Sunday, November 4, 2012

Knowing when to clap

This past weekend, I went to a jazz concert featuring a large ensemble playing the music of John Coltrane, and a chamber music concert of works by 19th and 20th century composers. A couple of months ago, I went to see a ukulele trio at a folk club and with some luck I might soon be able to see The Who during its 54th farewell tour. I like having “big ears” and enjoy the fact that many different kinds of music move me. Like many people, I believe seeing music performed live is the ultimate experience – if only ticket prices were lower or my salary higher, I would see live music every week.

Seeing jazz and classical music in the same weekend was aurally very exciting but I had to remain mindful of a key distinction between the two genres: when to clap. At jazz concerts, every soloist gets applause at the conclusion of their solo and a single tune could have five or more solos. In classical music, even when a piece has three or four parts or movements, applause must be held until the very end. I find that frustrating, since within a given movement, there are many times when a musician will play some very difficult and thrilling passages and I feel compelled to show my respect and appreciation. But out of decorum, I remain silent.

The hardest thing is at the end of a movement. The silence is more deafening, it’s downright uncomfortable. The only sounds one hears are the musicians adjusting their music or doing minor maintenance to their instruments (in the case of a French horn player I saw today, that included turning it over so his spit could drain out). It’s critically important to keep track of the movements so you know which is the final one. Of the three pieces I heard today, the first and third had three movements and the second had four. I have to admit I got confused and almost clapped at the of the second piece’s third movement.

The other important thing to remember about clapping at a classical concert is that at the conclusion of a piece, and at the end of the concert proper, the players will bow once or twice, then leave the stage. You must, however, keep clapping because they will return to acknowledge all the applause the audience has been struggling to contain throughout the performance. Then they go off stage again. If the performance was particularly bravura-riffic, like at the end of an opera, they may do this several times. Regardless of how many times they are brought back, however, they will not do an encore. They just want the applause.

It can be challenging at a jazz concert, too, because the culture of clapping at every solo can sometimes be a little much. After all, not every solo is stellar and deserving of special applause. Also, sometimes one player’s solo leads directly to another player’s solo and applause for the first player will make it difficult to hear the start of the second player’s solo. Do you disrespect the first player in order to show respect to the second player, or respect the first player at the expense of the second player’s chance to shine?

In between numbers, there isn’t much noise. The musicians don’t talk much and the audience quietly awaits the next tune. This is very different from a rock concert, where the artists are yelling at the audience, egging them on, and the audience responds with constant shouts and screams, and hoots and hollers. Particularly well-lubricated yahoos yell during quiet moments, and steadfastly clap in 4/4 even when the band is playing in 6/8. At the end of a rock performance, the audience, hungry for an encore – often simply to delay the inevitable crush trying to get out of the venue – may be left clapping for as much as 10 minutes until the band, redrugged and refreshed, comes out for a hit song or two that they deliberately omitted from the set list to ensure they would get an encore. Then they leave the stage again and the audience will hope that their clapping inspires the houselights to remain off. If so, the band has earned a legitimate encore.

Folk audiences are probably the most patient of all, because every folk song has some kind of story behind it that the folk singer feels compelled to explain. So they listen quietly and attentively to the story of the song, then to the song itself. Then they clap and wait for the next story, and the next song. Folk audiences are small so they tend to clap all the more loudly to make up for their paltry numbers.

Sometimes, an appreciative artist will applaud the audience. I’ve always wondered why. I suppose it’s because we clapped at the right times. Still, I’ve never earned an encore so I guess there’s room for improvement.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Not-So-Great Debates

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre is credited with originating the adage, “Every nation has the government it deserves.” He used it in a letter in 1811, and it has been adopted by many a political cynic ever since. It applies as well in the current day and particularly at the conclusion of the three Presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For if Americans can agree on one thing, it might be that the legacy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a model of intelligent argument is in no danger of being supplanted; at the same time, we indeed got the debates we deserved.

To review, here is what we got: three moderated, televised encounters of 90 minutes each; the focus of each debate, and in some cases the very questions themselves, were known to each candidate in advance. What transpired, then, was a well-rehearsed recitation of stances and accusations, with an assortment of pre-composed snappy zingers designed to serve as the ultimate takeaways.

Of the three moderators, the first, Jim Lehrer, was highly ineffective, letting the candidates run roughshod over the format and rules; the second, Candy Crowley, was more assertive, even parental, in keeping her charges in order; and the third, Bob Schieffer, basically ran the debate as a regular installment of Face the Nation.

Of the three debates, while partisans keep their own scorecards most agree that Romney outperformed a seemingly unprepared Obama in the first; the second, in a more comfortable “town meeting” format, was probably a draw; and the third, which focused on foreign policy, was won by Obama, who could point to real accomplishments and specific policies whereas Romney could only lament that more radical changes in the geopolitical map hadn’t resulted from the previous four years.

Winners and Losers
As I mentioned, partisans scored each debate differently, but all seemed to use a common set of criteria, in which performance was more important than substance. To the latter point, the population learned there was a subculture of “fact checkers” in the country who jockeyed among each other to have the last word as to which statements by which candidate had at least the ring of truth to them. Like a recount, the truth-to-lies ratios wouldn’t be digested until a day or two after each debate, but it’s clear that the public reaction to the performance of each candidate himself was the truest arbiter of success.

As a partisan liberal, I watched the first debate and had to admit that Romney performed better. On the other hand, I didn’t agree with the content of his opinions – even those few that traversed the fact-checker apparatus unscathed. In terms of content, when I could discern it from Obama’s naturally halting style of delivery, I sided with the President consistently. Romney said the wrong things more forcefully, which resulted in him winning the debate; even though Obama was far more truthful, he took a hit in public opinion polls across the country.

