Friday, 26 February 2010

The Vatican's Top Ten - no room for Bob

Bob and the Pope in happier times

Have you ever been kept awake at night worrying what those crazy Catholic cats in the Vatican are groovin' to? Fret no longer, baby.

February 15, 2010
From the Pope to Pop: Vatican’s Top 10 List

So many records, so little time. But the Vatican can help. The official newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, has published what it called a “semi-serious” guide to the Top 10 pop albums of all time. In first place was the Beatles’ “Revolver.” The next was “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” David Crosby’s first solo album, followed by Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” The newspaper published its list on Saturday, before the start of the San Remo festival, an over-the-top Italian competition of pop music that is widely watched on television. The rest of the list: “Rumors” by Fleetwood Mac; “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan; “Thriller” by Michael Jackson; Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; “Achtung Baby” by U2; “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” by Oasis; and Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural.” The writers of the article ended with a shot at Bob Dylan, praising his “great poetic vein” but saying he was excluded from the list for a major fault: paving the way for generations of dilettante singer-songwriters who have “harshly tested the ears and patience of listeners, thinking that their tortured meanderings might interest somebody.”

Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Ed Thigpen RIP

Ed Thigpen, 79, drummer with Oscar Peterson’s trio

By Peter Keepnews
January 28, 2010

Ed Thigpen, a drummer whose tasteful and understated style made him a favorite accompanist of some of the best-known performers in jazz, died Jan. 13 in Copenhagen, where he had lived since 1972. He was 79.

His death was announced by his family. No cause was specified.

Mr. Thigpen was most famous for his tenure with the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio, one of the most popular small groups in jazz, from 1959 to 1965. He was one of the first drummers to work with Peterson, whose trios up until then had mainly consisted of piano, bass, and guitar, and he earned raves for his supportive playing and especially for his deft use of brushes.

After leaving Peterson, he spent five years with Ella Fitzgerald. He then moved to Copenhagen, where he became an in-demand sideman for visiting and expatriate American jazz musicians.

A second-generation percussionist (his father, Ben Thigpen, played drums with the celebrated Kansas City big band led by Andy Kirk), Edmund Leonard Thigpen was born in Chicago and grew up in Los Angeles, where he began his professional career in 1948.

After serving in the Army, he spent several years in New York, where he performed and recorded with Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Blossom Dearie, and many others before joining Peterson’s trio.

Mr. Thigpen returned occasionally to the United States, but not always as a performer. Many of his visits were to attend meetings of drummers and educators, where he discussed the teaching techniques he had developed and which he documented in several books.

He was proud of those techniques. “I found a slot that was missing in rhythm education,’’ he told The New York Times in 1985. “I found a way to activate the silences between notes.’’

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

See also

The Head of Steam

We will converge on the Head of Steam on Friday to be regaled by Terry's tale of how he thwarted the Jarrow Nazi party in tonight's election. Expect Grahame to be half an hour late.

Young Romance

Comic book/graphic art inker Todd Klein has a feature on his blog about the changes in Romance comic book logo styles over the years - which is our excuse to feature some covers from that genre. I don't think the ginger guy stands a chance against Robert Mitchum.

Richard Hamilton and Jack Kirby

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Monday, 22 February 2010


"You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead."

Died Feb 23 1965 - Britain's finest cultural export, just ahead of Shakespeare and the Beatles...
J.D. Salinger called Laurel and Hardy: "two Heaven-sent artists and men."

Sophie Madeleine - again!

On the subject of the uke...

Songs for the New Depression

'As of this writing some folks are saying things are looking up recession wise and this particular hard time might be ending. Other experts are saying we’re in for a “double-dip” and there’s more feces heading toward the national and global fans. If that’s the case i’d like to cash in. So buddy if you can spare a few bucks, please enjoy “10 Songs for the New Depression”!'

– LW3 Jan. 2010

10 Songs for the New Depression

1. Times is Hard
2. House
3. On To Victory, Mr. Roosevelt
4. Fear Itself
5. The Panic Is On
6. The Krugman Blues
7. Halloween 2009
8. Middle of the Night
9. Cash For Clunkers
10. Got a Ukelele



This song was written following the 2009 Inaugural and asks or perhaps begs the question: “Can nihilism be used as a tool to remedy social ills?” I suspect Pete Seeger would reject this premise, though I’d like to think that Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie might dig the concept.


So far I’ve remained relatively unscathed by the New Depression though I do own a home in southern California that I am unable to sell at present. My financial advisors tell me that the present will most assuredly stretch into the foreseeable future.


Written and originally recorded circa 1933 by W . Lee O’ Daniel, a Texas politician who (unsuccessfully) ran for Governor of the Lone Star State. He was depicted in the Coen Bros. film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as Daddy O’ Daniel, portrayed in the film by the actor Charles Durning.


I’ve been thinking for years now that nothing really bad would happen to me in what’s left of my life time. I dodged the draft (Vietnam) and miraculously drifted into a fun and rewarding career. Divorce, guilt, and the death of a parent have been about as bad as it’s gotten for me in 63 years. What luck! Even 9/11 and most certainly Darfur seem at a remove from my actual existence. It’s strange then that towards the end of said existence there’s been a kind of catastrophic feeling in the air. Rather exciting and certainly something to write and sing about.


Written and originally recorded by Hezekiah Jenkins who was a songster and Medicine Show performer, beginning his career circa 1910. Jenkins recorded a handful of sides for Columbia and Gennett Records 1924-32.


I really did spot and speak to liberal NY TIMES columnist Paul Krugman on the train, though it was on the way up to Boston not down to DC. When I got up the guts to approach and encourage him to keep up his great work he seemed quite pleased. And it must be said he has quite a lovely smile.

7. HALLOWEEN 2009:

Thanks to Dick Connette for the spooky sound effect suggestions on this one.


I wrote this a few years ago in an attempt to cheer myself up and also to purvey an optimistic point of view for a change. I suppose I was tapping into my very own personal psychological depression, an abundant source that has served me as a songwriter for years now.


A snippet of “C.F.C.” was recently featured on NPR’s “Car Talk”. What a thrill!


In terms of improving one’s mood and general outlook I consider the ukulele to be the big gun. No wonder the uke was so popular in the 20s & 30s. Charles Shultz in an early “Peanuts” cartoon has Charlie Brown (or Lucy?) stating categorically that every child coming into the world should be issued a banjo. Well, in these hard times we need ukulele backup.

The phenomenal power of the human mind

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Da plays Neil #2

The setlist: -

Roll Another Number (For The Road)
Broken Arrow
Love Art Blues
Give Me Strength
Good Phone
Sugar Mountain
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
On The Way Home
I Don't Want To Talk About It*

* dedicated to Danny Whitten (Crazy Horse)

Nothing sounds as good as...

Judee Sill - The Kiss

The Griffin Prize Questionnaire: Derek Mahon

The winners of the 9th annual Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on Wednesday evening. The Afterword has asked the finalists on the Canadian and International shortlists to answer a few questions about their craft.

Ireland's Derek Mahon is the author of Life on Earth; his awards and prizes include The Irish Academy of Letters Award and the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize. His previous collections include Harbour Lights and Adaptations.

