CDs I've lent

Mechtild owns LPs and 45s that once belonged to the writer Peter Handke. I meant to post my favorites among these years ago, but it is obnoxious to brag about famous acquaintances, even at a remove. There is also the peculiar fact that she has lost some of Handke's best disks to a "friend" who borrowed them. This character claimed years later not to know where they were: evidently he understood the lease as a gift.

I experienced that once from the other end, when, about 10 years of age, I asked to borrow the Nintendo game Mega Man 2 from a Romanian family whose older son owned it. There was a short embarrassed silence and a yes. I was puzzled by this but not at all embarrassed: I only had one game, Castlevania 3, a fine game, but I wanted more. In any case I understood the embarrassment some months later when the family visited us. My heart pounded, I was preparing to return the game, but they never asked for it.

The video games I myself lent I got back, and I have never to my knowledge lent records (I suppose few of my friends had record players). I did however lend a few compact discs that were never returned. Since there is a small chance that those who have the discs read this, I shall not name but describe. In the best case, I might get a disc in the mail some sunny day.

Sonic Youth, Sister, was not lent, but forgotten, in a pickup truck car stereo on the way to a Sonic Youth concert in San Francisco. It was the tour for Murray Street, summer 2002, one of the best set lists and live performances I have known. The group has no sense of drama, and encored with a plodding song from NYC Ghosts and Flowers, which my companion the pickup truck driver did not wish to listen to -- we left early to beat the rush at the door. (four years later, I, Mechtild, and the unborn Laurens would hear, after a disappointing set, a much better encore consisting of the Daydream Nation medley). In any case, I had said to pickup truck driver prior to the concert that while I respected Sonic Youth, I was not particularly attached to them. I realised my error on hearing the song "Cotton Crown", on the album Sister, with which they opened the set. They also played a brilliant, cascading "Rain on Tin", to which I will always mentally compare the fine recording on Murray Street, the CD of which I still have. The tall guy with the truck went home with earaches. And my copy of Sister.

The Pixies, Come on Pilgrim. This short EP was difficult listening because of the middle songs about incest. But the opener, "Caribou", sounds like the soundtrack to Twin Peaks, the silly "Ed is Dead" has a spelled-out ending: "Dee Ee Ey Dee Dee Ee Ey Dee Dee Ee Ey Dee nope nope nope nop no!", and the epic "I've Been Tired" combines the Song of Songs, Degas-style prostitutes, and John Lennon's "I'm So Tired". I lent this to a sad friend (friend of the pickup truck driver) who was supposed to become a classical philologist. I don't know what became of him, and I never got back my CD with the long black hair against a green background.

The Stooges, Raw Power, and Bo Diddley, The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. I lent these to a girlfriend as an explanation of the essence of rock and roll. Perhaps I am to blame for being unwilling to explain the matter myself, but there you go.

Writer's Block: Human Nature

What is the best and worst quality about mankind?
I don't usually respond to these, but I just want to register my approval of philosophical 'Writer's Blocks'. Anyway, the best and the worst are not such a good way to characterise human nature: love and hate, and that's fairly obvious.

A better question: what is a typical quality of humans?

In antiquity man was defined as a featherless biped, until one philosopher plucked a live chicken. It was cruel but worked as a refutation. (query: do plucked chickens recover?) It is better as a thought experiment, and that may be all it was.

So, a very typical quality: helping others when it doesn't cost one anything (as in holding doors open). If that could be harnessed, it might make things better, but then again, it might not.

I don't have writer's block, as I hope the next entry proves.


my front pages

My rock t-shirts comprise two categories, those with and those without holes in the armpits.

The second category contains two shirts.

One of these is my Mission of Burma shirt (band name on front) with the itinerary of the 'Inexplicable Tour' on the back (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, all July 2002). What was supposed inexplicable was the return to performance after twenty years, a break caused by guitarist Roger Miller (not the great novelty country singer) suffering from tinnitus, ringing in the years. The band had overcome this with a kind of plexiglass box around drummer Pete Prescott, and airport-strength headphones on Roger. Thankfully, they sounded like no box could contain them. I heard them in LA, it was my first true rock show and the first t-shirt I bought at a concert hall, the El Rey, for the usual price, $25. Apropos prices: my friend Henry, with whom I went, will attest to the bottles of Corona the bartender sold us for ten bucks a piece, 9 for the beer and 1 dollar tip. I shudder to think what that costs now--probably as much as the shirt. Everything the band played that night made wonderful sense, the awkward starts and stops on "Ballad of Johnny Burma", "Einstein's Day," you name it. It is a strange idea, but I had the thought that the logical force of musical phrases depends on their being played at a particular volume (of course some work at any volume, some at discontinuous ranges). As for the songs that sound dreamy on record, "Dead Pool" and "Trem Two", they sounded almost gentle, like the sea a mile away was playing them. One encore was the Stooges' "1970" with opener Mike Watt playing bass. In the pause, he signed a piece of toilet paper for me; well, he didn't write his name on it, but he marked it with the motto "Love and Bass." More on him later.

