(Dear Readers: You’re in trouble now. I figured out how to republish my old posts! This unsparing survey of holiday music originally appeared on 22 December 2011. To quote the sign that hangs in the window of the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle, “Sorry, we’re open.”) 

One night this week I powered up the radio in the Run-DMStevemobile and there was Perry Como singing “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.” I punched Scan and immediately got Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health”: “Bang! Your! HEAD!” I stuck with it. When I walked in the door here at the Bureau, Special D was celebrating a surf Christmas courtesy of Los Straitjackets and their perspective on “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Later in the evening I heard Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which as far as I’m concerned was the last straw in the manger.

Yes, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” when Quiet Riot, the poor man’s Judas Priest, provides an island of serenity in a sea of Christmas music, most of it written by my fellow Jews. (I haven’t mentioned one Christmas song yet that wasn’t.) This is why I’ve decided to have a few words with you today about the black hole that is Hanukkah music. Why, you may ask, have the Jews written “White Christmas” for the Christians but no equivalent blockbuster for their own people? Why are we stuck with Adam Sandler rhyming “Hanukkah” with “gin and tonica” and a pre-schooler’s tune about a spinning top made out of clay?

“O Come All Ye Schnorrers”
I know this question has been keeping you awake at night. Fortunately, there’s a simple answer: When it comes to Hanukkah, there’s not much to hang your muse on. The “Festival of Lights” is of so little Judaic significance that it doesn’t even appear in the Bible. (Note to my pagan readers: The Bible is what you charmingly call the “Old Testament.”) In Israel, Hanukkah is celebrated as a military holiday something like our Memorial Day, which probably means they take that opportunity to sell mattresses at a steep discount. Here in the USA, Hanukkah appears at approximately the same time as Christmas, and so has absorbed some of that glory without actually earning it.

About the only Hanukkah activity of my childhood was lighting candles, but my parents often fell asleep in front of the TV before we could get to the ceremony. We always ended up missing nights. You need 44 candles for one Festival of Lights. What are you going to do with the 13 you didn’t use last year? There are Hanukkah candles in colors they don’t make anymore quietly fossilizing in closets all over my parents’ house.

I don’t want to imply that my old man was overly concerned with workplace safety, but he did view a menorah with all nine candles in action as possessing about the same thermonuclear potential as a Saturn V rocket. Only when our cast iron menorah had been set within an aluminum pie plate and positioned atop the steel oven, in the wide nonflammable space between the four burners, would Dad ignite the Hanukkah candles. If he was awake. He might’ve nodded off in the middle of Gunsmoke.

“I’m Dreaming of a Fine Purim”
Jewish kids today expect a present every night. Stupid Jewish kids today! Things were very different when I was a boy and the Southern states were threatening to leave the Union. Wait, that’s still happening. My siblings and I were generally issued small mesh bags of chocolate coins in gold foil. They weren’t as good as Oreos. One year, through a mistake no one could explain, I received a model of the battleship North Carolina (“The Showboat”). On weekends my mother made latkes (potato pancakes) and everyone had heartburn.

As for playing the dreidel game, even when my friends and I were old enough to responsibly enjoy recreational drugs, spinning a dreidel was still insufficient to hold the attention of a teenager. Though I can see that adults willing to take a walk on the wild side might make a whole different game out of it.

“God Rest Ye Feisty Deli Men”
I’ve established that Hanukkah is basically boring. To further illustrate the difficulty of making music out of this odd little festival, consider Christmas music. What are Christmas songs about, and how do these subjects compare with Hanukkah? I’ve divided popular Yuletide tunes into three thematic areas:

1) Jesus. Christmas powers the American economy, but it also stars Jesus, and that’s kinda sacred for you guys with the cross there. What’s sacred in Hanukkah? Sure, the oil in the menorah in the liberated temple in Jerusalem burned for eight nights instead of the one night the rebel alliance thought they were entitled to. But remember, the first Hanukkah took place in the 2nd century B.C. There was no Food & Drug Administration back then, meaning no government inspectors checking for impurities. My theory is that when the Jews liberated the Temple from their Greek oppressors, what they found in the oil room was some really good shit.

