My grandma and your grandma were sittin’ by the fire…

It does take a dash of fortitude and a smidgen of endurance if you’re going to catch the best of it all… and I’d say that means catching the all-female Muse Parade on the Thursday evening before Mardi Gras and sticking around through the stroke of midnight when the party ends and Lent begins on “Fat Tuesday” itself.

This time I figured out the lay of the land but left a little early.  Next time I’m going to lay down the law and insist that Linda come too, especially if the kids can make it again.

While Bourbon Street (where they had shootings last weekend…and where my son was mugged a few years back) quickly becomes a teaming, raunchy bore full of cheap drinks and drunken tourists, pretty much all of Uptown (Garden District) and Downtown (including the rest of the Lower Garden District, the French Quarter and a healthy portion of the Seventh Ward) puts on a surreal celebration that, between the parades, the music and the family friendly partying, will leave you amazed and delighted.

Biggest disappointment: Acme Oyster House wasn’t doing the oyster eating challenge (15 dozen in an hour and…I…know…I…can…do it!)  Second biggest disappointment, try as I might (getting up before dawn and trudging through the Tremé) I never managed to see any Mardi Gras Indians.  But at least I now know why the kids spotted some from a taxi (and snapped a picture for the old man) at the Claiborne Ave. overpass, on their way back uptown to Tulane.

Apparently there are 38  of these social clubs or “tribes” made up of low-income black men who spend an entire year to “dress pretty” (their handmade Indian suits can weigh over 100 lbs.) and prepare for the big day.  After the big chief has decided upon their route, they wander through the neighborhoods, dancing and singing tribal songs that are loosely based on African dialects and Creole patois.

When two tribes meet (and this is what I would like to see someday) they begin a symbolic fight, with drum beats and taunts between the two chiefs about the “prettiness” of their suits.  Symbolic these days anyway. Up until the late 1960s if two tribes ran into each other there were actual battles with knives and guns.

And that’s what this song is about. Written by James Sugar Boy Crawford in 1953 and entitled “Jock-a-mo” it tells the story of a “spy boy” (a lookout sent ahead of the tribe) who comes across a “flag boy” (a standard bearer) for another tribe and threatens to “set the flag on fire.”  Crawford claimed that it was based on the taunting chants between Indian chiefs when they encountered one another, “Iko Iko” being a victory chant and “Jock-a-mo” being a battle cry.

According to Dr. John (Mac Rebbennack), who has released a popular version of his own “Jockamo” means “jester” (there are also voodoo connotations) and  “…the tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and … get juiced up there getting ready to perform. …(now) there’s a freeway where those grounds used to be.”

And that we know first hand.  Of course the most popular version is this one with slightly different lyrics by the Dixie Cups, which hit Number 20 on the Billboard Charts in 1965. Already famous for “Chapel of Love” the trio from New Orleans’ Calliope housing project had heard their grandmother sing the song and were “clowning around” with it using drumsticks and ashtrays during a recording session in New York.

Although they didn’t realize it, the ever-canny session producers, Leiber and Stoller had the tapes running and after adding bass and drums released it as “Iko Iko”.

 LISTEN TO THIS SONG & HAPPY VALENTINES DAY – Thursday 14 February

 Iko, Iko

 My grandma and your grandma

Were sittin’ by the fire

My grandma told your grandma

“I’m gonna set your flag on fire.”

Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Look at my king all dressed in red

Iko, Iko, un-day

I betcha’ five dollars he’ll kill you dead

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 My flag boy and your flag boy

Were sittin’ by the fire

My flag boy told your flag boy

“I’m gonna set your flag on fire.”

Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 See that guy all dressed in green?

Iko, Iko, un-day

He’s not a man

He’s a lovin’ machine

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

Got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans

As the storm approaches I’m doing what I can to hold to a promise made to my son regarding Mardi Gras.  Seeing as this is his senior year of school in New Orleans, and seeing as my daughter plans to be there too (Linda, alas would prefer to steer clear), the time is nigh, even if the biggest snowstorm of the season is slated to arrive a few hours before my flight is set to leave.

