A Very Special Birthday Tune-Up


Happy Birthday, Big Daddy!  I thought this would be a festive AF (click link to see what kids mean by AF), and since I never know if or when the Bose CD player is working, I figured this would also be easier for you than making a CD.

So here is a special edition Birthday Tune-Up.

1. “Di, Perra Mora.”  Guess the time signature and win a prize, the prize being you know what the time signature is, ’cause dude, straight up, I have literally no idea what time signature this is in.  This obviously has to go first in the tune-up line-up.  Why?  Because the music you played for me when I was a little kid (see: the “clapping song”) absolutely inspired my love, or obsession, with rhythm.  Which, as we all know, is THE MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT of music, way beyond melody or harmony.  I will brook no dissent on this topic.  Anyway, I love how this song builds in intensity by the inclusion of more instruments – not through tempo increase or volume.  In that way it reminds me of your observation about Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.”


2. “Widerstehe doch der Sünde,” J.S. Bach.  Similarly, I learned about Bach because of you, and man am I grateful.  As I sat in rush-hour traffic driving from Schofield Barracks to my hotel a few weeks ago, I put this on and instantly everything was better.  Interestingly, the lyrics are a total downer – all about how sin leads to death and Satan is very crafty and we’re probably all screwed.  But doesn’t Andreas Scholl sound pretty!


3. “Improvisation.”  Thanks to the “Voices” CDs I grew up with, along with all the vinyl records you had of music from around the world, I got used to the idea that music isn’t just a Western construct from a very early age.  This is such a delightfully delicate piece that never quite gets above a murmur.  And it features panpipes, which I know you love.  And yes I am lying.  I don’t know whether you love panpipes or not.  We never have conversations that matter.


4. “Nisi Dominus – Cum Dederit,” Antonio Vivaldi.  OK OK fine, melody is important, too.  This is so shockingly spare, especially for a Baroque composer like Vivaldi, that I felt sure it was one of those modernist Vivaldi knock-offs.  And yet!  It is not!  I KNOW!  WTF!  Our buddy Andreas Scholl is at the singy bit again.


5. Organ Concerto in B-Flat Major, Op. 7, No. 1: Andante.  GF Handel.  This is unexpectedly delightful and very charming.  Like that time you snuck peas into my garlic shells when I was ten, for which, after years of introspection and thousands of dollars of therapy, I have forgiven you.  It also reminds me of fun times over the dinner table when you’d quiz me on the nationality of composers.  As I remember, Handel always tripped me up because it always sounded so very British.  (Well, yes.)  And yes, I did program this link to start at the good part.  I mean all of these concertos are quite nice, but this little bit it so cute.  NB: This is supposed to be with organ but I find the piano version even prettier.


6. “À la manière de…Borodine.”  Maurice Ravel.  I remember being totally obsessed with “Bolero” as a kid.  It had everything!  It was endless, mildly melodic while intensely rhythmic, and excellent for dreaming about some kind of epic action-adventure movie of which, duh, I was the star.  And then you told me about Ravel’s quip regarding his own distaste for Bolero, which was the first of many such amusing anecdotes I dropped at parties in college, and therefore, by extension, the first of many avenues I could take towards being met with blank stares.  My glittering social career owes you a debt of gratitude.  Anyway, this is also one of a few “This is a song I wrote by [insert somebody else]” pieces.


7. “Bourée ‘Avignonez,” anonymous (but actually Praetorius, because I mean for Christ’s sake listen to it, it is so totally Praetorius, and actually actually, see #8).  Okay, two reasons – unrelated…I think – I’m including this.  One, it sounds like a sea chanty, and I can absolutely hear you emitting a hearty “Argh!”  And second, it uses the noble and much maligned sackbut, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that there was such an instrument.  You and I were driving in that beater of a Dodge convertible, back from the Dairy Queen near the Gold’s Gym we used to kind of go to, and God only knows what we were listening to, but it involved a sackbut.  Me: “What is that instrument?”  You: “That, if you can believe it, is called a sackbut.”  Me: “A SACKBUT?!?!”   [death]


8.  “La Bourée,” Michael Praetorius.  Hellooooo.  Bonus round.  Okay, I have to fess up, the only reason I’m adding this to your birthday tune-up is that the last chord makes me burst out laughing every time, in same way that, when I was eight, and we brought home a pint of peanut butter cookie dough ice-cream, and I started chanting “pea-nut-butt-ter-coo-kie-dough,” and you retorted with, “pea-nut-butt-ter-block-o-brick,” and I laughed until my stomach hurt and had to go lie down.