Why does poetry persist?

Why wouldn't it, why does money persist? Why does anything? Because it is natural.

How do you know a poem is finished?

I don't, it never is really. In my own case I keep on working at things even when they have been published, I keep tinkering. That's my habit. In the nature of the thing it is never really finished.

Choose one of the other finalists. What's one quality of their poetry you wish was in yours?

The vigour of the late Mick Imlah, tragically taken from us.

Is there such a thing as the perfect poem?


Writers often have that one moment where they finally knew they'd "made it" -- a story in the New Yorker, for instance, a poem in the Paris Review, or their first published book. What's yours?

That's all careerism, it doesn't interest me.

What's more important, the first line of a poem or the last, and why?

The first. Because you have to grab the reader.

What poem would you give a 16-year-old?

Coleridge's Kubla Khan for the magic that is in it.

Do you have a writing routine? What is it?

No, I haven't.

Have you ever read for 800 people before? If not, are you nervous about Tuesday night?

I have read for thousands of people in my life. I don't count heads and no, I'm not nervous.

What's the last great collection of poetry you read?

I keep going back to Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems.

Who is your favourite young poet?

I have a different favourite every month.

If you weren't a poet, what would you be doing?

I would probably be in jail.

What are you currently working on?

Currently writing some prose, critical essays, and doing more translations (in the way some of us do to keep our hand in).

A little Jerry Lee to clear your head...

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Bob at the White House - in a hat!

Cy Grant RIP

Actor and activist Cy Grant dies

Cy Grant, the Guyanese actor, singer and writer who was the first black person to be seen regularly on British TV, has died at the age of 90.

Grant served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and qualified as a barrister before turning to acting.

He became best known for his role on the BBC's daily topical programme, The Tonight Show.

It made him a household name but he left after two and a half years to avoid being typecast.

He went on to star in the award-winning TV drama Home of the Brave in 1957 and played the lead in Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester in 1965 at a time when white actors were routinely "blacked up" for the part.

Cricket songs

He returned to the Bar briefly in 1972 but left after six months.

Two years later, he helped create the Drum Arts Centre in London - which was considered to be hugely important in the development of black theatre.

He went on to set up multi-cultural festivals across England in the 1980s.

Alongside his acting and activism work, he recorded five albums, having performed Caribbean folk songs and calypso across the world.

Two of his best known singles are King Cricket and The Constantine Calypso, in celebration of Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine, two of the West Indies' most famous cricketers.

He also recorded many shows for radio and wrote several books including a collection of poems.

Grant's daughter Dana told the BBC he died in London.

'With his topical calypsos on the Tonight programme, Cy Grant became one of the first black artists to appear regularly on British television. He was with the show from its start in February 1957 and over the next few years his tall, lean and handsome presence became familiar to millions of viewers.

Grant opened the programme, singing to his guitar about the events of the day. Many of the calypsos were written by Bernard Levin, who was making a name as a waspish political columnist on The Spectator, although Grant often changed the lyrics to make them scan. Sometimes he was still polishing the words minutes before the programme went on air...'

For more see

'In 2008 Grant told the Telegraph: "We had successfully bombed Gelsenkirchen on Friday June 25 when we came under attack as we flew home. The tail gunner, Pilot Officer Joe Addison, shouted over the intercom that a German fighter was closing in from underneath us. The German fired a long volley and a jet of tracer spat out towards us."

The Lancaster pilot put his aircraft into a dive; the enemy fighter disappeared; and it seemed as if Grant and his comrades had escaped. Then they realised that the outer starboard engine was on fire. Again the pilot dived, trying to extinguish the flames; but the fire spread, and one of the wheels fell off.

"By the time we reached the coast," Grant recalled, "we were a flaming comet over the Dutch sky. Both wings were on fire now and I gave the shortest course to the English coast. Unfortunately we were flying into a headwind of about 80 miles an hour at 20,000ft."

In the end the crew was forced to turn back to Holland and bail out. "We had been instructed in the use of parachutes but never had to practise leaving an aeroplane by one. When I went forward I found that the bomb aimer and engineer, who should have left in that order, were struggling to get through the hatch-door situated below the bomb aimer's cushion in the nose.

"Al [Alton Langille, the pilot] left his controls and came after me. The four of us were soon piled one on top the other, tossed from side to side in the cramped space of the nose of the plane... when suddenly, with a deafening blast, which lit up everything, our aircraft blew up and disintegrated..."'

For more see

Kurt Barling writes: 'In 2008, I persuaded Cy Grant to return to the village in the Netherlands where he had landed during the war to make a documentary. He recalled the desperate efforts to evacuate his plane when it crashed on Dutch soil, and the absurdity of thinking he could escape to Spain. A black man in occupied Europe had no means of disguise.

When Cy finally met Joost Klootwijk during filming, Joost was overcome with emotion at being in the presence of a man he had pictured in his mind as a real-life hero since he was a boy. Cy was humbled by the esteem in which RAF aircrew are held by the Dutch and regretted that they had not been recognised in this way at home. Cy and Hans, Joost's son, soon began to compile a permanent online archive of Caribbean aircrew in the RAF. It occupied much of the last 18 months of Cy's life.

One of the curious by-products of Cy's RAF experience was the 1960s marionette TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. The creator of the series, Gerry Anderson, had lost his own brother over the Netherlands in the second world war, and he drew on Cy's personal qualities to develop one of the first positive black fictional characters in children's television. These were the qualities deemed necessary by Anderson to defeat the Mysterons in 2068. Cy's melliflous tones gave Lieutenant Green, the black defender of Planet Earth alongside Captain Scarlet, a serene and heroic quality. Cy looked back on that series, essentially an allegory of the battle between good and evil, with great fondness. Ever the practical man, he recently told me that Green had kept him well fed into retirement.'

For more see

Lionel Jeffries RIP

Prison Officer 'Sour' Crout (the inspiration for Porridge's Mr Mackay?) getting to the bottom of Dodger Lane's plans in Two-Way Stretch (1960)

Lionel Jeffries
Lionel Jeffries, who died yesterday aged 83, was a character actor, screenwriter and director; his most lasting legacy was probably The Railway Children, which he brought to the screen in 1970.

Published: 5:48PM GMT 19 Feb 2010

As an actor, the bald, bewhiskered Jeffries showed a facial mobility and excellent comic delivery that turned him into one of the best-known bumbling figures in British cinema; and however brief his appearances, he was always an asset in films that ranged from The Colditz Story and The Quatermass Xperiment to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Trials of Oscar Wilde.

He gave a fine performance as the Marquess of Queensbury in the latter film, positively seething with rage when Wilde, played by Peter Finch, replies to his gift of a cauliflower with the line: "Thank you. Whenever I look at it I shall think of you."

But it was as the director of The Railway Children, one of the most enchanting films ever made for young people, that Jeffries left his mark on the history of cinema; and it was one of his own children who provoked this change of career from acting to direction.

