PRATIE PLACE

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In which I submit "I Can't Keep Up" to Der Yidisher Idol in Mexico City

Jane Peppler, Ken Bloom and Jim Baird of Mappamundi recording a Yiddish songWhen I heard there was going to be the second annual "Der Yidisher Idol" this summer I decided I had to enter the competition. I hate competing but I like supporting quixotic causes. I recently held a competition on my telenovela blog and out of the 12,000 visitors we have a day, only TWO people submitted entries. That bummed me out. So if nothing else, I will swell the Mexican contest's applicant pool.

They are calling it the Yiddish version of "American Idol" but it's actually more about songwriting: there's a $750 prize for the best original Yiddish lyrics to an existing tune, and a $1000 prize for the best original Yiddish song, lyrics and tune both. I decided to submit videos in both categories. I've had bronchitis since I came back from snowy Boston a MONTH ago, so I sang these two songs with a lot of coughing in between takes. Lots and lots of coughing. For some reason the second one sounds like I inhaled helium. Oh well.

Here's the first one. A few years ago I fell in love with the 18th century German folksong Stets in trauer and the version I heard was in a Southern dialect that sounded kind of like Yiddish to me. So I decided to write Yiddish lyrics for it. It's a song I really relate to but I wish I didn't. Sadly, I do remember what it's like to be madly in love with a bum and patiently waiting for him to... to what? What do bums ever do? Anyway, here it is, with Roger Lynn Spears on the piano. There are subtitles so you can get the story! Roger did not want to be on camera so I lip-synched this afterwards, a skill I do not have.



So the second one was more of a challenge. I've only written maybe five songs in my whole life and never feel like I have anything to tell the world, so that's a roadblock. I decided to write myself an anthem, why should I not have one? This one, I had to lip-sync and play fake piano because I only have two mics so we couldn't all record it at once.



I used Nahum Stutchkoff's Yiddish Rhyming Dictionary, and his marvellous thesaurus (out of print but you can often find a copy on eBay). And a dictionary. The Yiddish equivalent of "I Can't Keep Up" is Ikh ken nit mithaltn.

I got Sheva Zucker to vet the grammar and help with words - she said some that I'd chosen were "in the dictionary but nobody uses them." Ken Bloom and Jim Baird from our band Mappamundi came for the afternoon to record this as well as priceless songs from the past which will appear here at a later date! (Yaka Hula Hiki Du af yidish and Donkey Monkey Business aka Donki Monki Biznes).



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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Story telling prompt: "Roommates."

I didn't get picked to tell a story at the Monti tonight but here's the one I prepared.

In Cambridge MA in the 70s, group houses were hippy versions of the Addams Family. I lived in one, a beautiful Victorian house with a turret, inside the turret on the third floor was a jungle of hanging plants and there you'd find Anne H. sitting on the couch when she was high, working macrame plant hangers out of jute twine and beads. I had a great bedroom jutting out over the front porch, with a bay window, stained glass at the top, a primo view of the street corner where there were frequently non-fatal traffic accidents near the liquor store. I built a tall bed out of 2x4s so I could prop myself on my elbows and watch guys jump out and curse each other over the broken glass of their fender benders.

The house was ruled by Victor S., son of the Sauerkraut King of upstate New York, making him the Prince of Sauerkraut, but he disdained the family business so was in self-imposed exile. He actually had a car! He tricked it out with a special ionizer, in the tin foil hat family, to align the car's air molecules optimally. Eventually he went back home to rule his kingdom, the money being too good to pass up.

His replacement, my college friend, music critic Jon P., rolled up in his mom's car and decanted a gaggle of friends and siblings, they made a bucket brigade from the car across the sidewalk across the porch through the front door, hand-over-handing his endless boxes of LPs up the stairs. Just a year later the process was reversed when he left for Manhattan to write for Rolling Stone and then the New York Times.

Some among us wanted the next roommate to be an uptight intellectual, others wanted a laid-back hippy. Our barely adequate compromise candidate was another Jon, one I later married, that's another story. He was a poet, and bike mechanic at the "Mystic Cycle" collective, so hip its female co-owners had rejected the patriarchy completely and had no last names.

Jon and I might never have gotten it on, because you shouldn't sleep with your roommate, but the owners of our paradise sold the place and threw us all out, so he and I went looking for a new place together. It had to be cheap - he earned $2.68 an hour and I was supporting myself writing sonnets, which is another story. We moved to working class Somerville, now gentrified but then a grotty city where men carved parking places out of snowdrifts and defended them with garbage cans and fists.

We had three roommates at 45 Spencer Avenue. There was Kathy M., an anthropologist who while doing her fieldwork in a Francophone fishing community in northern New Brunswick had fallen in love with one of her fishermen subjects. She tied up our phone chatting in French with Bernard. There was Dick P., he made a good living turning high end Renaissance recorders on his lathe, tinting them with Lady Clairol hair dye, and selling them for $700 a pop. And there was Scott, last name forgotten, he worked a graveyard shift repairing copy machines. He said he was a science fiction writer but he never wrote, he had a jazz band, Laughing Moon, but he never gigged. What he DID do was tend a massive marijuana plantation in the attic, so scientific, littlest plants out by the eaves and as they grew (robustly) he moved them towards the center of the attic where the gro-lights were higher. Every day he hauled himself up to the attic, harvested a very generous armful of weed, then baked it in our oven and consumed it all himself. Then he'd lie on his bed, tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece because he was too damn to actually stand up and play the entire trumpet.

Eventually we felt we had to leave. It wasn't the awful hippy bread made of soy flour and brewers yeast. It wasn't the deafening weekly bassoon quartet rehearsals. It wasn't the book "Hitler was a Sugar Fanatic" that Dick waved at us or the sarcastic post-it notes left anonymously on the towering piles of dishes in the sink. Nor was it the flagrant disrespect of the chore wheel.

No, it was tuna casserole. Scott baked it every week when it was his turn to make dinner, and every week Jon told him: I don't like tune casserole, and every week there it was again, finally one day we came home and smelled the smell of our house, baked marijuana and tuna casserole, and Jon lost his mind! He ran upstairs to where Scott was lying on his bed tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece and yelled "I F&*#NG HATE TUNA CASSEROLE," and so soon we went to live in a group house in an Armenian neighborhood in Belmont, with a couple of glassy eyed anthroposophists and an ancient Wiccan shrine in the back yard. But that's another story.

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