Fiction & Poetry
Two stories about growing up in the wildish west (1960s Denver, Colorado): “My Weekends with the Kosher Nostra” (petty crime runs, or limps, actually, in the family) and “Strangers in a Strange Land” – a winter solstice, “holiday season” story
(1) “My Weekends with the Kosher Nostra” You probably have colourful uncles, but this one lost his pants at gunpoint during a craps game. Download/read it free, here.
(2)”Strangers in a Strange Land” Two boys create a golem to be their champion of justice in the season of Chanukah and Christmas. Download/read it free, here.
The Playlist 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.)
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.
(for Chris Thile)
By insinuation a life well lived is where you go: all action – flying hither and yon,
breathless against the virulent contagion
of airborne cattle-cars, to this movie that concert their party the
other gated resort to distract to forget this
need to resort to fly to distract to forget, gated.
But what about what just comes to you,
the rain on new leaves, the first soft-serve ice cream van,
Jackson Pollock at the art museum, Handel at Christmas,
when you’re going nowhere?
“The Detectorists” on TV, The Stones at the El Mocambo,
oh and yes. YES: the mandolin bits on the latest Kate Rusby
that sneak up on you to sail you away on a solo:
dribble drip drop like spring from new leaves then flowing out on its own inevitability
like a spring to a creek to a stream: “We are three jolly fishermen,
we are three jolly fishermen, when the merry, merry bells do ring”
and you can hear them: when the finches and the robins and the foxes
come back to the hawks and the rabbits in the back yard.
*The solo, which has made me cry more than once and impelled me to try to mimic it, also has made me think about what we miss when we run hither and yon, more or less desperate to find solace.
Why They Hate It When Michael Enright* Plays Jazz
There’s a reason psychoanalysts loved jazz
while Hitler hated it:
Idlibbing Makes You Free and
what might you say, after all,
unhinged like that?
So the fearful make an exception
for Paul Whiteman or Dave Brubeck
– the White Man Exception, you might say,
shining the night-light of the Superego
onto Harlem Nocturnes
so they might say (fully hinged),
“Well, that’s alright then.”
*The former host of “The Sunday Edition” on CBC Radio One
And a poem in memory of my greatest influence on guitar (and possibly in music), and a beloved friend:
Sir John Alot
(of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng
and ye Grene Knyghte)*
Sir John you never were in fact,
no Elton, Mick, or McCartney,
and it was your old mucker Jansch
Eric Clapton invited to Crossroads
(hunched ashen unheard alone
on that cluttered airless stage – acoustic
like the silence between mindless hurricanes).
You John would have been a larger presence,
from the start quietly claiming your corner,
between two stools a cerebral populist out of time (that’s
where we connected, I now understand), seriously funny, melodic
more than chordal, a folk Satie, timeless: demi-
monde but not; neither catch-of-the-day nor banal birdsong,
refusing cult status in spite of us your ardent
public “a very private person,” Jacqui told me,
after you’d gone, after I’d written Jansch’s biographer:
Could I publish one on Renbourn, do you think? We keep in touch…
And I was at last getting ’round to sending you my own tunes.
Publicly private you died alone, in
your “converted chapel” (somehow some comfort there), a few
months after your unsung youngest, six
decades after the fallen dad you never knew.
Came the reply (aghast even by email):
He’s passed you didn’t know and anyway a bio would always have been a hard sell.
Or was it me aghast, ashamed: yes
Yesterday’s news that wasn’t.
We’d met only once but we kept in touch you were always there for me
John long before that, even if you didn’t know it or
at least your unassuming intelligence hovered: your
larger presence, your “genius”
in all its gentle giant plurisignation – my Lycidas,
unmerrie olde Milton’s shepherd cum guardian cherub,
also gone before his time, alone, “Genius of the shore”
saving us sailors from drowning at sea …
and then suddenly you weren’t, hadn’t been, as such, for months:
celebrated but not popular; no, no obituary in my shameful “national newspaper,”
so that now I think yet again of your “Sidi Brahim”
(G7 suspended tuning, no less, or is it C7sus?!,
with modal scales like the funked-up fumes and slithering smoke
of tired folk-clubs that was you always you: experimenting-celebrating
every possibility timeless but never exactly the popular), named
after an Algerian red wine, you explained,
by way of introduction, to demi-monde laughter.
Then you paused; concluded:
“Actually, … it’s not red.
And it’s not wine.”
*This poem is by way of belated obituary/elegy/celebration for/of the musician and composer John Renbourn, 1944-2015, whose third solo album was Sir John Alot of Merrie Olde Englandes Musyk Thyng and ye Grene Knyghte. Jaqui, is, of course, Renbourn’s friend Jacqui McShee, who like Bert Jansch, worked for many years with Renbourn as a duo but also in the “folk baroque super-group,” Pentangle. Jansch’s biographer, to be fair, was perhaps less “aghast” with me than understandably surprised, albeit not as shocked as I. Renbourn’s birth father died in World War II, shortly after John was born. The G7 (or is it C7?) suspended guitar tuning Renbourn used for his composition “Sidi Brahim” (which he recorded mid-career, years after Sir John Alot), is the unusual FBCGCF, and the wine that inspired the tune is, in fact, not Algerian but a Tunisian Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon.
[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.”
- Oy, Gavotte!
I wrote this tune some time ago, and had meant to record it earlier. The impetus to write it down (I originally wrote it for guitar, tuned in open G, but have now arranged it for piano) came with the information on Facebook that the 2021 Klevtival in Sao Paolo had extended the deadline for their Bubbe Awards. (Bubbe means grandma in Yiddish.) I decided to enter “Oy, Gavotte!” in the category for original klezmer compositions. After an entire day of arranging, trying to set the thing to a video (as required by the contest rules) with Moviemaker (Oy, gevald! – which is to say “Help!” in Yiddish), I made it under the midnight deadline with a little less than four hours to spare. (The video is a bit of a mess, but apparently that doesn’t matter.) Despite the punning title, the tune is not a gavotte, but a sort of frenetic waltz. Gavottes are in duple time, waltzes in triple, so I’ve decided that the tune is a sort of freylekh (a joyful klezmer dance in duple) in ¾ time. You’ll notice that the “gavotte” part is in conventional western dance mode, which then takes typical klezmer turns, flatting the F (from F sharp in the key of G) E, and B.
You can listen to it here.
You can download the sheet music here.
I was inspired to “write” this tune while my friend Ron Davis, the musician, composer, and lawyer, was creating 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.
You can download the sheet music here: Ronithology
You can hear what that sheet music sounds like here.
- 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.
- Bill Blows It Up
Here’s another “portrait” of a great jazz musician. Bill McBirnie is one of the best jazz flutists/flautists not just of our time, but in the history of the genre. Like Ron Davis, for whom I wrote “Ronithology” (above) Bill is classically trained, and possesses virtuosic technique and dedication. “Bill Blows It Up” aims to pay homage to this. The opening two phrases (the first two bars) are meant to echo the rhythm of the title. Improvising on the tune poses challenges, but we know Bill’s up to it.
Here’s the chart: Bill Blows It Up-rev 3
And you can hear the tune here: Bill Blows It Up
- 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 A DM7-A7
Cold camembert and broken crackers.
E G#7 Edim B7
What she take me for, some econo-class slacker,
E G#7 A F#7
Who never sat here in business class?
B Bb B B7
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.