Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Quote of the Day (Phyllis McGinley, on Discipline, ‘The Groundwork of All Art’)

“Discipline is the groundwork of all art. The abstract painter has to know first how to draw, the symbolist to write ordinary lines. And the poet, no matter how soon he intends to throw overboard his formalism, has first to be capable of a correctly rhymed and metered stanza.” —Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Light Side of the Moon,” The American Scholar (August 1965)

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ With Barney Targeted by a Flirtatious Speeder)

[An attractive out-of-towner, who has vowed to fight her speeding ticket in Mayberry’s court, works her feminine wiles first on Barney.]

Elizabeth Crowley [played by Jean Hagen]: “Say... Do you sing?”

Deputy Barney Fife [played by Don Knotts]: “Hmm?”

Elizabeth: “Well, it just struck me...You bear an amazing resemblance to Frank Sinatra. The same magnetism, the same appeal.”

Barney: “Noticed that, did you?”

Elizabeth: “You've been told that before?”

Barney: “No, but...I've noticed it myself. Frankie and me are sort of birds of a feather, you might say.” [Chuckling.]The Andy Griffith Show, Season 2, Episode 3, “Andy and the Woman Speeder,” original air date Oct. 16, 1961, teleplay by Charles Stewart and Jack Elinson, directed by Bob Sweeney

Monday, May 29, 2023

Flashback, May 1973: ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ Continues to Propel Paul’s Post-Artie Career

The 50th anniversary this month of the release of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon would have been reason enough to write about this LP that cemented the commercial strength of Paul Simon apart from longtime partner Art Garfunkel.

But two bits of news about the singer-songwriter over the last week may well bring to a close his remarkable pop career.

First, Simon released Seven Psalms, a CD that is, by all accounts, not a pop recording at all. With his continual quest to experiment with musical textures (including from outside North America), there is a real question if he cares to return to the rock ‘n’ roll or folk genres that inspired him in the first place.

The second bit of news is the report that, during studio sessions for Seven Psalms, he “quite suddenly” and mysteriously lost most of the hearing in his right ear. After nursing for several weeks the unsuccessful hope that his condition would soon improve, he now wonders if he will be able to perform live ever again.

Certainly other singers and musicians have dealt for years with hearing impairment (indeed, I was astonished to discover, from this 2018 AARP article, just how extensive that list is—everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Barbra Streisand).

But, at 81 years of age and following a nasty bout of COVID-19 as well, Simon’s opportunities to take the stage will diminish, while his periodic bouts of insecurity and depression may very well increase. In that case, even the creative energy needed to compose a song may well ebb. So it becomes an open question whether we will hear from him in any creative forum.

The Wall Street Journal review that first alerted me to the release of Seven Psalms noted that it was only the 15th studio album of Simon’s six-decade career. If it turns out to be an unexpected career valedictory, it makes it all the more worthwhile to retrace his artistic evolution--including There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the second album in his solo career.

In a post from last year, I expressed my abiding enthusiasm for “American Tune” as a powerful lyrical statement on the state of the country, both at the time of its composition (the divisive Vietnam-Watergate era) and today.

I did not realize until further researching the song now, however, that it was based on the 18th-century J.S. Bach chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (translated, appropriately enough, as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded"). The mood is one of resignation amid “the age’s most uncertain hour.”

It is a distinct outlier for an album otherwise brimming with looseness, optimism, and humor, reflecting Simon’s joy as a husband (“Something So Right”) and new father (“St. Judy’s Comet”).

In contrast, the album’s first single, “Kodachrome,” is a rollicking retrospective just before the onset of middle age, with the narrator recalling his school days and life as a bachelor. Its jaunty, carefree tone would have been one that other Americans who, like Simon, came of age in the Fifties would have identified with, as the nation indulged in a nostalgia craze that saw the Broadway premiere of Grease, the movie premiere of American Graffiti, and, on TV, the first episode of Happy Days.

“Going Home” was the original title of the song, but it was only a temporary phrase. As he told veteran deejay Scott Muni in a 1988 interview, "I was thinking as I was doing it, 'Well, I'm certainly not going to call the song 'Going Home,' there must be 250 songs called 'Going Home.' That's not going to do anything. 

Knowing his ambivalence about any association with his days with Garfunkel, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he also resisted any comparison with their hit “Homeward Bound.”

“Kodachrome” turned out to be a felicitous replacement, at least lyrically. (The use of a branded name led the song to be banned from the BBC.) From it emerged those “nice bright colors” in the refrain, and “everything looks worse in black and white” as a wry comment on the women he knew when he was single.

