Fran Landesman and the Sad Songs of Spring

“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” wrote Swinburne, “The mother of months in meadow or plain/Fills the shadows and windy places/With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain”? And who are you or I to gainsay that sentiment, however loaded it may be with hissing sibilants and fricking frickatives?

But those lines, depicted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber, give no hint of an answer to a more troubling question that arises this time of year: Why are the best of songs about spring–sad?


Swinburne: “Konked,” as Lou Rawls would say, “to the bone.”

 

It’s that time of year. In spring, we ought to be happy; winter is over, and spring, so long longed for, is here. Perhaps the much-awaited fulfillment of a fervent wish is bound to disappoint.

In spring, as e.e. cummings put it,

when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee.

A “little lame balloon man”–pretty sad, if you ask me, but you didn’t.

When we sing of spring, we tend–unless we’re idiots humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”–to sing sadly.


Fran Landesman

Like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”–lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf.

It is the anti-spring song, one for those who once threw their hearts away each spring, but who now say a “spring romance hasn’t got a chance.”

Here is a fine version by Ella Fitzgerald. Landesman has the look of a woman for whom lines of regret such as

Spring this year has got me feeling
like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most

were more than an exercise in poesy; someone who was a lot of fun, but who may have waited for some calls that never came as men chose other leggier, prettier girls for–as Cleveland Amory said of a young man from Boston backed by a long-winded reference–breeding purposes. She was called “the Dorothy Parker of jazz,” and many assumed (including me) that she’d been disappointed in love because of her acerbic lyrics.


Ella Fitzgerald

 

That view, as it turns out, couldn’t have been more wrong. Landesman was happily married for six decades to her husband Jay, publisher of the beat journal Neurotica, and yet he allowed her a wide latitude in romantic affairs. While there’s no registry or clerk’s office in which to record extramarital acts and deeds, it is widely assumed that Landesman was a lover to, among others, both Jack Kerouac, whom she called the handsomest man she ever met, and Lenny Bruce, who proposed to her. “Let’s you and me go on the road,” Bruce wrote to her, “and send Jay a little money every month.”

She described her relationship with her husband in the poem “Semi-Detached”:

We each have a side that’s as free as the air,
And people don’t see the side that we share.
Our set-up is sweet. There isn’t a catch,
The secret is living semi-detached.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a play on T.S. Eliot’s line “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land, and was apparently part of a high-brow self-deprecating trend among the beatniks to lampoon themselves by re-casting classics such as Shakespeare into hip argot. (Are today’s hipsters in Brooklyn or elsewhere doing anything similar–or even capable of it?) It was first performed, along with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” in a musical developed from Jay’s unpublished novel about the beat scene in New York, “The Nervous Set.” The show was a huge success in St. Louis, but closed after three weeks when it moved to New York. A half-century later, though, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is still being performed.

Happy or ecstatic as Landesman may have been with her love life, when she featured it in her work she tended to shine a melancholy light on it; she titled two collections of her poetry Scars and Stripes and How Was It for You? Freed from the convention of monogamy, she may have found pleasure but not necessarily fulfillment.

At the end of her life her sight failed, but she continued to perform her poetry–in a half spoken, half sung fashion all her own–from memory.

The woman who was sometimes called “the godmother of hip” died in July of 2011 at the age of 83, five months after her husband.

My Courageous Struggle With Preauricular Sinus

For me, the weekends are the hardest.  Not because I’m lonely, like Charlie Rich, who sang that he made it all right from Monday morning to Friday night, but oh–those lonely weekends.


Charlie Rich on Thursday night, getting ready to be lonely.

 

No, I’m not lonely on weekends, if anything I have the opposite problem.  Wherever I go there’s a walk-a-thon, a bike-a-thon, people tramping around, blocking public ways better used for normal non-charitable activities.  If I go indoors, there’s a raffle, a silent auction, people raising money . . . always for other people’s problems.

But not mine.

I am one of the miniscule .001% of Americans who suffer from preauricular sinus.  Translated from med-school-ese, that means I have a hole in my ear.

