I decided to enter the NPR Tiny Desk contest by submitting a video of an original song. My entry is a song I wrote in 2008 based on a game of Scrabble. In fact, this was the first time that my daughter Jennie beat me, and she beat me on her last turn by placing the word “SQUINTS” on a triple-word square, with the letter “Q” on a double-letter square. As all Scrabble players know, “squints,” being a seven-letter word, gets you 50 extra points; doubling the value of “Q” gets you 20 points; and placing the whole thing on a triple-word square, well, that gets you so many points that—although I was comfortably ahead at that point and assured of victory—I actually lost the game in dramatic fashion on the last play. So, here’s the new video, live and acoustic (the original video and recording from 2008 can be found here).
I’m up to 1977 in my chronological quest to record songs that were influential in my musical development. The rule I’ve set for myself is that I can only record one song by any given artist or group, and only one song for each year. This particular choice has a rather nasty lyric, but—what can I say—I’m a sucker for these rock ballads.
Links to all my music can be found here.
This is a song that I started writing in high school (1970 or earlier) but only finished this month—50 years later. I had only written the chorus, so the verses and bridge are new.
More details, including lyrics, are here.
Well, I’m up to 1976 in my series of musical covers: that means The Royal Scam album by Steely Dan, from which I’ve selected “Don’t Take Me Alive.” I needed to lower the key 5 semitones, since I don’t have Donald Fagen’s rock ‘n’ roll voice, and I attempted to “interpret” the amazing guitar work of Larry Carlton on keyboards—really an impossible task. I recorded the song live—i.e., keyboards and vocals simultaneously—after recording a drum track using Logic Pro X. After that, I added a bass line (played on my MIDI keyboard) and some background vocals. That’s it. The video was created using Final Cut Pro; the introductory police scene is taken from a YouTube video of the Kalamazoo police surrounding a condemned building. I found the police sirens from another generic YouTube video created for that purpose. Links to all my music videos are here.
I’ve written a new song with rhymed verses based on Theodor Adorno’s “Golden Gate,” a short chapter (or extended aphorism) from his book, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life.
Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, was a German philosopher, sociologist, psychologist and composer known for his critical theory of society (per Wikipedia). He was also known for disliking popular (as opposed to “serious”) music: Writing in 1941, for example, he argues that “in Beethoven and in good serious music in general—we are not concerned here with bad serious music which may be as rigid and mechanical as popular music—the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while, at the same time, it is produced out of the conception of the whole. In popular music the relationship is fortuitous. The detail has no bearing on a wholes [sic], which appears as an extraneous framework. Thus, the whole is never altered by the individual event and therefore remains, as it were, aloof, imperturbable, and unnoticed throughout the piece. At the same time, the detail is mutilated by a device which it can never influence and alter, so that the detail remains inconsequential. A musical detail which is not permitted to develop becomes a caricature of its own potentialities.”
So, apologies to the ghost of Adorno for creating rhymed verses out of his writings and setting them into a standardized popular framework in which “nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.” The “Golden Gate” section that I have excerpted from Minima Moralia stood out for me when I read the book, and I thought immediately that it would make a good “love song,” sort of like a philosophical prequel to Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” which was recorded about 10 years later and covers much of the same ground, albeit without any of Adorno’s introspection and analysis. Compare Sedaka’s “Don’t take your love away from me / Don’t you leave my heart in misery / If you go then I’ll be blue / ‘Cause breaking up is hard to do” with Adorno’s “Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one’s own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love, that must remain oblivious, lives a demand not to be blinded,” which I have re-translated as “He’s been offended and slighted, his body feels lit up with agonizing pain / They say that love is oblivious, yet no one wants this blindness to remain.”
The scholar Rei Terada has quite a bit to say about Adorno’s complex portrayal of love in “Golden Gate” (see Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno), e.g., that Adorno “contemplates the rights of the particular and universal as they inform the rights and judgments of love … The Kantian antagonism of Civilization and Its Discontents, that freedom is constrained by others’ freedom, plays for erotic stakes in this aphorism, written in the language of rights and titles. The slighted lover has suffered an ‘injustice [unrecht]’ in love, but realizes that even from his own particular perspective, he wants the other to be free, since otherwise there would be no possible happiness. It’s an instance in which the individual really does grasp the universal and the particular together—for reasons that are as interested as disinterested—and ‘reject[s]’ his own claim.”
