Duck: A Version

It was late summer, 1986. I'd soon be starting ninth grade. But, more important, Howard the Duck was now, finally, in theaters. For weeks, I'd been eagerly awaiting the film's arrival. I plunked down my money and attended a screening. Afterward, the disappointment I felt was roughly the size of Lake Huron. Why had I so looked forward to seeing this famously terrible movie? I'll tell you why: earlier that summer, I'd read the novelization of Howard the Duck, and, I'll be honest, I loved it.

Fifteen to twenty years later, in a used-book store, I found a book called Decade of the Year, a collection of funny essays by a guy named Ellis Weiner. The book, published in 1987, featured blurbs from Veronica Geng and Paul Shaffer. That was good enough for me, and I snapped it up. I enjoyed Decade of the Year, and I became curious about this Ellis Weiner fellow. As it turns out, he used to be an editor at National Lampoon and a columnist for Spy, and he's published several other books, including the novelization of Howard the Duck. More recently, he wrote this Shouts & Murmurs piece, which appeared in the October 19, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.


Photo, Finish

This photo of S.J. Perelman was shot by the great photographer Irving Penn, who died yesterday at the age of 92. Perelman, who died in 1979, displayed a dazzling command of the English language in his humor pieces, which appeared in The New Yorker for 45 years, starting in 1930. He also contributed to the scripts of two of the Marx Brothers' best movies: Monkey Business, which was released in 1931, and Horse Feathers, which came out a year later. Woody Allen once called him "the single funniest human of my lifetime." The Paris Review interviewed Perelman in 1963; that interview can be read here.


Gates of Heaven

I wouldn't really be me if it weren't for Woody Allen, not just because of his own work but also because of the work of others he's led me to. When I was in high school, learning about Woody led me to discover some of my favorite things: Robert Benchley's funny essays, Buster Keaton's silent comedies, the Marx Brothers. (In Eric Lax's 1975 book On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy, Woody says that the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup is the only funny movie he can think of that doesn't have any slow spots. In Hannah and Her Sisters, seeing Duck Soup leads Woody's character, who's been fretting about his mortality, to decide that life isn't so bad after all.)

In the summer of 2008, I listened to this interview with Woody, in which he discusses his love for the early jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton.

I'd heard the interview before, but this time I thought, "You know what? I should listen to those old recordings. If Woody likes 'em, I bet they're great." So I immediately set about finding as many of those old recordings as I could. Those three guys and their music became my new obsession.

I'm always obsessed with something or other. I've always been that way. My childhood was one long string of obsessions: Disney animation, magic, the Beatles, juggling, breakdancing, the Rubik's Cube. I'll get interested in something and it'll take over my life. Then one day something else will catch my attention and suddenly I'll have a new obsession. A couple of years ago, I was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick. Now my days are spent listening to, and reading about, Armstrong, Bechet, and Jelly Roll.

I've been obsessed with this music for over a year now, and in that time I've heard a lot of recordings. I've collected 37 of my favorites in a playlist, Playlist 2 it's called, on my MySpace page, which can be found here.

From Playlist 2 I selected 10 songs for my profile playlist. They are listed below, with notes to enhance your enjoyment.

1. "Everybody Loves My Baby" by Clarence Williams' Blue Five
(Recorded November 6, 1924, in New York City)

On this song, the cornet (an instrument almost exactly like a trumpet) is played by Louis Armstrong, who was 23 at the time. On some Blue Five recordings, the soprano sax is played by Sidney Bechet, but on this one it's played by a fellow named Buster Bailey. The vocalist is Eva Taylor. She was married to Clarence Williams, who played piano on the Blue Five records and organized the recording sessions.

2. "Lazy River" by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
(Recorded November 3, 1931, in Chicago)

This is one of just a handful of recordings Armstrong made in the early '30s. During that time, he was on the run from gangsters, so he largely avoided Chicago and New York. In Chicago some months prior to this session, a gangster pulled a gun on Armstrong and made him agree to be on a train to New York the next morning for a gig. Armstrong wasn't on that train, and ended up spending much of the next few years in Europe. He returned to America in 1935, at which point he hired as his manager his old friend Joe Glaser, a tough cookie who, it was said, had worked for Al Capone. Glaser resolved Armstrong's problems with the gangsters, and remained Armstrong's manager until he, Glaser, died, in 1969. Armstrong died two years later.

