Thursday, June 30, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Greed


"To throw five thousand dollars out of the window--to stuff it into the pockets of someone else, when it might have been yours, when you might have had Trina AND the money--and all for what?"


Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger.
Richard Thompson, Money, Money, Money.
Barrett Strong, Money (That's What I Want).
The O'Jays, For the Love of Money.
Dinah Washington, Richest Guy in the Graveyard.
The Contours, First I Look at the Purse.
Cyndi Lauper, Money Changes Everything.


We're leaving behind the crumb-strewn couch, the rumpled post-coital bed, and going out into the larger world of sin. Greed, avarice, covetousness is by neccessity a more public sin, by culture a more acceptable sin--you could say it is our national sin, one that has been with us since our inception, sitting in the back rows of the first meeting house in Plymouth, picking its teeth.

How do you define greed? An inordinate love of money and material things, and the dedication of one's life to their pursuit? Or simply having or wanting anything more than "what is required to keep your back straight", as Muhammad says? Greed, according to Saint Boniface, was born out of the bowels of the serpent that tempted Eve. In Prudentius' Psychomachia, a 4th Century poem that is a sort of allegorical Olympic games between the vices and virtues, avaritia wanders the field after the battle is over, picking up jewels and scraps from the fallen bodies.

In Edmund Spenser's roll-call of the seven sins, Avarice rides a camel "loaden all with gold", while Avarice himself wears threadbare clothes and is near-starved to death, having refused to spend a cent on his person that could instead be put into his iron coffers.



More modern incarnations of greed have a bit more style. Auric Goldfinger, in Ian Fleming's novel, always carries a million dollars in gold with him, sometimes in a belt of gold coins, other times in thin sheets in the bottom of his suitcase. The first time James Bond encounters him, Goldfinger is almost naked (sporting just a "yellow satin bikini slip" and "some wide tan wings under his chin"). Goldfinger, who "seems to be put together with bits of other people's bodies," fascinates Bond ("Into what channels did Goldfinger release his vital force?") When Bond finds Goldfinger's mistress (who soon will meet a gruesome fate of being varnished to death), she fills Bond in:

"It's a sort of mania with him, making money...all he says is that one's a fool not to make money when the odds are right...(and) when the odds aren't right, make them right." (Here is the title song of the 1964 film, probably the quintessential Bond movie, if not the best. On Shirley Bassey: Greatest Hits.)



Greed has a swagger to it, a sense of righteousness. Where lust or gluttony can be seen as a communal sin, greed is an individual's prerogative, a way of settling scores.

And greed can be easily justified. If there already are so many rich in the world, why shouldn't you be one of them? Why should you be the one who is moderate, why should you be the one who deprives yourself? Take "Money Money Money," originally recorded by Abba. Richard Thompson's version (from his legendary "1000 Years of Popular Music" shows, CD available here; tour dates here) brings out the venom in the lyric. "There's so much I could do," he sings. "If I had a little money."

Or, in an even more blunt statement, there's "Money (That's What I Want)", Barrett Strong's 1959 hit that put Motown Records on the map (On the great set Hitsville USA, and written by Berry Gordy, who put the song's sentiments into practice in a big way). At the song's end, Strong says "I wanna be free!", a wish that John Lennon, in the Beatles' ferocious cover four years later, turns into a threat. In both cases, the only way the singer feels he can be free is by getting paid in full, and maybe he's right (Lennon only started singing about having no possessions when he was a millionaire several times over).

Filling up



One constant throughout the world's religions is the belief that greed is at the core of human failings, from the Visuddhimagga ("Greed is the real dirt, not dust") to the Tao Teh Ching ("there is no greater calamity than indulging in greed") to the concept in Judiasm of yetzer hara, the constant drive to acquire more things. (Much more in Phyllis Tickle's essay on greed, from which these quotes come.)



And Christianity, in its first days, considered greed and acquisitiveness some of its greatest enemies. Here's JC himself: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal". Or: "How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Or "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."

(This fervor against wealth seems to have cooled a bit, no? It is interesting that while some parse the Bible to find bits of verse to justify, say, why gays can't marry, on the subject of greed and wealth, about which the New Testament is crystal clear, this type of detective work and righteous wrath is fairly absent. Fanatics protest gay funerals, but no one pickets a millionaire's wake.)

A contemporary sermon on greed, one blessed with Anthony Jackson's killer bass line, is 1974's "For the Love of Money", in which the O'Jays scourge our greed-infested world like a trio of souful Jeremiahs. On Love Train. The song is now best known as the theme to a game show in which ambitious young people grovel for position before a crude rich blowhard.

On the cheap



The extravagant greed of a Goldfinger, even an L. Dennis Kozlowski (pictured above in his happier days as a pseudo-Roman emperor, spending stolen money to host a $2 million party in Sardinia), are exceptions. Mainly, greed operates in petty ways. Take the manager of a local supermarket, or a commodities trader, or a town selectman. Perhaps they don't think they're getting paid their worth--and maybe they do work harder than their better-paid colleagues. And they look ahead and see nothing but drudgery. So one Friday night, the manager pockets a couple hundreds from the till; the selectman takes an envelope full of cash from a property developer; the trader makes up a phony deal and takes a chunk of the profits. And they all get away with it.



At this point, the rational mind would think they'd stop and count their blessings. But that's not how it works, as anyone with a stake up at a roulette wheel can tell you. It's the calm whisper of greed--you think, it worked once, why not again? And I need just a bit more. And you do get away with it again, and again, But the phony trades pile up, the thefts grow bolder, the bribes increase--until the end comes. Because you always get caught--your own greed will start to crimp the greed of those more powerful than you.

Still, the allure of greed, the idea that it is a liberating, natural force, continues to seduce us. The most precise argument is made by Michael Douglas' character Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street: the infamous "Greed is good" speech, which has become a cheap cliche used in 1980s TV retrospectives. (Gekko is by far the only thing of interest in Wall Street; how I wish the film would have just centered on Douglas' character and ditched the boring 'Charlie Sheen makes good' plotline.)