9. “Change Your Ways Or Die,” The Cactus Blossoms.  Okay, time to move from old stuff.  These guys are a cool heir to Johnny Cash style of country music.  This song makes me feel like I’m in some sort of 60s heist movie.  It also, for some reason, reminds me of the time Mom was out of town and you and I were bored of a Saturday, so I opened up a map of Massachusetts and blindly put my finger on the town of Shirley (est. 1753).  So, with literally no better plan, we got into the Volvo and drove to Shirley.  That’ll show Mom to ever leave town.


10.  “Making Flippy Floppy [Live],” Talking Heads.  “OUR PRESIDENT’S CRAZY – DID YOU HEAR WHAT HE SAID?”  Beyond that, I finally realized, after seeing David Byrne live, that the reason I love funk music so much is that I started listening to the Talking Heads at a really young age.  Re-listening to all of the Heads’ stuff again, I forgot how much they really cooked.  This song in particular is amazing.  Tina Weymouth’s bass line is so clutch.  (Also, SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to dress up as David Byrne in the big suit for Halloween this year.  This will not break my record of dressing in costumes very, very few people will recognize.  One year I went as Edie Sedgwick.  That was so stupid.  I just got a lot of compliments on my fashion sense and questions as to why I didn’t dress up.  …I mean for F’s sake.)


11. “Super Bon Bon,” Soul Coughing.  SAME KEY AS BEFORE!  I RULE.  Okay anyway.  Speaking of funky, do you remember that year, I think it was my senior year in high school, that I made an illuminated manuscript?  You might have blocked this from your memory, but I listened to Soul Coughing’s “El Oso” album on repeat.  I never really understood, until I got wireless headphones, that whatever I listened to at home was what you and Mom were listening to.  Thanks for not making me turn my tunes off.  And this is why I’m not playing a track from “El Oso,” but rather from “Irresistible Bliss.”  I’m not that much of a jerk.


12. “The Duffler,” Fanastic Negrito.  And speaking of high school…  High school was so much fun for everyone.  I know you particularly enjoyed driving me to school in the morning while I sat in a sullen silence and you tried, again, to not flatten those two women who always walked on the wrong side of the road and would flip you off when you mentioned they might want to change sides.  Good times.  Anyway, one memory in particular stands out.  One morning, feeling particularly oppressed and ill served, I dressed in combat boots and a wool, knee-length, Air Force officer’s overcoat Mom bought me at a consignment store.  You peered around the corner from the kitchen as I stomped down the stairs, and casually asked, “Who are we invading today?”  To which, had I had Fantastic Negrito on my music rotation at the time, I would have responded, “WELCOME TO MY LIFE.”


13. “Spent the Day in Bed,” Morrissey.  You remember that god-awful alarm I had in high school?  That played a deranged, screetchy version of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” for some unknown reason?  (Side note: WTF was up with that?  Why would GE make a phone that played that as an alarm tone?  Who’s horrible idea was that?  “Jeremy, you’ve been silent during this planning meeting – but knowing you, I bet you’ve been marinating on some brilliant idea.  Would you share it with us?”  “As it happens, Shawn, yes, I do have an idea.  How about ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ as an alarm tone?”  “Jeremy!  You genius!  That will sell like meth in the Ozarks!  Brent – do we have the technology to make it sound like music?”  “Oh God no, it’ll sound like screaming.”  “DONE!”)  Yeah.  And remember how hard it was to get me out of bed?  You’re welcome.  Thanks for the cold washcloth to the face, too.  That was great.


