Norm Macdonald made me laugh a lot over the years, though I didn’t always feel good about myself afterward. Some of his bits were senselessly cruel, and he wasn’t above making you giggle by repeatedly miming himself giving a shoe salesman a blowjob.
But since he died I’ve watched the notorious “Moth Joke” many times, and I never get tired of it. The punchline isn’t what gets me, though the punchline is perfect; it’s watching him get there that’s the point. Like “The Aristocrats,” the joke is really just a framework that allows for endless improvisation. Legend has it that Conan suddenly needed to fill the last segment on his show, and so Norm tailored his delivery to fit on the spot.
My favorite part is his smirk as he toys with the audience. He knows that the premise was set up in the first seven words and that the punchline is going to kill no matter what he does; his only goal is to stretch things out long enough that you forget where he started. And so even the stumbles, awkward pauses, and intentional butchering of Russian names serve a larger purpose.
This, my friends, is how you tell a joke.
We’ve lost a lot of legends this year: Charlie Watts, Ed Asner, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, The Gift of Gab, Biz Markie, and Shock G, just off the top of my head. And Michael K. Williams, fucking Omar, and now Norm, it never ends….
But no departure has mattered to me as much as that of Lee “Scratch” Perry, whom I truly believed to be immortal. In 2011 he told GQ:
I create immortality — never grow old, never get cold, never tired, never weary. I am my music. My music refuse to die, my music refuse to be an adult, my music will be a baby for all the time.
How could you not believe him? All the evidence seemed to back him up.
One of Scratch’s defining characteristics was an insane productivity, especially during the Black Ark period (1975–1979), when he had the tapes rolling day and night. Robert Palmer (yes that Robert Palmer, Power Station Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer, but also “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” Robert Palmer, lest we forget), who recorded at the Black Ark, described the atmosphere this way:read more…
I don’t think I ever heard this song — vintage 1972 — until a few weeks ago. I did a double-take at this part:
Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans were changed
Trés now, no? Life remains full of surprises.
Continuing on the theme of old songs that seem especially relevant today — this one came up on shuffle in the car recently, and I was struck by how much it resonates with our current climate of misinformation and mistrust. The only part that seems out of step with 2021 is the hopeful tone of the ending. But as music is wont to do, it will make you feel hopeful for a moment, even if you know better.
Lately as I gaze out at the shrunken reddish sun trying to insinuate itself through the smoke, I find myself thinking of this song. When Bowie wrote it slightly less than 50 years ago, it was science fiction. But today if news came across the wires that Earth would uninhabitable in five years, would anyone be that surprised? The recent UN climate report wasn’t too far off, but there are no riots in the streets. Cops are not kissing the feet of priests, and no one is vomiting.
Or at least that’s not happening here… though maybe it is in the big cities. From this vantage point it seems more like a quiet, slow-motion apocalypse. There will be plenty of time, at least, to assemble the proper playlist.
Author’s Note: I had already written this before the recent kerfluffle and, being reluctant to see the effort to go waste, I’m going to go ahead and post it. I don’t necessarily plan on continuing the thread from here. Not so much because I want to [cough] cancel Van, as because having seen now the enormity of the task — and given that it’s taken a solid eight months just to get to this point — I am not unhappy to see a graceful way out. The channel will remain open for the time being, but I can’t say for sure what will be coming through it.
In the song he wrote about his time as a windowcleaner, Van Morrison made it sound pretty idyllic. Doing good, honest work as aromas waft by from the bakery down the street; breaking for pastries, lemonade, and cigarettes; listening to Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; reading Jack Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys; playing sax on the weekends.
I don’t know if he experienced it that way at the time. Maybe he was indeed happy cleaning windows, but when his band the Monarchs got the opportunity to tour Scotland in 1962, he did not hesitate to hang up his squeegee and hit the road.
