Friday, April 13, 2012

K is For Klezmer & Kevin & Krazy Kat

via Toonpedia
Things that inspire me: cartoon music and musical cartoons. Why? Because they create zany, playful, wild, wonderful worlds that bring out the joyous & the imaginative in all of us. And, there to help the pursuit thereof, is also my wonderful K-initialed boyfriend, who I will avoid gushing about because there's no need to embarrass him on the internet, but whom I will take as an example of the awesome things that can happen when your significant other supports and encourages you in your weird and wacky dreams.

I've referred to Krazy Kat here before, but never with the appropriate adulation and enthusiasm due such a shaper of my dreams. And I don't think I've ever made the fuss I ought to make about Klezmer music, and my father's old radio show The King of Prague (don't bother googling it; as far as the internet's concerned it doesn't exist), and their effect on my sense of the bizarre and the joyful. So please, today, come enter a mildly lunatic and lunar landscape, full of beards and bricks, and learn a little about the Old Country of the my mind.

Surrealists, rejoice, for here's a beauty... fraught with zest, hilarity, smarts, and good schmaltz... beggars' tunes, paeans, marches, vaudevilles... cartoon music, mariachi, jazz, the kitchen sink... wonderfully daft... a merry exotic carousel ride... keen, sparkling arrangements. 

This quote is from Downbeat's review of my all-time favorite Klezmer album, Notes From The Underground, by the "ragtag army of street musicians from Berkeley, California [who] jump-started the worldwide klezmer revival in 1975," whose "brass-kicking, steam-powered, vodka-soaked Old World jazz" is understandably beloved by a quasi-Jewish bellydancing lunatic like myself. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm speaking of the Klezmorim.

The thing is, "klezmorim" kinda just means "people who play klezmer music" and also most of what the band released never came out on CD, so it's hard to find their magical and amazing stuff. I am lucky enough to have a digital recording, and here it is.

The Mooche, this song is called, and it's a version, of course, of Minnie the Moocher. And just to really confirm all those nice adjectives that Downbeat used up there (really, go back and read 'em), here's my other favorite version of the song - firmly embedded in a Betty Boop cartoon that proves, once and for all, that Betty's a nice Jewish girl. (Please, skip whatever stupid ad they play. Just watch the cartoon.)

Yeah, they don't make 'em like that any more. (That's Cab Calloway as the ghost king, by the way - Max Fleischer, who invented Betty, also invented the technique of rotoscoping, in which a live actor is essentially turned into a cartoon by painting over the frames. Hence the amazing fluidity - that's Cab himself, kids.) "Wonderfully daft," "a merry, exotic carousel ride," "surrealists, rejoice," "cartoon music"? Check, and check, and check, and check. (Most of the Betty Boop cartoons are now in the public domain, by the by, and almost all of them are as truly surreal and marvelous as this one, if not more so. Although the Hays Code, which kicked into effect in 1934, toned down a little of the suggestiveness, the cartoons didn't get less weird. You can spend hours watching them here.)

via George Herriman Komics
What makes the Fleischer's universe so wonderful is its total mutability: objects grow, melt, sing, transform, dance, scold, and reshape the landscape in a constant marvelous transfiguration. Watching them is a delight because the world in which they take place is so thoroughly alive. Although the Krazy Kat landscape is a little more austere and lunar, based as it is on the Arizona desert, it also shifts and changes over the course of each strip: rocks alter, trees grow, stripes zigzag, the moon looks down from different rings. And Krazy, too, lives in a world with different laws of physics (not to mention some really wonderful gender mutations - Krazy is mainly referred to as male by other characters, but it varies from strip to strip, and Herriman, the Kat's creator, once told Frank Capra that Krazy was neither a he nor a she, and "free to butt into anything.". In addition, Krazy is in love with a married male mouse and is beloved by a male bulldog. There's no sexual innuendo of any kind, and Krazy's love is of the tender and innocent variety; still, there is nothing conventional about this Kat.)

Listen to enough klezmer music, and the world starts to look like Kokonino, only with a bunch of dancing rabbis thrown in for good measure and plenty of old city streets to wander in. My dad used The Mooche as the theme to a radio play he made with some friends down at KALX Berkeley - the afore-mentioned King of Prague - which takes place in a mystical, mysterious, changeable version of Prague just before the Nazi invasion, populated with alchemy and folktale and surrealism, and so it's all mixed up in my head. I mean, who do you think introduced me to Krazy Kat? My dad's responsible for a lot of my brain, you know. I've got this idea that music and books and cartoons and paintings can take you to a world that bumps along beside ours, a wavy line that keeps knocking into the nice straight direction of our daily lives. It's full of animals that dream and landscapes that express themselves by shrugging into new formations, rocks that look like bones and bones that knit themselves into cathedrals, birds that turn into tubas and tubas that turn into bathtubs full of gin, and everyone, everywhere, is dancing.

