Saturday, September 27, 2014

Quote of the Day (W.H. Auden, on Sigmund Freud)

“Of course they called on God, but he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
     to the stinking fosse where the injured
   lead the ugly life of the rejected,

and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
     our dishonest mood of denial,
   the concupiscence of the oppressor.”— W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” from Another Time (1940)

The death of Sigmund Freud in London occurred 75 years ago this week against the dark background of what he had called Civilization and Its Discontents: a war breaking out in Europe that would unleash the darkest impulses that human beings were capable of. It also came as a time of particular anguish for the pioneer of psychoanalysis: having left his beloved Vienna only when the Nazis who had thuggishly absorbed his country began to burn his books, he had been living in exile in London, suffering as mightily now in mind as much as in body.

Frequently, researchers will find on the Web articles that say that Freud died of cancer. This leaves out half of what happened—the more important part, even. To say that Freud was suffering from cancer doesn’t convey half of the horror he endured. As far back as 1923, he had been diagnosed with malignant oral epithelioma. The problem was that Freud could never bear to give up his cigars, which he thought made him more creative. By 1939, he was reduced to using prostheses to talk and eat, enduring repeated primitive X-rays and radium therapy, not to mention the post-op complications from 30 medical procedures.

No matter what one’s feelings about assisted suicide, it is difficult to accept the irony of a man who tried to help his patients cope with their psychic pain now battered by remorseless pain of his own—until, in a last stab of control of his life, Freud requested that his physician give him 21 milligrams of morphine. The request, fulfilled, ended his life.

The death of Freud also provided the occasion for another magnificent work, written in what might have been his annus mirabilus, by W.H. Auden. In 1939, a year of profound political and personal dislocation, Auden was inspired to write several of the poems that would be on the short list of his finest works: “September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “To an Unknown Citizen,” and this.

For most of the prior two decades, Auden had substituted Freudian psychology and sociology for the High Anglican faith in which he had been raised. By the end of the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s, he was questioning whether these were sufficient for understanding a suddenly darker world. (There is a hint of this in his elegy for Freud, with the line, “Only Hate was happy,” and there seems an uncanny premonition about the Final Solution in the phrase “covering the garden with ashes.”

The following year, Auden had returned to his former religious practice.

Yet, a dozen years after his return to religion, Auden had not so much rejected Freudianism as subordinated. In a 1952 New Republic essay, he posited that, even “if every one of his theories should turn out to be false, Freud would still tower up as the genius who perceived that psychological events are not natural events but historical and that, therefore, psychology, as distinct from neurology, must be based on the pre-suppositions and methodology, not of the biologist but of the historian.”

Extraordinarily, in a way that even the man Auden called “The Master” might not have anticipated, Auden laid out the case for Freud as a figure of moral agency: “In the long run, however, the welcome given to psychoanalysis by the public is based on a sound intuition that it stands for treating everyone as a unique and morally responsible person, not as a keyboard--it speaks of the narcissism of the Ego, but it believes in the existence of that Ego and its capacity to recognize its own limitations--and that in these days is a great deal.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

This Day in Pop Music History (Pain of ‘Walking in the Sand’ Becomes Gold)

September 26, 1964—“The Leader of the Pack” is far better remembered by fans of the girl group the Shangri-Las, but it wasn’t their first hit in 1964 or, for my money, their best. That distinction belongs to "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," which rose to number five on the pop charts on this date.

The 22-year-old composer and producer of the song, George (Shadow) Morton, nothing if not brash, claimed to have cranked it out in less than a half hour on a dare. But its influence contrasts sharply with the putative time spent composing it. It has been covered by, to name just a few artists, Aerosmith, Imelda May (with Jeff Beck on blazing guitar, in this YouTube clip), and British singer Hollie Cook, in “tropical pop” fashion.

But the more immediate, seismic effects may have been exhibited within a decade by two males roughly the same age as the teen quartet who first recorded it: Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.  

One of the distinctive features of the song, its piano opening, may have been supplied by Joel, whom a friend had wangled this, his first recording session. He was trying to be inconspicuous, hoping that nobody would guess that he did not belong to a union. (It may have been in vain; he never got paid for his work, which also included “The Leader of the Pack.”)

But he kept his eyes about him, particularly when it came to Morton, who, according to a 1987 interview that the Piano Man gave to Uncut Magazine, had “a very theatrical way of producing, he used to wear a cape in the studio. I don't know if he'd been taking any intoxicating substances – what did I know at that age? – but he was very intimidating to a young kid like me.” 

It was quite an education the youth was getting in the realities of the recording industry: a world where a song could be cobbled together, piece by piece, with singers and session players not necessarily there at the same time; where substance abuse was rampant; where musicians’ pay might be at the mercy of forces beyond their control; where a producer with a vision (even one with little if no experience, like Morton), could make a difference in a single recording or an entire career.

How much Joel contributed to that song and “The Leader of the Pack” was ambiguous, he admitted later, since he never received a formal acknowledgement of his work. So, even though the demo he laid down was, according to his recollection, note for note, what appeared on these final records, it’s possible that another, union musician came in and re-recorded the work.

If Joel’s relationship to “(Remember) Walking in the Sand” was ambiguous, Springsteen’s was positively shadowy. But, though he never had direct working experience with the song, it may have left its mark on him. 