In the second debate, Obama was more energized, more assertive, more likely to hit back at Romney’s jabs. He didn’t score a knockout but given that his candidacy could have been considered over if he had repeated his lackluster performance in the first debate, it was considered a moral victory and helped to halt his slide in the polls.

By the third debate, any of the mythical undecided voters that remained most likely either knew whom they were voting for or decided not to vote at all. Or maybe they’ll vote for Jill Stein, who was excluded from the mainstream of the Presidential race even though she will appear on the ballot. But given the focus on foreign policy and the fact that Obama had the death of Osama bin Laden on his resume and Romney had only a mistake-prone international trip to recommend him, it’s no surprise that Obama won on both style and substance.

Between 66 and 67 million people watched the first two debates; viewership of the third was expected to be smaller because it was the final one and because it went up against Monday Night Football. Compare those figures to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, verified on February 6, 2012, which show that more than 206 million Americans are eligible to vote, and more than 146 million were at that time registered to vote. Just over 131 million voted in the 2008 Presidential election. Most people, then, either ignored the debates or were content to consume second-hand highlights on the news, Twitter, Facebook, and other media.

Learning From the Past
Compare all this with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. At the outset, it’s important to note that the seven one-on-one confrontations that took place from August to October, 1858, were part of the Illinois Senatorial race. There was no national audience – at least not initially. The two would compete for the Presidency in 1860 but in accordance with the practice of the day, none of the four candidates for President that year campaigned for themselves.

The format for the debates was akin to the common practice of stump speaking. None of the debates were moderated. Either Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent, or Abraham Lincoln, the challenger, would open with a speech that typically ran an hour in length. The other would then speak for at least as long, followed by a 30-minute rebuttal from whomever spoke first. And keep in mind, they were talking at such length largely about a single subject: slavery in the territories.

So each debate ran about two-and-a-half to three hours. More often than not, the audience of as many as 10,000-15,000 people stood and listened. While the speeches were mostly directed to the audience, the candidates typically posed questions to each other, to be answered in rebuttal or in the next debate. Transcripts were printed in newspapers throughout the state. No winner was ruled in any of the debates; the proof of the pudding was in the statewide election, which Douglas won. Nonetheless, the well-organized and clearly expressed content of Lincoln’s highly logical arguments made him a rising star of the state’s fledgling Republican party and helped him capture the Presidential nomination for the 1860 contest.

Lincoln’s strong content, which history has shown espoused the morally correct position, stood somewhat in contrast to his actual performance. Lincoln, at six feet four inches – as freakishly tall in his day as an NBA center is in ours – towered over Douglas, who was a full foot shorter. Physically, Lincoln was gangly and awkward. An observer noted that when he spoke, Lincoln would “bend his knees so they would almost touch the platform, and then … shoot himself to full height, emphasizing his utterances in a very forcible manner.”

Though he had and retains a well-earned reputation as an engaging storyteller, his voice was best suited to small groups at a general store. For such a large and powerful man, he had a rather high-pitched voice, and his frontier drawl and odd pronunciation of certain words probably played less well in front of a large audience. He was ridiculed mercilessly in newspapers and magazines around the world in his own lifetime; it is fortunate that he lived before television and its unceasing influence on our own image-driven age.

Richard Nixon was not as lucky. A century after Lincoln’s first successful campaign for President, John F. Kennedy took on Nixon in the nation’s first televised debates. While there were four debates, people only remember and talk about the first one, in which Nixon looked haggard and unkempt next to Kennedy’s youthful glow. It is commonly thought that radio listeners believed Nixon won the first debate though television viewers gave the night overwhelmingly to Kennedy. A subsequent study suggests that this is a political myth, but the first debate stands as such a classic referendum on style over substance that no one remembers Nixon’s much stronger performances over the next three debates or the fact that the race was one of the closest ever, with Kennedy capturing 49.72% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55%.

We the People
The fact is, though many of us bemoan the negative ads, the preemption of our favorite shows as multiple networks carried the debates, and the assumption that all politicians are dishonest, we the people have the government, the debates, and the political process we deserve.

Who among us would watch three hours of political rhetoric in a single sitting (or standing)? Who among us would read speech transcripts, wrestle with complex policy distinctions instead of snappy one-liners, and place greater value over a candidate’s words and ideas instead of his or her physical appearance and comportment? We like to think we would but that’s not how we’re wired and it’s not how the media wants to serve us. Instead, the campaign for the most powerful office in the world is run like a reality show with instant and constant popularity polls, secret alliances, and a flexible definition of “reality.”

Behind it all is the nefarious issue of money and I won’t even address that here. Suffice to say, the Oval Office is for sale to the highest bidder. And that won’t change until and unless we can force our elected officials to change it – but then we’d be asking them to change a system that supports their very careers. That’s democracy, you might say. But I would disagree. WE are democracy and to get the government we deserve, we need to be more deserving of the government we desire.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Published at last!

It was four years ago, on July 1, 2008, that I first blogged about my then-in-progress first novel, The Grave and the Gay. It's been a long road since then, filled with many rejection notices from agents and small publishers - not to mention a divorce and a totaled car - but I am pleased and proud to announce that my book has finally been published by Indianapolis-based VantagePoint Media. It is currently available on and at a very fair price.

Concurrent with the book being published, I have launched my own website: Jason M. Rubin/A Writer's Pad. I invite readers to check it out and learn more about my background and work.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Waterboys - Fisherman's Blues

About a year or so ago, a series of small album-themed books called 33-1/3 was bought by a new publisher, which then decided to request proposals for new books in the series. I seized the opportunity to submit a proposal to write a book about the Waterboys album, Fisherman's Blues. Unfortunately, the opportunity did not seize me: my proposal was rejected. Part of the proposal involved writing a sample chapter. So that my effort is not fully wasted, I have decided to publish the chapter here. This was to have been the introduction to the book.