2) Santas, saints, snowmen, drummer boys, reindeer, elves, orcs, and other RPG characters. There’s none of that noise at Hanukkah. All we have are the Maccabees (Hebrew for “Hammer”), who led the revolt against the Greeks. The Maccabees are the perfect example of having the right people in the right place at the right time, though most times you’d rather have the Gypsy Jokers as neighbors than these violence-loving religious enthusiasts.

3) Home. I agree that there’s no place like it, but you don’t go home for Hanukkah, you go home for Passover! Passover – now that’s a holiday. You can get something done on a holiday like that. The only thing you’re doing at Hanukkah is burning up a box of 44 candles so you don’t end up sticking orphan candles in birthday cakes years later.

It’s easy to see why there are so few songs about Hanukkah. What is not so clear is why I don’t get more gifts. Hanukkah is in fact such a simple affair that our dogs mastered it on the first try. We haven’t had a dog yet who didn’t know to report to the menorah as soon as it was fired up to receive my blessing and an Alpo Snap.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Succos”
I leave you now with good wishes for a happy holiday, whichever one you downloaded the app for, and this link to one of the few Christmas songs not penned by one of my co-religionists. I tackled Handel and his Messiah last year, but I have to bow to these awesome kids in Alaska. Hallelujah, and don’t forget, tonight is the third night of Hanukkah so you’ll need four candles. Dad says to check that your fire extinguisher is fully charged.

(Headline and subheads this evening come from a fake SCTV commercial for “Jewish holiday hits.” I’ll be back in January with still more musical snobbery. Happy New Year, everybody!)

The Best of Richard Wagner
Various artists
1994

Masters of Classical Music, Vol. 5: Richard Wagner
Various artists
1988

Richard Wagner believed his greatest talent was for comedy. Friends recalled his laugh as “a steadily increasing rumble, as from Krakatoa” [citation needed]. He loved tall tales, double entendres, put-downs, smack downs, non sequiturs, slapstick, sarcasm, and knock-knock jokes. What that man couldn’t do with five flights of stairs and a runaway piano!

If Wagner and his best friend, Franz Kafka, weren’t up to something, you can be sure they were up to something else. Wagner dared Kafka to write a story about a man who transforms into a bug; Kafka bet Wagner he couldn’t steal Alsace-Lorraine without waking up the French. They had fun fun fun until Otto von Bismarck took their T-bird away.

Scholars believe that Kafka was an uncredited writer on Wagner’s 1867 musical-comedy smash, Die Meistersinger of Nurnberg. You can easily spot Kafka’s influence in this recounting of the plot:

  1. A group of men compete in a singing tournament.
  2. First prize is a female virgin.
  3. Somebody wins.

Wagner’s biggest joke of all was Der Ring des Nibelungen. One night when he and Kafka were stoned and waiting for the pizza to arrive, Wagner said, “My operas are just as histrionic as Italian and French operas. Why am I not famous? What am I missing?”

Kafka released all the smoke from his lungs and said, “Norse gods, Richie.”

The next morning Kafka couldn’t remember anything, but was he surprised 25 years later when Wagner sent him a truck full of manuscript!

Purists will call The Best of Richard Wagner blasphemy for compacting Der Ring des Nibelungen into 60 hair-raising minutes when it normally takes eight and a half weeks to perform everything from the opening roll call through the incest and the attack by American helicopters until the final annihilation of the Valhalla Metropolitan Statistical Area. But this Reader’s Digest version keeps Wagner’s love of practical jokes alive long after Wagner faked his own death in a kiln explosion just to scare Kafka but while he was sneaking away he stepped on the tines of a rake, the handle hit him in the head, and he fell into a hole and died.

If you liked The Best of Richard Wagner, you might also like Masters of Classical Music, Vol. 5: Richard Wagner, which includes highlights from Der Ring plus hits that were never collected on Wagner’s studio albums, including “Tannhäuser,” “O Tannenbaum,” “Bob & Carol & Tristan & Isolde,” and “My Way.”

