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All three of Caruso’s first recordings of Vesti la Giubba, from 1902, 1904 and 1907, on one hit vid. All were smash hits, tho’ whether the Italian recording of 1902 or the second Victor (pre-RCA) recording were the first records to sell over a million I don’t know. You can find claims to both online. There were so many millions of each pressed in their day that even now one of these antique cylinders is worth about as much as your thrift store Tijuana Brass LPs. All three versions were pressed as cylinders, too, platters were still in the future. Though after 1913 when phonographic technology changed forever each quickly became million selling platters as well. They still sell, in fact, and somewhere spoiled rotten heirs of Enrico Caruso get richer by the day off these ancient recordings. Considering the primitive acoustic recording technology of the time—basically shouting into a megaphone, exquisitely analog—Caruso’s voice is astonishingly loud and full. Compare it with the orchestra behind him (probably literally behind him) on the 1907 recording which is so distant and compressed I mistook it momentarily for a squeezebox. My favorite of the three versions, incidentally, is the 1904 recording. It’s a tad more subtle (which might be the the first time Caruso and subtle ever occupied the same sentence) and a tad less stagey to my ears (and mind’s eye), but then that was a time that loved the stagey and overwrought, kind of like our own time, actually. Besides, it was two years before Enrico was shaken out of his wits by the San Francisco earthquake to emerge dust covered and stark naked in a paisan’s pajamas in the wreckage of the hotel lobby. Visions of Palermo a century or two earlier, leveled by a quake in the dead of night, the survivors wandering the streets dazed and nude and white with dust, ghosts in the moonlight. I wish I could remember where I read that.
But to undigress, if you remember this tune from the singing whale in the Disney cartoon you just aged yourself. Was it named Willie? There was no need to even explain it back then. Even the kids knew it was a cetacean Caruso. Have the same whale singing Stairway To Heaven today and children would know it’s a cetacean Led Zeppelin. One of those iconic things. I actually have that whale singing Vesti la Giubba here somewhere. One of those DVDs you somehow find at a truck stop. I’ll probably watch it this afternoon because you can do things like that when you’re retired. You can do it unemployed too, except when you’re retired you don’t feel guilty about it. Incidentally, any resemblance to Ronnie James Dio is coincidence. Even Rainbow In The Dark.
Somewhere in the blog there’s a story of the time we went to a now vanished pizza place in Echo Park. It had been there since these recordings were less old to them than Dark Side of The Moon or Born To Run or Saturday Night Fever are to us now. You walked in off of Sunset Blvd and instantly you were back in Jersey. Everything red vinyl, scenes of Napoli and Sicilia on the walls, a photo of Uncle Luigi in a stiff collar, fresh off the boat. Every tune on the jukebox was Italian. Dino was singing Volare as we ordered and when the pizza arrived, steaming hot, Caruso began singing Vesti la Giubba. We ate in silence, listening. Then we played it again. Sometimes little things all come together and a perfect moment is seared into your memory forever.
The warship Mars, the flagship of the Swedish fleet, on the floor of the Baltic where it’s lain just like this since a long forgotten battle (the first battle of Öland) in a long forgotten war with Denmark (the Northern Seven Years War) in 1564. The ship (three decks high and 300 feet from bow to stern, enormous for the time) had a crew of eight hundred (half sailors and half soldiers) and one hundred and seventy cannon and was aflame and in desperate battle with three Danish warships who were boarding her and as the decks and rigging seethed with hand to hand combat and point blank musketry the flames reached the kegs of gunpowder in the magazine below and they exploded without warning, sending the crew and the hundreds of boarders into oblivion in a scene worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Imagine the sudden silence.
