December 31st, 2004

caillebotte_man at his window


Our big Silvertone radio-record player, surely the most expensive item in the house my parents lived in when I was born, is one of the main artifacts that I remember from my earliest years. I remember the center section which tilted out to reveal the turntable and tone arm, and the little recessed container which held spare phonograph needles. I remember the shiny black disks that were played on it, spinning so fast- 78RPM- that the colored labels in the centers of the records would become a blur. I remember the hissing sound that accompanied the decidedly low-fidelity music which magically emerged from the speaker concealed under the grill cloth. If the machine was played loudly when it had not been dusted for a couple of days, little puffs of dust would explode into the air with the first few notes. My dad probably had about seventy or eighty records, and on Sunday afternoons, if we didn't go for a drive in the Nash, or go to visit my grandparents, or one of the various aunts and uncles of which I had an abundance, he would invariably spend the hours playing records.

Most of his collection consisted of music from the swing era, as might be expected from someone of his generation. He had quite a bit of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and several recordings by my personal favorite, Spike Jones. But I only recall him having two recordings by Artie Shaw. There was his first hit record, Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine, and Frenesi, by the Mexican composer Alberto Dominguez. I recall reading a quote Shaw gave many years after he retired from music in 1954, giving one of his reasons for his early departure from the scene. He said that the only songs audiences wanted to hear him play were those two. In fact, he had come to doubt his ability ever to achieve what he wanted in music, so he simply quit playing. Legions of far lesser talents, alas, have ever since failed to follow his example.

Despite his fifty year absence, Artie Shaw's music is still around. It appears to be impossible for any documentary filmmaker working on a project about World War II for any cable television channel not to include Frenesi, at the least, on some part of the soundtrack. Millions of people not even born when Shaw left music have heard that song, and would recognize it, though probably not by name. Many people who have CD compilations of the music of Billie Holiday probably have records by Artie Shaw, without knowing it if they have not read the liner notes. She was his band's vocalist in the late 1930s, and Shaw earned the enmity of many racists for being the first white bandleader to hire a black singer.

I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons my dad didn't have more Artie Shaw records was because my mom disapproved of him- not because of his integrated band, about which she couldn't have cared less, but because of his reputation as a rounder. Shaw was married eight times, and among his various wives were both Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Whenever my dad played one of his records, my mom would never fail to make a remark about Shaw's serial polygamy, and the constant rumors of affairs during the interstices between his marriages. This may be why we heard much more music from the various other bands than from Artie Shaw on those long ago Saturday afternoons.

Most of the leaders of big bands died while I was growing up, and a few before I was born, and I had long been under the impression that Artie Shaw was among that number. Then, in the mid-1980s, a friend of mine said that she had met him a few weeks before at a party. He was well into his seventies at the time, but still energetic, and still enjoyed flirting with the women. My friend described him as still quite good looking, and very funny. Since then, I've seen him pop up on television from time to time, giving interviews or providing comments in documentaries such as Ken Burns' Jazz. It began to look as though he was indestructible. Perhaps retiring from music at an early age was good for him. He died yesterday at 94, long after most of his rival bandleaders were gone.

I was amused by the final paragraph of the biography at his official web site:
As Artie Shaw goes on into his nineties, he has also developed a crusty humor, as evidenced by an epitaph for himself he wrote for Who's Who in America a few years ago at the request of the editors: "He did the best he could with the material at hand." However, at a recent lecture to the music students of the University of Southern California, when someone mentioned having read it, Shaw said, "Yeah, but I've been thinking it over and I've decided it ought to be shorter, to make it more elegant." And after a brief pause, "I've cut it down to two words: 'Go away.'"

OK, Artie, I've said all I'll say. I'll go away, and listen to my CDs of those songs that drove you to early retirement. I still like them as much as I did when I first heard them, scratchy and base-heavy, from 78RPM records on that old Silvertone.

Artie Shaw - 1910-2004

Need Raspberry Syrup, and More Blankets

Snow finally arrived this evening, though it might be more accurate to call it slush. It's white and frozen, but very wet. For the moment, the rain has returned, so the slush might either melt away, or freeze into a nice underlayer of ice for later snowfall. Then there will be the dance of cars on all the roads, and consequent knocking down of trees and utility poles. I don't know how long the power will remain on. This storm is expected to continue at least until Sunday.

Very late last night, the rain ceased for a while, and there was a brief clearing, revealing the waning moon and patches of starry sky. There were yet fogs drifting through the forest. Only by their slow movement was it possible to distinguish them from the bare oaks, whose dense masses of twigs, when lit by moonlight, resemble small, earthbound clouds. But the clouds closed once more, and the day was once again gray, and afternoon dampened by drizzles. Birds clustered on telephone wires and the dark branches of pine trees, and did not sing.

A few hours remain before I shall have, to my surprise, survived another calendar year. The newspaper today brought the annual list of celebrities I have now outlasted. The list included a number of obscure one-hit-wonders, and it left out Warren Zevon. How capricious is fame! No, wait! He died last year! The years must be getting shorter. Yeah, that's it. Shorter years. Not getting older, at all. Just shorter years.