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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Oct152009

In Which We Wonder If There Are Any Blogger Cats

Jellicles Can and Jellicles Do

by TYLER COATES

When I was in fourth grade my teacher had us watch some sort of educational video that I assume was about saying no to drugs, which is the kind of troubling situation in which most nine-year-olds in rural Virginia find themselves. I remember one important thing from the movie: I'm always supposed to say no, because if I don't I will most certainly jeopardize my chances of performing in the school talent show, which is the conflict the film's heroine was struggling with. In the end, of course, she made the right choice, and the video ended with her giving a rousing rendition of "Memory," the essential song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical Cats.

I remember watching that scene and thinking, "This song is beautiful! What is it?!" One of my classmates, who already had the genetic predisposition of becoming someone's fag hag, was the only one who knew what it was, and she was the person who introduced me to the glory of Cats.

A few weeks later I bought the double-cassette soundtrack and made my mother play it on the car stereo on the way home. I was floored. It was amazing! I listened to the tapes over and over again. I danced around my room pretending I was Mr. Mistofelees. I tangoed with stuffed animals to "The Rum Tum Tugger". I belted my own version of "Memory," surely blowing Betty Buckley's Tony-award winning performance out of the water. My obsession with Cats culminated in my mother buying orchestra-section tickets to the Richmond-stop on the national tour. It was every pre-pubescent gay boy's dream: to be fifteen feet below a group of adult men and women clad in spandex and yak fur prancing around and singing on stage for two and a half hours.

As an adult my fascination with Cats has morphed from being baffled by the actual performances to being amazed that the show actually exists. Seriously: why would anyone enjoy a musical in which adults dress in cat costumes and dance to bizarre choreographed routines that are supposed to represent how cats would dance if they could dance like people (but really look like what humans dressed as cats would dance like if they thought cats could dance like humans)? More so, how did this play become a smash hit and stay that way for eighteen years? I decided that I really had to see it as an adult, and when I announced that I was absolutely going to see a performance of the show in Chicago, my friend Bethany volunteered to go with me.

I bought tickets - the cheapest! - on the morning of the show, which of course meant that we had the worst possible seats in the Cadillac Palace: the very back row of the upper balcony, and to the right. I was concerned since Bethany had never seen the show, nor had she heard any of the songs except for "Memory," which is the only song that isn't absolutely batshit insane. I then realized that sitting very far from the stage might be a good thing, as someone seeing Cats for the first time at twenty four (and, you know, it being 2009 and not 1982, when the show opened on Broadway) would probably be terrified. Especially if she was drunk, which she was: I had suggested we slam multiple martinis before the show.

I was shocked how full the house was for a Tuesday night performance of Cats, and I wondered how many people were like Bethany and seeing it for the first time. (I did notice that most of the audience had drinks in hand when the house lights came down.) I also speculated how many of our peers would be as sober as we were by the end of the opening number, "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," which serves as an introduction to the kinds of cats. There are practical cats, dramatical cats! Romantical cats! Political cats! Oratorical cats! Cynical cats! There are even rabbinical cats! And they are all Jellicle cats, which is a term that the cats promise to explain, but never do. I mean, they're cats, and I suppose what one takes away from Cats is that they can do and say whatever the fuck they want. And you had better CHEER for them.

Toward the end of the first song, Bethany turned and gave me a confused and exasperated look, and I knew that my prediction that she would hate me within fifteen minutes of the overture had indeed come true.

While watching the incredibly sobering first act, I thought about the actors as they impersonated cats impersonating tap-dancing rats and cockroaches. Bless their hearts! These were most likely musical theater nerds who worked very hard for their dreams, which probably did not involve paying their dues as Munkustrap and Bombalurina in a national tour of Cats. The saddest part about Cats is that it's entirely an ensemble piece: no one stands out in any way. Even if you're lucky enough to get the part of, say, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella, or Rum Tum Tugger, you're still an anonymous actor covered in pancake make-up and fur, and no one pays you much mind other than the middle-aged women who publish their self-aware and self-deprecating Cats fan fiction on the Internet (because even hard-core Cats fan understand how sad depressing their interests are).

