Articles in section: 'Commentary'

Coyotes in New York City

New York Coyotes“Act big and make loud noises.” In the bad old days of the Big Apple, this might have been excellent advice for those occasions when you needed to take a walk to the bodega to stock up on beer and cigarettes. (And let it please the Lord for those days not to return.) Now, however, it is part of “Five Easy Tips for Coexisting with Coyotes,” which is advice for city dwellers from the New York City Parks Department, regarding, well, coexisting with coyotes. Because, they’re here, they’re hairy, and, according to the powers-that-be, they are apparently more than welcome to stay.

The Eastern coyote is sometimes referred to as the “Coywolf” because of evidence that it emerged via hanky-panky between coyotes and gray wolves. Its territory stretches from Ontario and Nova Scotia in the north down through New England and into New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And now you can add Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town neighborhood, among others, to places where the Eastern coyote has set his or her paws. Recent sightings of coyotes there and in other Manhattan locations have caused minor media ruckuses as people follow the chase, but the real news if you ask me is that the Parks Department is quite happy with them being in the city, and is expecting them to be around in Central Park for the long term. They’ve been sighted to the north in Bronx parks for quite a few years, so it’s not like they dropped out of the sky, but—on the other hand—the thing about the Bronx is that it’s a contiguous part of the United States of America (as startling as this may be to Kansans) whereas Manhattan is, well, an island. This has kept New York City proper insulated from quite a few things, like deer (and their awful ticks), bears (at least at the time of writing), in addition to innumerable wholesome virtues of the heartland that have never been proven to survive the journey over the Hudson or Harlem rivers.

So how are the coyotes getting here? It’s suggested they may follow “a train line;” whether on a bridge or underground, I don’t know. Five years ago, one was seen waiting on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel, and apparently it managed to come up with the toll, because a little later there was a big coyote chase in Tribeca resulting in one tranquilized canid.

So, a carnivorous predator, skilled at hunting singly or in packs, is invading New York City, competing with those humans here who already occupy the niche. Yet the Parks Department is not treating this as the prologue to an apocalyptic disaster movie scenario, but instead simply as nature taking its course. Coyotes are part of the food chain, the narrative goes, and they will help control populations of rats, rabbits and the like. We need to practice our “Five Easy Tips” for coexisting with them and go about our business.

Well, why do I strongly suspect this isn’t going to end well? For my part, I love animals, especially canids. I’m exactly the kind of fool who, if I saw a coyote in Central Park, would probably try to make friends with him, offering him lunch at the Shake Shack and an evening of music at the Village Vanguard. After all, the NYC Parks Department assures me that “nationwide, only a handful of coyote bites are reported each year,” and there are millions of people across the nation, and zillions of coyotes. What are the odds?


On the other hand, there’s a rational person buried somewhere deep within my skin who starts whispering: “BUT, there’s a lot of room out there in the rest of the country. Coyotes and people might coexist pretty well in Arizona, but how are they going to get along on a crowded 6 train?” Or indeed, how will they get along when dowagers strolling down paths in Central Park start seeing their Yorkies getting chomped up like so much beef jerky?

As far as the species homo sapiens goes, it occurs to me that we sure have funny ways of measuring progress. Time was, progress was defined by pushing back the boundaries of unforgiving nature; now we pat ourselves on the back for allowing it to encroach again on our carefully built settlements. I’m all for controlling the rat population in New York City, but if we want the coyotes to achieve it, we should equip them with badges and flashlights and set them loose on Lexington Avenue. We’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re apparently going to attempt some strange détente of wildness and urbanity.

But then maybe that’s what New York City has always been about. Good luck to the coyotes.

    Insult My Mum and I Will Punch You

    Pope FrancisHaving objected to his comments in this space at the time, it behooves us to follow up on how Pope Francis’ frankly stupid remarks regarding free speech and respect for religion have already been bearing bitter, if predictable, fruit. It was less than a week after the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo last month when Pope Francis, discussing those broader issues with reporters, helpfully explained that if someone insulted his mother “he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

    In a protest in London on February 8th—about 3 weeks after the pope said this—thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest Charlie Hebdo and the use of any expression by anyone to “slander” a figure known as Muhammad, who they believe was a prophet who lived in the 7th century. They bore signs, including many quoting Pope Francis: “Insult my mum and I will punch you.” (Images in Tweet embedded below.) [Read more →]

    Frank Sinatra – “Some Enchanted Evening”

    Some Enchanted Evening Frank Sinatra“Some Enchanted Evening,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is not a song owned by Frank Sinatra, in the sense of him having recorded a version so definitive that others wilt before it. It’s been recorded by way too many singers and sung on far too many stages in productions of South Pacific for that to possibly be true. However, Sinatra recorded it on three separate occasions during his career, qualifying it at least as a special number for him. He recorded it first in 1949 for Columbia Records, when the song was brand new, and was being recorded by a whole clutch of competing singers, as was the way of the music world back then. Sinatra’s version hit number six on the U.S. hit parade, but Perry Como’s got to number one. Sinatra revisited the song in 1963, as part of his “Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre” series, where he and musical cohorts like Dean, Bing, Sammy and Rosemary Clooney got together to record sets from several great musicals, including South Pacific. And then he took it on again for his 1967 album (also on his Reprise label) The World We Knew.