My other intact t-shirt refers to "Fiery Furnaces," a group whose name refers to an ordeal in the Old Testament, fashionable around the time I started graduate school in summer 2004. I haven't followed their career, but that summer they flogged their second album "Blueberry Boat," which I eventually felt compelled to buy, to justify the t-shirt really. It has some delightful noisy songs about lost dogs and plastic trumpets and wedding gowns, and Laurens greatly enjoys them. The singer and drummer are sister and brother, they play piano, guitar, whatever suits them. I saw them alone in Boston, a few days after I arrived, when I didn't know anyone, at the Paradise Rock Club on Commonwealth Ave, and since I didn't know my way around, I walked all the way from Harvard to the BU bridge and back. For someone grown up in cars on the West Coast, the walk felt like an eternity, but a warm empowering one: rather like in Anne Sexton's "Just Once," Atco sign and all. I don't know what rock t-shirt I had on that warm night in September, but I came back carrying this handsome black affair featuring a gray photocopied candelabrum, whose four flames spell the words "Fiery Furnaces."

The Favorite Song

Happy Christmas, Merry Hannukah.

The story of this post really starts on Halloween. We had a party (see Flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/22886913@N03/), and on the iPod mix there was a song I thought appropriately kiddish, one of my favorites, Jonathan Richman's "New England."

The basic point of this song is a negative theology: Jonathan lists a number of exotic places he's been, and insists he prefers the Northeast ("I have seen old Israel's arid plain; it's magnificent...but so is Maine.") Instead of describing his beloved NE, however, he has the drummer thump a lot and the band all harmonize over large doses of "dumby dumby dumba dum day" and "doodly doodly doo doo doodly doo." It's lovely noise.

Now, at the party, which did not take place on Halloween but the Sunday after, Nov. 1st, Laurens jumped around in time to the drumming, singing "dumby dumby dum day." It's like he knew the song already through anamnesis. I had played it before, mind you, but he had never shown any interest.

Since then, we have set up a permanent iPod dock in the living room of our flat, by the window overlooking (or more accurately underlooking) the FBI building. In the beginning it just contained  "New England." This was The Favorite Song. It was liable to be requested at 8 in the morning, over breakfast, or at 10 at night, when little Jonathan fans ought to be in bed.

If you remember Genesis, how in the beginning there was just the one dark water which is progressively articulated--well, I got tired of playing "England," as Laurens shortens it, over and over, and added more songs to the list; some more Jonathans, but also Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and some others: for instance, there is the Johnny Cash number called "Louisiana Man," from the private tapes, which has the child-friendly opening genius of a kind of bass scat, "mpa pa pa pa pa, pa pa pah pa pahh, mba pa pa pa, pa puh papa pa paaah."

The pattern repeated itself. For some weeks, "England" was loyally requested, with some outrage if I tried to substitute "Hey There Little Insect" or "The Abominable Snowman in the Supermarket" or some other soundalike. Then, lo and behold, instead of "England", what was wanted was "Arpo." Who? "Arpo." What? "Arpo." Ah, "When Harpo Played His Harp," another Jonathan song, a more transcendently  beautiful one than "New England," come to think of it, with a chorus of angels asking Harpo where he got his melodious sound, and informing his by the way that "Harpo, Harpo, we're in the galaxies."

So we've got a Favorite Singer situation developing out of a Favorite Song. There is perhaps even a Favorite Aesthetic, since a week ago, Laurens sang "Surfin' Bird" to his grandparents over Skype. (his version starts in the middle: tongue rolling, followed by "maw maw maw maw maw maw moo mow moo mow mow mow bird bird bird bird....")

