And all that jazz

November 28, 2009



One of my Facebook friends — and a former newspaper colleague — remarked today that she likes to start sentences with “and” and “but,” an indulgence we share. In fact, I make a point of telling my students that while they shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence while they are in the stifling atmosphere of academia, they should have at it once they’re writing on their own.

This got me to thinking about song lyrics that begin with “and,” only because four popped into my head immediately.

The first was “My Way,” which begins: “And now the end is near, and I must face the final curtain.” Paul Anka wrote that lyric, and according to him, it was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s announcement that he was going to quit show business.


The melody was written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux for a French song. “Comme d’habitude,” which means something like “As is my habit.” Anka’s lyrics, I understand, have no relationship to the originals but were meant to go along with Sinatra’s mood at the time.

There have been notable covers of the song by Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Dorothy Squires.

Another lyric in this category was written by Johnny Mercer for a popular version of “The Song of the Indian Guest” from the opera “Sadko” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I mentioned this here recently in connection with Mercer’s centennial. Mercer’s version is known as “Song of India,” and it begins: “And still the snowy Himalayas rise in ancient majesty before our eyes ….”


Mario Lanza made a fine recording of that song, and Lanza also made a wonderful recording of “They’ll Never Believe Me,” which was written by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern to help rescue an imported British musical, “The Girl From Utah,” in 1914. The refrain, which usually begins the song, starts: “And when I tell them how beautiful you are, they’ll never believe me ….”

The last song that occurred to me was “And I love her so,” which was written by Don McLean but is most widely associated with Perry Como.

And like that.








When Elaine Benes broke up during a piano recital because Jerry Seinfeld had put a Pez dispenser on her knee, Noel the pianist played on. Oh, she was plenty upset, but she didn’t acknowledge the distraction and continued to play.

Not every artist has that kind of composure. About 45 years ago, I was at a concert at Seton Hall University at which Leopold Stokowski was conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Some people came in after the concert had started. I guess we were all aware of the doors opening and closing and the latecomers making their way into the gymnasium, but — hey — it happens.

Well, tell that to Stokowski.


He stopped the orchestra in the middle of the first piece, turned around and glared into the darkened gym. When the place had settled down, he went to the microphone and said, “You have to excuse me. When one comes to a place of learning one expects to find intelligence.” Then he returned to his place and started the concert again.

Of course, that’s a reasonable expectation on both sides of the footlights, so to speak. But the principle apparently is lost on Ian Hart, who went to pieces during a performance of “Speaking in Tongues,” a play on London’s West End for which he has gotten good notices. And, according to an account in The Times of London, witnesses say Hart’s threatening verbal abuse of a patron in the theater was without any basis except in the actor’s imagination.

Gerald Earley — the target of Hart’s ranting — said that a certain point in the proceedings, the actor had become “pretty feral,” which I thought was a delightful choice of words. Hart brushed off the incident as silly, but he also admitted he doesn’t like acting in the theater because he doesn’t “enjoy the relationship between the audience and the actor,” and, may I say, there’s a simple solution to that.

For The Times’ account of Hart’s outburst, click HERE.

Ian Hart and John Simms in "Speaking in Tongues"

I suppose if the president of these United States — and especially His Articulacy — can be criticized for his grammar, anyone is fair game.

And so, Dan Neil, writing in the Los Angeles Times, laces into National Geographic, of all things, for a faux pas of its own. Obama has taken lumps for imprecise use of the first-person singular personal pronoun — though heaven knows he gets enough practice — but with National Geographic the issue is adverbial.

To be specific, Neil points out that the National Geographic Channel has been running a spot announcement designed to reinforce “the brand” with largely vacant language. One gets the impression that Neil could live with the vacuous message if only it didn’t lead up to this tag line: “Live curious!”

Wiley Publishing, Inc.

In other words, friends, enrich your existence by being curious — but you got that the first time. How much of a tempest this is depends on the size of your teapot, but it does call to mind the campaign that those of a certain age will remember: “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” This slogan was used by Winston from 1954 until 1972, and its longevity had everything in the world to do with its effectiveness. English teachers and grammarians bristled and fumed, perhaps enlightening some who would have been unaware that a phrase in such a comparative construction must be introduced by “as,” not “like.” At the same time, the sticklers succeeded in calling even more attention to the rapidly growing cigarette brand.

