Last week I mentioned Maddow and O’Donnell, Penfriend’s Attention Engineer, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy. This week I look at more music, some food, and more politics.

Martyn Ware’s Electronically Yours. Ware was a founding member of the Human League and Heaven 17, and his British Electrical Foundation project relaunched Tina Turner’s career in the early 80s. He mostly interviews his own contemporaries (Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Vince Jackson), but he’s gone farther afield with Sandie Shaw, and Tony Visconti. Sometimes he’s a little too fond of his own self, or he hasn’t yet decided to edit out his own meanderings, but in general the interviews are fascinating. In his interview with Tony Visconti, Ware admitted early on that Visconti had produced 12 of his 20 all time favourite albums, but he generally did a good job of letting Visconti tell the stories.

Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat (author of Salt Fat Acid Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I learned of this great podcast from Hirway, I’m guessing – I think he must have mentioned at the end of an episode of one of his other podcasts, Song Exploder (which I also love). I didn’t know anything about Nosrat and her amazing cooking journey. The two of them started this podcast at the beginning of the pandemic with the idea that they’d do four episodes talking about their favourite foods and answering listener questions. Four has so far turned into 15. Really delightful and sweet. And mouthwatering.

I said I’d mention a political podcast, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve not listened to much beyond Rachel and Lawrence. But in the category of longer form political discussion, I really like Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara. Bharara was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, fired at the beginning of the last administration. He is both articulate (not unexpected in a trial attorney) and an astute interviewer. His discussion with conservative columnist David Frum at the earlier this year was especially interesting.

My relationship to Judaism has always been weird. When my parents were still together (they split when I was 4), we must have observed many of the rituals in the home, even though Fullerton, CA was a long way from the New York and DC locales of the rest of our family and heritage. Why do I say we must have? My Bobe (my mother’s mother – second generation American) relished telling a story of some early visit we made to see her and Zade (my mother’s father, first generation – arrived from Ukraine in 1912 or so, I think). It must have been when I first visited them in DC as a walking, talking person (as opposed to a toddler). The way she told it, I walked around the table, and looked at the candlesticks and wine glasses and large pictures of a pair of ancestors from the shtetl, and asked in all innocence, ‘Are you guys Jewish?’ My grandparents found this hilarious.

Nowadays. Between then and now, I’ve gone through periods of greater and lesser connection. At the moment, I’m starting to learn a little about Yiddish culture and taking a Yiddish class online. It’s a period of greater connection, let’s say. Last week, I was listening to The Shmooze, a podcast from the Yiddish Book Center. The interview subject was Judy Batalion, a playwright and author from Montreal who recounted the sources of her latest book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. She grew up knowing about Hannah Senesh, as I did – this one incredibly brave Hungarian Jewish woman living in Mandatory Palestine who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary, was captured, tortured, and killed by firing squad in 1944. Batalion was researching other such women and found an entire book published in Yiddish in the US in 1948 or so, which told of other such brave women. And that book sank into obscurity, and Szenes (to use the original spelling) became the synecdoche in Hebrew school history for all those incredible women. This book one book sent Batalion on her own path, resulting in a 500-plus page book on the subject.

In that Shmooze interview, Batalion makes the point that those women did what they did out of a certain necessity, and for the simple reason that they risked less than the men by doing it. Men who were caught would have their trousers dropped, because only Jewish men were circumcised then. The women and girls had often gone to school with the non-Jewish girls, so their Polish was that spoken in the general populous, not the Polish of the yeshivabuchers who went to schools within the shtetl an mostly spoke Yiddish and Hebrew.

And this got me thinking about how we think about heroes, about Israel and its very male leadership. And, oddly, I read today about a female-created female superhero, Miss Fury, who had a 10-year run that ended in 1951. Not the same as actual heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, but categorically similar, in that Fury’s creator, June Tarpé Mills, is another woman whose work was subsumed by the mid-20th century’s habit of glorifying the masculine and shutting away all the women who dared.

I think there’s a group psychology that comes into play in groups that need to be rescued. And I fear diving into what the survivors of the Holocaust had to deal with who then moved into a world where they could actively defend a new homeland but knew that they hadn’t been able to defend their previous homes. I’m an armchair psychologist at best. But hiding the stories of those girls and women who ran explosives between the ghettos and went out on other missions against the Nazi occupation serves to make a monolith of all the victims of the Holocaust. If all were victims, then the ghetto uprisings, and subsequent liquidations, were anomalies, rather than the rule. (Sometimes you hear someone say, ‘If I’d been in Germany, I would have fought back. Why didn’t the Jews fight back?’ The answer is, We did.)