Another request, at first equally recondite, is "Ound." Where? "Ound." How? "Ound." Ah, Jonathan's "Velvet Underground". This song, strictly a novelty but very valuable as that, contains a very astute essay on the group who introduced Jonathan to rock 'n' roll (supposedly he slept on their couch as a teenager freshly come to NY), with some important biographical detail about the band ("stood kind of still, looked kind of shy, kind of far away, kind of dignified") and some truly illuminating similes ("bold and brash, sharp and rude, like the heat's turned off and you're low on food"). I don't see how Laurens can benefit from any of this, anamnesis or no. Appropriately, it's set to a Chuck Berry riff, and there is one crucial part at which Jonathan answers his rhetorical question, "How in the world were they making that sound?" He says, "Like this...", slows down the music to a stately crawl, and proceeds to deliver lines from Sister Ray in an impossible Plutonic baritone. "Tuck and Sally inside, they're cooking for the down five, they're staring at Miss Rayon, who's busy licking up her pusher's hand," etc. etc. There is a certain benefit to not understand lyrics. But then Jonathan sums up the evil and the absolute good of the Velvets and "Sister Ray" in that nasal hum of theirs: "Mmmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm-mmmm-mmm, mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm-mmm-mmmm..."

Merry Marx Brothers and a Happy New Year.

I Didn't Come to the World Just to Fool You

In honor of Boris Grabcev.

A month ago. on Aug.25th, we saw Leonard Cohen in concert, which was a few days before we left Vienna for Washington. It was a hello and a goodbye. It was also the first time we had left town without Laurens to see a concert; this one took place in rural Wiesen, a town near the border with Hungary known for a jazz festival and artichokes.

I'll spare you details. The concert was wonderful, we sat on Laurens's blanket, and sneaked in cheese, bread, salami, and even a bottle of wine (which we didn't drink) by ostentatiously throwing out a bottle of water at the check-in. It was very romantic. I had a review written in my head, of which only one line survives, probably about a whilrwind rendering of "The Future": "if this isn't punk rock, then punk rock is not fundamental to the structure of reality."

Perhaps it is fortunate that I forgot the rest. Anyway, there is no need for a song-by-song description, since 90% of the set is that of last year's recording of Live in London, and the first five songs or so are even in the same sequence. There is no messing with perfection. Every deviation was a shock--"The Partisan" with its French verse, or Cohen waving away audience cheers when he pressed a few keys on a synthesizer during "Tower of Song": "Really, you're too kind." On "Hallelujah", he took care not to rhyme by pronouncing "you" as "yah", as did that fop Jeff Buckley, and he improvised diabolically: "I didn't come to Wiesen just to fool you." I am sure he made this joke on every night on the current leg of his tour.

The sound was like having Cohen in your living room--as the reviewer of a Vienna newspaper complained the next day, "imagine if Cohen had done these songs at bone-crushing volume instead...the bliss we missed!" It is hard to find a more vivid case of someone getting a fact and entirely missing its significance.

So what is the significance of Cohen at 74? (he turned 75 this Monday). I'll only give one example: on "Lover, Lover Lover" (also not on Live in London) when he sang "I asked my father, father change my name" in 1974, it was brilliant but it was youth culture posturing' now, singing to his dead father, he is like Hamlet addressing the Ghost, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The same is true of the pedal steel solo on "Bird on a Wire", which of course Cohen does not play, but which is his sorrow, and goes beyond the wiser-beyond-his-years words. ("Like a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn...") Where the young Cohen imagined himself like Proteus playing every role in the universe, the old Cohen lets the whole universe play him. You don't get three chances to guess which is greater.

In my usual self-defeating manner I kept wishing he would play a song he was unlikely to play, "Joan of Arc." He wasn't intimate, he was elegant. But what more can we have? On "There's No Cure for Love" he explains his whole aesthetic:
"I call to you, I call to you, but I don't call soft enough ." He also explains his whole metaphysic in "Anthem," (both songs are on Live in London): "There is a crack, a crack, in everything: that's how the light gets in."

It was an unforgettable goodbye to Europe.


Boats, Rhythm, Life

Blame Venice. For the past month, ever since we've been to Stilt City, Laurens is obsessed with boats. He brought one home from the playground (it wasn't his). He studies them in his historical picture book (Greek triremes). He rides around in a suitcase with his stuffed animals (they wear seatbelts), points at the floor and claims it's "wasser." He rides around with his butt in a shoebox, points at the floor and claims it's "wasser." He rides around on our stomachs, points at the floor and claims it's "wasser."

Given this new-found interest, I am struck by how little I know of nautical or even river vehicles, and how that little I know is from books like Moby Dick. There are not many boats in rock 'n' roll. Not even in Delta blues, and you'd think those people would know boats. Instead, it's trains, cars, jalopies, souped-up jitnies, the  open road.

