Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Music Theft

There's nothing new about music theft. A lot of the 1950s hit ballads were nothing more than blah-blah words set to themes from well-known classical compositions. But by then, the original composers were long dead, relatively few people picked up on the thievery, and as long as the thieving composer's conscience or ego didn't trouble him, no sweat.

But sometimes a composer doesn't take the trouble to be sure the notes he cops are in anything like the public domain. In 1911, Scott Joplin accused Irving Berlin of stealing music from Joplin's opera Treemonisha to write Berlin's breakthrough hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band. Berlin had very recently reviewed Joplin's work for possible publication, but had returned it. Modern music historians have compared the two works and concluded that though the charge probably wouldn't pass muster in a court of law, there's enough to be at the least, suspicious. It's also possible that if this theft did in fact occur, it might have been unintentional, that the Joplin theme had taken root in Berlin's brain, and jumped onto the page unbidden and unrecognized.

My favorite story of musical theft involves one Saxie Dowell, who played in the Hal Kemp Orchestra during the 1930s and '40s. In 1940, Saxie composed a little tune, Playmates, which turned into a major hit for Kemp and Co. Even if you don't go back that far, you probably remember it from your playground days:

Oh, Playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three. Climb up my apple tree.
Look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends forever more.

But not everyone was thrilled with the tune. An old man, Charles L. Johnson, came storming out of Kansas City, a lawyer in tow. Johnson had been a prolific composer of folk-style ragtime during the early years of that century, and he claimed Dowell had stolen the melody for Playmates, note for note, from Johnson's "Indian intermezzo," Iola, written in 1906.

You can listen for yourself and see what you think. Here's a link to a performance of Playmates.

And here's one to Iola. You'll have no trouble recognizing the theme in question.

The judge had no trouble, either, and Mr. Johnson was awarded rights to all royalties from the tune, including those that had already been paid.

Now comes the punch line. Dowell wrote a (seldom-heard) introductory verse to his song, and it went like this:

There's a catchy little tune a floatin' through the air,
You hear it here and there, they sing it ev'ry where
How it started, where it started, seems nobody knows.
But what's the diff'rence where it came from, here's the way it goes.

Big diff'rence, as it turned out. Was that a little bit of arrogance on the part of Dowell, maybe intended as a sly joke? If so, he did not laugh last. Or even for very long.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Buttons, Buttons, We've All Got Our Buttons

A few months ago, I took a trip to California and Arizona to promote A Perilous Conception, my then-new book, and of course scheduled an event one evening at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. That day, my wife and I spent several hours walking through the Musical Instrument Museum (highly recommended), then, in line with my belief that a day without ice cream is a day wasted, stopped in at the Sugar Bowl (also highly recommended) for cones.

As we walked back to the car, another couple approached us. The woman sashayed into our path. Probably mid-seventies, lots of frizzy hair dyed dark reddish, fleshy features accentuated by mascara that made her look like some sort of human-raccoon hybrid, and a big grin. "Well, wouldja lookit da loveboids," she boomed. "Walkin' down da sidewalk, holdin' hands. How long ya been married?"

I didn't miss a beat. "Seventy-nine years."

Both hands shot to her forehead. "Seventy-nine years," she announced to everyone within half a block, then moved sideways to address her husband. "D'ya hear that, Charlie? They been married seventy-nine years." The woman turned back to my wife and me. "That's terrific. How'd you manage to do that?"

"Patience, persistence and stubbornness," I said.

Charlie sent a weak smile my way, then took his wife's arm and steered her to the edge of the sidewalk.

When we'd gotten a little distance away, my wife asked me, "Why did you say that?"

I admitted the question was good and fair. The woman had been trying to be pleasant, but I'd found her intensely irritating. "I don't know," I said. "I really don't. 'I do not love thee, Dr. Fell. The reason why I cannot tell. But this alone I know full well. I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.'"

That earned me a stern fish-eye.

"Maybe she reminded me of someone I don't like, but I can't think who."

"But did you have to say what you did?"

I shrugged. "It just seemed to come out before I even knew it was in my head."

Like many marital discussions, this one ended unresolved, a draw, the kind of encounter that permits marriages to go on for seventy-nine years.

 But that isn't quite the end of the story. Recently, my son-in-law, frustrated by the potty training operation then in progress, asked my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, "What is it going to take to get you to go in the potty?"

The kid didn't miss a beat. "Fifty-nine years."