Alternatives are scare because everyone else is doing what I’m doing as I write this, sitting with the phone on speaker, waiting for the next available agent, with at least a 30 minute wait time.  Wish they’d dispense with the loops of cheesy music…

Mardi Gras as any French student will tell you, literally means Fat Tuesday, in reference to the tradition of eating rich foods prior to the ritual fasting of Lent, which runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve.

To further lighten the rigors of confessions to come, in centuries past it became the practice in many Christian nations to augment the spirit of the day by embracing a full-blown carnival season, beginning on a lighter note with Epiphany before reaching a merrily tumultuous crescendo on Mardi Gras…by which point social conventions had been overturned with masks, costumes, parades and dancing in the streets.

17th Century France under King Louis XIV (aka the Sun King) was certainly at the front of the pack with such celebrations and so the notion arrived on these shores in 1699, after settlers had been sent to defend France’s claim on La Louisiane.  By sheer coincidence the expedition arrived at a point near the mouth of the Mississippi, downriver from where New Orleans is now…on Fat Tuesday.

It didn’t take long for French customs to accompany the French colonists who settled the area and as New Orleans grew to become the major settlement it gained a reputation for throwing one helluva party, embraced by all who came to live there, whether French or Catholic or not.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler” became a way of life, particularly at this time of year, with those costumes, parades and dancing in the streets, fully intact and fully celebrated by all ages. Imagine, only in the last few decades has the  tawdry tradition of baring breasts in exchange for trinkets come to pass, and then only within the boorish confines of Bourbon Street…which is part of it…yet there is so much more, as I aim to discover.

And with that I’m happy to announce that JetBlue has waved any fees and with the storm at my heels I’ll soon be off to “the city care forgot” (this we shall see)… To steal a line from Randy Newman in this autobiographical song, I feel like I’m about to board that Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans….

 LISTEN TO THIS SONG – Mardi Gras

Dixie Flyer

I was born right here, November ’43

Dad was a captain in the army

Fighting the Germans in Sicily.

 My poor little momma

Didn’t know a soul in L.A.

So we went down to the Union Station and made our getaway.

Got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans

Across the state of Texas to the land of dreams.

On the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans

Back to her friends and her family in the land of dreams.

Her own mother came to meet us at the station,

Her dress as black as a crow in a coal mine

She cried when her little girl got off the train.

Her brothers and her sisters drove down from Jackson, Mississippi

In a great green Hudson driven by a Gentile they knew.

Drinkin’ rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat

Tryin’ to do like the Gentiles do

Christ, they wanted to be Gentiles, too.

Who wouldn’t down there, wouldn’t you?

An American Christian, God damn!

On the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans

Back to her friends and her family in the land of dreams

On the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans

Across the state of Texas to the land of dreams

Across the state of Texas to the land of dreams.

 

 

 

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

When my son was still in high school I rented “Harold and Maude” featuring the baby-faced Bud Cort and the boundless (Boston-born) Ruth Gordon, a frequent Tony, Emmy and Oscar nominee, who won such accolades both for her acting and (especially) for her writing.  I was gratified to see that, despite a sense that the film seems to have been stuck in a time warp since its 1971 release, my son was as charmed by it as I was at his age.

Only later did it occur to me that when Cat Stevens was that age, back in the mid-‘60s, he was already a pop star…who had chosen his stage name in part because his girlfriend had eyes like a cat, but mainly because he “couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for that Steven Demetre Georgiou album.”

Famously Cat Stevens nearly died from tuberculosis in 1969 at the age of 21, spending a year in convalescence and questioning his spirituality.  And so he became a student of religion and metaphysics, and took up meditation and yoga and vegetarianism. He also wrote dozens of songs, many of them destined to become legendary album tracks in the years to come.

Some would even appear on movie soundtracks, as “But I Might Die Tonight” did on Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film, “Deep End.”  And then there were the nine numbers submitted to Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude,” while Stevens was working on his international break-through album, “Tea for the Tillerman.”

It’s fortunate that songs like “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Trouble” were subsequently included on some of his most memorable albums, because a “Harold and Maude Soundtrack” wouldn’t be released for another 35 years, and then only as a limited vinyl edition.

In the mean time the lovely and inspirational “Don’t Be Shy” and this track, which is pretty much the movie’s theme song, would only surface a decade and a half later when his second Greatest Hits collection was released. More’s the pity because “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” should most assuredly been sung out to a wider audience from the start.

