Sunday, June 7, 2009
The Kaplan Brothers- Nightbird, An Electric Symphony
Rarely has an album struck me with the force of this Proustian epic conjured- perhaps with assistance from Mephistopheles himself- by Mrs. Kaplan’s three boys, somewhere in suburban Chicago during the blistering Summer of 1978. So much heart- and so much Bar Mitzvah money- went into this project that all one can do, as a reviewer, is honor the epic scope and vision of a lounge act that dared dream of nothing less than the summing up of all of life’s mystery, woe, joy, tragedy, sorrow, glee and death itself in one stupefyingly grandiose record, such that words like “pompous” and “ambitious” simply fail so miserably to encapsulate the strivings herein as to render them and all language itself extraneous and pathetically shallow. I’ve seen a lot in my life and come face to face with many failures, but none of them has ever arose, fell, burned and died in such a fantastic and joyously ridiculous manner as these genius Mellotron-wielders who came from what surely must be the most wonderful womb in the history of the world. For facts are facts: the sad and wandering Jewish race has given the world more artistic greatness than it deserves considering the treatment meted out to this Chosen people, but not just epic genius but also something else- kitsch- has been the West’s reward for its intimate relationship with the displaced Khazar hordes chased from the Pale and into the barbed-wire and libelling-ire embrace of Christian civilization. Responding by both suborned attempts at assimilation and defiant keeping of traditions dating to a time when Europeans were living in caves and howling at the moon, Jews have kept their identity whether they wanted to or not, and with that has come a voice so sorrowing and unique that you hardly need to see the artist in profile to tell if he descends from the tribe of Shem.
For make no mistake about it: Nightbird is a Jewish record. In fact, I have never heard one more poignantly Jewish, and I mean that to be read as an endorsement of the remarkable contemplation of life in all its variations that seems to be inseparable from the Talmudic and Rabbinical tradition. While we have played most of the album the last two weeks during Prog-O-Caust 2009, if you have missed these shows or simply have no idea what I am talking about regarding the Kaplans, I urge you to get a copy of the album via Rapidshare, and listen to the whole thing (I have included a link in the title, above). I’ve laughed my ass off at the insuperable earnestness and insufferable melancholy that waxes and wanes through this record like an ongoing tide of tacky flotsam and dolorous jetsam, but I do not doubt for a moment the rank sincerity of the Kaplan’s as they plow through material so sentimental that Isaac Bashevis Singer would have screamed “Enough!”, thrown up his arms in despair and downed a pint of Manischewitz at a go. Because for sheer chutzpah of mawkish overload, this is a Jerry Lewis Telethon multiplied by a Barbara Streisand concert and raised exponentially by a factor of Billy Crystal roasting Don Rickles. Every Hallmark card ever printed for every Mother’s Day since the dawn of time is a postage stamp of nothingness compared to the registered letter of maudlin phantasmagoria that is Nightbird. Oy vey, the Kaplan Brothers know their tsuris...
Why is this Nightbird unlike any other? Because listening to every track is the equivalent of hearing Zero Mostel read the Kaddish and weep and wail through the misery and travails of every orphan; it's like the subtle, charming hypocrisy of every knocked-up yenta wearing white to her nuptials while her father drinks a toast to the son-in-law he'd secretly like to murder; it’s like having Rabbi Loew come over and bring Maimonides for back-up to have a klatsch about the mysteries of the Kabbalah and why Abraham’s pact is not a burden, but a blessing. This album is Yom Kippur and Purim combined, in one mega-dose of cheese, atonement and revelry served like Kosher and Parve, separate but equal, and if you listen closely, you can hear the Kaplan boys building their open-roofed huts in time for the Sukkot; all the joys and energies and the true blessings that must come from that tradition are heard in every lilting whistle which suffuses Listen to the Falling Rain, or the unfathomable depth of joie de vivre in Vodka and Caviare. This is more than an atrociously bad album; the Kaplan Brother’s opus is an epitaph for an entire world (pay attention to my usage). Taken as such, their insensate cover of King Crimson’s most tender ballad seems not nearly as appalling in this context of tradition-in-decay.