One day his eight-year-old daughter Martha came to him with a book. It was Edith Nesbit's Edwardian classic, a gentle tale of young Edwardian adventurers round and about a Yorkshire railway line, and as she handed it to him she told her father: "I think that would make a good film."

Jeffries promptly bought – for £300 – a short option on the film rights. But no producer seemed interested, and for another £300 he extended the option. This time he was backed by the producer Bryan Forbes, who approved the script and agreed that Jeffries should direct.

Jeffries's script and direction, along with the acting of Bernard Cribbins, Dinah Sheridan and Jenny Agutter and the homely tone of the whole enterprise, earned the film its place as a minor classic.

With this success behind him, Jeffries was inspired him to make more films in the genre, coming up with The Amazing Mr Blunden (set in 1918, it has a widow and her two children living in a country house haunted by the friendly Mr Blunden); Wombling Free (1977) and The Water Babies (1978). None of these, though, rivalled the warmth, simplicity, charm, and eye for period detail that distinguished The Railway Children.

Jeffries enjoyed making its successors and, undeterred by the indifference of producers to many of his subsequent projects, kept on writing scripts and pestering for their realisation. Eventually he was able to draw only one conclusion: "No one wants family entertainment any more. They want explicit sex."

Lionel Charles Jeffries was born in London on June 10 1926; both his parents were social workers with the Salvation Army.

He was educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wimborne, Dorset. In 1945 he was commissioned into the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, serving first in Burma (where he worked for the Rangoon radio station) and later as a captain in the Royal West African Frontier Force.

After leaving the Army, Jeffries went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was, he said, "the only bald student". He had lost all his hair by the age of 19, later remarking: "Of course I was upset. Tried a toupee once, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg."

Despite this disadvantage, he won Rada's Kendal Award in 1947, then spent two years in rep at Lichfield.

Work was hard to come by, with one agent informing him: "I can't see you getting anywhere for at least 10 years. You've got a young face but you're bald – meaning you're too young for character parts and not good-looking enough for leading roles."

None the less, Jeffries quickly won his first West End engagement, as Major ATM Broke-Smith in Dorothy and Campbell Christie's Carrington VC (1953), with Alec Clunes in the title role. The following season saw him on the London stage as The Father in Peter Hall's production of Lorca's Blood Wedding and The Doctor in Jean Giraudoux's The Enchanted, both at the Arts Theatre.

Jeffries was soon attracted to the cinema, starting his film career in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1949). But he made his first real impression as one of the prisoners-of-war in Guy Hamilton's The Colditz Story (1954). Jeffries later recalled: "I went to the cast meeting with holes in my shoes, but I was given the third lead to Eric Portman and John Mills."

Offers of work poured in, and in one year alone he acted in nine different films. In 1955 he was a great success in Windfall, and there followed a plethora of successful cameo roles in which he proved capable of summoning up both dry comedy and menace. Among them were an inquisitive reporter in the Quatermass Xperiment (1955); Gelignite Joe, a diamond robber whose schoolgirl niece contrived for him to impersonate a new headmistress in Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957); and a sailor charged with trying to prevent the ship's captain from knowing about all the livestock being carried on board in Up the Creek (1958).

Other parts included Major Proudfoot in Law and Disorder (1958); an army adjutant trying to impose regulations on Anthony Newley's conscripted pop singer in Idol on Parade (1959); and a prison officer attempting to discipline Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins in Two-Way Stretch (1960).

Jeffries continued in this vein for another two decades, samples being The Hellions (1961); The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963); First Men in the Moon (1964); You Must be Joking! (1965); Rocket to the Moon (1967); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), in which he played Grandpa Potts; and The Prisoner of Zenda (1978). In all he appeared in 70 films between 1949 and 1988.

He once said: "I was constantly rewriting the words of the comedy characters I was given to bring them a comic humanity. Most of the people I played were caught in desperation. In their hearts they knew that they were failures – but they would never admit it, even to themselves."

He did not entirely neglect the theatre, treading the boards in the musical Hello Dolly! (1984) and – for Ray Cooney's Theatre of Comedy company in 1985-86 – he appeared in three farces, Philip King's See How They Run, Ben Travers's Rookery Nook and Cooney's own Two Into One. In 1987 he was in Shaw's Pygmalion on Broadway and, back in the West End three seasons later, in Ibsen's The Wild Duck.

His television credits included the title role in Father Charlie, about an eccentric priest assigned as spiritual adviser to a convent; the sitcom Tom, Dick and Harriet; and the series All for Love, Shillingbury Tales, and (opposite Peggy Ashcroft) Cream in my Coffee.

Lionel Jeffries married, in 1951, Eileen Mary Walsh, who survives him with their son and two daughters.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Ace of Bass: Carol Kaye

By Jessica Hopper Thursday, Feb 18 2010

You may not know Carol Kaye's name, but you know her work. You've probably heard at least a few dozen examples, and all the words, too. She spent the '60s as the most requested session bassist in L.A., playing on many of the tracks and albums that form the American pop canon: the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, " "La Bamba," "These Boots Are Made for Walkin,' " Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright," the Doors' "Light My Fire," "I Am A Rock," "Wichita Lineman," the majority of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound"–era productions, as well as most of the Monkees discography. Her credits show up everywhere, from "Theme from Shaft" and Frank Zappa's Freak Out! to Electric Prunes, Dusty Springfield albums, and literally hundreds more. Carol Kaye is said to be the most recorded bassist in history, with a purported 10,000-plus tracks to her credit.

Kaye, now 75, was a member of what has since been termed — much to her dismay (she hates the moniker) — "The Wrecking Crew," a loose cabal of top L.A. session musicians best known for their work in the '60s. Some days, they played a dozen sessions, and their ranks included future notables Dr. John, Leon Russell and Glen Campbell. Though occasionally other women were included — mostly singers, harpists and string players — Kaye was one of the only women in the Wrecking Crew, and the only one on a rock instrument.

Despite her credits, and being one of the true innovators on electric bass, she's mostly unknown to everyone except for amateur rock historians, bass nerds and admins of studio-lore message boards.

"Back in the '60s, the people who bought the records we were playing on, if they knew the people who made the record were straight — we weren't on drugs, were a mixed group, black and white, and as old as their parents — they wouldn't have bought the records," Kaye contends. "For that reason, they kept it quiet. Our stories haven't been told. Few people know, and it's a story worth telling, so we can take pride. We were good people, and we cared about the music. The power and technique of studio musicians and engineers are what made so many of these [songs] hits.

"It's a sad thing to see that decades later, people's drug use [was] influenced by musicians whose records they idolized, that the real musicians playing on them were totally straight," she adds. "Some people smoke and drank — I never did — but we all just went on coffee. We worked day and night, and knew one day it would stop."

Kaye was also working at every session she could get because she was a single mom with three kids, her mother and a full-time nanny to support (her child support totaled all of 75$ a month). Her first marriage, to musician Al Kaye, lasted only a few years; they'd met playing and touring in a big band. "[He} was a lot older than I was and drank a lot of wine," she remembers. Her second marriage lasted only a few years, and ended in 1964 after her husband grew violently jealous of men whom Kaye was recording with.