LISTEN TO THIS SONG – Tuesday 5 February 

If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out

 Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

‘Cause there’s a million things to be

You know that there are

And if you want to live high, live high

And if you want to live low, live low

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

You know that there are

 You can do what you want

The opportunity’s on

And if you find a new way

You can do it today

You can make it all true

And you can make it undo you…see

Ah, Ah, Ah

It’s easy Ah, Ah, Ah

You only need to know

Well if you want to say yes, say yes

And if you want to say no, say no

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

You know that there are

 And if you want to be me, be me

And if you want to be you, be you

‘Cause there’s a million things to do

You know that there are

You can do what you want

The opportunity’s on

And if you find a new way

You can do it today

You can make it all true

And you can make it a new you…see

Ah, Ah, Ah

It’s easy Ah, Ah, Ah

You only need to know

 Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

‘Cause there’s a million things to be

You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

 

Oh slip me a slug from that wonderful mug 


They just don’t live ‘em like this anymore… After his graduation from Harvard in 1916, he traveled to Spain to study art and architecture, but with war raging in the rest of Europe he joined his friends E. E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer and volunteered as an ambulance driver in Paris and Northern Italy. By the summer of 1918 he was back in the States and working on his first novel when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.  On Armistice Day he was re-stationed in Paris where he was able to study anthropology at the Sorbonne through the U.S. Army Overseas Education Commission.

Right time, right place and right inclination for John Dos Passos to join the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott (and Zelda) Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Isadora Duncan and Hart Crane in “shunning American materialism” for the phrenic, idealistically bohemian lifestyle of the Lost Generation. And while his first novels, “One Man’s Initiation: 1917” and “Three Soldiers” gained him critical recognition; it was his stream-of-consciousness third novel in 1925 that was an actual commercial success.

Focusing on the evolution of New York urban life from Gilded to Jazz Age, it was Hemingway who wrote that “Manhattan Transfer” actually enabled Europeans to see “the America they really find when they come here,” while D.H. Lawrence hailed it as “…a very complete film…of the vast loose gang of strivers and winners and losers, which seems to be the very pep of New York.”

And that’s what doo-wop extraordinaire Tim Hauser no-doubt had in mind when he formed his a capella swing and pop group in 1969, emphatically named The Manhattan Transfer.  With its initial line-up the group released the album “Jukin’” in 1971. Then after a major change-up (Hauser and and his city of New York were pretty much the only common factors) the more famous second line-up was formed in 1973, with its “debut” album, “The Manhattan Transfer” (featuring the memorable gospel hit “Operator”) released in 1975.

Inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998 and still touring to this day, but with a much broader range (their first Grammy came for Best Jazz Fusion Performance in 1980 for their recording of “Birdland”) the only change in the line-up since 1973 occurred in 1978 when singer Laurel Masse was badly injured in a car crash and replaced by Cheryl Bentyne.

Written by Ben Oakland and Milton Drake, “Java Java” was initially recorded by the Ink Spots in 1940.  First recorded by The Manhattan Transfer on that 1971 album, “Jukin” it was recorded again by the “realigned” group in 1978 on “The Manhattan Transfer Live.”  Still not sure, but I think there may be a double entendre or two slipped in there…mind you, I’m only here for the coffee.

  Groove to this Tune – Monday 4 February

Java Jive

I love coffee, I love tea,

I love the Java Jive and it loves me

Coffee and tea and the java and me,

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

I love java sweet and hot,

Whoops, Mister Moto, I’m a coffee pot

Shoot me the pot, and I’ll pour me a shot,

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

 Oh slip me a slug from that wonderful mug

And I’ll cut a rug ‘til I’m snug in a jug

A sliced up onion and a raw one,

Draw one!

Waiter, waiter, percolator!

I love coffee, I love tea

I love the Java Jive and it loves me

Coffee and tea and the java and me,

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

Boston Beans (soy beans)

I said those itty-bitty green bean 
(cabbage n’ greens)

You know I’m not keen about a bean

Unless it is a chili, chili bean! Boy!

