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1979: Albert's (in Omaha) is lit!

Sunday, March 29, 2015


This, to me, is proof that P.J. O'Rourke used to be funny, and not just when he was a commie agitator thinking of ways to put tits in the National Lampoon. No, he was still funny way into his downhill political slide, and he only really stopped being funny when he finally got the memo to always punch down, not up, not straight across, just down.

But here he is, in 1988, perhaps at the point where rising conservatism and not-yet-plunging humor met on the graph, resulting in what I still regard as genuine American humor in the tradition of Twain, at the end of a longish Rolling Stone piece where he visited the world's trouble spots, only to find more love for us than hate in those heady days before George W. Bush.

(Hey, maybe that's why he stopped being funny. Cheering on the death of satire might do that to you. Seems more likely, though, that he was replaced by a smarmy clone with the humor section replaced with a sign that says REMEMBER THAT JIMMY CARTER IS UGLY.)

Anyway, after all the war zones, he goes to the place where he can still find America haters.

Back in London, I was having dinner in the Groucho Club—this week’s in-spot for what’s left of Britain’s lit glitz and nouveau rock riche—when one more person started in on the Stars and Stripes. Eventually he got, as the Europeans do, to the part about “Your country’s never been invaded.” (This fellow had been two during the Blitz, you see.) “You don’t know the horror, the suffering, you think war is… 
I snapped.
“A John Wayne movie,” I said. “That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? We think war is a John Wayne movie. We think life is a John Wayne movie—with good guys and bad guys, as simple as that. Well, you know something, Mister Limey Poofter? You’re right. And let me tell you who those bad guys are. They’re us. WE BE BAD.  
“We’re the baddest-assed sons of bitches that ever jogged in Reeboks. We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars. We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d’Antibes. And we’ve got an American Express card credit limit higher than your piss-ant metric numbers go.  
“You say our country’s never been invaded? You’re right, little buddy. Because I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try. We drink napalm to get our hearts started in the morning. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying ‘Cheerio.’ Hell can’t hold our sock-hops. We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of. I’d rather be a junkie in a New York City jail than king, queen, and jack of all Europeans. We eat little countries like this for breakfat and shit them out before lunch.” 
Of course, the guy should have punched me. But this was Europe. He just smiled his shabby, superior European smile…

PJ O’Rourke (the funny one) in Holidays in Hell

Saturday, March 28, 2015

a close reading

Overanalysis, based on the stuff I've written on my copy of the music. Unlike a lot of pieces, where I've written just a couple of things, like reminders of a sharp or flat, or a fingering, I really notated this one to the hilt, and now I'm expanding on that, you lucky, lucky person. (almost said 'people')

"The Pink Panther" (theme for the original movie) by Henry Mancini. Arranger's name not given. It'd be nice if it was really Henry's handwork, but if this is an anonymous staffer, I wish they'd allow them to take a bow for the nice job they did here.

Piano solo: the 4-page version, not the punky little two-pager. I searched for years for the longer version of this piece, with the bridge, and found it in one of those cheap, pulp-paper collections that used to go for about $10 and are now maybe $14. 

The piece starts with the cat offstage, and that one ambiguous non-chord drifting in like cigarette smoke from just around a corner, where all we can see is a French Galoise at the end of a long, black holder. 

The accompaniment comes in first, and it tells us a couple of things. It's in sequential paired chords, by which I mean 'dead-ant, dead-ant,' with an accent on each "dead" and "ant" is either quickly released (on the first 'dead-ant') or held (as in the second). This figure strikes me as quite feline, pushing off hard and landing with delicate softness.

[This, to me, is Mancini at his Manciniest, with the loud start and the soft finish. He will also gladly do the opposite, because of his admirable willingness to shake up the formula.]

The melody comes in almost furtively. It’s a sneaky melody: again, feline in nature, congruent with the established accompaniment. With the accents indicated, it's not dead-ANT, dead-ANT…, but DEAD-ant, DEAD-ant. Watch the accents and staccatos carefully, and mind the rests. They make the difference between playing Mancini and just getting to the end.

