“Georgia Lee” by Tom Waits

Mulevariations

Tom Waits  Mule Variations

I was listening to an old Tom Waits’ album recently–Mule Variations (1999). To be sure, Tom Waits is an acquired taste and is not for everyone. But he is a taste that I long ago acquired and enjoy each time I re-listen.

I once read  a comment under a YouTube video that “Tom Waits is a pint of Guinness in a Bud Lite world.” And that statement makes perfect sense to me. (Whoever said this, fair play to you. I can’t find it anywhere now to give you credit.)

Anyway, the album Mule Variations continues in the style that Waits had started back with the album Swordfishtrombone, It has that clanky, cacophonous junkyard sound throughout much of it, except for one song in particular, “Georgia Lee.”

And it is this song that I can’t get out of my head.

“Georgia Lee” is based on a true story. A young girl, Georgia Lee Moses, had dropped out of middle school and run away from home at 12 years of age. Her disabled mother was simply unable to handle her. Ten days after she ran away she was found murdered near the exit ramp of a highway. She was 12-years old. The case didn’t make many headlines, and the murderer was never found. The community knew of her situation, knew of her plight. And it let her down. 

I don’t want to imagine what her life was like on the streets. She was 12 years old. 

And this is Waits’ chorus:

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?

Now, a lesser songwriter could have easily slipped into Hallmark-esque platitudes like “Why do bad things happen to good people” or decide on some soap-box philosophizing on the existence of god, the nature of evil, or the fall of innocence. 

But Waits’ doesn’t do that. Instead, he simply paints the picture, bleak and unforgiving as it is, and lets us figure it out. 

And then in the middle of the song comes the bridge: an invitation to play hide-and-seek, a care-free activity that should be available to any child, but wasn’t to Georgia Lee.

The song is a good one: a sad one, but a good one.  

Below is a nice version of the song from an album of female singers covering Tom Wait’s song. Give it a listen.

 

“It Ain’t Over Yet”

Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell

It ain’t over yet, ask someone who ought to know
Not so very long ago we were both hung out to dry
It ain’t over yet, you can mark my word
I don’t care what you think you heard, we’re still learning how to fly
It ain’t over yet 
It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell

I recently discovered this song. It’s a few years old. But it spoke to me…and probably speaks to a number of my friends as well. It’s about second chances. Regrets replaced by hope.  About “keeping on keeping on.”

I and a number of people I know and love are either going through some big changes or preparing to.  I had one friend quit her job to spend more time with her adolescent daughter, only to be blindsided by her husband’s abandonment. She went looking for anything that could pay the bills. Another lost his job when some powerful people complained about his style of teaching.  He landed on his feet, heartbroken but resilient.

Then there are others who are voluntarily leaving their jobs. A teacher friend of mine is quitting to be a full-time photographer. Another returned to Ireland.

They are all of a certain age.  I could go on and on.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said “there are no second acts in American lives.”  Rodney Crowell would dispute that idea.  Throughout his song he lists his faults and his regrets, his successes and failures, his highs and his lows. But he insists in the “hook” of the chorus: it ain’t over yet. And by the end of the song, he’s in a good space.

I am quitting my teaching job in June. I quit once before but came back to it eleven years later. I’ve been doing it a long time.

A lot of people ask me worriedly what am I going to do with myself. I have plenty to do.  I have my writing, which has been on hold for a few years–a novel needing a final draft, dozens of poems and short-stories to polish. (There’s a reason this is first post in 2019.) I have my painting, which I had been working hard on and then just ceased.

And then there is my music.  (Click here for future show dates.)

I’ve played about 35 gigs in 2019 and I am enjoying them and I think I’m getting better with each of them. I started out doing only covers but now am including 5 or 6 originals in each show. As I said, I think I am getting better.

And at my gig today, I am covering the Rodney Crowell song, “It Ain’t Over Yet.” I think of it almost as a fight song, fist in the air defiant: IT AIN’T OVER YET.

Here’s a wonderful video of Rodney Crowell performing with John Paul White and Roseanne Cash.  I don’t know about you, but I think the words speak to a lot of us.

Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

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“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

“I’m Baaaaack”: lists, reading, blogging, and Halloween

I'm Back

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It’s been 10 months tomorrow since I last posted on this blog, though it seems much longer than that. These are trying times, indeed.

I came back to this web site partly because of a column I read in the New York Times’ Book Review last Sunday.  In it,  the writer “reviewed” the web pages of the authors whose books currently sit on the fiction best seller list.

The first, Mitch Albom’s, dealt with lists… the 15 best movies, the 10 best songs, etc. This was a bit coincidental as I was to begin teaching Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity the very next day, which is a novel founded on the idea of “best of…” lists.  Hornby’s lists are amusing and fun, from the 5 best Dustin Hoffman movies to the 5 best songs to play on a rainy Monday (depending on whether you want to lift your spirits or wallow in the gloom.)