 I love coffee, I love tea

I love the Java Jive and it loves me

Coffee and tea and the java and me,

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

Blow me a slug from that wonderful mug

And I’ll cut a rug that’s snug in a jug

Drop a nickel in my pot, Joe

Takin’ it slow

Waiter, waiter percolator

I love coffee, I love tea

I love the Java Jive an’ it loves me

Coffee and tea and the java and me

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup – BOY!

 

Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet

‘Though many of us lost interest in “the Game” a few weeks ago, there’s always “The” game to burn a candle over. And although it was a game played long before the discovery of fire, this particular wick was first lit in 1911.

It’s also the only Number One pop single with music written by either a U.S. Vice President or a Nobel Peace Prize winner…or for that matter, an Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

With lyrics written by songwriter, Carl Sigman in 1951 the tune reaches back to a composition written by a Chicago bank president named Charles Gates Dawes, who would later become Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge.

An amateur pianist, Dawes composed the tune (which he entitled “Melody in A Major”) in a single sitting at his lakeshore home in Evanston, Ill.  After listening to it a friend took the sheet music to a publisher.  Weeks later Dawes was dumbfounded to discover a picture of himself in a State Street music shop window where they were selling “Dawes Melody”.

“I know that I will be the target of my punster friends,” he said.  “They will say that if all the notes in my bank are as bad as my musical ones, they are not worth the paper they were written on.”

Dawes would share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his plan to stabilize Germany’s economy after the First World War and after serving as VP, the man whose face was on the 14 December 1925 cover of Time Magazine, went on to serve as US Ambassador to Britain prior to returning to the banking business. But throughout his political career he would regret that day in 1911 that he came up with his “melody” as it was played whenever and wherever he made a political appearance.

Then “Dawes Melody” took on a life of its own, becoming a favorite of popular violinist Fritz Kreisler, who used it as his closing number throughout the ‘30s and then a Big Band standard after Tommy Dorsey picked it up in the ‘40s.

In 1951, the year Charles Dawes died, songwriter Carl Sigman wrote his lyrics to the song, which was now called “It’s All in the Game” and it was soon recorded by Dinah Shore, Sammy Kaye, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole among others, including Tommy Edwards, whose version reached Number 18 on the Billboard Charts.

Stepping forward to 1958, Edwards, who had been bumping along since his 1951 hit, had only a single session left on his record contract.  As stereo recording had recently become viable Edwards chose to “go for the gusto” with a stereo version of “Game” using the same studio orchestra as his original but with a Rock n’ Roll arrangement.

The resulting single owned the Billboard charts for six straight weeks and soon topped the British charts as well, reviving Edwards career for another few years, and guaranteeing the continued reappearance of “that sweet bouquet” for years to come as performed by the likes of:  Cliff Richard, Robert Goulet, Andy Williams, The Lettermen, The Four Tops, Jackie DeShannon, Cass Elliott, George Bensen, Neil Sedaka, Merle Haggard, John Mathis, Barry Manilow, Glen Campbell and Keith Jarrett.

 LISTEN TO THIS SONG – Sunday 3 February 

It’s All In The Game

 Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game

All in the wonderful game that we know as love

You had words with him and your future’s looking dim

But these things your hearts can rise above

 Once in a while he won’t call, but it’s all in the game

Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet

And he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips

And your hearts will fly away

 (Soon he’ll be there at your side) with a sweet bouquet

Then he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips

And your hearts will fly away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and so I smoke

China or Storm?  That’s the cryptic question some of us are asking as we anticipate Pink Martini’s next arrival at the Boston Opera House in a few weeks.  Who, we wonder, will be the sultry siren at center stage?  Will it be exotic chanteuse, China Forbes, a local girl from Cambridge who has long been the group’s signature presence or voluptuous Amazonian  Storm Large, an even more locally-local girl to those with ties to suburban Southborough?

As happens, the group’s nucleus first met in a college dorm, in this at case Harvard back in the late ‘80s, when Forbes befriended the gleefully flamboyant pianist, Thomas Lauderdale, who would go on to graduate cum laude.  With strikingly similar interests the two literature students would appropriate the common room to perform, and intermingle arias by Puccini or Verde with “campy Streisand covers.”

