Sunday, June 30, 2013

800 Words: Evan Listens to Rolling Stone's Top 50 Songs of 2012 - (31-50)

Before I wrote this post, I tried doing a mini-essay on Die Meistersinger which had the potential to turn into a 10,000-word monsterpost that I’ll be nowhere near finishing for the next few years. So to cool off, I decided to finish my mini-reviews of Rolling Stone’s top 50 songs of last year. As always, I am truly amazed by how efficiently popular culture allows me the chance to turn my brain off completely :).

31. Low Cut Connie - Boozophilia: Harmless, catchy, kind of fun in a I want to dance drunk next to 200 people way. I like the idea of a paean to the low-life hangout dives around America. Certainly a few cuts above generic pop with some interesting piano work. But both Rolling Stone and Christgau rave about these guys like they’re the best thing since Blues itself. If this is the best they can do, we’d better turn in our music card America.

32. Bruce Springsteen - We Take Care of Our Own: The Boss in Born in the U.S.A. mode, so much so that it can almost be heard as a sibling song. Bruce does irony, and does it well, but every time I hear one of his ironic songs it comes as a complete shock, and it takes me a few minutes to realize that I don’t have to re-examine everything I ever knew about life. On the surface, his ironic music sounds exactly like his sincere music. I don’t know whether this is because Springsteen has a complete lack of self-understanding or because he understands himself all too well. It’s extremely effective, but what it ultimately does is to undercut the exuberance and hope which so many of us gather from Bruce in sincere mode. But perhaps that’s the point, so either way, it just proves that The Boss is still boss (I can’t believe I wrote that phrase down...).

33. Miguel - Adorn: Two reviews. From Rolling Stone: “Up to the minute fresh, yet steeped in Soul Tradition.” From Youtube: "hey if it only takes him 2mins and 34 sec muuuust be good ;) :D lolololololol" - One of these reviews is correct.

34. Kendrick Lamar - Swimming Pools: I am kind of shocked to say that I liked this song. I mean, it’s not THAT good. But the alternate voice in which he ‘portrayed’ his conscience did make me laugh. I can do without most of the rest, but it least shows that this guy’s got talent.

35. Icona Pop - I Love It: Who’d thunk that “Euro-slut club jam” music would be this dumb? I could go on a rant about the fascist evil of pop dance music, but everybody reading this would know exactly what it would say.

36. Himanshu - Womyn: Well, it’s dumb, but it’s pretty funny. One youtube comment descirbed it as Mitch Hedburg reincarnated as a song. That pretty much sums it up. If you think Mitch Hedburg a genius rather than a mildly funny stoner, listen to this right away. I can pretend that I’ve ever said anything smarter about wome(y)n than anything here, but... well...

37. Muse - Madness: Prog Rock simplified. No amount of finely constructed music (and it really is) can cover for the fact that the lyrics are insipid in that way which makes you know that their writer thinks he’s brilliant (hey, it worked for Wagner...). Still, the music here is really, really good.

38. Teen - Better: If the girls from Girls made a girl-band... it would probably be more entertaining than this. I mean,... it’s not bad, in fact it’s slightly better than your average band with a label. It’s just not up to the extravagant claim of the song.  …And what the hell is it with indie bands and believing that putting a full chord on every sixteenth note generates energy?

39. Dwight Yoakam - A Heart Like Mine: I’m not sure when I’ve ever listened to a Dwight Yoakam song. This is, almost, exactly what I expected. Competent, but sentimental, overly sincere, and no more ulterior meanings or unexpected harmonies than the dullest-witted listener can understand. Songs for the lowest-common-denominator. Nice yodels, but I’ll stick with his old-country cousin Eugen.

40. Craig Finn - Rented Room: One of those songs that is not quite as dark or shocking or moving as it thinks it is. Drug addiction is terrible, this song isn’t. But it’s not exactly a moving depiction of it.

41. Danny Brown - Grown Up: It’s a dumb rap song that doubles as a smart one. I mean, it’s clearly a true rags to riches story with a morally neutral point of view as to whether he deserved his good fortune. Whether you like it depends on which side of the pillow you woke up...

42. Bear Hug - The 2 Bears: Even if this song didn’t sound like it was about pedophillia, it would be creepy as hell.

43. Tanlines - All of Me: One of the two most repeated lines in the song is ‘cut off emotions.’ Were there any?

44. The Wanted - Glad You Came: Apparently this is the Irish equivalent of the Jonas Brothers. But the Jonas Brothers never used accordions, nor did they talk so clearly in double entendres about teen sex. I guess that’s a good thing?...

45. Justin Bieber - Die in Your Arms: I’ve listened to perhaps one Justin Bieber song in all “these years.” It’s unfortunate to know that his music is exactly as annoying as the rest of his phenomenon. This is so unbelievably scripted and packaged for an exact demographic so as to be as noxious as carbon monoxide. Hopefully some pre-teen girl somewhere accidentally downloads a Heinrich Biber track and it changes her life forever.