Kaye grew up poor in Everett, Washington, and was raised by musician parents. When she was 6, her folks moved her to Wilmington, California. At 13, she took up steel guitar, and within a few months was assisting her teacher in giving lessons in Long Beach. He loaned her a standard guitar, and she taught in exchange for his lessons. Three or four months later she started playing dates.

While she was a natural and enjoyed gigging for its own sake, her dad had recently left his family, and Kaye's lesson work and gigs helped to support them. As she told NPR's Bob Edwards last year, "I could make money, and it was a powerful thing, at the age of 14, to be able to put food on the table and do what you want to do."

Her first gig was in 1949, playing as part of a jazz trio at a party. "I played parties and nightclub gigs. Jazz wasn't a danceable music in the early '50s, but soon enough, I was playing dances, all styles of music."

While Kaye was still a high school student, her musical education consisted of taking the train up to L.A. to see Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and countless big bands. She spent 1954 and 1955 on the road, playing guitar with a big band, and then returned to L.A., where she worked a day job and played five nights a week at jazz clubs.

Kaye was gaining a reputation as a guitarist. After a club date in 1957, Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, who helped to oversee the early careers of Little Richard and Ray Charles (among others), approached her about playing on a record. Kaye was hesitant but agreed, despite being unfamiliar with the singer. The session was for Sam Cooke's first proper single, a cover of "Summertime" with "You Send Me" on the flip.

The tide was turning: Jazz clubs were becoming rock clubs, and for Kaye, a single session paid as much as a week's worth of club dates. She began booking as many sessions as she could, and was soon in demand. Her guitar work can be heard on Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" and dozens of Spector-produced hits, such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling " and the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me."

Though she was often the only female musician on a session, working in a man's world wasn't difficult for Kaye, who prided herself on her professionalism and an ability to outcuss the men. "People like to think it was tough, but I walked into those early sessions with the attitude like, 'I gotta play this stuff?' I was overconfident. I came from jazz," she laughs. "I played in the black nightclubs every night. In the studios, it didn't matter. I didn't get attitude from anyone for being a woman. It didn't matter if you were a zebra if you could help make a song a hit."

After a bassist failed to show on a date in 1963, Kaye picked up the instrument that would define her career: "I became the No. 1 call for electric bass, which was a brand-new instrument. I invented most of the bass lines on the records, plus I innovated the teaching style for electric bass — a brand-new style."

Kaye thrived in her work: "It was wonderful. The 50 or 60 of us who were always working together — to come in every day and work with the L.A. Philharmonic or the horns from Artie Shaw's band was just the highest experience you could have."

In 1968, after years of working back-to-back sessions all day, every day, and disquieted by the cultural upheaval, drugged-out musicians and the Manson murders, Kaye took a break from studio work. A few years later she began taking only the choice dates, and worked largely on TV and movie themes (everything from M*A*S*H to the Planet of the Apes' proggy score) before withdrawing in the mid-'70s to teach and write bass-instruction books (she has authored 27).

She's spent the last decade digging up and compiling studio documents and union records for her memoirs, in hopes of not only chronicling her contributions to pop but also telling the story of the rest of the musicians behind the hits. "It feels great, as an older musician, to be able to pass things on, but the main thing is for the studio musicians to get their due."
Unlike most of her still-living peers, Kaye hasn't retired. She lives in Valencia but plans to move back to the Valley soon. "My friends are there. The Valley's got soul. I miss it."

She still plays the occasional jazz session or gig, gives master class–type lessons to bass pros and does seminars for her sponsor, Ibanez. She laughs, "I might be old, but I'm not done yet."

Kathryn Grayson RIP

Kathryn Grayson, Operatic Film Star, Dies at 88
Published: February 18, 2010

Kathryn Grayson, the petite singer and actress whose operatic voice and campus-sweetheart beauty embodied the glamour of Hollywood movie musicals in the 1940s and ’50s, died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 88.

Her death was confirmed by her secretary of 31 years, Sally Sherman.

Ms. Grayson, a coloratura soprano, was best known for three film roles: the movie hopeful who attracts the attentions of two sailors (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) on shore leave in Hollywood in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945); Magnolia Hawks, the captain’s innocent daughter, who falls for the handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), in the Technicolor remake of “Show Boat” (1951); and the sophisticated, comically shrewish actress starring in a Shakespearean musical with her ex-husband (Mr. Keel again) in “Kiss Me Kate” (1953), Hollywood’s adaptation of the Broadway hit.

Her screen duets with Mr. Keel included “Make Believe” and “You Are Love” from “Show Boat,” “So in Love” from “Kiss Me Kate” and “Lovely to Look At” from the film of the same name. She also introduced movie audiences to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and, along with Sinatra, “Time After Time.”

After her movie career, during which she often played opera stars, she went on to perform in actual operas, primarily in summer theaters. She also toured the country in the 1980s and ’90s with a one-woman stage show; in the late ’90s, she toured with an old movie co-star, Van Johnson.

In 1996, looking back at her experiences in Hollywood, Ms. Grayson shared her thoughts about the death of American movie musicals with The New York Times. “The audience did not change,” she said. “The studios changed. They wanted to make cheap movies and grab the money and run.”

Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick was born on Feb. 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, N.C., the third child of Charles and Lillian Hedrick. The family moved to Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, where she studied voice and aspired to an opera career. Her parents moved to California, and when she was 15 she was signed by Red Seal, the classical arm of RCA Victor Records. Seen and heard by MGM executives, she was persuaded to abandon her opera ambitions and do her singing in the movies instead.

She made her film debut in the title role in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary” (1941), opposite Mickey Rooney. This, the seventh full-length feature in the series about wholesome prewar teenagers, gave the 19-year-old Ms. Grayson the opportunity to sing Johann Strauss’s “Voices of Spring” and the mad-scene aria from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” onscreen.

Over the next 15 years she made 20 films, including “That Midnight Kiss” (1949) and “The Toast of New Orleans” (1950), both with the tenor Mario Lanza; “So This Is Love” (1953), a biography of the paralyzed opera star Grace Moore; “It Happened in Brooklyn” (1947), a romantic musical in which Sinatra starred as a soldier home from the war; and her disappointing swan song, “The Vagabond King” (1956), a costume musical set in 15th-century France.

She never made it to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, but she did appear on Broadway, replacing Julie Andrews as Guenevere in “Camelot” in 1962. The following year she began a national tour of the show but dropped out because of what was described as nervous exhaustion.

Ms. Grayson also acted in a handful of television series, beginning in the 1950s. She was nominated for a 1956 Emmy Award for her dramatic role in an episode of “General Electric Theater.” Her final screen appearance was in 1989 on the CBS detective series “Murder, She Wrote,” one of three she made on that show as a small-town gossip.

In 1941, when Ms. Grayson was 19, she eloped with John Shelton, an actor and singer, whom she divorced in 1946. She and the radio singer Johnnie Johnston were married from 1947 to 1951 and had a daughter, Patricia Towers, who survives her, along with two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Grayson never seemed to consider her film career life-defining, perhaps because it was something of an accident. “After seeing my screen test, I wanted desperately to get out of my contract,” she told Hedda Hopper in a 1951 interview for The Los Angeles Times. However, she added, she had grown to enjoy movie acting: “If you don’t get fun out of a particular type of work, why do it?”

