Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cohen, The Life of Riley, and One's Turn in the Barrel

When I honestly recall what I knew and understood when I was a college student, I cannot despair of  today's young, eagerly trying to make sense of Life.  I was still reading Edna St. Vincent Millay, biographies of opera stars, and assorted novelists.  I still did not know, really, how sex was done (the books that Parents Magazine had recommended to my mother...).  I thought the newspapers were dumb (and they were, really) but the little map of Korea on the front page of the Berkeley Daily Gazette didn't indicate where it was.  I had no TV, and when I went to my mother's there was no news on it.  But would I have followed Public channels if I'd had them?  And, of course, there was no Cable TV.  The Voice of Firestone was still on AM radio (I had no FM) and of course nothing was in color.  In compensation we had the NBC Symphony (Toscanini), the New York Philharmonic (Mitropolis, usually), and both the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera, besides the Chicago Opera (? title?) with a speech by Col. McCormick.
That's enough to show how different things were.  LP mono records were just beginning to come on the market, but most of our collection was in albums (and that is when and why we say "album"): a symphony was usually five discs, ten sides.
And so on.

But here I'm going to describe a ten-inch record of a vaudeville song.  Later I bought, new or used, some vaudeville material, but the pop stuff my parents had was from their high school days and not at all indecent.  I must still have "Cohen is Living the Life of Riley Now".
(1) I cannot locate the disc or the cassette taken from it, but I think it was a blue-label US Decca two-sided  10-inch disc, and I can actually recall what it sounded like, so I think it was early electric.  It definitely was vaudeville, late vaudeville, and purchasable at the dime-store, not at the music library shop that sold RCA red-seal records; I got it from a bin in a secondhand store or possibly from a batch of records from someone's family attic.  What is remarkable is that I cannot find it in the LOC jukebox site or anywhere in Amazon or in YouTube.  Not that it is explicitly, verbally sexual.  No.  It is horribly Incorrect: Cohen is making out with Reilly's wife, named Molly, and they are teaching each other their food, their slang, and so forth (which serve to imply the unmentionable things they share).  That's how it was.  As in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn": you could take the whole family and pretend that the children didn't know what Cohen and Riley did.  So I thought I'd check to see how much popular culture (most of the stage acts being Jewish or Irish in fact) dealt crudely with such crude affairs.
And I found nothing else!   Not even in Eric Partridge.  I only found a footnote in the 15th (centennial) Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, on p. 922, with, yes, a vaudeville show about the Life of Riley in the 1880s, followed by a slew of references to 'life of Riley' with as many variants (they are on line, svv) as for 'I used to work in Chicago' but not as rich, and, yes, the first ones British and all in the same spirit as old Punch jokes, with their Tenniel-style stereotype of an Irish man.  That is, crude (and unprintable today) but not blatantly sexual: my phono record is at least two generations later and New York rather than London.  Does anyone else know this NYC recording?

(2) Just as blue-collar families took the whole family to shows in eastern cities, unless a grandmother was available to babysit, so when I started in art school, on a scholarship in 1952, my coeval fellow students were far more knowing and certainly less inexperienced than I was, but though protective and eager to show me a San Francisco, that of the Beat Generation in galleries and coteries that are now famous, that my mother's employment as a club vocalist for soldiers and sailors, though hinted at at home (like my father's stories from the Hunter's Point shipyards) also were unaware of.  Some of them did have signs saying "Off Limits to Servicemen".  Only once (and, after all, I was still far under age for any bar), did they take me to one of these and they made the regular customers assume I was someone's little sister, but we all hung out at the same cheap eateries and bookstores, such as City Lights, wherever someone's pictures were hung.  And back in our neighborhoods and in the studio classes they told me who slept with whom and who wouldn't speak to each other.  And they told me, when I asked, what homosexuals did.  I guarantee you, my family (I no longer lived with them, since there was an addiction problem there) did not know what they did.  I must tell you that the class distinction between folks who who did things they couldn't or wouldn't name and those who could and would talk and write about what they did not do (and, as I said, if you were young and inexperienced, one's friends shielded you from doing or being used).   This seems, today, an odd way of talking.  Yet, until a decade ago when I retired from teaching, it still seemed to me that I could tell which students (freshmen) were still shielded and which probably were not.  Not that it mattered.
The only reason for mentioning this is that one of my homosexual friends told me a lot of his favorite jokes, including one about an ocean-going ship of hard-up sailors, who might be introduced to the Barrel.  I forget the mechanics involved, but the punchline was, when a new crew-member asked if he could have its use on a given weekend, he was informed, no, that was his night in the barrel.  I couldn't imagine how this joke made sense unless both guys were katapygon, a word I'd just learned from a Greek vase inscription.  I assumed, further, that this joke belonged to homosexual society. Funny, you say, what one remembers.  Indeed.  But when on MSNBC someone wrote a tweet, addressing Mr. Podesta, that next it would be HIS turn "in the barrel", guys younger than me knew that to be "in the barrel" (so not privy to jokes left over from WWII in the Pacific) meant that taking one's turn willy-nilly was nasty and unpleasant.  Getting the point of genital humor is, after all, universal? Locker room humor...  Our President's social past, admittedly, I decided, probably was not exceptional, though letting it be recorded certainly was imprudent.  I mean, half a century later someone still cherished a recording.

(3) Since then, I have continued reading about the scandals in international banking / investing.  Are any of the large institutions not scandalous?  How does one get stupendously rich?  The studies I have read, at UBS and Deutsche Bank, just to name two, are hair-raising.  No wonder it seems impossible to know how much one did or did not pay to the IRS.  No wonder, if one's President does not want to put up with publicity on Fifth Avenue or a former DC main post office, one may have a whole remodeled floor of an uninhabitable tower at Baku in Azerbaijan, managed by his daughter.  Not that I know it firsthand.  Only, Adam Davidson's long article, The New Yorker, June 13, pp. 48, ff. (and now he's a staff writer, too), is not only hard to put down and very hard to dismiss and awfully coherent.  Now I had to give in and subscribe on line to The New Yorker.  Having read it since the 50s and still missing the bloopers at the bottom of the back page, it was more than my old eyes could take to read it every week.  And I was astonished that ALT+F, but spelled out in full and freely, was now, especially in Reviews, abundant.  I feel much better having its company in this world.  But you'll have to read it yourself; I won't be anybody's press secretary.

P.S. Originally I had been struck by the preponderance of Irish names in the Trump cabinet and staff, but I couldn't find any explanation for it and even began to think that it might be illusory.  But that was why I had headed this Post with Life of Riley.