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(Nov. 18, 2009)

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats."
 - Albert Schweitzer.

          Winky the Criminal Cat just does not show any signs of rehabilitation. He continues with his whisker, whisker ways---from “spraying” to throwing up to “scooting” (essentially using the carpet as toilet paper) to beating up his poor sister, Maggie.
          To paraphrase Frank Zappa, “Who are the cat police?”
          Most recently he has taken to driving Maggie out of her favorite sleeping spot, the sink in the front bathroom, by urinating on the towel that she kneads into a nightly bed. The stench is sort of a cross between mustard and vinegar, with an infusion of that indescribable funk for which cats are duly renowned.
          I’ve tried everything. Yelling, exile to the front balcony, spritzing water, even calm and reason. I’ve had long conversations with him, explaining that all of this behavior does not increase chances for peace in the Middle East, and he seems to listen attentively, but. . .nothing changes. And at night, he often parks his 14 pounds of orange and white on my chest, or more delicate zones, and curls up, purring as if there is nothing wrong at all.
          Because, in the world of Winky the Criminal Cat, there is nothing wrong at all.
          In the world of L.A. music, there is plenty wrong. At least insofar as Gustavo Dudamel is concerned. No slight to the masterful, ebullient young conductor here---it’s the hype around him that is growing exponentially more unseemly.
          Here, for instance, we have a recent NYT article about Dudamel, nauseatingly headlined “Hollywood Swoons Over That Hair, That Baton.” That baton?
          Er. . .what about swooning over that. . .music? That. . .Mahler, that Beethoven, that Ligeti, that Stravinksy, that Schumann? What about swooning over that. . .interpretive nuance. Nah. It’s his “baton” (wink wink) that make the ladies faint.
          High in the article is this weighty pronouncement from one Martin Kaplan, a professor at USC and director of the Norman Lear Center: “He’s a genuine star. He’s young. He has amazing hair. He has a great back story. He has a fantastic name. He’s the dude!”
          Kaplan’s quote is the verbal equivalent of cat spray. It embodies everything that stinks not only about the Dudamel appointment, but about Hollywood, and American “thinking.” Substance? That’s for stodgy old blue-hairs. Dignity---what’s that? No, everything must be reduced to glitz, flash, frill, folderol. This is the only way America relates to anything anymore: when it is rendered free of that which requires thought, and is reduced to artifice and idolatry. Easier to market, you see.
          Dudamel, says Kaplan, is not a conductor, not a serious musician, not even the old cliché, “prodigy”---no, he’s a “star.” (At least Gustavo has something to which to aspire: superstardom.) What are the conductor’s attributes, in Kaplanland? That he is nearly exploding with enthusiasm for his work? That he lives and breathes notes and staves? That he passes these qualities osmotically to orchestra and audience? No. Music has nothing to do with it, says Kaplan.
          He’s “young.”
          That’s catnip in the American marketplace.
          He has “amazing hair.”
          The only thing more compelling to Americans than “amazing hair” is the shape of someone’s ass. (Good thing Dudamel wears tails.)
          He has “a great back story.”
          How I loathe the use of that Hollywood sharpy term to trivialize human life. Dudamel doesn’t have a “back story,” Professor Kaplan. He is not a script. He is a human being who comes from a difficult childhood, and who worked astonishingly hard to accomplish what he has accomplished. Yet in Kaplanland, Dudamel’s strife and struggle is smarmily turned into Hollywood-ese for easy consumption in the marketplace. That’s what it’s all about, see? Moneymoneymoney. Finally. . .
          He has a “fantastic name.”
          Actually, he has an awkward and difficult name, but it has hot latino cache, and, of course, the added bonus of enabling the banal nickname that Kaplan trumpets so crassly: “He’s the Dude!”
          No. He’s the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, an imposing position that used to carry some respectability.
          Maggie the patchwork tabby has required considerable extra attention. Shy apparently by nature, she has become skittish and fearful, with a hair-trigger defensive response to any loud neighborhood noise. All thanks, I guess, to Winky, who forever stalks her.
