Friday, June 22, 2018

Lenny and the Wolfe

While you all were starting to attach the monstrous comment thread to yesterday's post, I found myself watching a video I'd never seen, or I think even heard of, a documentary thing, from 1967, extraordinarily awkward and even painful for me, starting off kind of randomly with what looks like outtakes of the composer, conductor, teacher, and all-round showman Leonard Bernstein of the New York Philharmonic trying to have something like an interview with the composer, producer, and singer Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (I'm pretty sure, but I could be wrong, he's not identified), scowling at each other. Brian, of course, never could talk even before his famous breakdown, and Lenny couldn't stop talking, no matter how awkward it got, to the point where it seriously interfered with his work.

The Wilson episode breaks off and the show proper begins with the thing I was looking for, the spectacle of Bernstein sitting at the piano explaining in terms appropriate to an audience of people his own age, roughly my parents' age, a public TV audience, why he loves the Beatles, in the context of a broader discussion of why rock music at that Summer-of-Love moment is important, artistically and politically, addressed to people who think it's disgusting and frightening. It's everything I remember about Bernstein, the fluency in an academic language making him sound as if he isn't very familiar with colloquial English, the fluency at the piano illustrating his points effortlessly, the ridiculous barking conductor's singing voice, and the way he brings his immense technical understanding into the explanation with a deep trust that the listeners will be able to understand stuff they don't know, refusal to imagine they aren't after all just as smart as he is, the generous and democratic certainty that we'll get what he's saying even if we don't know all the words, and we do get it, precisely because he trusts us so much.

I can't tell you how much I learned from him, watching the Young People's Concerts on TV as a little kid, but it was a lot. I can remember specific instances, from the very well known (the way the da-da-da-dum rhythmic cell recurs in a variety of forms, some hidden, all over Beethoven's fifth symphony) to things nobody would imagine talking about until he pointed them out to you (the crazy and enchanting shifts in key through the melody of the Séguedille in the first act of Carmen, unexpectedly related to Prokofiev), and the way he talked like a book, but a book that's a little too close to you and embarrassingly sincere.

Everything he has to say about rock is like that, technically perfect, urgently communicated, emotionally awkward. I don't think it's likely he knew how much George Martin had to do with the effects he admired so much in Lennon and McCartney. The thing that led me to the video (I posted "Oh Happy We" from Bernstein's Candide on the thread, Jordan mentioned the Beatles, and it occurred to me that there's a weird feature of the Bernstein song that is found in no other popular music I know of except by the Beatles, the 7/4 meter of "All You Need Is Love", and I wondered what, if anything, he had to say about them) comes up indirectly in remarks on "Good Day Sunshine" and "She Said She Said". At the end of the segment, he introduces 16-year-old Janis Ian to sing "Society's Child", the song about the white girl being forbidden by her parents to see the black boy she loves, after pointing out the extraordinary formal strangeness of the song, which I've never noticed before, though I feel as if I've known the song all my life, and then she comes over to his seat at the piano and he thanks her effusively, grasping and crushing her hand in his two hands, overwhelmed with emotion, as if he thought she was Mozart.

Then there's half an hour without Bernstein, featuring what seems like all the musicians living in Laurel Canyon just before Joni Mitchell showed up, from earnest hippie Graham Nash to stern teetotalitarian Frank Zappa, and an unaccountable focus on the silly English band Herman's Hermits, sharpening the point of Bernstein's introductory remark that 95% of this new music is no good. The whole experience of it is like a conversation with your father in which he tries to explain that he understands your torment better than you understand it yourself, except that at a certain very important level Lenny really does.

I've never managed to fall in love with any of Bernstein's work as a "classical" composer, it's never seemed to me to come into focus (pro tip for Jordan: On the Waterfront was scored by Elmer Bernstein, no relation [I'm completely wrong about that]). And maybe it just doesn't have focus—he's always trying to plug all that knowledge and all that forced intimacy into everything, all at once, and there's too much pastiche and too little drive. I came to realize as a grownup that there were also serious defects in his conducting, especially the unreliable sense of tempo that made him sometimes sound, conducting a truly Classical score—a Haydn or Brahms symphony—as if he must be drunk. But in his teaching, I think the defects are a kind of feature-not-a-bug, the awkwardness and sheer strain of watching him is a necessary factor in how you learn so much.