Rereading John Keay’s China: A History which is even more mind blowing—I suppose illuminating is the bigger word for it, but same thing—than when I read it a decade ago. It’s longish, half a thousand pages and some—but almost breezily written, full of vivid details from the astonishingly complete record that Chinese written history has left us, going back almost continuously for three thousand years. I’ve never read Tolkien but I suspect that the feeling of being immersed in an alternative world packed with drama and personalities and vivid detail in a continuous narrative is the same, without the vast gaps that plague so many parts of the world where people never got around to writing anything down (as Dark Age Europe, say, or India, where they invented the science of language among so many other extraordinary things but never really got round to history.) In any case it’s the Tang Empire now halfway through the book, when China was unparalleled by anybody anywhere, a sophistication at the time (about 650 A.D. by our watches) that is almost impossible for a westerner to understand. Such is the advantage of an arc of civilization unbroken by the conquest or immersion or annihilation that befalls most civilizations, a status that lasted in China for thousands of years. And in China they wrote everything down going way, way back and in a language and writing system that didn’t become indecipherable. You don’t forget how to do things when you’ve written everything down and even if you do forget after a lapse of a couple centuries—these things can happen in the best of civilizations—you can look it up again. Technologies were not forgotten the way so much was forgotten after the Roman or Persian or Khmer or Incan empires fell (among many myriad examples.) The downside of this continuation, though, is that eventually you get hung up in your own traditions, hidebound and crotchety and unwilling to try anything new. That’s still coming up in the book, though, centuries after the Mongols invaded and killed 20 million people and wrecked everything. I’m a hundred pages and half a millennium away from that mess. Happier times ahead for now. Then collapse, reemergence, virtual annihilation, reemergence, collapse again, another invasion….eventually we get to the latest Revolution (there is a long history of such revolutions in China, nothing there is never really new) and the latest emergence. The US will probably be long gone in a thousand years, but China in some stage of its interminable gyres will still be China.
Anyway, gotta run, this new Tang emperor is getting down.
As 19th century oratory, the Gettysburg Address was a failure. Lincoln himself said so as the weak and scattered applause subsided. But when printed on the front page of papers all across the North, it was a gem. Perfect. Poetic. Memorized and recited by everyone from politicians to preachers to schoolchildren to soldiers. It still is.
Lincoln read scores, perhaps even hundreds, of telegrams everyday. Indeed, his campaign in 1860 was the first American presidential campaign essentially run by wire, and the Civil War he found himself leading was the first war run by telegrams too. Lincoln composed wires all day long that were sent to military and administrative and political leaders across the span of the continent. A telegram’s prose, compared with handwritten letters, was spare and urgent, the rhythms terse and staccato, the words in the dozens, a couple hundred at most. Points were made succinctly, a series of quick images and at their best they squeezed ten thousand words into a hundred. Lincoln experimented with these new composition ideas as the presidential train rolled towards Gettysburg, you can see it in the drafts. He’s trying to say as much as possible in as little as possible. When he took the podium it was a couple months after the battle, the smell of death still emanating from the thousands of graves. Four score and seven years ago, he began, ending it 272 words later with shall not perish from the earth. It was short, to the point, and disappointing to most of those in attendance. Stem winding speeches were an afternoon’s entertainment in that era. But to those who were not in the audience and would read and not hear his words, Lincoln had changed American literature forever. Maybe no one realized it then. But in England the kids memorized Shakespeare, but here they memorized the Gettysburg Address.
(March 5th, 2017)
Stalin died on this day in 1953. It was a peaceful passing, in his own bed. His corpse was embalmed and treated and put on display next to Lenin’s, and the people passed by in their hundreds of thousands, never realizing till then just what a little guy–five foot four inches–Stalin had been. The powers of life in death in such compact form. Had a single man ever had such total control over so many people over such an expanse in the history of humanity? Nyet. Stalin was unsurpassed.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. For days vast mobs filed the streets in extraordinary public grief. So vast was this grief that the body of Prokofiev, who died the same day as Stalin, was stuck in his house for three days such was the press of flesh in the streets. The official state journal of music mentioned the composer’s death on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to the musical contributions of Comrade Stalin. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the musical contributions of Stalin. They seem to have disappeared quickly.
His instrument of terror, Beria, was arrested that June, when a bunch of leading party leaders and functionaries and generals grabbed him, quite unsuspecting, at a dacha outside Moscow. Beria’s associates and underlings, all cold eyed KGB men, were picked up across the country in a final bloody purge. Some were arrested, others dispatched on the spot. Beria himself was held in some discomfort for six months before they got up the nerve to try him. He was accused of being a traitor, a pervert, a terrorist and a counter revolutionary. He was found guilty on all counts except perversion (though he was as evil a sexual predator as there has ever been) and sentenced to death, and as he pleaded for his life in a rather pathetic fashion, a general (chosen by lots, I believe), after stuffing Beria’s mouth with a rag to shut him up, put a revolver to his forehead and blew his vile brains out. Thus ended Stalinism, two days before Christmas. Beria’s corpse was taken outside and burned, the ashes scattered in the nameless taiga, where they dissolved into nutrients, feeding birch trees that rattle in the Russian wind like skeletons every December 23.