What’s the big deal? you say.  Everybody has holes in their ears.

Not like mine and my fellow preauricular sinus-sufferers, they don’t.  In addition to the big hole in the middle, we have little holes near the top of one–or both!–ears, where the cartilage meets the face.


Gross!

We try our darndest, we victims of PAS, to hide our condition.  We comb our hair so as to conceal the little hole, or we wear bike helmets indoors.  You don’t know the pain, the suffering that we bear when we’re talking to somebody–a friend, an acquaintance, a friendly clerk at our helpful service-oriented Registry of Motor Vehicles–and suddenly hear the words “Hey, I never noticed before, but you have an extra little hole in your ear.”


“If your name begins with the letters A through Z, line up to the left.  If you have an extra little hole in your ear, your license has been revoked.”

 

“Where?” we’ll say, hoping to deflect our inquisitor’s attention while a meteor crashes into the earth, destroying all human life.  It never comes.

“Right there,” your interlocutor will point out helpfully, “where the cartilage meets the face.”

“How about those Red Sox/Celtics/Bruins/Patriots?” we ask, depending on the season, but no one is fooled by this transparent ruse.

My mom told me that the little hole in my right ear was nothing to be ashamed of.  That the Good Lord made me special, and she thought I was special, and I would always be special to her.

“Well, of course,” I replied cynically.  “If you’ve got an extra hole in your ear, it’s kind of hard to blend in with the crowd.”

“No one will ever notice–it’s so tiny!” she’d say.

“But you just said it was what made me special,” I’d say, using the brutal logic of which pre-adolescent males whose minds have been broken on the Baltimore Catechism are capable.  “That’s all that makes me special?”


“That’s okay, Timmy.  Someday Lassie will teach you how to read.”

 

At this point mom would take me in her arms and hug me, like Timmy’s mom on Lassie when his collie would outscore him on a long division pop quiz, or correct him on the principal exports of the Benelux countries.  “I’m sure you’ll grow up to be a successful, accomplished person,” she would say.  “You’ll just have to find a girl with very poor eyesight if she isn’t going to notice that . . . thing.”


Technically this is a lie, but you can throw it into your Saturday afternoon confession.

 

Once you get to college and you meet smarty-pants pre-med students who get straight A’s in biology, the Jesuitical evasions become more difficult.  “You know,” they say as you line up a shot on the pool table in the basement of your dorm, “that little hole you have in your ear is caused by the first and second pharyngeal arches.”

“You don’t say,” you say, as you nonchalantly stroke the 14 ball into the corner pocket.

“Yeah.  It occurs in all vertebrates during embryonic development.  In mammals it usually becomes part of the structure of the head and neck.  In fish . . .”

The room becomes so quiet you can hear a quarter drop in the soda machine.

“Yes?” one of the guys waiting his turn on the disgusting couch that’s a breeding ground for all manner of insects will ask.

” . . . it develops into gills.”

“Ew!” Jeri, the girlfriend of a pre-med student will say as she walks through to the kitchen.  And you scratch on the 8 ball.

“Dude,” one of the stoner kids who’s on academic probation will say.  “You’re like the Creature From the Black Lagoon!”

This monicker will stick, of course, since young men compete with each other for the attention of young women, and will cling to any edge they can grasp on their way up the slippery rock face of evolution.  Better that I procreate than this loser, they will say from deep within their subconscious–or even pre-conscious–minds.

Once the Star Wars movies came out, the prospect of a fish-headed humanoid became more than a vague presentiment in the minds of my generation.  There was Admiral Ackbar, like a goldfish out of water, my worst nightmare!  I was afraid to go to Petco for fear of the comparisons, invidious or not.  “Nice,” someone might say.  “Is there a Star Wars convention in town?”


Admiral Ackbar

 

So contrary to your first impression, preauricular sinus is a serious and debilitating handicap, for which there is no Labor Day telethon, nor a single comedian who’s ever ended his act by saying “But seriously, folks, there are guys out there tonight sitting at home, watching this show, because they’re too ashamed to come be part of the studio audience, all on account of stupid little holes in their ears.”

