Lawrence of Arabia on a motorcycle Being a relatively goal-oriented type, I have never been able to sympathize with the urge to ride motorcycles–or, for that matter, to go sky-diving. The sensation of freefall doesn’t appeal to me, and neither does the idea of tooling along a hard road at 60 miles per hour (or faster) without the protection of a heavy metal frame around me.

Still, that’s no reason for me to hate motorcycles. I don’t want to dictate other people’s behavior except as it impinges on my own. I do think that motorcyclists should have a completely separate insurance pool so that their high fatality rate (see Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating book “Traffic”) should not cost me money. But as long as that applies, and their behavior doesn’t impinge on my life, motorcycles are none of my business.

Ah, there’s the rub.

Most motorcycles in my area do impinge on my life. And it’s because most of them constantly violate the law.

If I drove a car that made as much noise as the average motorcycle does, I’d get a ticket. In fact, it happened to me once, shortly after something flew up from the road and banged my muffler, destroying it. I took the ticket with good grace, explained the situation to the judge, and paid a small fine.

But most motorcycles drive around with their mufflers deliberately bypassed or removed. The cyclists call them “straight pipe,” meaning the exhaust pipe is just that, a pipe that runs straight out of the engine without encountering any obstacles. No motorcycles leave the factory set up like that. They couldn’t be sold legally anywhere in the United States. So the straight pipe cycles are illegally altered by their owners or mechanics, and they ride around making hideous amounts of noise with impunity.

I once asked a local policeman why he never gave a motorcyclist a ticket for riding without a muffler. He couldn’t give me an answer; he really didn’t know why, except that nobody did it.

So here I am on an unexpectedly warm and sunny day in October, sitting on a bench on the main drag in Woodstock, reading poems from a just-purchased book (by the excellent Georganna Millman) to my wife, being forced to stop at least once per poem to let the noise of a motorcycle or a group of them go by.

During the wonderful Maverick Concerts summer season, in a small wooden “music chapel” well off a side road, Beethoven String Quartets are often blotted out by the noise of motorcycles roaring past.

And why do these motorcyclists make their machines noisy, risking their hearing (which they inevitably damage) and the wrath of the people they pass? Because they like the noise.

That policeman who told me he never ticketed noisy motorcyclists said that it would be difficult to prove a motorcycle was noisy without measuring it as it passed on a sound level meter. (The cop who gave me a ticket for a noisy muffler had no such problem.) I suggested to him that simply driving a motorcycle without a muffler was proof enough, but he said it wasn’t. You had to catch the noisy cycle in the act.

OK. Following that line of reasoning, it seems I could take action on my own.  Theoretically I could buy me a big shotgun and sit myself down at the intersection of Routes 212 and 375 where most traffic arrives in Woodstock. When I hear a straight pipe motorcycle, I could just blast the hell out of it. If I caught the rider too, well, too bad, just collateral damage. When the cops came to bust me, I’ll could explain to them that they can’t arrest me because they didn’t catch me in the act.

I’ll have to consult my lawyer on this. We’ll see what he says.

(Incidentally, my title is paraphrased from the composer Lou Harrison, who titled a movement in one of his orchestral works “A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb.”)

The poor die here in the streets
and are quickly paved over.
Their bodies may not be allowed to disrupt
the flow of money through the gutters.

Money! it’s all that counts here.
You all must know–don’t you?–that this politics shit
is just a shadow play
to divert attention away
from the flow of money.

Black and white,
woman and man,
we grab onto
as much as we can.

Dollar bills are too trivial, too bulky,
too easy to find and follow.
We deal in billions here, my friends!
Have you ever seen a billion dollar bills?
Of course not. Your eyes
can’t reach that far.
But our money, the real stuff, has no physical body.
It’s electronic, ethereal, almost spiritual.

Every once in a while, one of the news fools
finds out something about the money, or our fun.
Next thing you know, she’s got her own show
on Fox Noise, and the story goes to sleep.

Our fun, yes:  money buys us:
little boys with tight pulsating assholes;
tight young women who drool at the sight
of rich fat old men; finest Afghan leather
bondage straps; and doctors
who can cure anything we pick up.

This is what we dreamed of in our teens.
Everything we ever wanted, only better.
No limits. None. This country generates
trillions of useless dollars. Why waste any
on so-called citizens who don’t have the brains
to steal it for themselves?
Better we should spend it
making sure they know
whom to vote for.

What’s really fun is watching movies
about how bad we are.
People go to see them. Get mad. Seethe.
Foam at the mouth, drool on the floor
where their saliva is soaked up
by the crushed remains
of industrial popcorn. Meanwhile,
guess who owns the movie studio,
the distributors. the theaters.
Who rakes in the admission price.
Who fucks the starlets.

