On Saturday afternoon I drove out to Red Bank, New Jersey, to see Two River Theater Company‘s new production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and on the way home I listened to Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat. The juxtaposition was unplanned–I was so busy last week that the car ride was the first chance I had to listen to Fagen’s new solo album–but like so many things in life, it ended up being fortuitous.
Not only are Godot and Morph the Cat both about death, but they take a similarly jaunty attitude toward what W.C. Fields called “the fellow in the bright nightgown,” a euphemism that inspired Fagen to write one of his most disquieting songs:
Ten milligrams of Chronax
Will whip you back through time
Past Hebrew kings and furry things
To the birth of humankind
I shared in all of nature’s secrets
But when I finally came around
I’m sittin’ on the rug gettin’ a victory hug
From the fella in the Brite Nitegown
Having recently gotten a close look at the same fellow, I found the one-two punch of Godot and Morph the Cat a bit much for one evening. True, the vaudevillian banter of Vladimir and Estragon is not only witty but can also be invigorating, even inspiring, if you’re in the right mood, and I’ve loved Fagen’s music for longer than some of you have been alive. On the other hand, we have it on the best authority that human kind/Cannot bear very much reality, and I’d had enough for the weekend by the time I got home.
So what did I do? I got up first thing Sunday morning and proceeded to write a three-thousand-word essay for Commentary on Dinu Lipatti, the great Romanian pianist who died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1950 at the age of thirty-three. Smart move, huh? To be sure, I got to spend the day listening to some of the most beautiful piano playing on record (I especially like the performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle on this CD). Still, it was starting to seem as if I were being stalked by the fellow in the bright nightgown.
How do you get your mind off the inevitable? By doing something completely different, I suppose, which may well have been a part of what Mark Morris had in mind when he made his conducting debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the other day. The Mark Morris Dance Group is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth season, and BAM turned itself inside out to mark the occasion. Among other things, Morris popped up in the orchestra pit to lead a chorus and chamber orchestra in the score to Gloria, a wonderful dance he made in 1981 to Vivaldi’s Gloria.
While Morris is not the first choreographer to have tried his hand at conducting–George Balanchine used to do it from time to time–I can’t think of anyone else alive today who would have been capable of pulling off such a feat. Nor was it a mere stunt: he used a baton and a score, mouthed the Latin words for the benefit of the singers, and controlled the performance with the unflappable assurance of an old pro. (I should know, by the way. Not only was I sitting in an aisle seat with a clear sightline all the way to the pit, but I once played bass in a performance of the Vivaldi Gloria, and I’ve even done a certain amount of choral conducting myself.)
It occurs to me that I might possibly have had a little something to do with Morris’ decision to take up the baton. I wrote a New York Times profile of him six years ago in which I paid special attention to his musicality (it’s in the Teachout Reader). I spent quite a bit of time watching him work in the course of writing the piece, and after seeing him rehearse a small group of musicians, I told him that I thought he ought to give serious thought to trying his hand at conducting. It happened that a friend of mine was working at the time as the artistic advisor to a big-city symphony orchestra, and I suggested to my friend that he nudge the management into inviting Morris to lead the orchestra in a concert. Nothing came of it, but when I heard that Morris was going to conduct a performance of Gloria, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my not-so-casual suggestion had finally borne fruit.
I mention all this because Morris is about to turn fifty. When you cross the fiftieth meridian, as I did last month, you’re more than likely to feel the need for some kind of change, especially if your life has been running fairly smoothly of late. Some people get divorced, others buy an age-inappropriate car. Mark Morris took up conducting, which strikes me as an ingenious and productive response to the stealthy approach of the Distinguished Thing. Me, I called 911 three months ago and checked myself into the nearest hospital, which wasn’t nearly as much fun as conducting Vivaldi’s Gloria but at least had the advantage of making me feel a whole lot better about turning fifty than I might have otherwise.
And now what? I painted my first painting a couple of weeks ago, and it was so much fun that I’m itching to do it again. On the other hand, it isn’t very likely that I’ll be showing at a gallery any time soon, and though there’s much to be said for fun, I have a feeling that it’ll take something more all-consuming to distract me from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But I’m damned if I know what it might be, so instead of sitting around the apartment brooding, I finished writing my essay about Dinu Lipatti, strolled around the corner to the gym, and spent a sweaty hour on the rowing machine, listening to Morph the Cat as I kicked valiantly against the pricks.
I used to smile when I saw middle-aged people jogging down the street. Now I know better. In the wise words of Anthony Powell, “Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction.” Except, of course, the direction in which we all advance throughout every minute of every day we spend above ground. At least for the present, I don’t care to travel that road any faster than I can help.