Even while I’m typing something else, I can hear the electronic ping of the messages, over the transom.
My friends and family post songs and photos, poems and videos. We all know the blessing of having friends in Brazil and Japan, Canada and Mexico.
It’s so easy these days.
My new email friend, Hassan in Yorkshire, writes about soccer and justice and music. There’s a common thread, I am sure.
The other day he sent me a photo from visiting London in snow. I’ve been to London, what, 50 times and have never seen snow. But there it was, Berkeley Square. My wife and I have walked uphill through that square at night, usually around 10:30, after the National Theatre, and we were tired and happy. But never in snow.
Hassan knows I consider Nina Simone one of the great masters. He found a video of her signature piano -- you always know it’s Simone, before she even sings a note. Somehow, she makes bells peal in a riff from Good King Wenceslas before drifting into Little Girl Blue.
In this amazing new electronic age, a gift from Yorkshire,
Gov. Chris Christie is absolutely right in his decision to lower the flags in New Jersey for Whitney Houston, leading up to her funeral in Newark on Saturday.
On WCBS radio Wednesday, Christie said her home state was honoring her as a “cultural icon," not as a “role model.”
What Gov. Christie suggested – and what preachers and mourners will surely say on Saturday – is that people have the responsibility to love the person while lamenting any possible failings.
“And I’m disturbed by people who believe that because her ultimate demise, and we don’t know what is the cause of her death yet, but because of her history of substance abuse, that somehow she’s forfeited the good things that she did in her life. I just reject that on a human level,” Christie said to Levon Putney.
“When I’ve seen these messages and e-mails that have come to me, you know, disparaging her for her struggles with substance abuse, and what I say to everybody is, there but for the grace of God go I.”
The church and community that will say goodbye to Houston understands that everybody falls short, in some way. The governor struck the right tone as well as substance, giving hints of the mature and compassionate adult inside.
Whitney Houston was a native daughter of New Jersey. She did not die while robbing a bank, or pushing fraudulent mortgages, for that matter. She is surely loved and admired for her talent and also as the human who touched many others. The governor of her home state gets it.
Here’s a song for the silly season. May I call your attention to Iris DeMent, performing her song, “Wasteland of the Free.”
The video itself may be one of the worst ever seen on You Tube, which is saying a lot. But check out the lyrics as DeMent strums her guitar at an outdoor bluegrass festival in 2010.
It may sound as if she wrote the song while watching Sleazy, Dopey, Starchy, Wifty and the rest stumbling toward the Iowa caucuses, but in fact she issued it in 1996 during the Clinton years.
“We got politicians running races on corporate cash,
“Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.”
DeMent is raging about extreme CEO pay, resistance to raising the minimal wage, wars for oil, teen-age ignorance, preacher hypocrisy.
Her shrill cutting sound – Dolly Parton on ‘roid rage – may not be to everybody’s taste (she’s one of my favorites) but watch handsome, driven redheaded Iris nailing her own words and unleashing the anger behind them.
First time I heard her voice was in 1994 while I was writing about a farewell tour by the great Tom Paxton, who had recorded his tribute to the Verdigris River in his native Oklahoma. I hope I didn’t insult him by asking, who in the world is that backup singer?
It was Iris DeMent, child of Arkansas, raised in California, from a Pentecostal family, the 14th child of her father, the eighth child of her mother.
Her first CD, “Infamous Angel,” would have been a career masterpiece for most singers except that she followed it with “My Life,” which contained two signature songs – “My Life” and “No Time to Cry” – which makes the listener cry and think and try to gather up "the pieces of my heart," as Iris puts it.
I caught her once, at some club on eastern Long Island, mid-winter. She played a few songs and then paused and looked around and solemnly pronounced, “Stopped off at Amityville on the way out.” She meant the site of the Amityville Horror, the family massacre, many years earlier. We all whooped at a glimpse of her noir streak.
In her third CD, “The Way I Should,” DeMent kept growing – with a haunting personal hymn, “When My Morning Comes Around,” plus songs about sexual abuse, the toll of Vietnam and politics in “Wasteland” -- no red, no blue, just fat-cat preachers and grubby politicians. Somebody recently started a web site called Wasteland of the Free, tied to the Occupy movement, for which Iris could be the songwriter laureate.
Check out the video but better yet find “Wasteland” on her third CD, with Iris in the studio, on a better beat. After that, enjoy the silly season.
As Christmas Eve approaches, I think about my Aunt Irene.
She was blonde and bubbly, what the show-business columnists of the day called a “chantoozie,” singing in clubs on the East Side of Manhattan, when there was still quite a Mitteleuropa presence in that neighborhood.
Irene worked late, slept late, and was always about nine hours behind the rest of us.
“I do remember going with Mom and Dad to a Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan, where Irene did stand up and sing a song to the accompaniment of a violin player,” my kid brother Chris recalls. “She had such a big voice, full of flashy highlights and vibrato, and she gestured dramatically with her hands.”
That was Irene. At this time of year, she would hum snippets of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around the house, but she launched into high gear only on the afternoon before Christmas.
My family would crowd into Grandma’s modest row house in the Jamaica section of Queens, every inch covered with ornate decorations. Grandma would serve us sweets, maybe even a sip of Tokay wine for the adults, and we would wait for Irene, who had embarked in late afternoon, heading to Gertz or Macy’s in the hub of Jamaica.
Finally there would be a bustle in the narrow hallway, and Irene would burst into the crowded living room, tossing her fur coat in a corner and distributing packages, exquisitely wrapped, for all of us. The packages had just been wrapped by exhausted clerks, eager to go home to their own holidays, and now we were tearing into them, barely half an hour later.
I cannot remember what gifts she gave us, only that they were elaborate and expensive. She must have spent every dime she had made for months of singing in some smoky club.
Irene is long gone. I regret that I never saw her perform, but when I hear the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I know I caught the best of Aunt Irene, in her own sparkling living room.
The man hears that his grand-daughter is doing well on the saxophone in grade school.
I’ve got a record in my room, he says.
To his surprise, in the stacks of albums, he finds John Coltrane.
He shows her how to — ooh, carefully — place the forefinger under the tiny bar, drop the stylus on the outside border. Coltrane starts honking.
I used to listen to jazz my first decade on the road, he says, thinking about Horace Silver in one joint, Marian McPartland somewhere else, the night Richard Pryor and Jack Jones held a scat-singing duel during a Johnny Hartman gig in L.A.
Coltrane motors away from the melody, doing riffs with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Roy Haynes — "My Favorite Things," from Newport, 1963. First time he heard this album was over at Sam and Faith’s.
The girl is listening and talking at the same time. She is a quick study. The best part of vinyl, he says — well, two: even with the scratches, the sound is better than an iPod — is the liner notes.
The quartet veers back into the melody and the girl catches it. They’re playing the first song over, she says. No, it’s jazz, he says. It’s all the same song.
He shows her the credits for the other side, where Coltrane is joined by another tenor sax, Pharoah Sanders. I like that name, she says, repeating it a few times.
When the first side is over, she turns the vinyl over — two tenor saxes prodding each other on the title song, Selflessness.
I’m going to tell my teacher about Pharoah Sanders, she says.
After she heads home, the grandfather locates his Billie Holiday anthology. Next time she is over, I’m going to play "Georgia on My Mind." (They used to live in Atlanta, and she will know this song.) It’s got young Eddie Heywood on piano and Lester Young on tenor sax. Gorgeous liner notes. He thinks, I’m glad I kept my albums.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: