Thursday, July 28, 2005


Thelonious Monk, Little Rootie Tootie.

There are more dramatic Monk recordings, those more influential, more disturbing, more historically significant. But I don’t think there are any more fun than this one. Ira Gitler called it “a sort of train song, with Monk even punctuating to represent the whistle.”

“Rootie Tootie” comes from a brief interval in Monk’s career, between the Blue Note recordings that established his name among musicians and the Riverside albums that did the same among listeners—in 1952 and 1954, Monk recorded a handful of excellent trio sessions, in which he debuted a number of compositions, including "Blue Monk" and "Bemsha Swing." Here he is joined by Gary Mapp on bass and one of his finest accompanists, the drummer Art Blakey.

Romp or no, "Rootie Tootie" is still Monk, so the piece's hook is three dissonant chords pounded out at the end of alternating bars, and Monk leads into the final chorus with a charming and silly rampage up and down the keyboard.

Recorded in New York City on October 15, 1952, along with “Sweet and Lovely”, "Bye-ya”, and "Monk’s Dream." Available on Thelonious Monk Trio, which collects the 1952 trio sessions as well as a solo Monk performance.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


the revolution will wear plaid

Bill Haley and his Comets, Rock the Joint.
Bill Haley and his Comets, Real Rock Drive.

In most standard histories of rock & roll, Bill Haley is an early entry, depicted solely as the Guy Who Had the First Rock and Roll Hit and who then trundled off to obscurity. He seems to hail from a prehistoric era--photos of Haley show a moon-faced guy with a cowlick wearing a plaid jacket and bowtie that makes him look like a coat checker at Sardi's, while his Comets often appear a bit goofy, rocking out with, at various times, a steel guitar, accordion, or baritone saxophone.

But there's much more to Haley and the Comets, if you consider as them a vital link between late-generation Western swing and rock & roll. After all, Haley began as a pure country artist, though he lived in Pennsylvania. For a while, he billed himself as "The Rambling Yodeler,"wearing a full bright-red cowboy suit to gigs in bands like the Downhomers and Range Drifters. And the first band Haley led was the Four Aces of Western Swing (later the Saddlemen).

However, by 1951 popular tastes were changing, and wearing cowboy suits to shows in New Jersey was looking a bit ridiculous. So when Dave Miller, who owned the indie label Essex, suggested that Haley cover a current R&B smash, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88", Haley went for it.

Haley sometimes unfairly gets lumped in with the whitebread carpetbaggers of the 1950s, the Pat Boones who took songs by black musicians and bled the life out of them. And, true, Haley's take on"Shake Rattle and Roll", for instance, sounds like a weak echo of the mighty Big Joe Turner original. But early on, Haley's versions held their own with the originals, sometimes even bettering them--kicking up the beat, making a harsher, sharper sound.

In 1952, Haley's band had begun to catch fire--by year's end they had changed their name to the Comets and had ditched the Western duds. One of their first regional hits was with another R&B reworking, Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint". Preston's 1949 original (listen to sample here) is wild, dense and fantastic, but Hale's version rocks about as hard and is blessed by a fine guitar solo by Danny Cedrone.

But the real gem for me is Haley's own "Real Rock Drive", a perfect fusion of Bob Wills and nascent rock music, driven by the insistent riff doubled on Billy Williamson's steel and Cedrone's electric guitar.

"Rock the Joint" was released as Essex 303 in April 1952, "Real Rock Drive" as Essex 310 in November '52. Besides the musicians previously mentioned, the Comets were Johnny Grande (p), Marshall Lytle (double bass) and Billy Gussak (d). Both tracks can be found on this excellent compilation. More Haley merchandise here. Fantastic Haley discography here.

Monday, July 11, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Pride

"All is not lost; the unconquerable Will.../That Glory never shall his wrath or might/Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee, and deify his power."

Ringo Starr, I'm the Greatest.
The Human Beinz, Nobody but Me.
Marvin Gaye, Ego Tripping Out.
Elton John, Ego.
Mose Allison, I'm the Wild Man.
Bob Dylan, Foot of Pride.
Muddy Waters, I Love the Life I Live (I Live the Life I Love).
Merle Haggard, I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.