An atom bomb cake? Is this the single weirdest tackiest photo of 1946? Hiroshima and Nagasaki had barely stopped sizzling. The victims were still dying. Sheesh.
Then again, from the perspective of the US military the bombs saved a couple hundred thousand US and several million Japanese lives that would otherwise have been lost in the invasion of Japan. Well, the second bomb saved them. Hiroshima was obliterated for no reason at all because it did not shake the Emperor’s intention to have his entire civilization to go up in a blaze of fire and suicide. That was the plan. The emperor’s subjects certainly had done so thus far. Japanese soldiers had fought to the death and Japanese civilians had committed mass suicide in every action against Americans in 1944-45, and unlike Germany, the resistance and fanaticism increased and not decreased as the US closed in on the homeland. Japanese flyers joined in, dying in mass kamikaze attacks. The last of the Japanese fleet was sunk in a suicide sortie, the world’s biggest battleship going down with nearly all hands, a 70,000 ton kamikaze. Now Japan itself was on the verge of a final act of national nihilism that Hitler, deep in his bunker, could only have dreamed about.
Then we obliterated Nagasaki and the Emperor woke up to reality. Instantly the war was over. Several hundred thousand American soldiers went home and there was a glut of unused coffins, whole warehouses full. In Japan, the cities smouldered and two radiated but the countryside was as untouched by war as America’s. Weird the fortunes of war.
So perhaps this mushroom cloud cake that strikes me as incredibly callous now was really just a tacky sigh of relief. As memories of the prospects of invading Japan faded (along with memories of Japan’s genocidal war crimes) people became increasingly aware of what happened to the poor people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We remember what actually happened instead of what might have happened. Decades living under the threat of world wide nuclear annihilation certainly altered perspectives. But it took us a while to get to this state of consciousness. Indeed, there was a time there in the late 1940’s when people looked on the atomic bomb as some sort of war ending peace assuring wonder weapon. There was even a weird stretch there where people seemed enamoured of mushroom clouds, in cakes, in Vegas, in song. “I’ve been to Nagasaki,” Wanda Jackson sang, “Hiroshima too/What I did to them/I can do to you!”
It’s like the whole damn planet had PTSD after the War. Maybe everyone was nuts. And I wonder if that mushroom cloud cake was chocolate. I’d eat a piece of chocolate atomic bomb cake. Or a piece of chocolate global warming cake or chocolate invariably fatal pandemic cake or any kind of post apocalyptic chocolate cake. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.
(Written in 2016 and never posted.)
Never heard of this before, a simulated violent Nazi takeover of Winnipeg, Canada on a wintry February day in 1942. If Day, they called it, and no one had to explain what the if meant. The Axis powers were winning the war in February of 1942–indeed, they had yet to peak, that would be later, in the summer–and the notion that the Blitzkrieg could reach far into Canada seemed unlikely, but not impossible. An even though everyone in town knew this was a simulated Nazi conquest, it must have creeped the hell out of them. The Canadian Air Force painted up planes in Nazi colors and markings and buzzed the city, even bombed, and an armored column of Wehrmacht soldiers defeated the local Canadian units and captured them. The city fell quickly, the SS came in shooting, and men in German uniforms patrolled the streets harassing and threatening people. Gestapo agents, fully armed and uniformed (the uniforms and Nazi accessories were borrowed from Hollywood film studios) arrested people, sometimes en masse (they carried off the mayor and city council), or singly off the sidewalk, and posters threatening death for all manner of infringements went up all over town. The radio stations were seized, the CBC broadcast martial Nazi music and Hitler’s speeches all day. The afternoon edition of the Winnipeg paper came out in German. The day culminated in a goose stepping Nazi victory parade. The idea was to spur the sale of victory bonds, and it worked better than the organizers could have imagined, Manitobans purchased $60 million (Canadian) in bonds by the end of the month—about one billion in 2016 American dollars.
Talk about performance art.