          Maggie might curl up contentedly on the couch, or the cat tree, or the windowsill, but the contentment is doomed. In five minutes, or five hours, Winky destroys it. Taking umbrage that his housemate would dare relax in his presence, he sneaks up and pounces, and the ensuing noise is cat-aclysmic. There has been blood.
          Of course, she asks for it, too. Anytime Winky walks up to her benignly, which does happen, she slaps his face like Muhammad Ali used to slap George Chuvalo. And the ensuing noise is cat-aclysmic.
          I grew quite worried when she took to cowering under the bed for much of the day, slinking away from all human and feline contact. (Can't blame her regarding the human kind.) It took time and patience to lure her out and into the room where I work, and she gradually came to associate this with safety. She knows Winky can’t get away with much here, lest a slipper fly through the air.
          And I gradually got her more and more used to touch. You see, both Winky and Maggie were weaned too soon, and have personalities marked by dysfunction, cognitive dissonance, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, or something. Maggie remains all but feral, though I have at last persuaded her as to the power of cat massage.
          It took some doing, but now she comes in every morning and announces that she wants a good working over---by jumping into my lap. She waits until I am eating, or typing, or sipping very hot tea, before jumping. Cats are very good at this.
          I have to start easily, with patting of her sides, until she is comfortable (did you know that cats have sensitive bodies?) Then I pour her out of my lap and on to the floor, where I give her a going-over that is like something you’d see in a Tex Avery cartoon. I start by tickling the hell out of her ears, and she shakes her head with a wonderful flapping sound. Then I rub her shoulders vigorously, which she loves (and arches up for more), and then I do the same to her back and hips, and finally I do a kind of flipping thing with her tail that elicits small yapping noises.
          When she’s had enough, she rolls over to get her belly scratched, then pulls herself across the rug with her front claws. Which looks like a lot of fun.
          Then all is well. Until the next attack by Winky.
          I saw Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Loud and Rich” concert the other night at Royce Hall. I am not a particular fan of either, though I know and admire their accomplished musicianship and songwriting.
          Thompson, of course, is duly lauded as a superior guitarist. Aside from playing basslines and picking melodies simultaneously (thumb and index working entirely independently of the other three fingers) which is impressive enough, he solos and embellishes very much “in the moment,” serving the song, not playing for flash. His playing is as artful as artful gets.
          So I have always found it sort of frustrating that so many of his songs are these archly emotional you/me relationship struggle sagas. Highly melodramatic affairs with annoyingly clichéd imagery involving “cold kisses” and people “crawling back,” etc. You start wondering: has this longtime married man been having an endless string of affairs? With all the sophistication of jealous high school kids? I mean, where does this material come from? Danielle Steel?
          But then the 60-year-old (!) will break out something grand, such as his ‘70’s number, “Wall of Death,” or a new song inspired by George W. Bush with a great and powerful reminder that even the rich and arrogant are prey to the Reaper. The earthshaking chorus: “Time's gonna break you!” was great.
          Wainwright is someone I’ve never warmed up to because he’s so. . .good. His songwriting is so. . .clever, smart, heartfelt, crafted, deftly written that it leaves me sort of uninvolved. That probably says more about me than this superb songsmith, and on this night I much enjoyed his work. The songs were largely biographical, involving his mother and late father, interlaced with poignancy, resignation, acceptance, irony.
          The man is certainly one of America’s most adroit, enduring troubadors, but I don’t know, he’s just a little too facile, a little too perfect, for my odd taste. Strikes me as the guy who won “Songwriter most likely to succeed” in high school.
          Still and all, there are not likely to be tours more full of depth and texture and craftsmanship this year than “Loud and Rich.” And they did an amusing version of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” to boot.