Pride is the prodigal sin. It began as the sin of sins, the foulest, the first, primal sin--that of Satan, of Adam and Eve, of Oedipus and Agamemnon. But today it has been domesticated; pride is encouraged in self-help manuals, serves as the rallying cry of various minorities, and is regarded as a common reservoir of good. "I'm proud to be an American," begins the chorus of "God Bless the USA", a song that might one day become the new national anthem.

Pride has become our birthright, regardless of whichever wing of the country you are raised in. I was born in the early 1970s and went for a year to an "alternative" K-12 school: a large, cluttered house run by a group of hippies who may have been intermarried or related--I never found out. You were free to wander from room to room, absorbing whatever was being taught--so in the course of a year I finger-painted, attempted fractions and decimals before I grasped the concept of adding (something that likely contributed to my abysmal math skills), listened to one of the hippies pick out songs from "Free to Be You and Me" on guitar. The governing mantras of the school were "I'm proud of you!" and "You should be proud of yourself!"--bestowed upon any remote achievement by a child.

Pride has become so enculturated that I imagine some would be surprised it was ever once considered blasphemous. You can find the gilt of pride anywhere that you look--military recruitment ads ("Be all you can be" or "The Few, The Proud, The Marines"); "Don't dream it--be it!", from the Rocky Horror Picture Show; "Keep reaching for the stars," Casey Kasem's old sign-off phrase; every sports team's boast of being number one. Etc., etc.

"I was in the greatest show on earth/for what it was worth." So goes Ringo Starr's boast, written by John Lennon; the song's lofty claims are undercut by the fact that Ringo was always the humblest of the Beatles, the one who knew the extent of his good fortune and kept his sense of humor. On 1973's Ringo, my candidate for the best solo Beatles album, a sort of secret Beatles reunion.

Or take the dancing braggart of the Human Beinz's "Nobody But Me", from 1967, whose pride would shatter if it turned out that you could do the boogaloo better than him. (On Nuggets.)

Rising in rank

The sin of pride, at its core, is not knowing, or not accepting, your place in the scheme of things. First Satan, then man, challenged God in His supremacy--the result always ends in a fall. Man is denied access to certain knowledge ("for my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways" Isaiah 55:8), and if he keeps pushing for it, disaster always follows. It's a fate that transcends religions and time, from Prometheus, chained to a rock and his innards gnawed by eagles for giving man the gifts of fire and art, to Icarus, tumbling ablaze into the sea, to Shelley's Ozymandias, whose arrogant visage lies in ruins in the desert wastes.

Or Dr. Faustus, the Renaissance's favorite prideful sinner, who sells his soul in exchange for knowledge. Christopher Marlowe's Faustus meets Pride, in the course of being introduced to the sins: Pride comes first among the seven, naturally. "I am Pride. I disdain to have any parents. I am like to Ovid's flea; I can creep into every corner of a wench." After a bit, Pride no longer deigns to speak, "unless the ground be perfumed, and covered with cloth of arras."

"Pride isolates and alienates from both God and society; it is a form of self-satisified and self-sufficient withdrawal," (Henry Fairlie). Pope Gregory the Great assigned pride the top rank of the seven--for Gregory, pride was the well from which all other sins were drawn, the alpha of damnation. (It also made political sense, as the medieval church found pride all too evident in the kings and nobles with which it constantly was battling for power.)

Pride is also exaggerated self-worth, vanity, egoism without check, the self prized above all others. For the proud person, according to some wonderful lines from Spinoza, "the things he has done himself, even when they are mistaken, alone please him...he favors himself in his thought; and when he think he surpasses others in all things, he walks with himself along the broad spaces of his own thoughts and silently utters his own phrases." As punishment, in Dante's Purgatorio, the proud are forced to bear enormous rocks on their backs.

The greatest flowering of pure egoism since the court of Louis XIV occurred in the 1970s. By 1974--the year the first issue of People came out--modern celebrity, crowned with obscene wealth and numbed by copious drug use, had created a strain of pride so virulent that it often destroyed its hosts.

The most brutally honest products of this period didn't find many listeners (and those that did become hits, like Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good", played it for laughs). Marvin Gaye's "Ego Tripping Out", a muddy, slurred lament to having lost all sense of scope, was released in 1979. It was meant to be the leadoff single to Gaye's Lover Man, but it flopped so hard that the album was never released. On The Very Best.