By our standards, Wagner’s music is about as subtle as a brick soufflé, but his sense of humor lives on. And of course we can rejoice in the 20,000 letters he and Kafka exchanged, including the fantasy animal drawings.

Richard Wagner loved to laugh, but even he had his limits. If he were alive today he’d totally beat the crap out of Coldplay.

Random Pick of the Day
Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin’ (1958)
The only music I listen to from the 1950s is jazz. I don’t know why that is. While the ’50s were actually going on, I didn’t know much beyond Mickey Mouse vs. Mighty Mouse.

But in the ’50s, jazz wasn’t what they hid on an obscure college radio station. Jazz wasn’t something that had an annual festival where the headliner was always somebody like Crosby, Stills & Nash because when a jazz festival wants to make money, the first thing they do is get rid of the jazz.

Jazz in the ’50s was still the soundtrack for movies and television. My parents danced to jazz. There was even a button on our radio that said “Jazz.” When you pressed it, a pleasing red color popped up behind a tiny plastic window. I don’t remember what pressing the Jazz button did if you were listening to Mozart or the Red Sox, but I still think of jazz as something that’s red.

Maybe I came to associate jazz with the unreachable world of grown-ups. The music has an allure, a sophistication, and a mystery only grown-ups possess. Wait a second, I am one. Oh shoot.

I suspect that in 1958 and for many years after, Cool Struttin’ was the smooth platter you placed on the turntable when you threw a party for all your jazz cat friends. You’d let it spin while you all stood around drinking cheap red wine and pretending to understand Ulysses. If you like jazz but you can’t approach hard bop without first waving a white flag, give Cool Struttin’ a try.

 

The result of the recent presidential election resembles nothing in the history of the United States. It looks more like the final convulsions of the ruling white elites in Rhodesia and South Africa. This resemblance doesn’t help me sleep at night.

his-back-to-the-wall
Lucky has his back to the wall.

Barack Obama, whom I admire, urged the nation to keep an open mind about our new commander-in-chief. Keep an open mind about a man who does not read. A man who has never had a pet. A man who has bragged about not wasting any time raising his own children. Has he ever played with his kids? What music does he like? (I know what he’d say: “Only the best!”) He is the fattest man to hold the office since William Howard Taft got stuck in his bathtub.

Note: William Howard Taft never got stuck in his bathtub; that story was invented years after his death. But he did own a custom-built bathtub that four non-Tafts could sit in.

Each half of our politically divided country voted for a candidate that made the other half want to kick a hole in a stained glass window. From here to eternity, will each side spend its years in power dismantling the work of the other? I am so flabbergasted by this election that I am reduced to quoting Sting, God help me:

“We all sink or we all float. We are all in the same big boat.”

In the alternate universe that has inexplicably ejected me, Hillary Clinton is right now selecting experienced, serious, boring people to help her run the government. In the universe where I’ve landed like Dorothy and Toto in their windblown house, our new leader is picking weirdos with no experience in what they’ve been picked for. That worked well during Hurricane Katrina so I won’t spend another second worrying about it.

“The revolution will not be televised,” Gil Scott-Heron told us. He was wrong. “But it will put you in the driver’s seat.” Maybe. But what is the nature of the man who is now behind the wheel?

No more politics.

Let’s talk about…chess!

Bone-crunching industrial thud machine Magnus Carlsen holds world championship with move so awesome that the planet increased its rotation and now the day is an hour shorter
In case you haven’t been keeping up with current events, Magnus Carlsen won the last game of the championship against Sergey Karjakin by sacrificing his queen, motherfuckers. When has that ever happened in championship chess? How about never! Not in 130 years!

No one has ever won the world championship on the last move in the last game by saying Oh I don’t need this thing anymore and then sacrificing the strongest piece on the board. The 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen for a rook, two bishops, and a pawn in 1956 in what was later called “The Game of the Century,” and yeah it was stunning but it wasn’t the world championship, was it? It was not!