46. Maroon 5 - Payphone: What must surely be a masterpiece of non-annoyingness in the history of a truly irritating pop group.

47. Superchunk - This Summer: Almost moving. It would appear that indie rock has matured to the point that it can ‘do’ nostalgia. I’m impressed. Not quite impressed enough, but still impressed.

48. Deadmau5 - The Veldt: Much has been made about the way this song was made (by the children, apparently...). But if songwriters are worried about the potential for crowdsourced songs to eclipse them, they can rest easy for a while. Songs by committee are usually a bad idea, but this song takes that idea to the next level, and is colossally terrible. If you saw the video that accompanies a 3-minute version of this song, you’d come away thinking it’s a bland song that accompanies a rather more interesting video. But if you sit through all 8 minutes, you’d be overjoyed that there are only two songs left in this list.

49. Kacey Musgrave - Merry Go’ Round: I’m shocked, stunned, and completely embarrassed. This song restores my faith that Country Music written after 1970 might be worth listening to. And it’s some 24 year old I’d have probably dismissed as another country music ditz before I’d ever heard the song. A masterpiece? Not quite, too much repetition, but this is damn good. Watch this girl.

50. Carly Rae Jepsen - Call Me Maybe: It’s inescapable, and it just might pass for bland and non-annoying if we hadn’t heard it 50,000,000,000 times in the last year.

So, from these fifty, I’ll make my own list of what’s worth listening to:


1.Bob Dylan: Pay in Blood



4. Grimes - Oblivion (begrudgingly)

Virtuously Flawed:

BUT. The best song of 2012 clearly did not make this list at all. We all know what the real #1 song of the year is; the song which expresses the folly of our country, the spirit of the age,and mankind’s eternal longing for transcendence and pure being:

The Birthday Song (Thanks Ethan...):

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

800 Words: 30 Mini Essays (1-3)

1. Evan Tucker’s Handy-Dandy Guide for How to Prematurely Age: The good news is that I’m the only person I know in my early 30’s who looks almost exactly as young as I did when I graduated college. The bad news is that I already looked at least 40. In my life, it was all too easy to age prematurely. When you combine a long dark history of depression and anxiety with far too large an appetite for food, and then add a college predilection for booze and cigarettes and a hatred of exercise, you’re already far older than most people your age. But when you add to this the verifiable fact that no child ever spent as much time in the company of the elderly as I, you have a kid who could easily be mistaken for the father of his college roommate. When I was a child, my father co-owned and ran a nursing home with his father, who was himself older than most of his patients, and I was there at least once a week. Half of every weekend would be spent at my grandparents house, with the other half often spent going to classical concerts with my Bubbie and her friends. Was there any child in my generation who had more occasion to copy the mannerisms, the habits, and the attitudes of my grandparents’ generation? It was with them that I developed my tastes for old music, old movies, old books, old languages, delicatessen, and elastic waists.

2. If Only We’d Have Listened to President Wilson Part 2 - In recent decades, it has been all too common to defecate all over the reputation of Woodrow Wilson. Yes, Wilson’s presidency must be counted a failure relative to what the world needed - but nevertheless, he was nothing less than a truly great president whose policies gave the world ten years of respite until the Great Depression and a Second World War, and the one sane leader in a world gone mad. Woodrow Wilson did the very best he could in an impossible situation. The age of Great Power Monarchy was over, and no one could put it back together without incurring what would then have been a second world war. Marxist Communism and liberal rule of law were clearly incompatible. The only alternatives left were military dictatorship and democratic self-determination. There were few things which Franklin Roosevelt enacted which Wilson had not first moved heaven and earth in an unsuccessful bid to achieve. Had Wilson not contracted fatal illness during the second term of his presidency, had he enough time to convince America to join the League of Nations, had he enough time to dismember the English and French military apparatus as he had the German, had a League of Nations stopped the Red Army, would the Twentieth Century have unfolded in the disastrous manner which it did? We will never know if Wilson was capable of all this, but fate ensured that we would never know. Because he tried endlessly to do the right thing when no status quo worked, many now look upon his presidency as the century's ultimate disaster when it was anything but.

Today, we have a President who could only give us a shell of a health care program we needed, massive (if still too small) stimulus money unpaid for because Republicans refuse to raise taxes upon the wealthy, a coming social security and medicare boom is likely to triple our financial burden, and perhaps the National Debt as well, yet Republicans were so unconcerned with the collapse of the debt ceiling (which used to be a matter so crucial that it was left unpartisan) that they got our nation’s credit lowered because they wanted concessions merely for allowing the ceiling to be raised. Like Wilson, Obama made inroad after inroad to his rivals, because he knew that peace in our time can only be achieved by cooperation. As a reward, his good sense is rebuffed by a party determined to lead this country to ruination unseen since the days of The Civil War. It is thanks to the religion of Republican intransigence, and ONLY to the religion of Republican intransigence, that in 2008 the world once again stood on the brink of a collapse so massive it dwarved even 1929, when many economists from both wings projected potential unemployment rates of 50% (!). The Obama financial team staved off the collapse, but how much longer can it be staved off before the crazies get their way? If only we’d listen to President Obama...