But Gekko is right. Greed does clarify, it does inspire--the computer that this is written on, the music itself--all were built or made by people looking to make a buck. As Paul McCartney would say, talking of writing legendary Beatles songs, "John and I would say, 'let's write a swimming pool."

Spend it!



We're all guilty of greed in its some of its myriad forms (any time I look at this page, for example, avarice overtakes me like a hot fever). The economy runs on a healthy amount of communal greed--currently, the U.S. housing market is benefiting from it, much like profitless Internet companies did in the 1990s.

(just before the tech stock market collapsed, there was an MTV game show (around '99) in which the winners were awarded "E-Trade" dollars, which should have been a sign to anyone that the game had gotten out of control; it reminds me of the story about JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, who sold all his stocks just before the Great Depression because his shoeshine boy started giving him stock tips).

And stockpiling wealth isn't any better. The moralists would say that as the anorexic is a form of glutton, so is the miser a practitioner of greed. Here's Dinah Washington's advice to skinflints, 1949's "Richest Guy in the Graveyard", a variation on the old adage of 'you can't take it with you'. Dinah's pretty blunt in her assessment of the fellow, though: "you'd be the biggest jerk/to ever go to work" (songwriter Leonard Feather was no Cole Porter, to put it mildly). The guy's a lost cause though--Dinah really just wants her name on his last will and testament. On The Queen Sings.



We don't pull the strings

Greed seeps in everywhere, like rainwater during a thunderstorm, and it is as great a factor in human relationships as lust, though perhaps we don't like to admit it.

A few songs spell it out, though. In The Contours' "First I Look at the Purse", a minor Motown hit from 1965, the singer just wants to be a gigolo, and the purity of his greed makes him strangely appealing, as he's not going to let physical appearances get in the way. He snorts at his friends pining over pretty girls--"Why waste time lookin' at the waistline?" (Also on Hitsville.)

Then there's "Money Changes Everything." It was originally recorded in 1978 by the Brains, and their version is a fine, biting song. But Cyndi Lauper's take, from 1983, is something else. (On She's So Unusual). Rather than recasting the lyric so that she's the one getting dumped (like the Brains' singer was), and winning the listener's sympathy, Lauper takes on the voice of the woman selling herself out.

In a restaurant, a man is waiting at a table--his girlfriend is late, and she sounded odd on the phone. At last she comes in and won't make eye contact for a minute, then sits back and hits him with it. She's done, she's leaving him, the new guy is actually parked outside waiting for this to be over with. He's stunned. He had no clue. "How can you do this?" he stammers. Remember the pledges we made, the love letters, the time we...

She says, "Well yeah, I know, but when we did,
There was one thing we weren't thinking of
and that's money
Money changes everything
."

The next verse is months, likely years later. The woman's been in the world of money for a while--the old hapless boyfriend is forgotten, maybe even the guy she left him for is in the past. Now it's the voice of someone who made a corrupting choice, and who's lived through it. "They shake your hand, and they SMILE and they BUY you a DRINK," Lauper sings with pure acid in her voice. As if she could fortell her own career's future, her sudden rise to fame and her just as sudden discarding by the record companies and the media, she goes on:

"They say we'll be your friends
We'll stick with you till the end
"

She can't even bother to laugh. After a breakdown, the song builds up again, and Lauper starts singing with a power you can barely comprehend, changing the chorus as she goes on: "Money...changes everything...Money...IS everything."

It's a stunning performance, one of the best of the 1980s for me--Lauper never matched it again; few could. It's the honest, cold voice of greed--the song of someone who made her deal with the devil, and moved on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Lust


"My tongue sticks to my dry mouth/thin fire spreads beneath my skin/...I shake, I turn greener than grass..."

Prince, Erotic City.
Jimmie Rodgers, Let Me Be Your Sidetrack.
Memphis Minnie, Hot Stuff.
Donna Summer, Hot Stuff.
The Unholy Modal Rounders, Griselda.
The Who, Pictures of Lily.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Dark End of the Street.


So, we've come to it. Lust, in the hierarchy of the deadly sins, is fairly minor league--none of the church fathers would have ranked it above pride or anger, even sloth. But lust's overwhelming presence today, our culture's obsession with it (thinking about it or trying to wipe it out, usually both at once), have turned lust into the most colorful and dramatic of sins, the peacock of the seven.

Nowhere has lust been more celebrated and chronicled than in popular music, from Eddie Cantor to Mae West, Bessie Smith to Barry White. If music has been steeped in sin, it's been truly saturated in lust. The above list of songs is fairly arbitrary (a random spin of a radio dial likely will call up equally qualified candidates)--it's meant to be a sampler, just to show that lust-fever has gripped music since the days of Edison, which we sometimes conveniently forget as songs age and get commoditized into nostalgia. (I swear I heard a Muzak version of Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls" recently). I was at a wedding at which a loud, older family member told the DJ that he wanted to only hear oldies, not vulgar hip-hop crap. He wanted clean oldies, with lyrics like:

Lucille!
You won't do your sister's will!


or

I'm like a one-eyed cat
Peepin' in a seafood store


Or if that's too much, you could play nothing but 1920s songs, chaste numbers like Cantor's "If You Knew Susie" ("OH! OH! OHH! What a GIRL!") or "No Wonder She's A Blushing Bride" or Cole Porter's "The Physician" ("Once I loved such a shattering physician/Quite the best-looking doctor in the state/He looked after my physical condition/And his bedside manner was great").



So as a call to, er, arms, here is Prince's "Erotic City". Much of Prince's catalog to date would qualify under this sin, so choosing only one song is a ridiculously futile task; still, "Erotic City" is a summation of Prince's genius, with lust as a rallying cry, if not for transcendence then simply for fun. (Probably the most legendary of Prince B-sides,(of 1984's "Let's Go Crazy", making that single one of the finest A/B combinations in pop history), "Erotic City" was finally collected in Greatest Hits/B-Sides.)

