“Leah Horowitz” by Steve Mossberg: Expected to Measure Up to Famous Jews—Fair Enough?
February 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm, by Jonah Rank
You’ve probably met Leahs and Steves in the past, but maybe not Leah Horowitz or Steve Mossberg in particular. “Who is Leah Horowitz,” you ask? I also don’t’ know. “Steve Mossberg?” It’s okay if you don’t know him either. He’s not much of a well-known name.
But I have great respect for talented indie musicians. As you may have guessed, that category includes Steve Mossberg, a keyboardist and singer/songwriter whom I’ve never met but have loved since 2005. During that summer, I met another incredible indie musician by the name of Geo Poor, and I came across a bizarre blog entry of his.
Geo wrote that his friend Steve Mossberg was accepting ideas for songs to compose in a project dubbed 31 Days, 31 Songs. The idea behind it was simple¸ but not easy: each day, for 31 days, Steve Mossberg would write and record one new song. Great songwriting is a spark that can easily die out (which might explain why Mossberg solicited suggestions for songs during these 31 days), yet Mossberg persevered and created an impressive body of work. Moreover, the fact that both songwriting and sound engineering usually take time for most pros to develop and to perfect makes Mossberg’s product all the more remarkable.
Steve Mossberg’s “31” songs are replete with dry, witty lyrics akin to those typical of Randy Newman, They Might Be Giants, or Jonathan Coulton. The song that introduced me to Mossberg’s project was the one written at Geo’s request: a song about a guy who goes on a date with a girl who turns out to be, not only his cousin from Iceland, but also a spy who is out to get him. And aside from the fact that “Icelandic Spy Cousin” is a catchy, jazzy song with a piano hook as memorable as Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” the song is particularly captivating because Mossberg delivers these oddball lyrics while he very convincingly plays the part of the duped cousin. The song could easy make any first-time listener burst out laughing hysterically (or at least I did).
Upon hearing that song, I downloaded the rest of the songs of 31 Days, 31 Songs. And that’s how I was first introduced to “Leah Horowitz…”
“Leah Horowitz” is the unusual story of a (nice Jewish?) girl of that name, who, instead of kissing on their first date, leaves the singer with a book by Woody Allen about the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Understandably, this action leaves the narrator confused (by the way, confusion is a recurring theme throughout 31 Days, 31 Songs). Is leaving Mossberg with this book a subtle compliment about the musician (“Does she think I’m kinda funny / Or a musical visionary? / What’s she trying to say?”), or is this an insult comparing him to one of these notorious legends (“[Schoenberg’s music] sounds a lot like noise in a sense. / Does she think I’m like that too?”).
But Mossberg also suggests that maybe the book transaction was a gift: “Does she think I’m… just into famous Jews?” The song is Mossberg’s attempt at interpreting Leah Horowitz, by interpreting the significance of Woody Allen interpreting Arnold Schoenberg.
At the chorus, Mossberg sings, “Girl, I’ve got to read you right.” Maybe it’s just a play on words, but it really sounds like the book incident perplexes Mossberg enough that he’s now confused Leah herself for a book. Now, he’s got to read her right.
But, equating the human soul with the books that speak to our souls is, as Rabbi Josh Hearshen has taught, an old Jewish practice. Rabbi Hearshen points to a passage in the Mishnah (Shabbat 16:1), where it is taught that, on Shabbat (the Sabbath), “Kol kitvey kodesh matzilin otan mippeney haddelekah” (“We may save all sacred books from fire”). Normally, we don’t carry items far distances on Shabbat, but we traditionally make exceptions to the rules of Shabbat when it comes to pikkuach nefesh (literally, “saving a soul”). So, when a fire threatens the “life” of a book we value as so important in our own lives, the book suddenly takes on the persona of a human, and, Rabbi Hearshen points out, we would take extreme measures to save the soul of the book just as we’d take extreme measures to save a human’s soul.
For Mossberg, the one thing on his mind—the one thing that is sacred to him in the moment—is the combination of Leah Horowitz and the Woody Allen book. To Mossberg, Leah and the book are equally human, and they are utterly exhausting his mental and intellectual capacity.
In the bridge, Mossberg begrudgingly bemoans, “I think that I’m expected / To measure up to you.” Of course, we know nothing about Leah Horowitz other than that she left Mossberg a book and doesn’t kiss on his first date, so whom is he addressing, and to whom is he trying to measure up? Woody Allen? Arnold Schoenberg? The book? Leah Horowitz? I think it’s all of them. Together, they form Mossberg’s ultimate Jewish pressure machine. To him, they are each Jewish giants: the Jewess Leah, subject to his admiration; Allen, the Jewish comedic master of “dry, neurotic razor wit” (a rhetoric characteristic of Mossberg’s lyrics); Schoenberg, the “modern music great” whose progressive thinking helped earn Jews an important place in Western music culture; and, finally, a book by a Jew (Allen) about another Jew (Schoenberg), read by another Jew (Mossberg) trying to read yet another Jew (Horowitz).