3. The Arab Winter? - Yet again, I got the Middle East wrong. I supported the Arab Spring. I supported it full-throatedly, knowing that it all might go horribly, terribly awry, but not wanting to stand in the way of the only true shot the Arab world might get to enact liberal reforms for generations. And then it went awry, just as pessimists, cynics, and anti-Arab bigots predicted it would. The Kissinger/Brezhnev-era dictatorships of Mubarak and Qaddafi were certainly bad, but in 40 years, even Qaddafi never committed 1/20th of the political murders which Hafez el-Assad committed in only two.  

What happens in Syria can all too easily happen all around the Middle East. It is, almost literally, the problem from Hell. Russia will block any chance to stop the democide from the UN, and counter any aide to the rebel forces with aide to Assad. Putin will not abide the loss of another Russian ally, and views any further toppling of Russia-friendly dictators as a point of Russian honor. Assad has killed approximately a hundred-thousand of his own people, and could easily kill a million before he decides he’s secure again, but nobody can stop him. If the United States were to get too involved in Syria, World War III could be more than a theoretical exercise. As with all things these days (and usually correctly), the temptation is to blame the Bush Administration. But the actions of the Bush Administration in the Middle East neither caused the Arab Spring nor the bleak Arab Winter which may follow it.  Nevertheless, thank God he was not president when all this happened...

Meanwhile, Libya, a Stasi-like informant state under Qaddafi, is now gripped by the chaos of unpatrolled streets and inter-tribal warfare. What remains of Qaddafi’s loyalists have transformed themselves into an underground terrorist organization, planting bombs all over the country. Tunisia is beset by unemployment and hyper-inflation, an Islamist government with many ministers who want to impose Islamic Law, and a left-wing opposition robbed of its most vocal leader, Chokri Belaid, in February by an assassination. Bahrain is still gripped by a low-level civil war, 3,000 people have been and still are detained without trial, and five have died in custody from torture wounds. The Bahrainian police continues to carry out midnight raids, checkpoint beatings, and instructs doctors to deny medical care to 'potential subversives.'

All of this would have been worthwhile if Egypt, the centerpiece of the Arab Spring which houses 2/5ths of the world’s entire Arab population, seemed in better shape than it is. Within four months of his election, President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree announcing that he would rule by fiat without accountability from the constituent assembly - a constitution-writing body which already conceded to Morsi nearly every power he wanted. The liberal leaders who believed they could mollify Islamic parties like Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had long since walked out of the constituent assembly. Just as conservatives and realists warned, the post-Arab Spring Middle East may stand on the edge of something so disastrous that we haven’t seen its like since the genocides committed during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. And we liberals let it happen without so much as a word of caution.

How could we be so blind that we didn’t see this coming? The Arab Spring happened without the economic means to support its citizens, without a proper rule of law in place, and with the military being the only strong element in each country. The chances of a functional democracy springing up were no less slim than democracy flowering in Iraq, and yet we jettisoned longtime allies like Mubarak which preserved order and stability - however corruptly and brutally, Mubarak was an authoritarian dictator, not a totalitarian. Liberals who decried the democratic project in Iraq were completely mum when it came to the equally unlikely prospects of democracy in Egypt and Syria. Obama has, wisely, stayed true to his word and interfered minimally in the events of the Arab world. But the fact that he did nothing to prevent Mubarak’s fall could (yet again, the liberal in me screams not to say this), eventually be revealed as the greatest sin of his presidency.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

800 Words: For James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

Look above to view one of the most darkly hilarious scenes in TV history, and it just got a lot darker. The death of James Gandolfini is yet another blow to the world's fat hedonists. One by one, all my favorite fat actors die before they reach their dotages - no more John Candy, no more Chris Farley, no more Richard Griffiths, no more James Gandolfini, can John Goodman be far behind?

The first thing that should be said about James Gandolfini is this - he gave the definitive TV performance. No show has ever asked so many nuances from an actor as this show which barely made it to television asked from a former bartender and truck driver who was the son of a bricklayer and fell into acting almost by accident. David Chase, showrunner of The Sopranos, compared him to Mozart. I can't imagine that acting on television is as hard as composing, but if it is, then there was something about Gandolfini that was truly extraordinary.  

I did not come to The Sopranos on its original run. My parents didn't have cable, and my college kept picking up and dropping HBO. But there was a bigger reason, the show simply seemed too intense and violent. It seemed to ask viewers to squirm in their seats until the next character was whacked, and that was just too much for me to take. Furthermore, there was a subset of dedicated Sopranos viewers - fratboys, bros, fake thugs -  who made the show seem truly ugly. To them, Tony Soprano was no different than Tony Montana - a simple badass who was 'hardcore' because he made people spurt blood.  