And speaking of coincidences, one the last pieces I had posted last year was a piece on Jess Kidd’s wonderful novel Himself,  which I have just finished teaching a week earlier. (Perhaps the pile of 60-plus essays that I am carrying around to grade is really what’s driving me back to the blog. Procrastination is a great inspiration for doing things other than the tasks at hand. As one writer once said, “My house is never cleaner than when I am working on a novel.”)

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

Anyway, let me reach out to any and all readers to find a copy of Himself. (It came out in paperback this summer.) It is a wonderful, magical, and darkly comic read.

But back to the NYT Book Review, the number two best seller’s blog tracked the number of profanities in his novels (compiled by his son) and number three’s blog focuses on houses–both real and fictional–and their architecture. The deal is that most publishers want their authors to have some on-line presence and this is what is presented.

And so I re-examined my own blog. At one time I was posting four times a week: a post on books, one on movies, one on music and one of commentary. But I can’t promise that anymore. Either, I am too disorganized or there are less hours in a day these days.  But, I am, once again, going to take working on my postings as a serious venture.

And so it is that after 10 months I decide to post again and on Halloween no less which is why I featured the frightening picture of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Halloween is undoubtedly the greatest holiday in my neighborhood for both young and old. For example, last year between 5:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., we gave out over 800 pieces of candy. Four and five of our neighbors sit together on the sidewalk, sharing wine and

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My treat for this night of tricks and treats.

beer and catering to a constant stream of children that parade by. (I have two bottles of Witching Hour red blend and my wife has a six-pack of pumpkin beer for the occasion.)

Some of the costumes are wonderful and clever and imaginative, and some are pretty lame, but everyone is happy.

After we run out of candy—although there are still many people walking by and many people handing out treats—we head up the street to another neighbor’s who is hosting his annual Halloween party. His own costume is often the talk of the neighborhood for the next few days. (i.e. Walter White in his briefs with a pistol in the waist band, Jack Torrance himself with a full door framed around his head, a priest dressed as Elvis.)

The party—and the entire night—is festive, but more importantly it is communal.

And god knows we certainly need that these days.

“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Ellison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.

FICTION

If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.

 

Non-Fiction

My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.

 

Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!

 

 

“Cat Person,” Marlene Dietrich, and Schlubbiness

The most talked about short story of 2017–or at least of December 2017–was a New Yorker story by entitled “Cat Person.” It was discussed in hallways and on-line, on commuter trains and in classrooms. In fact, even the photo accompanying the story in the magazine’s pages went viral and has been subjected to much analysis in itself.

 

CatPerson

The photo for “Cat Person”  (Photograph by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker)

 

To sum the story up, Margot, a young twenty-something college student meets Robert, an older man in the movie theater where she sells refreshments. After a second encounter, they begin texting each other and her initial hesitancy morphs into a realistic and charming internal battle of should-I-shouldn’t I.

The texting in the story is clever and does not feel forced. The turmoil that the young woman goes through is believable and sweet. And the man himself is a lovable bear.

It’s when they finally do get together when she returns to college from winter break that the story fails for me. Robert shows himself to be a bit of a “schlub.”  He is well meaning, but he is clumsy with himself and with her, and when it comes to their sole sexual escapade, he is both maladroit and ignorant.

Her condescension and abandonment of him finally forces him into petty meanness.

All of this reminds me of the early Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel.  Made in 1930 (in both a German and English version) by Joseph Von Sternberg, the film features Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola and Emil Jannings (in his first talking film) as Immanuel Rath, an elderly literature professor who becomes smitten with Lola who sings and dances at the eponymous cabaret “The Blue Angel.” While he has initially come to the cabaret to chase his students from such entertainments, he falls deeper and deeper for the sultry Lola. And as he falls for her, the orderly professor becomes more and more ridiculous and more and more an object of fun to Lola and her companions.

In the end, there is heartbreak.

It is there that I see the similarities. Neither the antagonist in “Cat Person” or Professor Rath in The Blue Angel are bad people. They are simply out of their element and ignorant as to how to cope. They are ordinary people in their respective worlds, but they become “schlubs” in the worlds of college romance and Berlin nightlife, respectfully–older men out of touch with the changing world around them

It is easier to empathize with Rath–Dietrich’s character Lola seems cruel and heartless much of the time–but Robert can also be seen as sympathetic. In “Cat Person,” Margot is also mean-spirited and self-centered. Her treatment of Robert–both during their date and after–is cold, perhaps undeservedly so.

But then 2017 is different than 1930, and Margot’s intuition may be pointing her in the right direction.