There are a lot of people who study these matters of language and culture and history who know these things better than I do. But there’s one connection to draw about the decline of Yiddish and the loss of these stories. When Jews were settling in Palestine before World War I there were discussions of what the language of this new country (still a dream, but עם טירצו and all that) should be. Hebrew won out over Yiddish and there are a few what ifs regarding what that society would be like if things had gone the other way. I fear that the psychology of powerful men taking power would still fight for society to forget women who fought back.

Many podcasts ask you to rate and review in the various podcast places, but I thought I’d use this post to point to some of the stuff I listen to when I’m out on walks and the like. If I put it here, trust that I recommend it highly.

Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are my go-to folks for left-wing outrage. Capable journalists and engaging hosts. The podcasts are just the audio versions of their TV shows, but that’s fine. I used to listen to both of these just about every weekday, but I’ve dialed it back to two or three times per week, because times are hard and my outrage needs more effective channels. Back when times weren’t so bloody fraught, Maddow would make cocktails on air every now and then, and punctuate some shows with a segment called ‘Best New Thing In The World’ which was always nice. And then we got DJT and it’s not like that anymore. (about 45 minutes each)

Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4 Alternate series of The Now Show, The News Quiz, Dead Ringers and random BBC audio comedy. The Now Show is topical political humor with sketches, music, and pointed commentary. Skewers both left and right. The News Quiz is a scripted panel game show. Kinda like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but shorter with a UK focus, natch. Dead Ringers is comedic takes on a number of British radio shows and a lot of the humor assumes you recognize the source material. I’d listened for several years before I actually knew who Diane Abbott was. (30 minutes)

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is NPR’s weekly news quiz – I’ve been listening to it for most of the 20+ years it’s been on the air. Obviously a US bent on these things. (45 minutes)

Attention Engineer – Musician Laura Kidd (formerly She Makes War, now Penfriend) interviews mostly other musicians about the creative process and being creative in these times. The first episodes were recorded in late 2019 and didn’t predict how crazy stuff would get. Check out one of her gorgeous new tracks, Black Car (The list of her podcast guests is on the right).
(Usually over an hour)

And if I have my act together, I’ll do another one of these next week.

Given the hundreds, possibly thousands, of audio cassettes I’ve purchased in my lifetime, it’s a little bit surprising that I didn’t know the inventor’s name until reading his obituaries this week. (I’ll note also, that Dhr Ottens was also on the team that developed the compact disc. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve owned 10,000 CDs since buying my first one in 1987.)

I was led down the rabbit hole of mix tapes by Jim and Mary Glaser, a pair of NYC transplants to Los Angeles who worked at American Pie Records with me when I was in high school. They probably made me a dozen in ‘84 and ‘85 that I wore out. Those tapes included my introductions to Frank Zappa and Lou Reed and dozens of other artists. And when I went off to SF State in the fall of ‘85, those tapes went with me and were my constant companions for the next four years (and beyond).

In a lot of ways Jim and Mary were the embodiment of cool for me. I think they’d come west to make it in rock and roll, but it wasn’t to be and they moved back to NYC around the time I moved to San Francisco. Occasionally they come to mind, but sadly their names are too common to provide useful search results. The mix tapes I made for friends for over a decade after that (and then the mix CDs) extended their philosophy of mixing both humor and great rock and roll. I developed my own philosophy as well, well before Nick Hornby expounded on the topic in High Fidelity. But that only proves that I wasn’t the only geek in the 90s making mix tapes. Far from it.

And then there’s Norton Juster. I’ve only read those first two books of his, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, but I fell in love with them when I was first falling in love with books. I can tell from my copy of Dot that I bought it in the 90s (the price of 1.50 written in pencil, but with a heavy hand, indicates the source was probably Moe’s in Berkeley rather than Austen Books in San Francisco). The sticker inside that reads Ex Libris with my name, printed in color, means that I left it in a box with a friend, or with my sister, when I moved to Europe in 2002 and collected it some time later.

I bought my current copy of Tollbooth around 2007 at the same time I bought a copy for my nieces who were just getting to the first right age for it. And rereading it now, I’m still at the right age.