At a certain point, Winston responded to the criticism with a new slogan: “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Presumably, “none of the above” was not an option.

For Dan Neil’s column, click HERE.



As there isn’t enough turmoil in the land of my ancestors — well, some of them, anyway — a popular Lebanese singer has stirred the stew by including a derogatory reference to Nubian people in the lyric of a children’s song. I won’t go into what the lyric says, but it’s described in a story in the English-language newspaper in Beirut, and that story is right HERE.

Reading that story in the Daily Star sent me on a search for the Nubians, with whom I was not familiar. I found out that the term describes more than two million black people who are concentrated in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are one of our links to antiquity, because they have preserved culture and tradition that dates from the beginning of civilization.


Photo of Nubian girl from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on

Stumbling across the reference to these people and the information available about them reminded me of an experience we once had while flying to California. On the plane with us were a group of people in rural dress who had coal-black skin and who spoke to each other in a language we were sure we had never heard. When we surmised that one white man was with that party, we asked him about them, and he told us they were aboriginal artists from Australia who were on a world tour with an exhibition of their work. That encounter made us so conscious of how diverse the world is and how little we know about the many kinds of people who compose what we call humanity.

So, too, now with the Nubians. The Daily Star quoted a fellow named Motez Isaaq, who represents the Committee for Nubian Issues: “We are one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. Instead, our image is constantly perpetuated as the uneducated doorman or waiter.” Isaaq gave Wahbe the benefit of the doubt by saying her lyric was offensive even though she may not have intended it to be. And he added, according to the Star’s paraphrase, “that stereotypes of minorities are so entrenched that referring to them in popular culture media is frequently done unconsciously.” How sad and how discouraging, particularly since Wahbe, whether consciously or not, addressed her bias to children.


A Nubian child from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on





JANE ALEXANDER Photo by Jason Towlen/Gannett NJ

Every so often I see a play that takes such a piercing look at the interior lives of individuals and at the relationships with a family that I begin to feel as if I shouldn’t be watching it. I had that reaction the first time I saw Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” and particularly the scene in which Bella explains her needs as a woman to her stern Prussian mother. I literally squirmed in my seat.

I got that feeling last night while we were watching Thom Thomas’s new play, “A Moon to Dance By,” which is about Frieda Lawrence, who was married to novelist D.H. Lawrence and was the inspiration for the principal women in several of his works.

The action in this play, which we saw at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., takes place after the writer has died. Frieda has moved to New Mexico with her lover, Angelo Ravagli. Jane Alexander plays Frieda, and Robert Cuccioli plays Ravagli.

JANE ALEXANDER as Frieda Lawrence / George Street Playhouse

Frieda left her husband and three children to elope with Lawrence, who had been her husband’s student in England. Her contact with her children was sporadic after that, and while she was able to establish a more or less normal relationship her daughters, her son, Monty, remained distant. In this play, Monty — now a grown man with a family of his own — pays his first visit to Frieda in New Mexico.

The relationship between a mother and her son is a unique thing in nature and one that probably is not explored more than superficially in most families. It certainly wasn’t in my experience.

“I have a son and two step-sons,” Jane Alexander told me before this play opened, “and we’ve never had that conversation. I have it with my daughter-in-law. Mothers and daughters, I think, are far more intimate about life’s intimacies than mothers and sons.”


Nonetheless, mother and son have “that conversation” in this play, and it is mesmerizing on the one hand and difficult to watch on the other. I know I wasn’t alone in that reaction; I talked to others in the audience afterwards, and they agreed — but they needn’t have, because the tension was palpable in the house.

It didn’t hurt that this wonderful script was being performed by Alexander and Cuccioli and that Monty was being played by a brilliant actor, Gareth Saxe, in one of the most finely nuanced performances I can remember. The young man arrives at his mother’s home hell-bent on expressing his disapproval and disappointment but not acknowledging even to himself what he really needs to get from her and what he needs to give her from the store of emotions he has bottled up for decades.

It was uncomfortable, and it was great theater.

Capitol Records

Yesterday was the centennial of Johnny Mercer, and I was too busy to take much notice of it. But it was on my mind, because Mercer is one of my favorite lyricists. I wrote here a couple of months ago about one of his lesser-known songs, “The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid,” which is sophisticated and funny.

