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Me and the Music and the Night

F**K My Childhood

By Richard Meltzer

Liszt, Les Preludes, New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Sony SMK 47572

Wagner, Der fliegende Hollander, with Simon Estes, Lisbeth Balslev, Matti Salminen, Robert Schunk, Bayreuther Festspiele, conducted by Woldemar Nelsson, Phillips 416 399-2

Verdi, Aida, with Maria Callas, Richard Tucker, Fedora Barbieri, Tito Gobbi, Orchestra del teatro alla Scala di Milano, conducted by Tullio Serafin, EMI CDCC 7 49030 2



S ix-seven years ago, taking notes for a piece I was planning on why I wasn't a parent, I jotted down the following:

"To recall fondly their own childhood as a trigger for generating kids of their own verges on the oxymoronic: viewing a time when they knew better, when their unbridled intellect and imagination ruled the world, viewing it well after (and from the context/vantage point of) having had it all beat out of them: absurdly believing they will not beat it out of their own potential offspring, and not simply because they believe they are not beaters, but because in having been beat they have also lost their elemental smarts, their purity of perception (not to mention any genuine, operative, more than ad hoc compassion): losses which preclude their leaving another's purity/etc. intact even if they were God."

"To be socialized at all is to have been beat out of much: ironically the principal much they now so tenaciously cleave to."

The dynamics of which still ring true to me, basically, though, my own romance with the part that's been beat is pretty much gone in the ether. I feel no great gush anymore for the "purity"­­for my own or anyone's­­real or hypothetical. Squalor is more like it. I say FUCK my childhood (all our childhoods). What a chump-change touchstone of nothing.

Childhood as magic? No. Childhood is belief in magic. A bigger diff than the diff between 4,000 tulips and a pack of Luckies. (Between War and Peace and a pizza.)

Hey. Basically I feel like I'm somewhere in a life, certainly closer to its end than beginning, and while I have little nostalgia for the early parts (other than once in a while, not always, for the limitless time it seemed I had left then), I do have a memory, too much memory, for such hokum; I forget nothing...

Basketball games with a trashcan and my dirty socks...discovering a mound of maggots and, taking them for caterpillar eggs about to hatch, putting them in a jar with dirt and enough grass and leaves to serve as a week's caterpillar food...the time I cut my hand on a razor blade I picked up in the alley behind my house to fend off a twisted strand of cloth-covered wire I thought was a snake, my mother insisting the cut had been caused by a rusty nail though I swore and swore it hadn't (I didn't tell her it was a rusty razor blade), good thing I was up to date on tetanus the mirror after a fight, seeing a glob of pink gummy candy stuck to my face and believing it was a piece of my ear fallen off...thinking of Roy Rogers every time I had tuna, Gene Autry whenever it was salmon...the month I couldn't score the current issue of Superboy, finally finding a beat-up copy in an old drugstore where I had a burger that tasted like liver and a warm oversweet Coke...visiting a classmate who was drinking milk and puking on strips of cardboard...fuggit...and this was the good stuff.

And I'm not even talking 'bout the horrors of adolescence, nor does this have anything much to do with what I think of actual children, today, although, yes, I think they're entitled to NO special (moral, political, aesthetic) consideration, in fact the proper consideration­­the best consideration (i.e., with respect for more than their cuteness and presumed "innocence")­­is to treat them as SMALL PEOPLE. Small people who haven't had the goods beat out of them yet, or who have and, well, I already said that.

(Entitled to no special treatment, but if I had one, like every other I who has one, I would of course treat the little darling as a precious prize and all such blah blah blooey: MINE: how nazi! Or see all of 'em as darling simply because I own and operate one, i.e., am a member of the parent class and all that misdirection, sick sociology­­but that's another piece; I still haven't written it.)

And obviously­­big fucking truism­­there's a child (at least one child) in everyone. We're all still, some more, some less, in daily communion with our childhood unconscious. The circuits may be askew, but old triggers remain in place, or some place. Big shit.

Anyway, anyway...this stuff makes me dizzy...let's see...something about how giving kids special status only demographically isolates them for the slimy likes of Ronald McDonald, Barney, the Little Mermaid, etc., etc.­­the stuff grownups (esp. those that control the marketplace) would love to have 'em like, love, eat, piss and shit...exploitation...the susceptibility of targeted unmolded dough...(I mean fuck, even rock and roll as such is kid music, it too was once and forever isolated to that dead-end street­­kid music that has once in a blue moon GOTTEN AWAY­­the ticket that exploded­­though I suspect most, if not all, of its explosions are safely in the past)...hack, clear...sort through...till we come at last to the foreground of the piece, its ostensible "subject matter," which is:

Music encountered during the miasma of childhood, of MY weary childhood, which I find I can now retrieve/recycle without (somehow) the cloying taint of that cheezy Gestalt. Stuff I can bear to listen to that I first heard then.

My favorite TV show in the early '50s was this ongoing dinnertime replay on a local N.Y. channel of about a dozen '30s/'40s serials, half of 'em starring Buster Crabbe, with such protagonists as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon (three separate serials), Red Barry, Don Winslow (in the Coast Guard; in the Navy), Tim Tyler, Ace Drummond. You'd get a chapter a day till they ran through each one, 12 to 14 chapters, then on to the next; repeat in sequence when finished with the lot. The best of the Flash Gordons, and the best of the whole set, was the first of that series, "Space Soldiers" (1936), which, in addition to giant standing lobsters, lion-men, a flying palace kept airborne by prisoners stoking the dread Atom Furnace, and Ming (the Merciless) had snippets of the first music I ever felt compelled to call "exciting." Two years ago I was able to i.d. the snippets as having been lifted from Les Preludes, the 1854 tone poem by Liszt.