And Elton John's "Ego", another failed single (from 1978), features grasping celebrity vanity at its most naked. (For much more on "Ego", read Paul Shrug's wonderful post on this song). Bernie Taupin's lyrics are oddly straightforward for much of it, and John sings the hell out of them. (That said, "foolish/before-schoolish/amateurish/lose-your-cool-ish" is possibly the worst rhyming in the history of the English language.) The only way to get "Ego" officially is to buy the terrible album A Single Man.

Yes, master

Sometimes a pure egoist is wonderful to watch, especially one with a sense of his own ridiculousness. Take Reggie Jackson: "I represent both the underdog and the overdog in our society"; "I have to deal with the magnitude of me"; "I didn't come to New York to be a star, I brought my star with me.; "I'm the straw that stirs the drink". His teammate, Catfish Hunter, responded with some quips of his own: "[Reggie] would give you the shirt off his back. Of course he'd call a press conference to announce it." "When you unwrap a Reggie bar, it tells you how good it is."

Or take Mose Allison's wild man, who ate breakfast with a tiger and danced with Satan's grandmother. From 1964. (On the collection Allison Wonderland.)

It's all well until someone else's pride runs headlong into yours. From Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

"His pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud."

"That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."

National pride

Can patriotism be considered a sin? Are the people who chant "USA! USA!", as if the country were a top-ranked college football team, violating a core tenet of Western civilization?

The need to reclaim national pride after the Vietnam debacle became an obsession (for some) for 15 long years, until the luster allegedly was restored with the First Gulf War. Perhaps it was true. “Every troop I encountered during the Gulf War swelled with pride knowing about the support they had in the U.S...Vietnam vets [in Desert Storm] wept," one veteran said.

But even George Will, at the time of the First Gulf War, saw something troubling in the spectacle. "A peculiar kind of patriot says that by this war America "will get its pride back"...since when has American pride derived primarily from military episodes? A nation that constantly worries about its pride should worry. It is apt to confect military occasions for bucking itself up, using foreign policy for psychotherapy."

However, the American need to build up pride via fighting has had a long pedigree, especially the Scots/Irish who emigrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who populated Appalachia, the lower South and Texas.

David Hackett Fischer: "The rearing of male children in the back settlements was to foster fierce pride, stubborn independence and a warrior's courage in the young. An unintended effect was to creat a society of autonomous individuals who were unable to endure external control and incapable of restraining their rage against anyone who stood in their way." Their most notable representatives, in the years to come, would be Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sgt. York and George Patton, none strangers to pride.

Or as one backcountry man once said, "Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn."

In 1983, Bob Dylan recorded a jeremiad called "Foot of Pride." In it, Dylan wanders a blasted landscape plagued by the proud and the damned, the walking dead, half-men, Philistines, concert promoters--a world Dylan and Larry Charles attempted to recreate two decades later in the bizarre film Masked and Anonymous. (The phrase "foot of pride" comes from Psalms 36:11 ("let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me."))

A character who would prosper in such a world is Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden, in Blood Meridian, a soulless, brilliant murderer who believes war is the ultimate human achievement--the test of will against will. "Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?...[Man's] meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes."

(After recording this and its sister masterpiece "Blind Willie McTell" for 1983's Infidels, Dylan replaced them at the last minute with vastly inferior songs, hobbling the album. "Foot of Pride" was finally released a decade later on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3.)

Keeping pride

But let's not go out so apocalyptically. Pride's current place as a societal good has been a benefit for a great many people--especially for those who society has long taught to feel inferior. The history of African-American music in the 20th Century, in a way, is an establishment of and a joy in racial pride, from Ellington's "Black Beauty" to James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)". Or Muddy Waters, who loves the life he leads, and makes no bones about it. (From 1956; you can find it on Anthology.)

The emperor Marcus Aurelius said, "This may help keep you from vainglory...If you have truly seen what the facts are, never mind what others think of you, and be content to live the rest of your life as nature wills." Or listen to Merle Haggard, who shares the same sentiments. "I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am" is one of my favorite songs ever, sung with amazing dignity and power by Haggard (from 1968, found on Capitol Collectors Series.)