Are you getting this now? Do you understand that less than a month after reality shifted on November 8, reality shifted AGAIN this week, or do I have to come over there and clap your heads together like chalkboard erasers?

I have to reach into another sport to find something comparable. Travel with me now to the 1960 World Series, when the Pittsburgh Pirates, losing to the New York Yankees in game 7, came back IN THE BOTTOM OF THE NINTH thanks to Bill Mazeroski’s homerun – the only World Series to end with a homerun.

But Carlsen is even more amazing than Maz because Carlsen ONLY NEEDED A DRAW in that game to keep his title. He could’ve played it safe. He chose not to. You can bet your ass and six of your goats that this is why Magnus Carlsen is a champion and Run-DMSteve is an idiot blogger.

doh
A blunder by Emma gives Sailor the win!

I’m back, my friends. Thanks for sticking around, all three of you. I was immersed in an eight-week novel-writing class, faced another emergency in Antique Parent Land, endured my worst Thanksgiving in 36 years, and played with my dog. Details to come, along with more of the forgettable musical opinions you crave.

I hope you’re all well and following your dreams instead of that person who got the restraining order against you. Happy holidays!

Random Pick of the Day
Hillary Clinton.

Sorry.

Random Pick of the Day
Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (1956)
This milestone in postwar jazz whacks you in the head and throws you up on the roof with the Frisbees. It’s usually seen as a showcase for Rollins and his tenor sax, but the whole quartet is spectacular, particularly Tommy Flanagan on piano and Max Roach on drums. Max Roach must have had a Max Roach clone playing alongside him to lay down all those grooves.

I don’t know how to judge the bass player, Doug Watkins. I can only assume that Sonny, Tommy, and Max wouldn’t have let Doug join in their reindeer games unless he was spectacular, too.

This brilliant set was recorded in one fucking day in Hackensack, New Jersey.

 

I’m taking another break from blogging. I’ll be back in November, and with a story, too, if this goes well.

Today I want to salute my most loyal readers – those generous people who take the time to write comments no matter what stupid things I’ve said. Some of them write under more than one alias. I’m grateful to all of them, whatever name they choose. Here they are – and, because they are such a modest bunch, for the first time ever I will reveal their most impressive accomplishments!

Accused of Lurking: Invented Post-Its.

frostybooboo: Commercial fish farmer who tags his fish with Post-Its.

number9: Snowbird who splits her year between a yellow submarine and an octopus’ garden.

Ofelia: Master of the Brazilian freehand accordion.

seasidedave: International clam thief.

Sherry: Scared Kenny G so badly, he stopped using his last name.

thecorncobb: Sailed alone around the world in a balloon-rigged sloop.

Wm Seabrook: His Mad Men-style ad agency named the Euro, the TiVo, and the Yugo.

Thanks, everyone. Enjoy the rest of your summer, if you’re north of the Equator. If you’re not – bundle up!

Random Pick of the Day 1
Talking Heads, Fear of Music (1979)
Fear of Music has “Cities,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Heaven,” three of the best songs of the ’70s. This is an awesome album.

Particularly interesting are the final three tracks: “Animals,” “Electric Guitar,” and “Drugs.” They point toward the dark, strange band Talking Heads threatened to become. Even amid the darkness and the strangeness, however, you can count on David Byrne to stop making sense. For example, he’s angry that animals don’t help. “They’re never there when you need them,” he complains. Who does that bring to mind? I’m about to tell you!

Random Pick of the Day 2
Talking Heads, Little Creatures (1985)
This album disappointed me when it was released. I’d heard all this before. I admit, though, that I would’ve had trouble with anything released in the shadow of Stop Making Sense. Listening to this album 30 years later, I’ve changed my mind. It’s solid. But the most important thing about Little Creatures is that it’s the closest Talking Heads ever came to making a B-52s record.

