An Immortal Passes

What can you say about a woman brave enough to hang one-handed off the Eiffel Tower? IN SPIKE HEELS? People say the vertiginous scope of the background is mostly an optical illusion, but I call bullshit. Tina Turner was this brave and graceful every second of her life. You can’t persuade me otherwise.

The magnificent Tina Turner died today, although it feels impossible that such a dynamo could be stilled. Like Grace Bumbry, she was an alumna of Sumner High, on the Northside of St. Louis; back then, before the redlining and the strategic disinvestment, it was a jewel of the public school system, among many.

Tina Turner performing in St. Louis, at the Club Imperial, where she and Ike and the band honed their brilliance.

Way back in 2004 I wrote a review of an Ike Turner reissue that was actually an Ike and Tina record in all but name. In it I tried to describe what made her so electrifying to me from the first second I saw and heard her. If you don’t feel like reading, you can just watch this video from 1975, from The Midnight Special show.

Ike Turner 
His Woman, Her Man 
(Funky Delicacies)

It was Ike Turner’s curse and blessing that he hooked up with Anna Mae Bullock, a teenage girl from Nutbush, Tenn. The same might be said of her. She started out as a backup singer in Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm; was impregnated by one of said Kings; and then, with a snappy new name and a starring role in the revue, married Turner two years after they met. You’ve seen the movie, so you know how great that turned out. As a husband, Turner was monstrous; as a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he was sublime. If you’re one of those either/or types who believe geniuses have to be nice people, or at least not unrepentant dirtbags, remember that Pablo Picasso, Gustav Mahler, John Milton, and countless other cultural heavies all had their moments of misogyny, too. What do we gain by striking them from the canon?

Tina couldn’t help but outshine her mentor and tormentor. Still, even though she sings lead on every track of His Woman, Her Man, this is Ike Turner’s album, not Ike & Tina’s; if you don’t believe it, just look at the CD cover. Call it ungrateful, call it egomaniacal, but allowing Ike the frontman’s spot in this instance seems less unfair when you consider the couple’s careers: Ike is a god to nerdy collectors, but the hoi polloi know him only as the crazy coke fiend who smacked poor Tina around; his ex, on the other hand, she of the killer gams and the major motion pictures and the string of second-heyday hits in the ’80s, is a superstar. Who among us hasn’t whiled away a summer afternoon pretending to be Tina Turner, baring those famous golden thighs, shaking an imaginary shock of coppery hair, screaming and sighing and strutting and signifying like a sex-starved Pentecostal? Who else could sing like that, each phrase razor-blade bright and so sharp it doesn’t even hurt at first when it slices your heart in two? 

But try to hear past Tina’s coruscating wail, the glamour that flares off every gritty syllable, and pause to savor Ike’s instrumental flourishes–the ARP synthesizer fed through a wah-wah pedal, the improbably funky “funk box” (an early drum machine), the oscillator, the countless crazy gadgets he collected at his Bolic Studio. His Woman, Her Man‘s 17 tracks were recorded there in 1970, when Ike, hoping to cultivate a bigger rock audience, began to experiment with what was then cutting-edge technology. 

The results are strange but consistently compelling. Depending on your mood, you might crave the percolating country-soul of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary (The Funky Version),” which Ike and Tina later rerecorded (the somewhat less funky version that anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies station knows by heart). Their first rendition thrums and pulses like the dirty river they’re celebrating, a long, sticky shudder of sound. Another cover, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” is as viciously sexy as anything the Stones ever recorded, and the percussion (it sounds like kerosene igniting) neatly punctuates Ike’s layers of brilliant guitar filth. 

The weirdest cover, though, has to be Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” In retrospect, the poignancy of this choice is almost unbearable (she did bleed, of course, and not just during her period); knowing that her abusive husband persuaded her to sing it, against her better judgment, makes it especially painful. 