Nightbird is the inevitable 20th Century product of a society-within-a-society that used to be referred to as Krawattenjuden before the language that gave birth to that title turned murderous, insane, pathological, and spoke instead of untermenschen and vernichten. About as far from Zionist as you could get, this was a cultural representation of ancient religious neuroses born of Ezra’s return from the Captivity and finding the people practicing “abominations”; the ancient dread of assimilation goes far deeper in the books the Kaplan Brothers were forced to read as children than, say, the pitiful concern the Christian feels for the “ways of the world” (1JN 2:15). Without a nation of their own, Jews sought to fit into the Christian society while keeping a cultural connection to what was purported to be “their” ancient history; Nightbird is thus a product of les juif, as opposed to the meteque. The inevitable result of such a cultural balancing act is miscommunication, mistranslation, and copious amounts of kitsch; the Kaplans are merely the optimistic flipside of the same dark coin on whose obverse is the work of Kafka.
This is no endorsement of the record on aesthetic grounds; I think it might very well be the most tasteless and horrible record ever made. But like everyone else to whom I’ve spoken regarding the enervating sincerity that went into this masterpiece, I, too, rejoice in the full folly of this hugely entertaining record, and find it to be such a perfect counterpoint to the relentless misery and injustice of Christian music as to finish off any doubt in my mind as to the relative merits of the two religions.
For the Kaplan’s, there is no bloody savior striped for our benefit, no cross fetish, no threats of people disappearing by Rapture-whim and planes crashing as a result, no good-hearted men burning forever in the Lake of Fire because they didn’t take a dip in the prescribed way within some church’s scum-encrusted magic pool, no cloud-dwelling Santa Claus taking notes in his Big Book of Doom about every time somebody curses or jerks-off...there is none of this torpor of resignation, this maelstrom of injustice the Christian god hands down to his flock like maggot-ridden manna. For the Kaplans- for Jews- there may be kitsch and tackiness not seen since Hugh Hefner’s “Grotto Parties”, but there is also love, true blessed joy at simply being ALIVE, hope, contemplation, dancing and song and...friendship. Yes, the final track "He" is one of the most preposterous things I’ve ever heard; but I wonder if, when I die, any man will stand over my grave and say to himself “We never had much but...he truly was my friend”. For all my misanthropy, I betray my suspect commitment to the philosophy by the simple act of getting out of bed every morning; if I truly hated man to the extent I wanted to, it would have been check out time long, long ago. There is joy in life, and there are friends you have (if you are lucky) who will be there to toss that dirt upon you when all is finally for nought. This horrible, indefensibly bad record captures the longing all men have for the comfort of knowing that they will not die alone and unloved. I have never heard a Christian sing with anything approximating the feeling these three brothers have for the truth that, truly, no man is an island.
In comparison, lift your voices on high, Christian! All the redux-born-capitulators with their weak and preposterous mewing can do is make the solipsistic point ad infinitum that all you need is Jesus...and even if you have everything else, without him, you shall burn for all ages and there is no hope of overcoming said damnation. No fucking thanks, you batch of Pauline hucksters and Revelation-mandragore-root-tripping charlatans; if you’re looking for me, I’ll be off with my horrible music, comforted fully by the knowledge that I’ll never have to confront your slovenly sky spook when I breathe my last and slip the coil. Because if I did...man, what an EPIC ass-kicking I’d give to this “loving” absentee landlord you believe has so much power to kill but almost none to spare. When I think of Christians imagining persecutions and stockpiling weapons for when President Obama finally comes to usher in the “New World Order” and ban their precious and pernicious book of fables and ill-tempered guidance, I realize, finally, what is the endless fascination with the Chosen by these second-rate Law Keepers; they’re jealous. Only someone who truly hates life could look at the remnants of a people freed from the insanity of the Lager and think “lucky them; the Lord has blessed them more for His chastisement is True Love.” What absolute and insane sickness! Perhaps if the typical Christian knew what it was like to have half of your family a pile of ashes in an anonymous pit somewhere in Poland, they would stop worshipping death so much and sing every so often about the joys of Life.
I’ll not hold my breath for that anymore than I hope for any other reckoning with rationality in the blinkered transom of the thought-addled religionist; I register merely my protest, so that when society finally does collapse in the ruins of “Dominion Theology” and the hail of gunfire from those so psychotic they refused to be Left Behind...well, if the Internets are still working, evidence will exist that ***I TOLD YOU SO*** and there will even be a little soundtrack for my warnings, which you may imbibe in full pleasure, at your leisure, in that blessed link, above.
Now, Believers, if you’ll excuse me...I have some thinking to do. An alien concept, I’m sure, but one you might look into before the Big Heavenly Payback comes down from above. The Nightbird nests on knowledge, as well as sentiment... - TR