Nellie has a sense of humour.

October 7, 2012

Nellie McKay is a fantastic performer.  I saw her last night in Montclair, NJ, where she did more or less the same sets as when I saw her at a free concert in NYC over the summer.  This time, however, she was alone onstage (without her marvelous jazz band) and I was in the second row in a small venue.  In this setting, her fabulous piano skill was highlighted with high-energy playing and inventiveness.  As always, her singing is great.

She prefaced “Why am I so Black and Blue?” by recalling that as a child she wondered if she’d be a better pianist if she were blind:  She played it with her eyes closed for a while just to try it, and turned it from a bluesy lament into jazz romp.  In her version of South Pacific’s “Wonderful Guy,” she kept the sunny, optimistic tone in her vocals, but transformed the tune into a slightly jangling dissonance with the singing, providing an ironic undermining of the words.  That sort of multiple point of view in a single song comes up a lot in her shows.

When Nellie picks up her ukulele, she can be marvelously dreamy with Jobim’s Meditation, or rockin’ (yes, with a uke!) with the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.”  But when she does one of her signature songs, “Feminists Don’t Have Sense of Humour” she deploys the full range of her sharp, and a little bit weird, intelligence.  She smiles and adopts the pose of a grown-up Shirley Temple, signing sweetly the anti-feminist clichés of…who?  Men?  She’s the one signing it like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  The voices of men appear in the lyrics as raspy, vulgar interjections – Yeah, honey.  Take it off! – and she flirts with them, lifting her skirt and cooing.  Just who is speaking here?  Fodder for meta-textual feminist theorizing abounds, but just go see her instead. [She concluded the song with the announcement, “I’m Anne Romney, and we work for a living.”]

My favorite song of hers is “I Want to Get Married,” a beautiful, soulful tune with lyrics expressing a woman’s complete nullity without a man to serve and please – I want to get marriedthat’s why I was born.   If you believe she feels that way, you’re on a different planet, but the very funny thing about it is that the song could have been sung in the 1950s, perhaps in a film with her beloved Doris Day, without a single change.  And she sings it with real sadness, longing and tenderness.  Her mastery of tone is tremendous…I can only think of Flaubert.


Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?

The gun is good…

April 20, 2009


… The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life, and poisons the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death, and purifies the earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth and kill!

So sayeth the god, Zardoz, in the film of the same name.  I had been wanting to see this film for some time to find out just what the heck it was about – I saw a clip of it once with a floating head soaring above a pastoral landscape to the sound of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  Having seen it now, or the part I could sit through, I ask, “How could the man who made this great movie [Point Blank], make this lump of mush?”

It’s an amalgam of Brave New World, The Time Machine, and a host of other sci-fi movies and novels, wrapped up in an archly British satirical wrapper, but it fails miserably.  It plays on feminism, reverses machismo (i.e., the John Wayne version of Gun=good, Penis=good), toys with ideas of mind control, the enervating consequences of leisure, etc. etc.  If it were paced a lot faster, and if it didn’t take itself so seriously, it could have been rollickingly good.

The opening action piece is the best:  a gigantic floating head lands in the middle of nowhere and is worshipped by brutal horsemen who seem to live for violence and murder.  The head gives its speech about penis-evil and guns.  Sean Connery is one of the brutal ones, an elite one allowed to breed, and he hitches a ride in the head to see who’s in control.  It’s not unlike the Wizard of Oz, from which the god takes his name.

Why do the brutal exterminators run around in red loin cloths while the ones they kill all seemed to be dressed in worn out suits, as if they are refugees from office work?  Funny, sometimes environmentalists talk  like the Head – people as pollution.

Somewhere along the way, Sean Connery wears a wedding dress.  I’ll have to go watch more of it to find out why.


Reason Ridden

November 11, 2007


As I strolled about the Met, I came upon this piece, which I had never seen before. It’s called an Aquamanilia, a hollow vessel to hold water for washing hands during ceremonies sacred and secular. There are many examples of them in the Met, mostly in the form of animals or mythic beasts, but this one drew me up short and taught me something! A woman riding a man, in a medieval sculpture? And the man is none other than the great philosopher, Aristotle. (Aristotle was The Man for philosophy in the middle ages, despite his misfortune of having been born too early to be baptized a Christian. Dante consigned him to Hell’s First Circle, where the virtuous pagans had it fairly easy, only sighing in pain for their missed salvation.) Who is this dominatrix, Phyllis, who treats Aristotle like a sexual plaything?

It turns out that this image was quite popular then, and derives from a story that was also well known among the educated. In short, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, was warning his pupil against the distractions from greatness that women offered. He suggested that Alex dump his girlfriend Phyllis. She overheard this business and decided to get even. She seduces Aristotle, but refuses to yield fully until he puts on a saddle and lets her ride him around the yard. No, they weren’t prudish in their entertainments then. Aristotle is humiliated in front of his pupil, and he tries to laugh it off as some sort of object lesson on the dangers of women, but Alexander is not fooled. He reunites with Phyllis and forgives his revered teacher.

So many themes here, and I’m sure that contemporary feminists, social critics, and litsy-critsy cranks have had their way with it. I even found one of the images below on a site with links to fetish and bondage sites.

Here Come the (Soft) Women!

September 26, 2006

John Tierney has a column in the NYTimes today trashing a new National Academy of Science report on gender discrimination in the sciences and engineering. I haven’t read anything about the report, so I dunno…I do find it hard to be worried about the number of women in the sciences and engineering because whenever I speak to a young woman in my field (engineering) and ask her about the gender ratio in her class, the answer is usually that it’s between 30/70 and 50/50 for females to males. In other words, much changed from a generation or so ago. Why aren’t there more tenured professors in the fields? Well, there’s the entrenched male-dominated ethos of the academic departments, including discrimination, no doubt. There’s the time factor, i.e., with some more years, the women will begin to overwhelm the remaining prejudices of the men and so make headway. And there’s the social inequity in support of rearing families, with the burden falling disporportionately on women, making it harder for them to advance, if they want to, in any career. Same old story, so I’m not sure there is any particular discrimination in this field.

What really irks me about the argument in the column isn’t even the proposition that women and men have sex-based differences in their intellectual proclivities. (I don’t know if this is so – it could be – but I don’t even find it interesting.) No, what bugs me is the unspoken bias that physics and engineering are the “hard” sciences, while medicine and biology are the “soft” sciences. Note that macho, unspoken assumption that elevates the hard above the soft, and by association the male above the female, so that, of course, women, when they do go technical, can’t quite hack it, statistically speaking that is. They all become medical researchers and biologists. (Of course, some of my best friends are lady physicists.)

Who says that physics is “hard” while biology is “soft?” I just don’t get it. Just because you open a textbook on quantum mechanics and see a flood of Greek symbols and in a biology text you might see some diagrams and lots of text doesn’t make one more rich in knowledge than the other. In fact, some might reverse the hierarchy. Let’s just remember that Charles Darwin’s ideas have done more to change the intellectual outlook of humanity than just about any other scientist, including the great Newton and Einstein.