    In the context of the musical, the song is a recurring romantic refrain which underlies and lifts the love story between a middle-aged man and a younger woman. Divorced from that, as a popular song, it sounds like gentle advice from someone who has lived and loved and lost and maybe loved again, urging those who are younger to seize that enchanted moment when it arrives and hold on to the love they have found. So, one might assume that the older Sinatra would have pulled it off better. But I don’t think so. I think that Sinatra’s first recording in 1949 on Columbia, arranged by Axel Stordahl, is the best of the three. It’s true that Sinatra was relatively young (34), but because his voice then had a kind of celestial quality, he could pull off a song like this one quite well, as if issuing the profound guidance contained in the words from atop some heavenly cloud. (To me, that’s the same reason his Columbia version of “Hello Young Lovers” works so well, although it seems like the song of a much older man.) [Read more →]

    Frank Sinatra – “Where Are You?”

    Frank Sinatra Where Are You?“Where Are You?” is the title track of the first of the two dark albums that Frank Sinatra recorded during his 1950s’ artistic peak with arranger Gordon Jenkins (the second being 1959’s No One Cares). It’s funny: Sinatra himself was known sometimes to refer laughingly to his loneliness-themed concept records as “suicide albums,” but when he was behind the microphone he was clearly nothing but totally serious about each syllable and every note, and was masterful at constructing these albums with an almost terrifying emotional precision.

    All of that would have to start with the selection of songs. “Where Are You?” was a song written by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson in 1937 for the film Top of the Town. It was introduced by Gertrude Niesen (and at the moment you can hear all 78 rpms of her rendition via YouTube).

    The song treads riskily on an interesting line (I think) between poignancy and blandness. The lyric is so very straightforward, so plain, so seemingly devoid of device, that its very plainness is its only device. [Read more →]

    Frank Sinatra – “Why Try To Change Me Now”

    Why Try To Change Me Now - Frank SinatraIn a career not short on greatness, “Why Try to Change Me Now” is an especially great Frank Sinatra song, and a great Sinatra moment, all the more so as it is actually two moments: two great studio recordings. There are of-course many songs that Sinatra recorded twice (and more) and they’re always very good for providing a window into how he developed as an artist, as this one is. It can also be noticed that the songs he revisited through his career are all great songs. He recorded his share of cheesy or schlocky tunes over the years—a few of which were big hits, indeed—but each of those he recorded just once.

    His first recording of this tune was in 1952, and it was his final recording for the Columbia record label.

    Sinatra had signed with Columbia in 1942, at the age of 27, after leaving the Tommy Dorsey band, and it was during this era that he came to be known as The Voice, and what a voice it was. Although no longer as purely angelic as on some of those great Tommy Dorsey sides, Frank’s voice wasn’t straying in these years so very far from paradise; it was deeply romantic, and he could conjure with it just the sufficient level of ache when needed. It was the voice that brought out the bobby-soxed girls and made them faint (and worse). But it was a voice anyone could appreciate, with wonderful expressiveness and the remarkable vocal and breath control that Sinatra had worked for years to achieve. It can be heard at its best on the great ballads that Sinatra sang in those Columbia years, like “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” and “I’m Glad There Is You,” often with the great Axel Stordahl conducting and breaking new ground in the musical framing of a vocalist. Sinatra could swing pretty good too, on tracks like “S’Posin'” and “Five Minutes More,” but he would find his best shoes for swinging years later with Nelson Riddle and Billy May.

    On that final recording date in 1952, the bobby soxers and the acclaim must have seemed to be in the very distant past. His divorce from his first wife, Nancy, and his relationship with actress Ava Gardner had knocked him off any angelic cloud in the popular consciousness, and he’d been struggling as a recording artist and performer. He’d been let go by not only his record company, but also by his movie studio and talent agency. He’d been having real problems with his all-important voice, having difficulty just getting through performances. For his own part, Sinatra maintained that he was glad to get away from Columbia Records: he’d fought for years with producer Mitch Miller over matters of taste, Miller being very fond of novelty records (most infamously represented in Sinatra’s case by the record “Mama Will Bark“) and had to have been dreaming of the freedom to record just what he wanted, just how he wanted. The only problem was that he had no replacement record contract and poor prospects for one. No one on earth could have predicted then how well Sinatra would be doing in just a few short years, following his own muse (though ably abetted by other great talents in the studio).

