goodness: Tom Lehrer gives

Photo of Tom Lehrer

Just a fresh reminder that Tom Lehrer stands among the great artists of all time for, among other things, relinquishing copyright to his life’s work as he nears the end of his time here rather than having his clutching, wealth-hoarding estate or some atrocious corporate creeps hold his “intellectual property” behind a locked door to generate never-ending revenue as long as possible rather than to give his work to the culture that helped him create it. So McCartney, Springsteen, Dylan and all the other money-grubbing famemonsters sell their catalogs to monstrous LLCs to make the pile of obscene wealth they sleep on each night a few feet taller, while better humans give back. The guy’s a mensch, and his music is fun.

Visit his site to download his wonderful work, and share some the generosity:

I’d like to propose a toast.

These things come back like ghosts, faintly but present, and pull the few little threads of regret that have any purchase in my heart. It’s hard to explain that strange little stretch in the middle of the hateful eighties when people like me were dropping like flies while the everyday people in the rest of the world yawned and turned away in between sharing the hilarious jokes about fruits and vegetables and pointing fingers to say “well, didn’t you all bring this on yourselves” at best, and to share their churchy nonsense at worst. Thing is, being in the midst of it as a little half-formed person trying to figure out where he fit, when the people who could have explained any of it were dying by the thousands, was a shocking, traumatic thing that you couldn’t really see from the ground level, and overview would take literal decades.

Fran Lebowitz says that the real tragedy of AIDS wasn’t so much how many artists and creative people we lost, but that we lost a generation of a kind of audience that the world hadn’t seen before, and hasn’t seen since, with a canny understanding of semiotics, camp, and detail forged by a forbidden identity and a long-closed culture just starting to open to something more than just the way things always were.

I remember, once, in the early years of my inexplicable twenty-year career as a frequent operatic extra with the Washington Opera in DC, sitting next to a handsome older fellow quietly singing Sondheim.

“What are you singing?” I asked. I was fourteen or fifteen, I think, and at a makeup mirror next to the gentleman and just on the other side of the row of makeup tables where my father was combing a color into his mustache and waxing the curled end of each handle of the handlebar with a precision that would have pleased Poirot. The guy looked over, half in his foundation and half still patting on the matte tan for the period and class of his character.

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’,” he said. “Sondheim.”

“It’s pretty,” I said, inexpertly applying my own foundation and looking forward to the moment of guilty pleasure when I’d sit with the main makeup lady for her to delicately do my eyeliner and lip-liner to make my face register under bright stage lights in the opera house.

“You’ve got good taste,” he said, with a smile that, in retrospect, might have belied an understanding that even I hadn’t yet arrived at for myself. “When you’re ready to do Sondheim justice, you’re ready to sing anything.”

It was inspiring as a lowly supernumerary, the opera term for a barely-paid extra with no lines and an outright ban on singing that I occasionally violated, quietly, in the background of scenes where I got carried away with the joy of being in the magical surge of music that you’ll never fully understand until you’ve been on a stage with a chorus and principals all around, an orchestra thundering in the pit around a gesticulating maestro, with 2800 pairs of eyes glittering in the darkness and focusing on you and what’s happening around you. The chorister beside me went back to dabbing at his face and getting a nice even basecoat.

“Saw Stritch do it twice,” said the next chorister over in the row of makeup mirrors. “Just…oh dear god. Is anything better?”

The two resumed where the one left off, and soon enough, they weren’t the only ones singing. I just sat, rapt, the cool tan-soaked sponge drying in my hand. On perfect cue, the wig techs floated through like courtiers, and the burly bearded dresser wearing a kimono sailed in with the ornate presence of a Spanish galleon laying siege to some continental port, and seamelessly picked up the last lines, belting out “…Everybody rise, everybody RISE, everybody RIIIIIIISE!” in a voice seasoned by a hundred thousand Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100s.

The whole room paused, then everyone clapped, including my dad.

“Robbie’s not quite Stritch, but you can’t deny he’s got it down,” whispered my neighbors, and I had a cozy feeling like Linus Van Pelt had just explained the meaning of Christmas to me in a soft, but patient, voice.