When the Waterboys fourth album, Fisherman’s Blues, appeared in record shops in October 1988, it had been more than three years since its predecessor, This Is the Sea, had been released. The latter had been a success (at least by Waterboys standards), the album posting in the Top Forty UK chart, and a single, “The Whole of the Moon,” peaking at number twenty-eight. It may have done better had Mike Scott, founder, leader, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and frontman of the group, not refused to promote it on the Top of the Pops television program due to an aversion to lip-syncing. (When reissued in 1990, the song reached number three and was honored with the Ivor Novello Award the following year.)

A three-year absence in the pop music marketplace is crime enough; Fisherman’s Blues added insult to injury by shifting radically from the “Big Music” of the Waterboys’ first three albums – marked by blaring horns, roaring guitars, layers of electric keyboards, and thudding drums – to a more acoustic format melding Celtic fiddle tunes with influences from folk and American country music.

By any accounting of the situation, it would appear that the album was both commercial heresy and career suicide. There wasn’t much demand from MTV for Celtic fiddle tunes, and no self-respecting fan would wait three years for the follow-up to a hit single, especially when the subject matter had turned from moon to fish (though, of course, both “The Whole of the Moon” and “Fisherman’s Blues” were relationship songs).

And yet, something strange happened. Somehow, Fisherman’s Blues became The Waterboys’ best-selling album – not just to date, but of all time – and has since come to be regarded as the band’s high-water mark. Subsequent Waterboys releases, those cut from the same musical cloth and those pursuing an entirely different aesthetic, have typically been unfairly – and unfavorably – compared to it. Though the album reached no higher than thirteen on the UK chart, and the title track peaked at thirty-two as a single, Fisherman’s Blues continues to loom high in the history of the band and in the reputation of head Waterboy Mike Scott. After just one more album exploring Celtic/folk music, he broke up the band and released a pair of solo albums before bringing back the Waterboys name (though not the players) for a series of albums with more of a guitar and synthesizer-based rock sound.

How did this happen? From whence did this musical magic come? Certainly not even Scott himself could have predicted that his 180-degree turn from mulleted ’80s rock performer to earthy roots music explorer would so drastically raise his profile and lead to the rewards of commercial success. The song “Fisherman’s Blues” has appeared in the soundtracks to the American movie Good Will Hunting (about math), the Irish film Waking Ned Devine (about death), and in the pilot episode of the American television series Lights Out (about boxing). Such broad appeal seems unusual for a project originally intended to trod the road less traveled.

The highly literate Scott puts it best himself in the liner notes to the 2006 deluxe remaster of the album, as he describes the context in which he began to move away from what the Waterboys had done to date:

“This journey began with a confluence of events in late 1985. At that point I’d taken the broad, symphonic sound of the first three Waterboys albums … as far as I could. Frustrated that I couldn’t reproduce the sound on stage, and seeking new musical roads to travel, I’d started to listen to country, folk and old-style gospel music, envying their simplicity and purity.

“I was excited by the possibilities of writing and playing these different kinds of music, and by the liberating prospect of departing from the repeat-formula-for-success script that managers, agents, record companies, journalists and even fans were devising for me.”

In retrospect, long-time Waterboys fans see this metamorphosis as nothing particularly out of character for Scott. Thirty years on, one can see that he has regularly showed disdain for pure commerciality for its own sake, displayed a restless creativity that prevents him from repeating himself or treading water in any one pond for too long a time, and consistently honored his muse in realms both musical and spiritual with honesty and without apology.

This is a man, after all, who followed up his most electronic and at times harrowing-sounding album (2000’s A Rock in the Weary Land) with the pin-drop stillness and religiosity of 2003’s Universal Hall, only to bounce back to hard rock with 2007’s Book of Lightning and then take a complete left turn with 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, in which he sets a number of the poet’s works to music. That all these works are all aesthetically successful to a greater or lesser extent is besides the point; after all, regardless of their diversity of execution they spring from the same fount: the mind, heart, and soul of Mike Scott.

No, the point is that nothing would surprise a Waterboys fan more than to see a Vol. 2 of any of these works. The prolific Scott seems often ready to move on to another rail while the train he rides is still in motion. The only expectation one can have at this juncture of his career is that he will do the reverse of what he last accomplished. And yet each Waterboys album is unmistakably a Waterboys album, united as they are by his expansive vision and his distinctive voice.

In 1988, however, such a perspective did not exist. Each of the first three Waterboys albums seemed to build on its predecessor, and the only rational expectation was that the fourth Waterboys album would represent an extension of the third. That was not the case. As it turned out, Scott and his conspirators would spend more than two years and countless miles of recording tape going as far from expectation as possible, moving not to the frontier of musical and recording technology where so many others were staking claims, but rather looking backward at simpler times, more basic forms, and more timeless themes.

That Scott found an audience willing to go there with him was to his good fortune. That he found such sympathetic players willing to help create this bold vision and make it such a remarkable reality is our good fortune. A quarter-century later, Fisherman’s Blues has indeed stood the test of time. To hardcore fans, it is an apex of achievement; to more casual fans, it might be the one and only Waterboys recording in their collection. Regardless, it remains an essential album, the history of which – as this book will attempt to demonstrate – is as unexpected and delightful as the music itself.

