1. LISTENING: “I Told Jesus” by Roberta Flack (aka “If He Change My Name”)
Looking across different versions of a single song is one of the best things about recorded music.
In last month's My 3 Things, we listened to Marian Anderson’s fine rendition of this gospel tune. Now, we turn to Flack’s take on it. Entitled “I Told Jesus," it appears on her magnificent debut album First Take, released in 1969. (I am forever indebted to my friend John Ellis for telling me about this album and insisting I check it out.)
Her arrangement is slow and brooding, a string section quivering from the start. It patiently builds, almost coming to a stop once or twice in the beginning. Flack gazes inward, the lyrics performed sotto voce. Momentum gathers as the song moves on, and the hushed restraint gives way to defiance by the end (marked by her powerful vocal cadenza starting at 5:24).
Now that we've heard Anderson and Flack, spend some time with these two takes by Nina Simone: Live, Village Gate 1962 version and Live, Paris 1968 version. Simone is mercurial as ever. You won't be disappointed.
2. READING: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Reading the final few pages of this provocative, breathtaking, and immensely satisfying collection of essays was a sad experience. Turning the last page, I had to face the fact that I’d never be able to open one or more of our important newspapers or magazines and read Hitchens on, say, President Donald Trump, to pick a single spring-loaded topic.
Arguably was Hitchens’s fifth collection of essays. Published in September 2011, he died in December of that year. More than 780 pages long and containing 107 essays ranging from literary journalism to political commentary to cultural criticism, his writing here is vital, his thoughts and opinions as relevant today as when they were written.
When I availed myself of the critical reviews of Arguably (after I had finished reading it), I found I wasn't the only person saddened by this book. When the book came out, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote: "This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of [Hitchens's] essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him."
All that will be missed is a shatteringly tremendous amount.
Was there ever a US President — much less a US politician or, let’s be real, a single person on the face of planet Earth — more in need of one of Hitchens’s blistering tear-downs than this orange-tinted man-baby? #seriously
Where to begin? Let's start with language itself.
Hitch would be having a f-cking field day with Trump. Studies put Trump’s vocabulary at, variously, third- or fourth-, maybe (if the linguists are being generous and he -- for once -- decides to stick to a script) a sixth-grade level.
Nothing short of jaw-dropping. Reading Arguably, I looked up more than 60 words I didn't know or didn't know well enough. And Hitchens’s turn-of-phrase is masterful, delightful; I found myself highlighting passages just so I could return to and revel in his language not to mention his argument.
The essay "Words Matter" (from Slate, March 3, 2008) gives us a clue as to how outraged Hitchens would've been by Trump's abuse of language. Hitchens is heartbreakingly prescient:
“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.”
He nailed it, I’m devastated to say.
(It is beyond the scope of my endeavor to imagine how satisfying it would be to hear Hitchens parse the incongruous word pairings “alternative facts” and “fake news” with which we are forevermore saddled. And Trump’s banning of major respected news outlets from the White House daily briefing on Friday, February 24?? I imagine Hitchens would’ve been apoplectic.)
There's so much in this collection of essays that I could go on and on about, but I'll finish by saying that Hitchens’s respect for the reader is a tonic.
I felt revivified and renewed reading each of these essays, as well as challenged and occasionally maddened (his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” isn’t funny, in more ways than one).
Agree with him or don’t, either way this book is a riveting, important read.
3. UPDATING: Death, a reading list - Part 2 … revisited for the making of the Death Album
Way back in December of 2013, I wrote a blog post called “Death, a reading list” in which I shared a “list of the books about death and dying that I find worthwhile, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching.”
The post was a snapshot of where I was then, what I was thinking and learning about.
At the time, I didn’t know how long my Mom had to live or what work she and I would be doing to bring her to a “good” death, by which I mean a death she had chosen, was at peace with, a letting go that felt true and right to her being.
Turns out, there would be more of ... everything: chemo, cyber-knife radiation, hormone therapy, and hospice. And that was just the medical / physical part of it.
There would still be more of the entire range of her spiritual / psychological reckoning with cancer and death that we both felt was as important (if not more) than any of the miracles her doctors could perform.
I am talking about the deep conversations we were to have, the many Joseph Campbell videos we were to watch and re-watch, the half-a-dozen sessions with a wonderful and caring oncology psychologist, the dedicated trips to visit (in the words of Campbell) her “bliss stations” or favorite places, and the specifically-planned but wonderfully-unstructured time with dear friends and closest family. There would be many more walks in nature, much more time with her dogs, and hours of feeling good and not-so-good, and hours feeling she was ready and yet not ready to die. In short, there was so much more life to be lived between that blog post and her last day, October 13, 2015.
I've been living and wrestling with her death ever since. But then you know this: you've been following along.
The two great commitments of my life since she was diagnosed in October of 2011 have been: 1) caring for her from diagnosis to death (and beyond); 2) writing songs about that journey.
I’ve written well over 20 songs and this year I'll be making something of them — an album, more than a few concerts, collaborations with other artists, etc. I lovingly and tongue-in-cheekily refer to this project as “The Death Album.”
Recently, I’ve played some of the songs on Facebook Live; maybe you’ve watched. (If not, this is one you should watch because I lay it all on the line.)
Since that "Death, a reading list" blog post, I’ve done a lot of living, reading, and songwriting.
I thought, on the eve of making the Death Album, it would be appropriate to update the original post. For your consideration: Death, a reading list - Part 2.
What follows is only an excerpt ...
"This list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would necessarily recommend it. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have taken the form of a single sentence or two, one chapter, or a particular stance toward mortality more generally.
I've only carried one book over from the original list ... and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.
I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still."
Christopher Hitchens, Mortality
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart
Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing
Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013