So you’ll just have to do something on your own for bitter, disfigured, disillusioned guys like me.  You’ll have to dig down deep, and give so that we can finally, someday, do something about those unsightly ear holes.

The little ones, not the big ones.

 

As Whole Language Yuppies Move In, Phonics Junkies Are Forced Out

BOSTON.  The neighborhood here known as the South End has historically been a transitional stop on the way up–or down–the social ladder.  “We got the winos and junkies who lost their last best hope of realizing the American Dream,” says long-time bar owner Michael “Mickey” Flaherty, “and then we got the freshly-minted MBA’s who work long hours and can’t afford the suburbs yet, or ‘yuppie scum’ as I affectionately refer to them.”


Boston’s South End

The clash between those on the rise and those who have fallen off the treadmill of the American economy has been exacerbated of late by a different dimension of assessment besides education and income, however; younger residents who learned to read by the “whole language” method, which allows children to select their own reading matter and emphasizes recognition of words in everyday contexts so that teachers can have more and longer breaks, and older residents who learned to read through phonics, a form of corporal punishment inflicted by sadistic instructors that actually works.


“If you can read this sign you probably took phonics.”

“It’s sad to see what happened to my older brother,” says Nora Gilson, who at the age of 60 harkens back to the watershed point when elementary school teachers gave up on phonics and turned to whole language instruction because they were tired of drumming syllable sounds into impressionable young heads.  “He learned to read, and now can’t watch television for thirty seconds without turning it off in disgust.”


“Listen, pal–if you pronounce it ‘ven-TIE’ one more time I’m throwing you outta here.”

The addictive power of phonics has led to an underground black market in “Hooked on Phonics” tapes, which phonics “junkies” use to “shoot up” in dark alleys so narrow that quotation marks are often scraped off of words that pass through them.  “It’s a real shibboleth,” says Armand St. Gregoire, a professor of linguistics the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk campus, referring to the word used to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites in Biblical times.  “A yuppie will walk into Starbucks and pronounce v-e-n-t-i as ‘VEN-tea’ because they know the culture while some homeless guy will say ‘ven-TIE’ and get thrown out of the place.”


“Will read your homeowner’s insurance policy for food.”

The scars that phonics leaves on its victims are worn as badges of pride by some, who point out that whole language learners are more likely to watch “The Bachelorette” or think Marcel Proust is a goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  “Sure I coulda been successful and spend all my time in airports and lobbies watching drivel on TV screens,” says a man in a green “snorkel” coat who identifies himself only as “Marty.”  “But then I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of making fun of the guys on SportsCenter.”

The Forgotten Career and Sad Death of Sonny Criss

If one picks up several rather compendious reference works on jazz in this, the more or less twelfth decade of the music’s existence, you will find no mention of William “Sonny” Criss.  These include John Chilton’s “Who’s Who of Jazz,” first published in 1972 and revised several times since, and Gary Giddins’ “Visions of Jazz: The First Century,” published in 1998.  A review of the collected writings of Whitney Balliett, who covered jazz for The New Yorker, from 1954 to 2000 turns up only two passing references to Criss.  It is as if he has been written out of the jazz history books in the manner of a de-canonized saint who’s been deleted from the hagiographies when his miracles turned out to be parlor tricks.


Sonny Criss, left, on alto sax.

 

But Criss was and is a figure of more than a little importance in the development of the alto sax, and his music remains a lyrical bridge between the sensuous tone of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time altoist, and Charlie Parker, who sacrificed tone to speed and forever changed the syntax of the alto with his pyrotechnic solos.

Criss was born in 1927, two decades after Hodges and seven years after Parker.  He grew up in Memphis, where he played after school with a fellow named “Shifty” Henry, whose life and work is now lost to recorded memory.  After finishing school in 1946, Criss played with (among others) Johnny Otis, the Greek-passing-for-black R&B pioneer, bop trumpeter Howard McGhee (sometimes with Parker), and jazz crooner Billy Eckstine.