Bridge. This is why I looked so long for the four-page version. The bridge is where the piece really lets go, and I learned to expect it from hearing it in so many of those Panther cartoons from DePatie-Freleng.

The 4/4 in the left hand throughout the bridge should walk on little cat feet, with self-possessed portamento, and mostly sticking to four pads per measure. It doesn't nail itself to the formula, but most of it is in straight fours.

Second half of the bridge is a "solo"—either play the nice little chords or go for it. Wail or fail. I live in the hope that I will live up to my penciled note and wail on it. I'm in the grey area in between at the moment, neither wailing nor failing utterly. Flailing, maybe.

After the bridge, we're back to the A section again (the second half of the two-page version). This time, it's an octave higher, so slightly less cool. There's a sudden chord inserted in a quiet spot, as if the cat can’t resist sticking a cold paw in your ribs to see if you jump.

It proceeds much like the first part, and ends soft, and then… 

One last poke in the ribs. Mancini got ya!

diminished Liszt

I first became aware of Liszt's piano sonata right around my brief stint as a maid at Holiday Inn. I remember listening to Slobodyanik's exciting performance on my boom box, which went from room to room with me on the cart. (Sad to say, Slobodyanik—young and just starting out on the LP cover—died of meningitis in 2008.) The sonata remains a great pleasure, and my interest was piqued last night to see that it was available on a new (to eMusic, anyway) release in a transcription for solo violin. Not even violin with piano, but solo violin, which puts it in some rarefied company of virtuoso works arranged for the four strings and bow: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, Schubert's Erlking (calling for both piano and vocal parts to be at least suggested by the lone viol), not to mention solo guitar traversals of Dvorak's 'New World' symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

As I pondered paying $6.49 just to find out if she (Vera Vaidman) would make it all the way through, I checked to see if I could find something more to go on than the 30-second clip that consisted of silence, some applause, tuning, and perhaps the first note of the piece, and found the whole thing on YouTube. Viz:

Using my arcane chops, I extracted the audio and listened to it for a while as I went to sleep. The results were much like what I have found in the guitar hero versions mentioned above: large sections of the work are playable, at least to the extent that the melody can be carried along and some accompaniment sketched in or hinted at, but there are also places where the audience might plausibly expect more than two or so distinct lines and a chord here and there, and in these places, the guitarists—Larry Coryell on the Rite, and Kazuhito Yamashita on the others—seems to admit defeat and fall back on windmilling (I think this is called 'shredding') in hopes that the excitement of the rapid motion of fingers fanning strings will satisfy the listener that something musical is happening which conveys the composer's intention. I imagine that the performer can hear the correct notes in there, and expects that we will sort it out in our heads. Whether this is the case or not, I can't. It just sounds like someone punishing the instrument for not having 88 strings.

Thus my disappointment with Vaidman, who fell in love with the arrangement when she happened upon the sheet music, even though by this time the transcriber had had second thoughts on the fiendish difficulty of his work and produced a new edition that answered the criticisms of violinists in sanding down the hardest bits. With endearing quixotry, she would only be satisfied in conquering the extreme problems of the original, and I can't help but respect her for taking the hard way. As I say, there are whole sections that sound fine, but there are too many that don't work. As I started on it again this morning, I could detect a warning flag in the initial measures of the piece, where her intonation slipped a little (do I need to tell anyone how live performances home right in on any part you're not 100% certain of?), and when a real hell-section comes along, like the fugato (here set for pizzicato), the polyphony fails to come off.

So that came off of my iPod. It was a good try, and points for valor are awarded, but as a listener, valor isn't enough. I came here to meditate upon the transcription and the performance, and compare it to other solo string instrument transcriptions—the Erlking and Mephisto solos have been recorded very well by Rachel Barton Pine, among others (I don't know who else has recorded the Mephisto, but it was arranged by Nathan Milstein, who left many recordings)—and I was all set to suggest there are some pieces that should be left to larger instruments, when here came Giora Schmidt.

