I set my iBook on shuffle play the other night and sat down at the kitchen table to fill up my seven-day pillbox. (Don’t let anybody tell you that the life of a Manhattan drama critic isn’t exciting!) As Aimee Mann started singing “Deathly,” I glanced at the clock, saw that it was eleven, and suddenly found myself remembering a conversation I had thirty-odd years ago with a long-lost college friend. She was a slightly older married woman who had long, ash-blonde hair, thin legs, and a bone-dry sense of humor, all of which I found irresistibly (and unrequitedly) appealing. Those were the days when I was hosting a late-night jazz show on the campus radio station, and my friend remarked that she liked it when I played “eleven o’clock music.”
“What’s eleven o’clock music?” I asked innocently.
“Oh, you know,” she said. “Music to…you know. That’s when my husband and I like to do it.”
This offhand remark promptly triggered a near-incapacitating spasm of jealousy, which doubtless explains why it burned itself into my memory, surfacing without warning half a lifetime later–especially since my friend, as it happens, looked more than a little bit like Aimee Mann, a coincidence that now causes me to smile wryly.
Love-hungry bachelors of the Fifties and early Sixties were notorious for using jazz and romantic ballads to grease the skids. Frank Sinatra, I’m told, was their artist of choice, though I’ve also been assured by a number of senior citizens in a position to know that Getz/Gilberto was similarly effective. Blake Edwards notwithstanding, I’ve never met anyone who did it to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet or Ravel’s Boléro, at least not more than once.
As for me, I’ve never been one to play music in intimate situations. Perhaps because I am, or used to be, a musician, I find it distracting. And I suppose it says something significant about me that while music is one of the most important things in my life–perhaps the most important thing–I don’t find it sexy, and never have.
Musicians, yes, if they’re women: I’ve been attracted to more than a few of them over the years, and the snippet of dialogue from High Fidelity that I posted as an almanac entry a couple of years ago is in my case not without autobiographical overtones:
BARRY: I want to date a musician.
ROB: I want to live with a musician. She could write songs at home, ask me what I thought of them, and maybe even include one of our private jokes in the liner notes.
BARRY: Maybe a little picture of me in the liner notes.
DICK: Just in the background somewhere.
But even though I’ve long been drawn to women who make music, it’s not their music that draws me, at least not directly. I’ve no idea why I make this odd distinction, and I’m not sure what it means, either, since I’ve never been attracted to a woman who made bad music–yet there it is.
For me, music exists in a realm infinitely removed from physical sensuality. It is, as the theologians say, “wholly other,” and it seems to me altogether appropriate that it was in a book about a religious conversion, Karl Stern’s The Pillar of Fire, that I ran across one of the few descriptions of music that seems to me at all valid:
“To talk about music” is a miserable paradox, and contains in four words an admission of incongruity. I remember the embarrassed feeling I had when I read Kierkegaard’s somber theological speculations on Mozart and Don Giovanni. Is Don Giovanni not just a “charming” opera which has a place on the repertoire somewhere with Carmen and The Barber of Seville? Or is it something entirely different, opening up the fathomless abyss of human existence? There is a hierarchy of values, the validity of which cannot be proved by what one calls ordinary means. In this respect, as in others, the Good and the Beautiful are intimately related. To me Mozart’s quartets and Bach’s Well-tempered Clavichord are in essence much more closely akin to Saint Thomas’ Summa than to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, although the latter is music and the Summa is not.
Be that as it may, I have nothing but respect for those fortunate souls who find music sexually arousing. More power to them, I say, though as I say it I can’t help but think of a story that Doug Ramsey likes to tell about his old friend Paul Desmond, the celebrated alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a man who by all accounts knew his way around a bedroom, though he wasn’t one to kiss and tell:
Once when he and I were dining, a corpulent, polyestered, middle-aged couple planted themselves next to us and announced to Paul that they recognized him from an album cover and just wanted him to know that his music sure was good to make love by. Desmond took a long look at the flabby woman in her beehive hairdo and caked makeup, and the man with his paunch and cigar stub, and said, “Glad to be of help.”