And in the show music, the defects aren't even important: Broadway is all dancing between pastiche and raw emotion, just about, so there's nothing to complain about, and the number structure means no song is long enough to lose focus—the dance music in West Side Story goes on awfully long, I guess, but it's there to support the dancing, and I bet it's not too long in the electricity of a live performance, however much it drags in the movie. You can't judge a musical by its film version—the movie Kiss Me Kate is abominable, and My Fair Lady is wrong from start to finish, but these are great shows. And so are West Side Story and On the Town; Candide isn't, but that's not Bernstein's fault, it's the stable of extremely distinguished New Yorker–type writers, including Richard Wilbur and Lillian Hellman, who have made an indigestible mishmash of Voltaire's story. (You can't blame Bernstein for the triviality of the Shakespeare reference in West Side Story either, not that there's anything wrong with it, it's just architecture.) The music is wonderful from start to finish, the complexity and learned reference that's there to excite the academics (Gershwin and Porter and Meredith Willson, as Lenny would tell you, do similar tricks, and of course so do Lennon/McCartney/Martin) doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of the less educated but slides right by. Bernstein is absolutely one of the great Broadway composers, in my opinion.

(I haven't really listened to any Lloyd Webber since Jesus Christ Superstar, which I liked quite a lot, just because I'm so repelled by what I take to be his audience from Evita onwards, reactionary petite bourgeoisie and Japanese tourists, alongside the part he played in the whole financialization of the Broadway musical, and the fact that I can go to the Metropolitan Opera for a quarter of the price or better, on a whim instead of preparing months in advance—I can't imagine I'd like anything those people would like. So maybe I shouldn't have used him as a point of comparison, but it was Anne Midgette who brought him up. Ned Rorem, who came up a lot in the comments, is/was a composer of "art songs" of an almost deliberately minor quality and extremely limited range, loved by opera singers in the 1950s and 1960s for giving them something for song recitals that sounded "modern" and "smart" without making any actual demands on them, vocally or intellectually. That's probably too mean, he's very skilled and the songs are well made and not stupid, and the singers wouldn't have liked them so much if they were actually boring; they're just not very interesting to me. Haven't read the diaries.)

Felicia Montealegre, Leonard Bernstein, and Donald Cox, from the Huffington Post article by Jamie Bernstein cited below (I found it looking for evidence that Wolfe might have been lying when he said Montealegre was a blonde—she was, at the time.)

Which brings me back to the "Radical Chic" story in which the rightwing journalist Tom Wolfe famously exposed Bernstein as a poser and a fool, on the occasion in 1970 when he invited a delegation of Black Panthers to his Park Avenue apartment to meet a crowd of celebrity friends, which in retrospect looks more than a little different.

To begin with because Wolfe is literally posing, taking the voice of a witness to something he hasn't witnessed as he re-reports the reporting of the New York Times's Charlotte Curtis, a brilliant writer condemned by her employer to cover debutante balls and weddings, for which she avenged herself by developing the acid pen that Tom Wolfe made his reputation by imitating, or as Wolfe himself called her in his New York Magazine essay,
Charlotte Curtis, women’s news editor of the New York Times, America’s foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin. Cheray tells her: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!”... never dreaming that within 48 hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States...
In fact what Curtis wrote was, "... Mrs. Duchin went to the Bernsteins'. Until then, she had never laid eyes on a Panther. 'They have raised some  important questions,' she said afterwards." I'll get back to Mrs. Duchin in a minute. (I don't mean to suggest Wolfe wasn't actually at the party, which Jamie Bernstein says both he and Curtis managed to crash, though press were not invited.)

A more significant fabrication is the opening, in which Wolfe begins to imagine Bernstein coming up with the idea for his Panther party as an event to dramatize his own grandeur and compassion, starting off as an antiwar event into which a "Negro" oddly intrudes  and takes over:

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart. Who the hell was this Negro rising up from the piano and informing the world what an ass Leonard Bernstein was making of himself? It didn’t make sense, this superego Negro by the concert grand.