The guy who invented the machine
that wraps fake cheese slices in cellophane
just gave a million dollars to my campaign.
Our Supreme Court said it was OK.
Gonna ask him for a million more.

I was already a fan of Richard Thompson before the first time I heard him in person. That event occurred in St. Petersburg, Florida, more than 20 years ago. My wife and I were vacationing in the area and when I heard that Thompson was playing I had to go to hear him.

When we arrived at the venue we were considerably unimpressed. It was a seedy-looking bar with a total of one chair in the entire place. We got there early enough to secure that chair, where my wife sat sipping white wine and waiting for something worthwhile to happen.

That took quite a while. The show started late, and opened with a local woman folksinger who had nothing worthwhile to offer. After a few minutes, my wife Tara started looking at me and mouthing, “Let’s get out of here.” I insisted we wait. Once Thompson began singing, Tara took my hand and beamed.

Since then, I’ve heard Thompson in three different nearby venues. He performed once with his band at the Bearsville Theater, which seats about 250 people, three miles from my home. The place was packed. He’s also performed once at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie–the theater where Ed Wood got his start in movies, as an usher. That place seats almost a thousand people, and it too was full. Most often, we have heard him at The Egg, a complex of two theaters in Albany. He performed, with and without his band, at the larger Carlisle Theater, which also seats almost a thousand (and has no bad seats). The hall was never sold out, but it was usually about 90% full.

The hall was about 90% full when Thompson performed his solo act there on October 13. But after being announced for the Carlisle Theater, he was moved to the Swyer Theater, less than half the size of the Carlisle. This seems to be a drastic falling-off of attendance since the last show, by about half. Perhaps most Capital District Thompson fans prefer the band, although I’ll never go to see it again. The last time, although the performance was spectacular, the volume was so loud it hurt my ears. (In correspondence I learned that The Egg’s director agreed with me but blamed the traveling sound man who came with the band. Well, nuts. It’s not his theater.)

Then again, maybe the problem was that Thompson was performing the following night at the Mahaiwe Theaterr in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, about half an hour away….

Still, what is there left to say about this man? Probably nothing new, but I’m inspired to rehash anyway. I think Richard Thompson is one of the most remarkable performers I’ve ever heard. Usually, when I hear a singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, one of those aspects is most outstanding and the others follow behind. Not with this guy! He is one of the greatest guitar players I have ever heard, and he’s not limited by any genre. While he does have a basic folk style, he plays it with more elaboration and virtuosity than anyone else I can think of, and he’s just as adept as a rock guitarist. (Some day I’d like to hear him try a movement of Bach. He obviously has the chops.) In one of his performances at The Egg, an obscure but highly amusing Frank Loesser version of “Hamlet,” he gave a convincing impersonation of a 1940s jazz guitarist. He sings with tremendous power and range, with breath control an opera singer might envy, and his diction is among the clearest I’ve ever heard. And as a songwriter, he is one of the geniuses of his time. Many other performers use his songs, often to great effect, although it’s rare that anyone can outdo Thompson in his own material. His lyrics are memorable, and his melodies are accompanied by harmonic and rhythmic complexity far beyond the ambitions of most songwriters.

At this show, I was especially struck by a song called “Pharaoh,” which sounded as though it had been written as a theme song for the Occupy Wall Street movement (which I had joined, although at Wall Street in Kingston, New York, earlier the same day.) It wasn’t until I got on line that I discovered the song was first recorded in Thompson’s album “Amnesia” in 1998!

The Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD On a recent vacation I took a batch of videos of old TV shows with me for evening entertainment. One of them, which I had been eager to start watching, was a set called “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” (Shout! Factory SF 12359). I loved Kovacs when I was a teenager and he was still broadcasting, and since his death I have always looked for opportunities to see some of his work. I still have tapes of a Kovacs series broadcast on Comedy Central Sundays at midnight, and I also have an earlier Kovacs DVD issue. But this is the most extensive Kovacs collection ever issued, and I’m sure I’ll be enjoying it for months. He was a comedy genius and a visionary in the use of television as a medium, and although his work is dated technically its imagination remains fresh.

Kovacs was a great classical music enthusiast and often used classical pieces in his programs. But I’d never seen a one-hour special called “Kovacs on Music” until this publication. It was originally broadcast in 1959, done with a full orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn! Most of the items use music as settings or background for comedy, but there is one completely serious performance:  the opening aria from Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” sung by Kovacs’ wife Edie Adams. Adams was a successful pop singer, and she continued to have something of a career after her husband’s death. (She made enough money to pay off in full a $500,000 tax debt he had left.) But I had no idea she had the classical chops to perform this difficult music. And after hearing Joan Baez’s miserable attempt to sing the piece, as soon as I heard the announcement of what was coming I expected the worst. I was totally surprised. Adams’s is one of the most beautiful performances of the music I have ever heard, even to the very difficult pianissimo humming at the end. She was actually a Juilliard graduate in voice, and fell into pop singing almost by accident. If I were more familiar with Los Angeles cellists of that period, I’d probably recognize some of the cellists, too.