Close behind was "Captain Video" (a/k/a: "Captain Video and His Video Rangers"), which, broadcast live, had no music to punctuate the action, but it did have a great opening theme­­more of that Exciting shit­­15-20 seconds of what I recently figured out was the overture to The Flying Dutchman (1840, revised on and off until 1860).

Not in quite in the same category­­not as Exciting­­but still functionally, I dunno, "moving" or something, is the Triumphal March from Aida, which got played at assemblies by the crummy school band at P.S. 44, which I was in for about a month on clarinet (they gave us plastic reeds 'cause we went through the normal ones too quick). We also played, or tried to play, the phony spiritual from Dvorak's New World Symphony and something called March Marionette (not Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette) by I've got no idea who. Only the march from Aida stuck with me.

From snippet to whole cloth, microcosm to macrocosm...

Les Preludes is 17 minutes of mostly filler, lots of lulls. The "exciting part" doesn't come till about 2:30 or so, suddenly it wells up and THERE IT IS­­as "gratuitous" an occurrence, a payoff for the wait, as in the serial itself. Not as staccato as I remember, heck ('cause staccato would be better); is this Leonard Bernstein's fault? Wait­­the second appearance of the theme (at 15:30) is much more percussive, bombastic, so maybe this is the one they used.

Flying Dutchman, heard now, the whole opera, not just the overture, I can get into right away, it's "infectious," accessible, a pieca cake. It's conceivable I could've ridden with it for a few minutes at a stretch even then (although much of both music and text is about gonads and madness, which probably would've been as beyond me as "Duel in the Sun" had been when I saw it at 5 or 6 with nothing to prep me but TV Westerns); the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! routine in the third act would've made me sweat no more than a typical number for chorus from a '50s Broadway musical. Anyway, now, there's enough quick- turnover tension/release from beginning to end to make the whole thing as emotionally easy as falling off a log.

Aida is a different story, the march is way in the middle, so you gotta wait and wait for it, all the way in the second scene of the second act (middle of the second disc), a haul I couldn't possibly have held up for as a kid, even the "heroic" parts earlier on wouldn't've held me. But generally it's okay, and at times (for inst the aria Su! del Nilo al sacro lido) is kind of rousing like the Internationale (which for whatever it's worth breathed its first breath the same year, 1871), or a cross between the Internationale and Onward, Christian Soldiers (same diff if you're a kid). The second act, ending with a reprise of the march, plays well enough. All in all, I'd have to say I prefer the parts which, like the best of Nino Rota, sound like they could easily devolve into barrel-organ music, or Finiculi, Finicula­­i.e., those that totter on the brink of not so much kitsch, certainly not grand kitsch, as populist kitsch (folk kitsch?). But even with a shitload of such biz, it's still in all a little, yes, assembly-hallish (or Italian boy scouts). The ending­­the opera's plot solution­­burial alive­­would likely have appealed to the kid in me who saw mummy movies, but I didn't actually see those till they started running them on TV, when I was at least 12 or 13.

Aida needs to be played loud to work, while Flying Dutchman feels good and loud (at any volume) to begin with.


I saw Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at the Brooklyn Paramount; Elvis on the "Ed Sullivan Show"; the Beatles at Shea Stadium (twice); the Doors live something like FORTY times, more than half before Jim even wore leathers (no: jeans and a surfer shirt); Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot after he got down off the Williamsburg Bridge to start gigging again (he had a Mohawk); Ornette Coleman at the Village Vanguard after his woodshed time-out to add trumpet and violin to his arsenal. The first time I heard the Troggs was on a jukebox as I peed in a urinal trying to make cigarette filters stand on end while my blind date not exactly waited for me at the bar, a total washout.

I could go on for paragraphs, pages, volumes 'bout all the rock and jazz things I experienced not only in real time but in their real time­­their only time (before history got them­­as it gets everyone and everything­­wrong, before they got nailed to some idiot conception of the great chain of being, or the Time-Life lie-lie-lie-lie, or worse) and certainly mine (and double certainly theirs and mine in even proximate relevant conjunction); maybe someday I will.

The point for now being simply THIS: I have no context, no history (other than remote; remoter than remote; wholly, utterly adventitious) to plug into when I listen to classical music, no environment in which to meet and greet it even halfway--none in which I really wish to participate (the concert scene, hanging out at Tower Classical, subscribing to archivist/discophile mags) (it's just too, what's the word, yes, too fussy) (too Euro, too creepy): no nexus of any sort, any import, OTHER THAN the shoddy Gestalt of childhood, or (and here's the kicker) some icky yucky structural equivalent: stamp collecting, model airplanes, by-the-numbers kid chemistry: a socially redeeming "hobby."

Or a­­heaven help me­­school project (for "extra credit")­­I'm still a fucking overachiever. I diligently sift through exemplars of "baroque," "classical," "romantic," "modern," "avant garde" as I would through the airmail imperforates of Belgium, New Zealand and Estonia; I wiggle my toe in the vast ocean of opera, using my encounter with easy/early Wagner to give me entree to difficult/late, I go from Aida to Rigoletto , from Les Preludes to A Faust Symphony to Mephisto Waltz #1. I'm, as they say, "learning." I probably don't have enough years left to actually ever come up to speed with it, but I'm also likewise at a stage of mammal froth where such a fact don't faze me. Or do I have it backwards? Is this in fact an apt preoccupation for my coming dotage­­pipe and slippers­­geezertime, daddy-o?

In any event, it feels somewhat absurd at age 50 or age anything, given the downscale biases of my music-critical past, that I'm sort of reviewing­­that I've lived to review­­make semi- reasonable non-pejorative allusion to­­in a single piece­­two operas and a tone poem, but, y'know, hey: fuck me.

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