Years ago, I recall, a Rolling Stone overview of rock ‘n’ roll music pointed out the resemblance between this song and Springsteen’s “Backstreets.” I don’t remember at this point what those similarities were, but it’s not impossible to discern them, all these years later, even though the Sixties single was estrogen-driven while his own was testosterone-powered:

1    1) Both feature a memorable piano opening. Morton, producing within the brutal realities of radio programmers who liked singles three minutes long (or, better yet, two minutes long), worked economically in engaging the public’s interest. These weren’t just any chords on the keys; their melodramatic descent suggested a dying fall, a requiem. On the other hand, Springsteen may not have employed Roy Bittan to more emotionally shattering effect than on “Backstreets.” (Rolling Stone reviewer Greil Marcus thought this minute-long instrumental intro so powerful that “it might be the prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.")

2      2) Both are flashbacks to summer by the shore. The Shangri-Las not only sang of a lover who “went away ‘cross the sea,” but, of course, evoked memories of their relationship in the title. Springsteen evokes the season from his first line, “One soft infested summer.”

3      3) Both are heavily atmospheric. Morton created atmosphere primarily through sound effects—specifically, seagull cries. With six and a half minutes that practically defied any attempt to tame it into a single, Springsteen concentrated on evoking time and place through lyrics: sleeping in “that old abandoned beachhouse,” the heat, Stockton’s Wing, and juke joints. His use of the organ is a muted echo of the calliope circus noise of seaside amusement parks that would have been ever present to him at the Jersey Shore.

4      4) Both searingly recall a loss and betrayal. The letter received by the heroine-narrator of “Walking in the Sand” not only announces that her relationship with her boyfriend is over, but explains the reason why: he’d found somebody else. The middle of “Backstreets” points to “the lies that killed us” as destroying the lovers’ relationship, but then becomes more specific: “I hated him and I hated you when you went away.” For each song, the lead vocals—by, respectively, Mary Weiss and The Boss—could hardly be more painful and lacerating.

It might startle some to think that Springsteen might have been influenced by the Shangri-Las, but for a long time it has been obvious that the names of those who lighted his musical path have been far more numerous than the obvious: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison, James Brown, The Beatles. He represents a wild magpie of elements of music: not just folk and rock ‘n’ roll, but country, heavy metal, the horn section of the Dave Clark Five, classic soul, and yes, girl groups (specifically referencing The Ronettes in his 2012 keynote address at Austin's South by Southwest music festival)

His apprenticeship in Jersey Shore bars positioned him perfectly to absorb these and other influences—and even before that, 1964 could have been considered an absolutely formative period in his career, since he caught the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and in A Hard Day’s Night. So there is a strong possibility that the Shangri-Las also impressed themselves on his growing musical consciousness.

By his own recollection, Morton had turned out “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” after he had brazenly told composer Jeff Barry that he wrote “hit songs” and the experienced Brick Building hand had challenged him to bring in one. Unlike so many others in that musical incubator—Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Bacharach and David, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King—Morton's time in the business was short. 

Morton might just as well have gone “ ‘cross the sea” like the wayward lover of his first hit song, as first he spent years fighting alcoholism, then chose a whole new career in the 1980s: designing golf clubs. 

Appropriately enough for the creator of The Shangri-Las’ two greatest love songs, he died on Valentine’s Day in 2013. He had never written a single tune before “Walking in the Sand,” but at the time of his death, he had more than 300 to his credit, most still unrecorded.

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on the Road Within Reach)

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Photo of the Day: All Over But the Shouting at Yankee Stadium

I took this photo late last month, on the end of my first visit to Yankee Stadium in 30 years (a game—and win—against the Chicago White Sox that I discussed in this post). This particular shot, taken just before I left the House That Ruth Built—on a night that Martin Prado won on a walk-off hit—left fans like myself giddy. It came when there was still a thin reed of hope for the season.

Tonight’s emotional victory, in Derek Jeter’s dramatic finale to his career at the stadium, gilded over what was, in many ways, a deeply unnerving glimpse this season into the future of the New York Yankees. It is not unlike 1967 and 1968, when best friends (and future Hall of Famers) Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle played their last seasons—only this time, it was Mariano Rivera and Jeter bidding farewell.

Next year, the Steinbrenners will not have a pair of Cooperstown first-ballot inductees from the most recent dynasty to give temporary jolts of adrenalin to the box office—and the clubhouse. Say what you want about Jeter’s declining skills, but at 40 years old, he still managed to make it onto the field, more often than not, to play the second most-difficult infield position (after catcher) and to provide much-needed grit and fire.

An hour after I was whooping it up at The Captain’s walk-off hit against the Orioles, I am feeling gloomy, peering into the Bombers' future.

Start with that hole at shortstop. The Yankees admit there is nobody within their minor league system who can play the position in The Show, never mind make fans forget a legend. The possibility that has bubbled to the surface has become all too sadly typical of the approach of the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman:  J.J. Hardy, shortstop of the currently ascendant Baltimore Orioles, a player who, at 32 years old, will probably begin the downward arc of his career shortly--just when he would be rewarded with an onerous long-term contract.

Tonight is when the cheering stopped for this season. The feel-good departures of Mo and The Captain the past two seasons only partially obscured the disturbing fact that the Yankees missed the playoffs for two years in a row for the first time in two decades. Next year won’t mark the long goodbyes of two homegrown products, but the very awkward return of Alex Rodriguez, a hired gun who epitomizes the worst tendency of the Steinbrenner Era. There won’t even be a trace of a nostalgic era of good feelings then.