Category Archives: Music

Music is the best.

Richard Thompson the Many-Skilled

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Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.

What made it Richard Thompson photo by Joe Putrockeven more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.

All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”

Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.

As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.

Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.

In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.

Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.

As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.

We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.

Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.

You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?

Small Brown Seed

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What a Spring it has been! I welcomed in May Day along with many old friends at a lovely handfasting in Tilden Park this past weekend. I’ve known Amie Miller since she was about 13, when I used to go to her parents’ home in San Francisco to work on the Reclaiming Newsletter. Amie was my kids’ first babysitter, and Bowen’s loud proclamations during her coming of age ritual are the stuff of community legend. Seeing Amie and Juliana looking so poised and lovely in their 30s was a real treat, as was singing with Evelie again and enjoying the gorgeous Berkeley hills.

I’ve been playing more music lately—not a lot, but my guitar is now out of its case and I’m starting to get callouses back on my fingers. Along with playing I’ve been thinking about finishing lots of half-written songs, and maybe putting out another album of my own music.

Music just seems to be in the air lately, because this morning George sent me an email asking whether I still had the recording of “Small Brown Seed” I’d made several years ago, for one of the Reclaiming CDs. I did not write “Small Brown Seed,” but contacted its author Maggie Shollenberger several years ago and got her permission to record it.

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I first heard this chant at Pantheacon, when I learned it in order to teach it and lead the singing during a ritual. The song was easy for everyone to learn, and built up a beautiful, harmonious energy during the spiral dance. Thanks again to Maggie for her song. It seems the perfect season to share it more widely.

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Riding In Your Slipstream

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The first ecstatic/musical/lucid dream I remember happened when I was about 15 or 16. At that time, I was the principal bassoonist for the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and my life was strung with a pattern of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, after-parties, and more rehearsals. It was a good life, a great orchestra, and our conductor Denis DeCoteau knew exactly how to coax the best music from our hearts and souls. We had a dynamism and group energy that many older orchestras lacked, and I remember many ecstatic moments in our playing together. I sometimes felt, as my breath coursed through my instrument with every note, that not just my part but the whole piece was playing through me. The resonance of every part seemed to vibrate within each of us, and just by breathing together we made the music flow.

At that time, the city of Oakland was renovating the beautiful Paramount Theater, an Art Deco wonder in the center of downtown. By some fluke of scheduling, OSYO was the first group to hold a concert in the newly re-opened theater. As the curtain call approached, we lucky teenagers whispered nervously and peeked through the heavy velvet hanging at the back of the stage, watching our audience enter the hall.audwalls

Then it was time to play and we filed silently onto the stage with our instruments, professional and serious in concert black, as a gentle patter of applause rose from the plush seats below. From the stage the theater looked like a giant gilded music box, all gold leaf and tapestry, with titans and goddesses sculpted on every surface. Denis lifted his baton, and the surging of strings and jewel-toned brass slowly brushed over every surface, collecting in corners and rising to the rafters until the whole hall was filled with sound and the aging theater woke from its slumber to witness our musical offering.

Shortly after this I dreamed that:

I am backstage at the Paramount, and there is another orchestra on stage. The curtain is drawn so I can’t see them, but I am enraptured by the music they are playing. It is nothing I recognize, part Debussy and part Beethoven, with strains of Mahler, Shostakovich, and here and there a hint of Mozart or Dvořák. It is such a fluid sound that just as I try to pin it down, it changes into something completely different and I am newly enraptured. Then I realize that I am not reacting emotionally to the music, it is reacting to me, shaping itself according to my shifting moods. I am somehow composing this mysterious, complex and beautiful piece in every moment! It is a huge revelation, and wakes me up.

Like a music box itself I marveled at this dream, and have kept it on a high shelf since then, taking it down now and then to wind up and listen to once again. I have kept in mind its advice, too, and slowly through my adulthood have learned to act as though I were composing my own life, not just reacting to what was around me.

Two nights ago, I found myself by a tricksterish fluke in the orchestra seats of the Paramount at the first of three nights of Leonard Cohen concerts. I had ordered balcony tickets but that’s not what we got, so after freaking out about money for a few minutes, my friend and I went ahead and took our seats way down in “industry row.” It was a very good move, because that was the most remarkable concert I have ever experienced. Ever.

