This lil’ Impromptus will be mainly politics-free — but I wanted to tell you this. I went home to Michigan recently. And there at the airport in Detroit was Senator Levin. He has been in the Senate virtually my entire life, or so it seems. And he always looks the same, year after year: rumpled, professorial, vaguely genial. He is almost as unchanging as Dick Clark was, legendarily.
This liberal Democrat is up again in 2014. And I remember something that Jack Germond said on The McLaughlin Group, years ago. He said, “Levin always looks easy” — always looks beatable. But he turns out not to be. Maybe if he’d had to face the public this year?
‐At the airport, I shuttled to a rental-car agency. I was the only one in the shuttle. The driver said, “Where’re you from?” I said, “Ann Arbor. Where are you from?” He said, “Dearborn.” I said, “Dad work at Ford Motor?” The man smiled: “He sure did.” And then he started to talk.
His grandfather was born in Hungary: and left on the monastery steps. A priest took him in. This boy learned the art of blacksmithing. Eventually got his own wagon. He also got married. Then he made the gutsy decision to go to America. He sold the wagon for six dollars. And he very nearly — very, very nearly — sailed on the Titanic.
In America, he did some more blacksmithing, and pretty successfully. “He could make anything out of steel,” said his grandson. The blacksmith’s son worked for Ford for 43 years — fairly dangerous work, too. And he was very grateful to the company. “You could never badmouth Ford around him,” said his son.
This fellow, the Ford man, was pretty shrewd about politics too — or you might call him cynical. He voted against FDR after two terms, saying, “If a politician can’t steal enough in two terms, he doesn’t deserve to be there.” He was also highly distrustful of the Social Security fund. He had a saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”
An interesting man, he must have been. He also did some catching for the Toledo Mud Hens (a farm club of the Detroit Tigers). People lead interesting lives, and not just famous people either. In fact, some famous people lead lives that are pretty plain. Which is just fine. Plain can be good, you know?
‐I’m sure that many people say that they almost sailed on the Titanic (or once said that). Some of them must have been right. I have a feeling this Hungarian American was.
‐A matter of pronunciation, just so you know: People from Dearborn, Mich., say “Dearbern.” Just a habit, generations-long.
‐I have written my usual “chronicle,” for the next New Criterion — a chronicle of musical happenings in New York. And I tell a story, which I would also like to tell you here. It is a moment from a concert of the American Composers Orchestra in Zankel Hall (which is part of Carnegie Hall). (I could explain, but we need not take the time now.)
One of the pieces was by Wang Jie, a Chinese American, born in 1980. Before her piece was played — performed, I should say, for it’s a little chamber opera — there was a video. On this video, the composer was interviewed.
She was sent to a music school, far from her home, when she was eleven (if I heard her correctly). This was in China. She was alone and miserable in her dormitory. “Nobody liked me,” she said. For company, she had two cassettes, which she listened to over and over. They contained three pieces of music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Now, when Wang named these pieces, the audience — a New York new-music audience — laughed. Or at least they chortled. It was a chortling that said, “What sugary, silly, hackneyed pieces, poor girl. She would have been better off in laogai.”
Then, on the video, Wang said, “It kept me alive.” Listening to this music was what “kept me alive.” That shut the hall up real, real quick. And it was one of the most remarkable and moving experiences I have ever had in a concert hall, or in any public forum.
I thought of two other incidents, which I would like to talk about here — I’ve mentioned them in Impromptus before, I know. Many years ago — early ’90s? — an actor named John Lone was a presenter at the Oscars. He was Chinese-born. And he said something about how nice it was to be in America, where you had the freedom to say what you wanted and to make the kinds of films you wanted.
The audience laughed. Either they were laughing at his naivety (as they saw it) or they thought he was being ironic. Of course, he was dead serious.
Okay, flash forward to Carnegie Hall, years later. Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo, was singing with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Believe it or not, she did a song by Benny Andersson, a co-founder of ABBA. This was a song called “At Home,” which is from a musical: a musical about a woman named Kristina who immigrates to America.
Von Otter explained that, in the 19th century, some 2 million were driven from Sweden by famine. Many of these desperate people came to America, “this land of opportunity.” That’s what von Otter said: “this land of opportunity.” And she gestured around her.
The patrons sitting near me laughed. They obviously thought that the very idea of America as a land of opportunity was a hoot. You sometimes wonder if we deserve what we have, you know?
‐The other day, I was waiting at a street corner, with a gaggle of others. (This was in Manhattan.) A man bent down and picked up a penny. He and the friend with him joked a little about this. Butting in, I said, “Good for you, for picking up that penny. They all add up, right?” He pointed at his tie and his briefcase and said, “This is just for show. Actually, what I do for money is pick up pennies all day.”
I was reminded of a story that I learned from David Pryce-Jones — from whom I have learned about half the good stories I know. Many, many years ago, Lord Ilchester, head of the Holland family (I’m not quite sure how this works), tipped a taxi driver a penny. Outraged at the smallness of this tip, the driver threw it in the gutter. Lord Ilchester retrieved the penny from the gutter, saying, “It may not matter to you, my good man, but it matters to me.”
‐Return to the realm of music? For my “New York Chronicle” in the November New Criterion, go here. For a recent piece in City Arts — which is mainly about a new Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera — go here.
‐A little more music? In my Marrakech Journal, Part VI, I wrote, “In a hotel lobby, I hear the song ‘Desperado.’ I hear it in an instrumental version, though it is not a Muzak-y one. And I realize, for the first time, what a beautiful song it is. I think not having the usual singing helped. Is that a terrible thing to say?”
A reader from Sydney says, “It is a lovely tune, and I don’t mind the singing in the Eagles version. What you may not know is that Glenn Frey, when the song was just a melody, used to refer to it as his Stephen Foster song. There is in the melody a lot of the wistful quality that Foster had in a lot of his songs.”
Lee Hoiby, that master of the American art song, refers to “Where the Music Comes From” as “my Cat Stevens song.”
A different reader — I know not from where (Internetland, is the answer) — writes, “I remember listening to ‘Desperado’ ‘back in the day’ and thinking the song was as good as anything the easily disparaged Eagles had done. [The disparagement probably came from envy.] Recently, I heard it for the first time in many years and found myself commenting to my wife that the years had been kind to it. I thought the same about ‘Tequila Sunrise,’ which was played immediately after.”
‐Finally, a little language: I was watching a video the other day. It was this one, Running, on RightNetwork. In the introductory frames — if I have the right word — we hear the famous, stirring quotation from Theodore Roosevelt about “the man in the arena.” And I noticed that, at the end, there is a grammatical slip, which made me wince — because it’s such a perfect statement, all around. Do you remember?
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Kind of a shame, about that last bit. It should be “. . . who know neither victory nor defeat” or “. . . who neither know victory nor know defeat,” preferably the former. Of course, TR’s formulation may have been acceptable in his day (as it’s acceptable, more or less, in ours). And the statement remains one of the greatest in our history, or any history.
Quick, name three Republicans who wrote books with the title “In the Arena.” (I’m thinking of Nixon, Heston, and Weinberger.)