But Mercer was a poet. When his songs get stuck in my head, I don’t mind. It’s hard for me to talk about favorites, because I’m crazy about so many of his songs — such as “The Angels Sing,” which he wrote in 1939:

We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing.
Or am I breathing music into every word?
Suddenly, the setting is strange.
I can see water and Moonlight beaming.
Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore
Suddenly, I see it all change.
Long winter nights with the candles gleaming.
Through it all your face that I adore.
You smile, and the angels sing.
And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start.
We kiss, and the angels sing.
And leave their music ringing in my heart.


I first heard that lyric when I was in my teens, and I was fascinated by the quality of Mercer’s writing.

I’m especially fond of the lyric he wrote to a classic melody, “Song of India.” I have an old RCA Victor Red Seal recording of that sung by Mario Lanza. It’s one of those cases in which I’d rather not hear anyone else sing it, so I hope the vinyl lasts as long as I do — which is becoming less of a challenge every day.

And still the snowy Himalayas rise / In ancient majesty before our eyes / Beyond the plains, above the pines / While through the ever, never changing land / As silently as any native band / That moves at night, the Ganges Shines  / Then I hear the song that only India can sing / Softer than the plumage on a black raven’s wing / High upon a minaret I stand and gazed upon an old enchanted land/ There’s the Maharajah’s caravan, Unfolding like a painted fan / How small the little race of Man! / See them all parade across the ages / Armies, Kings and slaves from hist’ry’s pages / Played on one of nature’s vastest stages. / The turbaned Sikhs and fakirs line the streets /  While holy men in shadowed calm retreats / Pray through the night and watch the stars. / A lonely plane flies off to meet the dawn / While down below the busy life goes on / And women crowd the old bazaars. /All are in the song that only India can sing. / India, the jewel of the East.

There’s lots about Johnny Mercer at this link and at this one.

“Don’t tread on me”

November 18, 2009


Sarah Palin was non-committal when Barbara Walters asked, in the interview being broadcast this week, whether Palin wanted to run for the presidency. That, Palin said, is not on her radar at present, but she she cautioned that she could not predict what might happen between now and 2012. Presumably, that was a reference to that year’s national election and not to the revolution of the Mayan calendar.

If Palin does decide to seek office again, she should ask to be mentored by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has served two terms as president of Latvia. Perhaps on a global scale that is analogous to having been governor of Alaska from the perspective of Americans. But don’t be fooled by the relative obscurity of Freiberga’s venue. She is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for women who believe that half the population should hold half the power, if not more.


Vike-Freiberga has made it clear that she is a candidate for the presidency of the European Union, and she is fuming — as she should be — over public suggestions that there are no qualified women to fill the post that has been dominated by men. “Those people who say that should wash their mouths out with soap,” Mrs Vike-Freiberga told The London Times. “As far as I am concerned they are voicing the deepest and most objectionable prejudice against women. They are saying that we do not have qualified women around,and I resent that. It is a lie and we should all protest against that because it implies that somehow talent was distributed only to those with one kind of chromosome.”

Check the Times story for a sketch of Vike-Freiberga’s personal and academic resume. Not qualified, indeed! The Times also reports on her challenge to EU leadership to strip away the secrecy from the process by which the EU president is chosen — a practice she compares to the methods of the Soviet Union.

She’s my new hero.

billy carter


Dan and I were talking the other day about a time when you could look under the hood of your car and see the macadam of the street or driveway. That was when cars were mechanical devices, not automatons with minds of their own.

Dan said his dad told him that it was possible with some vehicles to stand in the engine compartment, with your feet on the ground, to pull the plugs or change the air filter. The kid who works in Dan’s garage looked incredulous, so I backed up Dan’s dad, even though I had never seen anyone do that.

I did see a guy named Sonny mount an engine as though it were a race horse so he could clean the carburetor. That happened at Frank DeMore’s garage, where I used to hang out with a lot of guys who probably could have been doing something more productive if their wives or mothers only knew where to find them. The era before cell phones had its advantages.

billy carter1


I was sitting in my ’56 Chevy in the parking lot of that garage when I heard — on the radio — Bill Mazeroski’s home run that beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. That was the only Game Seven walk-off home run in World Series history, and I heard it in the parking lot of Frank DeMore’s garage. I was afraid to go home, what with my dad’s theory that the Yankees had proprietary rights to the world championship and all, but probably I wouldn’t have gone home even if the Yankees had won.

