Archive for the elvis costello Category

The History of Song Part I or The Glee Factor

Posted in Autobiographical, Baltimore, billy elliot, elvis costello, glee, jim jarmusch, Photography, tom waits on December 7, 2010 by smpiv

My background in entertainment is limited at best.

As a second grader on the mean streets of Virginia Beach I dreamed, like Billy Elliot, of dancing—ballet was it for me.  Why?  No clue, but it was the early sixties and my father was a fighter pilot.  A non-starter……at best.

As a fifth grader at Arnold Elementary School in Maryland I confidently tried out for the school choir.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no singing talent—no fuzzy, feel good let down here from a program that, up to that point, took anyone.  It was the mid sixties and corporal punishment was still a valid form of persuasion, I couldn’t expect more.

I did have my successes.  In the first grade at Little Flower Catholic School in Pax River I was constantly making noises—birds, machine guns, motor boats, etc. much to the joy of my classmates and to the consternation of Sister Anne Marie. 

What was her solution?  I was to entertain the Second Graders with my talents.  I was over the moon.  I thought this was the best thing ever.  It took me years to realize that Sister was trying to embarrass me.  Didn’t work—she gave up after that, my noises continued and I continued to go through the window instead of the door for recess.  Ah, the small joys.

I did, much later, have an opportunity, like most frustrated entertainers, to work backstage.  In this case to open the curtain at the ballet portion of collection of performances to raise money for the Arts Center I worked for in Annapolis.

I stood determined to do my part for the show and open that curtain like no curtain had ever been opened before.  I had planned on a subtle and nuanced pull that would start the curtain off with flourish that would look like Barbara Morgan’s famous picture of Martha Graham and then just sweep open the rest of the way of its own accord.

Well just before my moment my headphones crackled with the instruction, “Open it slowly.”  Well slow means many things to many people.  To me, someone who had only opened shower curtains, that night, it meant very slow. 

“Curtain, go!”

My cue and with the determination of a turtle I inched that fire treated beast of a blue velvet curtain open. 

Two things made me realize my error.

One was a large company of ballet dancers lurching forward—I don’t think there is a pretty French term for lurch that would make lurch seem any more elegant than it isn’t—off toe and then trying to elegantly get back on toe, give me the evil eye, and then to sweat out the slowest curtain ever.

Secondly was the stage manager yelling at me through the headphones to open the curtain faster.  Well I did and of course it was then way too fast.  Thank God for the-show-must-go-on attitude instilled in us from our early parts as trees in kindergarten (I’m fairly certain I was some form of shrubbery in my kindergarten play, not even a tree) for those dancers moved on from my ineptitude and performed beautifully.  And they never spoke of it to me when they saw me in the halls later.

Twice in my adult life I’ve been elevated to another consciousness through what can best be described as primal movement and dance.

The first time was at an afterhour’s club in Baltimore.  I recognized it once many years later while driving through Baltimore and it was in a dodgy section of Greenmount Avenue, but that night it might as well have been the Taj Mahal. 

It was a collection of gay and straight patrons flying around the biggest dance floor I’ve ever been on.  The Cure, Jimmy Sommerville, Bronski Beat, Abba all at top volume—dance-mixes of just about everything.  Fruit juice poured freely from the bar while the bathroom was where one found their high of choice—lines, alcohol, whippets, new friends.

My girl friend (in this case, just a friend) and I spent the night dancing, flying, spinning, watching two pretty gay young bucks doing one whippet after another, laughing and just leaving this planet. 

At six am it all shut down, the sun was coming up.  We wove our way through the trash to our car and went back to our little lives in Annapolis, having forgotten it all for four short hours—it was liberating.

The second time was in Richmond at a friend’s house on Monument Avenue.

We were all in or recently out of art school, most single, and the others with spouses that didn’t quite get it.  The beauty of art school, particularly at the graduate level, is that it’s an extended version of those mind altered, all night rap sessions—with REM’s Murmur playing over and over in the background–you had as a Freshman that you thought someone should have recorded because of all the amazing, world changing thoughts you had.

Well at the graduate level you move onto Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch and any combination of both as an initial stimulant and go from there.  Other stimulants would be introduced as you talked about all those lame all night Freshman rap sessions you had and how much more mature you were now.  And then the drums came out.

Seriously, drums.  Big ones, little ones, ones you thumped, ones you hit with sticks and lots of them.  There were at least fifteen of us and we all had a drum.  At first it seemed a bit lame to me, but as I hit my drum and everyone else did as well, all to a beat, on a beat, it became infectious.  It lasted for hours and the sun was coming up when it ended.  I was somewhere else, and happier than I had ever been to that point.

And now, fast forward to today.

I sing in the car with the best of them.  I’ll sing to anything and get the words wrong to everything.  I hum unknowingly; I keep the beat to anything and everything—I’m a human metronome.  I have theme music running in my head at all times.  When I ski I sing “Feliz Navidad” or “Boy with a Problem” from Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom”.  And just to be clear I will have a song list for my funeral prepared and ready to go before that day. 

Just in case I drop dead soon after this blog, I would like “Kashmir” playing as the pall bearers take my casket to the hearse and I hope it’s a long aisle because I want to hear all eight plus minutes of it before they slam that tailgate shut.

This brings me to what got me started on this whole thing in the first place—“Glee”.  All of my frustrated desires to sing, act, and dance is wrapped up in this show. 

Of all the characters it is Kurt that I relate to the most.  This is not an outing moment, there is nothing to out—it’s his general problem with figuring out who he is and how he fits in.  His desire to stand out and disappear all at the same time defines my High School experience to a tee.

Until the seventh grade I was an outgoing, popular kid.  In the seventh grade I began to act out, start fights with kids who would then pound me.  I was such a poor fighter that my science teacher took pity on me and began to teach me how to box in the basement of the science building.  It didn’t help, with my new found skills I began to take on kids even bigger than before and was pummeled even worse than before.  I was acting out so much that I had the dubious honor of being the first seventh grader at this private school, which had been founded in 1914, to get weekend detention.  I had the pleasure of painting the bleachers for two days.

So when it came time for my family to move again—this time back to the West coast and Thousand Oaks—I decided I would make no waves, fly low and avoid the radar.  This would be my MO through high school until soon after I graduated from college.  Oddly it would be as an entertainer that I would finally blossom.

My first significant job following my eight day stint in the Navy (a story in itself) was as a baby photographer.  For a shy, ill defined and somewhat gangly twenty something it probably wasn’t the best career choice, but it was photography.

It was a job that required me to first, entertain a baby—that’s easy, believe it or not and as long as you could make the baby smile, you could sell the picture.  The harder part was keeping the long line of mothers and babies waiting their turn entertained.  I quickly developed a patter, shuck and jive that worked very well and unbeknownst to me allowed me later to talk to anyone and to any size group of people.  It was the only thing I took away from that six months of hell (see my earlier blog The History of Photography Part II–or How Every Picture Tells a Story).

So, anyway, back to Glee.  Well you know I just reread this and it’s not really about Glee at all is it?  It was just the kernel for other things.  Oh, John Mellencamps’ “Jack and Diane” just came on my Zep station on Pandora—right up there with “Pink Houses” and a sure sign to bring this all to an end.

Good night and all the best.