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Frederick Seidel: Laureate of the Louche

April 12, 2009

Laureate of the Louche


One night after Christmas last year, in a dark, well-upholstered restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the American poet Frederick Seidel, an elegant man of 73 with an uncommonly courtly manner, told me a story about poetry’s power to disturb. “It was years ago,” Seidel explained in his measured voice, “in the days when I had an answering machine. I’d left my apartment, briefly, to go outside to get something, and when I came back there was a message. When I played it, there was a woman’s voice, a young woman’s voice sounding deeply aroused, saying: ‘Frederick Seidel . . . Frederick Seidel . . . you think you’re going to live. You think you’re going to live. But you’re not. You’re not going to live. You’re not going to live. . . .’ All this extraordinary, suggestive heavy breathing, getting, in the tone of it, more and more intensely sexual, more gruesome, and then this sort of explosion of sound from this woman, and: ‘You’re . . . not . . . going . . . to . . . live.’ ”

Seidel paused. The bright cries of a group of young women giving a baby shower in the adjoining booth rose and fell behind the bare crown of Seidel’s gray head. “So,” he continued, “the first thing I did was call a girlfriend. And the woman said, ‘I’m coming over.’ And did. And listened to this thing. And burst into tears. Because it really was horrific.” Another friend, a federal judge, also listened, insisting that Seidel call the police immediately and tell them he’d received a death threat. “They came by and they said: ‘It’s real. Have you published a book recently?’ I had. And that was it, really. Meaning nothing happened. But,” Seidel said, his large blue eyes brightening, “it was the most severe review I’ve ever received.”

The most severe but, significantly, not by much. Since Seidel published the first of his 10 collections nearly 50 years ago — a complete gathering of them, “Poems 1959-2009,” will be published this week — his poetry has remained largely unknown to the general public while attracting heated critical commentary. Seidel has numerous distinguished admirers inside the literary world — poets as famous as Billy Collins and Paul Muldoon, critics as respected as Richard Poirier and Adam Phillips, novelists as laureled as Norman Rush and Jonathan Franzen — and has been called by the critic Adam Kirsch perhaps “the best American poet writing today.” Meanwhile, from other corners of that world, Seidel has earned different and more complicated epithets: “sinister,” “disturbing,” “savage,” “the most frightening American poet ever” and even “the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.”

Seidel is not unaware of what he dryly calls “the energetic response to my work.” As he explained over dinner, through the years it has become plain to him that his verses seem to possess a quality “so upsetting that some people . . . essentially they want to obliterate you.” I asked him if he had a sense of what that quality was. “I think it’s an unembarrassed tone . . . a calmly unembarrassed tone while saying something ‘unacceptable.’ The word unacceptable of course has quotes around it. They are unapologetic, the poems are — I am — the tone is.”

TONE, BUT ALSO SUBJECT, has been central to what perplexes some readers. A significant feature of Seidel’s work is how it has lengthened the list of topics worthy of serious poetic scrutiny. “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” begins the poem “Frederick Seidel,” one of many instances of self-portraiture in Seidel that unfold before backdrops of a certain grade: hotels like New York’s Carlyle (where “The chandeliers were Fabergé sleighs/Flying behind powerful invisible horses,/Powerful invisible forces”) or fine Manhattan restaurants (“I mean every part I play./I’m drinking my lunch at Montrachet”), or the rare motorcycles he covets or owns (“Red/As a Ducati 916,/I’m crazed, I speed,/I blaze, I bleed”). The poetic propriety of such inclusions has, by a certain kind of commentator, been questioned. William Logan, a critical rectitudinarian, called Seidel a “name dropper” whose books trade in “jet-set tastes and upmarket sinning.” But if Seidel’s luxurious inclusions strike some readers as product placement, they are blind to what Seidel is really selling. With a title like “The Ritz, Paris,” some might expect a lifestyle tour is fast upon us, but when we read —

A slight thinness of the ankles;

The changed shape of the calf;

A place the thigh curves in

Where it didn’t used to; and when he turns

A mirror catches him by surprise

With an old man’s buttocks.

— the glimpse we’re given isn’t of what’s fashionable; rather it’s of what’s most perishable. The brute facts of aging are central, the title not incidental given the disconnect it begets: the shuttle from luxury to the ultimate poverty.

But luxury in Seidel is only one instrument in his orchestra of effects. “Climbing Everest,” a recent poem, is representative of the complexity of his art, a pageant not of poshness but of candor. It begins:

The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger.

But this young woman is young. We kiss.

It’s almost incest when it gets to this.

This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger.

The apparent subject of the poem is familiar: the romantic fascination that older men have for younger women — a favorite of poets for centuries. Seidel’s take on such couplings — “It’s almost incest when it gets to this” — is as novel as it is harsh, even if the line’s iambic pentameter is sweet. So much of your susceptibility to Seidel’s poetry depends upon how you receive — or are repelled by — such loaded lines. And “incest” isn’t even the half of it, only the base camp from which “Climbing Everest” begins its priapic ascent to an even more perilous view. For the title, we come to understand, is a metaphor for the sexual act the poem goes on to detail, in which an old man makes the deliriously pleasurable but nonetheless arduous and by all rights deadly trip into seductively thin, late-life sexual air. When the poet reaches that summit, he pays the price, reduced to being “constantly out of breath . . . reporting to the world from an oxygen tent.” The poet’s mind makes its weary march to the exit music of the poem’s final lines:

A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare,

But right now one is coming through the door

With a mop, to mop up the cow flops on the floor.

She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his white hair.

“Those lines caused a great ruckus,” Seidel told me during dinner, ruefully. “I got lots of extraordinarily unpleasant mail.” At first, it would seem easy to understand why. In a poem that features an old man having sex with a very young woman, so frank a statement as “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare” could seem uncomplicatedly cruel, could seem merely cruel. And yet, aging is a nightmare, totally so, a nightmare from which each of us — when we become, inevitably, “the train wreck” the poet has by poem’s end — would only too gladly awake. Seen in this light, Seidel’s line, and the larger poem it serves, presents, with utter candor, the nightmarishness of bodily descent and responds, with honest disgust, to the indignity of that decline. As may be said of so many of Seidel’s poems, “Climbing Everest” produces not relief from experience nor reassurance about experience but — in all its complexity — experience itself.

“When he mentions East Hampton or the Carlyle or Le Cirque or Ducati,” the former poet laureate Billy Collins told me, “it doesn’t even seem like name-dropping. He does what every exciting poet must do: avoid writing what everyone thinks of as ‘poetry.’ ” Collins’s quotation marks around “poetry” are the keys that begin to unlock Seidel’s art. As Lorin Stein, an editor at Seidel’s publishing house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and a friend of Seidel’s, explained recently, Seidel’s qualities as a poet are in direct opposition to the poetry of many of his peers. “A lot of ways that people gin themselves up to write poetry nowadays require a setting aside of certain crass realities,” Stein said. “Crass realities of everyday colloquial communication; crass realities of money and power and sex; crass realities of the ‘I’ in its filthier manifestations. A lot of contemporary poetry has manufactured these great machines for avoiding coarseness — the dream of an escape.” That Seidel’s poems embrace the crassness at the heart of modern living makes him sound a good deal more like a novelist in the 19th-century mode — Stendhal and his mirror walking down the street reflecting modern life.

