Saturday, December 31, 2016

R.I.P. 2016: Remembrances

All I can add by way of tribute are random recollections of where these famous people and their work intersected with my life and sometimes my work.  Often that was during a brief period, though I did follow some over years.

For example, I attended to Alan Rickman's work as an actor and movie director over several decades, and wish I'd had the opportunity to see his theatre work as actor and director.  My appreciation of him just after his death is here.  Reading about him at that time and watching tributes by his peers preserved on YouTube proved he was an even more admirable person than I knew.

But two legendary pop music figures who died this year had mostly brief hold on my consciousness, long ago in the 1970s.  I became aware of Prince when most of the world did, with his Purple Rain movie and album--when he had the #1 film at the box office, #1 single and album simultaneously. (Dorin Thorin, cinematographer for Purple Rain, also died this year.)

 I was intrigued by Prince's musical versatility, stage presence and the unique mix of styles that characterized his music.  But as he shifted his persona I lost interest, and can't at the moment summon a single melody of his in my head.  Well, maybe "Little Red Corvette".

I became aware of David Bowie in the early 70s, this time before most of America.  His classic album Hunky Dory was not a hit in the US, but it was in Boston where I was writing on rock music and other topics for the alternative weekly Boston After Dark/Boston Phoenix.  I remember that our music editor, Ben Gerson, was much taken with Bowie.  Wish I had those pieces he labored on.

Hunky Dory remains the album that I remember, though I can conjure up a number of other Bowie hits in my head, recorded after and also before.  But I didn't follow his subsequent work all that closely--I wasn't so taken with the theatrics of the Ziggy Stardust and subsequent personae.

I admired his acting in The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger, but again I lost track of his subsequent films.  I've got a lot of catching up to do.  Reading his extensive wikipedia bio, I got exhausted just trying to follow his activities through the 1970s.  I do recall reading a story a few years ago about his successful marriage to Iman, a beautiful woman who fascinated me as a model and delighted me as an actor opposite William Shatner in Star Trek VI.  I've noted that some younger folk were much taken with his last album Blackstar, in which he dealt quite consciously with his impending death.

My interest in the music of Bowie and Prince in the 1970s was largely supplanted when I got absorbed in the Asylum Records era--Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, John David Souther, Chris Hillman, American Flyer, etc. and especially the Eagles.  This must partly have been because I could play and sing some of their songs, and I did, and occasionally still do. I think my version of "Peaceful Easy Feeling" has actually improved.

That was one of many Eagles songs written or co-written by one of its founders, Glenn Frey who died in early 2016.  I saw the Eagles live once, along with Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, at a Jerry Brown for President fundraiser in 1976 in Washington.  They had reunion tours and albums in 1994 and 2007.  I should catch up with that music, too.  President Obama honored the group at this year's Kennedy Center honors.

The musicians I listened to but who survived their initial fame are dying off in droves now (Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, a group among those that define 1967-68 in my memory, and both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, though I barely remember them) and the musicians like George Michael who I didn't listen to are joining them.  I wonder how long I'll have the energy to notice, which is not as cynical as it may sound.

2016 saw the end of Muhammad Ali's long sad decline.  I remember watching the 1960 Olympic boxing match in which commentator Howard Cosell extolled the merits of the young amateur American fighter Cassius Clay.  He won that first fight and went on to win the Gold Medal.  He turned pro the same year and began his incredible career.  His name change, rapping persona, and especially his draft resistance in the late 1960s were inspirational and changed the culture.

Another hero of the 1960s was astronaut John Glenn.  His three-orbit ride in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth made him an instant hero. He became a personification of the JFK years, an apple pie American who was also a Kennedy Democrat. Towards the end of a distinguished career as a U.S. Senator, he became the oldest American in space when he returned to orbit as a member of the Space Shuttle crew in 1998.

Of course, the most current news is about the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within 48 hours.  Carrie Fisher's feisty Princess Leia changed how women appeared in action movies, but I especially admired her writing.  Postcards From the Edge remains a special book.   And I was a Debbie Reynolds fan from childhood.  Her performance in Singing in the Rain, surely one of the most joyous musicals ever made, was brave and indelible.  It looks great on DVD.

