I collect quotes. One entire shelf of my reference
library is filled with books of quotations -- from the obvious suspects, such as Bartlett's
and Bergen Evans' to obscure little pamphlets like The Man In Lincoln's Nose
(a book of film quotes and, not so coincidentally, the original title for North by
Northwest) and Twang!, a collection of quotations by country stars.
As a writer, I tend to think of them as tools, but I
suspect that's just my way of justifying my obsession with them. After all, lots of
writers get along just fine without resorting to quotation. Wasn't it Emerson who said,
"Forget quotations! Tell me what you know."
But I get great satisfaction from seeing how greater minds
than mine have coped with the same problems I must struggle with articulating -- and I get
a kind of childish pleasure out of being paid the same quarter per word for quoting
someone else that I would get for thinking up my own words.
Besides who can resist the sheer meanness of Sir Thomas
Beecham's "No operatic star has yet died soon enough to satisfy me"? Or
Beethoven's put-down of a violinist who dared question the difficulty of a particular
passage: "When I composed that, I was conscious of being inspired by God Almighty. Do
you think I can consider your puny little fiddle when He speaks to me?"
Sometimes I love a quote because it simply says everything
that can be said on a subject -- and its attribution merely adds the undeniable whiff of
authority, such as John Cage's comment, "When we separate music from life we get
art." Along those lines, I particularly cherish Noel Coward's observation that
"People are wrong when they say the opera isnt what it used to be. It is what
it used to be. Thats whats wrong with it."
Sometimes, quotes are a way of getting to the heart of a
composer. After years of listening to John Dowland's lachrymal love songs, I stumbled upon
the perfect summation of his artistic life -- deliciously offered by himself: "I was
more true to Love than Love to me." And who -- after struggling through the lyrical
thickets of "Visions of Johanna" -- "The fiddler, he now steps to the
road/He writes 'Ev'rything's been returned which was owed'/On the back of the fish truck
that loads/While my conscience explodes." -- would disagree with Dylan's own
assessment, "Chaos is a friend of mine"?
Some quotes surprise you. "Music sometimes brings
tears to my eyes . . . I'm not ashamed to admit it," said Mussolini. And some make
you shudder. "Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany,"
declared Adolf Hitler.
Sometimes a good quote can take you straight to the heart
of a performer. Dolly Parton, one of the more hard-headed businesspeople in Nashville, got
straight to the point when she said, "I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes
because I know I'm not dumb. I also know I'm not blonde." (In a different interview,
she addressed her style, "You have no idea how much it costs to look this
But when I most love a quotation is when it expands my
knowledge of a favorite musician -- when it lets me feel I actually know him or
her. For instance, everybody knows that Duke Ellington said "Music is my
mistress" -- a thought that, while apt, was hardly one that told me much about the
Duke as opposed to any other lifelong musician.
But that's just part of the quote -- in its delightful
entirety, in the introduction to his autobiography, one gets to experience Ellington's
urbane wit and courtly charm: "Running through the jungle, the jungle of 'oohs' and
'ahs,' searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of
a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats. The more consonant, the more
appetizing and delectable they are. Cacophony is hard to swallow. Living in a cave, I am
almost a hermit, but there is a difference, for I have a mistress. Lovers have come and
gone, but only my mistress stays. She is beautiful and gentle. She waits on me hand and
foot. She is a swinger. She has grace. To hear her speak, you can't believe your ears. She
is ten thousand years old. She is as modern as tomorrow, a brand new woman every day, and
as endless as time mathematics. Living with her is a labyrinth of ramifications. I look
forward to her every gesture.
"Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to
That's pure Duke Ellington -- nothing I could say
would reveal half as much about the man. And that's what I love about quotes.