It reminded me then of that peculiar, magical sense that I had back then, that no matter how ugly the world seemed, and how cruel people were, and how it all just seems like everything was falling, but no one was noticing, I was always different backstage. It was a rare moment for me where I felt entirely in my place in the world in the best sense of that turn of phrase.

I looked out for that friendly gentleman in the first show I was in in the next season, but he never turned up. A couple productions along, I asked Robbie if he’d seen him yet. Robbie just tucked his customary kimono to sit more comfortably around his bearish waist, tipped his head, and said, “Honey, he’s not singing this year,” with a look that broke his usual charming, avuncular friendliness, but just for a moment. “He’ll be back with us soon,” he added, as if he could, by force of will alone, speak that future into being.

Over the decade, more and more of the people I’d chatted with in the make-up chairs and whispered with on the stage while the curtain was down and the overtures were playing weren’t singing that year.

It seems I’ve outlived all of those men who weren’t going to be singing that season, pushing my way through my fifties, and I can sing a reasonable facsimile of Stritch’s take that’s at least good enough for a neighborhood karaoke night, though I still struggle to get the nicotine richness of how she pins down “Aren’t they a GEM?” with a slightly flat note backed up with a pent-up surge of regrets, but I sometimes wish I’d had a little more time to take in those lessons, to learn to love high camp, low notes, and languid lyrics delivered with the weight of knowing instead of just immersing myself in a desperate struggle to be current with all the popular kids, straight savages, and other people who, like me, wouldn’t leave the house without a few handfuls of hair gel and the perfect factory-made aspirational teen tops in dreary corporate-made paintsplatter pastels and board shorts over unironic checkerboard slip-ons.

I could have learned so much and so much sooner, and reveled in bossa nova, midcentury tabourets and spindly-legged Scandi seats, and a schmaltzy, overwrought torch song, the lamentations of Elaine Stritch’s indelible Joanne, or the slinky wildness of Fosse at his most extreme.

Hell, they could have told me about Liza With A Z, or Rosalind Russell as a nun, or Eartha Kitt. 

Life’s too short for regrets, I suppose, and they become even more meaningless when we’ve arrived somewhere beautiful and satisfying by a rambling navigation through empty hallways and mobs of fad-blinded fools instead of pulling up neatly to the front door and sailing into the place like a Spanish galleon laying siege to a port, but I wonder.

So here's to the girls on the go— 
Everybody tries. 
Look into their eyes and you'll see what they know. 
Everybody dies.

I wonder. How would I look in a kimono?

A toast to that invincible bunch. 
The dinosaur surviving the crunch. 
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch- 
Everybody rise! 
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! 

And here we stand, nearly forty years down, when I almost feel like I could take on the hard stuff, scrawling “Sondheim” and “I’m Still Here” on the karaoke DJ’s little request slips, but I’ll content myself for now chasing the impossible dream of capturing even a sliver of Garland’s aching take on “Blues In The Night” and will refrain from even attempting any of Mama Cass’s most glorious performances. Instead of being able to chat with a make-up room full of wise old aunties, I spent decades finding my own way, and arriving, oddly, almost where I’d have been if I’d been lucky enough to come to know that lost generation of the world’s best fans, albeit treading a lot of fruitless by-ways in search of the melody.

Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know.

I’ll drink to that.

©2023 Joe B. Wall

an excerpt from Scaggsville (work in progress)


The new and as yet unopened interstate was an broad, empty band of fresh pavement that reared up from around a gentle bend and disappeared around another, heading north and south. We followed the freshly-painted lane lines on the family Schwinns, with me buckled into in my child seat on the back of my mother’s bike and my sister marking an invisible wavy line in a continuous slalom through the dashed lines.

“He’s at it again, Cleve,” my mother said, and my father turned back, slowing down just enough to sidle up and reach over to make sure I was still properly strapped in. Their bikes were a matched pair of metallic blue Deluxe Varsity Tourist models with chromed fenders and bulbous headlamps powered by bottle-shaped generators that tipped into the tires a little electricity, and they gleamed in the sun, aromatic with the scent of metal polish and oil.

“I don’t think he can reach, hon,” he said.

“He’s sure trying, though,” she said, and they chuckled at the sight of me hanging off the back of my Mom’s bike, struggling to do myself an injury. I just looked up, furrowing my brow and glaring at my dad, then went back to that irresistible task of self-mutilation.

