Archive for January, 2022

Stuff and Nonsense

You ever wonder who comes up with product names? I mean, are there actually people who spend their entire lives naming car brands and models (“Infiniti,” “Lucid,” “Explorer”), or rattletrap RVs made of welded tin cans ( “Bounder,” “King Aire,” “Cornerstone”), or – worst of all – paint colors… there is actually a shade of paint labelled “Putty.” Who in their ever-lovin mind would want a living room painted “Putty”?
Well, I thought this last category should be made more verbally and visually accessible, so here are some color entries I’ve come up with:
Snot Green
Balls Blue
Trotsky Red
William-of Orange
Pestilent Purple
Privileged White
Fairly Pleasant Ochre
Resplendent Beige
Murk Gray
Widows Black
Mood Indigo
Spineless Yellow
* * * *
Songs of the African Coast: Cafe Music of Liberia
Never heard of this CD? Not surprising; I hadn’t until a couple ago, when I came across it after years of wondering where Dave Van Ronk’s had picked up his charmingly weird tune, “Chicken Is Nice with Palm Butter and Rice.”
(By the way, what’s the most captivating piece Van Ronk ever recorded? See * below, attached. And what’s his most uproarious take on the absurdities so often entrenched in traditional tunes? See ** below.)
I don’t know what I’d assumed about “Chicken Is Nice,” but certainly not that it came out of a Liberian café recording from the late 1940s, featuring “Professor” Howard B. Hayes and the Greenwood Singers.
On first listen, this café set is disorienting, pitting the man-woman emotional trials of the songs themselves against the obvious joy that these particular men and women have from singing together.
The first tine I heard “All Fo’ You,” it scared the crap out of me. Here’s a woman singing she will put up with anything from her lover – including having her throat cut!
But you soon come to sense a galloping mix of satire, horsing around with stereotypical sexual complaints, and taking emotional entanglement to the extreme for black-comic effect. (And “All Fo’ You” is really in much the same uncomfortable vein as Billie Holiday’s take on “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”)
In the opposite direction – playing with gender differences through gentle nods and winks – the Greenwoods “Woman Sweeter Than Man” reminds me of Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” from his Calypso album. And who can fail to smile at “Marry Me and Close the Door”?
In “Bush Cow Milk,” the male singer is asked by his true love to milk a bush cow for her liquid enjoyment, leading him to list hilarious limiting conditions before he will comply. Milk a cow – how big a deal can that be? Then I looked up “bush cow”—it’s a fucking buffalo! I’d rather not, thank you.
Whether because Liberia was established as a home for freed American slaves, or as a consequence of the linguistic blending during World War II (likely both), many of the songs are sung in English. Still, it may seem surprising to hear this in a local hangout.
While in college around 1960, I was a delighted proponent of Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, seeing it as a stunning example of the best in then current African music. But one of the staffers on the Penn newspaper, who had spent time in West Africa, brushed it off: “That’s not what they actually listen to over there.”
Instead, he turned me on to an album then called Gold Coast Saturday Night (since reissued with other titles), featuring Saka Acquaye and His African Ensemble. It’s a whole different experience from Olatunji, partly in English and closer to the Liberian café, but all of these albums are equally engrossing: “world music” well before anyone coined the term.
* * * *
A few short bits
6’ 2”, blonde, elegant, walks with the confidence of a woman who could have whatever she wants but, instead, has the good sense to want what she has. She rides a Vespa.
Anastasia is our insurance agent. How do such things happen?

In our geometry class in my Catholic grade school, we pasted little stickers on outline maps to identify an area’s major products. No matter what sector of the world we were covering, there was always a sticker for “flax” to be glued somewhere (in Europe, it was slapped on Belgium).
The tiny black-and-white sketch suggested a bound bunch of upright plant stuff. I had no idea what flax was or what you could do with it, yet (presumably) it grew and was harvested all the hell over the place. Now, enlightened, I know that it is and was (with a great deal of hand labor in the olden days) converted into excellent linen dish towels.
Way to go, Flax!