I’ll let Mike Scott have one more word before we begin our journey. Here again, from the liner notes to the 2006 remaster, Scott sums up what this album represented to him and to the world, at that time and for all time:

“[W]hile we were completing ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ in Galway, I felt it was an act of power to stand in one’s own heritage; not with a fundamentalist my-culture’s-the-only-way attitude, but by being open to the shared global culture, with all its interactive creative possibilities, while being centred in one’s own. And that it was perfectly cool – in fact it is very excellent – to inhabit my Celtic genes. For the Celt is a warrior, a mystic, a trickster, a shaman, a dreamer, a mischief- and magic-maker.

“So if ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ has a message to impart other than the pure expression of the music itself, it is this:

  • music is music, and no musician or band need be limited to any genre; all are fair territory for the questing musical explorer.
  • British and Irish music need not be divorced from its own roots to be relevant; if it is in tune with its own deep sense of identity, music can have – and can transmit – more power and more cultural, mythical and practical resonance.

    “In this spirit, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and all the Waterboys music that has followed it admits of no barrier or categorisation, and is built on the mighty foundation rock of the Celtic soul.”

  • Friday, July 27, 2012

    Remembering the Murdered Israeli Athletes, Forty Years Later

    June 1973. I was 10 years old, attending an overnight camp for the first time. It was a rainy day, so registration was done inside the mess hall. Despite friendly smiles from the director and staff, my eyes were transfixed to a board leaning against the wall. The board bore 11 8x10 photos, black and white and grainy of burly, foreign-looking men. It was a scary site. But not unfamiliar.

    I recognized the faces because I had seen them on the news several months before. They were the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 summer Olympic games in Munich, Germany. As a young, sports-crazed kid, I always looked forward to the Olympics. The games were about two weeks in when in the early morning of September 5, 1972, a group of Palestinians from the terrorist organization Black September entered the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli athletes, and took nine others hostage. Following a bungled rescue attempt by inept German police forces, the nine hostages were massacred.

    My family watched news of this event nonstop. The masked gunman was an indelible image. It was just plain scary. It was, in fact, the first act of terrorism I was aware of. Mark Spitz, bedecked in medals, left Munich. The Games were soured. After a while, the images and the feelings they stirred in me faded from memory. Until that day the following summer when the athletes’ doomed faces again stared at me at camp.

    Jay was the Education Director at the camp. Three years later he would be my counselor, my favorite-ever counselor, and a lifelong friend. But in 1973, he was the guy pushing these bad memories back in my pre-adolescent face. Four decades later, I asked him why.

    “The bottom line lesson was that when Jews put their fate into other hands, we are fucked,” he told me. “Unlike at Entebbe, when we told the world to screw, and went in ourselves. At Munich, the fucking scumbags would not allow the Israelis to interfere.”

    Of course, this wasn’t how he presented it to us kids. He focused on the fact that the murdered Israelis were athletes, which we as young Jewish boys could identify with. And yes, that Jews and Israel have enemies. This was hammered home that very fall when the Yom Kippur War broke out. On October 6, 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day in Judaism. I got it. Jay had taught me something that was immediately true and relevant.

    It is now 40 forty years since the massacre. And in response to widespread calls for a moment of silence in honor of the murdered Israeli athletes, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has added insult to injury.

    According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “Rogge is president of an International Olympic Committee that steadfastly has refused to allow the memory of the massacred Munich 11 to be part of the opening ceremony. Not once since that September day in 1972 has the IOC given the massacre’s survivors the honor or comfort of even one second of solemnity during the important and symbolic opening night.”

    Even at the time, then-IOC president Avery Brundage refused to cancel the remainder of the Olympics (he did, however, hold a day of mourning, pushing back all events for 24 hours).

    Now, 40 years later, Rogge claims that the Olympics are not a “fit” setting for recognizing the atrocity that occurred in Munich. And it was an atrocity. Here is a description from Wikipedia of how the terrorists murdered the Israeli hostages in the face of the Germans’ ineptness:

    The Germans had not arranged for armored personnel carriers ahead of time and only at this point were they called in to break the deadlock. Since the roads to the airport had not been cleared, the carriers became stuck in traffic and finally arrived around midnight. With their appearance, the kidnappers felt the shift in the status quo, and possibly panicked at the thought of the failure of their operation. At four minutes past midnight of 6 September, one of them (likely Issa) [Luttif Afif, the leader] turned on the hostages in the eastern helicopter and fired at them with a Kalashnikov assault rifle from point-blank range. Springer, Halfin and Friedman were killed instantly; Berger, shot twice in the leg, is believed to have survived the initial onslaught. His autopsy later found that he had died of smoke inhalation. The attacker then pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the cockpit; the ensuing explosion destroyed the helicopter and incinerated the bound Israelis inside.

    Issa then dashed across the tarmac and began firing at the police, who killed him with return fire. Another, Khalid Jawad, attempted to escape and was gunned down by one of the snipers. What happened to the remaining hostages is still a matter of dispute. A German police investigation indicated that one of their snipers and a few of the hostages may have been shot inadvertently by the police. However, a Time Magazine reconstruction of the long-suppressed Bavarian prosecutor's report indicates that a third kidnapper (Reeve identifies Adnan Al-Gashey) stood at the door of the western helicopter and raked the remaining five hostages with machine gun fire; Gutfreund, Shorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira were shot an average of four times each. Of the four hostages in the eastern helicopter, only Ze’ev Friedman’s body was relatively intact; he had been blown clear of the helicopter by the explosion. In some cases, the exact cause of death for the hostages in the eastern helicopter was difficult to establish because the rest of the corpses were burned almost beyond recognition in the explosion and subsequent fire.

    Five of the eight terrorists were killed by police during the failed rescue attempt. The three surviving assassins were captured but later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airplane. Thank you, Germany, for everything.

