In my the occasional book posts, I haven’t been including audiobooks, both out of an obscure sense that they don’t count, not really, and because everything I’ve listened to this year has been, technically, rereading. Wodehouse, Dot Sayers, Lloyd Alexander, Frank Baum, and now T. H. White. I’ve had the Once and Future King cycle from Audible for a dog’s age, and only began listening to it in desperation one evening with a long walk before me and all my podcasts finished, and kept up with it by fits and starts, usually in similar circumstances. I finished the first book tonight, which was as far as I ever got in the books as a child too. I resented it when I was young for being appalling history — rather than going Full Nerd into the remote possibility of a Historical Arthur of the sixth century, White very sensibly takes the legend (mostly filtered through Malory) as the metaphor for a post-Norman Britain it obviously was, and which his own scholarship equips him to conjure with — as well as for being as much comedy of manners and slyly subversive Bildungsroman with anachronisms aplenty as it is a faithful imparting of the creaky old Matter of Britain. I preferred Tennyson’s Idylls, if you can believe it. I was, in fact, a massive geek about Arthurian romance in my teens (blame first Prince Valiant and second C. S. Lewis), and like any geek I had strict rules that the things I loved had to follow in order to be worthy of my love. Winking jokes about eighteenth-century landed gentry and twentieth-century scientific debates definitely did not fall under the category of Acceptable Elements of the Arthurian Mythos. So of course now I’m deeply in love with White’s tragicomic vision — though perhaps even more deeply with his prose style — and I’m thinking once more about revisiting my own youthful desire to produce a version of the cycle to suit my mature, less-stark tastes. (Once, in my early twenties, I promised myself that I would let Logres sit until I was fifty, as I had so many other projects I wanted to work on in the meantime. Ten years on, I’m hardly any closer to accomplishing any of them than I was then; and two or three of them still seem to me to have some merit. These past two decades have been one long distraction after another.) I’ve already started on the second book in the series, though I have to wait until I get to a place with wifi to download the whole thing. Anyway. Just thought I’d mention it.
Corey Ford, The Gazelle’s Ears (1926)
American humorists in the 1920s had all to contend with the looming figure of Robert Benchley, the master of gentle absurdism snuck into the anthropology of the middle-class American literary, commercial, and social diet. With his first book, I don’t know that Corey Ford really escapes that shadow; he’s rather more absurd, but he follows the same essential format of high-toned parody and clueless explainer-of-all-things that Benchley established.
Most of the pieces originally appeared in venues where Benchley was well-known too: Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and so forth. Later, in the 40s and 50s, Ford would establish himself as a sporting and outdoors humorist (an early Patrick F. McManus, perhaps), but here he sticks a little too close to the general Algonquin script to have much of his own identity.
Most of the best pieces in the book are the literary parodies. Well, practically everything in it is a parody of some form of writing or another (mostly the general-interest magazine piece), but I mean the fiction parodies, which press down on the absurdism accelerator so hard that they’re practically surrealist. “But Why Do We Go On?”, a vicious parody of British modernism, is surrealist.
The only other piece that while reading it I had the thought that it would be worth the trouble of tracking down the rights and reprinting in an anthology or on the web was “The Intimate Study of Fugitive Art,” a tongue-in-cheek but still wholly sympathetic “report” on a fictitious branch of scholarship on graffiti, doodling, and various abstracted elements of urban living. It ends up being a beautiful meditation on the demotic shared spaces of New York in the early twentieth century, even as it pushes a faux-scholarly tone and hyperbole about urban density into nonsense. Its sly observations about ephemera actually reminded me of the modern social Internet, where everyone is sending out their own intimations of common humanity to the void, and anyone who sees it may be nourished thereby.
“7 in ‘77” FULL COLOR EDITION, now available is a print. GET ONE HERE!
Kurt Wolfgang’s amazing pop culture mandala, now for sale.
What I take from this is that Kurt Wolfgang is a couple of years older than me, and watched way more TV. I still recognize pretty much everything.
Q:Empress, Lovers, Chariot, and don't answer the last one just "yes" or "no" just because it's a yes-or-no question.
What do you desire most?
Security, in the twin sense of “the opposite of insecurity” and “enough money to live on.”
What qualities would your ideal partner have?
If I knew that I might be able to identify them in a flesh-and-blood human being, and we can’t have that. Apparently.
Have you ever had to fight for something?
Probably. I can tell you, though — whatever it was — that I didn’t. For most of my life I’ve been rather proud of this character trait, which I’ve self-flatteringly identified variously as pacifism, flexibility, or humility. It’s only as I near middle age that I start to think it might not have been the best idea to always avoid conflict and take the path of least resistance all my life.
Send me a Tarot Card.
- The Fool: Tell an embarrassing story.
- The Magician: Do you have a special talent?
- The High Priestess: Are you good at keeping secrets?
- The Empress: What do you desire most?
- The Emperor: Do you have any family traditions?
- The Hierophant: What is/was your favourite school subject?
- The Lovers: What qualities would your ideal partner have?
- The Chariot: Have you ever had to fight for something?
- Strength: What gives you strength?
- The Hermit: Could you cope with living alone?
- Wheel of Fortune: If you won a million pounds, what would you do with it?
- Justice: If you could be a super hero (or villain) what would you call yourself and what powers would you have?
- The Hanged Man: Would you sacrifice your own life to save someone else's?