I don't know if he's playing the 'easier' version, but if he is, then it has everything the piece needs (well, apart from a piano, because I miss those big chords and some of the accompaniment) to sell itself, and with nary a wince. The pizzicato fugato sails by con brio—he puts the bow on the music stand and plucks away two-handed—and his intonation and tone are clear and confident all the way through. He's performing live, too, and I see from another video description that the music stand holds his iPad, from which he's reading the score. Did I mention that my big plan this year is to get a tablet of sufficient size to put my music into it so I can just put it on a piano and play from it? Anyway, the transcription clearly is playable, and more importantly, it sells itself to an audience.

So, there it is. I was going to write one thing, and I ended up writing another. I wholeheartedly recommend the second performance. If you've read down to here, send me money. Baby needs a tablet.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Heart of Hell

UPDATED! Somebody posted a full-color version of the cartoon in Feb, 2017, and I am now linking to their YouTube of it. See?

I used to have the version of the cartoon up here that went back and forth between color (two-strip cinecolor, looking pretty darn good here) and black-and-white, because there were many parts of this particular short that were thought lost. It seems to me that here would have been a legit use for colorization technology, but I digress. It was an improvement over the all-color version from the Iwerks collection, because it had all the parts that were cut from my version in an attempt to disguise the fact that this is a cartoon about a little kid and his dog going to Hell (by going down a volcano, not by dying in their wickedness), where they see a mini-pageant of famous monsters in Hell, the precursor of some South Park cartoons where, it seems, every famous person went to Hell. But it's a fun kind of hell, with luaus and parties to help blunt some of the sting of eternal torment. I digress again—and once more to apologize if I fail to trim any references to the VULCAN ENTERTAINS version (black and white, complete, lo-res) and MASQUERADE HOLIDAY version (lovely color print, but hacked to bits). The color shift is all through what I wrote before. (And when I wrote about it before that, it talked about the missing sections a lot.)

Willie Whopper, that congenital li'l liar, sits at a piano in black and white, pounding out his theme song while his dog helps. This is a 1934 cartoon called HELL'S FIRE, from producer (and legendary animator) Ub Iwerks, who made history at Disney as Mickey Mouse's first animator (and who animated the classic SKELETON DANCE as well) before going out to form his own company. Later, he went back to Disney and was subsequently honored for technical innovations (like the multiplane camera). He also animated some bird attacks for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, THE BIRDS.

Willie and his dog, who I will refer to as Fido, because if three minutes of searching won't turn up anything better than "his dog," then man was not meant to know. Now he's Fido. Willie and Fido are apparently dicking around atop "the world's most dangerous volcano," as kids will do, and get into a hassle with Satan, who sits around smoking directly under the circular opening of the volcano. He gets irked when Willie drops a rock on his head, but Willie arranges for his dog to lick the lump until it goes down, and everybody's happy as hell again.

Now that the most evil being in all creation is well-disposed toward our hero (and his dog), we go back into color (you get the point—I'll try and excise them silently from here on out) for some light entertainment, as the fallen angel puts on an impromptu parade of unworthies from history for Willy's enjoyment. Napoleon, Nero (fiddling Turkey in the Straw), Rasputin (doing a Hopak and burping rhythmically: seems to be John Barrymore), with Cleopatra and Mark Antony next — he bangs on a cymbal while she twerks at it. I suspect at some point they wanted her can to be hitting the cymbal and chickened out.

Heh. Ub I-twerks.

ahem. Simon Legree whips through next, on a dogsled pulled by bloodhounds, and some eloquently shrugging Pasha? with a blue beard? Eh, he must be Bluebeard. Then the Frederic March Jekyll turns into a hairy Hyde, and they introduce the guy this cartoon's really all about, Old Man Prohibition. His intro was cut from MASQUERADE HOLIDAY, but it was clear enough who he was from his long black frock coat, tall hat, and blue nose. Well, he's blue all over, but a lot of him is nose, and the Devil really, really, really dislikes him. The inmates of Hell dislike him. Willie dislikes him. I'm pretty sure the animators hated him intensely. Not sure when in '34 this came out, but Old Man Prohibition was killed in 1933, so he'd have been a fairly recent addition to Hell.