Leonard Cohen has spent a lifetime writing with scathing honesty, clarity, and wit about the range of human experience. His finely crafted songs stand on their own, each word placed just so to reflect light over to the next verse, where the same thought comes back again but this time with a snap and a shock of something unexpected. Most artists with his catalog of songs would wear them like medals, letting their gleam be the first thing one sees upon entering the room. Yet somehow, maybe through years of Zen Buddhist practice, Cohen has separated himself from his songs. He looks on their lives with wry amusement and a deep tenderness, knowing they are not him but being able to completely surrender himself to them the moment the song begins.

Lea Suzuki/SF ChronicleI have never seen someone sing with such passion and emptiness. He is like a reed through which the song blows, and yet he is present in every slow syllable of its passing. When it has fully passed, he takes a deep bow and returns to stillness, just himself, surrounded by the exquisite musicians that share the stage with him. Though he was obviously the master, they all stayed with him on the journey through each song, and every part was played with such precision and care that it took my breath away.

And there I was again, in the music box dream. This man was actually doing consciously, for an entire three-hour show, what I had dreamt about once, and only for a split second. The theater walls gently held his testament to the beauty and transience of life, and my heart rattled in its rib cage as I was pulled gently along into the flow of music by the power and artistry of his performance.

I don’t expect to see another show like that in my lifetime. There is simply no artist I can think of who matches Cohen on all fronts: poetry, voice, grace, wisdom, humility, passion, humor. Two days later, I still feel transformed by the experience. Yet it is not just the concert that has me energized. Out of the blue, the lid to my music box dream was lifted and music came pouring out. Only this time it wasn’t a memory, it was in real time. And I am still reeling from that unexpected convergence.

Who knows? Maybe a song will come from it someday.

Mercy Mercy Me (The Economy)

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I have never actually seen a ghost—at least, not the kind that leaves you shaking in your shoes, white as a sheet, with eyes as big as saucers in a face that looks permanently stricken. But yesterday I spent about 45 minutes watching someone who obviously had.

I thought I would try to learn something about economics, so I watched the video of Paul Krugman giving his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm. I learned more in that one video than I ever learned in economics classes at school. Still, I would have to watch it twice more to really understand what he is saying. I was riveted by his facial expressions throughout, though. He looked absolutely exhausted, and not just from jet lag.

You can see it even more clearly in the 30 minute interview he gave beforehand. He’s trying to keep his game face on, and be gracious about being presented with the Nobel Prize for Economics. But he looks haunted with worry about the economy, wary of any conversation for fear of more bad news, and seemingly itching to get the hell back across the pond so he can keep consulting on various bailouts.

So here’s the dilemma: any serious reading of the day’s financial news—just pick a day, it doesn’t really matter which—can make the average person feel the same way. But when I do that, when I lift my gaze and really study the situation, I become practically incapacitated with fear and am no good for anything, least of all working to improve my financial situation. 

Staying lucid in this dream—or nightmare, really—for any length of time is beyond my skill level. I can manage it for a little while, calming myself down from the shock of what is happening long enough to write more, and work more. But this is big and getting worse, and it’s only a matter of time before I slip back into shock about what is going on in the world.

Magically speaking, this is a tremendous opportunity to increase our ability to stay present in both worlds simultaneously. When I get seriously off-center, I have a few tried-and-true ways to re-center myself and carry on. What I would love to hear are all the ways the rest of you have for doing this. Because surely there are some great techniques I don’t know about, and this is the sort of time when we can all use as many good suggestions as possible.

And while you’re thinking about what to post in the comments section, here’s a snip of the great Marvin Gaye, live at Montreaux in about 1980. Enjoy.

American Tune

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When I was in grade school we learned all the old patriotic songs. The Star Spangled Banner of course (which came in handy during the 1970s Oakland A’s winning streak). But we also learned America the Beautiful, the Irving Berlin tune God Bless America, Woody Guthrie’s great This Land Is Your Land, and a whole raft of other stuff. 

It’s one of those weird things, the hymns of your youth still live in your heart somewhere, despite all the things you learn in the meantime. Or rather, the feelings those anthems evoke live on. Of course, as Deborah pointed out recently there were really two Americas all along, and we only learned about the melodious one in those early years. When I became an adolescent and started to get cynical, I found a whole new crew of friends who shared my basic condition: being a shattered idealist in search of a new ideal to latch onto. But that’s another story.