- Death: If you were able to reincarnate, what would your next life be?
- Temperance: Do you have good self control?
- The Devil: What do you think your worst quality is?
- The Tower: Describe your dream home.
- The Star: What inspires you?
- The Moon: Describe a dream (or nightmare) you've had recently.
- The Sun: Describe a childhood memory.
- Judgement: Have you ever done something that you were really ashamed of?
- The World: What country would you most like to visit?
Q:Following Eurovision at all?
I’m not. It would be hard to without an Internet connection (this is on my phone); but even at the best of times I’ve never cared about Eurovision. My version of enjoying pop has never included an element of mockery (though I recognize it as a venerable method of interacting with pop, cattiness is maybe my least natural mode of expression), and my tolerance for generic Euro productions and unblinking earnestness is low. I’m also poor enough at sociability that I can’t even be bothered to get into it for the excellent reason of chatting about it with friends, online or off.
I know I don’t actually need to be defensive about it — I’m only like the vast majority of straight US males in my lack of interest — but I’m in that kind of mood, I guess.
12. The ‘Imperial Dance Orchestra,’ vocal by ‘Rodman Lewis,’ “Smile When the Raindrops Fall” (1930)
We have reached a weird twilight region of anonymity and cheapo cash-in recordings. The Imperial Dance Orchestra was a name used by several outfits in the 20s and 30s to wiggle out of exclusivity contracts and pick up a little extra cash recording for fly-by-night labels that pumped out product and didn’t care about quality control. The most consistent user of it was Adrian Schubert, a bandleader whose Salon Orchestra pumped out an incredible amount of recordings that all hovered right around the level of mediocre-but-passable dance-band pop. The most interesting bit of this recording is the guitar solo, which sounds like the player has actually heard some Delta blues. The vocalist who takes a chorus late in the proceedings was using a pseudonym too: tenor Harold “Scrappy” Lambert was just as mediocre and prolific, although he did occasionally get to do good work under bandleaders like Red Nichols.
“Smile When the Raindrops Fall” was written by Hollywood hacks Will Livernash and Alice Keating Howlett for Hal Roach’s studio; it was originally presented by Charley Chase in a short subject, and would later become more vaguely recognizable as one of Laurel & Hardy’s themes. It’s one of the deluge of keep-your-chin-up ditties that swamped the popular-music market in the early Depression, and wasn’t particularly a hit, although any new song was of course grist for Schubert’s mill.
11. The Original Memphis Five, “Fireworks” (1929)
This is another recording from the late 20s, but the band itself could squeeze under Gatsby’s 1925 cutoff; the Original Memphis Five was formed by trumpeter Phil Napoleon on the heels of the success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, and ended up sharing a pianist with them. Despite that — and the fact that they were all white men who hailed neither from Memphis or even the South — they were one of the few moderately hot white bands of the decade, and several notable jazzmen passed through their ranks.
“Fireworks” was composed by the great early jazz songman Spencer Williams, a black man born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago, and turned professional in New York (much like jazz itself), who collaborated with Fats Waller and at the time of this recording had written for Josephine Baker at the Folies-Bergères. The song is maybe best known among jazz hounds for being the B-side to the original 1928 issue of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” famous for containing the first recorded jazz solo to wander away from the root chords and into impressionistic space.
The Memphis Five don’t approach anywhere near that level, though the Dorsey brothers on alto sax/clarinet (Jimmy) and trombone (Tommy) do themselves very well, and Phil Napoleon’s trumpet almost struggles to keep up. But it’s largely a rhythm piece, and devotees of “dixieland” jazz (like “rockabilly,” a later coinage invented to distinguish the early form from what came later) love it a lot.
10. Zez Confrey & his Orchestra, “Kitten on the Keys” (1922)
And here’s another first: a recording I’ve written about before (you’ll have to Ctrl+F Zez, or read the whole thing).
For the vast majority of listeners to this agglomeration (and perhaps for its anonymous compilers, though I’m gaining a grudging respect for them), it would probably be functionally no different from the late-20s dance-band material it’s surrounded by: a host of undifferentiated signifiers of “old-timeyness” that might be adored or might be scorned but which are notable primarily in how much they differ from the sound of today, or even of yesterday.
But “Kitten on the Keys,” though this souped-up orchestra version attempted to place it in the region of dance-band genera, was primarily a piano piece, even a parlor piano piece, using a patina of ragtime and the flashiness of technical virtuosity to push a novelty tune (you can hear the title cat prancing across the ivories), with nothing improvised or even particularly rhythmic (and therefore danceable) about it. It wouldn’t be until many years later, when the parlor-piano context was virtually forgotten, that people would mistake Confrey’s fake ragtime for the real thing, and start to think of the song as not merely a novelty, but a major composition representing the champagne spirit of the Twenties. In the real Twenties, it was far more likely to be banged out on suburban uprights by gawky students not yet out of short pants and skirts than played at any kind of sophisticated whoopie, especially if there were actual ragtime or stride pianists present who knew what they were doing.
In Gatsby terms, the sheet music might be in Nick’s rent-a-cottage; but it wouldn’t get played at the famous parties, unless perhaps ironically. Its inclusion here is a little like dropping the Busta Rhymes verse from “Look At Me Now” on an EDM mix: sure, it’s popular, and might well appeal to similar tastes, but it’s not really the same kind of thing.