14.  “Same,” Matthew Logan Vasquez.  Of course, probably the best thing you did for me in high school was to remind me to just keep my head down, do my work, suck it up, and one day, I’d graduate and it would all be over.  It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of all time, coming from Joseph Campbell: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through.  Face it.”  This made is especially awesome that you high-fived me as I recessed at graduation, as the piper (seriously? a piper?) played “Scotland the Brave.”


15.  “Too Many Colors,” Twin Shadow.  I’ve always wished I’d been born the kind of person who had a burning desire to be A Distinct Thing.   Something that, at a party, you could tell people you did and it would be an immediately understandable answer.  A doctor.  A lawyer.  An arsonist.  It’s been a real pain that I’ve always been way too curious about everything that it’s been hard to pick something.  One of the things I’ve always been the most grateful for is that neither you nor Mom has ever forced me to pick something, instead letting me try and try and try until, either by exhaustion or insight, I land on something.  Unless it was going to hotel school at Cornell.  That would have meant RUIN.


15. “Freun Wir Uns All In Ein,” Anon.  Okay I lied, we’re not finished with old stuff.  Remember when we were dorking around Germany and eastern Europe and we hopped on that tour bus in Berlin and the poor tour guide, who was obviously hungover, now had to do a bi-lingual tour because two doofy Americans go on board?  I think about him every time I listen to this sobering German hymn.  That poor bastard.


16.  “Periodically Double or Triple,” Yo La Tengo.  Speaking of doofy Americans, remember the Laundry Fairy of Dresden?  We stroll into a laundromat, you dressed in that super fetching Virgin Atlantic sleepshirt, athletic shorts, and loafers, me in baggy jeans and a tank top, and after figuring out how to get laundry detergent out of one machine and into a washing apparatus, we put it into some poor guy’s laundry instead?  And then the Laundry Fairy appeared, helped us clean ourselves, and then disappeared?  That was a great night.  I don’t know why this song reminds me of that; maybe of how mystified Ira Kaplan sounds when he’s singing.


17. “Wanderlust King,” Gogol Bordello.  And then there was that time we got washed out in Prague and had to take seven separate trains to get back to Germany.  That whole trip, while mind-bendingly stressful at times, is in the top five of best trips I’ve ever taken in my life, and no doubt in my mind at all it gave me the confidence I now have as a traveler.  This includes the ability to decipher a Czech train schedule in a woman’s basement that she managed to turn into both an internet cafe and a discotheque.  And to identify the best outdoor cafe at which to eat lunch by the kind of beer advertised on their umbrellas.  And that the only thing Polish waitresses knew how to ask Americans was, “Big beer?”  (Answer: “Big beer.”)


15. “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince.  So I’m going to be sharing two Prince songs – one that’s a little bit more Prince-y, and then this one.  I found this one on a mix I downloaded and put on random shuffle.  I wasn’t looking at my phone while it was playing and kept asking myself, “Jeez, who is this?  This is beautiful!”  And turns out, it was Prince.  I was stunned.  It’s spare and vulnerable and not anywhere near as traditionally funky as his other stuff.  But it does showcase his incredible musicianship.  Behind all of his bombast and wacky costumes and performance art lay an overwhelmingly talented musician and songwriter.  This is the kind of pianist I wanted to become while I was writing all that moody massage music in high school.  Ah, the road not taken.


16. “She’s Always In My Hair,” Prince.  This is the other part of Prince that went unsung: he was a champion of female musicians.  Many of his backing bands had women (or, in this case, all women), and he often had female bands as openers for his shows.  Because of that, combined with all of his undefinable weirdness, there’s always been a great feeling of freedom in his music.


17.  “Domino (Time Will Tell),” Hiss Golden Messenger.  This reminds me of “Brown Sugar” by the Stones, another band you and Mom introduced me to.  I remember having a particularly festive discussion of the real meaning of Stones lyrics (“She blew my nose before she blew my mind.”  …Ohhh.) while we decorated the Christmas tree.  Not as festive as watching “Patton” every Christmastime, but close.


18. “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” David Bowie (feat. Trent Reznor).  I promise this is the only topical tune I’m posting – and the only reason I’m posting it is to share the only song that’s getting me through these horrible days.  My little gift to you.  Okay.  That’s it.