His first break came in 1947 when he joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic touring company and gained exposure playing before fans who came to see better-known musicians.  He was hired by Stan Kenton, a popular white bandleader, for his West Coast “Jazz Showcase ’55,” and on the strength of these gigs had made enough of a name that he could form groups around himself as headliner.  He toured the U.S. with Buddy Rich, and began to record as leader for Imperial Records in 1956.


Blues for Flirting

 

In 1962 Criss made the fateful decision to move to Europe, where he stayed for three years; the move took him out of the jazz limelight in the U.S. at a time when his career could have taken off here.  When he returned to America he recorded three noteworthy albums for Imperial, a label better known for its R&B artists (including Fats Domino) and pop vocalists such as Ricky Nelson and yodeler Slim Whitman.  It is not clear that Imperial knew what to do with Criss; the album “go man!” features a pseudo-Beatnik white couple on the cover, and the liner notes recount how jazz “classics have been dolled up and presented so that the layman and even children can enjoy them.”  As Charlie Brown used to say, good grief.

Criss had a reputation among knowledgeable listeners as a player who honored tradition while at the same time expanding it.  He remained underrated–Balliett called him a “Charlie Parker offshoot” after hearing him at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival–and he began to fade from view as he recorded less frequently.  The market for jazz was shrinking, and Criss was out of date; his blues-tinged bop style had been rendered unfashionable by West Coast “cool” jazz, and then fellow Memphis native Charles Lloyd’s ethereal 1968 album “Forest Flower” appeared to deliver the final blow to bop and blues.

On November 19, 1977 Criss committed suicide, shooting himself.  The reason why he chose to end his life was unknown at first; he had begun to develop a career outside of music, teaching and working in social services, and his playing was as good as ever.  Moreover, a revival of classical jazz styles was underway at festivals and on record.  Things should have been looking up for him.

It wasn’t until 1988 that his mother revealed that Sonny had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1977.  “He kept still about it,” she said, “and worked for as long as he could.”

We are in his debt that he did.

 

Con Chapman’s biography “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. 

 

There’s Nothing Rougher Than a Genteel Crowd

It’s springtime, which means that across America, crowds are filling auditoriums with the sound of their voices, yelling loudly–sometimes angrily–as they watch young people crash into each other.  I’m not talking about the NBA Playoffs.  I’m referring to spring dance recitals.

I was introduced to the rough and tumble world of youth dance recitals nearly two decades ago, and yet the memory is still painful.  My wife, who taught introductory ballet, thought it might be fun if I brought our two sons to watch the end-of-season extravaganza, in which children (mainly girls) dress up and dance to songs from Disney movies.  Thematic unity among music, costumes and dance is not required, nor even encouraged.

At the last minute my wife asked if we would change seats with a woman whose failing vision made it difficult for her to see the stage.  As we stood up to do so the lights went down, causing momentary disorientation as our eyes adjusted to the dark.  We moved hesitantly up the aisle and across a row of seats, and as the curtain went up we heard the tender expression of a mother’s love.

“Sit down, fer Christ sake!” a woman yelled at us, her video camera rolling.

“Get out of the way, you idiot!” another screamed.

I don’t want to sound judgmental, but the crowd at a Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight I once attended seemed decorous by contrast.


“No way.  I ain’t goin’ to no youth dance recital.”

 

The incident recalled another encounter with the madness of genteel crowds I experienced at a recital by Gustav Leonhardt, world-renowned keyboard player, at Harvard.  Leonhardt was to perform on a specially re-constructed 18th century harpsichord, but it was a cold night and the heating system in the concert hall–only slightly newer than the harpsichord–wasn’t working well.  Leonhardt came out and announced that he was sorry but the cold temperature made the instrument unplayable and he would perform instead on a modern instrument.


Gustav Leonhardt:  “Why don’t you come up here and say that, punk?”