After beginning as a skiffle band called the Thunderbolts, the Monarchs had evolved into an Irish “showband.” What is a showband, you might well ask? Our friend Wikipedia says:
The Irish showband is a dance band format which was popular in Ireland mid-1950s to the mid-1980s… The showband was based on the internationally popular six- or seven-piece dance band. The band’s basic repertoire included standard dance numbers and covers of pop music hits. The versatile music ranged from rock and roll and country and western songs to traditional dixieland jazz and even Irish Céilí dance, Newfie stomps, folk music and waltzes. Key to a showband’s popular success was the ability to perform songs currently in the record charts…. The line-up usually featured a rhythm section of drums, lead, rhythm and bass guitars, a keyboard instrument, and a brass section of trumpet, saxophone and trombone. The band was fronted by one or two lead singers, who were assisted by other band members on backing vocals. Comedy routines were sometimes featured.
Van was one of the “other band members,” but though he was initially shy on stage, he soon developed a tendency to steal the show with his antics. “Van was a complete nutter on stage,” said his bandmate Roy Kane. “We had one number based on a blues riff called ‘Daddy Cool,’ and during this he used to throw himself on the floor, split his trousers and throw his shirt off.” 1read more…
Today I listened to a radio interview with Van Morrison that was broadcast on the BBC last week. He does not sound obviously nuts, but I wouldn’t call it insightful, exactly; to say the interviewer is “fawning” would be an understatement. No hard questions are asked, though at one point it is mentioned that some of the song titles on Van’s new album are “weird.”
And I can sympathize with the desire to keep music and politics separate; I generally prefer to do the same. It would have been nice if Van had just written more songs about Tupelo honey and caravans, and he could have — no one put a gun to his head and said, “Write a song about who owns the media, and one about how Western man is losing ground to his inferiors.” At one point in the interview he is heard to claim that the songs are “satire,” a half-assed excuse if ever there was one. If this stuff is supposed to be funny, what is the joke exactly?
The interviewer makes much of the fact that, at 28 songs, Latest Record Project is Van’s longest studio album to date. (And Volume 2 is promised before the end of the year.) This reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous 1968 “revenge” or “contractual obligation” session. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.read more…
I feel a bit silly now having gotten excited about the new Van Morrison album, though they kind of tricked me by releasing the least crazy songs first. “Only a Song” almost seems calculated to (ahem) inoculate you against whatever madness might follow.
Only a song, it’s not set in stone, it’s only a song
It’s only a poem that could change in the long run, it’s only a song
It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme
Could have been on my mind at the time
Putting paper to pen, it’s only a song, it’s only a song
But now that I look at them again, the song titles on Latest Record Project more than hinted that it was going to be a bumpy ride. They include “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” “The Long Con,” “Double Agent,” and “Duper’s Delight”; and of course there’s “They Own the Media,” which is tucked away toward the end but in retrospect flashes bright red with warning. And while I certainly agree with the sentiment of “Why Are You on Facebook?”, is it really a subject worthy of the author of “Madame George” or “The Philosopher’s Stone”?
This morning I am trying to listen to the album so I can know of what I speak. It begins pleasantly enough with the self-referential title track and “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” which is vaguely grumpy (“Need a real live audience to perform/Where have all the rebels gone?/I can’t find anyone”) but jaunty-sounding. “Psychoanalysts Ball” could be the grumblings of any disillusioned ex-patient.read more…
Some disturbing news came across the transom today concerning Van Morrison’s new album, which contains a song called “They Own the Media.” Here are the lyrics:
They tell us that ignorance is bliss
I guess for those that control the media it is
They own the media they control
The stories we are told
You ever try to go against them, you will be ignored
Because they control
They control the narrative they perpetuate the myth
Keep on telling you lies, telling you ignorance is bliss
Leave it all and you’ll never get, never get wise
To the truth
Cuz they control
Everything you do
Everything you do
Everything you do
Everything you do
They control the narrative
They perpetuate the myth
Keep on selling you lies
Tell you ignorance is bliss
Believe it all and you’ll never get the truth
Never get wise
Wise to their lies
To their lies
They control the media
They control the media
It is never actually stated who the “they” is, but one has suspicions. We all know who is usually accused of “owning the media”; I don’t think I need to repeat it here.
Frankly I’m not sure I’m motivated to keep writing about the man after this. Anti-lockdown songs were one thing; this is another. Thoughts?