Well, he's got a quarter of my genes doesn't he? Presumably including one for a button governing control (or lack of same) of social filtering.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Those Bugs Are Everywhere

In Seattle, we have kiosks to take money for parking spaces. The other evening, I stood behind a man who was trying to coax a sticker out of one of those unarmed bandits. He pushed and pushed at the rubberized button with the point of a mechanical pencil, but there was no response. As his frustration grew, I mentioned that it might work better to use a fingertip. He shot a nasty glance at the button, then turned the look on me.

I understood. "Would you like me to push it for you?" I asked.

Ambivalence left him speechless. His jaw lowered, then raised, then lowered again.

"I don't mind," I said, then reached past him to push the green rubber button. A sticker dropped into the receptacle, the man raised the cover with his pencil point, gingerly removed the paper, nodded to me, mumbled a thanks, and walked off.

Living in what might be the best sanitary conditions in history, Americans are impressive germophobes. Every visit to a men's room is a nonstop show. The man who advances the paper towels with an elbow. The guy who turns the water on and off with a Kleenex wrapped around his finger. The gent who uses a paper towel to open the door to leave, then before the door closes, slings the towel in the general direction of the waste receptacle, and if he misses, well, that's someone else's health hazard. Let the washroom attendant get infected with whatever microorganism might be coating the door handle.

Hand sanitizers are everywhere. I watched a woman enterering a supermarket pull a moistened paper towelette from a dispenser to wipe the steering wheel of the little car her little boy would "drive" through the store. Then she took another towelette to wipe the handle on the back of the car. Then she pulled out several towelettes, walked inside, used one to sterilize the wrapper of a loaf of bread, and headed off toward the rear of the store. I couldn't help wondering how she'd ever managed to conceive that toddler.

There are people who wear face masks to go out into public. No, they're not on chemo, nor do they have immune deficiency conditions. It's just that you never know what's out there.

On the other hand, how about the guy in the men's room I overheard telling a friend about his terrific two-week trip to several primitive third-world countries - as he did everything he could to avoid having a square millimeter of finger contact the flush lever on his urinal? And how about the epidemic of whooping cough now raging through Seattle because so many people don't want their kids to be immunized? (I know about the autism argument, but I don't believe it's valid. What I do believe is that children are dying in my city because their parents have neither allowed them to be immunized, nor themselves received adult booster shots).

What's going to be the outcome of this dualistic behavior? Might we all become pushovers for infectious diseases, bereft of protective antibodies, with immune systems the equivalent of couch potatoes?

But it's an ill wind that blows no one some good, and writers are always tuned in to the world in which they live. One germophobe I watched in action several years back sent me directly to my little pocket notebook to write a description of him. In Scamming the Birdman, he became Fenton Dassidario, who always wore cotton gloves, and loved all things electronic and therefore non-infectious. He was deathly afraid of bugs that might invade his body and kill it, but was a master manipulator of bugs he could plant in someone's apartment to permit him to listen in on their activities.

As the pencil-point man hustled away from the kiosk, I didn't offer to shake hands.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Boners At The Ball Yard

Last Friday night, I had the weirdest deja vu moment. I was at the local ball yard, seated up in the third deck behind home plate, watching our Seattle Mariners nurse a 2-0 lead. But in the seventh inning, the visiting Minnesota Twins loaded the bases with one out. The Mariners' pitching coach came out to talk to the pitcher and catcher, then returned to the dugout.

A moment later, the batter hit a comebacker to the pitcher. Hallelujah. The pitcher would throw the ball to the catcher, who had one foot planted on home plate, one out; then, the catcher would relay the ball to the first baseman. A one-two-three double play, inning over.

 But the pitcher wheeled around and threw the ball toward - not to, toward - the shortstop, who was covering second base. No outs were recorded, and the game was lost (or from the point of view of the Twins, it was won).

Once upon a time, I coached my son's, then my daughter's, Little League teams, and as I saw the Mariners' pitcher pause and start to turn, I was suddenly on the sideline of a neighborhood baseball diamond, cupping my hands around my mouth to call to a confused ten-year-old pitcher, "Home! Throw it home!" "Throw...the...ball...HOME!"

 What on earth had possessed a big-league ballplayer to pull off a doozie like that? It got even more confusing next day, when I read in the paper that the pitching coach had told the pitcher, "If they hit anything back to you, throw it home." After the game, Eric Wedge, the tough Seattle manager, told reporters, "I'm sure he'll learn from this," which made me think that if I were that pitcher, I might keep my back firmly to the wall till I could jump on the next plane to Japan. The pitcher was quoted as saying that with the ball in his hand, he could think only of getting two outs, second to first. "I had a brain fart," he explained.