 

A fellow came in after this announcement and sat listening for a while, growing more agitated by the moment.  Finally, after Leonhardt had performed three pieces on the newer keyboard, the man stood up and yelled “PLAY THE F _ _ KING CLAVICHORD!”  Then, to everyone’s relief, he stormed out.

boston1
Classical music fight, Boston Pops

 

And I’m sure you recall the incident in 2007 when a fight broke out between two well-dressed audience members at a Boston Pops concert.  It seems one guy was talking and another guy asked him to please be quiet.  Let me tell you, at a classical music performance, them’s fighting words.


“Fer christ sake–this ain’t the goddamn Symphony!”

 

I don’t know what it is that makes crowds at hoity-toity events lose their cool, but I have a theory.  It’s all the excuse-me-pardon-me-oh-I’m-so-sorry sheen they put on their personalities when they get all dolled up to go out.  Unlike spectators at, say, a Boston Bruins game, among whom it is considered the height of pretension to tuck in one’s jersey.  The more refined the spectators, the more easily they snap.  Fans at baseball games may yell “Kill the umpire!”, but this is a critical judgment, not a call to arms.

Maybe if classical concert-goers would let go with a “Kill the conductor!” every now and then, we could all listen to the effing clavichord in peace.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: It’s So Much More Fun Being Vulgar.”

Ode to a Bespectacled Optometrist Maiden

Dorothy Parker, just for a lark,
wrote a poem we remember
for what’s now called “snark”:

“Men seldom make passes
at girls who wear glasses,”

rings down through the years
and one guesses its laughter is watered with tears.

Back in the day before contact lenses,
return with me now as her amanuensis
to tell you the tale of an optometrist
whose practice precluded all romantic trysts.

She could hardly tell people that eyewear’s a problem;
she’d lose all her patients as soon as she’d got them.

So she wore her glasses wherever she went;
she thus had no luck with unattached gents,

and therefore she suffered as Parker foreshadowed;
her first beau said “no,” and the rest all said “ditto.”

But I liked the look retro–
the sturdy black glasses
you saw on the metro
on avant-garde lasses.

It adds one more layer
For one to remove
After spending the day
Viewing nudes at the Louvre.

Horn-rimmed specs on
The bridge of the nose
Is the nasal version
Of legs with hose;

The greater the number of impediments
The hotter the erotic sentiments–
Nature creates romantic suction
By fences and snares to a woman’s seduction.

So when to her office I went for a check up
the hottest part of her was straight from her neck up.

I sat in her chair and I read rows of letters
The sizes got smaller–I didn’t get better.
She checked me for pink eye, and also glaucoma
I hoped she’d ignore my cheese pizza aroma.

My passions rose higher as she wrote my prescription
I lusted in ways that would beggar description.

I couldn’t let go— I needed her badly
So stalling for time I said to her madly:

“Please make sure that you have all the facts—
You haven’t run tests yet to find cataracts;
Or the dreaded curse of a detached retina—
In one of my two eyes, I’ve got one, I’ll bet ya.”

She leaned over on me, the better to see stuff;
’twas now or never To devour this cream puff.

I hugged her so tightly
Time entered suspension;
I came to myself
And she asked my intentions.

“I don’t care if your glasses
Are Coke bottle bottoms
Leave the things on,
as long as you’ve got ‘em.
Remove, if you would,
all your other accoutrements
Your harlequin frames
are a romantic nutriment.

“And then when you’re nekkid,
Except for your specs,
We’ll have wild if blurry
Astigmatist sex.”

Moral:  You never know what will turn a guy on.

From “The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head (and Other Wayward Women)” available in Kindle and print format on amazon.com.

My Chequered Career With Older Women

In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to leave home yet. I was full of myself and thought I could handle the wider world that my older siblings had set out to see before me.

But I soon found myself lost, adrift, not knowing how to deal with the many slings and arrows that come flying at you once you set out to make it on your own. I retreated within myself, and became sullen, moody, withdrawn.


“Yer damn right I gargled in the boys’ room!”

 

I could often be found sitting alone, looking longingly at those who had the self-confidence I lacked. As they went about their business while I was frozen by fear, I turned first to innocent mischief–gargling loudly in the restroom–and then to actual vandalism, acting out my frustrations, my inability to cope, through destructive behavior.