When you think about ship lore, about the danger and the violence and the pirates and the sharks and the unexplored territory, even the basic rocking rhythm, you would think pop would be all over it. Rimbaud, who was proto-rock 'n' roll, wrote "The Drunken Boat." But there's nothing like that from the Sex Pistols, although they performed "God Save the Queen" on the Thames aboard what was presumably a boat.
Hell, Ulysses's story in the the Inferno is pure rock 'n' roll, but rock 'n' roll doesn't know it, and when it comes close, as in Radio Birdman's "Into the Maelstrom," it has somehow become a surfing metaphor.

Surfboards aren't boats.

Returning to rock and its curious shyness of boats and sea, how to explain it? Are boats somehow inimical to dancing, adolescence, the whole pop mind?  If you take a look at contemporary pop, you'll find gruesome mood pop like Xela's The Dead Sea, which is about zombies at sea, but not much about boats; Quasi's "Sea Shanty," which is a bleak allegory of failure ("the captain was rightly murdered by the crew, now they don't know what to doooooooo").

Actually, the darkness of sunny pop when it confronts boats and water is remarkable. This goes as far back as sunny Chuck Berry, who once recorded a novelty song called "Havana Moon" about an island boy who waits for his girl to arrive at midnight on a boat, but drinks so much rum that he sleeps through her arrival and wakes up only to see the boat "head for horizon".

Is this explicable as anything but fear of the unknown? Le'ts take three boat songs, all from the sixties.

1) Beatles, "Yellow Submarine." All right, a submarine is no boat, but in German it's called U-Boot, and there are certain similarities. This song comes close to doing what a boat song should, to being a classic boat song, because the rhythm (Ringo's poom-poom-PAM!) attempts to sound like the waves, or the vessel's motion, or whatnot, and there are canned wave sounds, and a captain giving orders, and even a marching band that makes more sense on a cruise ship. A cruise ship? Do the Beatles introduce water and boating just as a drug metaphor, being sloshed, washed-up, lost at sea, etc.? There is a promise of happiness ("and we live a life of ease"), a claim to universality ("we all live in a yellow submarine"), and it is Ringo singing, so that boating is at most a good acid trip and at least a pleasant daydream.

2) Velvet Underground, "Heroin." A bit more sober (in mood). Lou Reed sings at some point: "I wish I'd sailed the darkened seas, on a great big clipper ship, going from this land here to that, in a sailor's suit and cap." There are druggy echoes here of Cain's Book and Glass Menagerie, fantasies of sailor sex and autonomy and anonymity in a foreign land. But there is a preternatural calm to this image of the clipper ship, which doesn't fit temporally, it is not something Lou Reed could sail on (even if he "was born a thousand years ago"...then he'd be on a Viking ship), it is a child's fantasy. The music is just groundless viola at first, the guitar and bass drum start to pick up as he's talking about the sailor suit and cap, then there's feedback. The one nice dream in this song is the clipper ship, but there is not much entry to it.

3) The Who, "Rael." I have written about this before, but I believe this song is Pete Townshend's masterpiece. It is an epic tale of a land lost and the prince who hopelessly must save it--half Narnia, half Israel. The boat bit comes at the end, but it is crucial. Roger Daltrey sings: "Now, Captain, listen to my instructions [in-struc-tio-oh-ohns]: return to this spot on Christmas Day [day-ah-ey], and look toward the shore for my signal [sig-na-ah-al], and then you'll know if in Rael I'll stay." Poetically it's as touching as Gilgamesh (who saw out the window bodies floating in the Euphrates and made a boat and voyaged to the end of the world to find out about death). What kind of signal exactly, the Captain wants to know? "If a yellow flag is fluttering, sickly held against the morn, then you'll know my courage is ended, and you'll send your boat ashore, but if a red flag is flying brazen bold against the blue, then you'll know that I am staying and my yacht belongs to you." The singers harmonize and oooh quack like a kind of Arthurian Beach Boys. Drums crash, waves roil, guitars are parsed through fuzz boxes to sound like mops squeaking across the deck of the...yacht. The Gregorian chorus chants, "he's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again, he's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again, he's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again, he's crazy...anyway." The whole maneuver  acquires a metaphysical meaning: the faithful doubt, the savior prepares to save the world or fail utterly. Just short of six minutes, the first half of the instructions concerning the signal is repeated: "If a yellow flag is fluttering, sickly held against the morn, then you'll know my courage is ended, and you'll send your boat ashore." Has he failed already? Has it happened yet? Is he just nervous? "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me."

Something to think about tomorrow morning, as I lie on my back, feet up in the air, playing a boat.


The Car Song

Since he began speaking at the beginning of 2009, Laurens has been obsessed with cars. For all we know, he was already thinking of "auto" long before he said that protean word ("self" in Greek). And, it must be said, the madness is now shared with other vehicles, namely "Bais" (Bicycle) and "Tapta" (Helicopter, will do for airplanes in a pinch or even dragonflies), "Boomboom" (what else, motorcycles).