I only started watching the show around 2007 - perhaps not coincidentally, the year which Mad Men began. Even then, I could barely take the intensity of the violence. This wasn't the cartoon violence of genre movies, this was real violence with human cost and real world dimensions. I could only keep going because I wikipedia'd every character to see if and when they'd be killed, and I still haven't been able to watch the last half-season. Am I lazy, or am I really afraid of what's going to happen? I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this show when it first ran, the suspense between the sudden violent escalations must have unbearable.

(spoiler alert...)

Imagine my surprise, however, when I discovered that the show was not in fact about violence. The violence was merely a tool for the show to ask its questions - questions about morality, about self-delusion, about the capacity for violence, and most importantly, about our own complicity in violence. Did even Scorsese or Coppola use their violence to such depth of  effect? Has any writer since Kafka or Dostoevsky used violence to ask larger questions than The Sopranos did? 

The Sopranos does not mark a beginning, it marks an end. In The Sopranos we see the end of America’s fascination with organized crime, the end of America’s white immigrant working class, the end of trust in the nuclear family, and the end of America’s illusions about the price of success.   It is, in every way, a show about deaths. It does not glorify the importance of death, a la Six Feet Under, but it does accept death as life’s natural end. It does not glorify violent people as misunderstood, a la The Godfather, but it allows us to see violent people as humans who have redeeming qualities weighted against their brutality. But whatever else The Sopranos is, it‘s above all a moral parable about humanity’s desire to convince itself that we act in good faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We invariably slump into our seats a little as Tony is ‘forced’ to kill friend after friend, Paulie turns violent after the slightest insults, Carmela finds an infinite number of excuses to maintain her lifestyle by staying with Tony, Christopher puts off his desire to find something better than mob-life, and hundreds of peripheral characters who are drawn to the danger of criminals like flies to shit. Like Westerns before them, images about the mafia are embedded in the American DNA. At their beginning both Westerns and Mafia movies glamorized outlaws by portraying them as taking what more privileged people refused to give. As time went on, both gradually exposed the rot behind that myth, until finally a work came along that exploded our illusions finally and forever. In Westerns, it was late John Wayne’s movies like The Searchers or True Grit which showed the hatred and bigotry that motivated the Old West. In mafia movies, we went from the paean to organized crime that was The Godfather to the pathos of Godfather II, to the uneasiness of Goodfellas. And finally, here was a piece that made us realize how dangerous it is to view criminals as heroes even as we became ever more drawn to them. With every season, we became more complicit in the evil perpetrated on the screen. And by exposing the rot at the core of our desire to see glory in violence, The Sopranos both became an elegy for an enormous chunk of the American Dream, and a Premium Cable Requiem for the dominance of a medium that made us feel the American Dream so intensely.  

Some great works languor in obscurity until the world is ready for them. Some are embraced right away, and clearly The Sopranos was one of the latter. The Sopranos was the perfect show for the Bush years. It tapped into that deep-seated, almost unmentionable anxiety of its era; that all of our prosperity, all of our comfort, and all of the joy it gives us, was bought in blood. If American money is blood money, then perhaps we all deserved to die like Adriana crawling on her hands and knees in the woods, or like Cantor Fitzgerald workers in the Twin Towers, or like the millions of Vietnamese war dead. 

Many young men took to The Sopranos because of its violence. But an older generation took to The Sopranos because of its anxiety - an anxiety born of familiarity. Ostensibly, the subject of The Sopranos is mobsters and their lives. But like all great literary works, the real subject is us. People with similarities to Tony Soprano are his contemporaries in every suburb of America. They were born into the Golden Age of American prosperity, and their childhoods are tinged with memories of an older, pre-1970's era when cities were places of innocence and excitement. But crime rates went up, and every family with enough money moved out to the suburbs, where they accumulated wealth and prosperity beyond the dreams of their grandparents. Like Tony, these contemporaries fought with their parents constantly, who told them that they were spoiled and knew nothing about life's hardships. Like Carmela, these contemporaries use every excuse to maintain their upper class lifestyle at the expense both of those beneath them and of themselves. And as the children of these contemporaries grow up, some of them, like Meadow, use their still greater privileges to achieve things beyond even their parents dreams, while others, like AJ, languish in upper-class loafer misery. 

The Sopranos is not a show for young people, it's a show for the old. David Chase was already in his mid-50's when The Sopranos began, and before that he was a mid-level TV writer with a long history of depression. At a period when The Movies' influence was waning upon American life, David Chase was an obsessive cinefile who devoured everything from Fellini to silent pictures to b-movie matinees. His life was movies, and he spent thirty years trying to break into an industry that simply wasn't interested. What David Chase did with The Sopranos was not simply to create a grand summation of everything he learned from movies, he also defeated the movie industry who spurned him.