I still sing the national anthem at baseball games, and when my kids were young I made sure they could sing it, too. Most of the other songs have faded into comfortable obscurity in my memory, getting hauled out occasionally for trivia games and ironic renditions. Yet there is one patriotic song that chokes me up still, every time I hear it.

It captures perfectly all the complexity of an idealism that died but still lives; the bitter disappointment and deeper hope which are intertwined in the soul of this country. When this tune comes on the radio, all activity must cease as I sing along. Paul Simon wrote it after Nixon’s re-election in 1972, and performed it again last month on the Colbert Report. If you missed the show, here is his performance. See if you can watch it without getting a little misty-eyed. 

One More for Susan Falkenrath

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We had a lovely memorial yesterday for Susan with her mother and aunt, her young students, new and old friends all in attendance. As was fitting, there was a lot of music throughout the afternoon.

The problem with priestessing memorials is that afterwards you go through not only the familiar post-ritual letdown, but you are faced with the weight of knowledge that she is now well and truly gone. This is made all the more poignant for me by how palpably her spirit was evoked through all the music we sang. The silence left in her absence is deafening.

So here is one last song for Susan, and it is one where her voice figures prominently. She carries the melody line through the whole song (after the opening solo, which is mine). We are singing with Max Ventura, who sang with us yesterday, and Brook Schoenfield. In love may she return again.

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Another voice passes into Summerland

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Back in the late 1980s when San Francisco Reclaiming’s Spiral Dance ritual was still held at the Women’s Building, the evening began with a chilling a capella performance by Susan Falkenrath. The room was dark and we were all seated on the floor facing the middle of the room. Susan walked into the center of the circle and without ceremony or introduction launched into her song.

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“Spirits” is an evocation of a time and place in the distant past, the final prayer sung by a woman preparing to die on the stake. Susan sang it without affect, looking straight ahead, with her considerable presence and the power of her voice being all that was needed for dramatic effect. I can’t recall a single person being unmoved by that moment in the ritual, and indeed many people considered it the highlight of the entire evening.

In 1992 I helped produce the recording of music from the Spiral Dance ritual, Let It Begin Now. We all piled into this funky little studio south of Market St. owned by Greg Freeman, a friend of Doug Orton’s, who described his business as being a “bottom-feeder” studio. Well, with our budget that was the perfect place for us. In spite of our numbers and inexperience, Greg was remarkably cheerful in guiding us through the arduous process of setting an entire ritual down on tape.

Susan didn’t have a lot of time to lay down tracks in the studio, but I remember well the morning she agreed to come in and sing “Spirits” for us. It was about 10:00 and there were only about eight of us in the studio, unusual given the many large group parts we had to record. She arrived right on time and sat quietly on the couch until we asked her to go in and give it a first run.

She got up and walked in, without any warm-ups, throat clearing, asking for tea or anything. She didn’t want headphones, just sang directly into the mike, eyes closed. Greg started recording, and she began the song’s slow ascent into grief, anger, and release. I don’t think there was a hair on anyone’s head that wasn’t standing on end by the time she was done. Greg, not a talkative fellow by any measure, didn’t say a word for five minutes.

After that first take Susan walked out of the recording booth and sat back down on the couch. We were all sitting there sort of stunned, rendered speechless once again by the power of that song and how she sang it. Feeling like I ought to say something, I asked her if she wanted to do another take, just in case. She said no, and that was that. We had our recording of the song on the first pass.

Susan was like that, very gracious and soft-spoken, but there was something resolute, firm and unyielding in her spirit that demanded respect. Over the years we stayed in touch, and she recorded her bluesy call and response “Circle Casting Song” for Reclaiming’s Second Chants album a couple years later, which I also co-produced.

She needed every ounce of that strength to go through several bouts of a particularly nasty form of breast cancer in the years to come. Last year after another remission, her cancer came back again. By December I heard from friends that she was doing poorly and there was very little hope for any other treatment.

Just over a week ago I heard that she was staying at a friend’s house in the East Bay, in preparation for going into hospice care. Since I was flying back into town late Sunday night I planned to visit her Monday morning before heading home. But by the time I got into my car that morning, she was already gone.

Susan passed away peacefully on Saturday, January 12, surrounded by her parents, friends and family. She leaves behind a daughter and a son to mourn. Those of us who remember her singing have a treasure that will never fade. I am very sorry I did not get to say goodbye to her in person, but every Samhain I will meet her again and say hello, and goodbye, and bless her in her passing.

