Fiction & Poetry
The IPod Poems
Over the years, I have been working on poems keyed to specific performances of music. Here, for example, is a poem inspired by Charles Lloyd’s live performance (with Keith Jarett on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums) of “Forest Flower,” on his 1966 album, Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey. Actually, the poem is meant to be by way of a lyric: in the “Sunrise” section, I have tried to follow the horn line. (Reader discretion recommended: sexuality, strong language, and all that jazz.) For a discussion of this performance by the Lloyd Quartet, and its place in my “biography,” click here (a posting on my 366 Tunes blog).
From the same grouping comes:
(A lyric for the tune by Paul Desmond,
who aimed to sound like a dry martini but,
according to Eddie Condon
(band leader, club owner, smart-aleck),
sounded like a high-frequency drunkard.
Desmond died without completing his autobiography,
“How Many of You Are There in the Quartet?”)
This Wendy, Mona Lisa
painted with a saxophone
but bony sharp, all elbows like
all the to-ing and fro-ing Wendys
in the streets, unknown (a female alcoholic,
Eddie said – insinuating Lady Day
it seems sing-sighing “like her shoes are too tight”) sinuous,
sexual, profound a sense of embers there,
sad heat, felt
Then again, some of them
are headless, these Wendys, Venus de who knows,
ee gee the airline girl who
pencil poised asked:
“And how many of you are there
in the quartet?” Or was she, more simply,
just heartless: for don’t women already
have our number?
Ah, these Wendys,
all music, untouchable, these sad
Siren bone and sinew Wendys contagious
With oh such resigned and beautiful despair
you could die from it,
happy, or at least you think so.
Probably this is what art is –
not so much grief at the death of
her creator as
your own coddled anguish
for his muse.
To read about one of Desmond’s recordings of the tune, click here (a posting on my 366 Tunes blog).
Here’s a poem I wrote in the summer of 2014, to celebrate the appointment of my old friend at the bar (both kinds), Graeme Mew, to Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice. The poem alludes to Graeme’s work in insurance litigation, his book on the law of limitations, his family ties (a “name”) at Lloyd’s, his school and related old-boy activities, his former dual law practices (in Toronto and London), as well as his work as a sports law arbitrator. I told Graeme at the time that it marked the beginning of my self-appointment for life as poet laureate of the Law Society of Upper Canada. I advised his daughter (a professional force in her own right) that, from then on, she was obliged to address Graeme as Mr. Justice Dad:
Just a Line or Two for Mr. Justice Mew*
I’m going for a brew with Mr. Justice Mew.
Will I call him mate or my Lord?
Will we still converse of politics and worse,
Or must he sit judicially bored,
Mute with Limitations, hedged by Arbitrations,
Where once he fought so Sporting, highly scored?
On Bay Street, in New Square,
At Caterhams (president there),
For Lloyd’s and Clyde & Co,
Nomad ruggers, Colorado –
Ski hills, don’t you know,
The tortious locus in snow.
Now he’s chamber’d is he cloister’d,
Cell’d up monkish, shell down oyster’d?
Pearly homebody trumps wing’d nomad?
Adieu long lunches that once we had.
I’m off for a brew with Mr. Justice Mew,
We’re meeting at the old Queen and Beaver,
So aptly conveniens for Caterhamians
Transplanted to the land of Justin Bieber;
Names straddling the globe, like colonials of old,
Insuring Justice is wherever we might need Her.
* August 12, 2014, in celebration (aptly? – William Empson meets Ogden Nash) of the appointment of my old friend, Graeme Mew, to the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, January, 2014.
[Material to come, and see below, “Words on Music”]
Of my student days, I often say that had I known what an ethnomusicologist was, I would have been one. But music has never really been work for me. Like you, perhaps, with your experience, I often feel that music and literature have saved my life. Everything else has been a distraction.
Question: How can you tell that a guitarist is at your door? Answer: He knocks out of time, then comes in too early.
Among more “serious” musicians – which is to say, non-pop and non-rock players – guitarists don’t always get much respect. “Don’t Shoot the Guitarist: The Really Funny Thing About Guitarist Jokes” is my response. (Click on the title to read the essay).
See also The IPod Poems, above, under “Fiction and Poetry.” And please visit my music blog, 366 Tunes here (click)!