And novelists are among Seidel’s most articulate advocates. Norman Rush recognizes how Seidel’s choices can be misunderstood: “The risks Seidel takes have to do with threatening the potential affection of new readers. They may see him as a ‘swell’ and take that presentation as reason enough not to be interested in what he’s doing. He doesn’t cozen the reader. But if you persist, the power and profundity of Seidel’s games, and his nerve, will get you — draw you into the extremely complex set of experiences that he’s laid out for you to have.”

“I GREW UP,” SEIDEL TOLD ME one weirdly warm December afternoon at a diner on upper Broadway near where he lives, “with very large beautifully dark blue trucks with very chaste excellent elegant white lettering saying seidel everywhere you went.” This was in what Seidel describes as the “fierce cold” and “hothouse green sweetness” of the St. Louis of his birth, in 1936. The trucks of the flourishing family business distributed coal and, in summer, ice to white and black families and businesses in the segregated city. Seidel’s father and uncle ran the business started by their father, Seidel’s grandfather, a Russian-Jewish émigré. The Seidels lived well. There were maids, a cook. In that privileged atmosphere, Seidel did not want but, very early, came to know what he wanted — and didn’t.

“I was thought by my cranky violin teacher” — a first violinist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra — “to be the future, his future.” But when Seidel was 11, he abandoned the instrument in disgust. “I arrived for my lesson and found seated there a kid named John Perkins, a little older than me and well known in St. Louis as an enormously gifted composer and piano player — a genius. My teacher had asked Perkins to come round without having asked me if it were appropriate. And I was just enraged, to the point of tears. I remember the magnification of a tear on my violin, the grain on the fiddle enlarged as I looked down at it. And of course what was appalling about finding Perkins there was also heartbreaking because what he was doing was showing me off.” This was not the last occasion when Seidel would bridle at not having a hand in how he was presented to the world. ‘’When I was asked if I wanted to be Bar Mitzvahed, I was promised that if I did it, two things would come my way,” Seidel explained. “One, I would learn Hebrew — that turned out not to be true — and two, that the speech of the coming of age that I would give I would be able to write and deliver, all on my own. That also turned out to be untrue. There was an enormous and seriously unpleasant struggle between me and the rabbi, in my considerable bitterness and disappointment over learning that the guy wanted me to deliver a speech of nothingness. So I refused. Everybody having been invited, I said I was terribly sorry, I wasn’t going through with it. In the end I gave in. I gave some meaningless speech — part his, part mine. And that was it for religion.”

In the autumn before his Bar Mitzvah, the 12-year-old made a discovery. In the Oct. 25, 1948, issue of Time, Seidel saw a review of Ezra Pound’s long poem “The Cantos.” The unsigned article offers little enduring interest as journalism but provided Seidel with his first exposure to Pound’s verse, lines of which the review quoted, including some from “The Pisan Cantos,” written while Pound was detained in Italy by the U.S. Army during World War II:

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

“That did it,” Seidel told me. “I had a moment of — shall we call it revelation? — age 12 and understanding that this was what I was meant to do — and would do. Like that. So I set about doing it, in a very uncoordinated 13-, 14-, 15-year-old way.”

Seidel’s first private steps on the road to self-knowledge went through the poetry of others: T. S. Eliot, Dante and Pound above all. “I got a great deal from reading Pound,” Seidel told me. “That was a major education. He gave me some sense of the world of literature, some sense of the parity of work from different ages. You tried to understand what was the excellence that you could make use of.” Seidel’s public soul-seeking was quite different. By 13, he was stealing his father’s cars and sneaking off to black nightclubs to hear jazz; at 14, he was answering only the questions on exams that interested him in school; and by 16, he was deceiving his parents into letting him travel alone with a friend to Mexico during a summer vacation, searching for adventure and finding it, but also catching hepatitis along the way, landing him back in a St. Louis hospital for three adventureless months of recovery.

When Seidel arrived for his freshman year at Harvard in 1953, he should have been thrilled to put St. Louis behind him. And yet: “I got to Harvard and was ready to leave Harvard, right away. I got on The Advocate” — the college literary magazine — “and it seemed . . . childish. I thought I made a mistake not going to Cambridge or Oxford.” Uncertain how to proceed, Seidel sought out Ezra Pound. At the time, Pound was incarcerated in Washington at St. Elizabeth’s ward for the criminally insane. “I wrote him and sent him a poem and said, ‘If it’s worth your while it’s worth mine.’ ” Pound wrote back, and Seidel visited at Thanksgiving, thinking he’d go for a day or two. “I stayed a week at least, met Mrs. Pound, saw him every day. I got him to read. I’d never heard Provençal, I’d never heard Cavalcanti. It was lovely. He’d throw his head back and recite in his sonorous voice. It was very purging, very much giving me the feeling that something was being passed on. He gave me that. It was very nice. Very kind.”” Once Seidel returned to Harvard, however, Pound began sending him letters that were anything but kind. “He argued very strongly that I needed to stay at Harvard, that it was important for Harvard that I stay, and that led to the reason I stopped conversing with him.” Pound wrote Seidel a note saying that it was up to him to save Harvard from the university’s Presbyterian head, Nathan Pusey, whom he accused of liking Jews too much, using an anti-Semitic vulgarism. “I explained to Pound that this just wouldn’t do. So that was it with Pound.”

Seidel’s return to Harvard was as inauspicious as his arrival. He wanted to leave, but his parents wouldn’t give their consent; he lasted another year until Archibald MacLeish lobbied the Seidels directly, convincing them that a stay in France would serve their son. When he arrived in Paris soon afterward, he took a vow of silence. “I found it very interesting as an idea, to be silent,” he said. “It’s very difficult to be silent. It lasted quite a long time, months, through that spring until friends arrived in the summer.” Seidel lived the life of a solitary, in a wretched little room in the Hôtel Monsieur le Prince. He walked the city, met no one, read, wrote. “I wrote mostly ruminations, a little bit of poetry, but never got anywhere. I was reading all of Freud in English. I had it in my mind that this was a good moment for systematic, serious introspection.”

