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Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Posted by erweinstein on November 8, 2016

My favorite verse from “Mrs. Robinson” (1968), featured in the hit Mike Nichols movie The Graduate (1967), arrives near the end:

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates’ debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at it you lose.

The song continues, quite memorably, with the mention of a famous baseball star:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

Joe DiMaggio was reportedly somewhat confused when he heard the song, as he was 16 years past his retirement from Major League Baseball but was still well-known for the records he set (including his still-unbroken record of a 56-game hitting streak) and because he had been the second husband of the late Marilyn Monroe. Friends told DiMaggio that the song didn’t seem to be intended as a criticism of him, and an eventual meeting with songwriter Paul Simon allowed Simon to explain that the lines were not meant literally. Rather, that part of the song relates to (among other reasonable interpretations) a metaphorical absence of heroes and role-models in 1967-1968 and to the disillusionment of younger Americans with the ideals and virtues of the older generation that worked, fought, and started their families in the immediate World-War-II-era.

After the death of Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Paul Simon explained his respect for DiMaggio and the purpose of his reference to Joltin’ Joe in the song (especially considering Simon had previously admitted that his first choice for a baseball player to mention in “Mrs. Robinson” was Mickey Mantle, but that name didn’t have the right number of syllables). Simon wrote in the New York Times:

In the 50’s and 60’s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America’s most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence.
In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.

For all that has lamentably not been improved about our politics and our national discourse since Simon wrote those words about “Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters” in 1999, we should at least consider ourselves fortunate that we GET to choose, however poor quality the options.

And although we might be dissatisfied, and perhaps with good reason, we should not be so eager to declare our contempt for what is best about our nation. In the face of adequate warnings and the lessons of history, doing so would take us down a dark and dangerous path. The United States would re-create the experience of mid-20th Century Argentina, complete with open, organized violence between political left and political right and the nearly unprecedented self-inflicted destruction of substantial economic prosperity (Argentina was in the top 10 world economies by GDP per capita before the First World War, but lost this status and has experienced nearly a century of minimal net economic growth amid continuing post-dictatorship political turmoil and institutional decay).

Our nation, though flawed like all human endeavors, is already great. Angry extremists of the far-left and (particularly this year) the far-right show they either don’t understand, or actually disagree with, the sources and the nature of that greatness. There will always be those who profit from scaremongering and scapegoating, those who benefit from the creation of dysfunction and disorder, and those who just like to watch things burn. An especially pernicious form of this behavior consists of telling those who are hurting something like, we’ll solve your problems, it’s simple: we can tear everything down, and then everything will be rebuilt, but in the process we can make sure to exclude certain groups of evildoers living among us whose perfidy just so happens to be the cause of your social and economic pain. (Well, what do you know folks, that solution is terrific! It’s great, so simple that our previous leaders, whatever their party or ideology, must have been stupid or crooked for not figuring it out…)

To those who have been ignored and feel betrayed by the status-quo, this siren song can sound so persuasive that the would-be destroyers don’t even need to be subtle, proclaiming they really do want to “burn it all down”. The proposed remedies of the destructive charlatans are to our body politic, at best, alchemy–of the turn lead-into-gold variety–and at worst, medieval bloodletting. Such “cures” are far worse than the vastly exaggerated disease, and the process of enacting them would cause us to lose something essential and valuable about being the United States of America. For those who don’t like what we are, who promise to lead us back to a greatness they say we lost an undetermined number of decades ago, who relish the chaotic retribution they will get to unleash upon disfavored groups in order to supposedly bring us there, that’s probably the point. We must reject their narcissistic carnival of institutional pyromania, and mock the pretension that they speak for some greater good as boastful foolishness, because that’s what it is.

As Benjamin Franklin was said to have warned, the nation that declared its independence in 1776 and that created its Constitution in 1787 will be, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”.

Let’s keep it, and work on ways to make it better.

