Friday, December 06, 2002

Scanning the Associated Press headlines on just now, I encountered this striking juxtaposition:

Streisand: 'This kid Eminem is really interesting'

Vatican says gay priests unsuitable

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

"I forgot to remember to forget." --Willie Nelson

The point of this blog is to tell you about something that made me sad earlier today, but that something will make more sense if I first talk about the craft of songwriting a moment, and I need to tell you an anecdote from childhood, too. So bear with me.

I seem to remember every song I ever heard. I'm not always happy with this skill, and sometimes it seems like a curse. Just ask Ereck what it's like to live with someone liable at any moment to burst into the TV jingle for Pac-Man Cereal.

However, I'm much more likely to remember songs with strong hooks, which is why I seem particularly to recall jingles--they're designed to get in your brain.

Which brings up the matter of hooks. I'll skip the esoteric songwriting theory and instead just point out that hooks--those memorable, repeated phrases of words or musical notes--are what make us remember songs. Also, while a given song can have more than one hooky element, we sometimes speak of a song's primary hook--or, The Hook.

Often, the song's hook is the title, as in (to name the first example that sprang to mind), the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." Other times, a song has a strong lyrical hook that's not the title, as in Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35," which you'd swear for all the world was called "Everybody Must Get Stoned." (Once I saw a hapless contestant on Rock & Roll Jeopardy fall for this; host Jeff Probst could barely hide his contempt.)

Still other times, the hook is some instrumental riff--for example, the funky synthesizer line in Gary Numan's "Cars," or, to turn again to the Beatles, George Harrison's sitar line in "Norwegian Wood." However, the instrumental hook is an economically chancy thing, it seems to me, since one reason lyrical hooks are valuable is that you can identify a song based on very little information, if you sing the hook to a friend or a record-store clerk. Trying to reproduce an instrumental hook is bound to be less successful; words out of context seem easier to recognize than musical notes.

Which brings me to the next part: our carpool growing up. We carpooled with some neighbor kids in their giant custom van, and this family liked to listen to Top 40 radio in the car. (Yes, it was still called Top 40 radio, even then--this would be the late 1970s.) I still vividly remember many of the songs we heard on that radio, and I daresay this was my earliest regular exposure to hits music. One of the songs I remembered, though, had only an instrumental hook--a big saxophone line. No lyrical hook. For twenty years I wondered what this song was. Finally, about two years ago, I identified it: Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." If you know the song, you can understand why it didn't fully register with me in 1979: it's not such a great song. But I was glad finally to have identified it. In fact, it was an enormous relief.

But there's one other category of hook I wanted to mention: the absence of hook. That is, some songs have no discernable lyrical or instrumental hook, but we remember them anyway. The best example probably is "Unchained Melody": the title definitely is not the hook; that phrase isn't even in the lyric. But the refrain, such as it is ("Oh my love, my darling...") is not particularly memorable. Probably the best clue to what makes us remember the song is in the title itself: the melody of "Unchained Melody" is unmistakable.

But this in turn brings up yet another carpool song, one that also has no discernable hook, just a line that stuck in my head from some unknowable date in the Carter administration until last week. The line: "It's the promise of spring." That and a three-note melody haunted me for more than twenty years.

The song, it turns out, is by Antonio Carlos Jobim, of "Girl From Ipanema" fame, and its title is "Waters Of March." Based on my researches, I suspect the version we heard in the car was Art Garfunkle's.

But what happened last week was that I went to see Comedian, the documentary about Jerry Seinfeld. At the end of the film, the credits rolled, and what did I hear over the credits: that three-note melody--and then, the line: "It's the promise of spring."

I felt--it's hard to describe how I felt. My childhood memories are so tenuous that's it's striking, almost incapacitating, to encounter in adulthood something I remember as vividly as I do that song, and the circumstances under which I heard it. The song has a confusing lyric, a string of seemingly unrelated images, and I remember that the carpool kids and I exchanged puzzled looks about it before we dismissed it entirely. Maybe this carpool memory stays with me because I often loathed the carpool: sometimes the neighbor kids weren't so nice.