Well, Satan rags him a bit, and the others laugh, and demons with pitchforks chase his ass (yes, they specifically chase his ass), knock him down, flatten him, and refill him with booze (including a fairly disgusting maneuver with a funnel that I'll skip describing if it's all the same to you). Whoever chicken-edited this later on, apart from their notable lack of technique, seemed bent on disguising not only Satan and Hell, but the identity of the personification of the 18th Amendment, who had been a standard figure in cartoons for many years by this time. Because any mention of booze at all is tantamount to endorsing it in front of all those wholesome, imitative kiddies! Though, to be fair, the vehemence we will see in "getting" OMP seems almost to be a call for everyone to get drunk in reaction.

There's some by-play with Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld (and Hell!), who gives Iwerks a chance to really let loose on the incredible Three-ness of everything. One head eats the bone, the next head swallows, the last burps. The music seems designed to hang tripartite jokes on, and in parts of this scene, the note-for-note mickey mousing of the score actually gets a little oppressive. But it's hard to stay oppressed when watching a textbook example of a perfect dog-butt crawl maneuver (which our good old Annie was a master of, back in those childhood days), and we perk up readily. If you really want to see Ub let go on triplicate motifs, go find Goldilocks. It's true that the tale calls for exactly three bears, but by the time that cartoon's over, you'll feel like you've been cobbled on the noggin repeatedly and rhythmically for ten minutes by a great big hammer, a middle-sized hammer, and a wee, tiny, baby-sized hammer.

More once-cut scenes have Mr. Prohibition—now red-nosed—frightened by hallucinations (apparently he's an easy DT), but starting to enjoy himself just in time for heightened persecution by the hound of hell. He lurches and dashes awkwardly away down what is apparently the only corridor in Hell, and Satan points and shouts "Stop him!", forgetting that he could manifest lightning hands and catch somebody, the same way he caught Willie and Fido (and remember, future animation scholars, I gave him that name!). So Willie, the little kiss-ass, jumps up and puffs his already-spherical form up, and gives chase. "Satan's Little Pet," as the Far Side once said.

Willie gets within ass-grabbing range of the fleeing inebriate (who is apparently still not "cool," even though he's as drunk as Hunter S. Thompson), assisted by some lightning hands that Satan has tardily recalled. To make up for lateness, they reform themselves into a flaming brace and bit, which of course proceed to drill his keister up to the hilt. Ho ho! He got it in the butt! Walt Disney, I hope you're taking notes on this, because you're going to use this gag in cartoons two times for every hamburger sold at McDonald's. The terror-stricken pariah, ignoring the Ixnay signs, heads into the boiler room. The boiler room of Hell!

For some reason, the image of the red imp (in nice blue gloves and booties) happily pulling the release of the coal chute feeding that furnace is my favorite visual the cartoon. The colors are rich and saturated, the floor and walls are a clearly marked stage, and the boiler emits satisfying flames when the coal flies in. Then Willie and Fido (© me!) and the Old Man go barreling into the chute and knock it aside, which (paradoxically) causes it to overload with coal, and in the ensuing ka-boom, all three are blown out of Hell, into a large nest a mile or so away from the world's most dangerous volcano (remember?). The NRA (National Recovery Act, that is) Eagle shows up, posing iconically before unbending into a regular, albeit huge, bird that picks up the trio, glides over the cone of the Hellmouth, and drops Prohibition back to Hell again before flying off with Willie.

So, they really did hate the guy.

Willie, back at the piano, invites us to tell our own lies ("Now YOU tell one!"), but we have learned our lesson! No more lying for us, not even a little white one. If you lie, we end up, like Willie and his dog (Fido!), doing the bidding of the Prince of Hell, before being carried off bodily to an unknown fate by a giant NRA logo. At least we know he came back afterward, seemingly the same happy kid as before, but how could he not be changed by such a horrific experience? How?

Answer: he could not. Some time later, Willie lost a lot of weight, and his voice changed. It's all documented in the films.

Take-away from all this? Never tell the truth. Eat a lot. Prohibition bad. If Satan tells you to "get" someone, don't ask stupid questions, just do it.

edited May 28, 2017