Most of the best TV shows of today (make your own list), are not simply great television. They have completely replaced the movies - giving us a new excellent 1 hour movie every week, and telling stories with a depth and maturity which American movies on their best days now seem barely capable. While moviemakers struggle to make anything that isn't a mega-blockbuster or a barely funded independent project, television becomes ever more baroque, ever freer in its content, and ever more daring - a daring which reached its apogee with The Sopranos. 

For me, The Sopranos and Mad Men stand at the top of the pyramid - no TV drama since I, Claudius has had as powerful an effect on me. But if I, Claudius had reached the achievement of the other two, it would have to have seven times as many episodes with no drop-off in quality. Mad Men is The Sopranos' true successor, not only because Matthew Weiner was a producer on The Sopranos, but because it asks the next logical question that evolves from The Sopranos. If The Sopranos asks (and documents) if America is falling from grace, then Mad Men asks why the fall from grace had to happen. If a historian from the future travelled back in time and asked me what it was like to grow up in America, all I could do is take him to the video store. We'd take out lots of DVD's and watch The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. But we'd probably start with The Sopranos.

....Maybe The Simpsons.....

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Favorite Album - Die Myhre

I don't have a favorite album. But one that I like a lot and meant a lot to me in college is Sufjan Steven's "Illinoise."

For my freshman year orientation class, I took a course called "Music, Politics, and Identity." One of my tasks was to analyze two songs from Sufjan Stevens' album "Illinoise." My first listening made me think, "is this a circus?" Second, "Oh my God, what a drama queen. Is everything hard in his life?" Third, "Hmm, wow." Fourth, "Holy shit." Fifth - bazillionth = "please move me again, and make me think, reflect." This is great music for transition, movement.

For my college professor, I wrote a paper about Sufjan Steven's tune "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." It made me think of the ramifications of mental illness. It made me talk with people about whether true "evil" exists in the world. It made me think about the own terrible secrets I hide, you hide, and everyone hides, and what cruelty every being may be capable of. But also the joy and love that people are capable of, if that's their choice. And it is a choice. A hard one, but still a choice.

Now, I listen to "Illinoise" on long road trips on tour, especially when it's late, to reflect, and think about how I've evolved since I was introduced to Mr. Sufjan Stevens.

Die Myhre is a singer, jazz clarinetist, and bluegrass bassist extraordinaire in the Baltimore/DC area.

Click here for Der Mazur's Contribution
Click here for La Cohen's Contribution
Click here for Il Greenwood's Contribution
Click here for Der Thobaben's Contribution
Click here for Doundou Tchil's Contribution
Click here for Eta Boris's Contribution
Click here for HaWinograd's Contribution
Click here for Le Malon's Contribution
Click here for Atomic Sam's Contribution
Click here for La Swaynos's Contribution
Click here for Boulezian's Contribution
Click here for HaZmora's Contribution
Click here for The McBee's Contribution
Click here for Le Drgon's Contribution
Click here for The Brannock's Contribution
Click here for The Danny's Contribution
Click here for The Drioux's contribution
Click here for El Reyes's contribution
Click here for My contribtuion

Monday, June 17, 2013

800 Words: Reuniting with West Side Story

I have just seen West Side Story twice this weekend at the Baltimore Symphony. As James Earl Jones would say, the memories were so thick I had to brush them away from my face. During 'America' I was five years old, watching Buddy Rich on PBS with John Williams and the Boston Pops, playing Buddy’s jazz version of the piece, the first I’d ever heard. During 'Maria' I was eight years old, watching the Three Tenors with my parents and Bubbie. During the 'Mambo' I was twelve at music camp, away from home for the first time and watching the New England Music Camp Symphonic Band play the Symphonic Dances of West Side Story. During the 'Dance at the Gym', I was fourteen years old, playing Doc and Glad Hand in a production of West Side Story in which the director instructed me to create a dance during it in a manner so uninhibited and crazy that it would cover up the fact that nobody on stage could dance any better than me. (It still makes me laugh to think about it. The experience of being in West Side Story is no doubt a post in itself... but that's a post to be written on another day/year/decade)

I'm sure I was far from the only person in the audience who feels that way. West Side Story is so much a part of the American DNA that it's impossible to go through life in America without encountering it at all sorts of felicitous moments. If you've never heard a song from it, you might as well have never heard Bob Dylan or James Brown. And yet, since my childhood, West Side Story had very little to do with my life, yet it was such a prominent part of my life's fabric until I was 14 that it never felt as though it left me. All through the time I familiarized myself with Company and Sunday in the Park with George, with Candide and the Jeremiah Symphony, playing in the pit for Wonderful Town and screwing up the violin solo in the Chichester Psalms, watching Bernstein's Mass in Baltimore with stinking revulsion and Sweeney Todd in London with unalloyed joy, the score of West Side Story which I could practically sing and orchestrate from memory was there. Yet this weekend was the first truly sustained acquaintance I've had with the show in nearly twenty years, and what a weekend it was...