Gene Wilder is known as an actor, notably in Young Frankenstein and a segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, but earlier this year I discovered how instrumental he was as a writer in that classic Young Frankenstein film.  Though director Mel Brooks gets the credit, the initial idea and much of the story came from Wilder. (Brooks attention to black and white visual style however is essential to the movie's quality.)  It remains a classic film comedy.  I remember I first saw it with Pat Mitchell, then an entertainment reviewer for WBZ in Boston, later head of PBS.

Besides Jim Harrison and Edward Albee, writers I read who died in 2016 include Umberto Eco, whose work I have mixed feelings about, and W.P. Kinsella, whose novel was the basis for the classic movie Field of Dreams. Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself gave major credit to Gregory Rabassa for his English translation of A Hundred Years of Solitude and other of his works that established his reputation in North America.  Rabassa died in 2016, as did  British "Angry Young Man" playwright Arnold Wesker, Italian political playwright and Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, and author of the most beloved American novel of my time, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

Besides record producer George Martin, Beatlesland lost Al Brodax, producer of the film Yellow Submarine as well as the earlier Beatles TV cartoon series, the animation director of Yellow Submarine Robert Baiser, and press officer Tony Barrow. 

Actor Robert Vaughn costarred with David McCallum in the 60s TV series Man From UNCLE.  Others I remember fondly who died this year include the excellent PBS news reporter Gwen Ifill, golfer Arnold Palmer who came from my part of western PA and returned there after utterly transforming professional golf into the major sport it is today, pioneer news broadcaster Morley Safer and pioneer baseball broadcaster (and Pittsburgh Pirates catcher) Joe Garagiola.  The world we know now is due partly to their unique presences.

Among the lesser known figures I want to recognize are journalist Ben Bagdikian, who covered Civil Rights in the 50s and was the reporter to whom Daniel Ellsberg passed the Pentagon Papers.  Bagdikian became a journalism educator and author.  Robert Stigwood was the impresario that made the Bee Gees prominent, through thick and thin and thick and thin and thick.  Pat Harrington, Jr. was one of Steve Allen's original Man on the Street gang, and among his many later roles was the unforgettable man from the Phone Company, revealed to be running the country in the 1967  movie The President's Analyst.

Bob Elliot of Bob and Ray died at age 92.  Alvin Toffler was the author of Future Shock that popularized the 1970s future studies movement.  Whatever happened to that, the future?  And yunz Pittsburghers will remember Chilly Billy Bill Cardille, host of Chiller Theatre, who memorably appeared in the burgh classic, Night of the Living Dead.

May they all rest in peace.  Their legacy and their work lives on.

Not So Rainy December

December is statistically the rainiest month of our winter here on the North Coast, but not so this year.  It was just a shade under the normal (7.87 inches v. 8.12.) which surprised me--I thought it would turn out to be less.  It was certainly less than last December, when we got about twice as much.

Still, we're ahead of last year since October by 5 inches, and some 20 inches more rain fell in calendar year 2016 than 2015.  Which is about the most positive thing I can say about 2016.  (Other than that two of my nieces had their first babies, so my baby sister became a grandmother for the first time--and the second time in the same year.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

R.I.P. 2016 George Martin

I don't have much to add to Adam Gopnik's Post Script on George Martin in the New Yorker, especially as it confirms something I noticed when listening recently to the early cuts on the Beatles Anthology: at first the Beatles were very close to a comedy group.  When he met them, George Martin was chiefly a comedy record producer, and he mostly liked their sense of humor.

Of course both Martin and the Beatles together transcended the category, but that specific early 60s era of lunacy, parody and satire, from Peter Sellers and The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe and That Was The Week That Was in the UK (and briefly in the US) to the likes of Stan Freberg in the US, was an important aspect of the cultural shift that became what's known as the 60s.

As Gopnik notes, those early audition tapes weren't special in themselves. The Beatles were fortunate in finding the right supporters, like George Martin--to help liberate their unforeseen genius.  That comic orientation would persist--they picked Richard Lester, who'd also been associated with Peter Sellers (as George Martin had been) and the Goons to direct their movies, and continued through John Lennon's books and the group's wonderful Christmas records for their fan club.