19.  “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” The Holmes Brothers.  You taught me that nothing is so good that can’t be slowed down, and this song is absolutely proof of that.  This sounds like it should have been used in “The Wire” or “Homicide.”  It also sounds like the sad part of a jazz funeral.  The Holmes Brothers formed in Christchurch, Virginia in 1979.  Wendell Holmes toured with Inez and and Charlie Foxx of “Mockingbird” fame before he formed The Holmes Brothers with him brother Sherman.  For drumming help, they enlisted the support of a friend named, wonderfully, Popsy Dixon.  The band performed and recorded until 2015 when Popsy and Wendell died.  Sherman lives in Saluda, Virginia.  This song is from their 1992 album, “Jubilation.”


20. “Dig A Little Deeper in God’s Love,” The Fairfield Four.  Speeding things up just a bit here – and God bless the monochromatic audience for knowing how to clap on the two and four.


21.  “Wonder Woman Theme,” Caroline Campbell and Tina Guo.  Campbell and Guo begin this concert with the intro to Elgar’s Cello Concerto.  And then…  Note that, not a minute into the transition to the Wonder Woman theme, Campbell has already busted a string on her violin.  That’s how much the film meant to women – I personally have seen it four times, the most times I’ve ever gone back to rewatch a new movie.  For me, the movie was a validation of everything I was raised to believe about myself but had to convince society to accept as true.  Thanks for always making me feel like Wonder Woman.


This concludes this year’s birthday tune-up.  I hope you have a big, big day, perhaps filled with lobster and pie.  Love you.



Funk Friday: “Bop Gun,” Parliament


I have no words.  This is just the sublimest of the sublime.  “Turn me loose!  We shall overcome!  Where’d you get that funk from, huh?”

Throwback Thursday: “L’Elephant,” Camille Saint-Saëns


Elephants are the largest animal that can also manage to be completely adorable.  I once spent a very diverting 20 minutes watching a baby elephant play catch with its mother using a red ball the size of a washing machine.

Elephants are also deceptively intelligent animals despite their otherwise slow-moving, vaguely dopey appearance.  They remind me of certain humans I know, come to think of it.

In any event, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a whole suite of pieces about different animals.  I have very happy memories of listening to this one as a little kid and giggling at the thought of watching elephants gracefully dancing to this melody.


Worldly Wednesday: “Bassama Bissarma,” Abdel Gadir Salim


Salim is one of the most famous singers and band-leaders to come out of Sudan.  Born in the Nuba Mountains, Salim has been playing traditional Sudanese music since the 1970s.

Sudan is an incredible country.  Home to at least six different civilizations and kingdoms over the past few thousand years, Sudan also created a system of pharaonic kingship like Egypt – the great temple of Ramses II is found on the border between Egypt and Sudan.  The Meroe Pyramids, nestled together like a modern cul-de-sac, are on my list of things to see.

45490_story__sudan map.gif

The ceaseless rhythm of this song’s 6/8 time signature reminds me of the gait of a lumbering camel up and over and down sand dunes.

Termagant Tuesday: “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away,” Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks


Oh good.  It’s the New Hampshire primary today.  Anthems of joy.

If you detect snark in my voice, you’re half-right.  I’m half-snarking.  I love voting.  Anyone who has read this blog knows I love voting.  I am a votin’ fool.  But these elections are starting to feel as drawn out as the commercial “holiday season” that starts …actually I think it just restarted itself.  Our nation’s adrenal glands are already shot from the “soaring” rhetoric of these candidates’ speeches, fear-inducing attacks, and tear-jerky patriotism.  I’m so very tired.

I’m also very tired of trying to keep track of who all is still in the race.  Some of these candidates are easy to remember, being as they are America’s id on two legs.  Some of these candidates are…not.  Do you remember that luke-warm glass of water you drank yesterday?  No?  Well you drank one.  You did.  And you have no idea you did.  Would you vote for that glass of water?  What exactly are we talking about again?