I was inspired to “write” this tune while my friend Ron Davis, the musician, composer, and lawyer, was busy with his SymphRonica project. I put “write” in quotation marks insofar as the tune is engineered, a melodic contrafact of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” As with a conventional contrafact, I have left Parker’s chord changes as they are and altered the melody to achieve a new tune. The latter, however, has been done systematically, or more or less digitally, in keeping with the modern obsession. You can discover the system in comparing the spelling in the two tune titles. (Extra hint: I did not alter the upbeat Ds in the original.) Except for graduate students, it also might not be relevant that Ron and I both have an abiding interest in French literature. In this case, I am thinking of the Oulipo movement made popular by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino, and especially Queneau’s Exercises de style. The result is distinctly Thelonious Monkish, fittingly, given that he is bebop’s progenitor. In any event, I think the tune captures Ron’s energy and engaging quirkiness. (I will post an MP3 of the tune when I have a recording of it in shape. Late revision: add a G9 to the last note…)
- Winter Park
This song started as an instrumental, marking the first time that I had been able to do anything interesting with the DADGAD guitar tuning. (I had admired Davy Graham and Pierre Bensusan, among others who used it extensively, but I hadn’t figured out what they were doing.) The lyrics are just below the player.
Winter Park (lyrics)
The train leaves town in the dark, / A foot of fresh snow in Winter Park.
The chatter’s all powder and skis, / But it’s here in the dark you feel free.
A window seat all on your own, / The trees in the snow look like home
Would if it only could, /Like in Penrod and Sam, TV, and Disneyland.
[bridge:] Away for the day and afraid, / But riding the train makes your day
Bright, if not really right. / Carries body and soul away
From the noise of the every day.
The others all laugh when you fall, / Polite to your face, Butterball,
Pudgy and pimply and prim, / You slip and you slide to fit in.
Under the trees in the snow,/ Seems the best place you could go
To stay ’til you’re ancient and grey / But never lonely or blue,
You did what you wanted to do.
[bridge:] The chipmunks and rabbits and jays, / Don’t care what you do or you say
Aloud, your breath a sugary cloud./And if you should fall in the snow,
The deer pretend they don’t know.
The slopes are blue shadows near dark. / The powder’s gone ice in Winter Park.
The chatter’s all how they bashed trees, /But it’s here in the dark you feel free.
A window seat all on your own, / The darkness enfolds you like home
Just might on this Saturday night,/ Your body and soul tucked away
From the noise of the everyday.
[bridge:] The train sways and creaks as you doze, / Your bed calls as soft as first snows
Shadowed white as dusk enshrouds the light, / Dog-tired and lightyears way
From the noise of the everyday.
- Cold Camembert and Broken Crackers
(The Red Chamber Blues)
During the fraud trial of Mike Duffy, and while police investigated several other senators in an expenses scandal that is still on the boil, the press asked Senator Nancy Ruth why she was charging taxpayers for restaurant breakfasts when she had been served such meals in business class on airplanes. “If you want ice-cold camembert with broken crackers, have it!” she scoffed. According to the CBC, “from the Dec. 1, 2014 to Feb. 28, 2015, Ruth charged … $11,014.87 in travel” between her home in Toronto and her office in Ottawa, a distance of 281 miles, served regularly by inexpensive, comfortable railway offering passable meals of several courses. The reference to the $16 orange juice refers to an earlier mini-scandal – the taxpayer funded travel refreshment of a minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. She has since resigned.
Canadian senators are unelected appointees of the governing party, a significant number of whom don’t bother to show up for, uh, work, mentally in many cases, physically in others. Thus the job’s characterization as a taskless thanks. Like Duffy, Ruth was appointed by Harper.
Here’s a recording of the song, accompanied on an archtop electric guitar through a “Cry Baby” wah-wah pedal (here and there: “I hear ducks!” as Amos Garrett says). For the tune’s lyrics, see below.
“Cold Camembert and Broken Crackers” (lyrics)
E G#7 A A7
Cold camembert and broken crackers.
E G#7 Gdim B7
What she take me for, some econo-class slacker,
E G#7 A F#7
Who never sat here in business class?
B Bm B7 Bm7
Let ‘em eat my cake, it gives me ga-as.
Commutin’ on the bus, sippin’ their Tim Hortons,
They could hop a limo, don’t cost you no fortune.
