The Secrets of LM 113
A Day Off. Time to shake out the jet lag and put the iPhone camera through its paces.
Our digs at 9 AM
and from the adjacent bridge.
North of Francis Scott could be any number of American cities,
but the phallic southern view is found only around here.
Trendy Georgetown is famous for its red-brick lane.
South on Virginia Avenue, a vast apartment complex looms like a battleship.
Oh right, it's actually pretty famous.
Before he was a bestselling thriller novelist, Ross Thomas was employed as a consultant in Washington. In 1956, he handled two campaigns simultaneously: one for a Republican nominated for the Senate and the other for a Democrat running for governor of Colorado. The Republican lost and the Democrat won.
My favorite Thomas is The Porkchoppers from 1972, a story of a Teamster-style union election that reads more like truth than fiction. Thomas was brilliant at drawing perfect little charismatic descriptions of the men who did the dirty work. Mickey Della is not a main character, but he is unforgettable. To understand these excerpts, all you need to know is that Sammy Hanks is the challenger who has hired Della, and that the incumbent, Daniel Cubbin, is an alcoholic.
Della is introduced at a D.C. press conference:
Hanks was now accusing Cubbin of having sold out the union…it was strong stuff carefully written in an awful, florid style to make sure that it would be both broadcast and printed.
“Who writes this crap for Sammy?” the AP man asked The Wall Street Journal reporter.
“Mickey Della, I guess.”
“I thought so.”
“Only a real pro could make it this bad.”
After answering a few perfunctory questions, the press conference ended and Sammy Hanks left the large hotel room on Fourteenth and K Streets and headed down the hall followed by a heavy, stooped, shambling gray-haired man whose bright blues eyes glittered balefully from behind bifocal glasses with bent steel frames. The man had his usual equipment consisting of a Pall Mall cigarette parked in the corner of his mouth underneath a stained, scraggly gray mustache and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He was never seen without either a cigarette in his mouth or a newspaper under his arm because he was addicted to both. He smoked four packs of Pall Malls a day and bought every edition of every paper published in whatever city or town he happened to be in. If asked about his addiction to newspapers—he could never pass a stand or a street seller without buying one—the man always said, “What the hell, it only costs a dime and where else can you buy that much bullshit for a dime?”
The man was Mickey Della…He was a professional political press agent, or public relations adviser, or flack, or whatever anyone wanted to call him, he didn’t mind, and he was without a doubt the most vicious one around and quite possibly the best and he felt right at home working for Sammy Hanks.
He had been at it for more than forty years and for him it contained no more surprises, but he was hooked on it now, as addicted as any mainliner is to heroin. Mickey Della needed politics to live and he lunched on its intrigue and dined on its gossip. Its heartbreak provided him with breakfast...
…He had learned to use radio in the thirties and television in the fifties and he used them skillfully in a nasty, clever way that assured maximum impact…
...But Della remained essentially a newspaper man, a muckraker, an exposer of vice and wrongdoing, a viewer with alarm who had never got over the feeling that almost any evil could be cured by ninety-point headlines. And that was the principal reason that he was working for Sammy Hanks, because it was going to be a print campaign, as dirty, nasty, vicious, and lowdown as one could hope for and since it might possibly be the last such campaign ever held, Mickey Della would almost have paid to get in on it. Instead, he had lowered his usual fee of $66,789 to $61,802. Della always quoted his fee in precise amounts because he figured exactitude served as balm to the people who had to pay the bill.
Della begins his work in earnest on the weekend:
Sunday was feast day for Mickey Della. It was the day that he rose at seven to devour The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sunday Star, The Baltimore Sun, and the New York Daily News in approximately that order.
Della lived in the same large one-bedroom apartment an Sixteenth Street N.W. that he lived in since 1948. It was an apartment from which two wives had departed and whose goings Della had scarcely noticed. Now he lived alone, surrounded by hundreds of books, some mismatched but comfortable furniture, and six green, five-drawer filing cabinets that were crammed with articles and features that Della had ripped from newspapers and tucked away for future reference.