End credits

Adios, sins. I am indebted to (aka I ransacked for good bits) the following: Fairlie's the Seven Deadly Sins Today; Solomon Schimmel's The Seven Deadly Sins; and the collection Wicked Pleasures (esp. James Ogilvy's essay on greed, and Wm. Gass' on lust). The recent series of mini-books on the Sins is hit or miss--Pride isn't published yet, Wendy Wasserstein's Sloth is close to unreadable, an awful elephantine failed joke, and Robert Thurman's Anger starts well but ends as a sort of bikram yoga manual. The rest range from good (Joseph Epstein's Envy, Phyllis Tickle's Greed) to excellent (Francine Prose's Gluttony) to brilliant (Simon Blackburn's Lust.)

....and on the seventh sin, I rest. On vacation for a while. Enjoy yourselves. Please visit the blogs in the links column, all highly recommended.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Anger

"Patience wavers just so much as/Mortal grief compels, while touches/Quick and hot, of anger, rise/To smitten cheek and weary eyes."

Samuel L. Jackson, Ezekiel 25:17.
Cat Stevens, I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun.
Mission of Burma, That's When I Reach For My Revolver.
The Clash, Hate and War.
Lizzie Miles, I Hate a Man Like You.
Eleventh Dream Day, Murder.
Marvin Gaye, Anger.
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Anger in the Nation.

This is a sadly appropriate choice of sin for this morning. My prayers and condolences to the people of the UK.

Anger is everywhere--the salt in the blood. Anger, in its time, has conquered every nation, every province, seemingly every house. Envy and pride's fervid ambassador, anger spurs the stupid drunken fight at the corner bar, the terrorist detonating a bomb, the gunman in the office, the loud, crude voice behind you at the stop sign. Its victims are innumerable--the child who flinches when her father gets up from the table, the cringing dog, the toe-tagged corpse.

A popular modern incarnation of anger is the (usually American) sport of someone grabbing a gun and taking out his petty grievances and disappointments by shooting random people. Cat Stevens' "I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun" sums the mindset up: "You'll see the best of me," our merry psychotic tells us. "When I...have got...a gun!" ("Get Me a Gun", Stevens' 1967 follow-up to "I Love My Dog", is one of the strangest pop songs of the 1960s--a happy kid singing about murder, set to a jaunty arrangement out of a Disney movie score. (On Matthew and Son.))

Or take the Mission Of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," where the singer's world has gone to smash, and a gun's all that's left for him to talk with. On 1981's Signals, Calls and Marches.

Righteous rage

Anger is the only sin of the seven that usually gets a pass--it has been enlisted, since human civilization began, on the side of the powerful and the righteous. It is akin to fire--it warms, it's essential for life, it burns and kills. It has always been on our side, and on the gods'. The first word in the Iliad, Western civilization's opening line, is Μηνιν ("mēnin"), wrath.

"Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilleus
And its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the
Achaians…[who] gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
Of dogs, of all birds.

And then there is Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, perhaps the angriest, most frustrated and vengeful god in the cosmos. Yahweh seems permanently pissed off throughout the early books of the Bible--throwing Adam and Eve out of paradise and condemning them to pain, age and death; knocking down the Tower of Babel; destroying Sodom and Gomorrah; at last growing weary of the entire human race and drowning the whole world but for one favored family.

And He is given to blood-curdling threats via His prophets. “Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them” (Ezekiel 8:18); “I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury" (Isaiah 63:3); “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath (Psalm 90:11). Samuel Jackson's killer Jules, in Pulp Fiction, offers his own take on an Ezekiel verse (ghost-written by Quentin Tarantino) as a preamble to executing someone.

After centuries of retirement, when his gentler son took over the family business, the Old Testament God returned with a vengeance during the settlement of North America as the Puritans, confronted with a fearsome wilderness whose native peoples were seen as, alternately, threats or obstacles, found more need for the smiting Yahweh of the Old Testament than the forgiving, embracing Christ of the New.

The Reverend Jonathan Edwards, in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, describes a deity who has simply had it with we pathetic fallen humans, to the point of bloodlust. “He will crush you under His feet without mercy; He will crush out your blood, and make it fly and it shall be sprinkled on His garments, so as to stain all His raiment. He will not only hate you, but He will have you in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under His feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets.”