Adorno’s original German text
104. Golden Gate. — Dem Gekränkten, Zurückgesetzten geht etwas auf, so grell wie heftige Schmerzen den eigenen Leib beleuchten. Er erkennt, daß im Innersten der verblendeten Liebe, die nichts davon weiß und nichts wissen darf, die Forderung des Unverblendeten lebt. Ihm geschah unrecht; daraus leitet er den Anspruch des Rechts ab und muß ihn zugleich verwerfen, denn was er wünscht, kann nur aus Freiheit kommen. In solcher Not wird der Verstoßene zum Menschen. Wie Liebe unabdingbar das Allgemeine ans Besondere verrät, in dem allein jenem Ehre widerfährt, so wendet tödlich nun das Allgemeine als Autonomie des Nächsten sich gegen sie. Gerade die Versagung, in der das Allgemeine sich durchsetzte, erscheint dem Individuum als Ausgeschlossensein vom Allgemeinen; der Liebe verlor, weiß von allen sich verlassen, darum verschmäht er den Trost. In der Sinnlosigkeit des Entzuges bekommt er das Unwahre aller bloß individuellen Erfüllung zu spüren. Damit aber erwacht er zum paradoxen Bewußtsein des Allgemeinen: des unveräußerlichen und unklagbaren Menschenrechtes, von der Geliebten geliebt zu werden. Mit seiner auf keinen Titel und Anspruch gegründeten Bitte um Gewährung appelliert er an eine unbekannte Instanz, die aus Gnade ihm zuspricht, was ihm gehört und doch nicht gehört. Das Geheimnis der Gerechtigkeit in der Liebe ist die Aufhebung des Rechts, auf die Liebe mit sprachloser Gebärde deutet. »So muß übervorteilt / Albern doch überall sein die Liehe.«
E.F.N. Jephcott’s English translation
104. Golden Gate. — Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one’s own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love, that must remain oblivious, lives a demand not to be blinded. He was wronged; from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. In such distress he who is rebuffed becomes human. Just as love uncompromisingly betrays the general to the particular in which alone justice is done to the former, so now the general, as the autonomy of others, turns fatally against it. The very rebuttal through which the general has exerted its influence appears to the individual as exclusion from the general; he who has lost love knows himself deserted by all, and this is why he scorns consolation. In the senselessness of his deprivation he is made to feel the untruth of all merely individual fulfilment. But he thereby awakens to the paradoxical consciousness of generality: of the inalienable and unindictable human right to be loved by the beloved. With his plea, founded on no titles or claims, he appeals to an unknown court, which accords to him as grace what is his own and yet not his own. The secret of justice in love is the annulment of all rights, to which love mutely points. ‘So forever cheated and foolish must love be.’ [last quote is from Hölderlin’s ode Tränen (Tears)]
My re-translation into rhymed verse
Words and music © Jonathan Ochshorn 2019
So forever cheated and foolish must love be*
1. He’s been offended and slighted, his body feels lit up with agonizing pain
They say that love is oblivious, yet no one wants this blindness to remain
He was wronged and deduces a claim to right, but all the same he must reject it
For only in freedom can what he most desires be effected
He who is rebuffed becomes human—when faced with such distress and isolation
2. As love betrays the general to the particular, in which—to the general alone—justice is done
So now the general—as the autonomy of others—turns against the loving one
The persuasive rebuttal made by the general infiltrates the mind
And appears to the individual as exclusion—from all of humankind
He who has lost love feels deserted—and this is why he scorns all consolation
3. Deprived without reason, the lie of individual fulfillment disturbs his restless night
Yet he awakes to the paradoxical consciousness of generality: love as human right
With his plea, founded on no titles or claims, he appeals to a court unknown
Which accords to him as grace what belongs to him and yet is not his own
Justice in love is the annulment of all rights—this is love’s mute revelation
So forever cheated and foolish must love be*
* This line (here, as translated by Jephcott) is taken by Adorno from Hölderlin’s ode Tränen (Tears)
Music arranged and produced by J. Ochshorn
Recorded with Logic Pro X software
Vocals: J. Ochshorn
Real instruments: J. Ochshorn (acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica)
Software instruments played live on midi keyboard: J. Ochshorn (drums and bass)
Recorded at home in Ithaca, NY, July 2019.