    No doubt Rogge is afraid of upsetting Arab nations by recognizing the tragedy. At the time, King Hussein of Jordan was the only Arab leader to denounce the act; he’d had his own conflict with Black September two years earlier. So instead of offending the living, the Olympics will insult the dead – those faces I have never been able to get out of my mind.

    These are memories that are resurfacing for me today, as the 2012 summer Olympics begins. I will not watch. I will not forget.

    Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Kind of Blue: The WGBH Jazz Funeral

    Just returned from a funeral and boy are my arms tired.

    That’s not a joke, either. It was a jazz funeral in the tradition of New Orleans bands and second liners who parade in the streets with the coffin of the dearly departed. In this case, the dearly departed was jazz itself. Local public radio station WGBH recently announced the latest in a series of cutbacks over the past three years that have steadily eroded the jazz programming that was once so foundational to the station – and, indeed, to the community.

    Eric Jackson, for 30-plus years the premier presenter of jazz over Boston’s airwaves, sees his popular show moved from weeknights to a mere nine hours over the weekend, while DJ and producer Steve Schwartz, with more than a quarter-century of service under his belt, has been terminated outright.

    Through the convening power of Facebook, the local jazz community gathered to mark the passing of jazz programming that was truly differentiated in the market – both by the expertise of the jockeys and the breadth and quality of the music played. Organized by Ken Field (Birdsongs of the Mesozoic), this jazz funeral was indeed more commemoration than demonstration. There were no speeches, really. But there was a lot of good playing and a ton of good feeling – and hey, that’s what jazz is all about. The invitation was to bring instruments if you can play, and if you can’t bring cameras or just your hands, ears, and hearts. I brought a sign that said “R.I.P Jazz @ GBH” and waved it in time.

    Maybe it’s just a comment on the quality of the musicianship in this city – home, after all, to Berklee and all the people who thumb their noses at Berklee – but everyone who brought something to play was a player. There were no dust-off-that-trumpet-in-the-attic folks who haven’t made an embouchure in thirty years. No slide whistles or kazoos, either. Instead I spied and heard soprano, alto, and tenor saxes; trumpets and trombones; drums in marching and stationary configurations; a vibraphone and a violin; a pair of tubas (I was photographed standing between them); double bass, banjo and mandolin; a flute and a piccolo. And all were competently played.

    I’m not good at estimating crowds so I can’t say whether there were 50, 100, or 150 people there. All I know is that we were all squeezed in tightly on the sidewalk. A GBH security person – just doing his job – asked us to keep away from the building and occupy a strip extending no further than five feet in from the curb. This necessarily led to many people ending up on the street, where a policeman – just doing his job – requested that we all get back on the sidewalk. Ultimately, in the spirit of the times, we occupied the entire corner with no further hassle.

    The performance began with a solo trumpet rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace”, long the theme song for Eric’s program. Everyone joined in on the final note, playing as long and loud as they could. The Jews among us were probably thinking Tekiah gadolah, the ultimate, extended blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This led into a communal reading of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” followed by “Down By the Riverside,” “Rock of Ages,” and a group version of “Peace” conducted by Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon.

    Despite the semi-haphazard nature of the gathering, somehow Field was able to assign solos and duets throughout the songs, adjust the dynamics depending on the instrument(s) being featured, and keep people in the same key. Also remarkable were the overall quality of the solos. Needless to say, this is the first time this particular group had been assembled and the audience was right in their faces. At the end of the funeral, a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” began spontaneously and the throng began to parade down the street. This afforded the wonderful circumstance by which we passed the radio studio window where Eric Jackson was doing his final weeknight show. As we passed, he stood before the soundproof glass and waved to us. I flashed him the “peace” sign.

    The crowd eventually reached an Irish pub. Hearing the approaching din, someone inside opened the door and everyone, musicians, sign-holders, and second-liners, walked in and kept the music going. Just one bartender was on duty at the time but the patrons welcomed the excitement and entertainment.

    Anxious to get home and write this down, I left. As I passed the studio, there was still a small crowd on the corner. I reached my car and turned on Eric’s show. He’s still broadcasting as I type this. Through the years, his show has served as a listening and buying guide for me. He has introduced me to so much good music and so many artists I care deeply about.

    I remember in December 2001, the night after my uncle died tragically in a car accident, I was driving to his house where my father and other family were gathered. I had been asked to compose a eulogy and I was going there to share it with them. I was in quite an emotional state, as you can imagine, and I was listening to Eric Jackson. He played a beautiful vocal number about heartbreak and loss. I was so taken with the narrative and the singer’s exquisitely pained delivery that even though I had arrived at my destination before the song was over, and people were waiting for me inside, I stayed in my car to hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, Eric went directly into another song after it was over so I didn’t know what it was. But I couldn’t keep my family waiting for me.

    The next morning at work I emailed Eric to ask what that song was (I was working at WGBH at the time). He replied later that night. Not only did he tell me what the song was – “Rags and Old Iron” by Oscar Brown, Jr. – but he also shared with me how when he was younger, whenever a new Oscar Brown, Jr. record came out, he and his friends would get together to listen to it. Many decades later, Eric had made a new Oscar Brown, Jr. fan.

    Jazz is about feelings and emotions, and about stories such as that one. It’s about people’s lives, their dreams and disappointments, their yearnings and achievements. For forty years, WGBH has brought jazz to the community. Now, their commitment is all but gone. Eric’s show has been ghettoized to make way for rebroadcasts of talk shows.

    Talk we have more than enough of. Jazz we can never get enough of. Hence tonight’s jazz funeral. Of course, jazz is not dead; not even at GBH, though it definitely is on life support and it’s only a matter of time before they pull a Kevorkian. But the most important aspect of tonight’s event was the evidence that the jazz community is not dead. There are musicians and listeners aplenty, and they need each other – now more than ever. If tonight is any indication, we’ll be making beautiful music together for many years to come.