You think The B-52s couldn’t create a song like “And She Was”? They did – it’s called “Roam.” You say The B-52s could never match “Stay Up Late,” a vaguely sinister song about a baby? How about “Quiche Lorraine,” a vaguely sinister song about a poodle? And what’s that line in “Creatures of Love”? “Well I’ve seen sex and I think it’s alright.” That’s great, David, but have you ever made love under a strobe light?

It would be wrong to say that Talking Heads are The B-52s with more words and funkier baselines. Wrong, but with some traces of truth. There are several points in the space-time continuum where these bands intersect.

True, their only IRL meeting, when David Byrne produced Mesopotamia, sucked. As much as I love the title song, I’m the first to admit that no one knows how to play it, not even the band that wrote it. And I think I know why: “Mesopotamia” is a slower version of “Cities.”

 

Prolog.

It was a dark and stormy day. Robert A. Heinlein, a man who could pour words onto a page as easy as turning a bucket upside-down, was stumped. He had a book to write, he had nothing in his head, and the cat was distracting him. It prowled the perimeter of the room, crying and poking under and around everything.

Rain splattered the windows. Heinlein’s wife, Ginny, entered this gloomy scene.

“What’s the matter with that damn cat?” the writer demanded.

Ginny calmly observed the cat and the weather and replied, “He’s looking for a door into summer.”

Heinlein jumped off the couch, sprinted to his typewriter, and pounded out a novel called The Door Into Summer.

It’s possible that my wife has said something like this to me, but either I wasn’t listening or I thought I knew better.

Act 1.

It was a hot and bright Massachusetts day. My 14-year-old nephew Jared and I were deep underground, studying the debris field that is my parents’ basement. What did we find? My door into summer:

1 The bats
With reproduction signatures burned into the wood from Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Rocky Colavito, and (in Magic Marker) my brother.

Not shown because it was back in Portland, the bat I did the most damage with, my Ernie Banks “Powerized”:

2c My turn at bat
Put me in, coach, I’m ready to bark!

I ran upstairs with those bats and into daylight and started swinging. I guarantee you that if any baseball scout had seen me at that moment (or in 1971) he or she would’ve written me off as no prospect. I reluctantly pulled myself away from all this time-traveling and took Jared for a drive and a man-to-man talk.

Act 2.

For those of you who’ve read my previous dispatches from Massachusetts and who believe that my mother and father live in a wonderland of happy memories, here’s a little treasure I tripped over in the basement:

3 Toxic
As the platoon sergeant said in
Aliens: “Whatever happened here, I think we missed it.”

Act 3.

One night the microwave and the toaster oven went on strike. My brother-in-law Rick (a good man to have on tap) and I went in search of the fuse box, which has lurked quietly in the basement for decades.

4 Fuse box
This electrical showcase keeps the lights on, the water hot, and the Red Sox lukewarm.

The only fuse boxes I’m familiar with use circuit breakers with switches. Not this one. I thought, Hmm, glass fuses. Do they still make glass fuses? Where could I get one at this hour? Then I thought, Why am I thinking these thoughts? Whose house is this, anyway? A quick search turned up boxes of spare fuses that Dad had socked away when he and Mom bought the house in 1957.

5 1957 glass fuses
Our basement is just like the Smithsonian, with fewer lights and more mold.

Rick screwed in the 60-year-old replacement fuse and lo, Mom’s dinner from Meals on Wheels was soon hot and on the table and subject to the inspection of the cat.

Act 4.

Dad said, “I have to do something about my father’s books.”

My father’s father, my Grandpa Sam, died in 1974. Dad, because he was grieving, and because he’s a child of the Depression who must save everything, boxed up and brought home all of Grandpa’s books: his siddurim (daily prayer books), services for the High Holidays, Haggadahs for Passover, commentaries on the Torah, and Jewish cookbooks and cartoon books and a collection of photos from the Yiddish theater with funny captions.

6 Moyel
“Did somebody call for a
moyel?” Your clue: circumcision.

What to do with the unholy books was easy. I threw them in the recycling. What to do with the holy books was not. You can’t throw them in the recycling or the trash and you sure can’t stuff ’em in people’s socks for Christmas. The only thing you can do with these guys is bury them in a Jewish cemetery.