Well, brain farts do occur in baseball games, often enough that there should be provision for them in the official scorer reports. Back in the 1930s, a Brooklyn Dodger named Frenchy Bordagaray was picked off second base because the fielders were aware of his tendency to tap his foot, and he got tagged out, as he put it, "between taps." This was the same Frenchy Bordagaray who once became so angry at an umpire that he spat on him. For that, Frenchy was fined $500, which he said was more than he'd expectorated.

Not only players have brain farts. One day in 1942, Lou Boudreau, the manager of the Cleveland Indians, had a bad cold, and during the game, with his team at bat and its two slowest runners on base, blew his nose. Unfortunately, a towel over the face was the signal for a double steal, which ended in a unique double play.

 These events used to be called bonehead plays, or boners. The term goes back to 1908, when Fred Merkle, a young player for the New York Giants, did not run all the way to second base on a walk-off single in a crucial game against the Chicago Cubs. One of the Cub infielders noticed, got hold of a ball that may or may not have been the game ball, tagged second base, and Merkle was called out. As the result, the Cubs beat out the Giants for the pennant, and then won the World Series, which they've not done since. Maybe it was Merkle who put the curse on them. In any event, poor Fred was known the rest of his life as Bonehead Merkle. "I suppose that when I die, the epitaph on my tombstone will read: 'Here lies Bonehead Merkle,'" he once said.

It could've been worse. What if Merkle had done his deed 100 years later? Brainfart Merkle all his life, then on the tombstone?



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lilac Lady

 Turn 55, and the shills for retirement communities come out of the woodwork. "You've worked hard all your life. Now it's time to lay back and enjoy life. You've earned it."

I don't think The Lilac Lady would've been persuaded.

Hulda Klager, born in Germany in 1863, came with her family to Woodland, WA, twenty-some miles north of Portland, in 1877. Here, she married, started her own family, and settled into the routines of a farm wife of the time.

In 1903, Hulda suffered an unspecified serious illness. During her recovery, she read about Luther Burbank and his plant hybridization work, and got hooked. She had been annoyed at how long it took to skin the small apples from her tree to make pies, so she crossed two variants and came up with just the right apple, in terms of both size and taste.

Hulda was always fond of flowers, and in 1905, she turned her attention to lilacs. In five years, she developed fourteen new varieties. Ten years later, she began to hold yearly week-long open houses during the height of the blooming season, so people could enjoy her flowers with her.

Her husband died in 1922, and Hulda, dispirited, thought of giving up her work. But with encouragement from her son, she continued, and the Klager lilac variants continued to grow in number and excellence. Hulda's open houses continued, and she received numerous honorary awards from garden clubs, academic institutions, and government agencies.

But it seemed that every couple of decades, a new challenge would arise, and 1948 brought probably the most daunting cruelty. The Columbia River produced the worst flood in memory in Woodland; the town was submerged for over a month. Except for the big trees, every plant in Hulda's garden was destroyed. It would've been understandable if the 83-year-old Lilac Lady had decided to just pack it in, and live out her days in a rocking chair in the home of one of her children. But she didn't. She set to work restoring her living treasure, aided by friends and customers who provided her with starts from plants they'd gotten from her. By 1950, she'd resumed her yearly open houses, and she continued her experiments until her death at age 97, in 1960.

If you live close enough, take a day to go to Woodland during the few weeks leading up to Mother's Day. The Hulda Klager Lilac Society now owns and keeps up the property. Before you go into the gardens, though, take a slow walk through Mrs. Klager's house, which was built in 1889, and is now a museum. There's a must-see photograph there - a picture of an 83-year-old woman, standing at the edge of her tool shed, a hoe in each hand, her face a study in human emotion. Passion is an overused word, but in that picture, Hulda Klager is in nothing less than a passion. She projects sadness and deep anger, but most of all, in her tightly-drawn mouth and hard-set jaw, there's indomitable determination. The first time I saw that picture, it put me in mind of the lines near the end of The Adventures of Augie March, where Augie laughs in sympathy at another character, "as hard used as that by rough forces, [who] will still refuse to lead a disappointed life. Or is the laugh at nature - including eternity - that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will."

 After you've seen the photograph, then go out to the quiet, peaceful gardens. Sit on a bench amid the riot of purple blossoms. As the breeze blows the unique odor of lilac blooms across your face, you'll be surprised by an agreeable sensation of humility and gratitude, blended with more than a little inspiration.