I learned of Clancy Sigal’s death on July 16th only on returning home Saturday to Ithaca, New York after five weeks on the road. I owed him an email. I’d meant to write him back before I left, but didn’t quite get around to it.
The Guardian obituary written by his friend, the retired Labour MP, Kim Howells, had one line in particular that struck home with me: “He loved people and was driven by a boundless curiosity about their lives and ideas.”
Clancy and I enjoyed a lively correspondence over the last decade. As emerged from his frequent emails to me, he loved music and was himself very musical, even if self-deprecating about his unschooled-ness. Catholic in his tastes and interests, Clancy was also vigorous in his dislikes, and always witty and warm in the way he expressed them.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Clancy was fascinated by the music of J.S. Bach, especially the myriad ways the composer expressed poetic texts in the cantatas. Clancy’s suspicions about the lurking anti-Semitism of so much German music and culture did not prevent him from exploring hidden corners of classical music.
Wagner, too, was a dark, yet compelling mystery to Clancy: “Sometimes it sounds and looks to me like Lash LaRue in Riders of the Purple Sage,” one of his email’s claimed. I once floated the idea of going to Ring Cycle together, but that was, he said, too long in the chair.
Understanding the words was crucial to Clancy; his limited knowledge of German (gained while stationed in the occupied country after World War II) was a frustration, but not one that succeeded in discouraging him from further listening. Even into the last year of his life he was still exploring new music as well as new ideas about music he had long known.
Over the years I’ve written several pieces in CounterPunch and in the AVA on the Allied bombing of World War II and the resulting destruction of much German music culture and history. My 2010 article about Darmstadt and its lavish court music and the flames of 1945 prompted Clancy to recall that he’d been through the city soon after the end of the war and remembered it being largely untouched. When I sent him links to aerial photos and informed him of the latest scholarship demonstrating that the city had sustained perhaps the highest percentage of civilian deaths and architectural destruction, Clancy responded: “So much for eyewitness history.”
Given his musicality, it is no surprise that Clancy’s best-known novel Going Away has much music in it, including a hilarious section on the narrator’s piano lessons in post-war Germany with a certain Professor Bunch. This “little bull of a man, with apple cheeks, and a hard cherubic face” hates the metronome, thinks homosexuals are the best teachers and “eunuchoids” the best students, prescribes various exercises involving rubber balls specified in a keyboard method he is writing, a tome prefaced by a thousand-page history of German music. According to Professor Bunch the teacher’s main mission is to regulate—at a chaste distance of course—the “zeggshual patterns” of master and pupil. There was much material in this autobiographical novel abundantly suited to operatic treatment, the piano lessons certainly providing more than enough for a hilarious one-acter.
Clancy and I also shared a love of jazz. My reviews of a pair of 2016 biopics about Chet Baker and Miles Davis prompted these from Clancy:
“Having been born 1000 years ago, I heard Miles and Chet play together and separately in LA. For two bucks for a drink you could sit all night on a bar stool listening on Hollywood Blvd. We didn’t care about the dope, just the sound. See, there’s something to be said for a long life.”
The next day Clancy wrote again:
“Hate to add: on that same Hollywood strip on any given night I could, again for $2 a drink, at different clubs go from Miles to Chet to Dave & Paul to Lady Day who tho in terrible voice was a poignant presence.”
Clancy and I shared a loathing for Obama’s chief songster will.i.am, whose appearance on the pop-political scene back in 2008 first soured Clancy—though he suspected he might be “rewriting his own history”— to the politics then junior Senator from Illinois. Both ruefully and fondly, Clancy admitted that his son loved the “rap artist.” Clancy was gracious about other people’s wandering tastes—at least he was about mine.
After clearing some health hurdles in 2013 he was encouraging about my own faltering attempts to sell a script in Hollywood:
“I’m back in semi fighting form. ICM! Way to go! But, remember, Zack [Anderson, my writing partner] and you must mount a serious campaign…to keep pressure on the agent, make personal contact, and keep thinking who do you know?
And take your meds. I do.”
Indeed, movies past and present provided a long vein of colloquy for us.
My warm words about Impromptu (1991)—and especially about Hugh Grant’s portrayal of Chopin—elicited Clancy’s observation that “it may not be the world’s worst movie but certainly the most enjoyably worst.”
He defended John Wayne and other Golden Age Hollywood heroes from my occasional aspersions, and always had interesting things to say when I wrote about soundtracks. Clancy’s views on movie music were practical rather than aesthetic, summed up in his vignette about the autocratic boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn (who would later sack Clancy for running off subversive leaflets on the studio’s mimeograph):
“As you know, Warner Bros all through its early history was a cheap studio, unlike MGM and Fox, and kept its locations to a minimum and if you watch an old WB movie, say one with Bogie, all you’ll hear is music to tell us what we should be feeling. Music on a constant loop. And one day, while working at Columbia, before they fired me, I was sitting in a projection room with the tyrant boss Harry Cohn watching rushes. Cohn fidgeted, bored, famously scratched his behind when he lost patience, and shouted, “Stinks! Put music under it!’
happy new year, Clancy”
Clancy’s rich life comes with a long credit sequence. Here’s hoping that while it rolled and he departed California’s shores for the last time, he was hearing music he loved.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)