Bethany, who had fallen asleep at the beginning of the second song, regained consciousness during the long dance sequence that ends the first act. "What is going on?!" she whispered. I told her that she'd be asking me that question had she not fallen asleep twenty minutes into the show. There's very little plot to Cats: it's mostly a revue of narrative songs, each one describing a specific cat (this is what happens when you try to string together a book of obscure T.S. Eliot poems into a musical). The only over-arcing storyline is this: all of the cats in London get together once a year for the Jellicle Ball, which turns into a celebration featuring song and dance and, naturally, an opera starring the cats.

The opera, which is a post-modern wink probably lost on the middle-American audience who most likely don't appreciate the references to Puccini that would certainly incite the more academic Cats fans to cream their pants, is called "Growltiger's Last Stand," which is about a pirate cat who is captured and killed by Siamese cats. It is at this point in the show where the audience gets to experience the casual racism: how do you think the Siamese cats are portrayed on stage? It's The King and I-level racism, or, as my friend suggested, "Defcon Flower Drum Song" (but at least they changed Eliot's original line that called the Siamese "chinks"!). It's also overly-long and confusing, which I guess ads to the meta-madness of Cats in general: there's a bizarre and confusing musical starring cats within a musical about cats. It's a taco wrapped in a burrito wrapped in a pizza covered in fur, and it won't stop doing somersaults.

To make a long story about a long musical about cats short: the play ends with Grizabella the Glamour Cat belting "Memory", which receives the only applause of the night. Then Grizabella rides on a floating tire up to the Heavyside Layer, which is some sort of cat heaven, to be reborn. I suppose cats have eight chances to do this? I'm not sure, because it's never really explained, nor are we given a reason why Grizabella gets to do it, because all of the other cats hate her until she sings "Memory" and they feel sorry for her. Isn't that how it always goes? Old Deuteronomy sings a song about how "cats are very much like you" at the end of the show, which was a theme I happened to pick up on already when I watched two cat burglar cats rob a house and then a railroad cat drive a train. But that's the Andrew Lloyd Webber way: he gives you a theater piece with fairly obvious themes, and then he follows that with an explanation of those themes. It's a very high school senior approach to art.

What I learned from re-watching Cats, however, is that some things you liked as a pre-teen don't age very well, no matter how many t-shirts featuring the words, "Now and Forever!" were on sale at the merchandise table (next to DVDs priced at forty-five dollars a pop, which makes me confused about how the economy works). And to use an analogy that is probably oft-repeated and obvious (and therefore COMPLETELY APPLICABLE): Cats is like your childhood pet. Eventually, she's too old and frail to go on, and you've got to put her down. And sorry, honey: she's not going to Cat Heaven in a tire.

Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.

Songs about cats that are not from Cats:

"Phenominal Cat" - The Kinks (mp3)

"The Lovecats" - The Cure (mp3)

"Plea From A Cat Named Virtue" - The Weakerthans (mp3)

Wednesday
Oct142009

In Which We Try To Make The Most of Our Vagina

The Alexi Impulse

by YVONNE GEORGINA PUIG

Lately I've been reading a blog called imboycrazy.com. I'm not boy crazy, but it makes me feel that I should be, or could be. I'm also a person who thinks about death constantly, and this site has nothing to do with death, which is refreshing. The first time I read it I got real snobby and declared it crazy and anti-intellectual. But then I secretly kept reading it. The truth is, it's a little crazy, and there's nothing particularly intellectual about it, but so what? It's a minor revelation for a bogged-down, occasionally happy/perpetually troubled writer like myself. Finally, a blog NOT written by a writer, but a woman (named Alexi) free to employ exclamation points at will, whose meanings aren't couched in overwrought, deliberate wit. This is called FUN. A novel concept.