The tracks are done separately and sequentially, with the acoustic guitar played over the drum track. I made the video using Final Cut Pro, lip-syncing in front of a black drop cloth.
I’m up to 1975 in my chronological covers of popular music: That must mean it’s time for Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I chose the heart-felt, guitar-oriented ballad called “If You See Her, Say Hello” but decided to perform it on piano instead. the harmonica I play at the beginning and end does not appear in Dylan’s recording, nor does the alarm on my watch which went off somewhere in the middle of the song. But, hey, it’s a live recording, and the alarm was more or less in tune.
More of my covers and original songs can be found here.
I recorded my latest cover in chronological order, Joni Mitchell’s “The Same Situation” from 1974.
All of my covers as well as original compositions can be found here.
I began writing this song in February, 2018, and finished it (and recorded it) in November, 2018. The tracks are done separately and sequentially, although the guitar and piano tracks were videotaped live. Aside from the guitar and piano, and of course my vocals and background vocals, I added drums, bass, and strings using Logic Pro X “software instruments” played live on my midi keyboard, and also a live harmonica track for the instrumental solos.
The song lyrics refer to my father and his early death at the age of 53; and also my journey with my brother and our wives to find his grave many years later, near the border of Queens and Brooklyn. I made a video six years ago (October 2012) about that trip, which can be found here. In a way, this song is a belated soundtrack for the earlier video.
Speaking of videos, I made this one using Final Cut Pro, incorporating numerous clips from the 2012 video (which was shot with a Flip low-res camcorder) and a few family photos. The new clips of me singing, and playing harmonica, guitar, and keyboards, are all shot at home with my refurbished iPod Touch mounted on a tripod.
More of my music can be found here.
When My Father Was My Age
Words and music © Jonathan Ochshorn 2018
When my father was my age
He’d been dead for thirteen years
So he never held my daughter and never saw my son
It was cigarettes and rage
That were gumming up the gears
With a final stroke the motor broke there was nothing to be done
I still hear my brother saying
That the body can be found
Just south of Myrtle Avenue near the Glendale CVS
Well it must have been decaying
Thirty years beneath the ground
Where grass conceals but stone reveals his posthumous address
Try your best to find him
If there’s something that might bind him to you
Just lock it up and walk away
Sing a song about him
But live your life without him
Better save it for a rainy day
There’s a man gesticulating
On a trail that finally ended
At a marker for grave twelve out in lot eleven
And we all were speculating
That his soul was still suspended
Twisting turning if not burning between hell and heaven
At the time it was no bother
When we waited three more days
For another spot to be prepared for his second wife
“Beloved husband and father”
Is that all they found to praise?
No pain no laugh no epitaph can summarize his life. [Chorus]
I just recorded a cover of “Ticonderoga Moon,” written by John and Johanna Hall, and recorded by Orleans in 1973. The song title appears in the lyrics of a song that I wrote recently called If I Could Sing Like That: “Sometimes we’d walk down to the inlet just to hear our favorite tune / I can still remember Orleans playing ‘Ticonderoga Moon’ / You’d get me dancing on that dusty floor a bit out of control / We’d leave A Salty Dog but not before / The sound was etched into our soul.”
I recorded and videotaped this cover of Ticonderoga Moon totally live (guitar and lead vocal); then the piano was recorded and videotaped live; and finally I played software drums and bass live on my midi keyboard, without any click track. I then added the harmonica, but did not actually videotape that performance live, so what you see on the video is just a simulation. And same for the backup/background/backing vocals: the twin Jonathans in the video are just lip-syncing the two tracks of vocals that I added to the chorus.
I recorded this cover of Eminem’s 2002 classic “Lose yourself” in October 2018. Up until now, I have been recording covers chronologically, starting with 1963’s “Surfer Girl.” But I’m not confident that I’ll ever get to the twenty-first century at the rate I’ve been recording songs, so it feels necessary to step out of order, especially with a song like “Lose Yourself” which has, well, lots of words to learn. I like the idea of playing the song live with just vocal and acoustic guitar (and yes, a bit of piano, bass, and backing/back-up/background vocals were added later).
See my music homepage.