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Politics | 1 Comment »

How terribly strange to be seventy (part 2)

Posted by erweinstein on October 13, 2011

Today (October 13, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the chart-topping singer-songwriter Paul Simon. First gaining fame as one-half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, Simon wrote several #1 hits including “The Sound of Silence“, “Mrs. Robinson“, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water“, the latter of which edged out The Beatles’ “Let it Be” on the US and UK charts in 1970. After “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (and the release of the album of the same name), Simon & Garfunkel disbanded, and Simon went on to a highly successful solo career, which included the critically-acclaimed albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints that both topped the UK charts and eventually received multi-platinum certification in the US and the UK. Simon has received 13 Grammy Awards, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Paul Simon is, by a large margin, my favorite contemporary popular musician. In my personal ranking, he sits just beneath The Beatles and Bob Dylan as the third-greatest popular musician or group of any era. Even so, I recognize that his music, while it ranges widely across styles and topics, isn’t for everyone. Simon’s best songs are outstanding, but much of his music isn’t as accessible as that of Lennon and McCartney. A large part of what attracts me to Simon’s songs is his overt intellectualism. Simon, who once rhymed the word “thirteen” with “mezzanine” and “St. Augustine”, is one of the most intellectual popular songwriters in human history. His songs, dating back to the 1960s, have repeatedly explored psychological themes such as Freudian analysis, social influences on behavior, and disorders like depression and anxiety. Simon’s more recent songs have pondered the ideas of love, faith, God, man’s place in the universe, and finding integrity through one’s work. Simon’s songs are always about something, even if that something is an abstract concept like pain or loneliness. As Don Shewey wrote in Rolling Stone reviewing Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones,

In an earlier era, Paul Simon would have written for Broadway, a craft that demands that a song tell a story or define a character. But like any youngster in the Fifties, he got hooked on the sheer sexual energy of rock & roll — not so much the guitar-based electricity of Chuck Berry, Elvis and the Beatles, but the dreamy soulfulness of groups that euphemized their teenage romantic longings in nonsense lyrics. The trouble was that Simon was too clever for either kind of rock & roll. The words always came first for him, the music was secondary, and the rock & roll he loved — the delicate Spanish guitar, the hushed doo-wop harmonies — lingered faintly in the distance like a disembodied ideal.

As is appropriate for a songwriter who prioritizes the words over the music and the rhythm, Simon has contemplated many issues of great importance to the American (and the Jewish-American) experience, while rarely being overtly political. A few of Simon’s songs represent the straightforward protest sentiments that birthed the folk-rock movement, particularly “The Sound of Silence” from his Simon & Garfunkel years and “American Tune” from his solo years. But the more important thread running through Simon’s music is the transformation of alienation and skepticism into searching and agnosticism, and eventually the transformation of searching and agnosticism into faith and self-acceptance. Simon & Garfunkel music is often considered to epitomize teenage and young adult feelings of loneliness and alienation, so much so that Simon’s songs with Garfunkel were mocked for this quality in an episode of That ’70s Show (from season 4, if I’m not mistaken), as well as in last week’s episode of the recently-debuted comedy New Girl. As his career progressed, Simon’s modernist skepticism, demonstrated in “The Dangling Conversation” from the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and his doubts in (and disdain for) religion seen in several songs, including “Ace in the Hole” from the 1980 album One-Trick Pony, eventually softened into a neutral agnosticism.

By 1983’s Hearts and Bones, Simon’s certainty in his own intellectual prowess was waning, as exemplified by him having not one, but two songs proclaiming that he “Think[s] Too Much”. It is clear that Simon was realizing that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy. The turning point arrived with Simon’s 1986 album Graceland (which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year), as Simon began to accept spirituality as a mode of expression. In the title track, he famously sings, “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland”. As reviewers noted, Simon had turned the final home of the bloated and drug-addled Elvis Presley into a “holy place”, a symbol of potential redemption for himself, his son, and his fellow Memphis-bound pilgrims. As he highlighted the injustice of South African apartheid and bolstered the stature of the nascent genre of “worldbeat” with the success of Graceland, Simon continued to become more open to faith and spirituality. This is further demonstrated in his 1990 follow-up to Graceland, entitled The Rhythm of the Saints. In the opening track of that album, “The Obvious Child” (which received much airtime in the US and reached #15 on the UK charts) Simon asserts that faith is, if not a certainty, then at least a possibility. In the third song on The Rhythm of the Saints, “The Coast”, Simon makes what amounts to the most earnest and heartfelt case a New York Jew could possibly make for Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic variety that predominates in Brazil. (After Paul Simon gave a recent live performance, Paul McCartney, who had been watching the show and was struck by the prevalence of Christian themes, came backstage and asked Simon, “Aren’t you Jewish?”) Although Simon attacks and partially dismantles this case for faith in the next song on the album, “Proof“, I (myself a Jew from a major northern US city–Chicago) have always been left with an appreciation for the immense beauty that Simon spins into “The Coast” and intertwines with his interpretation of Christianity.

