- Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, prompting a massive spike in acoustic guitar and harmonica sales at Sam Ash Music stores around the world as writers rush to recast themselves as musicians, tearing their elbow patches off and discarding their tweed sport coats, smashing their typewriters and casting whole drawers of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils into the street, as it finally dawns on them that they’re working in an outmoded medium facing dwindling interest from the culture at large, with not even the promise of prestige or elite status to sustain them. Don DeLillo is seeking a twelve-album contract with Columbia Records. Haruki Murakami is tripling the line breaks in all his novels and reissuing them as “Collected Lyrics.” Philip Roth sits cross-legged in silk pajamas, trying to play a major scale on the harmonica for about five minutes—he gives up, masturbates. Milan Kundera promises to go electric at next year’s Newport Folk Festival.
Listening to Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
The cover of Steely Dan’s 1975 LP Katy Lied shows an out-of-focus praying mantis floating amid bulbous plants. I used to stare at it as a kid, listening to the record in my dad’s leather reading chair and wondering who this “Steely” was. He sounded sort of like Bob Dylan, if Bob had just been defrosted out of a block of carbonite. (I was intensely devoted to The Empire Strikes Back, so carbonite was almost always on my mind.) Other Steely Dan records like Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam, and Aja opened onto a strange and ominous world: double helixes in the sky, Haitian divorcées, the rise and fall of an LSD chef named Charlemagne, someone who drinks Scotch and then “dies behind the wheel.” The photo on the inside gatefold of the Greatest Hits showed two nasty-looking guys standing in what appeared to be a hotel dining room. Read More
Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?
When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.
Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.
But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More
Don Buchla invented some of the first electronic instruments—not synthesizers, he insisted, but electronic instruments. To him, the word synthesizer implied some attempt at emulation, as if these new machines could do nothing more than imitate preexisting sounds. Buchla believed that his inventions offered an aural palette every bit as distinct as a trumpet’s or a clarinet’s. It was only marketing that made listeners hear something derivative in them.
“An instrument has to exist long before performance techniques can be developed and a repertoire arises,” he told Keyboard Magazine in the eighties, explaining why there are so few new sounds in the world:
Because of this, the market for the instrument doesn’t exist for many years after the R&D that goes into developing a truly new instrument. With short-term profits a primary motive, the big corporations are simply not interested … When you open up those other possibilities, you’ll alienate the people who are coming from a rock-band orientation and want instant gratification. They don’t want to have to figure out some other relationship between their actions and the instrument’s response. Read More
- Writers generally hate to get on in years, because they’re soulless cowards who fear death. (I say this with authority, even at age thirty.) One good thing about getting older, though, is that you can sell your papers—you know, all that junk that records your “process.” Phillip Lopate was looking forward to cleaning house, but the process, he discovered, was more injurious than it seemed from afar: “For years I had been hearing of people selling their papers, and often these writers were, in my humble judgment, no better practitioners of the literary art than I—indeed, in some cases, inferior! How did they do it? … In due course I was approached by a bookseller who handled such transactions, which suddenly made it a concrete, attractive possibility. He contacted the New York Public Library, a logical place for my papers, given my lifelong involvement with the city of my birth, and two representatives from that estimable institution came to my house to examine the lot … In preparation for the librarians’ visit, I had laid out letters, manuscripts, and diaries on the kitchen table and in boxes all about the room. I tried to steer these two examiners, a man and woman, to what I thought might be juicy bits, but their blank emotionless faces (so like those of funders or oncologists, who don’t want to get your hopes up) gave away nothing, and after two hours of idly sifting through the records of a lifetime’s labor, they departed.”
Lou Pearlman, the slippery impresario behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, O-Town, LFO, Aaron Carter, and about a half dozen other agreeably vacuous late nineties pop acts, has died in prison. Yes, the Lou Pearlman. The guy practically invented boy bands. I mean, he didn’t—he just ripped off New Kids on the Block—but he invented the most lucrative boy bands, and as he’d be the first to tell you, that’s the more major achievement. You couldn’t turn around in 1999 without seeing one of his acts: massively telegenic, deeply ordinary, somehow memorable. They had branded lip balms, bobbleheads, and throw pillows for sale. I know this because I spent a lot of time hating them. Read More