Category Archives: music

the tree of the one big fantastic idea

This is an extract from a novel I am writing about a young girl and a street urchin who tells stories that all begin on the same location – the Y-intersection of a crowded city street. This is the first story he tells.

Many years ago when the musicians who got this city jumping were not allowed to buy a coffee in the bars where they played, there was a tree grew on this spot. It was a silver birch and under its shade, on summer days, buskers came to play. One such busker was Marshall J. Marshall. He was a second rate musician but a first class snoozer.

One summer afternoon he lay asleep here and when he awoke he was struck by a revelation. He realized that he would never make it as a musician; that he just didn’t have what it took. This revelation pained him greatly because he loved music above all else in his life. He went about for days in a terrible depression. At the end of a long day wandering the city streets he came back to the square and tipping his hat over his eyes, as was his habit, he nodded off again under the silver birch. A short time later he awoke with a start. He had undergone another revelation only this one didn’t make him depressed. In his sleep he had realized a fantastic new direction for his life.

Since he would not make it as a great musician, he thought, he would do the next best thing. He would listen to music and he would write about what he heard. In this way Marshall J. Marshall became the first great reviewer of music in the city and his stories appeared in all the big papers of the day, making him rich and famous.

One day near the end of his life a reporter asked Marshall how he had come to be a reviewer and he told the man the story of the tree. “I am sure,” he said. “That there is something special about that silver birch. Twice I slept below its branches and twice it showed me how to get on life.”

Sitting at home one day in his luxurious townhouse J. Booker Jarvis read this story. He was the offspring of a wealthy family and lived in a large house in an exclusive neighbourhood of the city. Jarvis lived with his long-suffering wife Mildred. They had no children. Mildred wanted them but Jarvis insisted there was simply no time for such trivialities. You see all Jarvis’s energies were devoted to the important task of inventing. This was his passion above all others. He had spent years on his inventions and taken out innumerable patents. Until now all his attempts at reinventing the wheel had ended in failure. But when he read Marshall’s words Jarvis was struck with an interesting possibility. If he could just get that tree out of the square he could perhaps benefit from its mystical properties. But Jarvis was a shut-in and he had a mortal fear of the city streets, which he regarded as volatile and dangerous. He realised he could not manage such a thing alone and so he asked the son of his neighbor, a precocious teen with quick eyes.

The neighbor’s boy was called Arty.

One night Arty and Jarvis took a cab to the square and to this same Y-intersection where the silver birch grew. With shovels and pitchforks they dug up the tree and wrapping it in a shawl they carried it back home. Jarvis planted it in his back yard and the very next night he slept under it. He slept under it every night for the next month and nothing happened. He began to despair.

Then, one afternoon in late summer he was gardening in his back yard when he found himself getting sleepy. He lay down under the tree and dozed off. When he awoke an incredible idea had occurred to him. He had long lived in fear of impostors breaking into his home in the dead of night and he knew that burglary was a terrible blight on the city. It was an invention for a new type of lock. Jarvis was filled with excitement as he wrote down the calculations.

In a flurry of hand-waving and garbled words he told his wife, who said it sounded like a great plan and smiled with half her mouth. But when Jarvis read the calculations again and he was suddenly filled with doubt. Hadn’t he come up with a hundred ideas that had come to nothing? Why should this one be any different? And hadn’t his wife told him it sounded like a great plan every time he came up with a new idea?

He hesitated over the idea for weeks, mulling it over in his head, wondering if it was indeed the one big fantastic idea or just another dud. This poor nervous wreck of a man thought and thought and thought until his brain ached and he could think of nothing more. Around a month after his first revelation he slept again under the tree and when he awoke he found that once more he had dreamed about the new miracle lock. This time he wasted no time. He went down to the patent office to register his idea.

Imagine his horror when the clerk told him that the design for the lock had already been patented. Jarvis demanded to know how this could be. He had poured through the patent records in the days after his great idea and found no such lock in existence. The clerk said the patent had been filed only two weeks before. Jarvis was dumbstruck. He looked at the signature of the person who had registered the patent and saw in black and white the name of his betrayer. It was Arty, his young neighbour.

Back home he slammed hard with his fist on his neighbor’s door. When the boy’s father opened the door he looked nervously at Jarvis. In a fit of rage Jarvis said the man’s son was a thief and a fraud and he demanded to see him. The old man, who was inclined to see no wrong in his offspring, took great offence at this outburst and shut the door on him, refusing to have anything more to do with his volatile neighbour. For the next few days Jarvis waited by his window for the boy to leave but his wait was in vain. Arty had returned to boarding school in another state and was not due back for some months.