Still, in its glory days, the word "auto" could make sense of a large chunk of the world. For instance, when confronted with the hyperactive cover art of REM's recent album--which as an adult art historian I would say resembles a futurist city or a sci-fi factory or somesuch--Laurens did not hesitate to identify the..."auto." But come to think of it, the album is called Accelerate, maybe that's what crazy Michael Stipe had in mind.

All of which can only mean that it's time for an essay on The Car Song.

I realize I have already discussed car songs--like a dilettante. For instance I said Radiohead's "Airbag" is a modernized car song, while forgetting to note the brilliant "Killer Cars" live acoustic singalong on their Anyone Can Play Guitar EP (1993), which seems to indicate that this talented band, which I have slighted, always aimed at car-song-Valhalla, and at resurrecting Buddy Holly (who died in a plane).

So: no more mistakes. No more omissions. Car Song Valhalla. Or the essay on The Car Song.

First we have to distinguish several varieties. There are the loving descriptions of particular cars, which may or may not have to go somewhere in any hurry: Chuck Berry is the master of this variety, from his first single "Maybelline" (named after a girl, but sounds like a car), who is a no-good cheatin'-chick hurtling by in a Cadillac Coup de Ville (notice that it implies "devil", as in Disney's Cruella Deville), while poor Chuck is trying to give chase in a suffering Ford. Or there is the loping cruise song, "No Particular Place to Go" (1964, Chuck's last big hit besides the unspeakable "My Ding-a-Ling"), in which the narrator becomes noticeably less relaxed, and the titular utopia less appealing, when a stuck seat belt prevents him from making out with his date. Finally--and the list could be neverending--there is the desperate "Come On" (also covered by the Stones on one of their first singles, no?), where everything is wrong since you've gone, the car won't get started, Chuck can't afford to check it, he wishes someone would come along and run into it and wreck it (the correct diction here is "someone'd come'long'nd run'nto't'nd wreckit"). In this manner of car song, the tempo, the guitar riff, the cymbals, all serve to emulate the engine and the speed of passage: "Low-ride-er...is a lit-tle low-er."

Then there is the moralizing car song. "Sitting in the back of the car" blares Alex Chilton over "music so loud, can't tell a thing." People who were not adolescents in the United States of America probably will not understand how this particular inglorious location has shrunken us. Or, for a less familiar example, VIolent Femmes' "Gimme the Car": "Come on daddy, gimme the car tonight, I've got this girl that I want to [waggly porno guitar bend: pooooowwww]." All in a serial killer voice, with music borrowed from Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso", who as you will recall "drove down the street in his El Dorado; [speech:] Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, Not like you." For the Femmes, driving and poooowwww is all-important because "I ain't had much to live for." One last instance, reconnecting the pessimism to the car and the imprint it leaves on the driver: Wilco's "Monday" a gallop about getting nowhere with the "World Record Players on a tour of Japan, Charlie's fixing the van with the left-arm tan." For those of you who haven't done time in a van playing punk rock, the left-arm tan is because you've got to have the spare arm dangling out the window, to signal, yes, and also just...to let it hang free. (For images, consult Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime).

(There is a mutant variety here of car-death songs, which sprung up among puritanical punk rockers but originated in the blues and country tales of train wrecks, mining accidents, omnibus collisions...traditional music is full of them. For the rock variety, which are not as good, see Buzzcocks, "Fast Cars", Hüsker Dü, "Wheels", the previously mentioned Radiohead...)

Finally, and most importantly, there is the idealizing car song. This sort is less about the driver and his feelings than about the car he worships, and the feelings, and the driver, which emanate from the Ultimate Car. You know these: Beach Boys, "Little Deuce Coupe" and a dozen others, The Who, "Jaguar," Big Star, "Big Black Car", Tyrannosaurus Rex, "Mustang Ford," Blasters, "Long White Cadillac," (an apocalyptic car song), that damned Bruce Springsteen song about a Thunderbird...just from the titles you will notice that some cite specific brands and makes and others equip the car only with a mythical color and size. The music is hysterical, there is always a slowly crescendoing intro for the car to rear into view, and then it only gets faster and louder. (If you want a brief definition of the sound of punk rock, by the way, it is the idealizing car song without mention of a car.) Generally the chorus is the car name, exclamations on the order of  "faster!", car noises, etc. There is no explaining this last type of car song, it is fundamental. It encompasses both the moralistic-existential and the celebratory-anecdotal types we have just discussed. There is no 'meaning' of each individual Car Song, there is only the meaning of the Car Song altogether.  Actually, there are three meanings, each one more adequate than the previous:

1. Having the car. Teenagers are selfish, materialistic, and cars have been, since rock 'n' roll began, within their reach. One can glory in one's car...listening to a car song. Of course you won't have just the make of car the Beach Boys or Chuck are signing about, unless you are quite wealthy and lucky too, for it would be a coincidence. But presumably a Buick driver could identify with that suffering Ford...

