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Friday, June 28, 2013


Is that a warp you see? Yes, the drawing above was scanned from my sketchbook and the fold in the book didn't scan perfectly. Ergo, the fairy's wing looks weird.

In the early 1970s, one of my excellent brothers gave me the Barbra Streisand Live at the Forum record for Christmas.

Warning: In addition to having absolutely nothing to do with the illustration above (which has its own story embedded in it, which also has nothing to do with the image), this tale has several cul-de-sacs. Here is the first one: After asking for the record for Christmas, I started thinking of all the other things I might get as a surprise, and un-asked my brother for the record, telling him I'd changed my mind. He said, "Too bad -- I already bought it for you." I told myself this was probably just a ploy on his part, and that, come Christmas, he'd have bought me some other wonderful thing. But in fact, he was being straight-up, so on Christmas of whatever year that was (I was still quite a child), I received "Live at the Forum." I ground the grooves into sand. It was my first favorite record. (There would be more, of course.)

Anyway, back on the main drag.
Track 8 is a reprise of Streisand's "Funny Girl" hit, "My Man," a song that almost immediately captured my heart. It dates to the very early 20th century, and so even in the 1970s, it had a kind of antique sensibility. Perhaps you know it? Here are the lyrics:

Oh, my man, I love him so, he'll never know
All my life is just despair, but I don't care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright, all right...
What's the difference if I say I'll go away
When I know I'll come back on my knees someday
For whatever my man is, I am his forever more
It cost me a lot,
But there's one thing that I've got, it's my man
Cold and wet,
tired -- you bet,
But all that I soon forget with my man
He's not much for looks
And no hero out of books is my man
Two or three girls has he
That he likes as well as me, but I love him...
Oh, my man, I love him so, he'll never know
All my life is just despair, but I don't care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright, all right...
What's the difference if I say I'll go away
When I know I'll come back on my knees someday
For whatever my man is, I am his forever more...

Let us count the incidence of dated language and sentiment, shall we? I mean, really: You'd have to look hard for a song that embodied more female disempowerment than "My Man." It's almost impossible to imagine a singer like Streisand even performing it. In fact, when I recently went to find a Youtube recording of it, I came across video of her offering a disclaimer of it as "a classic victim song" -- right before she sang it onstage at a concert. And broke my heart all over again, for about the 1,500th time.

I am helpless in its presence. Or, at least I am helpless in the presence of the "Live at the Forum" version of this song.

It's not that I don't get it. Even as a kid, and an often lovesick teenager, I understood the narrator of "My Man" to be denigrating herself. Even then, I saw that -- devoted as she was -- she deserved far better than this unattractive, not terribly successful philanderer who owned her heart.

Not only that, but I understood that SHE understood that she deserved better. And that she probably was not going to do any better, at least in this lifetime. These layers of knowing were, I thought, part of the genius of the song. At first listen, maybe you take the narrator for a dopey chick who's being used and doesn't know it. Then you see that she's being used and she DOES know it, and not only that but she's self-aware enough that she knows that even if she screws up the courage to leave him, she'll "come back on her knees someday."

Wow. Because who among us hasn't been willing to be that fool, even temporarily? Even if we snapped out of it at some later date?

More than that, though, what kills me about "My Man" at the Forum is Streisand's phrasing and pacing beginning at this critical turn: "two or three girls ... has he ... that he likes .. as well as me ..." then pours it on with "But I love him." And in that moment, the pathos falls away and you get something very ... relate-able. Even if you've never loved a schmuck with three girls on the side. Even if the object of your love was actually DESERVING of it, you get this line that embodies that abandon that love brings along with it.

And it. Is just. Divine. (Says me.)

Now, this is the point at which I underscore the purpose of this essay, and its underlying connection to an aging fairy with a dog.

Wait, no. I'm lying. As I said, there is no connection to the illustration. Having listened to the song recently, I simply had a yen to think about it. And defend it. So there you go; I feel better.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Second Thought: God, friends and creativity

Decades ago, in a conversation about music, my brother Greg made the case that a singer isn't as creatively important as the songwriter; that the songwriter generates something from nothing, whereas the singer is merely repeating or interpreting. He would rather have songwriting talent than singing talent, he said.

As a kid who transfixed by the idea of making something where before there was nothing, his logic made perfect sense. I downloaded his opinion onto my own personal hard drive, and there it stayed for years to come. I think of it as the "God" definition of creativity: You can only claim to be creative if you're the one making something from nothing. And since being creative was good, and merely parroting someone else's creative product seemed less honorable, the singer was less important than the songwriter.

It would be years before deeper thought intruded, but eventually it did. And when you think deeply about what it means to be creative, you inevitably end up (say I) admitting that no one creates something from nothing -- well, except perhaps God himself. The songwriter used language he or she was taught; most likely used melodic tropes evolved through the ages. The song might be new, but it's hardly without foundation material.

Meanwhile, the singer might or might not be creative. She might mimic others' styles. She might fake emotion. Or she might bring whatever that thing is that truly creative people bring to what they do. You can think of it as the "special sauce," or as a way of stamping the starter material with a piece of one's soul. Whatever.

Most of creativity -- all of it? -- is taking what we're given and adding what's uniquely ourselves. Some of us do it on a grand scale. Some of us add just a little bit.

Collaboration rules. We collaborate with composers, singers, painters, or writers who went before us. We work in real time with other musicians, artists, editors and technicians. Being creative doesn't make us God. But talented friends and curious hearts can make us creative.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Works On Paper

I wonder how long ago it was that the birch tree's shedding of its papery bark first caught our eyes. We must've been kids, right? Kids born before the takeover of the electronic glow. Kids still able to study the tiny, fierce industry of an ant colony for long minutes, or to get our shoes mucked up in a creek bed. The flaking birch was like the weeping willow with its chandelier branches: special-tricks trees. Memorable trees, recognizable at a distance, like the sassafras with its friendly hand-shaped leaves. There was a small delight that came with being able to know and name them, even though most everyone else could do it, too.

A few years back, my friend Sarah took me to her summer house in the woods. We traipsed amid trees she'd known since childhood, and she showed me a new great thing: big, solid chunks of tree fungus that you can snap off and draw pictures on with twigs. She'd been doing it since childhood, I think.

It had been so long since I'd learned anything like that. So long.