    Saturday, June 23, 2012

    The Story of the "Candy Lady"

    This article appeared in the June 22, 2012, issue of The Jewish Advocate, and is reprinted here with its permission.

    Newton’s ‘Candy Lady’
    The children of Oak Hill Park never knew of haunted past

    By Jason M. Rubin
    Special to the Advocate

    We called her the Candy Lady.

    By “we,” I mean the kids in my Newton neighborhood of Oak Hill Park in the late ’60s. It was a wordof mouth thing: Someone told you which house to go to and what to say. In return, she would give you a handful of (unwrapped) candy; my recollection is that the standard ration included mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips.

    We didn’t know her name or her story, and we didn’t care. We just wanted free candy. And that’s what we got. All we had to do was ask. I think I may have gone only a few times, when I was 6 or 7. But the memory of the Candy Lady was always a sweet one to this now 49- year-old parent, and both my daughters have heard me reminisce about the mysterious woman who treated every day like Halloween.

    In the naïveté of youth, I never questioned the Candy Lady’s methods or motives. If there was a Candy Lady in my neighborhood, I suppose I felt entitled to take advantage of the service. She didn’t seem scary. She seemed like a grandmother.

    In fact, my own grandparents lived in the neighborhood, and every Halloween my friends and I would make sure to stop at their house. My grandmother, though, didn’t believe in giving candy to kids; instead, she handed out Red Delicious apples. A friend of mine told me that his mother wouldn’t let him eat his apple because it was unwrapped. I told him, “It’s from my grandmother; you think she put a razor blade in it? Just eat it now. It will give us energy for the rest of the night.”

    To me, the connection was clear: My grandmother wouldn’t hurt a child; why would the Candy Lady?

    In any case, no one ever raised a fuss about the Candy Lady. Maybe our parents didn’t even know about her; maybe there was an unspoken code that kids wouldn’t tell grownups about her. Or maybe in those days, people (my friend’s apple-fearing mom aside) just didn’t worry as much about life’s many lurking hazards. After all, seat belts were optional; the city would send out trucks in summer to fog our neighborhoods with insecticide; and we could go wherever we wanted as long as we were home for dinner.

    Bertha Stern Sharton, the Candy Lady, in Vienna in 1932, and at her home in 1967.

    A question on Facebook
    Over the years, the Candy Lady faded from my memory. Though I didn’t live in Newton as an adult, I would return to the old neighborhood to see family. I remember taking my daughter to the playground once and glancing over at the Candy Lady’s house. Assuming that she had passed away, I didn’t attempt to knock on the door on my daughter’s behalf. She would have to be content with swinging on the same swings her father had swung on.

    Years passed, and Facebook emerged, with a page dedicated to the neighborhood, Oak Hill Park Pride. It attracted people of all ages who had called the neighborhood home. For a reunion last summer, an Oak Hill Park Reunion page was posted. I wasn’t interested in attending the party, but I was intrigued by the photographs and memories that people posted. One in particular caught my eye: “Does anyone remember the Candy Lady?”

    The question sparked considerable discussion and caught the attention of someone who once lived next door to the Candy Lady. At last, I learned the Candy Lady’s name: Bertha Sharton. And I learned that before she arrived in Oak Hill Park – about as idyllic a neighborhood as can be found in the Northeast – she fled the Nazis in Austria.

    My interest was piqued, and I poked around to learn more about her. I spoke with her son, a retired doctor, and received information from his daughter-in-law and from various Internet sites (Google and are invaluable to the amateur genealogist). Questions I had never thought before to ask now had answers. Here is the Candy Lady’s story.

    A neighbor named Adolf
    Bertha Stern was born on March 16, 1898, in the Hungarian village of Vágáshuta, near the border of what is now Slovakia. When she was a child, her family moved to Vienna. Her father, a furrier, owned a store on Stumpergasse Street – the same street on which an 18-year-old aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler briefly shared a room with a musician friend. When Hitler was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts at Schillerplatz, he abruptly left.

    Bertha worked in the store with her father. On the fifth floor of the same building lived a blond-haired, blueeyed Jew named Felix (the family has asked that his original surname not be revealed). Felix was born just four days after Bertha. Through proximity and coincidence, they met and fell in love. On March 19, 1920, they married.

    Intelligent and talented, Felix earned a doctorate in music and philosophy from the University of Vienna. He was a pianist, composer and vocal teacher, and he served as professor of music and pedagogy at his alma mater. He also taught at the Pedagogical Institute of Vienna, where for at least part of his tenure the faculty included psychologist Alfred Adler, who along with Sigmund Freud was a cofounder of the psychoanalysis movement. Felix also attended law school in Vienna, but left before graduating.

    On March 27, 1925, Bertha gave birth to the couple’s only child, whom they named Eric. In 1938, two weeks before Eric turned 13 and became a bar mitzvah, Hitler annexed Austria. On Nov. 9 and 10 of that year, the Viennese Jewish community – like those elsewhere in Germany and the former Austria – was ransacked during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Jewish homes and businesses throughout Vienna were vandalized or destroyed, including 95 synagogues.

    Felix happened to be walking through the center of the city in the midst of the carnage. Seeing his fair features, a Nazi soldier assumed he was not Jewish and urged him to go home. While his family apparently came through the pogrom unscathed, Felix could read the writing on the wall. He had already seen the darkness coming during his travels through Europe as a professor and had applied for a visa before the Nazis took over Austria. The following March, Felix, Bertha, and Eric boarded a train and left Austria for London.