Somewhere between Id Two-Legs and Somnolent Water Glass we have the rest of the field, many of whom are clinging on for dear life.  But after tonight, we will have blessedly fewer to keep track of.  My many sources (really only one source) tell(s) me that at least three candidates will have to drop out tonight because of their poor showing.

So get out there and vote, New Hampshire.  Vote your conscience.  And clear the field.  The rest of the country thanks you.


We’ll miss you, Dan Hicks.  (1941 – 2016)

Modernism Monday: “Overcome,” Laura Mvula, ft. Nile Rodgers


I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: who do I want to be?  What are the facets of myself?  Woman, American, tall, professional…what else?  And which on that long list of identifiers has been chosen for me?  And which do I actually want to keep as my own?

A friend of mine in high school made me a pin, that I still have to this day, that says “Self-described and self-defined.”  What perfect freedom there is in that; and, also, risk of isolation.  The bravest people I know are those who actively, consciously, deliberately sculpt out their own lives.  People who listen to themselves and select (or create) a path forward, who hew closely to their own truth.  Those are my heroes.

“Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson


When your heart is broken down
And your head don’t reach the sky
Take your broken wings and fly

When your head is heavy, low
And the tears they keep falling
Take your broken feet and run

With the world upon your shoulders
Nowhere left to hide
Keep your head up carry on

It ain’t no time to die
Even though we suffer
Come together we pray

Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children run

Sacred Sunday: “As One Who Has Slept,” John Tavener


Today, in the Christian tradition, is one of the last significant days in the liturgical calendar before Ash Wednesday: Transfiguration Sunday.  This day marks the occasion that Jesus transfigured, or metamorphosed, before his disciples – upon summiting the top of a mountain, Jesus’s face and clothes shone with a white light.  While emanating this heavenly brilliance, Jesus is seen to speak with the prophets Elijah and Moses, both long since dead, about the upcoming final months of his life.  Peter asks whether he and the others should prepare three shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  But before he finishes, the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”.  Elijah and Moses disappear.

This story is important for a few reasons.  First, it identifies Jesus as the proxy of God on earth – the people’s judge, savior, and direct link with the divine.  Second, it previews the resurrection – of Jesus himself, and of all who believe in him.  But I love this story for another reason: I love it because of the achingly human motivation behind Peter’s question.  He acts as anyone who has experienced something transformative would act: they want to freeze time.  Sailing right past the fact that Elijah and Moses are very, very dead, Peter wants to set up camp for them (They’re here now, aren’t they?).  He wants to keep them there.  This is, of course, impossible.  But, God love him for trying.

We take two-dimensional pictures of landscapes, of people, to capture their three-dimensional physicality, and the multi-dimensional feelings we felt upon seeing them.  We tattoo our skin to immortalize a meaningful time in our lives.  Even though we know, as Peter must have rationally known, it isn’t possible to suspend time and trap a moment, or a person, or a ghost, still we can’t help ourselves from trying.  The promise of Jesus is that he will connect us to the eternal.  One day, we will be able to relive these moments.  One day, we will be able to never be without someone again.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which leads to the retelling of the crucifixion narrative, and then onward to glorious, redemptive Easter.  I am approaching this season of Lent with more dread than in other years because I know that, this year, I have more of Peter in me than I’ve had before.  I lost a very close friend and mentor to cancer last year – my choir director.  His death comprehensively hollowed out church and sacred music, and though I have continued singing, nevertheless, that hole is still there.  And so, half of me expects his resurrection at Easter.  It’s a bafflingly irrational feeling but I can’t help myself from envisioning him conducting the timpani and brass quartet ornamenting “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” as we all process in, and completely accepting that he’s there.  “Oh, hey – Ben’s not dead!” would be as easy to say as “Oh, hey – Ben made it back from vacation in time for the service!”  The other half of me – the sane half – knows that Easter will bring back so many happy memories, now bittersweet, that it will feel like Ben is, in fact, there in spirit.  I will want to freeze that feeling.

That, of course, will be impossible.  But, God will love me for trying.

Tavener’s piece comes from the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday: “As one who has slept, the Lord has risen; and rising, he has saved us.  Alleluia.”