The Karaoke Guy

I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately, but I’ve been listening to an inordinate amount of 80s music … and loving it all over again. The 1980s was my coming-of-age decade, the era of nostalgia for those of my generation. Malign the 80s all you want for exalting money and materialism as noble pursuits – a la Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” – but the period nevertheless produced boatloads of notable pop culture phenomena and plenty of kick-ass songs. Maybe I’m swimming in nostalgia these days because my birthday is rapidly approaching and my subconscious is mercifully steering me away from the reality of turning 47. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself enthusiastically singing along when Huey Lewis’s “The Power of Love” comes on the radio as I’m driving on the Long Island Expressway.

Songs of our youth inevitably carry memories. And a memory came rushing through me recently, prompted by – of course – an 80s song on the radio. That oldies station is getting quite a workout on my car radio these days! The memory is not a major one in my life. It has no significant meaning or any kind. In fact, it’s meaningless. But it is vivid. And fun. And offers a tiny, fleeting glimpse of my youthful years when I was boy-crazy, flirty, and spent a lot of time in the drinking establishments of my native Queens. A little side note, Queens is the hardest boozing borough of the city of New York. This is a 100% true statement and it’s not open to debate ;-)

So here’s the scene. It was 1989. I was 21 years old. Me and my then-boyfriend (who many years later became my husband, and then my ex-husband) were out with a gaggle of friends at a bar in Kew Gardens, Queens for karaoke night. I was probably wearing some skimpy tank top and had my hair pouffed out as big as I could get it. My stomach was filling up with pints of Guinness, and my boyfriend’s loudmouth buddy was ordering shots of Jägermeister for the group that no one ever requested but were forced to drink at gunpoint, figuratively speaking. This was not some fancy-schmancy Manhattan martini place full of suits, mind you. This was an old-school, working class joint that had been there forever – a joint that had played host to generations of electricians, mechanics, and off-duty firemen, boys who worked in their fathers’ heating and air conditioning businesses and construction companies. That kind of joint. A place where they laugh at you if you ask for a glass of chardonnay.

The Bartender, by Toulouse-Lautrec:

ToulouseLautrec-the-bartender-1900.jpg!Large

So the next karaoke singer stepped up to the microphone. He was super cute, maybe 24 or 25. He had brown hair and green eyes (my favorite combination) and wore jeans and one of those long-sleeved thermal shirts, dark blue. Before the music recording began, he pushed up his sleeves to reveal a tattooed arm. He was muscular, but not a meathead. And he had an unlit cigarette wedged behind his ear. It’s amazing the minuscule details one can remember. And I remember that cigarette.

And then it began. Cute green-eyed Queens guy launched into his rendition of Billy Idol’s 1982 hit “White Wedding” . . . and HE. WAS. AWESOME. Friends, you must understand, this guy rocked the house. From the moment the lyrics “Hey little sister what have you done?” flowed through his voice, every girl in the place, myself included, just stood there with our mouths open. Whoa. This guy.  After an hour of awful karaoke singers, most of whom were drunk and kept messing up the lyrics, this guy got up there and was killin’ it. He was exciting. He was a potential American Idol finalist in an age before American Idol even existed. And it kept getting better. When he got to the part of “Start agaaaiiiiinn!!”, cute guy nailed it, his voice on pitch and deep and smooth with just the right amount of rough rock and roll edges. He sang that song, dare I say, better than Billy Idol.

When the song was over, cute guy received a thunderous round of cheers and applause from the inebriated bar crowd. He flashed a smile and returned oh-so-casually to his group of friends. He snatched that cigarette from his ear and lit up. Mission accomplished.

Interior of a Tavern, by Peder Severin Kroyer:

Kroyer-interior-of-a-tavern-1886.jpg!HalfHD

In case any of you are wondering if I sang karaoke that night, the answer is yes. Another girl and I got up there together, because we were too chicken to go solo, and performed Blondie’s “Call Me”. It was an abomination. Cute guy was watching .. and no, he never called me. Only in my dreams ;-)

A Music Monday inspired by a Guinness-fueled karaoke night in Queens from 26 years ago. Why not? Music acts as a marker of memories, both profound and prosaic. Actually, the music memories that aren’t sappy and sentimental or wrapped up in mawkish emotion are rich and intense in their own way. I wonder what happened to Mr. White Wedding? Here’s Billy Idol … trying to sound as good as the guy from Kew Gardens :lol:

Tangerine

Well hey there gang. How’s everyone doing? I’m enjoying a couple of days off from art modeling after a busy few weeks. Gotta say, it’s quite nice to sleep late, catch up on reading, tend to my houseplants, and get started on spring cleaning. Rather than bore you with the details of propagating succulents from stem cuttings (yes, I love it!) I’ll just subject you to more Led Zeppelin, because as loyal Museworthy readers it’s mandatory that you indulge my love for the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Just kidding, it’s not mandatory. But it is recommended ;-)

With spring rolling along nicely, summer is around the bend. This groovy song by Zep has always mad me think of warm, unhurried summer evenings, with bare feet in the grass, the fragrance of night blooming jasmine in the air, and stars in the clear night sky above. From the album Led Zeppelin III, this is “Tangerine” for Music Monday. Enjoy, and I’ll catch you soon!