Proper Recognition Department:
Remember, please, always to refer correctly to a certain pseudo-journalist as Fucker Carlson.

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The end of holidays

Growing up, Christmas and its attendant effervescence were all-consuming. We had no colored lights, inside or out – maybe we couldn’t afford them, maybe they didn’t fit into some restrained tradition I was unaware of. (I was unaware of most things those days.) I missed those lights as we tooled around the Philly suburbs looking at the wonderful grotesqueries of illumination at so many houses. 

But inside, throughout our downstairs, we set up waves of decoration, mostly thin ropes of dark red crepe paper with little silver foil-on-papier bells at the ends. These wound around stair banisters and hung in wild swoops across the walls.

Absent lights, the tree hung heavy with fragile colored glass ornaments – cheap and inelegant in retrospect, but overwhelming in quantity and so distinctly ours. Under the tree we set out the accumulated wealth of miniature metal animals and citizens my mother continually collected from England.

Vic, 12  years my elder brother, had been the holiday decorator for many years. When he left to join the merchant marine, I took over and, I must confess, set to outdo him. And did. The farm miniatures expanded to cover not only the long “library table” that held the tree, but later (as I foggily remember) onto the coffee table.

So that was my Christmas as a child – devoid of any obvious religion. I loved most of the standard carols (except “Silent Night,” never could stand that drippy creak of sound), but had no idea what they were really about. Sex was never – never – mentioned in our house. I had no concept of it, so I saw Mary as a “virgin” as something peculiar to the bible, an indefinite  word that did not live outside its 2000-year-old pages. Likewise, a “manger” – some kind of box or whatnot kept in stables in those days.

After I was entrapped into Catholic school, I joined the church choir and loved singing the Gregorian Chant at Christmas midnight mass. But though we sang in Latin, I understood the barest smidgeon of it. To me, “Gloria in excelsis deo” proclaimed that a a “deo” was the kind of barn where Jesus was born, belonging to one Excelsi – a good and caring farmer.

When my elder daughters, Morgan and Erin, were wee kids, I constructed all sorts of elaborate Christmas presents – playhouses with interlocking roof and walls, reversible plywood seats (taken from patterns in the back of Woman’s Day magazine – a remarkably good source for such stuff in the ’70s), things I could make over weeks that Julie and I could never afford to buy. Along the way, we did buy tree lights – ones that blinked individually in no rhythm; I would lie for hours on the darkened living room floor, watching, close to ecstasy. 

As that first marriage tumbled, my Christmas slowly moved to eldest brother Rod’s house in Rose Valley, PA, where he always strove (and succeeded) in cramming the largest possible tree into the ancient mill-hand living room. There, in my 30s, I first heard Schutz’s “Christmas Story,” broadcast in the wee hours on public radio, while I lay strung back on dexedrine tablets filched from his medicine cabinet (dex was a legal weight-loss pill back then). 

Christmas dinner at Rod and Ginny’s has become the lasting family tradition since those days, a half century of quietly roisterous meals that now involve Linda and me, our kids, and their attendant interests. Rod is almost 12 years fled to the afterlife, their only child, Roddy, is almost 20 years dead, Ginny has lost much of her hearing, while the rest of us have scattered here and there and (in some cases) back again – the dinners swap personnel depending on availability.

Dinner is preceded by quiet chat and as much cheese as we can stuff down in two hours. It’s a happy gathering, cut short, of course, the last couple years by pandemic concerns. But with Rod and, especially, Roddy (the best mimic and jokester I’ve ever known) gone, the core, to me, is empty. I feel like a stuffed figure in the rocker I usually choose while wolfing the cheese, less a being than an emblem.

Tomorrow our tiny tree reverts to being the Norfolk Island pine on the bathroom windowsill, and I go back to hoping it doesn’t snow as godawful much as last year.

I’m not sure what I’m a part of, what I may have lost or gained in the years of transition (everything is continually in transition). But here I am, and much (most) of my life is better than it ever was. On the days when I can’t give three cheers, I give two hearty ones, without reservation.

Sooo…the best to all of you, whatever that best may be.

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