Although it would provide a nice causal coda to his time of silence and self-analysis in France, Seidel’s return to Harvard the next year didn’t coincide with the discovery of his poetic voice. He was writing, but “the poetry was not for me very impressive.” He published poems in The Advocate, even one in The Atlantic, but only at the very end of Harvard did one attain a different caliber. Called “The Sickness,” Seidel sent it to The Hudson Review. “I got back a letter from the editor saying that the poem was brilliant . . . but wouldn’t I consider a number of changes they wanted to propose to the poem’s advantage? So I took a look at their suggestions, hung onto the poem and three months later sent it back to them — no changes whatsoever. Back came a note saying: ‘Wonderful! That does it! It’s just superb.’ ”

After Seidel graduated, and given how early and eagerly he fled Harvard, you might suppose he would’ve been especially eager to leave it behind. In a way he did, or, at least, tried to. He moved to the middle of rural Pennsylvania; then to similar circumstances in Maine — houses where he could live alone and write. It was too isolating, and Seidel got nothing done. Shortly thereafter, he married a woman he met at school, a granddaughter of the jurist and writer Learned Hand, and the couple — after a year living in West Gloucester, Mass., in a little house on 50 acres overlooking the sea; and then after nine months in Paris; and then after a few months in the English countryside — returned to New York and acquired a town house on the Upper East Side. There the Seidels led a varied social life divided between literary friends and college friends — lawyers who became judges­, critics who became publishers, friends who became editors.

It was while the couple were living in Europe that Seidel’s “The Sickness” was made the finale to a manuscript of new poems he submitted for the 1962 Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association’s poetry prize. The prize offered $1,500 and a contract with Atheneum Press. The judges — Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell — chose Seidel’s punningly, provocatively titled “Final Solutions,” until the national head of the Y.M.H.A. grew concerned about the content and possible libel of some of Seidel’s poems. “They said they were anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic — it was preposterous,” Seidel recalled. “They wanted poems removed, changed.” Seidel refused; the prize was withdrawn; the publisher reneged; the judges quit in protest; and The New York Times covered the controversy. Random House stepped in and, the next year, published Seidel’s manuscript unchanged.

Not everyone rejoiced. In his review in The Times, the poet James Dickey wrote: “Literary influence is to be noted in the work of every poet . . . but in Frederick Seidel’s case his relationship to the poetry of Robert Lowell amounts . . . to slavery. . . . The diction is the same as Lowell’s . . . the historical references, the inflated, hortatory style. . . . Imitation and shock tactics are no substitute for personal creativity.”

The poet and translator Jonathan Galassi, a close friend of Seidel’s as well as his editor and publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told me recently, “I heard Robert Lowell in him.” He continued: “That use of high rhetoric, that resonance with that old tradition, the great tradition. . . . Most people sort of threw that away, wanted to get out from under it, needed to. It’s a postwar thing. A reaction against the elitism of the Lowell generation, a revanchism of some sort.” Read now, Dickey’s review seems less an appraisal of the poems than a referendum on a tradition, one Seidel was building on. For his part, Seidel acknowledges the importance of Lowell to “Final Solutions.” “The influence of Lowell is unmistakable,” Seidel said, “and certainly in places there’s too much influence of Lowell, but the subject matter, the way of going at the subject matter, I think tastes quite different without disputing the point that Lowell is there: Lowell is there.”

After “Final Solutions,” Seidel didn’t publish another book for 17 years. The interval was significant and, for Seidel, difficult. “I stopped writing. I wrote a poem or two or three and then stopped. There was a sense I felt that I didn’t know how to write, and it was going to be a necessity, assuming it was a possibility, to learn how to write, to find a way.” From the outside, his search might seem a curious one — like no search at all. The largest change for Seidel, who had two young children at the time, was divorce. Otherwise, his friends recall the period as undifferentiable from the life he had been leading since arriving in Manhattan. I asked Seidel’s close friend of 45 years, Pierre Leval, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals and another Harvard graduate, about Seidel’s difficulties during this period with not writing. “At the time, in the mid ’60s and early ’70s, when I was talking to him many times a day on the phone and seeing him very regularly, he was leading a very full and active life,” Leval told me. “He was partying, he was out drinking very late at night on a regular basis, he was leading a full social life, and what was going on in his head and in his heart when he was sitting trying to write or trying to get himself to sit and write but instead going out drinking, I don’t know.” Leval also said, “I did not and don’t know the Fred Seidel who sits alone at his typewriter at some times agonizing, at other times producing poetry in huge and rapid volume.”

I asked Seidel if, looking back, he understood what was in the way of his getting back to poetry. Seidel didn’t hesitate:


What was there to be afraid of?

“The expression of aspects of the self that you understand or, rather, that you fancy may not be attractively expressed or attractive once expressed.” He added: “Another way of talking about this is to talk about your becoming yourself: your finding who you are as a poet, finding what you sound like, finding your subjects that bring you out of you that are your subjects. It’s almost as if there’s a moment when you decide, Well, whatever the problem of writing this way, of writing these things, whatever the difficulty with presenting yourself this way . . . well, that’s it. And certainly I think ‘Sunrise’ begins that.”

Published in 1980, winning both the National Book Critics Circle award and a Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, Seidel’s “Sunrise”brimmed with findings. Richard Poirier, founder of the journal Raritan and a founder of the Library of America, said at the time that Seidel’s “Sunrise” was “one of the best books of poetry in the last 10 years . . . [and] transcends his literary affiliations to Pound, Eliot and Lowell.” The book left more than literary affiliations behind. Whereas, in the first poem in “Final Solutions,” Seidel reported:

I had given up violin and left St. Louis,

I had given up being Jewish,

To be at Harvard just another

Greek nose in street clothes in Harvard Yard.

— “Sunrise” left St. Louis behind. Though the city and its substance — and, indeed, its sufferings — would return in later books, in “Sunrise” he traveled, literally and figuratively, elsewhere:

A football spirals through the oyster glow

Of dawn dope and fog in L.A.’s

Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot

That punted it is absolutely stoned.

Seidel’s subjects became not those of his past reading or early living but of his present life or, if you like, his class. He became, to use his word, “unapologetic” — in taste, in tone, in everything. For if, as it turned out, Seidel was lucky; if he could exploit the fruits of the American empire at its most ripe, its wealth, its freedoms; if that freedom meant not having to struggle to attain the American dream because he was already, as we say, “living the dream”; well, then, he would write the dream, in all its sometimes nightmarish permutations. If he could travel to Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Accra, Tehran, Ghana, Barbados and Bombay; if, while traveling, he could stay at “the most expensive hotel in the world”; if, while becoming a motorcycle enthusiast, he befriended the principals of Ducati and attended superbike races around the world, not as a spectator but with the team, dressed as a mechanic; if, because he was friends with prominent doctors and could go on rounds with them, in a white coat, listening to people in need; if the pursuit of experience, of life in all its variety, turned out to be the stuff of his life — however little some of his pursuits may have seemed, to some, to be the stuff of poetry — then these would be made the stuff of his poetry. And if his poetry found fewer readers than his admirers believed it merited, and if the critics were not as comprehending as they might have been, and if. . . .

“I don’t care,” Seidel told me, on a number of occasions, in response to any number of ifs. “I care about doing what I have to do.”

WHAT SEIDEL DID, IN THE FIRST 25 YEARS of his writing life, was publish a mere 46 poems; what he has done, in the subsequent 25 years, is follow them with 264 more. More remarkable than the increase in quantity is a consistent increase in quality. The poems range in length from a single line to 360, and their subjects from the intimately personal to the emphatically political. “Ooga-Booga,” his ninth collection, contains the poem “East Hampton Airport,” which features this image:

I remember flying back from Montauk.

I was flying the plane.