2. Wanting the car. Teenagers can't afford cars, but they long for what they can't have. And that includes what one might have, if one had what one can't have. "Cars and girls, cars and girls, cars cars and girls..." as the Dictators put it, "are my only goal in life." They are one goal.

3. Being the car. Not literally being hybrid man-cars, like Transformer robots that turn into cars, though I am sure there is a rock song about that (There is a rap song called "Transformers" by The Leaders of the New School). But the universe being a car, inhabiting the world as one inhabits a car. This is the cosmic meaning of The Car Song, the ultimate meaning. One would think it implies a mechanistic universe, or one at man's beck an call, serving as mere instrument to his will. But that is hardly the case. First, because nature, like gasoline, is finite. "Driving's a gas: it ain't gonna last" sings Alex Chilton on "Big Black Car," concluding with the teenage Book of the Dead: "Maybe I'll sleep in a Holiday Inn." Secondly, the car has a will of its own, and a body that may be weaker. "Cadillac pulled up to a hundred and fow [104mph]," Chuck's Ford "got hot, wouldn't do no mow." But nature reclaims its own: "It done got cloudy and started to rain; I tooted my horn [sounds like "my heart"] for the passing lane; rain water blowing all under my hood, I knew that was doing my motor good." The race won (or all but won), the revelation of pre-established harmony is communicated by the engine: "The motor cooled down, the heat went down, and that's when I heard that Highway Sound." That Highway Sound must be Chuck Berry himself with his guitar; it is rock 'n' roll hearing itself. The self-aggrandizement is only temporary; what remains in the mind of the mystic is the detail that assures him of what he has experienced: "it's all held together with alligator leather," asserts Marc Bolan (I am no car expert, I'm not sure if this was ever true of Mustang Fords. But as already established, he is singing about the universe).

The cosmic meaning interpretation swallows the others, which only convey the two limited facets of existence of having and wanting.  But whether one has the car, wants it, or lacks even the want, there are general things to be said about the universe being a car. First of all is the suggestion that it is in perpetual motion, not based empirically on actual cars. The Young Marble Giants, in their theme song of sorts, "Colossal Youth," present a cryptic final aphorism which can only be understood in these terms: as the infinitely expanding universe, understood as a careering car: "If you think the world is a clutter of existence, falling to the earth with minimal resistance--you could be right, how would I know? Colossal Youth is showing the way to go." Since the phrase "colossal youth" is taken from a book on Greek sculpture by Gisele Richter, where it describes a pair of colossi guarding the entrance to a bay, the metaphor is to a ship, which is nothing but...an ancient Greek car.

The universe as a car, then, is accelerating...as in physics...and furthermore it is colliding. With what? It is hard to say. Perhaps with itself. What matters more is the experience it produces in its believers: excitement! Life as the Car Song is summarized in the countdown: "First gear, it's alright; second gear, I lean right; third gear, hang on tight; Faster, it's alright." Fine, that's about a "Little Honda", but motorcycles are just degenerate cars. Laurens might disagree, since he used to call them "Bais," but then again a few months ago these were all just forms of "Auto."

post-baby dictionary

I'm not really a diligent parent. If I were I'd know the exact date Laurens reached all sorts of milestones. Now, one would think 'talking' is the easiest to gauge--only that children utter all sorts of brilliant nonsense before their rather slower parents realize that all along dfghtiiis meant "this," for example (with pointing, so you know the parents are dull). Alright, so the dates are a bit fuzzy. I am going to list just a bit of a baby lexicon, and then a distinguished parallel from rock 'n' roll.

