What Inspired the Moonlight Sonata?

At the party, the conversation soon turned – as it often does — to the degradation of the human spirit we’re seeing so often these days.

Some blamed Congress. Some blamed Musk. Some blamed the lack of quality public education.

Me, I blamed the food.

It’s so seldom that we sit down to a meal lovingly prepared. There’s so much takeout these days, and while I appreciate the convenience of Door Dash and Uber Eats, I gotta confess that I miss buttered carrots. Or rolls flaky from the oven. Or the way the juices from the roast would bleed just slightly into your mama’s mashed potatoes.

There was something divine to all that. It tasted, faintly, of Leviticus.

My son Smartacus was noting the other day that when we seek happiness, we are pursuing many of the same delights we had as children.

Indeed. An American childhood is still a magic carpet ride.

I also see many young adults refusing to grow up. Who can blame them – all that credit card debt … maternity bills…college tuition…car insurance? Ewwwww, adulthood. It’s not always fun.

By the time you’re 22, you’re merely some company’s data point.

True story: When I was a kid, there was a period when drivers left the keys in the ignition when they darted into a store. There they dangled, like jewelry, in car after car in front of Grebe’s Hardware on the outskirts of Chicago.

Back then, no one stole things. My mom often left her purse on the bench seat as she raced the dog into the vet.

In the late-’60s, everything changed. If you left the keys in the ignition, someone would swipe your Chevy. I blame the hippies, particularly my high school pals Cliff and Jan, who smoked a lot of cruddy weed and listened – oddly for that period – to way too much Nina Simone.

Then came ignition locks and screechy car alarms. These days, thieves merely gut your car of its catalytic converter. Or smash a window and grab your laptop without consequence.

Strange times. Strange people. I still blame the food.

FYI, my reading room is a small tavern with a fireplace flickering in the corner. The bourbon is backlit and so am I.

Watch the way the guy in the corner loosens his tie after each slurp. Admire how the woman at the end of the bar pretends not to watch the men.

Honestly, taverns are sociology classes. It’s a great place to repair a damaged id.

The other night, on my second beer, I got to thinking: What inspired the Moonlight Sonata? Where did Monet go to unwind? Were the Beatles even better than Beethoven? Will we ever hear music like that again?

Essentially, where did art go? Or romance? Or the stuff that – like big emotional throw pillows — cushioned the human psyche?

“The Boomers really knew how to write,” a guy named Mike (mid- 40s) noted at that party the other day. “No one knows how to write anymore.”

Here’s the solution: I’m hosting a weekend retreat. I’m smoking a nice brisket and bringing in a few chewy Cabs. Suzanne will toss the salad. Smartacus will sorcerer the BBQ sauce.

The guest list: Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John, Jimmy Webb and (of course) Bob Dylan.

Their assignment: One more great song.

To write us something we can sing in the shower. To write the kind of song that, if it’s not over when you pull in the driveway, you wait for it to finish.

A ballad or a jingle … a love song or a march. Would it rustle like old denim? Would Joni Mitchell sing it like a long, liquid sigh?

Simon would offset McCartney’s tenderness. Dylan’s word pictures would marry with Webb’s. Elton would shatter a glass.

If nothing else, it’d be a master class on creativity. We’d repair some damaged ids.

Look, I know modern life is lousy sometimes. To borrow from Mel Brooks, “I hate all the things I don’t like.”

Still, why give up on beauty?

Last Friday, we visited an L.A. art museum, just for kicks, just to get off the couch and away from Netflix. The works at MOCA were interesting, yet all edge and very little beauty.

That’s how I see pop culture these days – all edge, no beauty.

Watch the Oscars this weekend. As the show drags into its 15th hour, ask yourself how much beauty have you seen? Which movie themes moved you? Was there even one great kiss?

And where are the dangly little emotional moments, like jewelry in the ignition, that you’ll remember 60 years later: A quip? A smirk? A Redford wink?

As the poet Howard Nemerov notes, the world is full of mostly invisible things.

Here’s to finding a few.

Email the columnist at Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com

21 thoughts on “What Inspired the Moonlight Sonata?

  1. You are talking tangibility here, Erskine.

    Such an extreme sensibility has consequences, but you knew that up front. As the jumpmaster says to his paratroopers: “…Stand in the door”.

    Your jumping-off points are often familiar.

  2. Your writing is beauty, with some edge, like today’s. Occasionally, we Boomers have to observe how much better people, songs, movies, food and our childhoods were than those today. I remember my parents doing the same thing to me. And so it goes. PS My husband and I may be the only ones on the planet, but aside from the scenery and acting, we thought “Banshees” was depressing and pointless. Sorry. But please keep up your wonderful insights, metaphors and vivid reminders that it’s the “mundane” stuff like friends, family, food and good alcohol that we remember forever. That is what life’s about.