My earliest memory of Dot was the Chuck Jones cartoon that was in rotation with Looney Tunes on one or another of the other cartoon programmes that occupied my weekday afternoons on days I didn’t go to Hebrew school. I watched a lot of cartoons but that one stuck with me. A few days ago, I could only find a super-low resolution version on YouTube, but today, there’s this lovely 1040p upload. Take ten minutes to enjoy it in all its 1965 glory.

In the period when I was separated from my first wife, she dated a guy who in a number of ways was everything that I wasn’t. I was quite sure at the time that I was the squiggle in the story and he was a line who could do amazing things. Someone at the time, who knew more about him than I did pointed out that he was very much a squiggle. I still found myself jealous, but I also took the time to appreciate my own vectors. And how much dot, line, and squiggle we all had in us.

I honestly don’t know where I’m going with this. These stories still move me for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. The lessons Milo learns on his journey through the tollbooth resonate – I still find value in not jumping to conclusions (though I still do it) and in fighting off the easy repetitive tasks that take the time I could be doing something worthwhile (for a wide range of definitions of worthwhile). It’s strange, because Juster created a quest in the Arthurian tradition with a hero who may not realize what a fantastic boon he’s returned with. Simple as a cup on the shelf but still full of mystery.

I spent the second half of 1989 traveling in Europe after finishing up (most of) my BA. I was 22 and after four years in San Francisco, had stowed all my stuff (including a couple hundred CDs, LPs, and tapes) back at my parents’ house in LA before boarding a flight with no music playback device at all. I traveled for six weeks with a friend and after he came back to the US for a job, I really needed some music. I bought a cassette walkman and some tapes. Maybe this blog entry will look back at the dozen or so albums that soundtracked that summer and autumn for me. But, because Cherry Red has graced the world with a 2-CD/1-DVD repackaging of The Stars We Are, I’m going to start there.

The first single, Tears Run Rings, had already been on Live 105’s rotation before I left the states, but I don’t think I’d heard the rest of it. I may have, though, because the interwebs tell me the album came out in 1988. I’m pretty sure I bought my tape of it at a market in Istanbul, but that might be because the song She Took My Soul In Istanbul is so tied up with the week I spent there.

The rockers like the title track, Tears Run Rings, and Bittersweet pull the listener in, but that’s only a part of the skill set Almond brings to the table. We also get some almost cabaret-style pieces (Only the Moment, Your Kisses Burn). To borrow a line from Nina Simone, there are even show tunes for shows that still haven’t been written (Kept Boy, Istanbul).

Aside from Tears Run Rings, what roped me into the album was the macabre knowledge that it contained the result of Nico’s last recording session. I was turned on to the Velvet Underground a few years before and had collected all their albums to that point and started delving into the solo work. Nico’s voice, even when ravaged on late live albums, insinuates itself the way few voices do. And there’s really nothing like the way she slips this between your ears:

I’ll make a fire there in your heart / Made not of love, but only hate
And for the fuel will be your soul / An inferno to consume you whole.

Shudder.

Almond’s cover of Gene Pitney’s hit Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart let the world know that he had the chops. It’s a tossup whether his solo vocal, or the duet with Pitney himself is the better. Initial pressings of the album had the solo version, but it was replaced by the duet which was itself a hit. This deluxe edition relegates the solo version to the CD of remixes.

Almond and Gene Pitney, 1989

Because my first experience of the album was the cassette, I never considered the LP’s closing song She Took My Soul in Istanbul to be the end of the album. Istanbul slides neatly into The Frost Comes Tomorrow (originally the b-side of Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart) and closer Kept Boy.

Kept Boy is something like a demented outtake from Sunset Boulevard in which the male voice admits to being after the riches of the older woman keeping him, until he realizes she’s poisoned him. While not as rich a song as others on the album, it features Agnes Bernelle as the other voice. Bernelle, whose family left Germany in the 30s and settled in London, earned renown during WWII for broadcasts to Germany and to the resistance. After the war, she acted and recorded cabaret songs.

The first CD in the set concludes with three B-sides, Everything I Wanted Love To Be, King of the Fools, and Real Evil. Disc 2 collects the various remixes including three versions of Tears Run Rings and two of Bitter-Sweet. There’s nothing that wasn’t available at the time of release – nothing live or pulled out of the archives or recovered from the cutting room floor. Gorgeous stuff, all of it, but the liner notes mention shows from ‘87 that featured about half of the album’s songs, and a show in ‘86 that featured an entirely different version of the title track. Some of those goodies would definitely have made my heart skip a beat.