A few years after graduation Lauderdale tracked down his old compatriot in New York City, where she’d been writing and singing folk songs, to tell her about this “little orchestra” he had formed back in Portland, Oregon. Called Pink Martini, it was his idea to blend classical, pop and jazz, drawing inspiration from music all over the globe.  Now he needed a lead-vocalist.  As it turned out, he would also get a major collaborator.

The 10 to 12 member unit began to tour in 1994, releasing its first album, “Sympathique” in 1997 by which time it was performing its rich, multilingual repertoire (sometimes in concert with full symphony orchestras) throughout Europe, Asia, Northern Africa, Australia and North America. Although Forbes is only fluent in English, she sings in 15 different languages. And convincingly too.

This is the title song from that first album, “Sympathique” (Pink Martini has since released seven others, all on Lauderdale’s own independent label) and it was such a huge sensation in France that it was nominated for “Song of the Year” at the Victoires de la Musique Awards. While the lyrics are freely drawn from Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Hôtel” I have been assured by a certain college student that the song’s many smoking references have little to do with Sir Walter Raleigh (mere speculation).

 LISTEN TO IT HERE – Saturday 2 February

And where does the big (6 feet tall) and bold (known for her commanding stage presence) Susan Storm Large enter the picture?  Born and raised in Southborough (according to her bio), she graduated from St. Mark’s School where her father was a history teacher and football coach.  After attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts she was involved with a number of San Francisco area bands, before deciding to get away from the music scene and attend Oregon’s, Western Culinary Institute.

Large was tending bar at a rock club in Portland when the owner learned of her singing ability and urged her to continue.  As a result she formed a “lounge rock” band called The Balls, which quickly became a local favorite. Large gained national recognition in 2006 as a serious contender on “Rock Star: Supernova” and has since performed in a number of musical stage productions, including her own one-woman show, “Crazy Enough”.

In the summer of 2011 China Forbes took extended leave from Pink Martini to undergo surgery on her vocal cords, and while a number of guest vocalists were scheduled to fill-in, Storm Large nailed it.  When this year’s tour was announced it was noted that half of the schedule will feature China and the other half will feature Storm… Personally I’m glad to have a ticket.

Here’s a splendid YouTube video, featuring China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale, that was filmed to accompany “Sympathique” with Where’s Waldo-like translations in English, Spanish, Cyrillic, Chinese, Japanese, Sign Language…although it’s not clear which form…and perhaps a true cryptologist could decipher even more…

Sympathique

Ma chambre a la forme d’une cage (my room is shaped like a cage)

Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre (the sun streams through the window)

Les chasseurs à ma porte (the bellhops are at my door)

Comme les p’tits soldats (like those little soldiers)

Qui veulent me prendre (who want to take me away)

Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work)

Je ne veux pas déjeuner (I don’t want to eat lunch)

Je veux seulement l’oublier (I only want to forget him)

Et puis je fume (and so I smoke)

 Déjà j’ai connu le parfum de l’amour (Long ago I knew the smell of love)

Un million de roses n’embaumerait pas autant  (a million roses didn’t smell as sweet)

Maintenant une seule fleur dans mes entourages (Now a single flower in my way)

Me rend malade (makes me sick)

 Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work)

Je ne veux pas déjeuner (I don’t want to eat lunch)

Je veux seulement l’oublier (I only want to forget him)

Et puis je fume (and so I smoke)

 Je ne suis pas fière de ça (I am not proud if this)

Vie qui veut me tuer (This life that wants to kill me)

C’est magnifique être sympathique (It’s wonderful to be genial)

Mais je ne le connais jamais (but I have never known this)

 Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work)

Je ne veux pas déjeuner (I don’t want to eat lunch)

Je veux seulement l’oublier (I only want to forget him)

Et puis je fume (and so I smoke)

Je ne suis pas fière de ça (I am not proud if this)

Vie qui veut me tuer (This life that wants to kill me)

C’est magnifique être sympathique (It’s wonderful to be genial)

Mais je ne le connais jamais (but I have never known this)

Je ne veux pas travailler (I don’t want to work)

Je ne veux pas déjeuner (I don’t want to eat lunch)

Je veux seulement l’oublier (I only want to forget him)

Et puis je fume (and so I smoke)