 

Nude Blond Woman with Tangerines by Felix Vallotton, 1913:

Vallotton-NudeWomanTangerines

A Toast to Verdi

The classical music “flash mob” fad has really grown on me. You can find videos all over YouTube of cheerful cellists, violinists and the like bursting into performance in public places to the delight of commuters and pedestrians. The scenes can truly lift your spirits.

I came across this video that I thought would make a charming Music Monday. Canadian opera singer Jonathan Estabrooks organized and directed this “flash mob” at an upscale New York City event. During the cocktail hour, unsuspecting guests were treated to a spontaneous performance of the merry “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s La Traviata by incognito opera singers who had been blending in with the crowd. Good fun. Raise a glass and enjoy!

 

A splendid portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini. Verdi sat for this piece reluctantly, but both artist and sitter were quite pleased with the results. Pastel on cardboard, 1886:

Verdi-Boldini

Building Blocks

Life as a born-during-the-Johnson-administration 46 year old in a millennial-driven culture felt a little less alienating this week when the rock music world celebrated the 40th anniversary of Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin’s epic double album was released on February 24th back in 1975 and can now be called, officially, “middle-aged”. We’re in good company, yes! I like it :-)

Since I’ve already opined extensively about Zeppelin on this blog, I’ll spare my readers another fawning monologue and highlight instead the album cover for Physical Graffiti. But first I want to mention that I love the MP3 phenomenon as much as anybody. For all us music lovers it’s been, truly, a revolution. But if we lost anything of value with the death of LPs (the need for ample upright storage space not among them) it’s the art and design of the album cover. Particularly the rock album cover. Can you envision them? I’m sure you can. The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Sure there are covers to CD releases today, but it’s not quite the same.

Peter Corriston designed the iconic cover for Physical Graffiti which is instantly identifiable to Zeppelin fans:

PhysicalGraffiti

The source for this image is a block in New York City’s East Village, building street numbers 96 and 98 on St. Mark’s Place. My town has provided countless settings and images that have made their way into popular culture, and it always makes me proud. From the Empire State Building to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, in music and television and movies, New York City is everywhere … and don’t you forget it! Here are the Physical Graffiti apartments:

physical_graffiti_album_cover_led_zeppelin

The top floor of the building was cropped out and the window spaces on the album were cut out and inserted with liner notes and illustrations. You can read more about the Physical Graffiti album cover at this page.

It looks like I’ve just done a Music Monday at midnight on Saturday. So I might as well go the whole nine yards and conclude with actual music. But what to choose from this magnificently rich, confusing, strange, uninhibited double album? One on which you can detect the wear and tear in Robert Plant’s voice, and savor Jimmy Page falling obsessively in love with his guitar? No we won’t do the masterpiece “Kashmir”, but an acoustic ditty that was recorded outdoors in the garden at Mick Jagger’s house. From Physical Graffiti, this is “Black Country Woman”.

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Have a great weekend, friends! Be back soon. Until then, peace ..

Hearing the Heart

What happens when doctors and musicologists join forces and embark on a research project? Some interesting, albeit speculative, theories are born. A couple of weeks ago, a article on the Internet grabbed my attention and, for a brief moment, set my heart aflutter <– I’m cute and clever for choosing that phrase as you will soon see. A medical journal published the article in which is it theorized that the distinctly dramatic, sometimes volatile and erratic tempos found in Beethoven’s music were caused by the composer having had a cardiac arrhythmia. My own damaged aortic valve and I became excited at the thought that the great Beethoven was a fellow member of the heart abnormalities club. It’s all I’d ever have in common with my musical hero that’s for sure. I’ll never compose brilliant music and I’ll never be German :P

But alas, none of it amounted to some newly discovered provable truth about Beethoven. As the cardiologist involved with the paper said himself, “This is entirely speculative”. Well, phooey then.

Anatomical drawing of the heart by Leonardo da Vinci:

DaVinciHeart

Putting aside my childish desire to have heart issues in common with the greatest composer who ever lived (yes I’m weird), the study raises some compelling questions about the intersection of creativity and science, or artistic abilities and human biology if you will. I have nothing against scientific research and new ideas, conjectural though they often are. Much of it is quite fascinating. On the other hand, the tendency to pathologize the reasons behind artistic expression is as disillusioning as it is intriguing. It falls into the category of things that are over-analyzed to death, investigated and studied and pulled apart to no real illuminating end or purpose. And that indescribable realm in which artistic gifts take flight is a realm that science can never explain or elucidate no matter how hard it may try.