Regardless, this chance encounter with the past was only the first surprise.

Today, I went to the illicit file-trading service WinMX to settle the matter. Turns out "Waters Of March" has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to David Byrne. I counted about twenty versions, but the first one I downloaded, by Susannah McCorkle, was the one from the movie. It's killer; absolutely breathtaking.

Naturally, I looked up Susanna McCorkle, and then came the second surprise: she's that cabaret singer from New York who threw herself off a balcony last year. I remember being moved by her obituary when it ran in the New York Times: she was well established in the New York cabaret scene, but her relationship with her record company was souring, and she'd lost her eleven-year gig at the city's preeminent cabaret venue. That, plus the clinical depression for which she took medication only sporadically, led to her untimely end.

Why does this story move me? First of all, I know what it's like to have a passion for music, and to get enough of a taste of success in it to want to try to make a life of it. And truth be told, I've also had a taste of despair, though not a despair nearly as dire as Susannah's; and fortunately, I seem to be on the mend.

But when I learned more about Susannah's story today, what was already a beautiful song became really upsetting, sublimely so. I've listened to it probably a dozen times today. (What is it about sad songs that makes me punish myself by listening to them over and over? I wrote a song about this, "Warning: Country Music.")

It's weird that two things that moved me at very different times in my life--"Waters Of March" twenty years ago, and the death of Susannah McCorkle the May before last--came together in one coincidental moment. At a Jerry Seinfeld movie.

Incidentally, I was puzzled at first as to why the movie producers used the song in the end credits. The song's sort of about everything and nothing, almost a nonsense song. It struck me, though: the movie's about people trying to make it in a particularly competitive and unprofitable aspect of New York entertainment--stand-up comedy--just as Susannah tried to make it in another competitive, unprofitable market, cabaret. I think the producers were paying tribute to Susannah, a show-business casualty. Another one.

At any rate, here, in violation of all copyright laws, is the song. I hope you listen to it. Remember Susannah as you do.

Monday, December 02, 2002

I read with interest this letter in today's e-mail dispatch from the Daily Cardinal, one of the University of Wisconsin newspapers:

To The Editor:

I know parking is horrible on campus, and there is a need for parking enforcement--but these guys have gone way too far. I live across the street from the Islamic center on Orchard street, and many cars were parked in a "private property" parking lot where the Budget Bicycle Center is. Sadly, there was a funeral in progress and they were wheeling out a coffin to the coffin car [

And who is there handing out parking tickets to about 70 mourning people? Madison Parking Enforcement.

They had no sympathy or regard for these people, and even handed out tickets to crying people who were getting into their cars to head out to the funeral procession. Hey Madison Parking Enforcement, I hope you have a nice time roasting to a nice crisp in Hell.

Richard Yu
UW-Madison junior

I too have felt the blunt end of Madison Parking Enforcement. Madison is one of those few cities lucky enough not to have much crime, so the authorities have plenty of resources for parking enforcement. Which is fine. Laws are laws.

But the parking enforcement people are really compulsive, alarmingly compulsive. They always, always, always ticket. They scrutinize. They lecture. They stake out. And, after they ticket, they mail a letter to the unlucky motorist. They know exactly where we are.

This surprised me, coming from Chicago, where the state apparatus's parking tactics are rather less intimidating, probably because the city bureaucracy is too inept or corrupt to muster a lot of aggression. (I blush to report that I took a casual attitude toward paying parking tickets in Chicago: I paid the ones I thought I really deserved.)

This said, I also have discovered what happens if I blow off Madison parking tickets: they suspend my registration. Ouch. Needless to say, I've paid all my parking tickets and learned to park on the right side of the street. The way the authorities like it. Nice and orderly.

But I'm not surprised to learn the city was ticketing mourners. Which brings to mind an old joke, one I'll paraphrase: What's the difference between a Madison wedding and a Madison funeral? One less car to park.