Some Laurens words:
this / das / dis - in the third variant, he combines the English and the German to reach dull parent.
tiger - pronounced "teeger", which is the correct German pronunciation. Also includes lions but not cats, which are...
tau tau - that's right, cat(s). We thought it sounds a bit like "miaow", but one also has to consider symmetry, and after all dogs are...
wow wow - dog(s). Also the noise dogs make, that's certainly an improvement on adult language, where you have to rely on onomatopeia.
auto - this is actually the most common word. Still applies to all sorts of things you wouldn't consider autos, for instance, numbers.
ai / ais - "eye", "egg" (German ei; he also correctly says German pl. eier) which caused some misundestanding around Easter. Why is everyone eating painted eyes! The plural, "eyes" / ais sounds like German "reis" so it also works for requesting rice waffles.
bis - bees! includes especially big fat Salzburg bumblebees.
diddy - he does say "Mama" and "Tati" (Romanian for daddy, odd), but for some odd reason he calls me Diddy. Now I always thought that was a very poor nickname for a rapper, but it is charming in this case. Certainly I prefer it to his version of my name, which he thinks is "Andin."
bim bam - the sound of bells. Works for other percussion instruments too, and generally to get the family moving. "--Laurens, you can't go to the park without socks. --Bim bam." Also works in reverse, "bam bim."
nam nam - food. Also good food, especially tasty food. The only problem with nam nam is that it can be...
heiss - hot! Once food is hot, it's no good to eat, even if it gets cold.
lolo - balloon.

Fatherly pride moves me to add that Laurens does say certain fully normal things like "ausziehen" (auszeen!), which means "take off", when he wants his socks off, "up" and "down," practical and very respectable words. But it's the made-up words which are more interesting, because you have to admit a certain poetic justice and superior unity in nam nam over "food" and "yum" on one hand, and of bim bam over the conventional "ding dong" on the other. This is only admissible from long acquaintance with these noises, but it leads me to wonder if I have been too quick (or not quick enough) to fail to discern meaning in a lot of other noises in my life.

Take for instance the Stooges' Fun House (1970). I'm going to think of some noises uttered by Iggy Pop (Iggy Stooge, as he was then called) over the course of this album, and pardon the eccentric spelling or omission of your favorite noises, I don't have the album here in Vienna. So I will just try to do one noise per song, approximately.

Iggy words:
Raaaawwwwwwwgh - the opening vocal noise on "Down in the Street," before any normal singing takes place. It's hard to make out even the conventional lyrics on Fun House, for instance when Iggy sings "see that calf" it sounds more like "see that cab."
Doh - The only real noise I can think of from "TV Eye", preceding that climactic handclap chorus after the fake ending (who knew Stooges songs were so complex?) Anyway, I can only think that Matt Groening (who had the Stooges play at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he 'curated' on the Queen Mary) must have been a fan.
Chau chau chau chauauaw - from "Loose," sort of a cross between...oh nevermind.
Lov - Iggy is clearly saying 'love' on the great torch song "Dirt", but then that wah wah pedal guitar takes over and turns it into wah wah wah wah wah wah wao woah wah wah wa wa wa wa w w w w waaaaaaahhh. And who invented the wah wah pedal anyway, that's pure Iggy vocabulary.
Blohw steys!!!!!
- This may be an ad-lib in real English words on "1970", it precedes the sax, so it may be an invitation to Steve McKay to chime in.
Alalalalalaplaplalaw alalalalalalawawaw - I'm really botching this one, from "Fun House", but something tells me it's a variation on Little Richard's Alopbopadoowoop alopbamboom.
Totatotatotataon - perhaps only  foggy memory from the inferno of Iggy voices on "LA Blues." Somewhere in there is the Greek word "thanaton" which means death, or "taton" which means evil, or "tauton", which means the same.

Rock was always metaphysical. For instance, the founder, Chuck Berry, sang "Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news," thus letting us know of the purgatory in which great composers sit grumbling about rock 'n' roll.

Which brings me to the similarity between great rock 'n' roll and baby language. Their subject matter is the nature of the cosmos, in fantastic images which have to be understood in themselves, as they lose meaning when turned into everyday language. Within their own language they express the experience of the totality of the universe, however flawed: "Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind: but that don't get you back again..." (Chris Bell)


advice for Obama from the year 1992

(For Dave, with apologies to our Commander-in-Chief.)

Since Obama in his Iranian New Year's speech is discussing human nature (according to the poet Saadi we are all the limbs of Adam), and since human nature has been my subject matter for the past half year of dissertation writing, I humbly offer Obama some information on his subject matter, running the country, specifically on one aspect in which I am least qualified, the economy.

I am only going to quote some experts.

But first some background. As you may know, hip-hop albums consist of singles, dance remixes, and "skits": little studio dialogues about bank hold-ups or drive-bys or whose mama is fatter. One reason the Pharcyde is the Greatest West Coast rap group is that on their first album, Bizarre Ride II da Pharcyde, they reinvented the genre of the skit. They made the skit listenable by stressing its throwaway nature. On Bizarre Ride, skits consist of jazz piano and drums, with the band members freestyling over the relaxed but playful vibe.