Inscrutable Lyrics and Other Mysteries

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Back in the early 90s I came across a really amusing article in an obscure little magazine. The article was by this guy who had always wondered what the lyrics were in Manfred Mann’s version of the Bruce Springsteen song Blinded By The Light. You know, the part where they sing “Blinded by the light/wrapped up like a…” or “revved up like a…” What the heck were they singing, anyway?

It was the author’s method of finding out what the lyrics were, in those pre-Google days, that made the article so amusing. He went to the Rainbow Cattle Co. bar in Guerneville one evening and, yelling to be heard over the blare of dance music, asked several patrons what they thought the lyrics were. The resulting mini-interviews were hilarious, and the best part is that he never did answer his own question.

I thought of that article today as I turned on the car radio and started singing along to Elton John’s Rocket Man. I was doing okay through the verses and the chorus, but then something bad happened: “And I think it’s going to be a long long time/Till touchdown brings me round again to find/I’m not the man they think I am at home/Oh no, no, no./I’m a rocket man,/Rocket man, burning down the….” Oh no. What is that guy singing?

The worst part about my moment of mumbling is that a few months ago I had run into the same situation, and solved it by going home and immediately googling the lyrics. You would think I’d remember them now after printing them out and saving them, but no. That’s not how memory works in middle age. So for all those of you who are still with me here, the missing line is “Burning down his fuse out here alone.” Got that? Write it down somewhere so you won’t forget, not that that will help you when you need it.

My afternoon in the car was replete with mysteries, fortunately none of them the expensive kind involving mechanics, but mysteries nonetheless. The main one that I’ll pose here concerns people who are merging onto a roadway.

There are people who, if there is a car approaching in the lane they want to enter, will wait for that car to pass before venturing out into traffic. There are other people who, upon seeing an oncoming car, will wait till the very last minute then dash out into the lane just ahead of the car, forcing the driver (let’s say it’s me) to brake suddenly to accommodate them.

All that is to be expected, even here on the outskirts of the Bay Area. People used to city driving bring their harried pace with them even out on country roads, and with the busy lives we all lead it is a reasonable assumption that a driver who makes such a hurried move is in fact in a hurry. What baffles me is what follows.

According to my painstaking research, two things are likely to ensue. The most likely scenario is that within a mile, that car will have to make a left turn. It will slow way down, then force everyone behind it to come to a complete stop while it blocks the single lane road waiting to turn. This occurs so often that even my skeptical teenage daughter has given up arguing with me about it.

The second most likely scenario is that this driver now wants to move slower than everyone behind him (let’s say it’s a him). Slower on the curves, slower on the straightaway. In fact, my research reveals that the only place this driver will speed up is when the double yellow turns to a dotted yellow to allow for passing. Suddenly, this driver will experience a surge in life force the likes of which he has not felt in decades. His foot will find the floor, his jalopy will lurch forward, and we won’t catch up with him again until the center line is a double yellow again.

As a student of life’s mysteries I know that drivers and singers, like other mortals, view their actions in ways which make them seem perfectly reasonable. And as a dedicated relativist for much of my adulthood, normally I would summon the empathy to at least understand their (imagined) point of view, no matter how much I disagreed with it.

A funny thing has been happening to me lately, though. I find that I have less patience for versions of reality that are clearly at odds with physics, not to mention common sense. And in a surprising twist to the doctrine of self-empowerment I have stood by for so many years, I find the apex of its expression in my newfound ability to tell people that they are wrong. Just plain jackassedly wrong, if not completely off their rockers.

It feels like a spiritual awakening, the sense of rightness and satisfaction I get in speaking my mind. Of course I am still capable of tact and diplomacy, probably more so than most. But after all these years I have come to value telling the truth over being nice, and as a result I would say that I am healthier and happier than I have ever been. This too is a mystery, a blessed one that I am grateful for every single day.

Of Apples and Trees

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My sisters and I were all subjected to a rigorous musical education as we grew up. We all took piano lessons from the age of five, and by the fourth or fifth grade we all had taken up a second instrument as well. Two of the sisters quit taking piano lessons by the ninth grade; the other two—my sister Sarah and I—continued through high school. Sarah and I both began college as music majors, and she went on to graduate with a BA, two MAs, and a PhD in music-related fields.

