Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Monday, May 23, 2005

#4 - Masks, cartoons, Alzheimer’s, and the big big sound of Ben Webster’s tenor

“Someone To Watch Over Me” - Ben Webster
“Yogi Bear (title theme)” – Hanna-Barbera

More on this idea of names and self-invention. I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to music is the way it lets performers take on new personas, new masks, continually. Not just with every band project (or, in the case of certain DJs and indie-rock types, every moniker: see Scott Heren, aka: Prefuse 73 and Savath & Savalas---a hip-hop hippie and laptop-style Latin lover, respectively---or Ben Gibbons of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service, a dude lonely both in a crowd and in bed with his PowerBook). Not just with every album, or even every song. When their shit is hot----when Ghostface Killah is firehosing, or Jason Moran is punching out Cecil Taylor note clusters between stride piano riffs, or Bjork is pushing vowels and consonants together like tectonic plates realigning themselves deep in the heart of the earth---a musician can reinvent themselves every second. Compare this to an actor, who can take on any number of roles, but only one at a time, even if they’re one of those stand-up comics who do multiple-character routines.

I think it was after the two women completed work on Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark that Catherine Deneuve asked Bjork (who has confessed to being somewhat traumatized by her role in the film) if she found the idea of being an actress, of becoming someone different for a stretch of time, appealing.

She replied: “No.”

And if you were Bjork, in all your creatively bottomless, fiercely gorgeous, perpetually-morphing glory, it would be a perfectly reasonable response.

I chose this Ben Webster track, a sublime 1964 reading of the Gershwins’ “Someone To Watch Over Me” with some lovely Hank Jones piano color, for two reasons. The first is that Webster, a wonderful tenor saxophonist and quite possibly the greatest ballad player in the history of jazz, easily the equal of Miles Davis in terms of the emotional heft of his playing, was a man who used his music to create profoundly alternate personas. He died in the Fall of 1973, when I was a year old, so obviously I never met him (although I have met plenty of musicians who fail to match up with their artistic identities in my years of doing ‘zines and other music writing). But by most reports this dispenser of tender, breathy, vulnerable coos was in life a nasty, violent sonuvabitch. In the liner notes to Havin’ A Good Time (Hyena, 2005)---a just-issued ‘64 live session that has the saxophonist sitting in with the similarly full-bodied singer Joe Williams---the veteran jazz producer/indie label owner/excellent storyteller Joel Dorn writes “When he drank, Ben Webster was a mean drunk, ready to start swingin’ before anybody even thought about dropping a hat. One guy, two guys, a group, it didn’t matter, he was ready to go.”

I listen to the sound of Webster’s tone, like the amplified rustling of well-worn cotton sheets sliding over the shoulder of a lover who’s still thrumming with the attenuating reverb of orgasm, and I marvel at the spectrum of emotion that can exist in one human being.

The second reason I chose this song is because Ben Webster is my father’s favorite musician, and he of course is who I got my name from. Although he would say, if he were able to form a coherent sentence---which occasionally he can these days, but not often---that it came from his father, Giuseppe Barbara, and that he, my father, less in humility than to wash his hands of any responsibility, had played no part in it. I recall some family suspicion that my paternal grandfather’s last name may actually have been Barbera, like the wine---or indeed something else entirely---but that he changed it when he married my grandmother for a period of three months, after which he disappeared into the depression-era flow of displaced persons, occasionally surfacing at the home of one relative or another to bum a few bucks before hopping a railroad car or thumbing a ride back into the chasm of the nation, lost to any history I have access to except that which I’m fudging here, leaving her with a baby and little else---only some photos and other memorabilia which I’m told she burned in a coffee can on her fire escape years ago.

Anyway, my father’s name is also Robert, making me Robert Jr., technically, although I don’t like to use the Jr.
My mother’s name is Hannah, although her birthname is Giulianna. She grew up in Little Italy in Manhattan, and adopted the name Hannah because most of her friends in the smart classes were Jewish, from the other side of the Lower East Side, and she wanted to fit in. (Being book smart and kinda dumpy, the Italian kids all picked on her.)

In truth, I kinda wish she hadn’t changed her name. Being dumpy and book smart myself, I got picked on, and having a loud, slightly insane mother named Hannah Barbara didn’t help my case. In the boundless name-calling creativity of children, her name of course became Hanna-Barbera, the name of the famous television-cartoon production team, and I became alternately Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble, Magilla Gorilla, Yogi Unbearable, and Scooby-Doodoo, along with Barbara Ann, Barbara Fag and many others. That their invented name for her might have actually been closer to her true name (assuming my mystery gramps was in fact “Barbera”) only made it more irritating.

I should note that my father was never as violent as Webster supposedly was (though he was, and can still be a mean bastard) and certainly isn’t now, as he can barely stand up unaided, crippled by arthritis and Parkinson’s and the senility everyone now calls Alzheimer’s. And while my mother is not a producer of comedy---despite the fact that she is essentially dating a guy whose ’05 Hummer H2 (the most despicable car ever made) has a license plate that reads MDLFCRISIS! while still living in the same house as my father---she is often a shrieking cartoon.

Anyway, there you have it: Two songs that conjure my parents, who are upstairs as I type. I would come up the blue wooden staircase and put them on the livingroom stereo for them to hear, except neither of them would comprehend their significance---my mother because she is clueless, and my father because his hearing is mostly shot and in any case the Alzheimer’s has left him apparently unable to process music, which was once as great a passion for him as it is for me (heartbreaking, even if he is a mean bastard).

And so, with all that said, I offer them up, a gift from (and, I suppose, a certain sort of mask for) Robert Barbara. To you---whoever you are.


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