Fortunately, the mood lifts with the next track, “It’s Groovier Across the Line,” a bouncy sex romp that’s one among many great Ike compositions here. Dig the fried-out guitars on “Brain Game” or the squealing, almost unlistenable synths on “Baby Get It On,” the aural equivalent of crystal meth and undoubtedly the best song you’ve never heard. Every listen yields a new favorite, another if-only classic. His Woman, Her Man might not absolve Ike of his personal transgressions, but it secures his status as an icon.

Copyright 2004 by René Spencer Saller
This review was originally published in the Illinois Times and later reprinted by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (along with my reviews of Wilco and Eminem, it won first place in the annual Association of Alternative Weeklies awards in 2005).

Rest easy, Rita Lee

Rita Lee in 2010

The sui generis Brazilian singer Rita Lee died a few days ago, on May 8, and I didn’t want to let the sad occasion go unremarked here, even though I don’t have time to write the tribute she deserves right now. (Filthy lucre! But the good kind.) So I went through the ol’ archives and found a record review that I wrote in 1999 about the great Luaka Bop compilation (curated by David Byrne) Everything is Possible!

The RFT links are always iffy for me, so I’m cutting and pasting the review here instead. And if you don’t have any Os Mutantes records, you could do worse than start with this collection. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of it. Back when I did a weekly community radio show on KDHX FM-88, I played a lot of Os Mutantes, probably at least a track or two every month, and found that it always went over well. It’s impossible to quantify but safe to say that Rita Lee’s artistry and charisma are a big part of the timeless appeal.


Everything Is Possible! (Luaka Bop)

By René Spencer Saller on Wed, Jul 21, 1999 at 4:00 am

To say Os Mutantes, a Brazilian trio formed in the late ’60s, were ahead of their time is to understate their singular genius, to suggest that we’ve somehow caught up with them. If only! The music founding members Arnaldo Baptista, Rita Lee Jones, and Sergio Dias created together, a crazy amalgam of psychedelia, bossa nova, experimental rock, samba and pop, is timeless: it sounds as innovative today as it must have sounded 30 years ago, and it will probably sound just as brilliant 30 years from now. Everything Is Possible! is a fabulous compilation of songs the Mutantes recorded between 1968 and 1972, ranging from the trippy, cannabis-inspired “Ando Meio Desligado,” which sets Jones’ silvery vocals against a bass line cribbed from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” whacked-out keyboards, and distorted electric guitars, to the exquisite “Fuga No. 11,” with its tinkly bells and majestic Sgt. Pepper-inflected strings and horns. Every song on the CD is at once gorgeous and freakish, catchy and cacophonous, familiar and deeply mysterious. It’s no surprise that fans of the Mutantes include Beck, David Byrne, Stereolab’s Tim Gane, Arto Lindsay, and the late Kurt Cobain (who tried unsuccessfully to convince them to reunite so they could open for Nirvana in 1993).

With Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Z, and Gal Costa, Os Mutantes were part of the Tropicália movement, an avant-garde group of leftist musicians who sought to revolutionize Brazilian pop culture with the use of electric instruments, subversive humor, far-out stage personas, and surreal arrangements. They pissed off just about everybody, from uptight leftist folkies (think of the guy who screamed “Judas!” during Bob Dylan’s electric tour in 1966) to the draconian military dictatorship, which effectively killed the movement shortly after its inception by arresting Gil and Velosa and forcing them into exile. Even under censorship, however, Os Mutantes continued to record, releasing a handful of albums (the first three, reissued on the Omplatten label, are highly recommended) before they broke up for good in 1978. Live, they dressed up like Sancho Panza, a pregnant bride, and space aliens. They wrote songs with outrageous titles such as “Ave Lucifer” (“Hail Lucifer”). They created their own instruments, from the backwards wah-wah pedal on “Dia 36” to the can of bug spray used in place of a high hat on “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour.” What more could anyone want from a band? They’ll blow your mind, they’ll crack you up, they’ll steal your heart, and they’ll make you believe that everything is possible.