On each trip home, I aim for another small victory. It was my turn at bat.

Down in the basement again with a head lamp and a Geiger counter, I tracked the books to two columns of boxes against a wall. When I opened the boxes, I discovered that other objects had found homes with the Jew stuff. For example, the Time-Life series Outlaws of the Old West. Wooden spools without thread. The hull of my model of the battleship Massachusetts.

Next, I worked my connections. Though I haven’t lived in this community since Lizzie Borden failed her conflict-resolution class, I still knew one person at the temple. This lady quickly made the arrangements and the next morning I surrendered the books to a cheerful, bare-chested Elf who was mowing the cemetery lawn with a tractor. I suspect I’ve met this creature before, probably in Lothlórien.

The books I delivered will someday cushion the bed of a grave, which I think is a poetic end.

The Jewish cemetery rests on a hill overlooking a Catholic cemetery. I’m sure the Jews who reside there, many of whom grew up in the era of Father Coughlin, enjoy looking down on the Catholics. I wandered around in the sunshine and said hello to the people I once knew. At least this time I wasn’t the one who was underground.

Epilog.

The only advice I can give you for dealing with very old, failing parents is to share whatever joy you find and never lose your sense of humor. Also, watch where you step in all that clutter. Something might be waiting for you.

 

We just saw the third film in the reboot of my favorite TV series: Star Trek: Beyond. Once again, the plot was driven by a bitter middle-aged man who vows to make the universe run red with the blood of vengeance. Haven’t we had enough of this from Donald Trump?

I’m a middle-aged man, and there are things in my life I’m not happy about, but I don’t feel like making humanity pay for my unhappiness. In fact, it’s none of humanity’s business.

So are these films an expression of angst by the middle-aged men who write them? Or, if they’re written by younger men, are these films an attack on their fathers? There’s a lot of male stuff here. To quote an illustrious film critic well-versed in gender issues: “What is going on?”

I don’t know. But I know this: A woman will become president of the United States before Paramount allows a woman to write a Star Trek movie.

Sad.

Random Pan of the Day
Supertramp, Breakfast in America (1979)

I’m so pissed off by Star Trek I don’t feel like making anything a Pick.

Some of the songs on Breakfast in America are pleasant; they could’ve been dashed off by John or Paul while they were down with the flu. Supertramp’s big bad insanely sentimental epic, “Take the Long Way Home,” offers a cascade of ooooohs and aaaaahs around the 4:17 mark. I guess this is where they eased themselves into the hot tub.

Breakfast in America has one of the iconic album jackets of the 1970s. Keep the jacket and recycle the record.

Random Pan of the Day
Depeche Mode, Depeche Mode 101 (1989)
I’m still pissed.

A live album where the songs don’t budge a centimeter from the studio versions. Sorry, boys, but a concert is more than a crowd screaming with joy because you blew up a firecracker. AC/DC would’ve fired a cannon out of a bagpipe.

Random Pan of the Day
Mugstar, anything
Contemporary English prog rockers who go on. And on and on. The Doors in “The End” said everything Mugstar is still stumbling over 40 years later. However, Mugstar has a talent for song names. Two examples: “European Nihilism” and “Children of the Gravy.”

 

The first estate sale I ever went to was in the 1970s, on a farm in Massachusetts. The parents had grown very old and moved to another home, or perhaps the afterlife. The children didn’t want anything inside the farmhouse or the barn, including stacks of 78 rpm records. They were stiff enough to throw and fragile enough to explode when Moe broke one over Curly’s head.

My folks had a turntable that could play 78s, but I didn’t want any of these platters.

There was a lot of religious music, such as “How Great Thou Art,” which I guessed was about God and not Reggie Jackson or Carl Yastrzemski.

There was the jazz of the 1920s and ’30s – by the artists who knew how to whiten up black music to keep you from getting overexcited. One name that sticks in my mind is Kay Kyser, “The Ol’ Professor of Swing,” and his College of Musical Knowledge. If he were alive today, Mr. Kyser wouldn’t be churning out international club bangers. He’d probably be music director for Coldplay.