Many people have gone to many more concerts than I, but I’ve been to so many memorable ones. I’ve wiped away tears as I watched Charles Mackerras lead the Philharmonia in Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, and I’ve watched dozens of people wipe away tears as Leon Fleischer played Brahms’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaccone for left-hand piano, I watched Mavis Staples give a Golden Age Soul performance in 2011 and I’ve watched Bob Dylan fall to his knees, I’ve heard the Vienna Philharmonic play the Schubert and Dvorak of a lifetime and the Boston Symphony play Ives and Gershwin better than I’ll ever hear it again, I’ve watched Ozzy Osbourne sing a beat-and-a-half behind his band and I’ve watched Earl Scruggs play banjo at top speed when he was three limbs in the grave, I was there for the New York premiere of Le Grand Macabre and the Met premiere of Nixon in China, I’ve seen Aretha Franklin’s hat from across the National Mall and I’ve watched James Brown try to seem contemporary by leading a 2004 audience in a chant of ‘Whoop! Der’t Is!’. I’ve watched Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven in honor of the Olympics and James Levine conduct Verdi’s Requiem in honor of Pavarotti’s passing, I’ve been to Alfred Brendel’s last concert in America and Carlo Bergonzi’s last staged opera performance, I've watched Ravi Coltrane play jazz in Grant Park to an audience of 50,000 and Mark O'Connor play fiddle tunes in a black box theater to an audience of twenty, I’ve seen Don Giovanni and Peter Grimes in the theaters where they were premiered, I watched Yuri Temirkanov conduct Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony in the presence of the poet whose music Shostakovich set and I watched Music for 18 Musicians two seats away from Steve Reich, I watched Gustavo Dudamel perform The Rite of Spring to an audience of students and I watched David Zinman lay the groundwork for what a modern American conductor was supposed to do in Baltimore when nearly every other orchestra in America was stuck in the 1800’s. But in all these years, I’ve never been so sure that I was watching something resembling a cosmic event, a performance so powerful, so revelatory, that in some miniscule way it altered the curve of history, and the world, in its small way, was a different place than it was before we heard this concert.

Now, to be sure, I've been to better performances than this (not much), and I've certainly been to better performances of better music than this. But for the first time, I felt like I was part of a unique experience of a that nobody ever experienced before those of us fortunate enough to be in the hall. The premise was simple - a live orchestra to accompany the movie version of West Side Story. The technology to create a concert like this was simply absent until the last few years, and the result was that we could experience West Side Story in real time with a full 110-piece orchestra playing every note of the score... and then some. Passages that sound tinny when played by a dozen musicians come through with an apocalyptic, Wagnerian, power and passion. I don't know if West Side Story will ever be understood, but we came a little closer to understanding it this weekend.

The problem is, Leonard Bernstein hated the movie music, and accused the orchestrator of destroying his score. It's not a completely unfair accusation. The movie 'overture' completely destroys the shock of a Broadway Musical beginning with a ballet of gang warfare. The 'Somewhere' ballet sequence is completely cut out, and songs as wonderful as 'One Hand, One Heart' and 'A Boy Like That' are hacked to pieces. Every potentially controversial line which Sondheim wrote is replaced by something thoroughly bland so that it doesn't offend the delicate sensibilities of Middle America. But it's also true that some scenes are better than in the original score - America is better when sung and danced by the entirety of the Sharks and not just their women, Officer Krupke and Cool switch places for the movie, and the switch makes far more sense than the original order. 

But there are other problems - most importantly, the movie itself isn't that great. As the central pairing, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood kind of stink. They suck out all the energy of their scenes together. Marlon Brando was eager to play Tony, and even if he was nearly 40, he'd have been a much better choice to play a street tough gone soft than this no-name would be matinee idol who resembles no one so much as Zeppo Marx. But at least Beymer had an adequate voice. Natalie Wood couldn't even sing her part and Marni Nixon had to be brought in every day to anonymously cover for her bad singing. As for her acting, she's at least better than Beymer. Though if she were acting next to Brando, god knows if she could have kept up. Perhaps the pair that was meant to be was Wood and James Dean reuniting for the first time since Rebel Without A Cause (a movie whose influence on the musical cannot be overestimated), but by the time this movie was made, Dean had been dead for almost six years. If the movie has a great performance, it's George Chakiris as Bernardo, and the movie never recovers after he dies. Rita Moreno is good as Anita, but not as great as people say - using her energetic body language to convey a "stock Latina" rather than a fully individual character.

But some of the problems can't even be blamed on the movie. The score is amazing, but it's schizophrenic - two musicals in one. Leonard Bernstein was fully able to create the jazzy Gershwin-like atmosphere of the streets, and when the play demanded Verdi-like operatic love, Bernstein provided the required over-the-top passion in spades. The problem is that this over-the-top passion has no place in a show like West Side Story. It is a pre-modern sentiment within an entirely modern story. In an era of arranged and shotgun marriages, when marriages of convenience were the norm, love as it’s experienced on the pre-20th century stage was the norm. Most people experienced (or expected to experience) a few days of true love in their lifetimes. So the immediate declarations and the extravagant sentiments of those scenes were probably much truer to their experience than it is to ours. But West Side Story demanded something much less mawkish than it was provided.

