by RIP RENSE
MUSIC AND CATS
(Nov. 18, 2009)
"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life:
music and cats."
- Albert Schweitzer.
Criminal Cat just does not show any signs of
rehabilitation. He continues with his whisker, whisker
ways---from “spraying” to throwing up to “scooting” (essentially
using the carpet as toilet paper) to beating up his poor sister,
To paraphrase Frank
Zappa, “Who are the cat police?”
Most recently he has
taken to driving Maggie out of
her favorite sleeping spot, the
sink in the front bathroom, by urinating on the towel that
she kneads into a nightly bed. The stench is sort of a cross
between mustard and vinegar, with an infusion of that
indescribable funk for which cats are duly renowned.
I’ve tried everything.
Yelling, exile to the front balcony, spritzing water, even calm
and reason. I’ve had long conversations with him, explaining
that all of this behavior does not increase chances for peace in
the Middle East, and he seems to listen attentively, but. .
.nothing changes. And at night, he often parks his 14 pounds of
orange and white on my chest, or more delicate zones, and curls
up, purring as if there is nothing wrong at all.
Because, in the world of
Winky the Criminal Cat, there is
nothing wrong at all.
In the world of L.A.
music, there is plenty wrong. At least insofar as Gustavo
Dudamel is concerned. No slight to the masterful, ebullient
young conductor here---it’s the hype around him that is growing
exponentially more unseemly.
Here, for instance, we
have a recent
NYT article about Dudamel, nauseatingly headlined “Hollywood
Swoons Over That Hair, That Baton.” That baton?
Er. . .what about
swooning over that. . .music? That. . .Mahler, that Beethoven,
that Ligeti, that Stravinksy, that Schumann? What about swooning
over that. . .interpretive nuance. Nah. It’s his “baton” (wink
wink) that make the ladies faint.
High in the article is
this weighty pronouncement from one Martin Kaplan, a professor
at USC and director of the Norman Lear Center: “He’s a genuine
star. He’s young. He has amazing hair. He has a great back
story. He has a fantastic name. He’s the dude!”
Kaplan’s quote is the
verbal equivalent of cat spray. It embodies everything that
stinks not only about the Dudamel appointment, but about
Hollywood, and American “thinking.” Substance? That’s for stodgy
old blue-hairs. Dignity---what’s that? No, everything must be
reduced to glitz, flash, frill, folderol. This is the only way
America relates to anything anymore: when it is rendered free of
that which requires thought, and is reduced to artifice and
idolatry. Easier to
Dudamel, says Kaplan, is
not a conductor, not a serious musician, not even the old
cliché, “prodigy”---no, he’s a “star.” (At least Gustavo has
something to which to aspire: superstardom.) What are the
conductor’s attributes, in Kaplanland? That he is nearly
exploding with enthusiasm for his work? That he lives and
breathes notes and staves? That he passes these qualities
osmotically to orchestra and audience? No. Music has nothing to
do with it, says Kaplan.
That’s catnip in the
He has “amazing
The only thing more
compelling to Americans than “amazing hair” is the shape of
someone’s ass. (Good thing Dudamel wears tails.)
He has “a great back
How I loathe the use of
that Hollywood sharpy term to trivialize human life. Dudamel
doesn’t have a “back story,” Professor Kaplan. He is not
a script. He is a human being who comes from a difficult
childhood, and who worked astonishingly hard to accomplish what
he has accomplished. Yet in Kaplanland, Dudamel’s strife and
struggle is smarmily turned into Hollywood-ese for easy
consumption in the marketplace. That’s what it’s all about, see?
Moneymoneymoney. Finally. . .
He has a “fantastic
Actually, he has an
awkward and difficult name, but it has
hot latino cache, and, of course, the added bonus of
enabling the banal nickname that Kaplan trumpets so crassly:
“He’s the Dude!”
No. He’s the conductor of
the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, an imposing position
that used to carry some respectability.
