Existential Party Music
C. Travis Webb
Start by admitting from cradle to tomb
Isn’t that long a stay
Life is a cabaret, old chum
It’s only a cabaret, old chum
And I love a cabaret
One could pick any verse of Kander and Ebb’s classic and bullseye an existential theme. The song is seductive, irresistible, dark, and the musical’s lead character, Sally Bowles, is an electric dipole of ruddy animal want and ethereal aspiration.
Liza Minnelli’s evocation of Bowles is the most iconic for a reason. Her earnest play to “suck out all the marrow of life” takes on a grave irony as the song advances, and her she-doth-protest-too-much jouissance amplifies the story’s dread.
Life is a cabaret. Life is a cabaret. Life is a cabaret!
Cue the Nazis.
This is perhaps the most difficult of truths, the one that sends otherwise reasonable adults quivering back into adolescence to become humorless zealots cosplaying at wisdom.
The world is absolutely irretrievably broken—cleft right down the middle and severed all the way to the root. On one side are all of our fine feelings about ourselves and our loved ones, and on the other side are history, biology, and physics.
And, yes, you can reconfigure the world, move the pieces, redistribute the leases, and build a better mousetrap, but in the end we’re just a thirty-second spot for vanity’s five-thousand-year run.
Our life is the cabaret, and it’s short, and probably garish, but there’s some good food, and a good shag now and then, and sometimes you turn in a really, really great number and people applaud.
I Love to Boogie
C. Travis Webb
You rattlesnake out with your tailfeathers high
Jitterbug left and smile to the sky
With your black velvet cape and your stovepipe hat
Be-bop baby the dance is where it’s at
Michael Thro’s 1996 essay “Apollo vs Dionysus: The Only Theme Your Students Will Ever Need in Writing about Literature” is the academic equivalent of David Ellis’s movie Snakes on a Plane.
The title of the essay crystalizes its theme: the single most effective way to teach the humanities to non-specialists is by using it to tap into the fundamental forces that shape the universe.
Why did Odysseus struggle for so long adrift on the “wine dark sea”? What brought the Assyrians barreling into Africa to smite the Kushites in the 8th century BCE?
Order. Civilization thrives on order. Laws and manners, rituals, taxes, titles, degrees, grammar, by violence or by convention, order is civilization’s essential element.
But there’s another force in human history—a Dionysian impulse. That impulse is often libidinous, usually cathartic, and always a threat to order.
Thro calls it Chaos, but I prefer to call it enthusiasm (from the Greek enthous “filled by a god”).
Marc Bolan’s “Love to Boogie” invokes that enthusiasm. With its nonsense lyrics, and catchy hook, it summons you to abandon your work and revel. To dance mindlessly in the rain, to fiddle while the city burns, to make a life out of the dust.
C. Travis Webb
My Adidas heard the sound of a foreign land
With mic in hand, I come to command
My Adidas and D close as can be
We make a mean team, my Adidas and me
Got a pair that I wear when I’m playin’ ball
With the heal inside, make me ten feet tall…
We started in the, alley, now we chill in, Cali
At least since Odysseus planted his winnowing oar in a far-off land where men knew “nothing of the sea,” explorers and poets have believed in the power of objects to tell stories.
Things aren’t always just things in the human world. They can be imbued with power, animated and alive.
The first single released on Run-DMC’s third album, Raising Hell (1986), “My Adidas” signaled the beginning of hip hop’s power to shape mainstream contemporary culture. It is the near genesis moment of sneaker culture and is as illuminating as Max Weber in revealing capital’s transcendent aspect.
Essentially winged, Adidas are not simply a material aspiration. These are not mere shoes. They carry the story of African-American cultural ascendance.
No longer a marginalized community used by the Euro-American community to define itself, Afro-American culture became a vital element of the cultural center. Their symbols of transcendence became national symbols of transcendence.
The consequences of that displacement are still reverberating. The narrative potency of their objects still reshaping the world.
C. Travis Webb
I was with Washington at Valley Forge, shivering in the snow.
I said, “How come the men here suffer like they do?”
“Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right
Even though they know they’re only passing through”
Historical consciousness—the awareness that our present is a product of our past—is, ironically, too often hobbled by history.
Sure, the past is an indispensable part of understanding the present, but so too is the future.
Someday we’ll be the historical bumpkins intruding on an enlightened present. All our virtues and high-minded virtuosities will at best appear quaint, but probably narrow and mean on balance.
History doesn’t begin or end with the present. We aren’t the first to be appalled at the world’s iniquities. Nor the last to be indifferent. Not the first to feel indignation burn in our chests. Not the last to fail our better aspirations.
Although unique we are not new.
All of the things we mean, or think we mean, or don’t want to mean despite our best efforts will be simplified, then caricatured, then forgotten altogether.
Written by Dick Blakeslee in 1947, Passing Through is often included in song collections dedicated to political action and social justice. It’s a precious reminder that the struggle for righteousness is old and long and no one will ever be “woke” from it.
Baby It's Cold Outside
C. Travis Webb
My mother will start to worry…
My father will be pacing the floor… /
The neighbors might think…
Say what’s in this drink… /
I ought to say, no, no, no sir…
At least I’m gonna say that I tried… /
My sister will be suspicious…
My brother will be there at the door… /
My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious…
But maybe just a cigarette more… /
American culture isn’t the first to be terrified of a woman’s sexual appetites. Humans are forever concocting new idioms, fashions, and rituals to curtail women’s access to their own pleasure.