Much has been made of the fact that Arthur Laurents's book (script) is not up to the standard of the rest of the show. The truth is, Laurents's book is great - except when it isn't. He has the full measure of these violence-crazed, oversexed street thugs who secretly harbor true intelligence, but when fancies turn to thoughts of love, he has no idea what to do. Tony has got to be one of the stupidest characters ever written by a playwright, and the script gives no indication that he was ever anything but a love-crazed wimp who fell for Maria because of some kind of supernatural sign. Maria is a much, much more well-developed character - always the more pragmatic-minded of the lovebirds. Laurents was the only member of the creative team who wasn't a certifiable genius. But what American playwright of the era could possibly have equalled the other three. Arthur Miller? Tenessee Williams? Neither would have been right for it - Miller would never have understood how to write about love, Tenessee Williams would never have understood how to write about street smarts. Maybe some of the golden-age Hollywood screenwriters could have done it. What about the Epstein Brothers who wrote Casablanca? There's a team who understood both love and the streets!

The truth is that the great glory of West Side Story was always the dancing. The whole show was Jerome Robbins's idea, and there had never been a 'serious' musical in which dancing was so crucial to a show's success. Robbins's choreography was always like an encyclopedia of dance styles - the Dance at the Gym has the rival gangs trying to control the whole stage with the Sharks rhumba-ing while the Jets do the Chicken, or think of Fiddler on the Roof when the Russian peasants weave a Kazatzky through the raised arms of Hassidic Jews dancing the Hora..Jerome Robbins, like Leonard Bernstein, was a genius who killed his own talent. Both of them thought that Broadway was beneath them, and strove mightily to create masterpieces in their respective classical corpuses which eluded them for the entirety of their careers. They never understood that rhe classical worlds of music and ballet as they envisioned them never existed, nor would it ever. Broadway was, in fact, the American classical world. Because regardless of genre, greatest masterpieces are as populist in nature as they are elite, representing the perfect fusion of intellect and emotion. The 20th century classical world was simply to stuffy to accommodate anything which smacked of emotion, just as many more popular groups are too stupid to accommodate anything which smacks of intellect. It is generally agreed that Bernstein or Robbins never created anything so memorable for the concert hall and ballet stage as they did on Broadway, and when they left Broadway, Broadway never had a chance for a plethora of achievements to equal the best in film and popular music. But their absence did pave the way for one towering figure to accomplish alone what no creative team ever did.

Stephen Sondheim is the closest thing we've had in nearly half-a-millenium to a theatrical figure whose achievement equals Shakespeare - and the fact that he did it at a moment when the appeal of live theater seems on the wane makes his achievement that much more miraculous. Unlikely as it currently seems, it may transpire that live theater could soon be obliterated completely by movies, television, the internet, and virtual reality. And if that (admittedly) unlikely historical event happens, Sondheim will be remembered as the last true theatrical genius. But in West Side Story, we barely have any idea of what his talent has in store for us. His hands were completely tied in this work. There were so many 'wrong' moments in West Side Story that his genius could barely show through. How could he possibly turn songs like 'Maria' and 'I Feel Pretty' into something cosmic when the sentiment was completely wrong for the show's plot? When the show gets modern in moments like 'America' and 'Officer Krupke', we see him reaching out to his full powers, but when the show turns pre-modern, all he could do is write lyrics which sound as dumb as in any 19th century opera. For years, people wondered why Robbins, Sondheim, and Bernstein didn't team up again. When they began a failed attempt in the late 60's to adapt a Brecht play into a musical, Sondheim was immediately asked why they hadn't tried to collaborate since West Side Story. His answer was one word: "Wait..."

The fact remains, West Side Story is the Great American Show. The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry.

(Bernstein revisits West Side Story, an invaluable document of a recording disaster. Also worthwhile because you get to hear Lenny swear!!!)

If West Side Story has coherence, we haven't found it yet. And like most great works, every performance has been stunningly inadequate to the task of capturing its full power. The original cast album is still the best, but it feels like a rough draft. The performers are probably better than any since have been, but the details of Bernstein's writing are completely glossed over with bad cuts, shoddy playing from a too small orchestra, and tempos that are clearly faster than Bernstein and Sondheim intended. The movie version gets lots of things more right than the original, with dancing that's even more involved than the original choreography, and but where it goes wrong it's a travesty. Bernstein's own recording of the complete score is both a miracle and a grotesque disaster. The sheer detail of the orchestral parts come through as never before, and the love music is so utterly beautiful that it's difficult not to be moved to tears by it. But Bernstein made a fatal decision - it would be sung by opera singers. Tony was sung by Jose Carerras with a thick-as-oil Spanish accent (!), and Tatiana Troyanos sang Anita with all the sexiness of a troll. Bernstein made two recordings of the Symphonic Dances - a suite of orchestral music from the score - the first was incredibly sloppy, the second was drained of vitality. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Symphonic Dances much better than Lenny ever did. The 2009 revival at least doesn't rush the tempos ahd contains great dancing, but the orchestra's smaller than ever, and the singing is as bad as on Bernstein's recording. Rather than too operatic, the revival version sounds as though sung by the cast of Glee or Rent - with vibrato-less belting and sliding into notes galore. I have yet to hear much of the 1980 revival, but what I've heard has some enormous strengths. Maybe it succeeded where the others failed, but I doubt it. 