In another passage Edwards says the bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow is on the string, aimed right at you, “and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God…that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.” (In a sad unconscious parody of these sentiments, Oliver North was at the Kuwaiti border on the first day of the Iraq invasion, telling Fox News “The sword…is unsheathed. The blade…stands ready.”)

And in the Civil War anthem, Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Lord is leading a regiment marching through the South; in one of the lesser-known verses, Christ finally turns up, “in the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea", so not only was Christ apparently absent from the United States' founding, but he’s peacefully sitting amongst the flowers while his father goes about setting things to right.

Centuries of this sort of thing makes for a grim little world. In 1977, the Clash surveyed the landscape and recorded "Hate and War". The punk in this song is just floating with the current. ("And if I get aggression/I give 'em two time back"). On The Clash.

Kinder murders

Like envy, anger flourishes at home. You can hear it in Lizzie Miles' voice, confronting her no-good man with the sort of weariness that anger can kindle into blood rage. The man had better watch himself--it reminds me of the narrator of the Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love and Hate", who cats around on his woman until one day he wakes up in a hospital bed, "bandaged from feet to head." (Miles' 1929 song, written by Jelly Roll Morton, is on this compilation.)

Or in "Murder", in which a couple's relationship has clarified into a sort of communal anger that isn't going to end well for either party. Eleventh Dream Day is one of my favorite bands of the 1990s--this is off one of their best records, 1993's El Moodio (out of print, but easily available.)

Here's a bonus bit of familial rage, "I Hate Your Kid", found on Hammell on Trial's website.

Bad for the heart

Have you ever seen pure anger? Walking down 22nd St. one night, I stumbled into a brutal bar fight in which one drunk lout had decided to take on two waiters. The waiters, their smocks stained with blood from their shattered noses, were trying to get at the lout, while his desperate friends were trying to him pull away from the fray. The lout's face was blood-smeared, fevered, glassy eyed, his features were twisted in rage (he looked like a gored bull)--it was terrifying. If he had had a gun, he'd have used it.

(This sort of thing is why I stopped going to baseball games at Yankee Stadium--it seemed like whenever I went, wherever I sat, some drunken fight broke out near me..)

In "Anger", Marvin Gaye sings of rage's toxicity: Anger ages you, makes you ill, destroys your soul. "Up and down my back, my spine, in my brain..It injures me." On Marvin's bitter divorce album, 1978's Here My Dear.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote one of the finest works on anger, in which he disputes the notion that people simply lose control and submit to a sort of mindless devil anger inside them. Rather, he says anger “undertakes nothing on its own, but only with the mind’s approval. To receive an impression of wrong done to one, to lust for retribution, to put together the two propositions that the damage ought not to have been done and that punishment ought to be inflicted, is not the work of a mere involuntary impulse.”

In perhaps the finest passage in the essay, Seneca laments anger’s ruinous cost: “ No plague has cost the human race more…cities of greatest renown, their very foundations now scarcely discernible--anger has cast them down; deserts, mile after mile without inhabitant–anger emptied them.” As for the leaders who profited from anger in the short term, their fates are all the same: “anger made one the bleeding victim of his parricide son, told another to expose his royal throat to the hand of the slave…look upon gathered throngs put to the sword, on the military sent in to butcher the populace en masse.”

Fire this time

Anger is neccessary, of course, even vital at times. Much of the great changes of the modern world--the civil rights movements, the abolition of slavery, the rise of democracies--were owed to the work of seriously angry people.

And who would begrudge anger to people who truly deserve to use it? In the early 1960s, James Baldwin and some friends were at a bar in O'Hare Airport, "all of us well past thirty, and looking it." The racist bartender refuses to serve them because, he says, the men look "too young." "It took a vast amount of patience not to strangle him...when it was over, the three of us stood at the bar trembling with rage and frustration." (From The Fire Next Time.)

Aristotle mapped out five conditions for anger: the right person, right degree, right time, right purpose, right way. And here, Pete Rock tackles the problem his own way, in "Anger in the Nation." On 1992's Mecca and the Soul Brother.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Envy

"Deformed Persons, and Eunuches, and Old Men, and Bastards, are Envious: For He that cannot possibly mende his owne case, will doe what He can to impaire anothers."

