Doubletalk

To complement Flann O’Brien’s multi-lingual All-Purpose Opening Speech, a passage from Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! led me to the even purer form of doubletalk:

Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.

The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.

Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.

Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).

Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:

Meanwhile Dario Fo was exploring Grammelot:

By extension, here’s a classic scene from Bananas:

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!

LB

Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce (1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.

With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book

  • Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
    (Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)

The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:

Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]

The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]

The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.

LB club

As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in

the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.

He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe

insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!

The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.

Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):

Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!

Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:

He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.

A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!

In another passage, Goldman comments:

The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.

Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.

The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.

LB arrest

But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:

What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!

Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):

London
Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural ExchangeYAY!

Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.

(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)

Here’s an intriguing prequel to the misguided vinegar advertisement, and indeed Always look on the bright side of life:

The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”

Goldman goes on:

Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.

Not all of this was so wide of the mark.

As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,

If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.

As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in The Spectator:

Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.

He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.

I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.

Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.

The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.

* * *

All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).

 

* The title’s punctuation reminds me of Mahler’s fondness for exclamation marks!!!

French slang

Spiral

A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.

The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?

As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôle resumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.

Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And

Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).

What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.

anvers

Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of putemerde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is le fist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.

But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is rien sacré?

Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).

Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. And don’t miss this post on how not to learn Japanese!

A recognition sextet, and more stammering

 

Sextet

To follow my Mozart opera dream:

Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.

The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:

A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:

But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):

* * *

The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!

Besides all the musical portrayals of disfluency that I mentioned in this post (including Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”), we can add Vašek in Smetana’s The bartered bride:

An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but

some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.

And the role of Dr Blind in Die Fledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.

 

An Irish choice

Irish

I’m still entertained by this poster that I saw on an Irish train in the 1990s. I imagine a response from the archetypal miscreant, confused by the options, might go:

Let me see now, that’s a teaser.* Can I have both?

 

* As in the Japanese particle Saa, helpfully explained in the wacky Teach yourself Japanese.

Among myriad aperçus of the great Flann O’Brien, note his “smoking substances of non-nationals“. There’s a whole host of drôlerie under the Irish tag, such as this—as well as the great Ciaran Carson.

He’s a clever little boy

RM

As if the coup of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson isn’t bad enough, we have to endure the appalling spectre of his éminence grise the Minister for the 18th century defending it in his suave, patronizing, patrician tones.

The Haunted Pencil’s style reminds me of yet another Monty Python classic featuring John Cleese:

Son: Good evening, mother. Good evening, Mrs Niggerbaiter.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s walking already!

Mrs Shazam: Ooh yes, he’s such a clever little fellow, aren’t you? Coochy coochy coo.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Hello, coochy coo.

Mrs Shazam: Hello, hello… [they chuck him under the chin]

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Oochy coochy [son gives tight smile]. Look at him laughing… ooh, he’s a chirpy little fellow! Can he talk? Can he talk, eh?

Son: Yes of course I can talk, I’m the Minister for Overseas Development.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s a clever little boy—he’s a clever little boy! (gets out a rattle) Do you like your rattle, eh? Do you like your little rattle? Look at his little eyes following it, eh? Look at his iggy piggy piggy little eyeballs eh… Ooh, he’s got a tubby tum-tum…

Son [interrupting]: Mother, could I have a quick cup of tea please—I have an important statement on Rhodesia in the Commons tomorrow…

* * *

By now Wee-Smug has joined the Queen and Brian Sewell on my shortlist of readers for a BBC Radio 4 serialization of Miles Davis’s autobiography (“Listen with Motherfucker”).

And here’s a fun party game to mollify your irritation with Pompous Brexit Twats. Whenever you hear them braying some fatuous remark about “taking back control of our borders / laws / own country [blah blah]”, just replace the noun with “bowels”—”we can finally look forward to taking back control of our bowels”, and so on.

Cf. Stewart Lee’s notional cabbie: “These days, you can get arrested and thrown in jail just for saying you’re English” (in my post How to be English). See also his brilliant routine in A French letter, and several more fine critiques of xenophobic bigotry under the Lee tag.

 

Such levity is all very well (cf. Peter Cook on Weimar satire), but this is our country these Rich White Politicians are smugly destroying, FFS. Soon we’ll be a banana republic without the bananas. But at least they’ll be OUR no bananas.

Fleabag

Fleabag

Fleabag is brilliant altogether (tutti, bemused: “Fleabag is brilliant”), but this celebrated scene from series 2, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is just perfect—script, acting, and genuine, mesmerizing rapport:

For me it ranks alongside the diner scene and final monologue in Five easy pieces, and the restaurant scene near the beginning of Un homme et une femme.

See also Killing Eve: notes and queries.