The 100,000-year war


Lust, which Simon Blackburn nicely sums up as "the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake," has always been a problem. Cavemen elders likely spent time around the fire trying to think of ways to prevent the young from sneaking off into the forest. The Greeks were wary of it--Plato depicts lust as one of two stallions driving a chariot, "black in color, an ally of excess and affectation, hairy around the ears, hard of hearing." When the lust stallion spies a beautiful boy, it snorts and tries to drive the charioteer on to his ruin. (Not all Greeks had problems with lust--the Cynic philosopher Crates and his wife Hipparchia routinely screwed in public.)

After all, lust is dangerous, destabilizing, selfish and an enemy to tranquility and order. Its greatest enemies came with the rise of Christianity and Islam--"sky" religions set up as bulwarks against savagery, tribalism and Roman decadence, meant to supplant the older "earth" religions, with their fertility cults and drunken gods copulating with mortal women. So to the sky religions, the sexual impulse run amok--lust--seems like a grotesque throwback, a recrudescense of nature, shaming, sinful, weakening, gooey and messy.



Lust hate often devolves into general distaste for women, who typically get blamed as being the cause of the problem. As Col. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove says, "I first became aware of it...during the physical act of love...a profound sense of fatigue... a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred. Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women. But I do deny them my essence."

St. Augustine came of age during the pure days of early Christianity, where the ideal was a celibate, ascetic life out in the desert somewhere, and propagation was of no importance since the End Times were coming any day, and so he saw lust as the prime sign of man's general disobedience that led to the Fall--the inkstamp that marks us as being discarded goods. Augustine set up a pyramid of sexual practices--abstinence is best, then sexless marriage, then marriage with pleasureless sexual activity done to create children. On the bottom, of course, is acting for the sake of pure pleasure.

Players

Naturally, the bottom of the pyramid always gets the best songs--today's lust odes are the grubby inheritors of the great lustful poets, from Catullus in Caesar's Rome to John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (author of "The Dying Lover to His Prick," his life soon to be distorted in an upcoming film starring Johnny Depp.)

But libertine men have always gotten off a little easier (in all ways), from Don Juan to Casanova to James Boswell, catting around Hanoverian London (from Boswell's journal entry of 12 Jan 1763, "Five times I was fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy and asked me if this was not extraordinary for human nature...I was somewhat proud of my performance. She said it was what there was no just reason to be proud of...She said it was what we had in common with the beasts. I said no. For we had it highly improved by the pleasures of sentiment.")

Jimmie Rodgers' "Let Me Be Your Sidetrack," from 1931, is the libertine's come-on, Southern style. Jimmie's not offering much, just to be the woman in question's sidetrack until her main line comes. On Recordings.



The lustful woman is usually seen as the real problem, from Lilith and Eve on down. (In particular, seemingly every woman in power, from Elizabeth I to Catherine the Great to Hillary Clinton, has featured in a host of slanderous stories in which her sexual appetites are exaggerated into cartoon monstrosities).

But sometimes in song the lustful woman gets heard. Take Memphis Minnie's "Hot Stuff", from 1937. Minnie in this song is a sort of pure lust incarnation, whose mere presence drives every man around her to insanity--men are trying to kill her, cops run after her with their guns drawn, howling at her, even other women are wolf-whistling. Minnie's given up trying to live any kind of conventional life. "I'm tired of catching hell everywhere I go," she says, and the band swings in sympathy. On Hot Stuff.



Forty years later, you have Minnie's descendent, now ensconced in a high-rise apartment, but still feverish; she's dialing every number she can think of, planning to go down to the closest singles bar and just grabbing the first man she can find. ("Hot Stuff", from 1979, is one of the pinnacles of the disco era, with production so dense you can sink into it and an ecstatic vocal by Donna Summer. (Buy On the Radio.) Years later, in a typical bit of American marketing genius/perversity, it was turned into an advertisement for Chef Boyardee, with child actors singing "Lookin' for some hot stuff--Beef-a-Roni!!")

Teenage kicks



The young are always in danger of falling into lust, and often need the whip of Plato's charioteer (which sounds a bit kinky). Being young in this country is inherently frustrating. Imagine owning a sports car in great condition--an MG or Porsche. (Or even a new Toyota that gets good mileage.) And then imagine that owners of older, worn-out cars begin decreeing what you can do with your car. Keep it parked in your garage. If you have to drive it somewhere, go only 20 mph. Don't go on the highway. Don't have any passengers. At the same time, however, everywhere you look, and in every song you hear, you encounter exciting descriptions of driving your car fast and recklessly.

Songs about teenage lust are countless--here's a lesser-known one, "Griselda", in which our teenage couple are creeping off into the woods, besotted with each other or maybe just with the general pleasure of it. Sung by Pete Stampfel on 1976's Have Moicy!, one of my favorite records--it's a hootenanny featuring Stampfel, the late Jeffrey Frederick and the amazing Michael Hurley.

Lust comes in a host of varieties, the solitary kind not exempted, so the poor teenage car owner even gets damned for polishing his vehicle in the privacy of his home. The Who's "Pictures of Lily," from 1967, remains the greatest teenage (male) masturbation song ever recorded, with a hilarious lyric capped off by orgasmic French horn bursts in the bridge. On Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.

Lust World



So is unfettered lust always a good thing? I can't argue that, though I'm not one to throw in my allegiance with the bluenoses, hermits and scolds. Still, it's arguable that lust thrives best in opposition, as a sort of shadow government to a stable society--lust without bounds can lead to nirvana, true, but more often to disease, unwanted children and marital chaos.

Lust is corrosive--a great, foolish destroyer of ambitions and plans, often used as a wedge to topple the mighty. The presidency of Bill Clinton--what could it have accomplished if the sex scandal and subsequent, ridiculous impeachment hadn't occurred? What else would Oscar Wilde have written? What could Charles Stewart Parnell have done for Ireland? Could Gary Hart have defeated George Bush in 1988? And so on.