3. "Cake Walking Babies From Home" by the Red Onion Jazz Babies
(Recorded December 22, 1924, in New York City)

The Red Onion Jazz Babies and Clarence Williams' Blue Five were basically the same band. Both were organized by Clarence Williams and they featured most of the same musicians. Alberta Hunter, rather than Eva Taylor, sang on the Jazz Babies records. (On this tune, she's joined on vocals by Clarence Todd.) And, instead of Clarence Williams, the pianist for the Jazz Babies was Lil Hardin, who'd recently become Armstrong's second wife. (His first wife was an insanely jealous New Orleans prostitute named Daisy Parker. Daisy always carried a razor and wasn't shy about pulling it out.) Seventeen days after this Jazz Babies session, the Blue Five did their version of "Cake Walking Babies," which you'll find in Playlist 2. On both versions, Armstrong plays cornet and Sidney Bechet plays soprano sax.

4. "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" by Sidney Bechet
(Recorded November 5, 1951, in New York City)

Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi, have two adopted children. Both are girls; one's Asian, one's white. The Asian one is named Bechet, after you-know-who; the white one is named Manzie, after Manzie Johnson, the guy playing the drums on this recording.

5. "Potato Head Blues" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
(Recorded May 10, 1927, in Chicago)

Toward the end of Manhattan, Woody's character lists 11 things that, in his opinion, make life worth living. This recording is one of them.

6. "Polka Dot Stomp" by Noble Sissle and His International Orchestra
(Recorded August 15, 1934, in Chicago)

Sidney Bechet plays clarinet and soprano sax on this jaunty number, which he wrote with bandmate James Tolliver, who plays clarinet and tenor sax on this. Woody Allen once called a Bechet concert he attended in the '50s "the most fulfilling artistic experience of my life." "Bechet was a startling musician," he said. "His ferociousness was incredible. I was struck by the intensity and total majesty of his playing." After watching one of his friends buy his first Bechet album, Woody told him, "I'd give anything to be you and hear that for the first time."

7. "Squeeze Me" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
(Recorded June 29, 1928, in Chicago)

Armstrong did some scat singing on "Lazy River," but on this recording his entire vocal is scat. Another good example of Armstrong's scatting can be heard on "Hotter Than That," which is in Playlist 2. Before Armstrong popularized it, scat singing was virtually unknown outside New Orleans.

8. "Muskrat Ramble" by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five
(Recorded February 26, 1926, in Chicago)

The Hot Five that recorded "Squeeze Me" was a different Hot Five from the Hot Five that recorded this tune. The only musician who was in both bands was Armstrong himself. When trombonist Kid Ory left this earlier version of the Hot Five, Armstrong replaced him with John Thomas and added a tuba player and a drummer and the band became the Hot Seven. The Hot Five and Hot Seven records were Armstrong's first recordings where he was in charge. They're widely considered to be the most important records in jazz history. The Hot Seven recording "Melancholy Blues" was included on the Voyager Golden Record, which was launched into space in 1977. The Golden Record's contents were selected by a committee led by Carl Sagan, who wrote, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

9. "Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers
(Recorded June 10, 1927, in Chicago)

This recording features a scaled-down version of the Red Hot Peppers. It's just three musicians: Jelly Roll on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny Dodds's little brother, Baby Dodds, on drums. Johnny Dodds was a member of the original incarnation of Armstrong's Hot Five, and both Dodds brothers were members of the Hot Seven. They'd known Armstrong in New Orleans, where they'd spent a few years playing alongside him on a riverboat called the S.S. Sydney.

10. "Too Busy" by Lillie Delk Christian with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Four
(Recorded June 26, 1928, in Chicago)

Lillie Delk Christian, who sounds a bit like Snow White, was nothing special as a singer, but at the time of this session Louis Armstrong was at the height of his powers. Near the end of this song, we get a little sample of the kind of scat singing he'd do on "Squeeze Me" just three days later.

Foreign Correspondent

Paul Simms was a writer for the funniest talk show in history, the late, great Late Night With David Letterman. More recently, he wrote the following humor piece, which appeared in the September 21, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.

Attention, People of Earth

We are on our way to your planet. We will be there shortly. But in this, our first contact with you, our "headline" is: We do not want your gravel.

We are coming to Earth, first of all, just to see if we can actually do it. Second, we hope to learn about you and your culture(s). Third—if we end up having some free time—we wouldn't mind taking a firsthand look at your almost ridiculously bountiful stores of gravel. But all we want to do is look.