    Sinatra Why Try To Change Me NowThe title of this song, “Why Try to Change Me Now,” seems almost too pat in retrospect as his final turn at the microphone for the record company that he’d felt was trying to change who he was as an artist. But it being Frank Sinatra with a great song in his hands, the record is far, far more than merely a gimmicky goodbye.

    The composer, Cy Coleman, noted that Sinatra slightly changed the melody at the opening of the song. He is quoted by Will Friedwald (in the best book I know on Sinatra):

    I listened to the record and it sounded so natural, the way that Frank did it, that I thought to myself, “He’s right.” So I left it that way. So I changed the music! That’s the first and only time I’ve ever done that.

    The arrangement was by Percy Faith. You can hear the record (or at any rate a digital shadow of it) via iTunes, via Amazon, and currently via YouTube.

    The song opens:

    I’m sentimental, so I walk in the rain
    I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain
    Could start for the corner, turn up in Spain
    But why try to change me now?

    It is in this verse, the next verse and the bridge the song of a misfit, someone who feels himself a bit off-kilter, something of an odd man out in the conventional, modern world. This is not such an unusual theme for a popular song: one could make a very long list of songs with similar sentiments. “Pretty Vacant,” by the Sex Pistols, would be one. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” by Bob Dylan, would be on that list too. And both are enormous fun in their distinct ways. But the beauty and grace of this take on the theme is just that much more conspicuous when you compare it to such others. There is a restraint in the anguish and alienation that is being expressed with merely a wry shrug (as opposed to a molotov cocktail) and there is no singer better able to distill and express that than Frank Sinatra. His voice is beautiful here, but, knowing where he was at in his life, you can just read the great weariness between the lines.

    And then there is the final verse, where the song reveals itself as being addressed in just one all-important direction:

    So, let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown
    You know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down
    Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
    Why try to change me now?

    It is a plea to someone whose acceptance matters more than all the rest of the world. And Sinatra voices that last questioning couplet with an exquisitely unstrained sense of yearning and of heartbreak. It is inexpressibly masterful.

    Envision, if you will, a tragic twist of fate or two, and this might have been the last record Frank Sinatra ever made.

    But, thank God, it was not. And seven years later, in 1959, Sinatra was standing in front of a microphone to sing “Why Try To Change Me Now” again, this time for his album No One Cares.

    In the preceding years, under a new contract to Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra had recorded masterpiece after masterpiece, and along the way defined the potential of the long-playing record in popular music. In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Only the Lonely, Come Fly with Me: these and others can be seen now not merely as great records but irreplaceable cultural treasures. (We’re lucky indeed that millions of copies exist.) Sinatra’s very voice had changed; it had gathered maturity, acquiring some cracks that weren’t there before but only an ever-deeper capacity to communicate a song to a listener. Working with brilliant arrangers and musicians, but commanded finally by his own discerning vision, Sinatra recorded some of the most refined, truly adult and simply marvelous popular music that has ever been committed to any medium, before or since.

    By this point, he was coming close to the end of this near-perfect run (though he had lots of great stuff still to come). No One Cares was without doubt one of his “mood” albums, the mood succinctly expressed in the title. For these LPs, a crucial element was the way in which Sinatra chose songs without regard to their vintage. There were songs specifically written for the project (like the title track by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) and others from decades previous (like “I Can’t Get Started,” by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, from 1936). The point was to create a whole that held together, greater even than the sum of its great parts. The arranger in this case was Gordon Jenkins. He is not treated by critics as untouchable to the same degree as fellow arranger Nelson Riddle; he had an approach that could sometimes be considered a bit repetitive or simplistic, featuring what are often described as “high keening strings.” (Riddle, by contrast, was always varied and inventive.) Yet, in these years, Sinatra did not over use Jenkins’ talents. So, the two albums from this period, Where Are You? and No One Cares, stand as great examples of Sinatra’s voice framed by Jenkins’ sparse, emotive and exceedingly dark arrangements. (Ironically enough, Sinatra also called on Jenkins for his Christmas album.)

    While Sinatra, in the second act of his American life, had enjoyed enormous professional success in the middle and late 1950s, he was still a human being, and other aspects had not gone quite as well. His very anguished relationship with Ava Gardner was officially ended with their divorce in 1957.

    But from wherever it came, there was never much doubt that great darkness was there under the surface for Frank, and he could tell the truth about it, like no one else, when he was in front of a microphone.

    So, his second recorded reading of “Why Try To Change Me Now” is taken significantly more slowly than the first, every note and syllable carefully measured out. It can be heard via iTunes or via Amazon and currently via YouTube.