Copyright 1999 by René Spencer Saller

Burt Bacharach Is No More

One of the greatest-ever native Missouri songwriters died yesterday, on February 8, 2023: Burt Bacharach, born on May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri. It seems presumptuous to hope that the immortal pop genius, whose music I have been enjoying since I was in utero, will rest in peace any more peacefully if I pipe in to mark his passing, and everyone knows that 94 is a ripe old age indeed. Even so, it seems only right to observe that we won’t see his likes again: a songwriter who could write for so many distinctive voices and somehow make them sound more distinctively themselves without sacrificing what made his own songs, especially his collaborations with lyricist Hal David, so instantly recognizable. Despite being a fine pianist and a serviceable singer, Bacharach was a songwriter in the pure composer tradition: an artist who wrote primarily for other voices. I suppose I should mention that he studied with one of my classical-music heroines, the iconic Nadia Boulanger, especially since this blog is mostly about classical music, but Boulanger has been dead a lot longer, and I’m not likely to give up my campaign to make her a household name anytime soon. So. 

Here’s a song my mom put on the family turntable often, a song I loved from the first instant I heard it. She summarized the plot of the movie Alfie for me in such a way that makes me never want to see the movie, and not because she made it sound terrible but because she made it seem more beautiful than I’m guessing it actually was, and I know that’s mostly because of the power of this song. The song tells me all I need to know, and it’s perfect.

Thank you for giving this nonbeliever something to believe in.

Please know that if I did not successfully embed this video, you can seek it out yourself on YouTube. Just look for Dionne Warwick singing “Alfie,” then go ahead and do yourself a favor and listen to all the Bacharach songs that pop up in your feed or in your subconscious memory. I’m sure if you have been sentient for longer than a half-decade, you’ll know at least a few of them by heart.

Review: Chuck Berry: An American Life, by RJ Smith

Just to get this out of the way first, I had some trepidations when I started this biography. As a native St. Louisan, I feel reflexively defensive about Chuck Berry and his complicated legacy, which in many ways mirrors the city that spawned him (us). As with most native St. Louisans, there aren’t too many degrees of separation between us. Decades before I got to interview Chuck Berry in person, I heard story after story from people who met him or knew him or had minor dealings with him. My own mom, a public schoolteacher who moonlighted as a waitress for extra money, served him and one of his very young blond dates on a couple of occasions. She said he was polite and friendly and a good tipper. A perfect gentleman–who was fucking an apparent teenager.

Berry is definitely the most charismatic person I have ever met and probably the most significant person I have ever interviewed, and I didn’t get much time with him–maybe 20 minutes or a half-hour, and I wasn’t allowed to use a tape recorder, which both amused and irritated me, since I’m a stickler for quoting people precisely, and, to put it mildly, Chuck Berry resists paraphrase. He had the most peculiar and poetic way of phrasing things, a sort of ur-Country Grammar lexicon that is impossible to replicate. Some of his gnomic locutions reminded me of my late grandmother’s sayings; others seemed unique to him. After our interview, I literally ran to my office and transcribed my notes right away, so I would be able to capture as much of that sui generis voice as possible. I could still hear his voice ringing like a bell in my brain, and I could still feel the grasp of his enormous hand, the force of his singular star power. Most celebrities (especially septuagenarian celebrities, as he was at the time) seem smaller and more ordinary in real life. Not Chuck Berry, though: even eating chicken wings in a goofy captain’s cap, he was majestic, mysterious, suffused with dark energy disguised as mere genius.