“If you’re looking for a smart guy,” Mossberg hesitantly suggests, “I think that I can hang. / It’s what I have to do.” Mossberg never said he loved Leah, but he will “hang” because he feels obliged. It seems that there’s a little Jewish guilt at work here forcing him to feel that need to live up to those other Jews who reshaped Western culture. And, just as Horowitz is too hard for Mossberg to read, Schoenberg’s “music was so far advanced, / He made the critics groan.” It’s not easy, or fun, to read these Jews, but Mossberg is sure that he has to do so all the same.
To the listener’s dismay, the song ends before Mossberg ever finds out how Leah Horowitz feels about him. The perfect fifths and octaves played on the synthesizer (like those opening notes of the famous Jeopardy! theme)—along with the quick high hats played throughout the song—remind the listener that the questions Mossberg is asking are aggravated further by the fact that time is of the essence. “I need another night,” pleas Mossberg in the chorus. “I know that it’s a chance to steal your heart.” Mossberg has a chance, but we don’t know if he takes the chance and takes her heart. We don’t know if Mossberg ever comes to feel validated.
He recognizes Schoenberg in the Woody Allen book. He sees Leah Horowitz as part of that book too. Maybe Mossberg’s not wrong though for seeing her in the book. But, maybe the that he does get wrong is that he doesn’t see himself in the book. After all, aren’t all four of them People of the Book? And, Judaism aside, aren’t they each fine, cultured people?
You don’t have to be famous to be Jewish, and you don’t have to be famous to be great or cultured. Somewhere around the turn from BCE to CE, the early Rabbinic sage Hillel taught, “Negad shema, avad shemeh” (“The seeker of fame destroys one’s name”) (Pirkei Avot 1:13). We so often hear of a celebrity whose work doesn’t measure up to all the attention that that celebrity earns. Mossberg in fact says regarding Schoenberg’s work: “His genius and his quirks ticked me off.” And, reviewing Allen’s book in one word, Mossberg says, “I thought it was okay.”
It’s so easy for us to have great expectations, and it’s so easy to feel pressured to become great in the pursuit of fame. But, sometimes when we don’t expect or pursue anything great, we find something fantastic. Five and a half years ago, I was only looking for one silly song, but I found 31 masterful compositions instead.
BONUS: Steve Mossberg’s website seems not to be hosting 31 Days, 31 Songs anymore, but the songs are still able to be downloaded on sites you can find off of Google. Here’s the order of the tracks just in case you’d like to download them and listen to the project in the order of the songs’ release:
- Flying V Guitar
- Relieved At the End of the World
- Calculator Revolver
- Supersize Sexual
- Wonder Woman Understands
- Sunday Ride
- Go Go Final Battle!!!
- If I Turn to Ash
- The Wrath of Darcy Glen
- Vegetable Ninjas
- Cats and Cat Girls
- Comer Un Bagel
- Date Your Horse
- The Coconut Van
- Human Girl
- The Guy On the 14th Floor
- Invisible Mice
- Scissor Run
- Sounds I Hate
- Leah Horowitz
- Earth To Patricia
- Here Comes That Song
- The Show In My Dreams
- Icelandic Spy Cousin
- Rock ‘n Roll Action Figure
- Murderer Of Polar Bears
- Canned Soup Day
- The Burning Road
- Lovesick or Drowning
- Warrior Drag Queen
Tags: 2005, 31 Days, 31 Songs, Arnold Schoenberg, Calculator Revolver, Canned Soup Day, Cats and Cat Girls, Comer Un Bagel, Date Your Horse, Earth To Patricia, fame, Famous Jews, Flying V Guitar, Geo Poor, Go Go Final Battle!!!, Google, Here Comes That Song, Hillel, Human Girl, Iceland, Icelandic Spy Cousin, If I Turn to Ash, Indie Music, Indie Musicians, Invisible Mice, Jewish guilt, Jonathan Coulton, Kol kitvey kodesh matzilin otan mippeney haddelekah, Leah Horowitz, Lovesick or Drowning, Mishnah, Murderer Of Polar Bears, Pikkuach Nefesh, Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Josh Hearshen, Randy Newman, Relieved At the End of the World, Rock ‘n Roll Action Figure, Scissor Run, Shabbat, Sounds I Hate, Steve Mossberg, Sunday Ride, Supersize Sexual, Tedium, The Burning Road, The Coconut Van, The Guy On the 14th Floor, The Show In My Dreams, The Wrath of Darcy Glen, They Might Be Giants, Vegetable Ninjas, Warren Zevon, Warrior Drag Queen, Wonder Woman Understands, Woody Allen, כל כתבי קדש מצילין אותן מן הדלקה, משנה, נגד שמא אבד שמה, פרקי אבות, שבת