So let's take our leave at the dimming of the day, when the adulterers and the lustful begin gathering at the dark end of the street. Gram Parsons' vocal is more tragic than lustful--he knows he's going to be found out one day, that his life, his marriage will be ruined. But each night he keeps going back. (On 1969's Gilded Palace of Sin.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Gluttony


I hope my stomach will get back its manners soon. Right now my bowels are bumbling around like a bull.”

The Old South Quartette, Oysters and Wine at 2 A.M.
The Reverend Horton Heat, Eat Steak.
The Beatles, Savoy Truffle.
Bob Wills, Roly Poly.
Little Feat, Fat Man in the Bathtub.
Jimmy Rogers, Sloppy Drunk.
The Original Sinners, Whiskey for Supper.

The concept of the deadly sins begins with the monks, and Francine Prose, in her fine recent work on gluttony, takes a guess at how that particular sin became canonized.

It is the evening meal, before compline. The brothers file into the refectory and wait in line to be served their allotment of bread, gruel, beans and wine. It’s been a hard day of prayer, transcription and prayer, and a great number of the brothers, despite their souls’ urgings otherwise, have their thoughts on their stomachs. Each monk receives his helping, but, as happens sometimes, there is a bit left over at the end. The last monk in line, who the brothers realize has the regular habit of being last in line, and who they also note is the heaviest of them all, happily and blithely takes a second portion. At table, the rest of the brothers grumble to themselves in silence: "Inconsiderate". "Swine". "Glutton."

Evagrius, the 4th Century monk who first compiled the sins, singled gluttony out as the prime offender, the worst of the lot.

"Gluttony is the mother of lust, the nourishment of evil thoughts, laziness in fasting, obstacle to asceticism, terror to moral purpose, the imagining of food, sketcher of seasonings, unrestrained colt, unbridled frenzy, receptacle of disease, envy of health, obstruction of the (bodily) passages, groaning of the bowels, the extreme of outrages, confederate of lust, pollution of the intellect, weakness of the body, difficult sleep, gloomy death."

Or, as George Harrison said less eloquently: "The sweat is going to fill your head/When it becomes too much, you're going to shout aloud."



All of the capital sins are consanguineous, but lust and gluttony especially are linked at the hip, both being failings of the flesh as well as (somewhat inconvenient to Church fathers) being neccessary to life--without food, the body fails; without sex, so goes the human race. As Prose puts it, "We are allowed to eat and have sex as long as we don't like it."

Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a general belief that gluttony was a gateway to further debauches of the flesh, which may seem a bit odd to us moderns, given that after a bloating, gut-busting meal, not many have a sudden craving for sex.



Still, here's St. Basil: "Through the sense of touch in tasting– which is always seducing toward gluttony by swallowing, the body, fattened up and titillated by the soft humors bubbling uncontrollably inside is carried in a frenzy towards the touch of sexual intercourse." And true, the early Christians had as their prime example the Romans, who gladly incorporated binging, purging and fornication into an evening's entertainment.

Today's menu

Oysters and Wine. Best served at 2 AM, when you're already drunk enough to truly make a gluttonous spectacle of yourself. This fantastic 1928 recording was performed by the Old South Quartette--it is a remake of a 19o9 performance by Polk Miller, who died in 1913. Available on American Pop, a great, sadly out-of-print compilation.

Steak. T-bones, New York strip, shell steak. Any kind--they're all available. Just shipped over from the shambles by the Reverend Horton Heat. "Eat Steak" came out of the Rev's attempt to write a psychotic beef industry advertisement. From 1991's Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em. Other Rev merch here; tour dates here.

Mackintosh's Good News. A dessert of mixed chocolates. The coconut fudge, ginger slings, and pineapple hearts are especially recommended, but save room for the Savoy truffles. (Sung by the Beatles' house moralist, George, who had the soul of an unchaste monk--on 1968's White Album.)



"Savoy Truffle" was inspired by George watching Eric Clapton gorge himself on Mackintosh's chocolates, though the type of candies available seem a bit stomach-churning--akin to the Disgusting English Candy Drill that Tyrone Slothrop endures in Gravity's Rainbow:

"Serves me right," Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of the mayonnaise candy---oops but that's a mistake, right, here's his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry... mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can't begin to take away that bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he's been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid, "Oh mercy that's really sour," hardly able to get the words out he's so puckered.."

By the bellyful

Much loathing of gluttony, then and now, often leads into a full-bore assault on the body itself, a general hatred for the unclean process of eating, digesting and voiding. As the repellent Saint John Chrysostom, author of Eight Homilies Against the Jews, put it, "the increase in luxury [of eating] is nothing but the increase in excrement."

Or here is the Pardoner, in Chaucer's tale: "O womb, O belly, stinking is thy cod [bag]/Full fill'd of dung and of corruptioun;/At either end of thee foul is the soun."



This aspect of gluttony, a loathing for the overfed body, has travelled well over the centuries--watch any episode of Dr. Phil, read any issue of US Weekly, in which starlets walk a razor-thin line between paunchiness and anorexia; it is a natural result in a country in which the rich are now professionally gaunt and the poor often greatly overweight.


"(from L to R) Fat! Still Fat! Perfect! My God, she's thin!"

So you could say that gluttony has been vanquished as a sin, in a way other of the deadlies have not--not that gluttony is going away any time soon, but that its appeal has been drummed out of our culture. Some still pride themselves on their greediness, the lustful are often fairly outspoken about it. But the gluttons are now classified as pathetic failures, or passive victims, trapped in shaming relationships with food, while eating has become a metaphor for everything but actually enjoying consuming food.



Gone (forever?) are the great, voracious gluttons of old--Falstaff ("that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack"); Orson Welles (whose evening repast would consist of two steaks and a pint of scotch); Henry VIII; Robert Earl Hughes, who had to be buried in a piano case-sized coffin; Gargantua; Diamond Jim Brady, the American industrialist who would sit six inches away from the table and only stop eating when his gut reached the table edge.