Rick Springfield, Jessie's Girl.
Dorothy Fourbister, Ethel Findlater & John Strachan, The Twa Sisters.
The Kinks, Two Sisters.
The Brunettes, Best Friend Envy.
The Stoneage Hearts, Green with Envy.
Them, Richard Cory.
The Kinks, David Watts.
The Temptations, Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down.

Henry Fairlie once wrote there were no songs about envy, a claim the above list refutes (hopefully). Still, Fairlie was on to something--envy is the least appealing of the sins, the most secretive, the one to which the fewest among us will publicly admit. It's hard to locate a vein of pure envy in popular music--you have to sift through decades just to find a good prospect.

Envy is the palsied runt of the seven sins--pale, emaciated, but ever-wakeful, ever-insistent. "The vampire vice," (Don Herzog); "a stubborn weed of the mind," (Dr. Johnson); "unhappy self-satisfaction" (Kierkegaard). Its greatest exemplars are Cain, the first murderer, who slaughters his brother after God announces Abel's gift to him is more pleasing; Claggart in Billy Budd; Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield--cringing, covetous, bile-hearted ("You were always a puppy with a proud stomach, from your first coming here; and you envy me my rise, do you?"); the brilliant destroyer Iago, and "lean and hungry" Cassius.

Envy is a more precise sin than common use recognizes--it is quite separate from jealousy, for one. You are jealous of things you already possess (spouse, job status, etc.), but you are envious of things that others possess. The OED: envy is "the feeling of mortification and ill will caused by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another."

Envy is unique among the seven capital sins in that it needs another person's life to feed upon--it is the parasite of the seven. You can be slothful all alone, and even satisfy your lust by yourself, but envy requires the other--to hate, to obsess over, to covet. David Hume: "[men] always judge more of objects by comparison than from their intrinsic worth and value."

Further, envy is found everywhere--it is the dirt under the fingernails, the cursing driver on the highway, the desperate whisper keeping you from sleeping at night. As Dr. Johnson says: "Envy is the only vice which is practicable at all times, and in every place; the only passion which can never lie quiet for want of irritation; its effects therefore are every where discoverable, and its attempts always to be dreaded."

I want the one I can't have

There is a medieval legend about St. Martin, who comes upon an envious man and a greedy man. St. Martin, for kicks, decides to grant the men whatever each requests. The greedy man demands that he get twice as much of whatever the envious man asks for. So the envious man has to make his request first, and is tormented by the knowledge that the greedy man will get a better prize--finally, he comes upon a solution. The envious man asks St. Martin to rip out one of his eyes, so that the greedy man will be fully blinded.

A key ingredient of envy is that the envious person is convinced that the one he is envying is inferior--that the good fortune the envied person enjoys is somehow undeserved.

Nowhere is envy more honest than in adolescence--envy spends much of its time in the shadow, but here it comes out into the sun and lets its naked face be seen. In Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl", the problem isn't solely one of the singer coveting his friend's girl, but the fact that the girl chose Jessie instead of the singer, who thinks he deserved her more. "I've been looking in the mirror all the time," he confides. "Wondering what she don't see in me." The singer is convinced it is a cosmic wrong that the girl somehow wound up with Jessie, who, it must be said, the girlfriend seems to adore. "She's loving him with that body--I JUST KNOW IT!" Springfield came from a time when teen idols could rock pretty convincingly--on 1981's Working Class Dog.

Close enemies

Envy ripens upon familiarity. Take Brad Pitt--you might envy him in the abstract for being handsome and rich, but I doubt Pitt's success really consumes much of your thoughts. But imagine being Brad Pitt's childhood friend, or, worse, his sibling--then the envy might chafe.

Here is Hume again: "A mountain neither magnifies nor diminishes a horse in our eyes; but when a Flemish and a Welsh horse are seen together, the one appears greater and the other less, than when view'd apart."

I made the error, when I was a younger, stupider man, of being oblivious to sibling envy, one of envy's most vicious strains. A friend invited her sister, who I had never met, to dinner. Her sister arrived and turned out to be beautiful, funny and charming. After she left, I turned to my friend and, a bit wine-addled, said something like "Wow, your sister is pretty." Had there still been a knife on the table, I think she would have speared me through the throat.