We breezed southward in close formation, crossing over where the abandoned track of the old Scaggsville Road was cut off by the new pavement, and went as far as the dam before heading for home with the setting sun warm on our backs. The road was raw and perfect, still almost untouched, an empty place that would soon be roaring with traffic.

In the golden light, I grunted and writhed, struggling furiously against the straps on my seat, trying as hard as I could to jam my feet into the spokes.

One day I’ll do it.

I’ll do it.

©2006 Joe Belknap Wall

The blue hours, part one.

I’ve begun to properly embrace what I’ve learned is called a “biphasic” or “multiphasic” sleep pattern, casting away the busispeak “insomnia” and all its attendent judgement of a lack of productivity in sleep, for Pete’s sake, as one more of the wretched impositions of a clockwork life in the planet-wide currency mill, and it’s connecting me with parts of myself that I’d glimpsed from a distance for most of my life.

I’ve always loved the blue hours—those in-between spaces when the rest of the world is largely taking place just around the curve of the Earth. I wake up, sometimes at oddly familiar times, like when I stir, tap my watch on its little charging stand to see when it is that I’ve resurfaced, and return, in eye-friendly green text, “3:01” or “5:05” or “4:33,” and wonder if they’re part of that dreamland oracle meant to give some meaning, or if it’s just pareidolia connecting a pattern with random reflections within my memory palace, assigned a value in the way we used to think the patterns of the stars had something to say about our lives.

At 5:05, I stir, quietly as to avoid waking my partner or our dogs, slip out of the bed, gather up my daily devices in a pocket, and quietly tiptoe out, taking care to close the door with all the stickers and one gently snoring child, before I creakily descend the stairs to lurk deliciously in the great empty volume of the house.

Today, I light a candle, take a photo of myself perched in front of my little writing device, as if to document some grand artistic process instead of just letting it happen unseen in the little breakfast nook, sip at a strong cup of tea with heavy cream and no sugar, and start to write, once I’ve irritably solved the problem of what impossible string of letters, numbers, and special characters will get me into my website.

Outside, the sky is going through that gorgeous procession of blue to blue to blue, and the horizon is just taking on the threads of pink and gold that precede the sunrise on that side of the house. I’m a little unsettled, still from one of those dreams that’s not bad at all, but leaves one with a feeling that something’s not quite right, but there’s tea and a candle and music in my earphones and there is nothing to do but do. I was reminded recently how it important it is to embrace a radical incrementalism and write a little each day, or do a little work towards a goal, or otherwise just continue on a track with an endpoint yet to be revealed, so I set to work, in my own way and at my own pace.

It is a good thing.

© 2023 Joe B. Wall

Reading: Becky Chambers

A recent exchange reminded me of a great book I read recently, as an attempt to rediscover the love of science fiction I’d once had, and which had faded with the devolution of sci-fi into bleak pessimism, a perverted wallowing in the supposed hopelessness in our species, diseased and fetishistic lusting for (and after) the apocalypse as a sort of displaced modernization of the religious sickness of the flagellant, and war war war war war war war and every narrative turning on the gun, because people can’t be bothered to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s elegant counter in the brief, but insightful, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

I’d gone so far as to attempting my own sci-fi novel as a nod to James Murphy’s excellent dictum that the best way to complain is to make things, setting some basic rules—no war, no AI, no FTL travel, no artificial gravity, no murders…and so on—writing at a leisurely pace that equates to “I wonder if I’ll finish this before I die,” but along the way, helpful fans in my circle pointed out some excellent humane modern science fiction of a genre that’s been dubbed “solarpunk,” which inspired me to wonder if I could catch the tail of that flowing gown as its practitioners stride into a future that’s not the usual grimdark catalog of miseries.

One of my favorite suggestions has been the work of Becky Chambers, a fantastic writer in the field, and I recently finished the first two books of her Monk & Robot series, which exist in a pastoral future where, when AI arose suddenly in that stabilizing green future, the response wasn’t war war war, but a collective release with an apology, as their former workforce was treated to an apology and the right to live as they chose…and they chose to disappear into the recovering forests of the moon where they all lived and disconnect from their former masters.