Kevin (right) and our friend Steve in a crazy art thing I was
in the middle of making. Once day I'll have decent pictures.
Kevin, my lovely and long-suffering boyfriend, didn't grow up with any of this nudnik dream nonsense; it's not just a Jewish thing, I don't think, but being Jewish seems to help, and his family is also not anything like as deeply weird as mine. (I say that with all possible love.) That being said, Kevin has believed I was an artist since before I had any idea. I've dallied around with creative crap my whole entire life, but I never took it seriously til I met Kevin, and this is because K, while an extremely creatively awesome person in his own right, loves best to do something that I don't think is valued enough in our society: he is a facilitator of the arts. In addition to just, like, ya know, thinking art is cool and stuff, he has a fantastic and magical passion for helping creative folk connect to one another and the resources they need to make the stuff they do the best they can. He is much more social than I am, but when I first started going to parties and events with him I was struck by how his favorite thing to do was introduce two people, say "You two should know each other," and walk away to let them discover all the ways in which their work or ideas were connected.

Let me say this clearly: that is awesome.

Kevin is a writer and has plans and ideas of his own, many of which have to do with revamping the way art-based nonprofits work to diversify revenue streams and increase connectivity with local communities. He's an innovator and I think he's brilliant. But what makes him really outstanding is the way that his faith in the importance of the arts manifests through his abiding belief in and support for other artists. He's one of those spectacular human beings who sees the importance of people's work long before they do.

I cannot stress this enough: what Kevin does is a silent source of sustenance to artists everywhere. Find people who do this. Make friends with them. They will change your life.

Kevin invites a band to play in my crazy art
installation. I get up to dance. Someone
makes a picture of it. Art gives birth to art.
Here's me without much more than a bunch of peculiar ideas about joyfulness and discovery and deeply weird dream places in my head, thinking who in the world would give a hoot, even if I could explain it? And there's Kevin, convinced that what I have to say about joy is gonna ring true for a whole buncha folks. So I start talking about it, about music and discovery and exploration, the mapcap, miraculous, magical nature of the world when you see it through childhood eyes glazed with strange cartoons and the haunting paths of clarinets. Sometimes what it takes is someone else who believes so fully in what you have to say that they want it to get out into the universe even more than you do. It's not because Kevin loves me specially, or because I'm secretly a genius unrecognized except by him; it's because he can see the images bottled up in my throat, and because if he has a religion at all, it's in the rightness and the beauty of letting art spill forth from those who have it in them. So if I'm making a Museum after all, it's because I was lucky enough to have someone in my life who said to me, you know those crazy dreams and mystical sensations and bizarro constellations building up in your brain? yeah, well, it's time to give them back to the world that filled you up with them in the first place.

So thank you, Klezmorim, and all the other klezmer bands as well, you who populate my unconscious with your fierce and cheerful festivals. Thank you Krazy Kat and Koko the Clown for opening the doors into the weird, fresh, vivid, exuberant universes in which you live. And thank you, Kevin, for telling me I'd be a fool to ignore the things that give me joy, and for convincing me that there's no reason I can't make a life out of the luminous.

(If you want to learn more about Kevin's brain, check out this Twitter.) 

Say, folks, who or what has done these things for you? Tell me in the comments!


  1. Now, I want to go watch Roger Rabbit again.

    I wrote a post way back when about supporting artists. It's something people don't do enough of. Interestingly enough, my post today kind of touches on this. Not in the same way, of course, but it does.

    Because imagination doesn't need a room...
    (that's how I sign my books, so it makes sense, in context)

    1. You're right, it does touch on it! I love any kind of talk about the moon, first of all, but also in the sense of being fired up by the things that struck you as most magical when you were small. Pretty sure almost all the great minds ever can point to an early memory and say "That - THAT got stuck in my imagination FOREVER."

  2. I agree... except, maybe, for Einstein. I can't see that he ever did any kind of reading like that, but, then, I haven't read his biography, either. It just seems that he was just this great thinker that came up with things that no one had ever thought of before. No one...

    1. But he must have had some kind of really wild inspiration at SOME point. And he was a musician, so somewhere in there art was making its way through the gray matter. I don't mean to say that genius always comes from a single eureka moment - only that inspiration is a really intense force in us, especially when we're young, before our sense of wonder gets brutalized out of us.

  3. yeah, that's true...
    I think the main thing with Einstein is that he was just such a non-conformist. I need to get around to reading his biography at some point.


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