Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….


Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….


Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from


A bridge too far

March 20, 2014

A Matter Of Trust – The Bridge To Russia, a CD and video set based on Billy Joel’s 1987 concerts in the Soviet Union, is available for pre-order.

An “Editorial Review” at says the following:

Billy has always considered that going to Russia was the most important thing he’d ever done. The freedom and excitement of his presence permanently affected the country and played no small role in the ultimate dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

I fear that this “Piano Man Diplomacy” hypothesis has not yet had a fair hearing among 20th century historians. Aren’t many of them still naively attributing the Soviet Union’s collapse to economic problems and the like?

the music that toppled an empire


A brief history of Uli’s times

March 8, 2013

So there I was at a birthday gathering for Uli Steidl, wanting to sing him the parody I had written at the gym that day (“Uli Uli,” to the tune of “Louie Louie” as performed by The Kingsmen). But I couldn’t comfortably sing and play the keyboard simultaneously, and nobody else would join me on either keyboard or guitar.

“Come on, people,” I pleaded, “it’s three chords! A-A-A, D-D, E-mi-nor, D-D … over and over and over again. Anyone? Anyone?”

At last Joe spoke up. He had played the piano a bit as a teenager and was willing to unretire for an evening. For 15 minutes we worked in the corner of the room while the others ate cake and talked. Once we labeled the keys with a dry-erase marker, he started hitting the right ones pretty consistently, but I worried that he might never get the rhythm down. Like the long-distance runner that he is, though, he persisted until he got it.

Then he tried to continue while I sang softly. That derailed him, but only temporarily. He tried ignoring me, focusing only on his notes while I followed his beat, and that seemed to work.

Finally we got everyone’s attention and gave it our best shot. Joe hung in there like a champ, others joined in on the chorus, and, if I do say so myself, my lead vocals were appropriately gritty and emotive.

the Gray/Crowther warmup
Gray and Crowther warm up. Photo by Joe Creighton.

* * * * * * *


sung to the tune of “Louie Louie”
as recorded by the Kingsmen (1963)

Uli Uli, oh no —
He’s gettin’ old!
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said,
Uli Uli, oh baby —
He’s gettin’ old!

He grew up in southeastern Germany;
Rode his bike all around the country.
At 17, he went to a 10K race;
Didn’t have a clue, but took 1st place.


Uli came to Portland and then U-Dub;
Joined the Seattle Running Club.
Once got invited to go to Pyongyang, [rhymes with “song”]
So he ran a 2:13 marathon!


Uli got lonely; he made a wish.
Things got better when he met Trish!
Now they coach together on Capitol Hill,
But he keeps running and he’ll beat you still!



Recent interviews

January 5, 2013

One of the highlights of my Christmas break in Oklahoma was meeting children’s musician Monty Harper in person after years of intermittent contact via the Internet. Monty became my latest victim in’s “Science Songster” series; other recent interviewees have included Baba Brinkman and my old friend Do Peterson.


Summary of “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartok, as performed by the Seattle Symphony

May 18, 2012

[Bluebeard has just married his fourth wife, Judith, and they have arrived at his castle, which includes seven locked chambers.]

Opened_Rooms = 0.

WHILE (Opened_Rooms < 7) DO


Judith: “Let’s open this door.”

Bluebeard: “I don’t think it should be opened. Why don’t you just kiss me instead? You are beautiful!”

Judith: “Bluebeard, I love you, but we must open the door and let the light in. Give me the key.”

Bluebeard: “Are you sure you want the key?”

Judith: “Let me have the key. Wait — what’s that scary whistling sound?”

Bluebeard: “It’s the wind.”

Judith: “Oh. I’m kind of fearful now, but I still want the key.”

Bluebeard: “Well, I suppose you can have this key. Just this one.”

Judith [opens door to reveal a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly]: “This is beautiful! Your castle is beautiful! I love you! … Hey, why is there blood on the floor of the chamber? Whose blood is that?”

Opened_Rooms = Opened_Rooms +1.



“Glee” might have been better as a movie

March 20, 2012

I’m starting to grow weary of Glee. The excessively autotuned vocals grate more as time goes on, but, more importantly, the characters don’t seem to develop or grow in consistent, compelling ways. Quinn Fabray’s pregnancy in Season 1 seems to help her find a new maturity, but by Season 3 she’s talking crazy and acting mean again. OK, she’s just a high schooler, but what about cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester? The Glee Club does her an incredible service by arranging her sister’s funeral at the end of Season 2, and she is grateful, etc. But by the next fall she is back to her old anti-Glee Club ways. Similar observations can be made of other characters.

I don’t think this is simply a matter of poor writing or sloppiness on the part of Ryan Murphy et al. I think the show’s producers are trapped in the TV medium, in which weekly shows rely on having a cast of essentially stable characters who interact in mostly predictable ways, thus allowing new episodes to be generated rather quickly (one per week). If characters change too much, that throws off the default dynamics of the show, and it gets harder to churn out episodes according to the usual formula.