I knew before I started Smith’s comprehensive and unstintingly honest but enormously sympathetic biography that his would need to be an unauthorized biography. Berry was protective of his privacy and his legacy, and his family no doubt feels that Berry’s own biography is definitive. But as fantastic as Berry’s autobiography is (for one thing, it replicates his voice exactly, which makes sense since he actually wrote it), it conceals as much or more than it reveals. This is going to sound like a strange comparison, but in many ways Smith’s great challenge is similar to the one faced by Jan Swafford in writing about Johannes Brahms, another genius perv who wore mask over mask over mask and drenched every meaningful extramusical statement in irony. With a subject as complex and contradictory as Berry or Brahms, how can the biographer tell if you have found his “true” self and not another mask? More likely the “true” self is this multitudinous assemblage of lies, myths, delusions, and unconscious compulsions, but it takes a biographer as talented as Swafford or Smith to present the subject in all its irreducible complexity. It helps that they’re both very good at writing about music qua music, which is, after all, the language Berry and Brahms spoke best.

Despite my pledge to use the library rather than buy more books, I ended up ordering a copy of Chuck Berry: An American Life after I finished the library book. I don’t write about pop music anymore, so I won’t use this as a research source the way I refer to my Swafford bios or my music encyclopedias, but I want to have this in my collection, and I want to be able to press it into the hands of the next blowhard fool who says something ignorant and dismissive about the man who gave my city, nation, and world so many priceless gifts. 

In the event that anyone wants to read my short interview with Berry, I cut-and-pasted it below, since it’s old enough to be getting unsearchable, at least in the existing RFT archives:

Riverfront Times, October 17, 2001
Somewhere around the middle of the long, long list of things that make Radar Station sad, somewhere between kitten torture and the demise of the bustle in ladies’ skirt fashions, is the fact that St. Louis rock icon Chuck Berry doesn’t get the respect he deserves in his own hometown. Sure, he’s got a bronze star on Delmar, his monthly gigs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room always sell out, and Gov. Bob Holden and Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to present him with “proclamations of his greatness” at his big birthday bash at the Pageant on Oct. 18. These honors notwithstanding, when your garden-variety St. Louis hipster utters Berry’s name, it’s likely to lead to a crack about coprophilia and underage girls, not a serious discussion about his astonishing musical legacy.

It’s partly his own fault. Anyone who’s seen Berry in concert recently is painfully aware that he phones in his performances more often than not, seldom bothering to rehearse with his pickup bands or even tune his guitar. No one held a gun to his head when he outfitted his employee bathrooms with hidden video cameras. No one forced him to record the staggeringly stupid novelty jingle “My Ding-a-Ling.” But what does it say about the kitten-torturing, bustle-slighting world we live in that this infantile paean to Berry’s illustrious pee-pee remains his all-time biggest hit, bigger than “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine (Is It You?)” and “No Particular Place to Go”? What does it say about us that we’d rather make poop jokes than talk about the poetic brilliance of lyrics such as “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks” or “as I was motorvatin’ over the hill” or “campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat”? Indeed, we’re mindless sheep, too busy playing with our own ding-a-lings to appreciate the legend who duck-walks among us.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether we make dumb gibes or issue proclamations. Berry’s legacy is right there on his records: those slithery, wild, scabrous guitar licks; those groin-grinding jump rhythms, that heady elixir of honky-tonk and R&B — the very essence of rock & roll, in all of its primitive, spastic, id-centered glory. Without Berry’s quicksilver genius, rock music as we know it would not, could not exist.

Radar Station had the singular pleasure of interviewing the brown-eyed handsome man in person last week, when he met with us at Blueberry Hill. At nearly three-quarters of a century, Berry looks dapper and alert. Wearing a black windbreaker and his signature captain’s hat, he sits at the head of the table, in front of an uneaten basket of hot wings and a glass of what looks like orange juice. He urges us to move closer — not because he’s trying to get fresh with us but because he’s a little hard of hearing. Radar Station (who suddenly feels too cute to be 9,460,800 minutes over 17) finds his gallantry irresistible, if absurd. He fixes his cloudy black eyes on our face and, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, politely informs us that he doesn’t care. “People’s opinions can’t be altered,” he observes cheerfully. “Realizing this, I’ve found much pleasure and peace.” Asked to name his favorite song, he says, “It’s just like kids — how can you say you love your boy more than your girl, your angel more than your brat?”