          There were four in the litter, all black with varying amounts of white on the chest. They marched around, the way kittens march, in the jasmine and salvia and shrubs and brambles that so neatly landscape a campus of corporate offices in Torrance. There is a little cat colony there, which some employees watch over vigorously---trapping, spaying, neutering, fostering, releasing. . .
          But not quite spaying and neutering everyone.
          And so Annie watched over the little kittens for months, along with a couple of colleagues, stopping to feed them before driving home at night, watching their little black faces peering out from leaves and shadows. Inquisitively, and fearfully. She watched them grow, all except one she dubbed “the shrimp,” who was more skittish than her brothers and sister, and who was recognizable by a comical, innocent, slightly cross-eyed look.
          We have no more room for cats here, so taking another kitty in was out of the question. Annie sort of adopted them in spirit, worrying about their life in the wild---among raccoons, possums, and corporate humans. Me, I thought they had a great life. Plenty of mice to eat, the run of the “campus” on the weekends, when they came to loll about on grass, and park themselves on parking kiosks, licking their paws. Freedom to prowl, growl, and reproduce. Just like I used to have.
          Then two of them were caught by other employees---the shrimp, and her brother. They were spayed, neutered, inoculated, and their temporary guardians took them back “home” for re-release. We showed up to witness the happy event.
          And naturally, went home with the shrimp.
          Her name is Trixie.
          Heard Christoph Eschenbach conduct the L.A. Phil a few weeks back in a program of Dvorak: the old stand-by “Carnival” overture, and the older stander-byer, “New World” symphony. I had no desire to ever hear either piece performed again, though they are perfectly splendid works. I’ve just sort of finished with them. But my old friend, Betty The Flute Player, was in town, and it seems she had just played the “New World” with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, and was curious to hear it done by the L.A. Phil. So. . .
          A funny thing happened on my way to boredom. A thing named Eschenbach.
I have never---never---heard such a great “Carnival” overture. Not live, and not on record. The thing was nothing short of thrilling, which is a real testament to the power of a conductor and the ensemble mind of an orchestra. Eschenbach made the music fresh, exhilarating, and I must say that I hope the timpani player had as good a time playing as I had watching him. When it finished, I noticed that my socks had come entirely off my feet and were lying in the aisle. Along with lots of other socks from other audience members. This was a razzler-dazzler.
          The “New World” wasn’t old-hat, either. Though all the big themes long ago wore deep grooves in my synapses, Eschenbach imbued everything with urgency and drama that I had forgotten are very much a part of this highly lyrical American tone poem. And the second movement, with its aching “Going Home” theme (based on a slave song), was exquisitely rendered by English horn and all concerned. I still don’t want to hear the work again, but I’m not sorry I heard this performance.
          Between this and last year’s Bruckner 7th led by Eschenbach---who illuminated the cathedral-like architecture and built an ever-so-gradually ascending climax that inspired gasps---one wishes that L.A. Phil management had considered seasoning and depth along with youth, curls, “back stories,” and “fantastic names,” in searching for a new conductor. Dudamel is a playful pup, compared to this dude. Of course, Eschenbach doesn't have "amazing hair."
          Poor Winky and Maggie. They’ve never seen a real cat before. They never learned how to become cats, you see, as they were weaned too soon and then stuck in a cage where huge human faces stared and cooed at them for weeks. They know only the condo life with The Two Big Ones That Feed Us.
          Trixie, though, is a cat’s cat. She’s got a lot of Mehitabel in her, having lived for five full months in the great wide open with her brothers and sister, and an extended family that includes various uncles, aunts, and a great, fat-jowled cater familias known as Bobo.
          There she romped, hid, scurried, caught butterflies, ate bugs, played endless games of pounce, wrestled with her siblings, stretched in the sun, and generally was indoctrinated in matters of fur and claw. Translation: she loves to play. Play play play, eat eat eat, play play play, sleep sleep sleep, play play play.
          Winky and Maggie stare at her as if she is an alien being.
          What? You’ve never heard Lawrence Tibbett sing? Well, it’s time to fix that.

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