Much, much more successful are the jazz takes on West Side Story. Bill Charlap, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Bassey, Buddy RichChick Corea. Save the original cast recording, every one of these covers is better than virtually any of the classical/Broadway versions we can hear (ok, not Chick Corea...). Jazz saw this score for what it was, a classical olive branch to jazz, and saw all the possibilities of building on Bernstein's achievement. 

(Finally, WSS from the point of view of the Sharks. Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela.)

There is, unfortunately, something about West Side Story's importance which makes performers either too timid or too ego-driven to do justice to the piece. West Side Story was considered a classic from the moment that unfortunate movie was released. West Side Story has become the first and probably the most important of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the American Lyric Theater along with Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum (no doubt a disputable claim) - as important to the American musical theater as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte are to the European (but with Anyone Can Whistle and Candide being potential additions to the center if anybody can ever find convincing ways to stage them). What those three musicals achieved was something that was more than just the achievement of a great individual. It was a triumph, a short-lived triumph, of collaboration.

When talented people go into a room together, it's inevitable that they'll find something about which to disagree strongly. When a collaboration truly ignites, there is no way to keep it on the rails for long, eventually, the ignition explodes. But for those few years when collaborators of genius get together, the results are even better, but it is impossible for a tornado of resentment not to build, and the resentment usually kills the collaboration. Think of Lennon and McCartney, think of Monty Python, think of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But something was in the air at this moment of New York. America was just beginning to stretch its legs to their full cultural reach. The 1950’s was (relatively speaking) the most economically successful, peaceful, hopeful time in America’s history. And this hopeful, peaceful kingdom of happiness required entertainment. But the entertainment got so good that it became art of its own - pushing every conceivable boundary in content and form to which mere entertainment is never supposed to push. The other arts were learning the lesson of movies, and brilliant individuals pooled their talents to make something still more brilliant than any of them could do alone. But these writer’s rooms were so boiling over with talent that all those brilliant individuals could not possibly work together for long. Right at the same time that Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Jule Styne, and Larry Gelbart were collaborating on musicals; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gil & Bill Evans were teaming up to make Kind of Blue; Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, and Woody Allen collaborated to make the original TV sketch comedy - Your Show of Shows; Rod Serling, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Arthur Hiller joined forces to create Playhouse 90, a television show with the ambition of competing with the very best of Broadway Theater; Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector teamed up at Atlantic Records with a who’s who of Postwar musicians to literally create the music of the age; a group of famous actors and singers began hanging out at Humphrey Bogart’s New York house and would eventually become known as ‘The Rat Pack’; a group of gifted students who met at the City College of New York formed the basis of the ‘New York Intellectuals’ and shaped the intellectual discourse of the world by forming journals like The Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent; the Futurians, a group of science fiction afficianados who corresponded since their youths, practically took the science-fiction world by storm and included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Doc Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald Wollheim. All of these artists went on to brilliant achievements of their own, but it’s arguable that none of them ever achieved such universal appeal alone as they did together, and it’s arguable that never had cultural fare of such intelligence had such universal appeal. But right around the corner lay the 1960’s, John Kennedy, the Civil Rights Marches, the Great Society, the end of the Production Code, Bob Dylan, Lady Chatterly’s obscenity trial, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beatlemania, and the triumph of individual expression. The classical age of American culture was drawing to a rather glorious end, and in its place would come the Romantic era with its individual expression and cultural scenes and niches. Emphasis in American life on importance of community was replaced with emphasis on the rights of the individual. What was once mass entertainment became Art with a Capital A. The energy which popular entertainment built up by the 1950’s was released in the 1960’s with an explosion of creativity and individuality - even the Movies became a cult of the director’s personality - but the energy released by that decade has subsided considerably. Eventually all that individuality got subsumed by mass entertainment’ more corporate, more generic, and dumber than ever before. It’s possible that more interesting art is being made than perhaps ever before in human history, but who can find the great stuff when there is so much shit around it? And even among the stuff that’s great, how much of it is truly cosmic? How much of it would court lastingness and universality of appeal if it were ever seen and publicized on a large scale? How much of it would still have meaning in 100 years? The difference in quality between West Side Story and even a show as good as The Book of Mormon is the difference between The Marriage of Figaro and Zampa. What... you’ve never heard of Zampa? There’s a reason for that... (nice overture though...)