Berry doesn’t seem to mind being interviewed, but he doesn’t like to indulge in freeform reminiscence: “A guy came in, some college student. He set down a hand tape-recorder, and he said, ‘Chuck, I’ve been waiting for this moment for six years. Go ahead and talk.’ I said, ‘Well, then, we’re done now. You ask the questions — I’ll answer anything you ask, but I’m not just going to talk. You can even ask me what kind of underclothes I’m wearing, and I’ll tell you.'” Radar Station, a helpless literalist, takes the bait and asks him. “Good ones,” he responds with a wide, sly grin. “Briefs today, but I own a variety.”

Having established this important information, we ask whether he has any comment on the lawsuit his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson filed recently, wherein Johnson claims that he deserves co-writing credit on most of Berry’s classic songs. “It’s not Johnnie that’s doing this,” Berry says sadly. “I’ve known him 40 years. Someone inspired him to go along with him and seek their desire to try for an easy dollar. At the Pageant’s grand opening, I talked to him for 20 minutes in the dressing room. At that time, I didn’t know [about the lawsuit]. If I would have known, I would have popped the question: ‘Hey, baby! What’s up with that?’ But he never said a mumbling word.”

Berry, who intends to keep rocking for the next 20 years, isn’t holding grudges. Besides playing out regularly, he’s recording a new album, which has been on the back burner since 1978. He claims he’s written nine new songs, but he doesn’t want to estimate a release date. “I thought last March, but I might as well not predict anymore. It will take the application of time, will and effort,” he says. Berry’s daughter and son, among others, will probably back him up. “I have to let them do something, or else I’ll pay family dues,” he cackles. “Even Keith Richards or Johnnie Johnson — I’d welcome them if they wanted to play. A lot of people would be surprised. All I want is a good song.”

Chuck Berry celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Pageant, with special guest Little Richard.

A Shadow of the Street

Two portraits of the 24-year-old Édith Piaf, who was born Édith Giovanna Gassion, on December 19, 1915. Photos by Jean Gabriel Séruzier, 1940.

One of these days I’ll get around to writing a real essay about La Môme Piaf, who is one of my all-time favorite singers. But for now I will mention only that when I first met my darling dog Edith (Piaf’s namesake), the song “Milord” came to my lips, especially the line “une ombre de la rue.” (My husband found this “shadow of the street” running in traffic on a very busy intersection in North St. Louis City—specifically Natural Bridge, near Grand Avenue—and brought her home to me.)  My Edith has the same Parisian cernes, the same tiny, plucky street-waif mien, the same huge-eyed, hungry-hearted courage and nobility. I took this photo within 10 minutes of meeting her, and we haven’t been apart a single day since.


Here is a very late and impossibly moving performance of “Milord” from the early 1960s.

The original French lyrics are provided below, along with my own translation:

Allez venez, Milord

Vous asseoir à ma table

Il fait si froid dehors

Ici, c’est confortable

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Et prenez bien vos aises

Vos peines sur mon cœur

Et vos pieds sur une chaise

Je vous connais, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Je ne suis qu’une fille du port

Une ombre de la rue

Pourtant, je vous ai frôlé

Quand vous passiez hier

Vous n’étiez pas peu fier

Dame, le ciel vous comblait

Votre foulard de soie

Flottant sur vos épaules

Vous aviez le beau rôle

On aurait dit le roi

Vous marchiez en vainqueur

Au bras d’une demoiselle

Mon Dieu, qu’elle était belle

J’en ai froid dans le cœur

Allez venez, Milord

Vous asseoir à ma table

Il fait si froid dehors

Ici, c’est confortable

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Et prenez bien vos aises

Vos peines sur mon cœur

Et vos pieds sur une chaise

Je vous connais, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Je ne suis qu’une fille du port