All this was instigated by my mother, I think, who in her strict upbringing was required to play piano as well as the saxophone, for the singular reason that her grandfather had lots of them lying around. My father also took piano lessons as a child but it was never as religious a practice as it was in my mother’s family, and for good reason. It seems we are the inheritors of a matrilineal dictum to play piano that, dutifully, I have passed down to my own daughters.

My great-great grandmother and her sister were accomplished pianists. My great-grandmother was an uninspired student, but her daughter, my grandmother, became quite proficient on both the piano and the organ. Fresh out of Grinnell College in the years following World War I, she supported herself for a time playing background music for silent movies. Mostly she played from memory, or improvised according to the mood of the film. Sometimes the piano was positioned so she couldn’t watch while she played, so had no way of knowing whether she was playing a march during a love scene, or a sentimental ballad during a duel. And when a movie ended with a tragic death, she would be in tears through every showing.

My mother was forbidden by her father to learn popular music, but at night she would listen to the radio and the next day went to the piano to pick out the tunes by ear. In this way she was able to help support herself playing old standards in cocktail lounges, while she worked days as a physical therapist. She could play any tune, in any key. I still aspire to this. Our childhood years were punctuated by the parties our parents threw, which inevitably would end with all their friends gathered around the piano singing favorite songs while my mother played the piano.

From this background, somehow I wound up studying the liturgy and ballads of Pagan music, and Sarah wound up in Wales studying Welsh popular music and the resurgence of Welsh language and culture. I don’t quite understand how this happened, but it is a useful coincidence because each of us can appreciate in some way the quirky interests of the other, and the route taken to such an end. Not only that, but we actually read what the other has written on the subject with interest rather than purely a sense of duty.

So I was thrilled when Sarah told me today that one of her articles had been published recently in a peer reviewed journal. Viva la niche! We were raised with a deep appreciation of classical music, at a time and in an area that was the very nexus of the music of the counterculture. Seen in that light, it is no surprise that Sarah has such a keen eye for the untold stories behind a broader cultural movement, and an appreciation of both the traditional and radical influences on each of the women she writes about.

Not only that, but she has also inherited one of the traits from our father’s side of the family: a sardonic writing style and flair for the double entendre. Yes, the apple does not fall far from the tree. But if an apple falls and nobody eats it, what fun is that? Enjoy her article, if you do follow the link. I think it is well worth the read.

Idol Warship

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Okay, I’m sorry, this is it. For those of you who weren’t watching, and even for those who were, we have just witnessed the countdown clock begin to tick. That sound you hear is the imminent end of American Idol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

At the end of a great show tonight (we’re voting for Blake and Melinda), the Idol producers absolutely blew their franchise by allowing the Bushes to come onscreen and congratulate the show for raising money to help children in poverty. Yes, that’s right. The president, who let New Orleans drown, who has cut aid and services to the nation’s children his whole term, was thanking a TV show for raising money to help them.

The show has teetered on the brink of self-parody all season with the weird Ryan Seacrest unable to play it straight but uneasy about playing it for laughs. (Or maybe he’s just uneasy about not being straight.) But now Idol has stepped right into the script of the film American Dreamz, itself a parody of both American Idol and the Bush presidency. The film posits an incompetent, unpopular president making a personal appearance on a popular TV talent show in an effort to boost his own ratings. Mayhem ensues.

Sadly, not even a completely lame scripted video moment will keep Bush afloat, not on the anniversary of his “Mission Accomplished” moment and with a 28% approval rating. But now we know that he will be dragging the country’s most popular reality TV show down with him. The show, such a corporate icon and music industry hype machine, has always been able to overcome pure crappiness because some of the singers are genuinely great. It’s a feel-good moment for the rest of us to watch these kids harness their talent, work hard at what they love, and get out of dead-end jobs at K-Mart or the bank.

I just don’t think anyone is going to take the show seriously at all after tonight, and that’s a shame. For American Idol to endure the sneering of cynics and survive another season or two, it had to not sleep with everyone who needed a little career boost. But now, by sharing its bed with the worst president in American history, it has proved that it will sleep with anyone. It may take a while for the numbers to really reflect it, but I predict that the show is on its way to being a national laughingstock. This year’s contestants may survive unscathed, but if I were a talented young singer looking for a break, I would think twice about hitching a ride on the Idol machine after tonight.