That comic sense--parody, self-parody, satire--combined with a Liverpool twist and a British larking about--would transmute through the decade (in the crucible of mind-expanding drugs, the craziness and dangers of nuclear Cold War and Vietnam) into a kind of transcendent, desperate joy, a refusal to submit to despair in the face of possible annihilation.  It would be a major element and effect of the Beatles very individual music.

All of the Beatles were funny, and all in different ways.  George Harrison's spiritual musical expressions were part of that transcendent joy and wisdom, but he also wrote one of their great satires ("Piggies") and later bankrolled Monty Python movies.

In all this, George Martin provided all that Gopnik notes: possibilities found in the musical literature, the willingness and ability to follow creative paths and whims, and a specific taste and ability in executing arrangements as well as constructing recordings that became the definition of a producer.  The Beatles wouldn't have been the Beatles without him.

Like all great producers, Martin worked on records nobody heard with artists that never made it.  But that doesn't diminish his contribution with the Beatles, which extended to the more recent anthologies and resurrections.  He became a curator as well as a co-creator.

George Martin died in March 2016. (My commentary at the time is here.)  His work lives on.

An Italian Connection

Among the many vicious and racist expressions liberated by election results--some unparalleled in my memory which goes back to the open racism of the 1950s--there are the prominent remarks of one Carl Paladino, often described as a highly placed Trump ally.

I won't repeat the remarks, though I will repeat that while such language about African Americans has obviously lived through private exchanges, not even in the 1950s would a public figure make them public.  (Paladino denies he meant to make them public, though he's made similar denials in the past.  His defense apparently is that he's a bumbling racist.)

I mention them because by name and appearance, Paladino seems to be of Italian extraction.  I've noted with great sadness the Italian names that prominently appear in the ranks of reactionaries, xenophobes and racists.

 I've also noticed that as generations of Italian Americans have become "Americanized" and prosperous, they have lost touch with their roots and their ties to their immigrant ancestors.  I saw this in western Pennsylvania but it is probably true elsewhere.  The move to the suburbs seems to more than symbolize it.

I grew up in the 1950s, when Italian Americans were major players in American culture, from Sinatra to DiMaggio.  There were Italian language hit songs on the radio.  Later generations had only the Godfather films, brilliant in themselves but unfortunate in their effects at creating dubious and mostly inaccurate stereotypes.

There were waves of Italian immigration from the late 19th century to just after World War II, but the bulk came in the first two decades of the 20th century--and together with the immigrants from Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe (at first solicited by American companies for labor in coal mines)--led to restrictions and quotas on immigration from those countries in 1921.

My maternal grandfather arrived from Italy just before these first restrictions went into effect, and my grandmother and mother got in later because they were family members.  The quotas from certain countries were further reduced in the National Origins Act of 1924, which a New York Times book reviewer earlier this year called it "the most restrictive immigration law in our history" meant to "protect the country from foreign contamination."

But "foreign" meant something more specific. It meant virtually all Asians, for one thing.  But it also meant Italians, already here in large numbers.  This review also quotes the august Saturday Evening Post from the 1920s:  “If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.” 

That prominently meant Italians, who at the time were not considered "white."  It also meant Poles, another chunk of my known heritage and the source of my last name.  When I was growing up and started having lofty ambitions, I could not help but notice that names like mine (or my mother's) weren't reflected in lists of American writers or presidential candidates.  And if I didn't notice it, others were helpful in pointing it out, even meaning it kindly.

The impact of immigration is complicated on every level.  There is a certain cultural sentimentality that twists reason, along with understandable reaction to nearby change.  On the other hand, racism is racism.

We can attribute the Paladinos of today's America to a combination of a lack of empathy and historical awareness as well as residual tribalism and personal stupidity, in which the culture of greed overcomes any other.  But there's likely also a specific sort of projection, a shadow of shame in the cultural disdain and stereotypes that still follow our ancestral groups.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Defining the Darkness.10

“She has opted for a world in which she has done nothing wrong, and that she need answer only to God. This is a not very rare version of God in America which is often viewed as a godless place, ergo, the most ordinary behavioral ethic may be ignored by Christians. It is a version of religion quite similar to Senator McCarthy’s version of Americanism where all honor and civility can be righteously ignored.”

Jim Harrison
The Road Home