Or William Howard Taft, the most obese president in U.S history (ironically succeeding Teddy Roosevelt, the first health nut in office), and the subject of much jest: "While he was in the Philippines, disturbing reports about his health caused Secretary of War Root to send a cabled inquiry. Taft cabled back that he was perfectly all right -- he had just finished a twenty-five-mile horseback ride and was feeling fine. Root read that, smiled, and sent off another cable of solicitude: 'How is horse?'"

Popular music has generally taken the side of the gluttons--not many songs come to mind that praise the healthy and lament the fat. Take "Roly Poly", a nice slice of 1945 western swing from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. While the mini-Gargantua who is the song's subject seems a little terrifying, eating 20 times a day and even scarfing down hay between meals, the singer seems proud of him, even awed by him. (On The Essential Bob Wills.)



Or the Fat Man in Little Feat's 1973 song, symbol of our protagonist Billy's gluttony for everything in sight--women, drugs, good clean fun. On the marvelous Dixie Chicken.


21st Century Demeter

Whiskey to go

I've run out of time to talk about drunkenness, the other half of gluttony, equally hated by the moralists. As the Pardoner says, "When man so drinketh of the white and red/That of his throat he maketh his privy". And a Friday night spent in any college town, or the Upper East Side of Manhattan for that matter, makes the Pardoner's argument seem a bit sympathetic.

Still, here are two celebrations of getting bombed. "Sloppy Drunk" is a 1954 blues from Jimmy Rogers. Jimmy's not mourning a failed relationship--he just wants to get drunk until he falls down on the barroom floor. On Complete Chess Recordings.

And "Whiskey for Supper" is by the Original Sinners, an all-star team of former punks, led by Exene Cervenka. From their self-titled 2002 album.

As Trimalchio, the ex-slave feastmaster in Petronius's Satyricon, the great epic of Roman debauchery, says, "Just think friends, wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it's the stuff of life." Salut!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Sloth


"Heigh ho: I am Sloth. I was begotten on a sunny bank. Heigh ho: I'le not speak a word more for a kings ransome."

Buster Carter and Preston Young, A Lazy Farmer Boy.
The Mills Brothers, Lazybones.
The Beatles, I'm Only Sleeping.
The Buzzcocks, Boredom.
Iggy Pop, I'm Bored.
Bing Crosby, Lazy.
The Lovin' Spoonful, Daydream.

Let's make no bones about it: popular music, from the Cathar troubadours to the South Central rappers, is steeped in sin--from the venial sins to the seven deadly sins, the capital or cardinal sins. Of these, lust is an essential; pride, anger, greed and gluttony are constants; envy and sloth are occasional.

Our survey starts with sloth, or as it goes formally--acedia. "The destruction that wasteth at noonday", as the Psalms say. The most comprehensive work on sloth, the Leviathan to this essay's minnow, is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.



Melancholy, Burton says, "is most pleasant at first...a most delightsome humour, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were, and frame a thousand phantastical imaginations unto themselves." But the addiction waxes. "By little and little, by that shoeing-horn of idleness...melancholy, this feral fiend is drawn on." By the end, the melancholics "cannot endure company, light or life itself...their bodies are lean and dried up, withered, ugly, their looks harsh, very dull and their souls tormented."

Sloth has few public friends, many private adherents. Contemporary American culture is intertwined with most of the capital sins--without greed, envy and gluttony, the economy would sink like a stone; without lust, much of our entertainments would vanish; the absence of anger and pride would leave great empty holes in our history.

But sloth has long been the enemy. We all deny sloth, however much we indulge in it. Eavesdrop on any family reunion, or an encounter between friends who haven't seen each other in a while, and whenever someone asks another what they've been doing, the answers are typically the same: "Oh, I'm keeping busy"; "Things have been crazy": "I'm swamped."



There are vigilantes looking to wipe sloth out. One of my first jobs was in a grocery store, and the manager for a time was a Vietnam veteran who would seethe at the malcontents, bored high school kids and perpetual slackers under his command. The very dictates of his body disgusted him--he only slept for four hours a night, from midnight to 4 AM. "That's enough--sleep is a waste of time," he told me.

He was one of the many ambitious who dispense with sleep as if it was an embarrassing childhood habit--Bill Clinton sleeps five hours a night; Napoleon slept three or four. Here is Ben Franklin (himself a five-hour sleeper), prototypical American: "It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service. But idleness taxes many of us much more, if we reckon all that is spent in absolute sloth, or doing of nothing, with that which is spent in idle employments or amusements, that amount to nothing."

Franklin's Poor Richard is a stuffed bag of aborning cliches, still used in motivational speeches and management consulting books. Do not squander time, he says, "for that's the stuff life is made of!" The sleeping fox catches no chickens! Time enough for sleep in the grave! Lost time is not found again! He that rises late must trot all day! Wake up! Get up! Work!! (You can see why D.H. Lawrence grew to despise Franklin; Pynchon's no fan either.)



In "A Lazy Farmer Boy" a 1931 recording collected by Harry Smith on his Anthology of American Folk Music, we can hear the voice of Poor Richard, appalled at his sluggard neighbour over the fence. "All that young man's corn was lost," the singer clucks. You should have seen it--the corn was up to his eyes and he was a-laying about doing nothing about it. Sure enough, the lazy farmer loses his girl too, because she doesn't want to support a layabout. As Poor Richard says, sloth "makes all things difficult"; like rust "it consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright."



The Mills Brothers' "Lazybones", from 1934, is a catechism of laziness. The lazy farmer boy seemed a bit remorseful about his sluggishness, but the lazybones here is content to let the world do all the work for him--hoping the aphids fall off his crops, hoping he can get through the day without having to lift a finger. Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, and available on this collection.

A brief idle history

In a way, Sloth is the youngest of the seven deadlies. The Romans and Greeks fretted about gluttons, the wrathful, the lustful and the hubristic, but didn't seem to worry much about the lazy. The sense of sloth as a specific sin comes out of the deserts of fourth-century Egypt, where Christian monks noticed some of their brethren growing listless and dull-eyed around midday. A Greek monk Evagrius drew up a list of eight chief sins that, two centuries later, Pope Gregory put into its present form, conflating two of the original eight sins--tristia and acedia, essentially sadness and spiritual lethargy, into one banner sin, our present sloth. Aquinas sums it up: "Sloth is an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold."