    1. My husband and I agree with you totally. We didn’t like Everything Everywhere All at Once either. Did you ?

  3. I’ve got it! Your column is the source for lyrics for new songs composed by famous musicians! Maybe Randy Newman? Or Paul Simon? “Like A Roast Dripping Juices… over mashed potatoes (Sung to the tune of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”). Oh, the possibilities…

  4. My thoughts exactly. The Banchees was most poignant, smart, weepy films ever, with bits of humor thrown in like throwing a dog a bone. Everywhere Everything was a hot mess that made Parasite look good. And Tar was boring. Where is the Love?

    It’s a good thing there is still a red carpet and fashion to look forward to. Count me in for your concert. Add the Irish Band, The Sawdoctors, and you’ve assembled the best of the best.


  5. No music like the music of Dylan, Baez, CSN, Morrison, Lennon, Rod, Peter Paul and Mary, Joni !

  6. Ah, The Banshees of Inisherin is a true piece of art (and darkly funny) that stayed with me for days that I still reflect upon. What IS the purpose of life after all? It’s my pick for Best Picture but momentum and forces that have little to do with moviemaking seem to be behind Everything, Everywhere All at Once. So it goes with the Academy Awards…

  7. Having been an art major in the late ’60s, when I go to MOCA I go to appreciate the work and techniques, not to appreciate the appearance of the art works. To appreciate some beauty (and nostalgia), you should go to the Autry and see the Masters of the American West exhibition.

  8. I read somewhere that in North Dakota winter they still leave the keys in the car while they rush into a store. Too cold to turn the ignition off, and then back on again, and still not too much crime there.
    For now anyway, we still have the dark dive bars…if there’s a juke box, there’s nothing better.
    Yeah you’re right, edgy narcissistic art does not equal beautiful art. In fact, almost always the opposite.
    The Oscars? For me, it seems like in days of yore, an Oscar meant something. Now? Not so much. Won’t be watching.
    If you can round up McCartney, Simon, Elton, Webb and (of course) Dylan, for a weekend retreat please let me know. I’m sure it wouldn’t cost too much to get them all there.
    Degradation of the human spirit? Sounds corny in these scary times, but I blame it on the fact we don’t value, or even believe in God. Not edgy enough I guess.

  9. You may enjoy reading “How Green was my Valley’ by Richard Llewellyn ~ about a simpler world and so nostalgic

  10. Mood Indigo

    Oh! Lift a glass to invisible things
    Whose master class in creativity
    Finds the wandered ways of butterfly wings
    Conform to time’s theory of relativity
    In the part of you that never grew up
    On the now-worn carpet we all ride
    To that reading room ‘twixt lip and cup
    Where beauty, imagination, reside;

    And if art’s edge has lost its curve
    Romance now only in its food
    While jewelry’s dangling metaphors serve
    To steal your ease, it—maybe—could
    Be passion’s love affair with song
    That might then dare the night’s unwind
    With words that you must sing along—
    A path to Spring within the mind;

    And so you dream how love’s contrast
    Could make great music, at the last
    The old world fading much too fast
    Whose loveliness was such a blast
    Of heat, at Winter’s winding down
    Its peaks of rain about to crown
    Nostalgia with its sweet renown
    More melancholy that we sing
    In a Winter of our remembering
    Of what was love; but now, it’s Spring!…

    …in Sinatra’s words,”Ring-a-ding-DING!!”…

  11. I say yes to Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Webb, but let’s be honest, Elton John doesn’t write song lyrics, that honor would go to Bernie Taupin. As for Paul McCartney, it would be a hard pass; sorry Paul. Now, add in Joni Mitchell, Roseanne Cash and Stevie Wonder it’s a party. Sign me up!

  12. Thank you for the reminder that Bob Dylan is still alive…
    I vote for Everything Everywhere All At Once, but I didn’t see Banshees

  13. We started a Museum A Month plan which also includes SoCal’s incredible gardens. It’s a great way to walk and talk with a special person and recharge your spirit. So far this year we toured Getty Villa in Malibu and The Huntington (interiors only, the 107 acres of gardens deserve a separate day) and and aircraft and auto museums. Getty Center is next. Make a list and be sure to mix in plenty of the smaller local treasures: there’s one for every interest. See one before lunch and a very different one in the afternoon. You’ll be astounded by how many museums there are in SoCal–your list can keep you on the go for several years. Enjoy!

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