Continue reading Reading: Becky Chambers

A voice, telling a tale

I’m a fervent enthusiast of audio media, from old radio drama to modern radio drama and audiobooks of all stripes, and despite being a voracious reader of tattered paper books in my youth (and still, though more on digital readers lately), I’m increasingly of the opinion that, in contrast to the nostalgic claims that books are the grand tradition of literacy and stories told aloud on tape/disc/data are the brash upstart, oral storytelling is innate to humans (obviously with allowances to be made for reasons of hearing/neurodivergence) and has been for a hundred thousand years, while books available on scale to the masses are more or less a mostly post-20th century phenomenon.

Continue reading A voice, telling a tale

What we miss in the the hurricane

One of the things I truly lament about the social-mediafication of the internet is how I’m stuck looking at an endless thread of posts about political creeps, bible-waving hysterics, celebrities I’ve never heard of and care even less about, and other things that have no direct impact on my life that I can do anything about, and that all that AI horsepower producing billowing clouds of atmospheric carbon in competition with digital mining for moronic fake money can’t seem to recognize the things I *do* care about (probably because few of them result in online purchases), and it’s because of this that I only just found out this week that one of my all-time favorite composers, Stephen Scott, died a year ago.

I’ll share this video to illustrate his amazing, lush, and satisfying work (as well as the craftsmanship and astonishing precision of the people in his ensemble), but will it get the same traction as me bewailing or ironically demeaning some random crime of taste? I post videos and links to amazing things I love all the time and they get zero traction, because the AI sees they don’t get the endless arguments that descend into the mudpits of prog and kitchen appliances and pulls them out of everyone’s feeds.

Stephen Scott was amazing and I wish more people knew his work, and even further, I wish there was more work to come, but his catalog is closed now, and that’s terribly sad. I’d have liked to meet the guy, if for no other reason than to say “thanks for the inspiration and all the time I’ve escaped from the world into your musical realm.”


the benefits of knocking shit over

Honor thy error as a hidden intention.

—Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies deck

There was an unwanted punctuation mark in my day yesterday when I managed to knock over the nice stainless double-walled tumbler I keep on my desk for water. Being freshly filled, I caused a tsunami, inasmuch as roughly 600cc of water constitutes a tsunami as the scale of a desk, that managed to soak literally every bit of clutter on my desk before pouring down one side into a rather nice art book of military nude photography from World War II, my gratitude journal, the review copy of my book manuscript, and a pocket copy of the Le Guin essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” and a few effects pedals in a shoebox.
There was a panicked evacuation of the desktop clutter to the bed on the other side of my room, a great sopping with a beach towel, and the utterance of a surprisingly restrained series of adult words, phrases, and concepts, followed by some amount of wallowing in feelings of grim exasperation, as I stood there, playing a hairdryer over the splayed pages of a rather nice art book of military nude photography from World War II, that my books all seem destined to eventually die in floods.

When everything was dried out, I paused to reflect, letting the bare desk speak to me, and noticed that my monitor speakers actually sound considerably better when placed more widely and at a distance, with the wall to enhance the bass response from the rear-facing ports, and that my desk, when not loaded with clutter, is an inviting and emotionally cool space where things can happen, and I resolved to revise how I work to combat my tendency to load up horizontal surfaces with the multitude of little things that, as the stacks get taller and less stable, inhibit my desire to work, either creatively or in pursuit of a paycheck.

When the water flows away, the shape of its passing is left behind like a dry riverbed, to remind us that it will return in its own time, without warning or opportunity for preparation, and what happens next comes down to how we live in the meantime.

I replaced my nice stainless double-walled tumbler with a smaller teacup with a lower center of gravity and less capacity, and now I will have to get up more frequently to fill it, and this, too, is a useful lesson learned in a flood.

@2022 Joe Belknap Wall

cooking: Daisy Eggs

Snow days, birthdays,Daisy eggs - mise en place and other holidays and observances are special days for me, and on special days, I like to make special breakfasts, usually including my favorite breakfast dish in the whole entire universe (scrapple being a very, very close second) — daisy eggs.

They’re a bit of work, but make the rest of the day seem like something more than it might be, another chance to be here—all here, all now, just me and my breakfast against the forces of gloom in the world.

Continue reading cooking: Daisy Eggs