Simon’s next studio album, You’re The One, reflects an understanding of both the positive and negative qualities of religious faith, especially in the song “Señorita with a Necklace of Tears”. On his 2006 album Surprise, Simon again makes statements of both faith and of skepticism. The skepticism appears in the somewhat-obviously-titled “I Don’t Believe”, and the song “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” demonstrates how religion can divide us, but Simon also portrays the more positive aspects of religion in a few songs, especially the hauntingly beautiful “Wartime Prayers”, and the final verse of “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” (my favorite track on that album). Fully half of the songs from Simon’s most recent album, So Beautiful or So What (released earlier this year), contain references to God, religion, or other faith-related concepts. More importantly, these concepts are presented in a mostly-positive manner. While the song “The Afterlife” presents, well, the afterlife, as a bureaucracy where “You got to fill out the form first / And then you wait in the line”, and the song “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” presents God as somewhat of a trickster, several songs, including “Love and Blessings” and “The Afterlife”, associate God and His Love with music, something that Simon strongly believes (as he illustrates in many songs, including “Ace in the Hole”) can provide redemption. Simon also makes the point throughout So Beautiful or So What that God, and not just the Devil, is in the details, and that we can find indications of a higher power in fleeting moments of everyday beauty. Simon’s transformation, over the course of his career, from an angst-filled modernist skeptic hostile to religion into a musical wise-man who shows us the positive sides of religion, faith, and spirituality as well as the negative, is remarkable, and I find the arc of his career to be personally inspirational.

It is hard to believe that Paul Simon, who once sang, “I started to think too much / when I was twelve going on thirteen” (in the song “Think Too Much (a)” from Hearts and Bones, which I often consider to be a personal anthem) is now a septuagenarian. Fittingly, however, Simon predicted his own senescence in the song “Old Friends”, which Simon sang, along with Art Garfunkel, on the 1968 album Bookends:

Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy

Happy 70th Birthday, Paul! I hope that you have a great day, and that you can spend it with your wife and children, and not sitting on a cold park bench with Art Garfunkel.

Posted in Music | Comments Off on How terribly strange to be seventy (part 2)

How terribly strange to be seventy (part 1)

Posted by erweinstein on May 24, 2011

Today (May 24, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. For anyone who listens to popular music and wants to understand its history, Bob Dylan is without a doubt one of the three most important figures to study (the other two are John Lennon and Paul McCartney). As University of Chicago economics professor David Galenson wrote in his 2009 article “From ‘White Christmas’ to Sgt. Pepper : The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”:

During the mid-1960s Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney created a new kind of popular music that was personal and often obscure. This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters.

For more information on what it means for popular music to be transformed from an experimental into a conceptual art, consult that article (search Google Scholar for “The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”, including the quotes) as well as Galenson’s “Understanding Creativity” (Journal of Applied Economics, Volume 13, Issue 2, November 2010, pgs. 351-362). From that latter paper comes an excellent quote from Bruce Springsteen, who at Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, said:

Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.

In honor of Dylan’s birthday, Tyler Cowen, another economist who studies arts and culture, discusses the highlights of Dylan’s career.

What strikes me the most about Bob Dylan is how incredibly young he was when he made his biggest contributions to popular music. Only 23 when he released “Blowin’ in the Wind” (ranked #14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”) and was acknowledged as the king of the American folk music scene, Dylan was 24 when he precipitated the “Electric Controversy”, and later that same year he released “Like a Rolling Stone” (ranked #1 on the aforementioned list). It’s worth excerpting Galenson again to explain the importance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” rejected the traditional clarity and universality of popular music, using a novel synthesis of folk music, blues, and Symbolist poetry to create a personal, complex song that became a radical new model for rock music. It led directly to the introspective and elusive imagery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and inspired generations of singer-songwriters.

Reading Galenson’s papers (or quickly reading his Wikipedia page), it is clear that Dylan’s relative youth during such transformational events is no accident. Dylan is a conceptual innovator, like Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Orson Welles, who starting innovating young, made art by synthesizing other art forms and works, and broke the rules of his art in such a fundamental way that everyone else had to take notice. Like other conceptual innovators, Dylan peaked early, which is not to say that his later work is worthless, but rather that his most influential songs and albums were from the mid-to-late 1960s. Here’s Galenson one more time:

In 1966, when Robert Shelton asked Dylan if his songs were influential because he broke the rules, Dylan responded, “I don’t break the rules, because I don’t see any rules to break. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any rules.”