And so it was that I found myself looking furtively about a crowded room as I surreptititously executed a particularly nasty bit of sabotage. Margaret–she wouldn’t deign to be called “Maggie” or “Meg” or “Peg” or “Margie,” she was so mature–approached with a reserved and austere manner and sat down next to me. “I know what you’re doing,” she said as she put her hand on my forearm. She and I looked down together at my fingers–covered with paste that I was smearing under the rim of the table as a trap for unwary kindergarteners when they sat down to work on their arts and crafts projects. “You don’t need to do that to impress me.”


*sniff* How I envied them!

 

Thus it was through the ministrations of an older woman–she was 4, I was a precocious “early admit” to Miss Swopes’ Kindergarden at the age of 3–that I was diverted from a life of crime to the semi-productive path of 2 years of pre-school, 8 years of grade school, 4 each of high school and college and 3 of grad school that have made me the man I am today.

.caril
Caril Ann Fugate

 

I can only look back and wonder–what would have happened if I had been the elder of the two of us; what if I had played the 18-year-old thrill-killer Charlie Starkweather to her 13-year-old Caril Ann Fugate–adjusted downwards in years? Would I have infused her with my growing sense of nihilism, touched her arm and drawn it tenderly to my paste jar; dipped her fingers in; then spread them . . . slowly, sensuously . . . under the table, implicating her in my crime.


“Yes I spread paste under that table–and I’d do it agin!”

 

There’s no point in asking, the question answers itself. And so I say, thank God for older women.

Margaret was the first, but she wasn’t the only one. There was 16-year-old Connie, who looked out the rear view mirror of her canary yellow 1967 Plymouth Barracuda and made a gesture so arresting it shocked me at the tender age of 15, and it resonates to this day; her tongue between two fingers, communicating wordlessly to me her favorite form of erotic play. Don’t make me cut and paste a Google image in violation of federal copyright laws and my firm’s Dignity-in-the-Workplace policy–use your imagination, like Barney the Purple Dinosaur!

Of course my career with older women hasn’t been an unbroken string of successes, not by a long shot.  There was the woman with the dirty blonde hair who disabused me of my retrograde thinking on the War in Vietnam.  Most kids were studiously ignoring the escalating conflict, but I’d learned that Vietnamese Catholics were being repressed by the Commies, just like the early Christians in Rome.  I mean, they weren’t thrown to lions, but they would soon be ground beneath the heel of the godless Viet Cong, and so our young, handsome, philandering President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to occupy the highest office in the land, had to take a stand.  The woman–I can’t use her name for fear of retribution even after all these years, but her initials were Carolyn Willard–would remember my reactionary views when I called her up several summers later when she was a college sophomore back in town for summer vacation.  “I don’t think so,” she said icily when I asked her out.  “Your politics are like your complexion–immature.”

I have learned so much from older women. There was Arlene Rosenberg, who taught me the hair-splitting differences between the principles of Revolutionary Youth Movement I and Revolutionary Youth Movement II back in the heady days of 70’s college radicalism. I didn’t know a Bolshevik from a Menshevik then, but Arlene–the spit and image of Emma Goldman–set me straight.


Emma Goldman: Cute–in a revolutionary sort of way.

 

We never made it, Arlene and me; she was 19 and I, just 17 years old, still riding the wave of precocity that I’d climbed aboard when I jump-started my education at the age of 3. Besides, it would have been embarrassing, she was my college roommate’s sister. Somehow it seemed . . . incestuous. And anyway, she was too busy spreading free love all over the South Side of Chicago in the name of revolution.

But still, she taught me, in the way that older women do, the things that younger men need to know. Trotsky was a traitor to the revolution, don’t mix kosher and trayfe, you can take the same course twice taught by different professors, get a better grade the second time and no one will ever know.

I like to think I taught her–and all of the older women in my life–a little something too.

Men your age are immature enough–why do you want to make things worse for yourself by dating somebody younger?