The instructor asked me, “Notice anything?”

Yes. The plane was absolutely stuck —

Speechless — ecstatically still.

The headwinds were holding us in place in space.

“Speechless — ecstatically still”: the experience Seidel’s readers have over and again with his art. His poems deliver a kind of enchantment, an enchantment that grows out of disenchantment. They are filled with what, in “Sunrise,” he called — exclaimed in fact — “This need to look!” The door of a boxcar filled with Jews in 1918 Russia “is slid open from the outside/Like a slowly lifted guillotine blade.” Sex with an uncommonly genteel woman is “like feeding steak to a hummingbird.” Death, when he comes for you, “sits up like a little dog and begs.” Nor are Seidel’s versions and visions of the natural world — poetry’s oldest quarry — any less novel. The rising sun bulges at “the horizon/Like too much honey in a spoon.” Moonlight is “a wave hushing on a beach.” News received by phone that someone dear has died arrives “like a tear falling in a field of snow.”

“IT IS STRIKING HOW LITTLE SEIDEL FIGURES in accounts of contemporary poetry,” Adam Phillips has written. Striking, yes, but not surprising. As Galassi puts it, with a mix of admiration and resignation, “Fred doesn’t lift a finger to make himself known.” He doesn’t do book tours, nor has he given readings, not one. From one major anthology of poetry, the Oxford, he was excluded for 47 years, and he still won’t be found in another, the Norton. This fact is explained by his having nothing to do with the world of M.F.A. programs. “Think about who the anthology makers are,” Major Jackson, a successful young poet and poetry professor at the University of Vermont, told me. “Who the tastemakers are. Those are folks who have studied creative writing as a discipline and apprenticed themselves and gone on to teach themselves and then gone on to create students who will come along and include their teachers in anthologies. Seidel doesn’t have that kind of empire.”

What kind of empire does Seidel have? I saw it once, on an evening when I visited him in his apartment, a large, warm, bright prewar filled with paintings and photographs and every human touch. His empire was there, sitting on the dining-room table: a high, tight stack of 8 1/2-by-11 paper — the 528 freshly typeset pages of “Poems 1959-2009,” in proof. Seidel had spent the day correcting their minute errors, had finished just before I arrived. He patted the stack with the flat of a hand. It made a solid sound.

“I was thinking about you, going through this book,” Seidel said. We’d been sitting in his living room. Seidel was on his enormous couch, a pillow wedged behind his lower back. “I realized something that I’ve many times realized and then sort of, postpartum amnesia, put out of my mind.” Standing, he handed me a glass of wine and gestured to the hall. We walked, slowly, deeper into the apartment. “Looking at these poems,” he said, passing the proofs on his table, “is sometimes an extremely strange experience, as if . . . who the hell wrote this? What’s odd is that, at the same time, I also remember alternative possibilities and associations at the time of the writing of the things. So it’s interesting, that one should have that going on as well. It’s rather a surprise, almost as if it were a surprise that they managed to get done at all. Extraordinary.”

He led me into his study, a tall, bright, white space with a large window and a broad heavy desk facing it. Books lined shelves that line the walls to the ceiling, tidy rows. Photographs of friends nest everywhere, scenes from a life.

“It’s very much,” Seidel said, “to do with the sense you develop, in the writing of a poem, that at a certain moment it has its separate being from you to which you have your obligations. You’re you; it’s it; and eventually, it really will separate from you and be absolutely not yours anymore — even if you made it. It is, of course. But it isn’t. It’s a thing out there.”

Seidel gestured to the window, to Manhattan, to the lights that shone in the dark. I looked at them and saw, reflected in the glass, hovering over the city, Seidel. I turned back to look at him, the real Seidel.

“So this is where you write?”

“My boy,” he said, “this is where I live.”

Later, as we said goodbye, it occurred to me: this was the apartment where, years ago, a distressed young woman’s voice exploded from an answering machine with a horrific threat: “You’re . . . not . . . going . . . to . . . live.” As I stepped out into the dark winter streets, I could still see Seidel patting the stack of his posterity, and I realized just how wrong the woman had been.

Wyatt Mason translated the complete works of Arthur Rimbaud for the Modern Library. His most recent articles for the magazine were about satire and how America got its name.

The Wasteland

Frederick Seidel- one for the FNB

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Friday night...

OK Hotspur it is.

Loudo at Largo

Live review: Loudon Wainwright at Largo at the Coronet
February 10, 2010 3:26 pm

The folksy, Grammy-winning musician sings about optimism in the face of bad times.

Loudon Wainwright III was fighting a losing battle with his guitar Tuesday night at Largo at the Coronet: He wanted it to stay in tune, the guitar didn't. So roughly an hour into his show the L.A.-based folkie hatched the kind of plan that comes naturally to someone with Wainwright's experience. "I'm gonna do a blues now," he announced. "That way it don't matter."

That his plan worked probably says more about the ingenuity of Wainwright's lyrics than it does about his fiery juke-joint chops; the blues was about Paul Krugman and contained enough jokes to fill one of the Nobel Prize-winning economist's columns.

Yet even though he succeeded in distracting the audience from his tuning issues, Wainwright still couldn't resist making some minor mid-song adjustments to his instrument -- a perfect illustration of the unfailing attention to detail that's made Wainwright one of his generation's most well-regarded songwriters.

Tuesday's concert, the first stop on a brief California solo tour, came shortly after Wainwright received his first Grammy, for last year's "High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project," on which Wainwright pays tribute to the obscure 1920s banjo player. An admitted cynic who leavens his misanthropy with disarming sensitivity, Wainwright didn't pretend that the Grammy win victory lacked personal or professional meaning; he opened with "The Grammy Song," a smirking plea for acknowledgment from his 1983 album "Fame and Wealth."

But mostly the show felt like an exercise of old charms rather than an appeal for fresh ears.

Thanks to the uncommon precision of his writing, those charms haven't dulled over the course of Wainwright's 40-year career. Songs about the cruelty of show business, such as "Hollywood Hopeful" and "Grey in L.A.," sounded no less true for having helped Wainwright establish a lucrative presence on the silver screen; the latter, it's worth remembering, was written for Judd Apatow's 2007 smash "Knocked Up."

And his "family material," as he put it at one point, remains almost unbearably poignant. Tunes like "Out of Reach," "Surviving Twin" and "In C" suggested that if anyone examines his relationships with his father and his children as penetratingly as Wainwright does, he's not making the records to prove it.

The singer did take advantage of his new status as a Grammy winner to talk up a forthcoming album of songs he said were inspired by "the new depression." ("I'm gonna cash in!" he added with a laugh.) In one of them he observed an unhappily married couple forced to stay together by their inability to sell their house -- a typical scenario for this lover of the everyday absurd.

Another took a less familiar tack, assuring those affected by the current economic crisis that "it's not the end of the world, it's just the middle of the night." Wainwright prefaced the tune by saying that after years of serving as "the loyal opposition to the John Denver / Dan Fogelberg bloc," he was now attempting to cultivate a more optimistic tone.

And so he did, though not without his fair share of sour notes.

--Mikael Wood