Another item I brought with me is one of Mill Creek’s super-bargain video sets, Essential Family Television, a 12-disc set with 150 programs on it (no catalog number that I can find). Of course most of them are junk that nobody in his right mind would want to see today. And some of the promising items (like a Phil Silvers special co-starring Jack Benny) turn out to be disappointing. But the Jack Benny programs are still quite entertaining, and although the two Buster Keaton Show episodes aren’t very good it’s always a great treat for me to see Buster in action; he’s one of my heroes.

One evening I decided to try a Milton Berle show. I hadn’t seen Uncle Miltie in years but I remembered him as being pretty funny at his best, and there had to be some reason why for several years he had the most popular show on television. Sure enough, the first (of five) episodes began with some frantic but pretty funny comedy. It was a weekly program, and nobody could have come up with and performed live that much wild comedy every week, so the program was always filled out with guests, some comedians, some musicians. About 2/3 of the way into the show, Berle introduced an amazing 15-year-old violinist, and I shouted in astonishment when he announced the young man’s name:  Michael Rabin. I’d never seen Rabin on video before. He played Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinoise” (the title never announced) like the young master he was. That two minutes justified for me the cost of the entire set. Incidentally, a few minutes later Vivienne della Chiesa showed up for another wonderful performance.

Classical music on commercial TV was not so rare in the past as it is now. Johnny Carson would often have celebrity classical performers as guests, and they would show up on other programs with loose enough formats. In December of 1964 I saw my friend Jacob Lateiner playing a Beethoven Piano Sonata on a Sunday morning arts program over Channel 4 New York (WNBC-TV). The most recent such use of classical performers I’ve seen was the Colorado Quartet playing Piazzolla on “Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular” over FX, and that was a good decade ago.

Peggy Lee - Black Coffee
Peggy Lee: Black Coffee. Verve B0003093-02

Found this one at a genuine garage sale, one of eight CDs I bought for a dollar each. Most of them were for sale but this one I wanted to listen to. I also liked the packaging, which reproduces the original Decca LP jacket on the front and—as I could tell, since the disc wasn’t sealed — the original 10” issue jacket also, along with the program notes from both editions (they are almost identical) both in microtype and in readable size. I remember Peggy Lee from when I was very young. I had a 78 of her “Manana” (a novelty song, insulting to Mexicans, which she both wrote and sang) and I listened to her often through the years since. I liked an expression from the new jacket blurb, “a glamorous beacon whose sultry voice gave her performances a shimmering eroticism.” Yes. That same paragraph claims that the original 1953 10” edition of “Black Coffee” was the first jazz project by any “mainstream” singer. Maybe.

The reissue notes by Will Friedland, “jazz reviewer for The New York Sun” (not exactly a prestige gig), go a lot further. “Peggy Lee’s album ‘Black Coffee’ not only may be the greatest album of her career, it is also one of the top ten jazz vocal albums of all time.” Sorry, Will, that’s going miles too far. It’s a good album, yes, and it might be Lee’s own favorite and even her best album. But I can easily name ten better jazz vocal albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, or Billie Holliday, among others. In fact, any Billie Holliday album is better jazz than this one, with the sole exception of her very last, “Lady in Satin,” with its hideous arrangements. And what makes this a “concept album”? That all the songs have something to do with love? That they’re all accompanied by jazz ensembles? (There are two different ones, one for the original 1953 10” album, a completely different one for the supplementary 1956 tracks.) I don’t buy the idea. And if you want to hear a supposed mainstream pop singer singing jazz, try the live album of Frank Sinatra’s Australian tour with a group led by Red Norvo. That’s jazz!

Too much negativity here. I enjoyed hearing “Black Coffee” quite a bit. Lee sings beautifully throughout, if not very jazzily. The two different ensembles play quite well, although there aren’t any adventurous solos. (No room, with the longest track running 3:23. Each track had to fit on one side of a 10” 78 or a 45.) The format of the reissue is entertaining, especially to those of us who remember what a Decca LP label looked like.

But back to negativity for the close. This CD contains 35 minutes of music. That’s a travesty. The program notes mention that the 1956 supplementary session for the 12” version of the album resulted in six tracks, four of which were included on the LP. Where are the other two? I’m all for reissuing LPs on CD in a way which maintains the integrity of the original recording concept, so I’m glad this is not a “Best of Peggy Lee” CD with material from half a dozen different albums. But with 45 minutes of blank space to play with, Verve’s producers could have included the other two 1956 tracks and virtually any other complete Peggy Lee Decca album on the same CD. And they should have.