And there were corrals of cowboy songs, including this haunting epic that was playing on a wind-up Victrola when I walked in:

He rides all night, just roundin’ up the cattle
On a $5 dollar horse, and a $60 saddle

This has been true for almost all the estate sales and garage sales (my late, beloved Uncle Morrie called them “tag sales”) I went to in the following years. The families kept all the music I wanted. Why were they so mean? They left behind only divas, Christmas songs, still more cowboys, and the lyricism of the Celts. (The Romans kicked the Celts all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but today the Romans are gone and the Celts have conquered the world behind an army of PR flaks.)

But in these great times, people are surrendering their lives to Google and abandoning music in physical forms. Now I’m returning from a Saturday morning of browsing with dozens of dirt-cheap CDs to try, and don’t neg me for buying CDs. I have plenty of competition. At one recent sale I went to, as I arrived a dude departed with the four-disc The Story of the Clash. The seller probably gave it to him just to get rid of it. It’s not fair.

I recently found several hours of classical music. I won’t keep it all, but it was all interesting.

Felix Mendelssohn
Symphonies No. 3 ‘Scottish’ & No. 4 ‘Italian’
San Francisco Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor
1993

I like Mendelssohn because he’s always crouched on the window ledge of hysteria. Even in his quietest moments, he’s never more than three minutes away from flying off the handle.

This organizing principle makes Mendelssohn’s music perfect for Hollywood. I immediately recognized the ‘Italian’ symphony. I didn’t recognize the ‘Scottish’ symphony, and frankly there’s nothing about it that suggests my homeland.

But the four movements of the ‘Scottish’ made me think of cannonballs and wooden ships, sword fights, and midnight chases on horseback. My guess is that this music saw plenty of action in the movie soundtracks of the 1930s and ’40s – the way you can’t have a battle in space without ripping off or riffing on some section of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Maurice Ravel
Odyssey
Philadelphia Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy, Conductor
1990

S’up, ladies! Maurice “Love Gun” Ravel is in the house. His ‘Bolero’ was once synonymous with sex. This disc has other tracks, but why listen to them? Would you buy The Baha Men: The Ultimate Collection for anything other than “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Bolero is actually a type of dance music, but Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ is THE bolero for those of you who wait all year for the World Naked Bike Ride. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s reading will wake up your mama and turn your lamp down low.

Wynton Marsalis
The London Concert
Joseph Haydn, Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s dad), Johann Friedrich Fasch, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (who invented those ceramic figures no one wants to inherit)
English Chamber Orchestra
Raymond Leppard, Conductor
1994

Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet like a clear day on Mount Rainier. I don’t know how anyone can persuade such exquisite sounds to leave their home in heaven.

In The London Concert, Marsalis gives us four trumpet concertos from classical music’s “Classical” all-classics classic period. (If they can rename birds and fish, they really should rename that zone between “Baroque” and “Romantic.”)

This is not a particularly challenging lineup – you could play most of this stuff with the whistle of a steam locomotive – but Marsalis has the skills to detonate each of them.

Ottorino “MC Run Pain” Respighi
Symphonic Poems: Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Enrique Bátiz, Conductor
1991

Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879 and lived long enough to embrace the Russians who disrupted classical music. He was trained by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the man who drove Rasputin into madness with ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ When Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’ had its infamous premiere in Paris in 1913, Respighi was sitting in the front row with two supermodels. When the riot erupted after the performance, Otto threw the first chair.

Respighi’s ‘Symphonic Poems’ starts in promising fashion with his death-metal vision of a typical Roman festival. Scholars have confirmed that there are aluminum baseball bats in the string section. I was stoked, but the rest of this disc is either an uninteresting cacophony or so quiet I can’t tell if we’re taking a nap or listening to The Cowboy Junkies.

No more perambulating through the secondary music market for me for a while – I’m off to Antique Parent Land! I’ll return in a week or two with a few words about jazz. Until then – stop hitting each other with those 78s!