The medieval artists gave sloth a face. Dante puts the slothful in hell trapped underwater, their moans making the Stygian lake's surface bubble. While alive, the slothful were sad even in the sweet summer air, so now they are immersed in cold, filthy water. (Dante encounters some penitent sluggards in purgatory, where they are forced to act like a glee squad, running about being zealous in the hopes of purging their sins.)

Spenser, in the Faerie Queene, has "sluggish Idleness" in a black monk's habit, riding upon a "slouthfull Asse":

"For of devotion he had little care,
Still drownd in sleepe, and most of his dayes ded;
Scarse could he once uphold his heavie hed,
To looken, whether it were night or day...
From worldly cares himselfe he did esolyne,
And freatly shunnéd manly exercise..."

Four centuries later, we have "I'm Only Sleeping." At the time he wrote it, John Lennon was a first citizen of sloth. "He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. 'Physically lazy,' he said. 'I don't mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more." Here is the Maureen Cleave article (from which the infamous "we're bigger than Christ" quote comes), in which Lennon is shown wandering his Weybridge mansion, unaware of what day or hour it is, surrounded by things he had taken up and discarded--gorilla suits, fruit machines, little green boxes with winking lights. ("I'm Only Sleeping" is from 1966's Revolver).

Being boring


Sloth isn't just mere idleness. It's shirking your spiritual duties, declining to punch in at the celestial timeclock. God apparently has divine expectations for us, as though our life is a franchise agreement to which we are indentured at birth, one that we can easily neglect. We should be doing zealous acts to fulfill our contract, and doing so joyfully. If not, the end result is despair, ennui, boredom.

In the Buzzcocks' "Boredom", the singer is stuck somewhere, in his flat, in his mother's house--he's waiting for the phone to ring, and hating when it does; waiting for something to come on television, for something to happen. "I'm already a has-been," he snarls. "My future ain't what it was." Even when his girlfriend comes over, he's just disgusted. "Tell me who are you trying to arouse? Get your hands out of my trousers!" (Originally on Spiral Scratch, one of the first and greatest of punk records, released in 1977--buy here.)

Iggy Pop's "I'm Bored" isn't the whine of an adolescent--it's more like the sated, dulled musings of an emptied rake. The singer's done it all, and to such extremes, that he's sick to death of everything--sex, drugs, pleasure. From New Values, a 1979 album that still doesn't get enough respect.

Yawns from the defense


There are those who have stood up (or at least nodded their heads) for sloth, the great gallery of slackers--Aife of Connacht, who lay abed for a year, rising only to change her stepchildren into swans, and Darby Ruadh, who, after he fell in love with a mermaid, kept to his bed, lovesick; Rip Van Winkle; Oblomov, the Russian aristocrat who prefers to stay in bed and remember his happy childhood; Bartleby, the Wall Street scrivener who simply prefers not to; Brian Wilson, spending three years in bed, listening to "Be My Baby" over and over again.

So let's end with some (mild) celebrations of sloth. One ode is Bing Crosby's "Lazy", written by Irving Berlin, in which Bing is lugging a valise-ful of books in search of a shady tree--he's looking to waste time constructively. "Lazy" is from 1942's Holiday Inn, a film that has both the first appearance of "White Christmas" and a disgraceful blackface performance by Crosby, singing Berlin's equally execrable "Abraham", which has lines like "When black folks lived in slavery/Who was it set the darkie free?" Buy here.

And finally the Lovin' Spoonful's 1966 "Daydream", in which John Sebastian makes the act of sloth a personal insurrection. "I couldn't care less about the dues you say I got." (On Anthology.) Maybe he'll go back to work tomorrow, maybe he'll daydream for a thousand years--that sounds all right. The rub is that Sebastian is sprawled happily asleep on a lawn that someone else has cut--the slothful, as always, remain dependent on the strivers.

Friday, June 17, 2005

1951



The Clovers, Don't You Know I Love You.
The Cardinals, Shouldn't I Know.


The Clovers, along with Ruth Brown, helped establish Atlantic Records in the early 1950s. The Clovers began as the Four Clovers in Washington D.C.--they were John "Buddy" Bailey, the lead, tenor Matthew McQuater, baritone Harold Lucas and bass Harold Winley.

They were versatile, able to sing jump blues and mournful ballads, and Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun chose to put the full force of his label behind them--custom-writing songs, hiring top New York session men (like saxophonist Frank Culley and the great jazz pianist Randy Weston), using recent engineering advances to get a deep, rich sound.

"Don't You Know I Love You", the Clovers' incredible first single, was recorded on February 22, 1951, and released a month later as Atlantic 934. It grew slowly in popularity throughout the summer, until by September it was a #1 R&B hit.

The Cardinals were signed by Atlantic in February 1951--the label quickly changed the group's name from the Mellotones to the Cardinals, cashing in, or least attempting to, on the vogue of vocal groups being named after birds. The Cardinals were nowhere near as successful as the Clovers, releasing only twelve singles in six years, and their versatility was not of the same caliber-—the Cardinals primarily wanted to be a genteel vocal group in the style of the Ink Spots. The audience wanted something else.

"Shouldn’t I Know" comes from their first session in March '51--it was a minor hit and deserved to be a greater one, carried by lead tenor Ernie Warren’s clear, warm vocal, with fine backing by Meredith “Prince” Brothers, Jack “Sam” Ayolette, Donald “Jack” Johnson and Leon “Tree Top” Hardy. (I guess everyone was required to have a nickname.)

Both songs are found in this massive Atlantic set.

Films of '51

In Hollywood the rot begins setting in, while the Japanese, French and British (natives and expatriates) are left to carry on.