Frank’s garage and everything in it — including Frank — was covered with a film of grease. The grease was an animate thing, and it would migrate. When my mother laundered my clothes she used to wonder how a person could get so dirty by being idle, but my mother had never been to Frank’s garage.



Frank’s garage is gone now, and I regret that whenever I drive through that town. That place accounted for the lack of purpose in the lives of uncounted men and boys, and such things are not lightly lost.

I suppose if I had amounted to something, Congress might have considered appropriating money to convert Frank’s garage into an historic site — possibly one element in a tour that would include Pappy’s hot dog restaurant, the Kozy Korner soda shop, and the Hollywood Diner. Something similar is in the legislative hopper with respect to Billy Carter’s old gas station in Plains, Ga., but, of course, Billy’s sibling was sort of a president of the United States.

Some citizens who insist on looking at the big picture question the wisdom of spending money for such a purpose when the nation is broke. Others say the gas station is an irreplaceable remnant of the early life of James Earl Carter and ought to be preserved so that future generations can understand the president better — and so that tourists will continue to visit Plains once it is no longer possible to run across the Carters themselves. Well, at least they’re honest.

jimmy and billy carter


monalisaAt my advanced age, I have had a new experience: I have met a person who has no sense of humor.

I won’t describe the circumstances, because I need to protect this man’s privacy, but I can say that repeated exposure to this phenomenon can be unsettling.

I’m not talking about someone who doesn’t kid around or appreciate jokes. I’m talking about someone who has no sense of humor. He never smiles. Never. If I make a casual remark — such as, “What are you doing up so early?” — he either stares at me as though I had spoken in Arabic or he takes the question literally and gives me a literal, mundane answer.

Red Skelton 1He has had occasions in the context of our relationship to tell me about incidents in which a third party had joked with him or with co-workers. He described these incidents in a monotone and with a deadpan expression. Clearly he saw nothing funny about what he was describing.

I have reason to believe that a specific pathology is responsible for this man’s demeanor and, of course, I sympathize with him if that is true. I also have realized, however, that his inability or disinclination to laugh, or even smile, is as much a problem to me as it may be to him. When someone refuses to be amused, I realize how important it is to me to amuse him — or, more precisely, to show that I can.

carol-burnett-cI don’t think I’m alone with this. It seems to me that each of us spends a lot of time and energy each day trying to get a grin or a chuckle out of those around us. It’s a contest we’re all engaged in, and we never stop trying to outdo our competitors. Under usual circumstances, this enterprise has its ups and downs, because the wisecracker for whom every word is a laugh line is a rare bird, indeed. Most of us anticipate that some of our gags will work, and some will not. We accept the plaudits and eat the duds.

But the Gloomy Gus I have run into is a whole other matter. I’m afraid there aren’t enough priests, ministers and rabbis in all the corner bars on the planet to crack that grim facade.





Kenyan child


On an unusually warm November day on the usually friendly streets of Frenchtown we were treated to cups of delicious black tea grown in the fertile Kisii Highlands of Kenya. This tea, which is sold under the name Ajiri, is processed at the Nyansiongo Tea Factory, which is jointly owned by more than 10,000 small-scale farmers.

The tea was being dispensed by folks from Upper Black Eddy, which is across the Delaware River from Milford, a little bit north and west of Frenchtown. Sixteen tea bags were presented in a little box decorated with designs fashioned by Kenyan women using dried banana leaves from their own farms. The plastic bag inside is tied with twine – also made from banana leaves – decorated with colorful beads made from lacquered remnants of recycled magazine pages.

None of this is designed to be cute. The box top makes that clear from the outset: “100% of profits support orphan education in western Kenya.”




In addition to proving schooling for the children, Ajiri Tea creates employment for the people of that region — in fact, the group’s literature points out, “ajiri” is a Swahili word, the equivalent of the English phrase “to employ.”

Kenya, like other parts of Africa, is especially beset by HIV/AIDS. Besides costing the lives of adult men and women, the epidemic leaves many children without one or both of their parents, and those family members who are caring for those youngsters usually have no sustainable income and can’t afford to buy the uniforms and books required in Kenya’s primary schools.

The founders of Ajiri Tea and the Ajiri Foundation are trying to change that. You can read about their mission at and