The apartment was cluttered, but not messy. The ashtrays were all clean, except for the one that Della used as he read his twenty-five pounds or so of newspapers. Only one coffee cup was visible. An old wooden desk with an equally old typewriter in its well had no litter on its surface. Della had cooked his own breakfast that morning, but there was no evidence of it in the kitchen. His bed was made and his pajamas were hung neatly behind the door of the bathroom whose tub was innocent of a ring. It was the apartment of someone who had lived alone long enough to learn that it was easier to be neat than not.
At noon Della crossed to the phone and dialed the home number of the man he bought his liquor from. “Mickey Della, Sid…I’m fine. Sorry to bother you on Sunday but I want to place a standing order with you and I’ll be out of town for a few days…Yeah. What I want is a fifth of real cheap bourbon, I don’t care what kind, to be delivered personally and gift wrapped to the same guy every day for the next month. Now he’s going to be out of town most of the time so you’re going to have to arrange it with American Express or Western Union or whoever you work it through…Yeah, it’s kind of a joke. I want it to start today, if possible. He’s in Chicago. Okay. Now I want the card to read, ‘Courage, a Friend.’ That’s all. Hell, I don’t even remember whether they sell booze in Chicago on Sunday. It’s not famous for its blue laws….Yeah, well, the guy I want you to send it to is Daniel Cubbin. Today and tomorrow he’ll be at the Sheraton-Blackstone in Chicago. Thanks, Sid.”
Della chuckled as he went back to his newspapers. Later there would be needling harassments that would be far better and much more vicious. But it was okay for a start and just right to set the tone for another Mickey Della campaign.
Thomas's world is long gone -- hard to imagine a successful alcoholic politico these days -- but I suspect there are hundreds of conspiracies, shakedowns, bribes, deals, and other assorted shenanigans going on all around me.
Turning left at Constitution Avenue reboots the map. Those who think that there is a secret world government in charge of everything believe that the ancient form of the obelisk is a touchstone/energy source found near any significant seat of power. I once read a fun book by David Ovason that argues that D.C. was built on a Masonic plan. His interpretation was almost too straight, though.
Whenever I go by the Monument, I'm struck by how grass doesn't grow there very well...kind of like how dogs always bark at alien imposters in monster movies.
Despite misgivings, I'm mostly a patriot. My heart lifts at seeing the first amendment writ large on the side of a building, especially at this time when that asshole Rev. Terry Jones takes up so much airspace in the 24-hour cycle. (The iPhone doesn't cut it here. The text is, of course: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.)
A noble Calder outside the National Gallery gives pause,
But my mission is pressing and the sun is getting higher. Take a right, go past the Capitol, left on Independence Avenue. Whoops, wrong building.
Cross the street to the modernistic side instead.
JM was the face of the short-lived $5000 bill. There are only 342 left. Apparently, if you can get one, it will run you about $150,000.
Anyway, his building houses one of the great resources for musicians.
Anyone can get the correct credential instantly with a driver's license or passport.
The corridors are vast and empty...
...on the way to the Grail.
Outside the Grail is a Gerry Mulligan exhibit
with commentary by one of the most erudite and learned jazz critics.
When I entered, Larry Appelbaum, who (among many other things) found the tapes of Monk and Coltrane together at Carnegie Hall, surprised me by greeting me by name. We hadn't met before, and I was delighted to have a guide to the special treasures.
Larry suggested I fill out the request forms for the regular stuff I wanted -- scores pre-1980 are listed in the card catalog, scores after 1980 are on the computer -- before he showed me "The top of the tip of the iceberg."