We know that Beethoven was deaf, and hardly the only deaf person who ever lived. We also know he suffered from lead poising, which was not uncommon in Beethoven’s era. And yet Beethoven was the only lead-poisoned deaf person to compose the 5th Symphony. Physical ailments, of which Beethoven had many, don’t define us exclusively. Isn’t it just possible that Beethoven’s soaring melodies, fierce tempo shifts, and complex harmonies were the result of him being, well, a musical genius? Isn’t it possible his music is “heartfelt” not due to “atrial tachycardia” but to the man’s profoundly intimate understanding of the human soul? To attribute the emotional weightiness of Beethoven’s String Quartets to a bout of “angina” strikes me as a bit unseemly.

I will, however, point out what I think is the most convincing postulation of the study. The researchers claim that because Beethoven was deaf he would have been more aware of his heartbeat. That is genuinely interesting and makes you think. Unlike the 188 years-late diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat, Beethoven’s deafness was real and without question impacted the nature of his composing as it progressed throughout his life; middle register and lower frequency notes are more perceivable in the inner ear before complete deafness sets in. High notes go first, and Beethoven began to complain about that as early as age 30.

Beethoven’s hearing aids, known as “ear trumpets”:

beethovenhearingaids

Oddities, illnesses, and abnormalities may or may not affect creativity. I posted previously about the alleged shrapnel lodged in the brain of Shostakovich. But the art and music survive, and how lucky we are for that. Let’s conclude this Music Monday with a video of Beethoven’s hand-written music manuscripts. They’re incredible to see, smudges, smears, erasures and all. His heart is clearly beating throughout:

The Light Shines

The past couple of days; last minute shopping, wrapping paper sorting, candle-lighting, purchasing wine and cookies, praying, donating to charities, praying some more, and tending the children at church for the Christmas pageant tonight, reminding them of their cues and practicing their songs – it went beautifully by the way. Tomorrow we gather at Mom’s house for Christmas Day in keeping with a Hajian family tradition. And Friday … Friday I can sleep! Is anyone else feeling spent?

Although it’s Wednesday night – Christmas Eve – we’ll turn this post into a “Music Monday” with the Grammy award winning Soweto Gospel Choir, performing “This Little Light of Mine”. Tremendous performers, rich inspirational voices. I wish for my readers all the joy, exultation, warmth and rebirth of the season. Blessings, always ..

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house”
Matthew 5:14-15

Dmitri’s Beautiful Brain

A few weeks ago I was reading some online articles about neurological disorders. Why? Well, doesn’t everyone spend their free time reading up on irregular brain activity? Okay, maybe not :P Anyway, in the middle of a paragraph I spotted a mention about Dmitri Shostakovich. As a huge fan of the superb Russian composer, my interest was piqued. It seems that Shostakovich had, for the last 30 years of his life, a metal fragment lodged in the temporal lobe of his brain. In the fall of 1941, Shostakovich was living in Leningrad at the start of the Siege, the most prolonged, brutal, and catastrophic military assault of World War II and in all of history. Ineligible for military service due to poor eyesight, Shostakovich had been injured by German shrapnel while volunteering with the fire brigades. Years later, when doctors found the metal fragment through x-ray, Shostakovich declined to have it removed or dealt with in any way. He maintained that it “filled his head with melodies” and that the sounds changed when he tilted his head in different directions. With their patient refusing treatment, the doctors had no choice but to leave him be.

Dmitri Shostakovich outside his country cottage:

Dmitri Shostakovich Outsde His Dacha

A detailed study on the effects of a foreign object in the brain, particularly as it impacts creativity, would be fascinating, but probably far too clinical for a layperson like me to comprehend. What interests me about this story is that Shostakovich is at the center of it, because it’s impossible to imagine 20th century music without him and his brilliant, unique, expressive contributions. If he truly believed that the splinter of metal in his brain enhanced his composing and helped him “hear” the music, then of course he’d be happy to keep it with him. And when you consider the years of coercion and strong-arm intimidation the man had to endure at the hands of the Soviet government, a bit of shrapnel in his brain was the least of Shostakovich’s worries.

As much as I love this peculiar anecdotal story about Shostakovich, it is not a confirmed fact. The information comes second-hand from a neurologist friend of Shostakovich’s doctor (allegedly) and has never been verified with solid evidence. Dammit! I want it to be true! So why the mystery? It’s possible that the Soviet propaganda machine kept it a secret, or perhaps that Shostakovich himself didn’t feel the need to share it with every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Who knows? Either way, it lies somewhere in the vast ambiguous space between myth and truth.

We’ll conclude this Music Monday with three minutes of sublime tenderness. From Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite, this is “Romance”, and it will improve your day tenfold. Enjoy :-)