Ragtime break: Sunflower Slow Drag

In the next few weeks you’ll be hearing more here about Syncopated Musings, Marilyn Nonken‘s new album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, now scheduled for release in January of 2022. As a preview, Divine Art Records is providing Marilyn’s performance of Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” on YouTube below. Per the promotional copy:

While Scott Joplin’s ragtime music shot back to popularity in the 1970s, many of his pieces are still relatively unknown and this also applies to pieces in which Joplin collaborated with other musicians. American pianist Marilyn Nonken has a new album in which she takes us on a journey through some of Joplin’s most attractive rags and concert waltzes, including works in which he partnered with Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, Charles Lamb, and Louis Chauvin. Syncopated Musings will be available worldwide on February 11, 2022, and direct form Divine Art in early January.

You can read more about it here. In the meantime, sit back and relax to the strains of this 1901 classic.

Gary Shteyngart and the American comic novel

I had been in something of a blue funk about the state of the American comic novel until about a year ago, when I came across Gary Shteyngart, whose latest from Random House, Our Country Friends, was gingerly deposited on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. Lake Success, published in about the middle of the Trump Era (or, perhaps, the First Trump Era; the possibility of a second makes my teeth itch), chillingly and hilariously described the social and cultural foundations of that particular madness; Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian satire, described the crumbling of an urban, youth- and image-obsessed civilization that had earlier not been without its charms; and Little Failure, his memoir of his arrival in the United States and subsequent childhood and adolescent traumas and embarrassments, remains one of my favorite true-life shaggy dog stories of recent years. Since then, I’ve been pressing copies of his novels and the memoir into the hands of my increasingly annoyed friends and family, who, I insist, do not know what they’re missing.

Though Shteyngart’s perspective is that of a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union, this doesn’t narrow his appeal to native-born Americans, especially not those who realize that they too or their parents are in many ways still immigrants themselves, and to call him a “comic novelist” isn’t to pigeonhole him into a particular genre, either — especially since many of America’s greatest novelists, in particular Mark Twain, have been marginalized by that characterization itself. The American comic novel, from Twain through Nathanael West and Ring Lardner through Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and Terry Southern, exhibits themes and qualities all its own: a mastery and delight in the spoken American vernacular; an enthusiasm for the tall tale; a dark mistrust of and irreverence toward authority, conformity, and their media products; a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for offending the right people; the burden of dragging around our parents and ancestral memories; a reluctant but cheerful pessimism; and a trust in the integrity of the individual rather than community conscience (however much there’s a nagging fear that even this trust in the individual might be misplaced). Shteyngart brings a Central European flavor to the mix, tossing in a handful of Gogol and Gogol’s twentieth-century Russian progeny Vladimir Voinovich.

Along with Carl Hiaasen, then, Gary Shteyngart gives me hope that the American comic novel might not be quite dead yet, even now, when most of the United States seems to have lost its sense of humor: a sense that provides irony, perspective, compassion, and a dollop of humility, a necessary sense especially in these most uncertain times. Shteyngart provides an introduction to his novel and its themes in his interview with Dave Davies on yesterday’s Fresh Air; you can listen to it below. Meanwhile, I’m off to the liquor store to stock up on a few bottles of wine to quaff while I sit down with Our Country Friends tonight.

A toast to …

The Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia.

Journalism has been taking a body blow lately, what with accusations of “fake news” and bias, but this ignores the terrific and courageous role that journalism played in much of the twentieth century and continues to play today. From Gareth Jones‘ reportage on the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s to Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka” in 1944 and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, great journalists have been dedicated to pursuing and reporting events that governments would prefer unpursued and unreported. They do this, often, at great personal risk, and even when the physical risk is minimal, the vast majority of journalists are biased to just one thing: facts, and facts that are verifiable, not those that might be characterized as “alternative.”

I’ve been involved in various kinds of journalism since I edited my college newspaper back in the day; since then, much of this has been arts journalism, and lately here at the blog what I generously call “journalism” has been of the more personal variety. Nonetheless, I’m delighted and honored to end this week as a new, full member of Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest private club for journalists in the United States, founded in 1892. It’s going to be a rough couple years up until the 2024 election, and as a free press is the handmaiden of democracy, I raise my glass today to journalism and journalists. And though I’ll be at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I hope to raise a glass or three at the Pen & Pencil Club soon.

A toast to …

Cafe Katja.

I was originally going to raise a glass to myself for actually writing and publishing a substantive post this week, but instead my Friday toast at Cafe Katja will be to the memory of Norm Macdonald, who departed these earthly shores all too soon a few days ago. He’d been a great favorite of mine for years (even on The Norm Show, his 1999 sitcom). Rather than burden the internet with yet another heartfelt memorial, I thought I’d post one of his best talk-show appearances — and there were many — in the below clip from a 1997 Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when Macdonald hijacked an interview with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith to offer a savage takedown of the prop comic Carrot Top in just a few well-chosen words.

So here’s to Norm. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

A walk through the city

Anthony Bourdain (center) and friends at the Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia in 2012.