After handing in a partial stack (the librarian accepts only a couple requests at a time) the top of the tip of the iceberg produced a detailed Teddy Wilson piano method, a letter from Louis Armstrong to Mezz Mezzrow requesting "arrangements" (cough), a Charles Mingus big band chart with Charles Lloyd's phone number scribbled on the back, George Russell's first draft for the Lydian Method (no "Chromatic" yet in the title), Sun Ra's early Tin Pan Alleyish songs, Gerry Mulligan's Birth of the Cool parts, and what may be the only extant example of Charlie Parker's handwritten score, an early version of "Barbados" called "Kangaroo..." (there was a second illegible word) with a few different notes and the last few bars displaced by two beats.
Naturally, I wasn't allowed to photograph most of the special collection, but this was OK because it was work for hire for the government, and the government does not retain rights.. Larry's trying to get someone to republish Noble Sissle's account of playing in James Reese Europe's band,
typed onto near-transparent onion-skin paper. This item could clarify questions about jazz history!
Larry told me to make sure I explored what else was available in the Special Collections, and also assured me that any Library of Congress librarian would help me with any question and work hard to find whatever I needed. (In this shot, the antique desk in the background belonged to Sergei Rachmaninoff.) Finally, Larry encouraged me to form a better relationship with my local Brooklyn librarian, and of course he is right.
I listen to a lot of modernist classical music, but hardly have the budget (or the shelf space) to get the scores. But I've found that even a casual perusal of the printed page will tune up my ears and allow me to understand complex music better. Over the course of my day at LM 113, I listened/watched to Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, Vivian Fine, Robert Moevs, Morton Gould, Gunther Schuller, Poul Ruders, and three piano with orchestra pieces by living composers, Peter Lieberson's Piano Concerto, Harrison Birtwistle's Antiphonies, and Aribert Reimann's Second Concerto for Piano and 19 Players. (iPods and computers are allowed into the Reading Room, but no bags or containers of any kind.)
I've favored the first movement of Lieberson since the early '90s but never got a gander before. Peter Serkin does a phenomenal job on the recording, but it helps that Lieberson never asks for anything truly unreasonable.
I only heard about the Birtwistle last month from Matt Mitchell while comparing notes after his gig with Tim Berne. I didn't know that Harrison B. had written a piece for piano and orchestra, and Matt assured me it was great. The night before my LOC excursion I lifted the recording from AGP and so my very first time checking it out was accompanied by the page. Perhaps of all the moderns, Birtwistle's style is the closest to free jazz: indeed, Paul Clarvis plays on the sensational recording of Panic.
33 minutes, though, that's pretty long (although live I'm sure I'd never want it to end). The 20-minute Reimann is more digestible.
While it is the shortest of these three, the score is the biggest.
It's absolutely massive, probably the largest score I've ever interfaced with. You would probably need a James Madison bill to buy one (if you could even find it in the first place). One of the librarians complains that I'm blocking the route while I'm looking at it.
From 1972, it's one of the greatest 20th-century piano concertos by a composer criminally under-recognized in America. One of the reasons his work isn't praised by academic-types is his loose rhythmic notation.
At the beginning of the piece the pianist follows the spacing between notes to determine velocity
and generally some members of the orchestra are "vagrant" (like the alto flute and bass above) even if the rest of the ensemble is notated as tightly as Birtwistle. All these quintuplets are the exception, though,
usually the conductor just cues events.
The resulting effect is more relaxed when compared to the intense tension of the Lieberson and Birtwistle pieces. Of course, all these composers are phenomenal, and they all use just what they need to get the job done. But jazz musicians with a taste for modernism: Don't sleep on Reimann, he's pretty swinging. AGP also has Second Concerto for Piano and 19 Players. The wonderful pianist is Klaus Billing with the Basler Solisten-Ensemble conducted by Francis Travis. Looking at the score enables me to hear a couple of edits for the first time (although I've owned the Wergo LP for 20 years) and even notice a couple of wrong notes. As I say, pretty swinging!
The building closes at 5, and I just barely make it to the cloakroom in time to get my bag back. The LOC staff is very nice but also very strict. Of course, I appreciate that therefore the Reimann score will always be there anytime I visit.
I return to the Marriott via the idyllic bike path that runs up the west side of the Potomac.