    “I remember the tension on the train when the border police boarded and checked everyone’s papers,” Eric recalled decades later. “Only when the train passed into Holland could people let out a breath and cheer.”

    The maid and the gardener
    Felix’s brother, Hermann, and his wife, Selma, lived in London, and helped them settle there. Eric spent his 14th birthday in this strange new city.

    Felix, the musician and professor, could only find work as a gardener. Bertha took a job as a maid. Their positions required them to live in the homes of their employers; Eric stayed with Hermann and Selma. Only on Sundays could all three be together.

    But they hardly felt safe from Hitler. By summer 1939, Britain was gearing up for war and staging evacuation drills. Bertha and Felix’s hopes to find a new haven were dashed in September, when the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II. But one charitable group was still helping a lucky few find transport out of England. Weekly, Felix visited the charity to check whether space was available on a ship. One day, he noticed a man who didn’t appear interested in emigrating, but rather in snooping into the lives of those who did. Becoming suspicious after seeing the man on other days, Felix alerted the authorities.

    As a result, the man was arrested as a suspected Nazi spy. In gratitude for Felix’s help, the government guaranteed him and his family passage out of the country. Now the challenge was finding a nation that would accept them.

    Once again, a relative came through: a cousin of Felix’s lived in New York City, where he was a dealer in animal skins. Felix, Bertha and Eric set sail on the SS President Harding from Southampton, England, on Nov. 15, 1939. They arrived in New York nine days later. They would be among the last passengers of the President Harding; it was bombed by German aircraft six months later and never sailed again.

    In America, Felix conceived a new surname for the family: Sharton. He took part of his original last name and added the suffix “-ton” as a tribute to George Washington. The Shartons stayed with the cousin for two weeks, but decided that their opportunities were slim in the refugee-packed city. They moved to Chicago, where Felix joined the faculty of a conservatory. In 1944, he was named head of the Music Department at Whitworth College. That year, the Library of Congress recorded his sole surviving, compositional credit for a piece fittingly called, “Verlassen” (“Abandoned”). In December, the Shartons became US citizens.

    Facing the Nazis
    With the end of the war in 1945, the family learned the fate of their loved ones in Europe. The news that her parents and many of her siblings were killed in the Holocaust scarred Bertha for the rest of her life. Felix’s mother was believed to have died in a concentration camp (his father had died before the war). Felix was able to help bring some of the perpetrators to justice. Answering an ad for people fluent in German, he was sent to Nuremburg to interview witnesses and assist prosecutors at the war crime trials. He left in October 1945, and returned to the States the following June.

    Bertha, in the meantime, had leveraged her experience as a furrier’s daughter to work as a “fur finisher” – the person who puts the lining in the fur coat and does repairs to the finished product. Though living alone, she was busy and earning an income.

    Over the following 15 years, Felix took various teaching jobs, including ones in Canada and England, while Bertha remained in Chicago. In 1963, just a year or so after retiring, he died at the age of 65 following a stroke.

    The Candy Lady arrives
    Now widowed, Bertha was alone in Chicago. Son Eric had moved to Boston in the ’50s to do his medical residency. By the time of his father’s death, he was a physician and with his wife, Joy, raising a family in Newton’s Oak Hill Park. When they purchased their home around 1960, the neighborhood was just a decade old. It had been built for returning veterans on an undeveloped tract next to Brook Farm, the 19th century Transcendentalist community.

    Eric bought his mother a ranch house in the neighborhood, at 16 Chinian Path. Not long after, her third grandson was born, as was her reputation as the Candy Lady.

    Next-door neighbor, Peter Boisvert, claims to have started the phenomenon. “She was living there widowed when we moved next door in 1964,” Boisvert said. “She taught me to play chess when I was about 7. She was fairly lonely; that’s why she liked being the Candy Lady.”

    He said that he, his sister and a friend would bring Bertha gifts of dandelions, daisies, and buttercups. In return, she gave them candy. No doubt, they told others of their successful transaction. As word spread, more kids would ring Bertha’s doorbell and ask for candy. Delighting in the young visitors, she never turned anyone down.

    Her grandson, Rick, who was born in 1956, recalled that he and his brothers felt a bit jealous of the competition for Bertha’s attention.

    “We always disliked the neighborhood kids because they disrupted our time with her when they rang her bell,” he said. “As we got older, we began to realize how much joy she got out of it and how much the kids looked forward to receiving treats from her.”

    A sweet legacy
    It’s not clear whether Bertha first called herself the Candy Lady or the sobriquet was bestowed by her sweet-toothed young friends, but without doubt more people knew her as the Candy Lady than as Bertha Sharton. And yet her reign as the Candy Lady probably only lasted a few years. By the 1970s, parents were more permissive, and kids were able to get candy for themselves.

    Bertha continued living in Oak Hill Park into her early 90s. She spent her final years in a nearby nursing home, where she died on Aug. 16, 1999, at the age of 101. She is buried in West Roxbury, just about a mile from where she dispensed delight. Dr. Eric F. Sharton retired in 2000 after serving as chief of medical staff at Faulkner Hospital and later as medical director of the Massachusetts Peer Review Organization.

    At age 87, the son of the Candy Lady still lives in Newton with his wife, Joy – though now in an apartment building where only a few children ring the bell on Halloween.

    Sunday, May 6, 2012

    Putting the Fun Back in Funeral

    Dear John: Had a great time at your funeral. Wish you were there. Well, I mean of course you were there, but you were out of commission. Quite a bit better behaved than you normally would be at such a function. All these people – me included – got up to talk about you and you never had a chance for rebuttal. It was sweet revenge for years of being drawn into discussions, debates, arguments, and headlocks with you (most of which I lost, particularly the headlock incident).