"The Twa Sisters" is Child Ballad No. 10 (here's one variation of the lyric; here are tons more.) It is an ancient ballad, from Scotland or England, and the core concept is familiar to anyone's who seen Cinderella--a handsome suitor favors the prettier, but younger and poorer, of a pair of sisters. In the ballad, this leads, inevitably, to the envious elder sister killing the younger--the variations devise a number of methods; in this version, it's by drowning. Performed a cappella by Dorothy Fourbister, Ethel Findlater (from the Orkney isles) and John Strachan (from Aberdeenshire) on a field recording made in the early 1950s by Alan Lomax. Available here.

The Kinks' "Two Sisters," from 1967, is a bit less fatal. It's been speculated that this song is really about two brothers--that is, Ray and Dave Davies, with Ray casting himself in the dowdy sibling role, staying home writing concept albums while his more handsome and glamorous brother goes out to clubs all night. On the majestic Something Else, a very envy-laden album (see below).

Friendship is also a prime breeding ground for envy. (Gore Vidal: "Whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies.") In the Brunettes' "Best Friend Envy," the singer seethes about her friend's blessings while the friend herself seems oblivious. On 2004's Mars Loves Venus, which I wish would get released in the U.S. one of these days. More on the Brunettes, a great pop band from New Zealand, here.

Everything's gone green

Envy is also distinguished among the seven deadlies by having its trademark color. The origins of "being green with envy" are lost to antiquity, though it most likely came from the Greeks. Sappho uses a word that could either mean green or pale to describe how a stricken lover looks; and "calliste green", for example, is a reference to kalliste, Greek for fairest, from the color of the apple thrown by Eris, goddess of discord, into a wedding ceremony attended by the other goddesses. The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena all claim the apple, inscribed as being "to the fairest"; competition ensues; Trojan War results.

The poets took the color and painted with it. Ovid describes the goddess of envy: "a hoard of gall her inward parts possess'd./And spread a greenness over her cankered breast." And Iago, of course, contributes:

"O! beware my lord, of Jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on

Here's the most recent contribution to the lineage: Australia's Stoneage Hearts' "Green with Envy" is on Guilty as Sin. Visit their home page, where you can find this song and a few others.

Class envy

All of the sins I've written about so far have had their proponents, but can you make the case for envy? There is the concept of positive envy, in which a person's good qualities are so inspiring that lesser mortals attempt to emulate them. And envy can lead to general societal improvements, the way American automakers finally improved their cars' quality after years of getting their clocks cleaned by the Japanese.

(Not all professional envy is as inspiring. Take Paul Simon's "A Simple Desultory Philippic", probably the worst thing Simon ever wrote. Meant to be a parody of Bob Dylan, and other folk-rockers, it winds up instead exposing Simon's naked envy of Dylan. After all, the two were roughly the same age, were both middle-class and Jewish, both folk singers with rock & roll roots--but by 1965, Dylan was world-famous, dating Joan Baez and Edie Sedgwick, hailed as the voice of a generation, while Simon was an unknown folkie whose first record had flopped and whose second didn't even get released in the U.S. So when Simon sneers "He's so unhip--when you say Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas...whoever he was", the joke dies in his throat, and pure bilious envy comes out.)

Is class envy ever a force for good? One of its storied examples is Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory", one of those poems forcibly fed to generations of middle-school students, and turned into a pop song by Paul Simon, in which the masses envy the effortless, happy life of the town's rich scion, until he goes home and offs himself. (This version is by Van Morrison's first group, Them, from 1966. On The Story of Them.)

Or in the Kinks' "David Watts," in which the 'dull and simple' narrator is lying in bed at night craving the golden boy David Watts' entire life, even a crumb of it. You don't get the sense that David Watts is going to inspire the desperate singer to improve his life, however; the singer might as well be wishing that he had wings. Also found on Something Else.

an envious afterlife

So it seems envy will always be with us. The Temptations try to argue otherwise in 1969's "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down": "The Joneses got a new car today/here's what you should say:/Hooray! for the Joneses!" (On Anthology). But even the Tempts soon concede defeat: "Instead you worry till your whole head turns grey..."