With his terrible fear of the streets, Jarvis would not be able to go find the boy. Instead he decided to wait it out for his return. In the meantime he sat at his back window gazing out on the tree, wondering how the boy could have stolen his idea. The more he contemplated the great deception that had been played on him the angrier he grew, and the more he thought about it the more this anger was directed towards the silver birch. That lone tree came to represent for him all the failures of his life and eventually, unable to contain his disgust any longer, he took an axe and chopped it down. When this was done he returned to his back window but looking out he was still bothered. The stump of the tree remained. Deciding to remove all trace of it from his life he hired a gang of workmen and had them yank the tree up, roots and all.

That night it rained heavily and Jarvis slept fitfully. In the morning his wife awoke and went out to do some shopping. When she returned she found a pile of rubble where her house had once stood.

The firemen dug all afternoons through the remains until eventually they found her husband, in his usual spot by the back window. In his hand he still clutched his morning coffee. At the inquest they discovered that the roots of the silver birch were the devil in the piece. They had reached under the house and when they were pulled up the heavy rain had poured into the holes left behind and weakened the foundations of the building. After the funeral, Mildred moved away to live with her sister in another state in a house by the ocean where she spent her days making socks for children in need.

Gazing out on the sea one day she remembered two things about her married life that had not seemed significant before. The first was that her husband was frequently in the habit of talking in his sleep and the second, in case you haven’t guessed, was that the quick-eyed Arty had a bedroom window that faced onto the yard. Mildred smiled with half her face and turning her head from the window she went back to her knitting.

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amy winehouse and the british media

The discovery of Amy Winehouse’s body at her London home gave Rupert Murdoch and his clan a brief respite from an avalanche of bad press, supplanting the  news of the phone-hacking scandal that had remained the lead story for weeks in British newspapers and TV shows.

winehouse

It is ironic that Winehouse’s death inadvertently took some of the heat off News International, the British arm of the mogul’s media business: The troubled star was frequently a target of the tabloid culture that Murdoch helped to foster. Her battle with her private demons was very public, detailed in a nearly constant stream of lurid tales in the tabloids. The Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, for example, published images in 2008 of Winehouse smoking from a glass pipe alongside the headline “Amy Winehouse on crack,” with a story claiming the singer had ingested a cocktail of drugs that included crack cocaine during a house party.

But the British tabloids’ casual intrusiveness into the personal lives of the famous must be re-evaluated after the firestorm of revelations about  News International’s news-gathering methods. The scandal began with the egregious story that a private investigator in the pay of the company had hacked the cell phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Up to this point, tabloids seemed to have regarded this predatory intrusiveness as a moral right.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a judge-led and wide-ranging inquiry into the phone hacking that could well result in recommendations for a change in the law. At the very least, the inquiry is likely to come up with proposals on press regulations — and it’s a fair guess that those proposals will deal in one way or another with what constitutes “in the public interest,” the argument defending choices of topics of news stories in Britain.

British newspapers have had an easy ride publishing details of celebrities’ private lives, with the defense that a subject’s high profile makes whatever he or she does in the public interest. The glitch, however, is that the decision about what constitutes the public interest is adjudicated by a watchdog group dominated by newspaper editors and journalists, who have their own reasons for keeping the definition of that term as broad as possible. Critics of the regulatory system insist that this cozy relationship is one of the reasons the tabloid press in Britain has been allowed to get so out of hand.

Another factor behind the tabloids’ often outrageous behavior is the nearly insatiable appetite in Britain for celebrity scandal. It is not a new thing. As far back as the mid-19th century, rumor and gossip circulating about the aristocrat and Romantic poet Lord Byron prompted the politician Thomas Macaulay to note in exasperation that “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”

The best-known recent example was the tabloid obsession with Princess Diana. By the time of her death in 1997, the late Princess of Wales was in the U.K. papers nearly everyday; the minutiae of her life, loves and footwear choices scrutinized ad nauseam. Her death was met with public outrage at the paparazzi, blamed by many for the car crash that killed her, and contempt for the tabloids. After briefly toning it down in the aftermath, the tabloids went back to their aggressive coverage of public figures.

Winehouse is the latest victim of this pernicious culture of sensationalism. A worldwide star whose biggest hit was a song about not wanting to go into rehab, her musical ability was matched only by her talent for self-destruction. All this made her perfect fodder for the tabloids. It was a point she appeared to acknowledge in a lyric in her 2007 Grammy-award winning album “Back to Black,” where she sang: “I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good.”

Many of the tracks on that album were written about her relationship with her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man who seemed tailor-made for the role of stock villain in the cartoonish version of reality that dominates the tabloid press.