A couple of years after “Kodachrome’s” release, at an assembly at my high school, the opening line—“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school”—provoked many students to leap to their feet, undoubtedly to the discomfort of the administration and faculty.

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon represented something of a studio departure for Simon, both in the number of multiple producers (not just Simon and his longtime producer from the albums with Garfunkel, Roy Halee, but also Phil Ramone, Paul Samwell-Smith, and even the accomplished Alabama studio musicians, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and the number of multiple voices (also including the New Jersey folk music duo Maggie and Terre Roche, as well as the gospel quintet, the Dixie Hummingbirds).

In general, I prefer Simon’s songs from his collaboration with Garfunkel to his solo work. But his penchant for trying out new sounds and musical directions (demonstrated even more dramatically with Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints) is something to be respected, and the results in these cases, as with the best of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, are entirely admirable.

The public certainly embraced it. “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” each shot to #2 on the singles chart, and the album as a whole sold two million copies in its first year alone. A late friend of mine said she regarded Bob Dylan as America’s pop poet and Simon as its pop psychologist. By that standard, Simon was expressing the mood of a generation transitioning from youthful protest to something approaching private happiness—still tentative, but hopeful.

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, on a ‘Theater of War’)

“No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theater of war.”— Journalist, Union Civil War soldier, and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), “A Horseman in the Sky,” originally published in 1889 in the San Francisco Examiner, revised as part of Bierce’s short-story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)

The story of the last days of Bierce may be most familiar to readers and film fans through the 1985 Carlos Fuentes novel Old Gringo, as well as the movie adaptation four years later starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits. Fuentes said he became interested in the cynical Bierce when he read Tales of Soldiers and Civilians as a teen.

I chose the above quote for my Memorial Day post. Readers desiring more information about the impact of the Civil War on Bierce-- a decorated Civil War veteran, forced out of the fighting because of a head wound—and how it left him with a belief in war’s absurdity and the determination to convey its “rattle and roar” in unsparing, exact detail, might want to read this post of mine from nine years ago.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Exodus, on the Thunder, Lightning, and Covenant at Mount Sinai)

“Moses went up the mountain to God.
Then the LORD called to him and said,
‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob;
tell the Israelites:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians
and how I bore you up on eagle wings
and brought you here to myself.
Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
That is what you must tell the Israelites.’
So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people.
When he set before them
all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them,
the people all answered together,
‘Everything the LORD has said, we will do.’
On the morning of the third day
there were peals of thunder and lightning,
and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
and a very loud trumpet blast,
so that all the people in the camp trembled.
But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God,
and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.
Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking,
and God answering him with thunder.
When the LORD came down to the top of Mount Sinai,
he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.”— Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b
One of the Mass readings on this Pentecost Sunday featured this episode from Exodus. Even as I listened amid an otherwise quiet church, these verses sparked the imagination in ways that Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t surpass in The Ten Commandments.
Amid all the sound and fury of the "thunder and lightning," "smoke," "furnace," and "very loud trumpet blast," along with the consequent verb "trembled," it’s important to remember that what is depicted in this awesome display and ceremony is the covenant between God and the once-enslaved Israelites, who will now be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation”—as long as His “special possession” remains true to His laws.
The image accompanying this post, Mount Sinai, was created in 1570 by the Greek-born Spain painter El Greco (1541-1614).

Saturday, May 27, 2023

This Day in Business History (Birth of Sumner Redstone, ‘Relentless' Media Empire-Builder)

May 27, 1923— Sumner Redstone, who used his brilliant intellect and self-described “passion to win” to become an envied, feared, often toxic media-entertainment mogul, was born in humble origins in Boston.

Just as Orson Welles and co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz interspersed episodes in the lives of Samuel Insull and Joseph Pulitzer to augment their thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane, so have the creators of Succession used tales surrounding Redstone and Donald Trump to bolster their Rupert Murdoch-based depiction of Logan Roy.

Unlike Murdoch or Trump, but like Logan Roy, Redstone not only grew up in a lower-class neighborhood but briefly lived in a house with no inside bathroom.

Like Murdoch and the fictional Roy, Redstone had seemingly groomed younger people (including his children) to take over from him, only, in his 70s and even 80s, to dismiss them with little to no warning.

Far more than Trump and even Murdoch, he left rivals alternately worried and fuming about his next negotiating gambit, leading Barry Reardon, a distribution executive at rival studio Warner Brothers, to moan to Premiere Magazine in 1994: "Being a competitor of Sumner Redstone’s is a fate worse than death. He never lets up. He’s relentless.”