With the inescapable benefit of hindsight, it is sadly too easy to understate the magnitude of the impact Bob Dylan had on the development of popular music. (I originally phrased that last sentence wrong. Thanks, Language Log!) We’re still living in the musical world created by Dylan’s innovations.

So, Bob, how does it feel to be seventy? I don’t expect you to answer any time soon, but until then, many more happy birthdays!

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Festival of Links: The Best of March

Posted by erweinstein on March 31, 2011

The top stories from this past month that you probably didn’t hear about from your other blogs:

1. The King James Version of the Bible turns 400.

2. Will Wilkinson gives “A Scornful Review” to the new David Brooks novel The Social Animal.

3. “Illinois has 11 working nuclear reactors at six sites, more than any other state [in the USA]…”

4. Soon there will be no hiding place for Jacques Chirac.

5. Megan McArdle argues that “We Don’t Need More Stigma for Overweight Kids“. Excerpt:

But it seems to me that we frequently mix “healthy” up with “thin”.  Most people who switch to eating an actual healthy diet–little processed food, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, less salt and sugar–won’t end up thin.  Most people who exercise won’t lose much, if any weight without calorie restriction.  And most people who try to restrict their calories below what their body wants fail over the long term–eventually, their appetite wins.

6. A study released by a think-tank affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (Germany’s large center-left party) reveals that nearly half of Germans believe that Israel is attempting to exterminate the Palestinians, and a slightly larger proportion of Germans agree with the statement “Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era”. As Tyler Cowen would say, “Yikes!”

7. Scott Adams gives his assessment of Charlie Sheen. That’s all the Charlie Sheen blogging you will get from me.

8. Rabbi Richard Jacobs is elected as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

9. Economist Steven Horwitz, whose writings on cell phones I have previous blogged, cites telephone service as an example of an industry where cost has fallen and quality has risen (both dramatically). In other words, there is no great stagnation.

10. Vanity Fair’s offbeat interview with Paul Simon.

11. Very short Newsweek interview with Larry Summers. As some other bloggers have noted, the best line from Summers is, “I’m one of the few people who went to Washington to get out of politics.”

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Remark of the Week: Opera Edition

Posted by erweinstein on July 4, 2010

This week’s Remark of the Week comes from John von Rhein, the classical music critic for the Chicago Tribune, reviewing a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert of Wagner highlights at the Ravinia summer music festival:

One’s pleasure in hearing one of the world’s great Wagnerian “pit” bands playing this glorious music from center stage, along with the full-throated singing of the soloists, was mingled with dismay at the smallish audience. Wagner remains a tough sell on the North Shore [of Chicago]. The “Ringheads” in attendance cheered lustily, as if to compensate for the acres of empty seats.

I can offer only speculation as to why “Wager remains a tough sell” for the people of the northern suburbs of Chicago. That speculation is twofold: 1) The North Shore of Chicago is known for its substantially above-average prevalence of Jews, as well as high levels of social and political support for tolerance and diversity among the general population (although there are some areas, such as ultra-wealthy Kenilworth, that reliably vote Republican). 2) The music of Richard Wagner is still tainted by its associated with Nazi Germany–where it was highly popular with Hitler and other Nazi leaders–as well as the perceived anti-Semitism of Wagner himself (note the controversy caused by Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Wagner in Israel). Putting together 1) and 2) leads me to conjecture that the North Shore has a higher-than-average number of people who consider Wagner distasteful for political reasons, leading to a below-average popularity of Wagner’s music among the population in that area.

Also, I didn’t know that fans of Wagner’s Ring Cycle had a special name (“Ringheads”), although a quick Google search demonstrates at least two different instances of using “Ringheads” to denote Wagner fanatics.

As always, thank you for reading my random musings on subjects like the relative popularity of Wagnerian opera. For my friends, family, and other American readers, Happy July 4th! Here’s to an excellent rest of 2010!

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Remark of the Week: Opera Edition

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on August 10, 2008

The clear winner of the Remark of the Week for August 4 through August 10 is Roger Ebert.

The [“Sex and the City”] ladies should fill their flasks with cosmopolitans, go to see “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” and cry their hearts out with futile regret for their misspent lives.

