I realize that not all my many–OK, several–readers are on Facebook. So I’m going to start posting here as well as there. I tend to be more garrulous there, gee, I wonder why.
This day brings not just memories but anxiety, and, uh, anger. Duh. Who doesn’t feel this way? Only the moron–that would have been willing and able me ten years ago–who could translate (sublimate?) every available emotion into the preparation of the food, and then be surprised at dinner by family members who would respond incredulously when I said something self-evident, like “If you repress race at the law, if you pretend it doesn’t matter, it will return in grotesque ways you don’t expect, so yeah, the O.J. verdict makes perfect sense, it’s good for the country and the law, too.”
That’s what I said one Thanksgiving night, back in those dark days. My lawyerly in-laws went apeshit, except for my father-in-law, he of the Harvard pedigree and the Calabrian hard head, who stayed silent but nodded when I had a chance to explain my position. Later, back at his big house on the Parkway, he said, “I see how your mind works.” That’s all. No agreement or approval, just recognition. It’s all you need when you begin with mere respect. Looking back, though, that night was the beginning of something else–the end of my ability to comprehend what went by the name of my own family.
So here’s what I posted at Facebook this morning. Be thankful I haven’t written an entire fucking sermon on this quasi-holy day. Try to stay alert as I meander toward the musical climax. Oh, fuck all. Eat up, get drunk, be tolerant of your relatives as they slip into whatever torpor they need to survive. Next year at my place–you’re all invited.
What am I thankful for?” FB prompts me with that instead of the normal “What’s on your mind?” WTF? We gotta sing for our supper? What’ll it be tomorrow, “What are you buying on Black Friday?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m the guy who thinks consumer culture is good for our souls–and a year ago I spent two hours in the after-midnight Macy’s at Herald Square, doing “research” in the anthropological sense. But good Christ, must we be thankful?
All right, then, Little Brother, here goes. Thanks to Charles McGovern, who reminded me that Duke Ellington is the greatest musician of the 20th century. I almost said “perhaps.” I just spent two hours listening to a dozen versions of “Come Sunday” on YouTube, for which also many thanks. The best vocal is by Milton Suggs (yes, better than Mahalia Jackson), the best instrumental rendition is by John Blake (violin) and Billy Taylor (piano). Don’t tune in unless you’re prepared to cry.
Thanks to New York City for being here when I needed it. Thanks to the Republican Party for insisting that heterosexual white folks in traditional families represent the future as well as the past–oh, and that us dependent types have violated that sacred set of norms we gather under the heading of the Protestant Ethic. Talk about digging your own grave: keep it up, wouldja?
Thanks to my girlfriend, Laura, who comes equipped with a fierce intellect, a big heart, and a hilarious way of being human. Thanks to my old friend Mike, the smartest guy I ever met, who keeps asking me questions I can’t answer. Thanks again to my old friend Bruce, who has the answers to Mike’s questions. Thanks also to the maniacs at USIH, Dissent, and Jacobin, who have inexplicably decided that I’m not (just) a shill for corporate capitalism. Bob, Keith, Mary, well, let’s talk.
And, atheist that I am, I will now give thanks to the God of love Ellington entertains. There is a moment in “Come Sunday” when you don’t know where you are, as listener or participant in the song’s narrative arc. It’s the difference between a refrain and a chorus, I guess. “Please look down and see my people through”–or “Come Sunday, oh come Sunday, that’s the day.”
The difference is between a vertical and a horizontal axis, and the music enacts–it does not merely enforce–this ontological compass. You can’t help but inhabit both spatial and spiritual planes just by listening. “Please look down” is a descending set of haunting minor chords, whereas “Come Sunday” levels out, ending where it begins. Ellington’s music invokes the God of love from on high, but with that “Sunday” as its grounding, its bass line, it also tilts the axis toward this earth, this life, this very moment, when you know it’s all you got, just this world in all its glory and idiocy.
Thank you, Duke Ellington. More than enough to celebrate today.