Une ombre de la rue

Dire qu’il suffit parfois

Qu’il y ait un navire

Pour que tout se déchire

Quand le navire s’en va

Il emmenait avec lui

La douce aux yeux si tendres

Qui n’a pas su comprendre

Qu’elle brisait votre vie

L’amour, ça fait pleurer

Comme quoi l’existence

Ça vous donne toutes les chances

Pour les reprendre après

Allez venez, Milord

Vous avez l’air d’un môme

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Venez dans mon royaume

Je soigne les remords

Je chante la romance

Je chante les milords

Qui n’ont pas eu de chance

Regardez-moi, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Mais vous pleurez, Milord

Ça, je l’aurais jamais cru

Eh, bien voyons, Milord

Souriez-moi, Milord

Mieux que ça, un petit effort

Voilà, c’est ça!

Allez riez, Milord

Allez chantez, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Mais oui, dansez, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Bravo, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Encore, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

(Written by Marguerite Monnot, Joseph Mustacchi)

Come along, Milord!

Sit at my table;

It is so cold, outside,

Here it’s comfortable.

Relax, Milord,

and put yourself at ease,

your troubles on my heart,

and your feet on a chair.

I recognize you, Milord.

You’ve never seen me:

I’m just a girl from the docks,

A shadow of the street…

But I brushed right by you

while you were passing yesterday.

You were more than a little proud.

God! The heavens filled you.

Your silk scarf

floating on your shoulders,

you were so beautiful

one might have said the king…

You were walking victoriously

A woman on your arm,

My God! How beautiful she was!

I felt coldness in my heart.


Say that it’s enough sometimes

For there to be a boat

So that everything falls apart

When the boat leaves.

It took away with it

The sweet girl with the eyes so tender

who had no way of comprehending that

she was breaking your life.

Love, it makes for weeping

like this very existence,

which gives you every chance

only to snatch it back afterwards…

Come along, Milord!

You look like a waif!

Relax, Milord,

Come into my kingdom:

I heal remorse,

I sing romance,

I sing about milords,

who haven’t had much luck!

Look at me, Milord,

You’ve never seen me before…

But—you’re crying, Milord?

I never would have believed it!

Ah well, there there, Milord!

Smile at me, Milord!

Better than that! A bit of effort!

There we are!

Come along, laugh, Milord!

Come along, sing, Milord!


Yes, dance, Milord!

La-la-la… Bravo Milord!

La-la-la… Again Milord! … La-la-la…

(Translation by René Spencer Saller, copyright 2016)

And just for good measure, here is a 1954 performance of “L’Accordéoniste,” another favorite. The song was composed expressly for Piaf by Michel Emer, shortly before he was deployed to the front (in World War II).

La fille de joie est belle

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Elle a une clientèle

Qui lui remplit son bas

Quand son boulot s’achève

Elle s’en va à son tour

Chercher un peu de rêve

Dans un bal du faubourg

Son homme est un artiste

C’est un drôle de petit gars

Un accordéoniste

Qui sait jouer la java

Elle écoute la java

Mais elle ne la danse pas

Elle ne regarde même pas la piste

Et ses yeux amoureux

Suivent le jeu nerveux

Et les doigts secs et longues de l’artiste

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie de chanter c’est physique

Tout son être est tendu

Son souffle est suspendu

C’est une vraie tordue de la musique

La fille de joie est triste

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Son accordéoniste

Il est parti soldat

Quand y reviendra de la guerre

Ils prendront une maison

Elle sera la caissière

Et lui, sera le patron

Que la vie sera belle

Ils seront de vrais pachas

Et tous les soirs pour elle

Il jouera la java

Elle écoute la java

Qu’elle fredonne tout bas

Elle revoit son accordéoniste

Et ses yeux amoureux

Suivent le jeu nerveux

Et les doigts secs et longs de l’artiste

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie pleurer c’est physique

Tout son être est tendu

Son souffle est suspendu

C’est une vraie tordue de la musique

La fille de joie est seule

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Les filles qui font la gueule