Alexi writes about sex the way I'd like to write about sex if I was capable of writing about sex. She does it well because she isn't an analytic writer type concerned with language and implication. She overshares, she's often vulgar, she contradicts herself, but this is the point. The point is to feel comfortable discussing the ingrown hairs on your bikini line, regardless of whether anyone is interested in hearing about them, of feeling free to say or — gasp — write — here I go — the word cunt. The truth is, sometimes I forget I even have a vagina. And when I do remember, it's usually in the context of wishing I had a penis instead.

The lengths my mind travels to alleviate this eternal absence of a penis! Sailing around the world, saving sea turtles in Central America, making 100 million dollars, writing dozens of books, starting a sanctuary for abandoned farm animals, learning to jump horses, winning an Academy Award (for what I haven't decided), mastering a Chopin waltz, collecting bugs in the Amazon, and the list goes on. It's all great, but none of it will ever make me a man. Alexi reminds me, without girl-power excess, that this impulse is normal. Men may well have it all, but there's nothing to be done about it. Better to make the most of your vagina than to wish for a penis.

Imboycrazy hails from an LA teeming with cunning 19 years olds fresh out of six-figure private schools on the west side and armed with cigarettes, slack-jawed stares, and little self-respect. Alexi is informed, and she knows how shallow and terrible girls can be to one another. They aren't glorified here.

Below, in random order, a few bits of Imboycrazy wisdom:

A guy who loves you doesn’t cum on your face- especially if he hasn’t met your parents!

Don’t put lip gloss on in public. It makes you look desperate and insecure. I say this because I am constantly putting lip gloss on in public and men have told me that I appear super desperate and insecure.

Get a bathroom trash can that hides your yucky trash, not one that just sits there revealing weird stuff that, even if it’s not weird, could be misinterpreted. for example: if you blot your lipstick on a tissue, and throw it in the garbage, a guy could glance over and think the tissue is a bloody rag! think ladies, think! this is war! i mean, love! i mean, i don’t know what it is, but it’s time to start thinking!

If something /ANYTHING resembling cottage cheese is pouring out of your vadge hole OR dick hole- it’s time to start considering wearing looser pants, having PROTECTED sex, and/or going to the fucking doctor! you oozing monster privates! Jesus!

Dudes! Wash your fucking towels! If they smell like mildew, chances are your dick is gonna smell like mildew too. I can’t tell you how many bummer blow jobs I’ve given to dudes who’s dick smelled like mildew. Oh, yeah- I actually can remember! ONE! I BROKE UP WITH HIM THE NEXT MORNING and i never saw him again; AND I’ve never let it happen again. but it haunts me like a bad dream. dudes, don’t ruin your sex life! fyi: girls talk! don’t let your reputation be annihilated just because you don’t like doing laundry. Just don’t.

If you’re a girl and you run into another girl and she tells you how much she loves her new boyfriend, don’t nod your head and smile and tell her “yeah, oh that’s so great. i’m so happy for you!” and then go home and facebook the shit out of that girls new boyfriend and flirt with him or ask him why he’s ignoring your im’s! that is shady, unhealthy behavior. and makes you kind of cunty. yeah, cunty!

If you pick at an ingrown hair on your bikini line, people will TOTALLY think you have herpes. i’m just saying.

When dealing with perfume, spray once and glide through it like the angel that you are. too much perfume could ruin your chances/induce a hard off with the boy of your dreams AND/OR even the dirtiest of the long haired, broke, sexy dudes who hang out in dark corners of pianos/little joy/the short stop (insert hair shaker bar here) with five o’clock shadow, a drug & cigarette addiction- who you don’t even want a relationship with;just a casual sex sesh, where hopefully no one gets gonorrhea! so, one spritz please. less is more.

You are a woman. you have the power to cast spells over boys with your words, your silence, gestures, eyes, and actions. this power can be super fun/entertaining, and will most likely result in an epic make out and/or someone falling in love with you. i can’t stress enough how much power you have. use it wisely.

When he calls, let it ring at least twice. nobody likes a desperate whore.

Yvonne Georgina Puig is the contributing editor to This Recording. She tumbls here.