That’s from Ebert’s movie review for “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2”. He gave that film 3 Stars, while rating the “Sex and the City” movie from earlier this year at 2 Stars.

Yes, I often read Ebert’s reviews of movies that I would never actually be interested in seeing. In my own estimation, I have two clear reasons for this behavior: 1) Ebert is the mainstream movie critic whose recommendations closest match my own tastes, and 2) He is an exceptional writer, the first ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, who frequently deploys clever and memorable phrases to share the highlights and lowlights of his movie-viewing. While he certainly has “off days”–reviews where he is clearly uninterested and forcing himself to write, oversimplifying in the process–and has had more since his recent illness, Ebert’s reviews of excellent or “classic” movies as well as those of movies he greatly dislikes are works of art. He even wrote a review of “Wet Hot American Summer” in verse, which can be sung to the tune of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”.

On a somewhat-related note, prolific musician Isaac Hayes–the original “Soul Man”–died earlier today.

On a unrelated note, I apologize for the gap in posting. I haven’t been feeling well the past three weeks due to an injury I sustained right around the time of the Modus Operandi show described in the July 17 post (which went awesomely, at least from this bass player’s viewpoint). Fortunately, I am almost completely better, and I am returning to a more normal schedule, which will include more time providing my readers (whoever you are) with links and commentary.

Only 12 weeks (and change) until Election Day!

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Remark of the Week

More awesome live music (Tonight!)

Posted by erweinstein on July 17, 2008

Modus Operandi will be performing live at 8 pm tonight (Thursday, July 17) in Chicago. The location is MIX, 2843 North Halsted Street, just north of Diversey in Lakeview. The cost is (an incredibly low) $5 at the door, just make sure to tell them you’re there to see Modus Operandi. Especially if you missed their appearance in Evanston last month (but also if you’re in the area and looking for an evening activity), plan to spend an hour listening to this innovative Alternative/Electronic Rock group. Because MIX is a bar/cocktail lounge, there will be a dance floor and a wide selection of drinks for those so inclined, but admission is 21+ only.

As an added bonus for my friends, family, and readers, I will be playing bass guitar with Modus Operandi. The show will feature songs from both of the band’s albums, as well as new (not-yet-released) works.

Hope to see you there!

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Hear some awesome music this Saturday!

Posted by erweinstein on June 26, 2008

If you’re in the Chicago area this weekend, especially the North Side or the North Suburbs, stop by Bill’s Blues in Evanston, Illinois (1029 Davis Street) on Saturday afternoon between 3 and 8 pm to hear the unique Alternative/Electronic Rock sound of Modus Operandi. The band was founded by some very good friends of mine, also natives of the aforementioned geographic area, who are quite talented. This is their first live appearance, along with several other bands, as part of Big Time Productions’ Bill’s Blues All Ages Show, for which tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the door. For more information, leave a comment or email Ben (top right of his website).

I will be spending the weekend in Washington DC, but I’m sure the awesomeness of the concert will propagate via long-distance subliminal sound waves, so I’ll literally feel the good vibrations in DC even if I can’t hear them.

Make the trip to see them if you can. You are extremely unlikely to regret it. You can sample the music of Modus Operandi on their MySpace Music page, and purchase their two released albums on iTunes by searching for “Modus Operandi” and clicking on the “artist” of that name.

If you like live music, you might–just possibly–also enjoy something called the Taste of Chicago. But hearing Modus Operandi should be your first priority if you’re free Saturday.

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And I think it’s gonna be……a long, long time

Posted by erweinstein on January 16, 2008

And now, for something completely different:

Today was the 30-year anniversary of the day that William Shatner delivered his now-infamous live spoken-word rendition of the song “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards.

Enjoy this improved-quality video of that historic event. (Link from Fark and Andrew Sullivan.)

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Is DRM on its way out?

Posted by erweinstein on January 22, 2007

Record labels rethink digital rights management at Midem – International Herald Tribune

We may be witnessing the start of a new era in the music business. More comments will follow if anything actually comes of this.


UPDATE: Steve Jobs endorses ending DRM. Don Dodge, one of the founders of Napster, explains Jobs’ reasoning and points out that Bill Gates agrees.