In fact, according to Jamie Bernstein, the event was conceived and organized by her mother, the Chilean-born actress and longtime ACLU volunteer Felicia Montealegre, and as Curtis and Wolfe knew perfectly well it had a practical aim:
In 1970, I was a senior in high school when my mother, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, organized a fundraising gathering at our New York apartment to help 21 Black Panther members who were in jail. Stranded there indefinitely due to unfairly inflated bail amounts, the 21 men were awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots around New York City. The money my mother raised would go to the men’s legal defense fund, and would also help their families stay fed and sheltered until the trial came around. (And when the trial finally did come around, the judge threw the whole case out for being unsubstantiated and patently ridiculous.)
To most white Americans at the time, the Black Panthers were scary. The group had come into being to protest race-based police brutality, but the Panthers gained greater notoriety for being socialist; for advocating black empowerment “by any means necessary;” and for being anti-Zionist, which had particularly negative resonance in New York City.
Of course Curtis or Wolfe had no idea that the Panthers might be innocent of the crimes imputed to them, and it didn't occur to them to wonder about it, but it did occur to Mrs. Peter Duchin, wife of the esteemed cocktail pianist, that they might not be getting a fair trial:

While you're enjoying Wolfe's delicious send-up of the clueless East Side aristocrats feeding cheese balls rolled in crushed nuts to the fearsome afro-wearing criminals, you might pause to note that they were in fact innocent of all the charges against them and that the money raised that night certainly did them some good, as well as educating Mrs. Duchin about some things we all need to know more about. And that the Jewish Defense League picketers who showed up outside the building on the next morning (and every day for weeks thereafter, Jamie had to fight her way through them on her way to and from school) to protest the Bernsteins' involvement with the anti-Zionist Panthers, as Curtis's first article appeared in the society pages of that day's Times, were planted there by the FBI, which had been following the event closely and whose file on the great though undisciplined conductor eventually reached 800 pages.

I'm learning the worst of this—Wolfe's fabrications (I knew he lifted liberally from Curtis, but I've never realized the extent to which he made shit up), and the fact that he and Curtis were working, wittingly or unwittingly but directly, for J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon (who would be reading what the guests said "within 48 hours" of their utterance) and their propaganda machine—right now, as I'm writing, and I'm literally shaking with rage.

And once you start seeing it, the poison's everywhere, as in Wolfe appraising a recipe in Vogue's new "Soul Food" column for "sweet potato pone":
A little sacramental pone . . . as the young’uns skitter back in through the loblolly pine cabin doorway to help Mama put the cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves and nutmeg back on the Leslie Foods “Spice Island” spice rack . . . and thereby finish up the communion with those who, not having to, eat those foods voluntarily as a sacrament.
Isn't it hilarious, Wolfe is thinking, that Vogue readers think the savage Negroes could manage to have cinnamon and ginger in their kitchens!

Or this, just afterwards:
In fact, this sort of nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls, was one of the things that brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society. Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.”
The phrase has nothing to do with "romanticizing of primitive souls"; it's a nostalgia, or homesickness, so that the mud it refers to is the mud from which one came, the seamy place we inhabited before we got rich, and when Wolfe uses it this wrong way
During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres
the mud he's talking about becomes a nasty reference to the Negroes, the dreadful Delta inspiration of the Stones and the dreadful Puerto Rican boxer.

(Another shameful Wolfe mistake, while I'm on the subject, is the repeated assertion that Felicia Montealegre has a "Mary Astor voice" where he's clearly confused the grandest of all New York society doyennes, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, with the spunky actress who played Brigid O'Shaugnessy in The Maltese Falcon and never sounded anything like snooty, something an editor really should have saved him from.)

This is not what I planned to be writing about. What I meant to write about was the weird colloquy Bernstein had when he got home from rehearsal that night (an hour or two into the party, which hadn't been scheduled with him in mind) with the Panthers' Don Cox, which stands at the center of Curtis's and Wolfe's stories:

Because its awkwardness, brought out here by the use of jazz slang, "dig" and "wing", is exactly the same awkwardness as that of the Brian Wilson interview, really a desperate desire to show his love and respect to the person who doesn't know him yet. It is funny, but it's kind, and it doesn't deserve to be savaged, least of all by a tool of the Cointelpro.

This, with Maria Ewing doing surprising things around the break in her middle voice—practically yodeling—as Carmen escaping from administrative detention. The tenor strangely resembles John Cleese.

No comments:

Post a Comment