Island in Brooklyn, quietly raising a family of 5 children, and working as an accountant for the same import firm from 1911 until his retirement in 1957. His wife recalled nights when Joe played the piano after dinner with one foot on the bassinet rocking the baby asleep.

When there was a revival of interest in classic ragtime in the late 40's and early 50's, many thought that "Joseph Lamb" might have been a pseudonym for Scott Joplin.
Although there were similarities their styles, one notable difference was that Lamb's compositions tended to be built on 8 bar phrases as opposed to Joplin's 4.

Relying on the handwritten address marked on one of Lamb's last published pieces, revivalist
Rudi Blesh found Lamb through a Brooklyn phonebook and interviewed him. Encouraged by a newfound interest in his work, Lamb began composing again. Just prior to his death in 1960 he was visited by Sam and Ann Charters who wanted to document his work. Ann (known now for her writing on Jack Kerouac and the beat poets) played and recorded Lamb's compositions and coaxed the old man to play a number himself for posterity.

*Searching online for good representative soundclips, the best i've found is off "Perfessor" Bill Edwards ragtime site
The Perfessor plays Lamb's rags beautifully in an elegant style. Check out "A Ragtime Nightingale"
Especially to be avoided are renditions in the cheesey speeded-up honky-tonk style inappropriate for Lamb's rags in particular and generally toxic to an true appreciation of great classic ragtime.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Phantom City of Coney Island

I was a five year old in 1958, holding tight to my dad's hand as we were ushered into the ROCKET TO THE MOON at Disneyland.
It was a darkened ampitheater with seats that surrounded a large screen on the floor ensconced by a scant barrier, like the portal of a vast glass-bottom boat. Looking down from above, we rocketeers watched the orange-tinted moon grow larger and more luminous until we were hovering over the craters. I was moved to go down to the edge and peer down at the mountains and blue-shadowed "seas', shuddering at what would become of me if I fell overboard and became a lunar castaway.

Back in 1901 at the Buffalo Exposition, similar wonderment gripped those voyagers embarking on the TRIP TO THE MOON; suspended in an airship moving through starlit darkness as they beheld the approaching moonscape. Upon landing they met up with spiny haired Selenites in subterranean grottos and moon-midgets offering them green cheese.
Though the Exposition's organizers intended a cultural edification of the masses, the TRIP TO THE MOON, off the midway, was the runaway hit. George P. Tilyou, who ran Steeplechase Park at Coney Island by the sea in Brooklyn, was there to see the TRIP and offered it's creators, Thompson and Dundy, a spot on his grounds. The partners moved to Steeplechase, then capitalized on the ride's popularity by throwing all the earnings into a new park next door - to be called LUNA PARK after Skip's sister Luna in Bayonne Park, New Jersey.

The gates of LUNA PARK opened at 8:00 on the evening of May 16,1903. The curious masses waiting on Surf Ave. blinked, and suddenly an oriental OZ of minarets and towers switched on with 250,000 incandescent lights, illuminating lakes and dazzling promenades lined with arches.
The Brooklyn Eagle reported the next day," seemed that huge mantle of light had been let down from the sky to disclose the domain of an unknown world."

Unlike Disneyland, Luna Park was not designed for "kids" or even "kids of all ages" -the turn of the century was a new era where people had come to the end of their rope with "reality". The working class, middle class, leisure class were all ready for fun and getting "out of this world." Frederic Thompson, the artist/designer of the Luna Park partnership, also designed the sets for "Little Nemo In Slumberland", now a very successful Broadway musical taken from the comics. Transport via dream to the moon, planets, and beyond came along at the right time.
Thompson wrote, "Straight lines are necessarily severe and dead. In building for a festive occasion there should be an absolute departure from all set forms of architecture. One must dare to decorate a minaret with Renaissance detail or to jumble romanesque with Art Nouveau, always with the ideal of keeping his line varied or broke and moving..."

Day and night people flocked to LUNA to ride Chute the Chutes waterslide, new-fangled elevators, gyroplanes, weave down the Helter Skelter, enter the Dragon's Gorge or the 20,00O Leagues Under the Sea submarine or any number of small circuses, sample exotic foods, and delight to historical tableaux, naval battles, clowns, acrobats, trick elephants, a village of genuine Phillippine tribesmen, oriental dancers, men shot from cannons; the whole works - and of course, the TRIP TO THE MOON. Sexual mores were changing and any amusement that could bring men and woman (even strangers) within touching space for a dime was a new pleasure.

Between 1903 to 1911 Luna Park, Steeplechase, and a new neighbor park, Dreamland reigned supreme together on Coney Island.
Then in 1911, Dreamland burned down,and soon after, Thompson went bankrupt, and Tilyou died and World War 1 was on its way. Slowly Coney Island slipped away from the singular realm of the fantastic and back into the Carnival it emerged from - still a thrill to the end, but much like the thousands of amusement parks that sprouted up around the world.

Ric Burns and Lisa Ades released "Coney Island: the American Experience" in 1991, a landmark, beautifully filmed and choreographed "documentary" history of Coney Island from the beginning to present, but largely focused on Luna Park. It includes commentary from contemporary writers, actors and vaudevilleans from Coneys past as well as readings and reminiscences of Henry Miller and other writers long gone. The soundtrack, old film footage, photographs and interviews make it a well-rounded feast of the senses.

One image haunts me most; footage of Luna Park at night as if seen from offshore; a spectral city of floating lights flickering together with the shimmering decay of the film and sparse notes of Harold Budd's "White Arcade" marimba/bell tiptoeing over a wash of nocturnal hum making the soundtrack.
Maxim Gorky wrote of his visit to Luna Park:

"With the advent of night, a phantom city of fire rears itself skyward from the ocean. Thousands of glowing sparks glimmer in the darkness. Threads of golden gossamer tremble in the air, weave translucent patterns of fire, hang motionless, in love with the beauty of their own reflection in the water. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful is this fiery scintillation."

* to read about Luna Park and Coney Island i highly recommend Amusing The Million by John Kasson, and The Kid of Coney Island: Frederic Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements by Woody Register