Archive for the ‘unexplainable mysteries’ Category
Tardiness, informal footwear, or talking out of turn will earn students a punishment that they call an “A.P. Style,” which means writing out a section of The Associated Press stylebook by hand. It takes, they say, four hours.
If you followed my TED coverage last week (or if you’ve talked to me since I’ve come back), you know that one of the great pleasures of the conference for me was the string quartet ETHEL: agile, imaginative, energetic, surprising. The afternoon after the event ended, I met Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s artistic director and viola player, in the lobby of my hotel and told him to his face how much I love his band. (Am I allowed to call a string quartet a band?)
After we got the fanboy stuff out of the way, Ralph and I talked for a bit about string quartets and rock’n'roll. Conversation bended toward The Juliet Letters, the 1993 collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Then and now (I listened to the set again after it was reissued in 2006), I find The Juliet Letters arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring moments here and there (more from the Brodskys than E.C.).
I do enjoy, however, some of the other songs the unlikely quintet played to fill out their shows, particularly a brittle take on Costello’s “Pills and Soap” and, especially, their version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” On that classic, Costello’s singing is, more or less, as mannered as it was in general for that project, but it finds a place in the strings, gliding between the instruments, eventually soaring above them with one facile but still perfect “you” at the end.
On the flight back to Boston on Sunday, I listened to Pet Sounds, a record that has kept me good company on long trips before; it’s one of those albums that doesn’t seem to have a physical place so it feels apt when I’m in some container above the world, nowhere near anyone I love, not really anywhere at all. I was half-asleep from my last night at TED and half-surprised when “God Only Knows” appeared midway through the set. I’ve never been a member of the Beach-Boys-were-as-great-as-the-Beatles cult, but what a record Pet Sounds is, even after you have heard it 500 times. On songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” lushly produced but still insular, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” whose strings carry it between a Phil Spector teenage symphony and an almost unbearable expression of yearning, it feels like you’re listening not to the sound someone made in a studio but the sound inside someone’s head. There’s enough humor and drama and unexpected reversals in the two-minute song “Pet Sounds” to fill a pretty good novel, and it doesn’t have any words, just feeling. Pet Sounds is all emotion on the edge of repression, just barely expressed and the more powerful for it. It’s masterful pop music. I bet it made Costello and the Brodskys feel grounded after their more abstract journeys.
Listening to Pet Sounds got me thinking about another version of “God Only Knows” that I treasure:
Petra Haden is, wrongly I think, sometimes considered as a purveyor of novelty: her best-known recordings are a capella recordings of classic pop songs, among them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” all of The Who Sell Out, and “God Only Knows.” They’re formidable technical achievements and enjoyable to listen to regardless of whether you know that every sound is generated by a soulful human voice. We hear the original the way she heard it and we hear parts of the original that we didn’t hear until she brought them to our attention. Something new in a faithful version of an overplayed classic: that’s a gift. And, if you buy my argument that Pet Sounds is a record happening inside someone’s head, what could be more right than a precise, robust version of “God Only Knows” in which one inspired person overdubs herself over and over and over and over and … ? She makes us hear familiar songs in new ways; she makes us feel one of the most familiar pop songs of the ’60s in a new way.
Like many in the insulated west, I’ve long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I’m half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of reunification.) I’ve read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I’ve explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I’m not sure the subplot it’s part of will earn space in the final draft.
So it was a delight this morning when I saw that my hometown website published Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken this year, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue’s recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. I won’t reproduce them here, but they are diverse, surprising, and well worth seeing.
You might be a normal person who hears a child chant, as I just did, “Made you look/Made you look/Now you’re in the baby book,” and forget it immediately. I envy you, friend. I, unfortunately, am not a normal person and I am therefore troubled by a number of things in that nyah-nyah:
- Why does making someone look put him or her into the baby book?
- Why is being in the baby book bad and, as a result, tauntable? I like babies. Wouldn’t being in the baby book be a good thing?
- If being in the baby book is indeed a bad thing, what sort of person would trick another person, probably a friend or family member, into looking just to get him or her into a baby book?
The questions could go on forever (and it felt like they did in the original version of this post), and by now the person once sitting next to me would be running away as surely as if I had been pitching scientology, Atlas Shrugged, or CDs of the New Kids on the Block reunion.