    Frank’s singing still possesses enormous grace and restraint, but the song is performed as if treading on a ledge that is now substantially thinner. Sinatra’s voice has that added depth that maturity has brought and at the same time some added weaknesses, and he puts all of this into play with devastating but still ultimately unstrained effect (and therein lies a crucial element of his genius).

    When he reprises, in the end, the final questioning couplet of the song …

    Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
    Why try to change me now?

    … his voice conveys an expectation that is different than before. In the Columbia recording, the singer has a love, and he is at least yearning for a positive, accepting answer to his questions. Here—it seems at least to these ears—the words are sung as if to an abyss, to a lover who he wishes would answer him, but one who he knows is no longer listening …

    #SinatraCentenary

    (This post is in honor of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, which we’re marking at the present moment by looking at some of the songs as sung by Frank Sinatra that Bob Dylan selected for his new album Shadows In The Night.)

    ……

    Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, 2015: A Very Good Year

    Bob Dylan Frank Sinatra 2015Some of us are date-oriented and some of us are not. By dates, I refer neither to the fruity nor to the romantic kind (though the same statement would probably apply to both) but rather the chronological sort: anniversaries, birthdays, milestones and the like. Some of us are date deniers, wondering whether it matters that such and such happened so many years ago on this date. This day is still little different from yesterday or tomorrow, after all; it’s just another day, significant only for what it achieves for itself, surely, and not its numerical coordination with some other day.

    Bob Dylan, however, has apparently been paying some attention to dates. The first track (“Full Moon and Empty Arms”) to be heard from his forthcoming Sinatra-themed album was released to the world last May 13th, the day before the anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s death in 1998 (perhaps someone’s itchy promotional trigger finger caused it to come out a few hours early, at least state-side). And the album itself is being released right here in the first part of 2015 A.D., which happens to be the centenary of Sinatra’s birth (his birth date being December 12th, 1915). [Read more →]

    Bob Dylan, “Stay With Me,” Studio Audio Released

    Stay With Me Bob Dylan studio audioWay back in May of last year we first heard “Full Moon and Empty Arms” from the forthcoming Bob Dylan album, Shadows in the Night. Today we have the release of the studio audio of “Stay With Me,” a song that Bob Dylan was closing his live performances with on his most recent tour, written by Jerome Moss and Carolyn Leigh and first recorded by Frank Sinatra. The audio can be heard via NPR (thanks to David H. for the tip). UPDATE: And now you can hear it below via YouTube: [Read more →]

    Pope Francis Punches Out the Wrong Guy

    Pope FrancisBarely a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the additional murders that followed, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has made some remarks on the broader issue of free speech and the appropriate response to insults to one’s religion. According to the Associated Press, he spoke in an interview aboard the papal airplane and opined that there should indeed be limits to free speech, which he illustrated with this example:

    If my good friend Dr. Gasparri [an aide to the Pope] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.
    […]
    There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.

    It may be surprising to many to hear Pope Francis speak uncritically of punching someone for merely delivering an insult or curse. What happened to turning the other cheek? That was, after all, kind of a big theme with the gentleman who started this whole Christianity racket (in which—full disclosure—yours truly endeavors to sometimes participate). What was his name again? [Read more →]

    Pens versus AK-47s and Cartoons versus Atrocities

    Je Suis CharlieWhat happened today in Paris at the offices of the publication Charlie Hebdo ought to be a watershed moment that forces just about everyone in what we think of as the free Western world to remember what freedom is, and one that makes the ever growing threats against that freedom no longer possible to deny or excuse. However, a few hours into the watershed moment, it’s not exactly clear that this will the result. There has already been plenty of equivocation, talk of how what the satirists at Charlie Hebdo did was too provocative, and so on. Indeed, it was meant to be provocative, but in a free society provocation by way of ideas and statements should only produce in response other ideas and statements: not riots, not punishment under the law, and not bullets from a Kalashnikov. The spontaneous gathering of people in the streets in France (and around the world) to stand up for those massacred today, symbolically lifting pens into the air, is, on the other hand, a reason to hope that the correct lesson is being drawn by the critical mass of citizens. [Read more →]

    For Christmas in New York: Murder

    Officers Ramos and LiuRafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in Brooklyn yesterday, five days before Christmas. They were shot to death as they sat peacefully in their patrol car, eating lunch, and performing duty that would have found them without question coming quickly to the assistance of anyone in trouble in the nearby public housing project, as NYPD officers do on a routine and daily basis. The church that Officer Rafael (Ralph) Ramos regularly attended was reportedly packed this morning with those showing sympathy to his bereaved family. Ramos himself, a devout Christian, was to graduate today from the New York State Chaplain Task Force. His partner, Officer Wenjian Liu, had gotten married just two months ago. He and his bride were described today by a neighborhood acquaintance as having been “quiet and clearly in love.” [Read more →]

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