Anthony Bourdain visited Philadelphia in 2012 as part of the second season of his series The Layover (I’d never heard of it either; it lasted all of two seasons on the Travel Channel). One of these episodes was devoted to Philadelphia, where he spent 48 hours sampling food and drink, among other things, and watching the episode a few nights ago I experienced a most uncanny sense of déjà vu. I’d just come back from a five-day sojourn to my home town, and I was surprised to find Bourdain had visited and enjoyed … well, most of the places I had. He stayed in what was then the Four Seasons Hotel on Logan Square (now The Logan, a Hilton hotel, where my family and I also stayed); like Marilyn and myself, he enjoyed a tour of the Italian Market and stopped by Di Bruno Bros. on 9th Street to sample a few cheeses; he spent several hours enjoying the bizarre exhibits of the Mütter Museum; he spent several more hours at the Barnes Foundation; he threw a spotlight on City Tavern, Walter Staib’s restaurant that fell victim to the coronavirus last year; and, like any good Philadelphian, he drank at Dirty Frank’s and the Pen & Pencil Club late into the night. I have happy memories of all of these, and except for the City Tavern, I can enjoy them all again: some things don’t change, and Philadelphia is in many ways one of those things.

The engagingly irritable Bourdain concluded his visit to the city by observing that “Philadelphia is a town with a low tolerance for bullshit and a whole lotta heart.” The native Philadelphian in myself is tempted to respond with a raspberry to that “whole lotta heart” comment, but he’s not far off the mark.

As it happens, I’m writing from New York, which is where I’ve lived for about 25 years, and in writing about Philadelphia I feel a little like James Joyce writing about Dublin from Paris and Trieste (without Joyce’s talent, alas). But I was born in Philadelphia and lived there for most of the first half of my life, and perhaps what keeps me a Philadelphian is my temperament — that low tolerance for bullshit and the city as the place that served as the landscape for my maturation, if not the whole lotta heart. Philadelphians are famously stubborn and, as Bourdain’s conversations with the city’s residents prove, prone to plain-talking, humility, and the ability to reel off a few yards of conversational obscenities unparalleled in rather more upscale communities. After all, this is the city which once proudly rolled out “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” as a promotional slogan.

New York has its own unique and undoubted virtues and attractions to be sure, but a low tolerance for bullshit is not one of them, and this may also speak directly to my own temperament. New Yorkers themselves can’t be entirely to blame for this. As the self-described “greatest city in the world” and a powerful center of the financial, entertainment, publishing, advertising and marketing, and non-profit industries, much of their livelihood depends on the continued generation and distribution of this bullshit, and the concomitant need to believe in this bullshit requires them to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.

What is clear as I walk through Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is that the city’s greatness (if it can be called that) is a ground-level greatness. New York may be a walkable city too, but the walk is of a profoundly different nature. Manhattan is a city of skyscrapers, buildings reaching far into the air and rendering the people inside and below them insignificant atoms of a hulking concrete, steel, and glass beast. Until 1987 and Willard Rouse’s construction of the 945-foot-high One Liberty Place, a gentleman’s agreement prevented real estate developers from exceeding the 548-foot height of the William Penn statue on the top of City Hall (the construction of which itself was ridden with political corruption); additional skyscrapers were built in the following years, transforming the city’s once-unique and easily recognizable appearance into something resembling hundreds of cities around the world (although in recent years developers have been more careful to preserve at least some of City Hall’s centrality to its skyline).

A walk through Philadelphia’s streets and alleys exposes the walker to an art, history, and domesticity that validates the walker as an individual, with individual quirks, histories, and significance himself. Apart from Center City, little of Philadelphia rises above four or five stories high. As Bourdain’s visit and my own experience prove, that ground-level appeal is consequently not limited to the city’s architectural features. The Mural Art Project and Isaiah Zagar’s colorful mosaics can be experienced throughout the 142 square miles of the city limits, stopping the solitary walker in his tracks. It is a rare route through the city that fails to traverse cobblestone streets and two-century-old buildings that remind the walker of the city’s and the nation’s history. And the longer one stays in the city, the more frequently one comes across ghostly reminiscences of their own history: after drinks at Dirty Frank’s and visits to Independence Park, the walker begins to see the city as a mirror of their own experience, as an individual, as a Philadelphian, as an American. One senses one’s own paradoxically ghostly permanence as the city itself curates its own history.

This is not to say that Philadelphia is some kind of metropolitan Eden. It isn’t, and its failings are legion. The public school system is reputedly in disastrous shape and has been for decades. Gun violence plagues Philadelphia to a degree greater than in other cities. And the tragic history of racial relations in Philadelphia continues to cast a pall on the present day; the career of Frank Rizzo and the self-inflicted 1985 MOVE firestorm in West Philadelphia remain palpable scars on the city’s psychic landscape. A later Philadelphia advertising slogan, “See what people who believe in the power of each other can do” — ironically launched in 1985 as well, in conjunction with that year’s Live Aid concert — rings particularly hollow in this context.

All right, that campaign was bullshit too, but hypocrisy is a human, not a geographical, vice. Regardless, as I contemplate my 60th year (which will begin very soon), I do keep thinking back to how my temperament and character were at least in part formed by Philadelphia, for good and bad; it’s a temperament and character that was profiled pretty accurately by the late Mr. Bourdain. But maybe closer to the mark is an observation from Peter McAndrews of Philly’s La Porta Ristorante, who also appeared in the program: “New York is a place where people go to reinvent themselves; Philadelphia is a place where people discover who they are.” And no degree of reinvention, however many years you spend in New York, can ever change who you are.