Bakushû (Early Summer). Many of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the 20th Century's equivalent of Jane Austen, still remain unreleased in the U.S., or are only issued on poor VHS copies. (Thankfully this is not one of them--there is an excellent Criterion DVD.) This is one of his finest--a family pushes their single daughter to marry, knowing such a marriage will prove to be their own dissolution.
Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest). A young, ailing priest is assigned to a impoverished parish in rural France that reveals itself to be an earthly purgatory. Paul Schrader took it as the starting point for Taxi Driver.
The Lavender Hill Mob/The Man in the White Suit. The genius of Alec Guinness, demonstrated in four hours. I prefer Lavender Hill Mob a bit more just for scenes like Guinness frantically chasing a group of bratty schoolgirls down the Eiffel Tower and Audrey Hepburn's brief walk-on as "Chiquita".
Strangers on a Train.
The Big Carnival/Ace in the Hole. The most cynical of professional cynic Billy Wilder's films--a film baked in misanthropy.
The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The Thing. "Watch the skies!!" Ghost-directed by Howard Hawks and ghost-written by Faulkner and Ben Hecht.
People Will Talk. A period piece, but Cary Grant takes it higher.
Guardie e Ladri.
The River. Renoir escapes from Hollywood, winds up on the Ganges.
His Kind of Woman. Wonderfully weird--Vincent Price as the sort-of hero, Bob Mitchum walking around like a thug, Jane Russell trying to act (and succeeding).
A Streetcar Named Desire. The film seems dated now, stagey and at times overdone, but Brando's performance is still astonishing 55 years later. And a special mention for Kim Hunter, who gave as good as Brando, and due to blacklisting barely worked for the rest of the decade.

Summer hours: Next week begins a thematic set that hopefully will prove entertaining, at least for the peccable among us. There probably will only be two posts a week for a while, as it's getting warmer and I'm getting lazier. For "Locust St" purists, if such a breed exists, look for the 1952 set to start sometime in mid-July.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

1951


"I am a collector of cries and noises"

Pérez Prado, Pianolo.
Pérez Prado, Mambo No. 5.

Mambomania! During the hot summer of 1951, Pérez Prado, the mambo king of kings, was touring the United States for the first time. Wherever he went--to Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland, the Palladium in Manhattan and the Puerto Rico Theater in the Bronx--crowds were turned away at the doors. The musicians Prado used were mainly Americans, who had had to be drilled in Prado's music in just a few hours; they griped about Prado's 'book': chord changes scrawled in a half-decipherable hand.

Born in 1916 in Matanzas, Cuba, Dámaso Pérez Prado essentially created the mambo. From the excellent web biography devoted to Prado:

"...four, five, and sometimes six musicians would often play after hours jam sessions on the tres (a small Cuban guitar) and the resultant cross rhythms and syncopation give him the idea...[Prado] talked about the mambo being an Afro-Cuban rhythm with a dash of American swing. According to Prado, the mambo is "more musical and swingier than the rhumba. It has more beat."

Both "Pianolo" and "Mambo No. 5", early Prado singles for the American market, were collected on Prado's first 10-inch LP, Mucho Mambo for Dancing, released in fall 1951. They both can be found, along with much more mambo, on this compilation.


In 1951, Congress enacted Public Law 78 (you need Adobe to read), designed as a Korean war "emergency measure" that, like most government-ordered emergency measures, long outlasted the crisis to which it was meant to respond. Public Law 78 enabled employers to import a vast amount of Mexican contract workers, primarily agricultural workers, into the United States. In 1957, 192,000 workers were brought into California alone, and by 1960, Mexicans were about 25% of the agricultural labor force. The program would continue until 1964, utterly transforming the U.S., especially California--in its wake would come Cesar Chavez, NAFTA and today's self-appointed border sentinels.

Monday, June 13, 2005

1951


vir heroicus sublimis

Count Basie (w/Wardell Gray), Little Pony.
Stan Getz, Mosquito Knees.
Sonny Rollins, Time on My Hands.


Three tenor saxophonists: one at his brief zenith, another coming into his power, the last taking his first steps.

By 1950, the tenor saxophone had become the lead instrument in jazz: The days when a clarinetist led a band, like Artie Shaw's orchestra, seemed antediluvial. Coleman Hawkins had led the way, Lester Young had shown there was a lighter alternative, Charlie Parker had used it to illustrate his genius.

Now there were a host of new masters, like Wardell Gray, who dominates Count Basie's "Little Pony". Gray, revered by Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty, is a lost legend who crops up repeatedly on essential sessions throughout the late '40s and early '50s until his bizarre 1955 death, in which his body, beaten and broken, was found in the desert outside Las Vegas.

"On "Little Pony", Gray comes in with a bold, confident solo, and gets goaded to new heights each time the full band bursts in--in particular, the wild exchanges around the 1:30-1:55 mark are amazing--and ends with a brief unaccompanied statement.



Stan Getz's musings are far from Gray's attack--his light, almost vibrato-less tone seems a slender cousin to Gray's full-bodied one, but in "Mosquito Knees" Getz demonstrates his agility and power, especially when he starts trading fours with drummer Tiny Kahn at the end.

And then there was the newcomer. "Time on My Hands" is considered by some to be Sonny Rollins' first masterpiece, the first time he managed to craft his mature sound. "Time" comes from a chaotic recording session, Rollins' first as a leader--it was a night session in Englewood, NJ, and the sleet was so horrific that conga drummer Sabu Martinez, who was supposed to be a key player in the session, couldn't get out of the Bronx. Worse, Rollins had forgotten a neckstrap, and so had to hang his sax around his neck using a wire hanger and a piece of rope. Somehow, however, Rollins managed to put in a flawless interpretation of Vincent Youmans' tune.

"Little Pony", written and arranged by Neal Hefti, was recorded for Columbia on April 10, 1951. Basie's band is Bobby Mitchell, Al Porcino, Clark Terry, Lamar Wright, Jr. (t), Leon Comegys, Matthew Gee, Booty Wood (tb), Reuben Phillips, Marshal Royal (as), Gray, Lucky Thompson (ts), Charles Fowlkes (bar sax), Freddie Green (g), Jimmy Lewis (b), Gus Johnson (d). On the 4-CD America's #1 Band.

