Friday, July 15, 2005

Good word

"The premise of rhetoric is an audience ignorant of its practices."

--Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms
The master's last words

I've already written about songs that make me cry. I'm not sure what this is about. Much of the time I can be stolid, even dour, but then I hear a silly song like Blossom Dearie's "Rhode Island Is Famous For You," and I lose it.

Which brings me to today's entry. Wednesday I was in Chicago for some business, and as I headed home in the afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, I flipped through the radio stations. Presently I came to Radio Disney, one of my guilty pleasures from way back: in Chicago as elsewhere, the Disney company broadcasts children's songs and light pop on an AM station, and intersperses the tunes with the chattering of announcers and gleeful kids. I don't know why I love this, but I do.

But what was this song? It had thumping bass, pulsing synthesizers and a disco beat, which combined for an effect much like that of "We Like to Party" by the Vengaboys. But it had something else: loony scatting sped up to chipmunk speed. Or, more properly, hamster speed: it was "The Hampsterdance Song," a club hit from a few years back that was inspired by a maddeningly insistent web site.

I was already vaguely aware of the tune, but as I listened closely I was reminded that there is more to this song than a Eurodisco groove: the sped-up scatting is unmistakably that of Roger Miller, the Nashville tunesmith and singer responsible, in the 1960s, for modern masterpieces like "King of the Road" and "Dang Me." I have long loved Miller, and his songwriting sensibility is the exemplar I strive to imitate in my own tunesmithery: a little funny, a little silly and, when it needs to be, devastatingly sad. (All those qualities are present in my favorite Miller hook, perhaps my favorite songwriting hook of all time: "The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.")

But although Miller's songwriting skills are rightly celebrated, you don't always hear about his singing. Which is not right: he was one of Nashville's most inventive vocalists, a singer whose solid baritone crooning could, without warning, give way to whistling, shrieking, barking and goofy yelping.

And above all, there was his scatting. We mostly associate scat with jazz and vocalese singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Jon Hendricks, but Miller was one of the few country singers to explore the style. Unlike jazz singers, Miller didn't use scat for extended improvising; instead he punched up his tunes with brief, inimitable scatted interludes. It's great stuff, and the sped-up snippet of Miller's scatting kicks "The Hampsterdance" over the top, at least to these ears. (The scatted passage in the tune is from the Miller song "Whistle Stop," which was on the soundtrack of Disney's 1973 Robin Hood movie.)

In the car on Wednesday, "The Hampsterdance" caught me by surprise, and I wept a little as I reflected on Miller, and his marvelous writing and singing, and the long, slow decline of his career after his "King of the Road" heyday. But although some Miller aficionados might disagree, I think "Hampsterdance" is a fine coda to that career: an effervescent pop trifle that perfectly recalls the whimsy he poured into his sublime novelty songs, tunes like "Do-Wacka-Do" and "Squares Make the World Go Round."

Of course, novelty songs were only part of the winning Miller formula; the rest was despair. But sensitive people like me can only take so much despair.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Be good to your mother

Reading about yesterday's memorial service for Gaylord Nelson made me glad the old guy was around. I confess that until earlier this year I didn't know much about him--I didn't know that a Wisconsin governor and senator founded Earth Day, a holiday that I have chiefly associated with the time a woman I dated in college injured her back when she fell off a large, inflatable Earth.

But I learned about Nelson and Earth Day last spring, when I took a group of kids to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point. Much of the exhibit space there is given over to Nelson, and he naturally is a member of the hall of fame, too. Now I'm a reasonably environmentally conscious guy anyway, but that visit made me think about conservation in new ways, and this past Earth Day, I felt newly wistful and grateful and sad about good old Earth.

I felt especially sad about the environmental policies of George W. Bush, who in the opening weeks of his presidency reversed a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; and the outrages have only mounted from there. The night before last I saw the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and I was horrified to be reminded that Ken Lay's name was batted around as a possible Secretary of Energy in the Bush Administration. What sort of environmental stewardship do you suppose Lay would have overseen?

Adieu, Gaylord Nelson, and thanks for the holiday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Let's go to the phones

You oughta know that on Thursday I'll make my AM radio debut as a guest on the new talk show hosted by Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz. We will be taking calls, so if there's anything you'd like to ask me--who'll stop the rain, where's my fucking forty bucks--this will be your opportunity. Here's the press release:


Date: Monday, July 11, 2005
Contact: George Twigg, 608-266-4611

“On the Air with Mayor Dave” Premieres Thursday on WIBA

Madison – Mayor Dave Cieslewicz will kick off the premiere of his new radio program, “On the Air with Mayor Dave”, this week on WIBA (AM 1310). The bi-monthly program will air live this Thursday from 6:00 – 7:00 pm. The program will feature a varied mix of guests from the worlds of politics, the arts and other areas. Listeners will be invited to call in and give their views on the issues being discussed.

“This program is going to be a great opportunity to talk directly with the people of Madison about the issues of the day,” said Cieslewicz. “I plan to regularly bring together guests from opposite ends of the political spectrum and look for common ground. But my program won’t all be politics and policy. I’ll also be inviting on guests to explore the ‘lighter side’ of Madison.”

This week’s program includes two segments. The first segment will feature a discussion of Madison politics with Ald. Austin King and a representative of the newly-formed Commonsense Coalition. The second segment will be a discussion of Madison arts, food and culture with Isthmus writer Kenneth Burns.

“After hearing Mayor Dave fill in for Mitch Henck, I knew he was a natural,” said Tim Scott, Program Director at WIBA AM. “Here’s a chance for the people of Madison to speak to and hear directly from the man in charge.”