In plays and movies, by contrast, main characters often do change in important ways. They have a big adventure or learn an important lesson or whatever, and by the end they are unmistakably different. The fact that they have changed is not a problem, as it is on TV, because plays and movies are tidy, self-contained entities. We don’t come back to the theater (or the theatre) the next week expecting to see another show that picks up right where the previous one ended.

At this point I am reminded that Ryan Murphy originally conceived of Glee as a movie, not a TV series. I wonder if that might have worked better in some ways. Introduce a bunch of misfit kids and their inspiring teacher, follow them as they learn to work together and express themselves through music, cheer their triumph at a big competition, celebrate the friendships and insights they’ve gained, and be done with it.

This problem of being trapped in a TV template is not unique to Glee, of course. I used to really like House, too….


Born to revise

March 5, 2012

I don’t know why Bruce Springsteen keeps popping up on my blog (here and here and here and here), but he’s on my mind again. In particular, I keep coming back to a fantastic Slate article by Louis Masur on how Springsteen labored endlessly over the song “Born To Run.”

It took him six months during the spring and summer of 1974 to record the title track [of the album Born To Run]. [Guitarist Steve] Van Zandt now laughs at the thought of it. “Anytime you spend six months on a song, there’s something not exactly going right,” he says. “A song should take about three hours.” But Bruce was working with classic-rock motifs and images, searching for the right balance musically and lyrically. Born To Run marked a change in Springsteen’s writing style. Whereas previously it seemed as if he had a rhyming dictionary open beside him, now his lyrics became simultaneously more compact and explosive. What mattered to him was to sound spontaneous, not to be spontaneous. “Spontaneity,” he said, in 1981, “is not made by fastness. Elvis, I believe, did like 30 takes of ‘Hound Dog,’ and you put that thing on,” and it just explodes.

That’s what the writing process is like for me as well: a whole lot of fumbling around in search of a version that sounds crisp, forceful, and honest.

I don’t have many “Born To Run”-esque examples in my portfolio, but “Sing A Song Of Mom” is one composition that comes to mind. I remember struggling with the tune for an entire afternoon, then thinking, “What if I made it sound more like ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’?” And I tried that, and it worked, and I was on my way to a breezy song that sounded as though it had been written in half an hour. Perfect.


Phil’s first mix CD

February 26, 2012

I don’t recall how the idea first arose, but Phil decided that he wanted to have a CD of songs related to policemen. So yesterday we screened a bunch of songs via YouTube and found seven that met with mutual approval.

I told Phil that we should look for more — I hadn’t even shown him “Crime Pays” by Hall & Oates! — but he declared himself done with the selection process, so today we downloaded the seven songs and burned the CD. Its contents are as follows.

1. CHiPs theme (1977). Phil has never seen this TV show, but, in his world, few things are cooler than cops on motorcycles.

2. “I Fought The Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four (1965).

3. “Authority Song” by John Cougar Mellencamp (1983). Mellencamp has said that this is essentially his version of “I Fought The Law.” Phil likes the kid in the video, who looks like Mellencamp but is not his real-life son.

4. “Darlington County” by Bruce Springsteen (1984). Mostly about picking up women rather than getting picked up by police, but the Boss notes, “We drove 800 miles without seeing a cop,” then later sees his friend “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.”

5. “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley (1957).

6. “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car” by Brian Wilson (1985). From the soundtrack of Police Academy 3. I’m not sure which is sadder — that the great Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame) contributed to this ridiculous movie, or that Phil has seen it.

7. Hill Street Blues theme (1981). Instant poignancy from the opening credits, thanks to composer Mike Post.


February birthdays

February 19, 2012

When I was growing up in Vermont, May was our family’s big month for birthdays. My sister and my mother and I were all born then, as was at least one grandparent. Even my parents’ anniversary is in May.

February 2012 may rival May for natal significance, though. My dad just turned 70, and his sister is currently celebrating her 72nd birthday with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New Zealand. Two of my great musical heroes, Carole King and my friend Do, share a birth date of February 9th. And last Friday we celebrated the February birthdays of three members of our lab, including my boss.

My personal contribution to the lab party was a goofy poster reminding people of it. Accompanying my headline — “Celebrate the Aging Process!” — was a graph showing that telomere length declines with age in dividing cells. If nothing else, I succeeded in amusing myself.

To celebrate Carole King’s (70th!) birthday the week before that, I bought a VHS tape of Really Rosie, King’s 1975 TV collaboration with Maurice Sendak, and watched it with my son. The animation seemed quite crude by 2012 standards, but the music seemed as timeless as ever. Has anyone else ever made such sweet music about counting, the alphabet, and the months of the year?


It’s Ladies’ Night in Panama

January 26, 2012

It hadn’t occurred to me that both of these bands might still be touring — together….

It's Ladies' Night in Panama.