It is important not to overstate the role of the media in the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s death — the singer’s troubles ran far deeper than some hostile column inches. Even so, the papers’ bad-taste documenting of her downward spiral bordered on cruelty. Tabloids trumpeted disturbing photographs of Winehouse stumbling barefoot through the London streets, bloodied and disoriented, dressed in tatters. Columnists wrung their hands in false concern at the plight of “poor Amy,” even as their editors turned the star’s descent into a gruesome public spectacle.

It may even turn out that the tabloids were not just prurient observers and chroniclers — a  British journalist reports, citing anonymous sources, that Winehouse, her family and close associates also might have had their phones hacked.

It is too early to know how much of an effect the phone hacking scandal will have upon the tabloid culture; the decline in the sales of newspapers may, in the end, make it a moot point. Yet the very real shock felt in Britain over these two major stories may convince enough people that gawping at the sad lives of troubled people, by any means possible, does no one much good in the long run.

This story was first published on CNN’s website on 26 July, 2011


tom waits

(LONDON, England) As the lights went down in the theater the low murmur built to a thunderous ovation as the odd-looking man in the crumpled suit and bowler hat took to the stage. The excitement that greeted the eccentric American singer songwriter Tom Waits’ appearance in Edinburgh last month may come as a surprise to the many, who have never heard of him.

The 58-year-old has stayed for most of his four-decade career on the edge of the music mainstream. This is despite a showering of critical acclaim and a host of high-profile fans including the movie star Scarlett Johansson, who recently recorded an album of Waits covers.

Waits’ position on the periphery of pop music (he admits that the 60s scene largely passed him by), may be because he belongs to a bigger historical tradition — that of the singer-storyteller that has its origin in folk music.

His music comes from a different place from most artists. A laconic, bar room philosopher with a wry sense of humor, Waits is an avowed fan of the Beat generation writer Jack Kerouac and the author and poet Charles Bukowski.

Many of his songs are stories containing a cast of characters from America’s underbelly: the drunks and disenfranchised, the lost souls hiding out from life in seedy night spots.

It is the same world that Kerouac chronicled in his writings, including his most famous work “On the Road,” which describes a journey across America in the late fifties.

Waits, who is notoriously interview-shy, acknowledged his debt to the author in a promotional interview to accompany the release of his 1974 album “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

He said the record was a search for the “center of Saturday night,” a quest he said that Kerouac himself had “relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I’ve attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see.”

Waits’ place in the folk tradition is something he has acknowledged, consciously or otherwise, in his music. In 1990, he wrote the music and lyrics for “The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets,” a theatrical collaboration with the American writer William Burroughs based on a German folktale.

Like all great writers, Waits is a conscientious observer of people and their strange foibles. Born in Pomona, CA. he moved to Los Angeles in the late sixties to pursue his music career, finding work as a doorman at an LA nightspot.

It was at this time that he honed his skills as a storyteller, eavesdropping on the lives of others.

“I was picking up people’s conversations in all-night coffee shops – ambulance drivers, cabdrivers, street sweepers,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker. “I did research there as an evening curator, and I started writing gingerly. I thought at some point I’d like to forge it all into something meaningful, and give it dignity.”

The results of this labor are songs like “Frank’s Wild Years,” a hilarious and sinister tale of a man — Frank — trapped in suburbia with a wife and pet dog that has a skin disease.

The song is spoken in a lounge room style over a soft jazz accompaniment, and like much of Waits’ work it drips irony: “They had a thoroughly modern kitchen/ Self-cleaning oven (the whole bit)/ Frank drove a little sedan/ They were so happy.”

In a 1983 promotional interview published by his then record company Island, Waits credits a short story by Bukowski with giving him some of the inspiration for the song.

“Bukowski had a story that essentially was saying that it’s the little things that drive men mad,” Waits said. “It’s not World War II. It’s the broken shoe lace when there is no time left that sends men completely out of their minds.

“I think there is a little bit of Frank in everybody.”

In the song, Frank eventually runs amok, setting fire to the family home and blazing a trail up the Hollywood freeway because, as Waits quips in the pay-off “he never could stand that dog.”

This taste for the absurd carried into his recent live show with the set for the “Glitter and Doom” tour decked in a bizarre array of old speaker cones. Waits took to the stage dressed in a Chaplinesque suit, delivering his set from a slightly raised platform that gave up a cloud of dust each time he bashed his feet into it.

In spite of the entreaties from the crowd he kept quiet between songs at first. Eventually after a few numbers he broke his silence. “This is a lopsided love song,” he rasped, introducing the next track. “By that I mean the person doing it is lopsided, not the song itself.”

Lopsided or not, it’s an authentic voice we could surely do with hearing more from.

This article was first published on CNN.com on 15 August, 2008