Maggie the patchwork
tabby has required considerable extra attention. Shy apparently
by nature, she has become skittish and fearful, with a
hair-trigger defensive response to any loud neighborhood noise.
All thanks, I guess, to Winky, who forever stalks her.
Maggie might curl up
contentedly on the couch, or the cat tree, or the windowsill,
but the contentment is doomed. In five minutes, or five hours,
Winky destroys it. Taking umbrage that his housemate would dare
relax in his presence, he sneaks up and pounces, and the ensuing
noise is cat-aclysmic. There has been blood.
Of course, she asks for
it, too. Anytime Winky walks up to her benignly, which does
happen, she slaps his face like
Ali used to slap George Chuvalo. And the ensuing noise is
I grew quite worried
when she took to cowering under the bed for much of the
day, slinking away from all human and feline contact. (Can't
blame her regarding the human kind.) It took
time and patience to lure her out and into the room where I work, and
she gradually came to associate this with safety. She knows Winky can’t get away with much here, lest a slipper fly through
And I gradually got her
more and more used to touch. You see, both Winky and Maggie were
weaned too soon, and have personalities marked by dysfunction,
cognitive dissonance, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, or something. Maggie remains all but feral, though I have
at last persuaded her as to the power of
It took some doing, but
now she comes in every morning and announces that she wants a
good working over---by jumping into my lap. She waits until I am
eating, or typing, or sipping very hot tea, before jumping. Cats
are very good at this.
I have to start easily,
with patting of her sides, until she is comfortable (did you
know that cats have sensitive bodies?) Then I pour her out of my
lap and on to the floor, where I give her a going-over that is
like something you’d see in a
cartoon. I start by tickling the hell out of her ears, and
she shakes her head with a wonderful flapping sound. Then I rub
her shoulders vigorously, which she loves (and arches up for
more), and then I do the same to her back and hips, and finally
I do a kind of flipping thing with her tail that elicits small
When she’s had enough,
she rolls over to get her belly scratched, then pulls herself
across the rug with her front claws. Which looks like a lot of
Then all is well. Until
the next attack by Winky.
I saw Richard Thompson
and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Loud and Rich” concert the other
night at Royce Hall. I am not a particular fan of either, though
I know and admire their accomplished musicianship and
Thompson, of course, is
duly lauded as a superior guitarist. Aside from playing basslines and picking melodies simultaneously (thumb and index
working entirely independently of the other three fingers) which
is impressive enough, he solos and embellishes very much “in the
moment,” serving the song, not playing for flash. His
playing is as artful as artful gets.
So I have always found
it sort of frustrating that so many of his songs are these
archly emotional you/me relationship struggle sagas. Highly
melodramatic affairs with annoyingly clichéd imagery involving “cold
kisses” and people “crawling
back,” etc. You start wondering: has this longtime married
man been having an endless string of affairs? With all the
sophistication of jealous high school kids? I mean, where does
this material come from?
But then the 60-year-old
(!) will break out something grand, such as his ‘70’s number, “Wall
of Death,” or a new song inspired by George W. Bush with a
great and powerful reminder that even the rich and arrogant are prey to the Reaper. The earthshaking chorus: “Time's
gonna break you!” was great.
Wainwright is someone
I’ve never warmed up to because he’s so. . .good. His
songwriting is so. . .clever, smart, heartfelt, crafted,
deftly written that it leaves me sort of uninvolved. That
probably says more about me than this superb songsmith, and on this night I much enjoyed his work. The songs
biographical, involving his mother and late father,
interlaced with poignancy, resignation, acceptance, irony.
The man is certainly
one of America’s most adroit, enduring troubadors, but I don’t know, he’s
just a little too facile, a little too perfect, for my odd taste.
Strikes me as the guy who won “Songwriter most likely to
succeed” in high school.
Still and all, there are
not likely to be tours more full of depth and texture and
craftsmanship this year than “Loud and Rich.” And they did an
amusing version of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” to boot.
There were four in the
litter, all black with varying amounts of white on the chest.