Circumventing those mores has always been an elemental expression of liberation, and this song captures that expression with playfully exaggerated theatrics.
Frank Loesser wrote this song in 1944 and performed it regularly with his wife Lynn Garland at parties throughout the post-war era. It was, by Garland’s account, an instant success.
Loesser and Garland’s performance contemporized the same dynamics that animated Romeo and Juliet and in another key Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.
Every member of the woman’s social world is wary, anxious, and worried about what she might do—all alone out in the big, bad, cold world. But the gag that propels the song forward is that they know exactly what she might do.
And so do we, no matter what we pretend.
I need the thing he’s haunted.
May 17th, 2016. I was in Copenhagen when I read the news: Guy Clark is dead.
Not certain what my exact bodily response was, but I think it was something like this: leaned back in chair, exhaled, grimaced, tapped finger, nodded. It’s a strange sensation, to feel heartbroken by the death of a person you never met. Perhaps that’s one thing great artists do, illuminate unforeseen emotional terrain.
There is no favorite Guy Clark song for me, only different songs perfectly suited to particular moments. “Randall Knife” may be the one I’ve listened to most of all. It’s a sparse, honest song; a rumination on death and loss and grief, and the start of reconciliation. I could imagine healing without this song, but it would be exponentially more difficult.
The song observes the porous border between memory and sensuous materiality, the body’s capacity to know. And, it observes the power of stuff to exceed mere commodity, to be enchanted objects. “Randall Knife” celebrates human relationships–fragile, precarious, and tender as they are–as the pulse we check to know we are alive.
Thank you, Guy. You are missed and you are remembered.
Your Temporary Custodian
What an extraordinary thing it is to be this ordinary thing
A phenomenal nominal common all aleph-null nothing
This is what it’s like… we will not be saved
We went looking for the sublime
We find only the inane
This is what we are… and we will not be changed
You can look for unseen order
You’re gonna find that chaos reigns.
John Congleton, who records as The Nighty Nite, was the writer, composer, and voice of a band called The Paper Chase, but he’s best known as a producer. According to an NPR feature, “chances are his production credit is on a record you love.”
His own music, however, is considerably less popular. It’s not that Congleton’s music isn’t listenable—when the man sneezes he writes a hook—but his lyrics are bleak. An auteur of found sound and eccentric production, Congleton spins dark lyrics and sunny hooks with, say, the grunts of rooting hogs into a cotton-candy of what people mostly hear as despair. But Congleton has made plain that he doesn’t think his music is despairing: he calls it “wry and sardonic” and simultaneously “heartfelt and… important.”
As humanists from Diogenes to Voltaire have known, the enunciation of this ambivalence is the purest affirmation of human life. It’s the opposite of despair because there are only two truths that define our existence: we are going to die, and we’re not dead yet. And that is an “extraordinary thing.”
C. Travis Webb
‘Cause people will say all kinds of thing
That don’t mean a damn to me
‘Cause all I see is what’s in front of me
And that’s you
Well, I’ve been dragged all over the place
I’ve taken hits time just don’t erase
And baby, I can see you’ve been fucked with too
But that don’t mean your loving days are through
Every globe-trotting religion says we’re broken.
We’re so rotten Jesus had to die to redeem us. We’re so prone to suffering the Buddha had to teach us how to escape from life. We’re so thick-headed that God had to send a third prophet called Muhammad to leash us to His will.
Even though it’s true—human beings are swollen with selfish regard—I suppose I don’t care too much for stories that send us begging for absolution.
Sure, living kills you and everyone else you know, but Karen O’s defiant croon doesn’t make time for redemption.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut album is unapologetically raw. And this hidden track captures the messiness of modern love and then spits it back with some swagger.
We might all be broken, beaten up, busted, lusty and craven. But here we are—right in front of each other.
Ready to be loved until we’re gone.
Libiamo ne' lieti calici
C. Travis Webb
Among you I dispense Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere
my ays with delight; il tempo mio giocondo;
All is folly in life Tutto è follia nel mondo ciò
that brings no pleasure. che non è piacer.
Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is the twenty-first century’s most performed opera so far, and its brindisi, or “Drinking Song,” is its most famous piece.
This song’s lively tempo remains accessible almost one hundred and seventy years after its premier in 1853 because celebrations, libations, and love still fire the imaginations of ruddy monkeys the world over.
Hedonism gets a bad rap because buttoned-down scolds fail to understand pleasure’s deep complexities.
C. Travis Webb
Been working everyday since I was twenty
Haven’t got a thing to show for anything I’ve done
So, turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
Merle Haggard wasn’t the first to key into this kind of lament, but he captures the pitch of it perfectly.
This one take hit single co-written with Haggard’s life-long friend and driver, Dean Holloway, doesn’t just play out that old, false rural-urban antagonism. It recalls Sisyphus’ predicament and Roy Batty’s keen.
The complaint is not that all of our works and days amount to nothing. It’s that we traded wonder and play for the dull procedures of an utterly managed life.
And When I Die
C. Travis Webb
Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally…
A nearly straight line can be drawn from Emily Dickenson to Laura Nyro, who sold this song to Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1965 when she was only seventeen.
This version benefits from BS&T’s horn section, whose cri de cœur conjures the shofar, and every howling petition since Gilgamesh.
I decided to marry my wife the night she played this song for me.