Redstone's corporate buccaneering amassed a fortune that enabled him to control, at one time or another, CBS, the Paramount film and television studios, the publisher Simon & Schuster, the video retail giant Blockbuster and a host of cable channels, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

And, in a way it has not yet become painfully obvious for Trump or Murdoch, debility at the end of his life exposed Redstone’s troubled relationship with a daughter he had teased with the prospect of succeeding him.

The driving force behind Succession might be the same joke used by Murdoch and Redstone as octogenarians: that they had no intention of ever dying. That disbelief in the iron law of mortality underlies the power struggle in both the series and the lives of Sumner and Shari Redstone.

In his appearance and conversation, Redstone worked overtime to counter any impression that the years had diminished his faculties. He dyed his hair red, bragged to talk-show host Larry King in 2009 that he had “the vital statistics of a 20-year-old,” and even lied about his age (lopping off 20 years).

Perhaps as much to persuade himself as King’s millions of viewers, Redstone continued: “Even 20-year-old men get older. Not me. My doctor says I’m the only man who’s reversed it. I eat and drink every antioxidant known to man. I exercise 50 minutes every day.”

At the time of the King interview, it was already apparent to Daily Beast editor at large Lloyd Grove, that Redstone was less like a 20-year-old than like King Lear: “With his empire crumbling, his family fractured, his legacy in doubt, and his grasp of the true nature of his predicament not immediately evident, Redstone resembles a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s tragic hero.”

By the middle of the next decade, charges that Redstone was no longer competent to run his affairs—let alone his company’s—had burst into public view, courtesy of litigation by Shari—though Sumner would hang on, a hideous husk of his former self, until he was 97.

At the time of Redstone’s death in August 2020, his story as a self-made man led many, even among the overwhelmingly liberal reading audience of The New York Times, to overlook the gamier aspects of his life.

And indeed, there is much to admire in a man who took the modest perch provided by his father (who himself rose from linoleum peddler to owner of a small chain of drive-in theaters) and graduated first in his class at Boston Latin, the city’s leading public school; went to Harvard on a scholarship; cracked Japanese military and diplomatic codes as part of a team of cryptographers in WWII; became partner in a leading DC law firm after the war; then abandoned all that to begin building a series of holdings that would eventually be valued at more than $80 billion.

But the window that began to open up in the last decade of Redstone’s life revealed after his death “an astonishing saga of sex, lies, and betrayal,” according to Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, by New York Times journalists James Stewart and Rachel Abrams.

According to this account, Redstone:

* spent $500,000 promoting the Electric Barbarellas, a talentless all-girl band;

* amended his trust more than 40 times to add or remove beneficiaries;

* dated women who became increasingly younger as he aged;

* sent a flight attendant he was pursuing a crystal‑encrusted handbag in the shape of a panther, along with the (surely redundant) note, “I’m a panther and I’m going to pounce”;

* reportedly tried to date grandson Brandon Korff’s girlfriends, annoying the 25-year-old so much that he sought out TV’s “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger to find a companion for the lecherous old man—a move that backfired when that companion, Sydney Holland, and another Redstone girlfriend siphoned off $150 million from the increasingly senile businessman before being ushered out of his life at last;

* badmouthed Shari for so long that she was ignored when she warned about the perilous course set by Viacom CEO Phillipe Dauman, and wrestled with CBS CEO Leslie Moonves for control of National Amusements, the entity owned by Sumner and Shari.

If Sumner Redstone’s empire had been built by his personal tenacity (he survived a Boston hotel fire by hanging off a window ledge, leaving a hand maimed for the remaining 40 years of his life), it teetered at the end of his long life because of his toxicity. 

His wealth and position couldn’t disguise the fact that he had degenerated into a dirty old man, endangering the sprawling conglomerate he had built over a lifetime through his personal caprice and the maddeningly complex corporate structure that had allowed him to operate for so long without contradiction by those who worked for him.

(That structure was analyzed in 2018, at the height of the Redstone family litigation over CBS and Viacom, by Eduardo Gentil, on the Website of Cambridge Family Enterprise Group.)

The attached image of Sumner Redstone is from Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA; © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001.

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on a ‘Square Deal’ for All Americans)

“If a man is good enough to be put up and shot at, then he is good enough for me to do what I can to get him a square deal.” —U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Remarks Upon Receiving a Memento From the African-American Citizens of Butte, Montana, May 27, 1903

One hundred and twenty years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt tried out the same phrase for different audiences to describe his vision of an executive who would mediate the divisions roiling America: the “square deal.” The term proved so popular that several successors in the Oval Office adapted it to characterize their own domestic programs.