Slip the receipt to your secre-tary,
She’ll get your cash back from Her Majesty.
Your taxes at work, we need fortification.
Breakfast in Paris feeds Con-federation.
It’s what I deserve at the very least,
When the taxpayer treats me to a sober second feast.
Carp caviar and stale baguette.
Where’s that damn girl with my hot towelette?
Even high flyin’ on an aeroplane,
I’m never gettin’ off this gravy train.
Dried-up brie and stale old biscuits.
Sixteen-buck juice, it’ll give the press shit fits.
But I’m entitled to my entitlements,
On my flyin’ visits from my home in France.
Ice-cold camembert and shattered dreams,
They’re freezin’ up my tastiest income streams.
It ain’t as if we robbed any Bay Street banks.
It’s all in our job, this taskless thanks.
Cold camembert and broken crackers,
Mornin’ delight for you middle-class lip-smackers.
Peel me a grape, girl, lay a table cloth
For my champagne breakfast at the Red Chamber trough.
- Nicole Rigole
Here’s a tune I wrote some time ago, but renewed and improved (I hope), for our friend Nicole D’Amour. She was a television presenter at the time, for TFO, the French arm of our provincial broadcast network, and she had this wonderfully infectious, genuinely musical laugh. I have tried to mimic it in the theme stated in the first four bars and repeated or riffed on throughout. Hence the title, “Nicole Rigole.” I will try to post a score or lead sheet for it as soon as I figure out what the hell I’m playing.
- No New Tunes
Here’s a “living-room recording” of “No New Tunes,” a song I wrote for my high school music teacher. (See this post for Beethoven’s violin concerto.)
I was once your student, you don’t remember me?
Basic Music Theory, nineteen seventy-three.
I heard you had some health scare, retired to take it slow,
Thought I’d pay a visit, stop by and say hello.
Never got that trick of writing what you played,
The notes on your piano rarely made it to my page.
But smiling you kept playing, and lately I can see,
The music that I saw in you is what you glimpsed in me.
/”No new tunes,” that’s what you used to say,
“It’s not the notes upon the page but how and why you play.
“Life’s just the same, it’s in your DNA,
“And then there’s what you do with it,
“Year by year, day to day,
“When there are no new tunes.”/
Was the heyday of the Beatles, the Kinks, and Rolling Stones,
Seemed to all us high school kids you just dug up old bones.
Beethoven, Bach, Mussorgsky, Sibelius and Ives,
You played them on that phonograph,
As you swayed and closed your eyes.
Brico was your mentor, and Nadia Boulanger,
Conducting philharmonics, that never came your way.
Instead you called for quiet from kids just marking time
While yours all seemed to slip right by, in tempo without rhyme.
You thought you were forgotten, retired and sick, alone
You never led an orchestra, wrote no music of your own,
Your schooldays finally ended, and your life seemed over, too,
But I’m not the only ageing boy remembering it was you
Who taught us …
- The Mobile Line
I cobbled together this version of “The Mobile Line” from various sources, tweaking them to my taste. The primary inspiration was performances by Mark Comstock, from whom I learned many tunes in the back room of the Pizza Patio on Bloor Street West when I was supposed to be doing my graduate work in English at the University of Toronto. Mark, who now lives in California and is still a great musician, tells me he got his version by melding a recording of the tune by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with a truly weird stoner, free-association thing (the only term for it) by the Holy Modal Rounders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V81o8ahl7dI).
Did you ever take a trip, honey, on the Mobile Line?/Hey lordy mama mama, hey lordy papa papa, /Talkin’ ’bout the Mobile Line./That’s the road to ride gonna ease your troubled mind.
Got a letter from my home and this is how it read:/You better get on home because your love is dead./So I packed up my suitcase, bundled up my clothes./By the time I got there she was lyin’ on the coolin’ board.
Did you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your mind,/And the little tadpoles swimmin’ up and down your spine?/
’Fore I die gonna put my picture in a frame./So when I’m dead and gone you’ll see me just the same.
Before I die gonna take me a trip to France./Goin’ straight to Paris to give them womens a chance.
When don’t you bury me in that box of pine./You can pickle my bones in a jug o’ hillbilly moonshine.
Well I’m happy to escape the power of the bullfrog curse./That Mobile Line is draggin’ me in a hearse.