You're probably wondering if we mean you harm. Good question! So you're going to like the answer, which is: We mean you no harm. Truth be told, there is a faction of us who want to completely annihilate you. But they're not in power right now. And a significant majority of us find their views abhorrent and almost even barbaric.

But, thanks to the fact that our government operates on a system very similar to your Earth democracy, we have to tolerate the views of this "loyal opposition," even while we hope that they never regain power, which they probably won't (if the current poll tracking numbers hold up).

By the way, if we do take any of your gravel, it's going to be such a small percentage of your massive gravel supply that you probably won't even notice it's gone.

You may be wondering how we know your language. We are aware that there's a theory on your planet that we (or other alien species from the far reaches of the galaxy) have been able to learn your language from your television transmissions. This is not the case, because most of us don't really watch TV. Most of our knowledge about your Earth TV comes from reading Zeitgeisty think pieces by our resident intellectuals, who watch it not for fun but for ideas for their print articles about how Earth TV holds a mirror up to Earth society, and so on. We mean, we'll watch Earth TV sometimes—if it happens to be on already—but, generally, we prefer to read a good book or revive the lost art of conversation.

Sadly, Earth TV is like a vast wasteland, as the Earthling Newton Minow once said. But, for those of you who can understand things only in TV terms, just think of us as being very similar to Mork from Ork, in that he was a friendly, non-gravel-wanting alien who visited Earth just to find out what was there, and not to harvest gravel.

Speaking of a vast wasteland, you might want to start picking out and clearing off a place for our spacecraft to land. Our spacecraft, as you will see shortly, is huge. Do not be alarmed; this does not mean that each one of us is that much bigger than each one of you. It's just that there were so many of us who wanted to come that we had to build a really huge spacecraft.

So, again, no cause for alarm.

(Full disclosure: each of us actually is much bigger than each of you, and there's nothing we can do about it. So please don't use any of your Earth-style discrimination against us. This is just how we are, and it's not our fault.)

Anyway, re our spacecraft: it's kind of gigantic. The deceleration thrusters alone are sort of, like ... well, imagine four of your Vesuvius volcanoes (but bigger), turned upside down.

We don't want to hurt anyone, so, if you could just clear off one continent, we think we can keep unintended fatalities to a minimum. Australia would probably work. (But don't say Antarctica. Because we'd just melt it, and then you'd all end up underwater. Which would make it virtually impossible for us to learn about your hopes and your dreams, and your culture, and to harvest relatively small, sample-size amounts of your gravel, just for scientific study.)

A little bit about us: our males have two penises, while our females have only one. So, gender-wise, if you use simple math, we're pretty much identical to you.

And, as far as protocol goes, we're a pretty informal species. If you want to put together a welcoming ceremony with all your kings and queens and Presidents and Prime Ministers and leading gravel-owners, that's fine. But please don't feel like you have to.

Technically, it would be possible for us to share our space-travel technology with you, so that you could build a spacecraft and travel to our planet also. But, for right now, it just feels like it would be better if we came to your place.

Speaking of gravel, one thing we can't tell from our monitoring of Earth is how your gravel tastes. It's just something we're curious about, for no real reason. Is it salty? It looks salty.

Maybe you could form a commission of scientists/gravel-tasters to look into this and let us know. Just have them collect all the gravel you have and put it in one big pile. (There are some pretty big empty parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Russia that might be good spots for such a large gravel pile, but that's just an F.Y.I.)

Then, if you could have your top scientists/gravel-tasters go through this gravel pile, tasting each and every piece, that would be great. Also, if it's not too much of a hassle, have them put all the saltier-tasting pieces in a separate pile.

Anyway, that about wraps up this transmission! Looking forward to seeing you very soon. (Sorry we couldn't have given you more notice, but we didn't want you Earth people going crazy and looting stuff and having sex in the streets out of panic about losing all your delicious gravel, which is something that is definitely not going to happen, because, when it comes down to it, what is gravel really but just a bunch of baby rocks?)

Our E.T.A. on Earth is sometime in the next four hundred and fifty to five hundred years, which we know is a blink of an eye in your Earth time, so start getting ready! Let's have fun with this.


A Species from a Galaxy You Haven't Even Noticed Yet

P.S.—We saw that you sent some people to your moon recently. Good job! But, just to let you know, don't waste your time with the moon. There's no gravel there. We already checked.