Over the past 20 years, while other White House occupants have risen appreciably (Ulysses S. Grant) or plunged just as drastically (Andrew Jackson) in C-Span’s Presidential Historians Survey, Roosevelt has remained consistently at #4, placing him among the “near great” among those holding our nation’s highest office. Crucial to his success was his use of what he called his “bully pulpit.”

Few Presidents have surpassed TR as a phrasemaker. Mark Mancini’s 2018 Mental Floss article identified 11 of them, including “square deal”—his shorthand for a fair arrangement.

When he came to the mining town of Butte in May 1903 on a cross-country tour, Roosevelt vowed to deal even-handedly between the claims of union workers and capitalists—a position that had won him considerable acclaim when he helped achieve a settlement in the anthracite coal strike crisis the prior fall.

That is why he told the Silver Bow Labor and Trades Assembly of Butte that day that he was “one who tries to be an American president, acting upon the principle of giving a square deal to each and every one.”

But during his visit, the President also acknowledged a gift from Butte’s black minority: a pair of silver scales. At a time when Jim Crow legislation was abridging voting rights and African-Americans were subjected to rampant lynching, he pointed out his personal debt to the group for their part at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, the battle that made him a national celebrity—"In Santiago I fought beside the colored troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry”—before the sentence in this “Quote of the Day.”

As this account in Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center indicates, TR, finding that the phrase was gaining traction with audiences, began to use it in other speeches and his private correspondence. It soon came to describe the hallmarks of his domestic policies: consumer protection, corporate regulation, and conservation.

When he began to stake out his opposition to successor William Howard Taft in 1910, Roosevelt came up with another phrase: the “New Nationalism.” TR and Taft's successful Democratic opponent in the Presidential campaign two years later, Woodrow Wilson (no mean phrasemaker himself), implicitly drew a contrast with the phrase “The New Freedom.”

Subsequent Presidents with similar ambitious legislative goals then used variations on these:

·         The New Deal”: Samuel Rosenman floated four different possibilities for the pledge that Franklin Roosevelt made when he accepted the nomination at the 1932 Democratic Convention. The candidate placed no special importance on what Rosenman called the “two monosyllables,” and the speechwriter disclaimed any intention of fusing the slogans of TR and Wilson, according to Safire’s Political Dictionary. But the phrase appealed to Progressives desperate for a return to activist government amid the Great Depression.

·         The Fair Deal”: The popularity of FDR’s domestic program led successor Harry Truman to call for his own comprehensive program in the 1949 State of the Union address. Whether he intended to or not, “fair” also echoed TR’s “square.” Only some of Truman’s proposals ended up being enacted. But his call for national health insurance would lay the groundwork for Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare program.

·         The New Frontier”: Just as FDR did a try run of “New Deal” when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President, John F. Kennedy used a variant when he did so in 1960. JFK used it to describe what he would do to meet the uncharted territory of new challenges facing Americans. But, even as he sought to distinguish this program from its forebears, JFK embodied the kind of youthfulness and energy that had characterized TR nearly 60 years before.

·         The Great Society”: First deployed at Ohio University and the University of Michigan in the run-up to his 1964 Presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson’s phrase for his program contained no words that echoed any of these earlier programs. But, in his civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation, he sought to extend and surpass anything achieved by his predecessors.

·         The New American Revolution”: Speechwriter William Safire used this as the theme of a 1971 address in which Richard Nixon called for revenue sharing. The idea, as historian Richard Norton Smith noted, was to reverse “the flow of power, dollars and decisions to Washington that had commenced 40 years earlier with the New Deal.” Yet, while the movement has informed much of conservative policy ever since, the phrase itself never really caught on to describe the larger administration program.

·         The New Foundation”: “The New Spirit” didn’t really catch on after Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural address. Two years later, his speechwriting team sought, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, to take a different tack in evoking the programs of his predecessors, according to Martin Tolchin’s account of the 1979 State of the Union address. But, though the phrase may have struck a chord with the builder in Carter, it came off as lukewarm and played out—a bad omen for his reelection campaign the following year.

·         The New Beginning”: Ronald Reagan, an admirer of FDR as a young man, continually re-deployed phrases of the three-term President, such as “rendezvous with destiny.” His echo of FDR’s “New Deal” during his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention and in his inaugural address the following year was fully in keeping with that rhetorical tendency. At the same time, while Reagan equaled TR’s success as a vote-getter, his full-throated embrace of free-market, loosely regulated capitalism was arguably a reversal of the Republican Roosevelt’s more ambivalent view of big business.