They marched around, the way
march, in the jasmine and salvia and shrubs and brambles that so
neatly landscape a campus of corporate offices in Torrance.
There is a little cat colony there, which some employees watch
over vigorously---trapping, spaying, neutering, fostering,
releasing. . .
But not quite spaying and
And so Annie watched over
the little kittens for months, along with a couple of
colleagues, stopping to feed them before driving home at night,
watching their little black faces peering out from leaves and
shadows. Inquisitively, and fearfully. She watched them grow,
all except one she dubbed “the shrimp,” who was more skittish
than her brothers and sister, and who was recognizable by a
comical, innocent, slightly cross-eyed look.
We have no more room
for cats here, so taking another kitty in was out of the
question. Annie sort of adopted them in spirit, worrying about
their life in the wild---among raccoons, possums, and corporate
humans. Me, I thought they had a great life.
Plenty of mice to eat, the run of the “campus” on the weekends,
when they came to loll about on grass, and park themselves on
parking kiosks, licking their paws. Freedom to prowl, growl, and
reproduce. Just like I used to have.
Then two of them were
caught by other employees---the shrimp, and her brother. They
were spayed, neutered, inoculated, and their temporary guardians
took them back “home” for re-release. We showed up to
witness the happy event.
And naturally, went home
with the shrimp.
Her name is Trixie.
Eschenbach conduct the L.A. Phil a few weeks back in a program
of Dvorak: the old stand-by “Carnival” overture, and the older
World” symphony. I had no desire to ever hear either piece
performed again, though they are perfectly splendid works. I’ve
just sort of finished with them. But my old friend, Betty The Flute
Player, was in town, and it seems she had just played
the “New World” with the
Symphony Orchestra, and was curious to hear it done by the
L.A. Phil. So. . .
A funny thing happened on
my way to boredom. A thing named Eschenbach.
I have never---never---heard such a great “Carnival” overture.
Not live, and not on record. The thing was nothing short of
thrilling, which is a real testament to the power of a conductor
and the ensemble mind of an orchestra. Eschenbach made the music
fresh, exhilarating, and I must say that I hope the timpani
player had as good a time playing as I had watching him. When
it finished, I noticed that my socks had come entirely off my
feet and were lying in the aisle. Along with lots of other socks
from other audience members. This was a razzler-dazzler.
The “New World” wasn’t
old-hat, either. Though all the big themes long ago wore deep
grooves in my synapses, Eschenbach imbued everything with
urgency and drama that I had forgotten are very much a part of
this highly lyrical American tone poem. And the second movement, with its
Home” theme (based on a slave song), was exquisitely rendered by English horn and
all concerned. I still don’t want to hear the work again, but I’m not
sorry I heard this performance.
Between this and last
year’s Bruckner 7th led by Eschenbach---who illuminated the
cathedral-like architecture and built an ever-so-gradually
climax that inspired gasps---one wishes that L.A. Phil
management had considered seasoning and depth along with youth,
curls, “back stories,” and “fantastic names,” in searching for a
new conductor. Dudamel is a playful pup, compared to this dude.
Of course, Eschenbach doesn't have "amazing
Winky and Maggie. They’ve
never seen a real cat before. They never learned how to become
cats, you see, as they were weaned too soon and then stuck in a
cage where huge human faces stared and cooed at them for weeks.
They know only the condo life with The Two Big Ones That Feed
Trixie, though, is a
cat’s cat. She’s got a lot of
Mehitabel in her, having lived for five full months in the
great wide open with her brothers and sister, and an extended
family that includes various uncles, aunts, and a great, fat-jowled
cater familias known as Bobo.
There she romped, hid,
scurried, caught butterflies, ate bugs, played endless games of
pounce, wrestled with her siblings, stretched in the sun, and
generally was indoctrinated in matters of fur and claw.
Translation: she loves to play. Play play play, eat eat eat,
play play play, sleep sleep sleep, play play play.
Winky and Maggie stare at
her as if she is an alien being.
What? You’ve never heard
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