    I like funerals anyway. I always learn a lot about people that I didn’t know. Like you wanting to learn to play the bagpipes. Hopefully I was able to shed some light on your life and personality that others hadn’t been aware of. Don’t worry, I didn’t talk about the time at the lake or many other stories that would have required indecorous language or self-incrimination. Just some good times we had and good advice you gave me once. Once.

    The other things I like about funerals are that you get to drive through red lights on the way to the cemetery and the food afterwards is always good. The only negative thing was that I left without having procured a date. You’d think someone there would have been willing to comfort a mourner.

    But all in all I appreciated the details. Like the plain pine box you now call home. No sense getting one of those expensive silk-lined numbers; you’d just burn a hole in it with your cigarette. Also liked reconnecting with people from the past. You had a knack of changing jobs, pursuing and then rejecting new interests (hello, bagpipes?), and moving with some frequency. But one thing you never altered or abandoned were your friends. You didn’t just keep in touch with people, you kept involved with them.

    So now you’re gone, which means there’ll be much more room around the table at the Tahiti lounge. We’ll miss you a lot, but we’ll also talk about you a lot. It’s like you’ll still be there, except you won’t chip in on the bill. Kind of a win-win, if you ask me.

    Anyway, since you’ll never reach the age of 49, I’ll tell you what you’re missing. For one thing, your friends start dying. That part’s kind of a drag. But the good thing is that life goes on, as in your barely three-week-old granddaughter. If she hadn’t been born prematurely, you never would have had the chance to hold her. Early comings, early goings. Somehow things work out – if not for the best, then at least for the pretty good.

    In closing, it’s not goodbye, John (though this is a Dear John letter); it’s ‘til we meet again. Then you can rebut me for eternity. As long as you buy the drinks.

    So long, buddy. Thanks for the laughs.


    Thursday, April 19, 2012

    Levon Helm: An Appreciation

    I once began a story. Actually, many times I've begun many stories, but this one in particular was always sort of for my own enjoyment. It probably dates back to the late 1980s (I can't locate a copy of it). The working title was The Triumphant Return of Chip Chumley & The Champions, the story of a not very successful high school band that gets back together (socially and musically, each presenting challenges) to play their 25th high school reunion. It was a fantasy borne out of my own failed band aspirations.

    Without getting bogged down in the details of the plot and the various character assassinations I'd planned, there was a scene early on when the band members were in high school and the drummer was asked to also handle lead vocals (I myself was an aspiring singer and lyricist who suddenly found myself taking drum lessons because the opportunity had been offered to me). The drummer isn't feeling sure about this and the others try to convince him that there was in fact a proud tradition of singing drummers (and in fact, there is, more than I knew at the time I was writing this). The dialogue went something like this:

    Band member: What about Ringo?
    Drummer: He's not really a singer.
    Band member: Micky Dolenz of the Monkees!
    Drummer: He wasn't really a drummer.
    Band member: Karen Carpenter?
    Drummer: Are you kidding me?
    Band member: Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
    Drummer: Yeah, but he wasn't that great at either singing or drumming.
    Band member: I know: Levon Helm.
    Drummer: Yeah, OK. Levon's cool.
    Truth is truer than strange fiction, and Levon Helm of The Band was indeed cool. And today, he passed across the great divide, a victim of cancer. He rejoins bandmates Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in a hotel room in 1986; and Rick Danko, who died in 1999 after years of substance abuse accompanied by massive weight gain. The Band was one of those unique groups with multiple lead singers; oddly, of the five members, the three who handled lead vocals are all now gone.

    Also oddly: Richard, Rick, and Levon all died 13 years apart from each other.

    In the late 1960s, The Band were an oasis of Americana roots music, though only Levon was from the USA, the others being Canadian. His Arkansan drawl brought authenticity to songs about hard times and risky ventures and his earthy drumming came from Dixieland and the Delta. Their sound influenced such diverse artists as Eric Clapton (who quit Cream upon hearing their first album, realizing that he'd had it all wrong) and Elton John (whose Tumbleweed Connection was directly inspired by The Band's first album, Music From Big Pink).

    It's always a sad thing when we lose an artist, but Levon's death seems to be eliciting an extra degree of emotion. Unlike Manuel and Danko, who battled and lost to their own personal demons, Levon was seemingly fit and constantly upbeat. He remained active musically and also appeared in films, filling the screen with his personality no matter how modest the role. He'd been fighting cancer for several years (one thing the rock and rollers took from the Rat Pack was a love of whiskey, cigarettes, and stage-door ladies) yet had a full concert schedule right up to his death. In fact, I was to have seen him tomorrow in Northampton, Massachusetts.

    Of course, we always have the music but even better, we have The Last Waltz. Though the Martin Scorcese-directed documentary film was at the heart of a long-running feud between Levon and guitarist Robbie Robertson, it provides not only brilliant musical performances but also revealing glimpses of the band offstage, without the greasepaint or the impulse to please the audience. Here we see the all-too-human Levon Helm talking about his initial experience being in New York City:

    "You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again."
    Passing away at age 71, Levon Helm had plenty of time to try things again. It's not a tragedy when a person reaches the three-score-and-ten years he's supposed to be allotted. But what we've lost is an artist and a man with such love for the music, such respect for the audience, and such enthusiasm for and dedication to his art. At the end of the day, whether it's a love song or a sad song, music is about feeling more alive, more fulfilled. It can be used for political purposes but it's ultimately a social thing, a way of binding together strangers as a temporary community of toe-tappers, thigh-slappers, and sing-alongers who just want to feel a little better than they did right before the drummer counted off the first song.

    That was Levon Helm. He was cool.