"Mosquito Knees", recorded at Storyville in Boston on October 28, 1951, features Getz, Jimmy Raney (g), Al Haig (p), Teddy Kotick (b) and Tiny Kahn. Complete Roost recordings here.

"Time On My Hands" was recorded on December 17, 1951, with Rollins, Kenny Drew (p), Percy Heath (b) and Art Blakey (d). On the inaccurately titled Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet (the latter only appear on four tracks out of 13).

Friday, June 10, 2005

1951


"that's where the men hang out at"

B.B. King, Three O'Clock Blues.


"H-Bomb" Ferguson first met B.B. King before King's debut at the Apollo in Harlem.

"When I saw B.B., man, I laughed. This cat came out on stage with a purple suit, red shirt and green tie."

King begged to differ: "No, it was a red suit with a red tie with red shoes. Red and black socks and black shoes...they just talked about me so much, talked about me so bad that I went and changed it." (from a 1992 article by David S. Rotenstein.)

Lowell Fulson's "Three O'Clock Blues" was King's seventh single, RPM 339, which by Christmas 1951 had become his first number-one R&B hit. (Ike Turner might be playing piano on it.) You can find it here.

Note from the Mgt.: Wrapping up 1951 next week. And rather than going straight ahead into '52, there will be...something else. I found that I enjoyed doing the New York song sets back in April, so I'm doing more thematic sets between "years". Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

1951


"I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me."

Little Richard, Get Rich Quick.

His eminence as a callow youth. Richard hasn't found his rock & roll voice yet--he's imitating Roy Brown, trying to mask his Southern accent, and he only lets loose on the last note. Still "everybody's gonna lose and I'm gonna win" is pretty much a pure rocker's sentiment, so he's more than halfway there.

This is Little Richard's first recording, which he made at age 18 upon winning a contract with RCA Victor (by passing a local radio station-sponsored audition). Richard, born Richard Penniman in 1932, began working in regional circuses by the mid-1940s, singing in the likes of Doctor Hudson's Medicine Show, Sugarfoot Sam's Minstrel Show and the Tidy Jolly Stompers, sporting his six-inch-high pompadour and sometimes wearing false eyelashes and evening gowns.

Recorded in Atlanta on October 16, 1951, with Willie Mays (t), Fred Jackson (tenor sax), Albert Dobbins (alto sax), J. Hudson (baritone sax), J. Wimby (piano), George Holloway (b) and Donald Clark (d). It can be found at the tail end of this compilation.


Several thousand miles (or light years) away from Georgia, Anthony Powell published the first volume of what would become a 12-book series known collectively as A Dance to the Music of Time. It starts soon after World War I and ends with the coming of the hippies.

"On the whole it could not be said that one felt better for Uncle Giles' visit. He brought with him some fleeting suggestion, always welcome at school, of an outside world...he was a relation: a being who had in him perhaps some of the same essence that went towards forming oneself as a separate entity. Would one's adult days be spent worrying about the Trust? Did he manage to have quite a lot of fun, or did he live in perpetual hell?"

from A Question of Upbringing.

Monday, June 06, 2005

1951


"my heart is paying now for things I didn't do"

Hank Williams, Cold, Cold Heart.
Tony Bennett, Cold, Cold Heart.
Dinah Washington, Cold, Cold Heart.
Hank Williams, Angel of Death.


A few days before Christmas 1950, Hank Williams recorded "Cold, Cold Heart." The lyric was inspired by his disastrous marriage to Audrey Williams, the melody came partly from a 1945 country song, "You'll Still Be in My Heart." The song, featuring a searing vocal by Williams, one of his finest, was the key that fit the lock--in a space of months, it had become enshrined as a pop standard.

Mitch Miller, head of A&R for Columbia Records, heard "Cold, Cold Heart" in early 1951 and proposed it for one of Columbia's singers-in-training, Tony Bennett. Bennett, likely recalling awful "Western" songs attemped by other pop singers, begged off. "Please don’t make me record cowboy songs!" Miller persevered, and on May 31, backed by the full weight of Percy Faith's orchestration, Bennett took on the song, turning it into a delicate waltz.

Four months later came Dinah Washington, the first black singer to cover Williams, and one of the first postwar jazz/R&B artists to attempt country (Wynonie Harris had covered Moon Mullican in 1949). Washington makes no attempt to belittle the song, to make it hokey and "country", but treats the lyric as the pure soul lament it is. She's supported nicely by Nook Shrier's orchestra, with Paul Quinichette on tenor sax and Wynton Kelly on piano.

Yet some Williams songs remained untranslatable. At some point in 1951, Williams recorded a demo in Nashville for "Angel of Death," a pitiless rumination that sounded like an ancient Puritan lament, a lost scrap of song from the Thirty Years War. Mitch Miller likely passed on it.

Williams here; Bennett here; Dinah here.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

1951


King George

H-Bomb Ferguson, Good Lovin'.

"I used to be strong, but I feel like 62!!"

Atomic-age rhythm & blues--the brutal beat could be used for exorcisms; the lead singer, his voice blown out, rolls around lost in delerium.

"H-Bomb" Ferguson
was one of the best and wildest of the last generation of blues shouters, taking his cue from Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris, but going further into pure lunacy. Born in 1931, Ferguson cut a series of proto rock & roll records in the early 1950s before dropping out of music for more than two decades. However, he began making a comeback in the 1980s, wearing Rick James-inspired headgear.

As he says in his stage introductions, "I’m H-Bomb Ferguson, the mother's son, and after me there damn sure ain't gonna be none!!” True enough. The man is still playing regularly in Ohio (he has some shows this weekend)--if you're around there, check him out.

"Good Lovin'" was released as Savoy 830, and can be found on Rhythm Riot.

In January 1951, plans for the hydrogen bomb (Apocalypse 2.0) are set in motion, with the "George" test of May 1951 as one of the critical steps. More here.