Les hommes n’en veulent pas

Et tant pis si elle crève

Son homme ne reviendra plus

Adieux tous les beaux rêves

Sa vie elle est foutue

Pourtant ses jambes tristes

L’emmènent au boui-boui

Où y a un autre artiste

Qui joue toute la nuit…

Elle écoute la java

Elle entend la java…

Elle a fermé les yeux…

Et doigts secs et nerveux

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie gueuler c’est physique

Alors pour oublier

Elle s’est mise à danser, à tourner

Au son de la musique…


Arrêtez la musique…

(lyrics and music by Michel Emer)

The call girl is beautiful

on the corner over there.

She has a client

who keeps her stockings full.

When her job is done,

she goes on her way

to look for something slightly dreamy

At a dancehall in the outskirts.

Her man is an artist.

He’s a weird little guy,

an accordionist

who knows how to play the Java.

She hears the Java

but she doesn’t dance.

She doesn’t glance at the dancefloor.

And her loving eyes

follow his jittery playing

and the long, dry fingers of the artist.

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to sing, it’s physical

All of her being is tensed.

Her breath is held.

It’s a work of art molded by the music.

The “girl of joy” is sad

On the corner over there.

Her accordionist

left to become a soldier.

When he returns from the war,

they will have a house.

She will be the cashier,

and he will be the boss.

How beautiful life will be!

They’ll be real big shots.

And every night for her

he’ll play the Java.

She hears the Java,

which she hums low.

She looks again at her accordionist,

and her loving eyes

follow the jittery playing

and the long, dry fingers of the artist.

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to cry, it’s physical!

Her entire being is tensed.

Her breath is held.

It’s a work of art molded by the music.

The prostitute is alone

Over there on the corner.

The girls who make nasty faces,

The men don’t want them.

And too bad if she croaks,

her man is never coming back.

Farewell to all those beautiful dreams.

Her life is fucked.

Yet her tired legs

take her to the dancehall

where there’s another artist

who plays all night long…

She hears the Java.

She listens to the Java…

She closes her eyes…

And fingers, dry and nervy–

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to scream, it’s physical!

And so to forget,

she begins to dance, to turn

to the sound of the music…


Stop the music!

(Translation by René Spencer Saller 2016)

A Gift Repaid with Interest


Five years and a couple of weeks ago, I assembled a box of gift records for my best friend’s son, on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. And then yesterday, completely out of the blue, I receive a link to a performance by said Bar Mitzvah, who is now 18 years old, of a song that appears on one of the albums I gave him. My best friend, his mother, made the video animation. She has him singing on Delmar, as he is wont to do. He turned out even more wonderful than we imagined, and here is the proof.

Along with the box of LPs that I gave him, a copy of this letter. I had never been to a Bar Mitzvah ceremony before, and I haven’t been to one since.

Letter to a Bar Mitzvah


Dear Adam,

I don’t know much about Judaism, and yours is the first Bar Mitzvah that I have attended, but a bit of Internet research yields the following fun facts:

  • You are now responsible for your own actions. (Uh oh!)
  • You may be legally married by Jewish law (Uh oh again! Please wait a few more years at least, because 13 is awfully young to settle down.)
  • You may possess personal property. (Finally: something that doesn’t warrant an “Uh oh!”)

Obviously, I don’t know anything about the many religious rituals and ceremonies in which you are now eligible to participate, so I won’t presume to hold forth about those. I’m going to talk about your rite of passage in more general terms. I wasn’t brought up in any faith, and I have never been a religious person, but I did survive adolescence. What got me through, what jump-started me into puberty and ushered me into adulthood, what made the whole dreary enterprise seem worthwhile and sometimes even magnificent was rock & roll. When I was confused, or frustrated, or pissed off, or in love with some boy who barely knew I was alive, I could always rely on my music. No matter what I was feeling, I could always find an album that would make me feel understood, less alone in the world. My human friends disappointed me sometimes, but my record friends never let me down. Do you know the Beach Boys song “In My Room”? It goes, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/In my room, in my room.” My room mattered to me because that’s where I kept my records and my record player. Nothing could touch me there. My room is where I was my best and truest self.