One skit in particular concerns us. It's called "If I Were President." Since the subject matter is a pretext for freestyling, the band members step up to reveal what they would do if they were presidents. First comes a Bush-alike. In a melodious croon:

"If I were president...I'd make sure all the money's spent oooooooooon....[stalling].....good things. I wouldn't have no lint in my pocket, I'd rock it, I'd rock it, I'd shock it, I would not jock the fact that there are rich people in this world becauseyo  I got a girl and she needs new clothes and I need new sneakers..."

Recall that it's 1992, recession, the tail end of a watered-down Reagonomic regime of "new clothes and new sneakers."

And then comes the Obammunist:

"If I were president, I would not carry oh no spare change, I would just rearrange the whole government structure [sung real fast so it sounds like "govermentstructure"] 'cuz there seems to be something that's messing with the flucture of the money...[voices going "What?"] It's not coming to me."

There's more, but that's enough to ponder. The basic solution sounds like a massive reform in the structure of the market that will put cash into my (everyman's) pocket. All quite promising.

If only they had explained what "flucture" is...

German lessons

I try to get things down while they're hot. And since I haven't posted in 10 weeks, why not remember a concert we saw on Feb. 27th?

Let's see, it was exactly two weeks ago tonight, around 10pm, to be sure, and here we were, Mechtild and I, sitting in Porgy & Bess, Vienna's version of the 'upscale' jazz club where the international greats and the local fat cats play, every town has one and only one. Has it really been over a year since Pharoah Sanders blew our minds here? On stage is the Vienna Improvisers Orchestra, bandname archly in English (I do keep track of these things). There is a conductor, a man called Michael Fischer in a tuxedo from the 1993 Academy Awards, who makes strange hand gestures to evoke free jazz squawking from a horn section (most of which works overtime, from bass clarinet to alto and everything in between, except for the bored trombonists who just have a mute permanently stuck up their arse), a string section (I only heard the cello once, near the end), electronica, and a good-humored old drummer who thinks he's in a bop band. Ah, and three female vocalists sitting up front, two of whom seem to be sisters, who essentially do bird noises and modulate their volume in the manner of speeding cars.

I never said it was pretty. But the reason we are here is the man in the corner, in reality he has a strong reading light on him because he is the famous poet and Wiener Gruppe (50s, 60s, and today) performer Gerhard Rühm, who has graciously decided to read poems this evening "derived from current newspaper headlines" (interview in Der Standard, Feb. 26). The trained pianist who will not write with a blue or a green pen ("writing should be black on white") also claims not to have practiced beforehand with the improvisers, he does not wish the music "to turn illustrative."

Well, it does turn illustrative (cooky free jazz effects while Rühm is reciting about pedophile priests, cannibal teenagers, in short Austrian daily life), and the newspaper poems are fine, and there was one brilliant gimmick poem: there were two sentences, "Erde zum Mond" (Earth to moon), and "Mond zum...Mars" (moon to Mars), only that the "..." was the word 'zum' repeated as many times as the proportion of the distance between the moon and Mars in relation to the distance between the earth and the moon. So it sounded like "Mond zum zum zum zum zum zum zum zum zum..." This went on for more than ten minutes. There is a pause between each "zum" only as long as between any two words in a clearly pronounced sentence, so the effect is quite hypnotic and musical. The free jazz guys settled down to some lovely drones.

All of that was mighty fine. But when Herr R. really lets loose with his majestic linguistically analytical poetry, the evening is transformed. I very clearly remember one poem, where the object of every sentence is Rühm, and the subject (some thing or feature of the world) is also used as a verb which acts on him, the object. This is actually less strange than it sounds, in German, since there is such a poverty of original words that the same symbols come up in substantives and verbs. Let me try to make one up: "The cow cows me." A luminous one from Rühm: Die Erde beerdigt mich. "The earth buries me." Obviously I've lost it, in English I can only do the opposite of this sentence, "The earth unearths me." But you get the appeal. All of this is pronounced in a voice full of authority, with regal rolling Rs. Rühm stares at his pages in concentration, sometimes in seeming impatience, but every once in a while he stares up as if cognizant of the impact he is about to have on our puny intellects. The final sentence: Das Raum räumt mich ab. Literally, "Space cleans me out." Or, if I may hazard the technique, "Emptiness empties me."

The mystic Eckhart wrote: Schah unde matt / Zît,  formen, stat!
In English: Chess and mate / Time, forms, and space!

We were in a good mood when we got home, and Laurens woke up  and came out of the bedroom to say hello.