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Falling Over" — The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (mp3)

"103" — The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (mp3)

"Twins" — The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (mp3)

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart myspace

Tuesday
Oct132009

In Which Our New Poetry Column Soothes and Delights

Poems Newly Appeared: Relevant Ravines

How do you excerpt from a 1,000 page manuscript that contains no complete sentences? The answer, if you are Kenneth Goldsmith, editor of the series Publishing the Unpublishable, is you don’t. The work in question is Human / Nature by Stephen Ratcliffe, and Goldsmith has generously made it available online, in its entirety and free of charge, as a PDF (1.2 MB) and as an MP3 (12 hours).

But you do—you do excerpt—if you are the editors of Bomb, a quarterly magazine. In the world of paper, ink, advertisers, and readerships, there is a dreary sort of economy at play that evidently allows only four poems of Human / Nature to appear at one time. Those selected for the current issue of First Proof, Bomb’s literary supplement, are “6.23”, “6.24”, “6.26”, and “6.27”. The images in these poems line up against sparse punctuation, presenting themselves with a sureness and clarity that is almost analytical, but without judgment, as in “6.24”:

 

                                                                 man in maroon

     sweatshirt walking across room in dark, man on couch

     noting “she was snoring so loud I couldn’t take it”

                                                                             woman

     on phone recalling hospice on Long Island Sound, the average

     length of stay a day and a half

 

The simple, unresolved flow of these dependent clauses carries the reader along and compels him to turn the page, or at least press “page down”.

But, just as the mortal overtones begin to mount, the sequence is interrupted and we are sent directly to “6.26”. What happens in “6.25”? And why did the editors feel the need expunge it? For this, you will need to browser over to the unabridged PDF, scroll down a little (p. 252), and search in “6.25” for the offending lines, which it seems were likely either “Arafat claiming, ‘Sharon cannot forget his defeat in front / of me in 1982,’” or  “orange disk of sun behind blue- / grey haze”.

* * *

The mysterious disappearance of Craig Arnold, last seen walking along the edge of a Japanese volcano, continues to be deeply felt in the poetry community. Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, includes a reminiscence in the October issue describing how energetic a reader Arnold was, while adding the thoughtful observation that he was “the only poet I have known personally—the only good poet, I should say—who seemed completely at ease with being a poet.”

One is also left to assume that “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” included in this issue, is also the last poem by Arnold that will appear in Poetry. Beginning as a piece of descriptive whimsy (“To come to the kitchen / and peel a little basketball”), and presented with the careful joy of domestic routine that is perhaps the calling card of mainstream American poetry, the piece ends with a simple, destabilizing couplet, “a little emptiness” that is

 

     every year harder to live within

     every year harder to live without

 

When a talented poet dies early, it is difficult not to read his work without squinting your eyes and seeing something entirely unintended.

* * *

For a healthy load of verse in a more experimental style, look to the journal The Agriculture Reader, but look only once a year. The third installment of this “arts annual” has just appeared, being harvest time, and that is all for this turn of the seasons.

And it must have been some effort to bring together: cleverly illustrated, expertly laid out, and with a table of contents that includes many compelling writers, difficult to categorize but somehow easily suited to each other: Christian Hawkey, Noelle Kocot, Eileen Myles, Tony Towle, Matthew Zapruder, among others.

Difficult to categorize—but one wonders if Jerome Sala, in his poem “The Stoners” is facing down that difficulty. It is tempting to interpret this poem in all kinds of ways—a poem that features “Stone Age hipsters” who

 

                                                     likewise said “no”

     to the tool-loving utilitarians who pounded their age into shape—

     creating rocky igloo prisons they called “the hearth” in grunt language—

     preferring instead to huddle in ravines of irrelevance.

 

To purchase The Agriculture Reader, No. 3, go here. To submit to The Agriculture Reader, No. 4, email here, but note this challenge from the editors: “We don’t generally take unsolicited submissions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t.”

—T.K.         

Beginning today, T.K. will offer a weekly commentary on some poems currently available in journals. Contact at poemsnewlyappeared@gmail.com.

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