Posted in Music, Technology | 1 Comment »

Quite a Surprise

Posted by erweinstein on May 27, 2006

Paul Simon’s newest album, entitled Surprise, was released Tuesday, May 9. His first major studio release in six years, the album features ten new songs plus the previously-released “Father and Daughter” from the Wild Thornberries Movie soundtrack. (“Father and Daughter” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2002, but lost to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”.) Simon, who helped pioneer the singer-songwriter and worldmusic traditions in American popular music, integrates synthesizer and electronic effects into his new tracks with the help of Brian Eno, who co-produced the album. Eno co-wrote three of the new songs and lends his distinctive electronic style throughout. Amazingly (but not unexpectedly) the combination works, and the result is clever, interesting, fun, and—typically for Simon—profound. After my initial listening, I particularly like the songs “How Can You Live in the Northeast”, which mocks/observes the way we bicker about geographical, political, and religious differences, and the smooth and soulful ”Wartime Prayers”, in which Simon comments on how humans react to adversity, expresses dismay at the state of spiritual discourse in the post-9/11 world, and admits (somewhat self-referentially) that he doesn’t have all the answers.

It is hard to believe that the man who sang “I started to think too much when I was twelve / going on thirteen” (on the album Hears and Bones in 1983) and had a top 50 hit (with Art Garfunkel) when he was still in high school is now 64. Although his range is somewhat reduced, he compensates for it well, in part by adding half-spoken lyrics and more complex instrumentals.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Remembering Leonard Bernstein

Posted by erweinstein on August 25, 2005

Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor, and colossus of American music was born eighty-seven years ago today. In the nearly fifteen years since his death, Bernstein’s star has fallen somewhat from its stratospheric heights. In Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall, Joseph Horowitz offers a compelling explanation of Bernstein’s career. The tragedy of Leonard Bernstein, as Horowitz depicts it, is that despite his many successes, Bernstein failed to live up to his artistic promise. Instead of becoming the facilitator of a genuinely American tradition in classical music, Bernstein became, in Horowitz’s words, an “artist upstaged by his own celebrity.” Bernstein’s legacy, Horowitz suggests, was not a revolution in American music characterized by Bernstein finding the holy grail of “[an American] Mozart”, but “the damaged hopes of this most American of classical musicians.” Although I have been a fan of Bernstein for as long as I can remember, Horowitz has convinced me that, in part, Bernstein did “fail” to reach his potential.

However, I would like to suggest that we remember Leonard Bernstein not only by questioning whether or not he lived up to his artistic potential, but also by celebrating his many musical triumphs. Although he only composed three symphonies (Jeremiah, The Age of Anxiety, and Kaddish), all three are well-crafted and powerful works that dispel the lingering idea that classical music (particularly the more traditional tonal variety) “ran out of steam” or “broke down” in the Twentieth Century. As the musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1970, Bernstein conducted and recorded unparalleled performances of his fellow American composers Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring, “Fanfare for the Common Man”) and George Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”, “An American in Paris”). Bernstein’s most popular composition was the music of West Side Story, a Broadway hit and later a movie that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Many people (myself included) sometimes forget that Bernstein also composed the moving original music from the movie On the Waterfront, which won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Elia Kazan. Even Bernstein’s lesser-known works are vibrant and unique, such as the jazzy “New York, New York” and “Times Square: 1944” from the musical On the Town, the rousing Overture from the operetta Candide (an unparalleled work of lyrical, musical, and philosophical satire, which Bernstein co-wrote based on Voltaire’s work of the same name), and the uplifting Chichester Psalms, which is a choral treatment of Psalms 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, and 133 (all in Hebrew).

There is a difference between being denigrated for failing to achieve more, and having the quality of one’s existing accomplishments impugned. Although the critics and scholars have grown harsher towards Leonard Bernstein since his death (and not without reason), there should be no question that during his life, Bernstein made impressive recordings and wrote inspiring music. For anyone seeking to acquire the best of Bernstein’s composing and conducting, I agree with NPR Classical Music Commentator Ted Libbey’s recommendation of Sony Classical’s Bernstein Century series of re-released recordings. If you don’t mind opera, try the original cast recording of Candide.

Bernstein himself said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Throughout his frantic, eccentric, and highly prolific career, Bernstein greatly enriched mankind through his music. Even if he did not achieve as much as he might have, Leonard Bernstein’s legacy contains more than enough to inspire and enlighten musicians and music-lovers, and to affirm that there are great American composers.


Here’s to you, Lenny!

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