Most kids these days have iPods, and they can carry their “room” around with them wherever they go, but I think they’re missing out on the magic that comes with having a personal sanctuary filled with sonic totems: a turntable, LPs, dust jackets, real speakers. Vinyl records, unlike mp3s, have an odor, a life force, a physical presence, a past. They crackle a little when they get worn, skip when they’re abused. If you treat your LPs right, they will outlive you. When all the CDs and mp3s have died their little unmourned digital deaths, the vinyl will abide. I own many records that belonged to people who are dead now, and it comforts me to think that my record collection will be dispersed among future generations when I’m gone.

I took good care of my records when I was a teenager (invest in a Discwasher cleaning system, if you don’t have one already—when records are free of dust and debris, they’re much less likely to get scratched—and make sure to replace your needle fairly regularly, about every 6 months if you use your turntable every day), and I hope you’ll do the same so you can bequeath yours to a worthy recipient someday. I still have records that were given to me by my grandparents, parents, ex-boyfriends, and old friends. Some of my albums, I know, are worth a lot more on eBay than I originally paid for them, but their monetary value means nothing to me. How could I put a price on a friend, on a memory? Whatever I paid for the albums in my collection, my investment was returned to me a millionfold. I paid stupid meaningless money for them, money that I might otherwise have blown on Diet Coke and nail polish, and they gave me knowledge, experience, passion. They helped me make sense of it all: the hormonal maelstrom, the endless hurdles, the darkness and doubt.

The albums I’m giving you today aren’t supposed to be comprehensive, some kind of starter kit for a young collector. I picked out 18 from my personal stash because Wikipedia told me that the number 18 has special significance for the Bar Mitzvah; supposedly, it represents the Hebrew word for life or something. (Also, given the fact that several of the albums I gave you are doubles, that was the maximum number I could fit in the box.) These 18 albums are not at all representative of a well-rounded person’s taste. The only thing these records have in common is that they meant something to me when I was a teenager, and I know they have something to do with the adult I am today. Here’s a truth that adults never seem to mention when they’re lecturing you about growing up: The Teenage You never goes away. All those lyrics you pore over now will be imprinted on your consciousness forever. You’ll forget your wife’s cousin’s name, your license-plate number, your grocery list, countless appointments and passwords, but the songs you love now will be seared into your soul until you die. They’ll matter to you in a way that songs you’ll love later never will. I can’t guarantee that these albums are going to have the same significance for you that they did for me, but I do know that the Future You will be shaped by everything you love now. So love widely, love deeply, and love well.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

 Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black.”

Rock & Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

 Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s no, well, I can go

I won’t make you.

(from “Thirteen,” by Big Star, on one of the albums I gave you)






I’m not an early riser. I just haven’t fallen asleep yet.

For at least 10 years, well-meaning people have been telling me that I need a blog. For professional reasons. Seeing as how I call myself a freelance writer. Sometimes these well-meaning people even put me on the spot and ask me where they can read my so-called writing. I  just wave airily and say, “Oh, you could always google René Spencer Saller, and see what comes up.”

In truth, I mostly hate blogs, and it seemed very likely that I would hate my own, if I had one. But early this morning, plagued by insomnia, I thought, well, why not? It’s free, after all, and it’s easier if everything is organized in one place.

So far all I’ve done is upload a bunch of links. They’re all on the Links to Published Writing page above, haphazardly organized. Click at your peril.

I am also a freelance editor, but that’s far too boring to write about. I’m fairly good at it, and I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 20 years now.