I don't read much about music, some, but not much. The little I do read tends to be about Broadway musicals, or jazz vocalists, because, yes, I am that queer fellow. Even then, my curiosity tends to the personal story and the performer rather than the form. I listen to a great deal of music, but that doesn't mean I understand it, or could say much that would be meaningful about it. I don't read music. I can't make music. I can't even sing, though I can just carry a tune, sober, but only so far. In fact, I can't pretend to expertise of any description in musical matters, neither by way of education or experience, and can not even flatter myself that I have a specially good ear. Music however is the one art about which we are all allowed our opinions and may express our personal preferences without fear of censure, so long as we are sure of the company, and in the right place at the right time. It would not do, I suppose, to espouse Patsy Cline in preference to Tebaldi while at the opera, any more than it would make new friends to hum a catchy tune from Brigadoon, standing in line for tickets to see a band called "Napalm Death." My husband and I share a surprisingly narrow range of music in common. Despite his superior age, he keeps up with pop better than most teenagers, loves Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, and so forth, and what he would call "jazz" I would not dignify with that name, any more, I suppose, than a devotee of hard bop would have much patience with my devotion to the latter albums of Rosemary Clooney. We are what we are.
Besides theatrical history and memoirs, and the occasional biography of a great musical Dame like Mabel Mercer, or the more cautionary tales of singers like Anita O'Day or Billie, about the only serious books on music that I own would be criticism and profiles by great jazz writers like Gary Giddins and Whitney Balliett; New Yorker types, otherwise, no.
But reading too many books, and too many books all at roughly the same time, can produce in the aggregate something very like an inquiry, and so it seems I have taken up with reading musically, for the moment. Not sure how that happens, but here we are.
It started with a book that took me in, I'll admit it, for a good while. A remainder called An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin, by Rohan Kriwaczek, caught my eye on the table, first because of the rather wonderfully somber cover, and the very intriguing title. Never heard of such a thing. Reading just the littlest bit of it, I bought into it, and bought it, before I'd examined the thing too closely. Seems the good Protestants needed a music to replace the Mass at laying in. A tradition of lachrymose fiddle music came to fit the bill. What do I know? Could have happened. I'd read a dozen pages before I even began to suspect the surprisingly elaborate prank. The tone was just that much too much solemn, and defensive. Surely, any scholar and musician, having rediscovered an all but lost musical history would have been less beady-eyed about it? Why this stink of grievance? Then came the first mention of plotting in the Vatican...
It's a shame, really, to spoil the fun, but delighted as I was to discover I'd been hoodwinked, I was disappointed that the jokes weren't very good, once got, just elaborated like some teenager's telling of a once funny Python sketch; silly fake names under anonymous old photos, hints of paranoia and dark doings and... oh dear, a conspiracy. It's a pretty elaborate premise in service, sadly, of a gloomy cabaret act. Still, it was fun for a minute there.
Actually, the last book by a musician that I was surprised to find I genuinely loved was written by a woman I've never been much moved to listen to before. I remember the seventies rather vaguely, but I was there for the eighties from jump, though never really of them. Unlike all those reedy waifs who listened to the Smiths and thought Morrissey adorable, in a never quite up to it way, I make no claim to having ever been distangay, back in the day. I did not having the Patti Smith poster on my wall, wear eyeliner or ever think much of either her poetry or her records. Truth be told, when it was something very much to be done, I did not think of her at all. But Mapplethorpe? Him I remember. And I remember immediately after, when his notoriety, and his death, allowed all the critics who fancied that they mattered more than they may have, to have a go, not just at his work, but at anyone who liked it. Here I speak not of all that scary, silly business of the Philistines on picket-lines, or the bumptious politicians of the day, but of all those aesthetic gentlemen in expensive soft shoes who padded 'round the galleries, and Mapplethorpe's bones, making much of how little they'd actually ever thought of him. This, after they'd made him famous, and rich. Fascinating to watch how happy they were to gossip darkly about his taste for strange, his unfaithfulness to his friends, the shallowness of his pretty pictures. For a decade or more after he died, I wondered there was no one, it seemed, who had actually much liked what they saw after all, and had never really cared for the man, personally. The first biography was a hateful thing. Yet I resisted reading Patti Smith's book, Just Kids, for the longest time, despite the glowing reviews and the prizes, though I knew that she would provide the answer to all that bullshit that was still being talked, here and there, about an artist I'd found fascinating from at least the first book of photographs he'd had published. When I did finally take up Ms. Smith's memoir, I still worried she might not write in a way I would like reading, but I was a fool. It's a wonderfully written book; charming and simple and deeply felt. And quite fascinating, not just because it would seem to be the first honest portrait of her greatest friend, but because Patti Smith herself -- as I might have know had her many young fans back in the day not mumbled so -- is herself, it seems a brilliant woman and a very dear soul, and a very serious artist. I blush to think how stupid this, quite rightly, must make me sound to any and all my friends who already knew that.
Much more usual for me, was the night I took home The Hammersteins: A Musical Theater Family, by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein. I know, I know, but I warned you quite awhile back that I was really just another of those old darlings, didn't I? The book is a lavish thing, full of playbills reproduced next to ancient theatrical stills, show posters and backyard snaps, family history and famous anecdotes, and what is actually a remarkable history of the American musical theater, as told through one remarkable family. This, you see, is the book silly people like myself were rather expecting when the first volume of Sondheim's acerbic memoirs came out for Christmas last year. Something like this, anyway. Knew better, but didn't, somehow. I was fascinated by that book, and made unhappy by much of it being so willfully mean to so many artists long dead, though I came to admire Sondheim's book more once I'd got over it being so very true -- to the nature of its author. This Hammerstein object, judged by the same standard, is just as true to Oscar the lyricist, and his illustrious ancestors and heirs: goodhearted, is what it is, and fun.
Now, of all the unlikely things, a little book I've fallen in love with in just the past day or so, is by the mystery novelist, Donna Leon. It's called, Handel's Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel's Operas, charmingly illustrated by Michael Sowa, and with a CD of the referenced music, with Alan Curtis conducting Il Complesso Barocco. Who knew? Seems Ms. Leon is something of a serious scholar of medieval bestiaries and Baroque music, of all things, and with her talented collaborators has made a charming little something out of this. The pictures are charmingly painted cartoons --of two bees on a blanket under the stars for example -- along with some wonderfully bright explanations of what that sort of thing may mean in terms of the stately Herr Handel's music. I know it's all a little darling, but it really is well done, and actually great fun.
And finally, to come to something very new, and yet predictably familiar if one knew me at all, there is the new biography I've been anticipating now for at least a month. No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, by Carolyn Burke, just came out and went to lunch with me that very same day. What, I ask you, is not to love? Now it has come home with me. I can't really speak as yet to the value of the book, which will after all be my third reading of the great singer's life, but as I've been clattering away, typing up this ramble, I have of course been belting out L'Accordéoniste, etc., right along with La môme all night. How, you say, when I don't speak a word of French? Well, that's true, so you won't hear me doing Hymne à l'amour at karaoke night any time soon, no matter how many Lemon Drops you buy me. Still, a girl can dream, can't she?
I never said I was musical, not in the proper sense anyway, now did I?
Encore une fois!
Elle écoute la java...
... elle entend la java
... elle a fermé les yeux
... et les doigts secs et nerveux ...
Ça lui rentre dans la peau
Par le bas, par le haut
Elle a envie de gueuler
Alors pour oublier
Elle s'est mise à danser, à tourner
Au son de la musique...