Saturday, March 31, 2012

This Day in Rock History (Springsteen Releases Two-Fer)

March 31, 1992—Five years after his last studio album, Bruce Springsteen made up for lost time by simultaneously rolling out two CDs that told the painful, guilt-ridden unraveling of his first marriage and his joy in a second: Human Touch and Lucky Town.

I know what some of my more faithful readers are thinking right now at the sight of this piece: “Mike, you had a post about The Boss just the other day. We’ve lost track of how often you’ve written about him already. Don’t you think this is getting to be a little too much?”

Were I of a mind, I could cast out such unbelievers or lapsed members from Brother Bruce’s Travelin’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Show. Instead, I’ll simply state, as explicitly as possible, one of the governing principles of this blog: There’s no such thing as too much Bruce Juice.

Since Tunnel of Love (1987), Springsteen had thrown his fans into confusion, not least because he was confused. Tunnel had practically crackled with its fear of commitment. It laid bare, for all to see, the ineradicable unease of a man in a situation he had never known before. It wasn’t a complete surprise, then, when the world learned of the breakup of his three-year marriage to actress/model Julianne Phillips and of his affair with backup singer Patti Scialfa.

The resulting divorce drove Springsteen into intense psychotherapy. The same period of introspection and crisis also led the rock ‘n’ roller to reevaluate his career. In the 1988 Amnesty International tour, he was struck by how Sting was able to stretch his creative boundaries outside the confines of The Police. That realization, he noted later, was partially responsible for his November 1989 decision to shut down indefinitely his backup group, the E Street Band.

In Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mikal Gilmore noted that in the early Nineties, Springsteen “retreated further from his role as an icon and spokesperson, and attempted to redefine the scope of his songwriting.” The weight of being “icon and spokesperson” is heavy, and an obvious inspiration for Springsteen, Bob Dylan, also got under from under the role, in a far more dramatic fashion than Springsteen. In any case, Springsteen felt in no condition to comment on national affairs when he felt so hollow inside.

Human Touch and Lucky Town were released when Springsteen was beginning to solidify his life again, after remarriage to Scialfa and the birth of the first two of their three children. Yet they also came amid what Springsteen himself calls his “lost years.” The relatively substandard sales of the disks might have been one reason why the singer as well as many of his fans perceived the 1990s as such.

But just as important was the absence of the E Street Band. Fans weren’t protesting—this was Springsteen we’re talking about—but neither were they particularly pleased with the new studio musicians. 

One Saturday morning later that year, as I stood on line for tickets for a Springsteen concert at the Brendan Byrne Arena, I heard another fan snicker, about the new guitarist: “I mean, come on: Shane Fontayne?”
It’s not that the new musicians were terrible, but they weren’t the “Blood Brothers.” In fact, if you want to see how they’re referred to these days on Google, it’ll be as the “Other Band,” with no collective identity. Fans felt the void, and within a few years, so did Springsteen.

I’m not going to say that everything Springsteen did in the Nineties was a success (e.g., he wimped out, with only a single acoustic song—the first—on what was supposed to be an “MTV  Unplugged” appearance, and it’s hard to differentiate the songs of The Ghost of Tom Joad). But there was also much to admire in those years in general and on Human Touch and Lucky Town in particular:

·        *  Willingness to experiment. Sooner or later, musicians are going to want to incorporate as many of the sounds in their heads as they can. Coming of musical age in the Sixties, Springsteen was exposed not just to rock ‘n’ roll but soul. On Human Touch, he injected some elements of the latter into his work, notably on “Roll of the Dice” (featuring Sam Moore) and “Man’s Job” (the terrific Bobby King).

·         * Forget local herohow about guitar hero? The tighter structures urged by producer Jon Landau in the albums beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town limited, to some extent, Springsteen’s guitar work, so that the only way to really appreciate what he can do on his instrument is in concert. (For an example of what I’m talking about, see this YouTube clip from his 1978 appearance at Passaic’s Capitol Theatre, of the extended version of “Prove It All Night,” when, spurred by Roy Bittan’s evocative piano, he plays like a man possessed.) Several songs on the 1992 albums feature some of the most textured guitar playing he ever did in the studio, including “Gloria’s Eyes,” “Soul Driver,” and “Man’s Job.”

·         * Fine songs. Some albums are so abysmal that they’ll not only make fans wonder, “What was he thinking?” but actually lose fans (e.g., John Mellencamp’s Big Daddy). But Springsteen’s compositional gifts didn’t suddenly desert him, and both albums contain songs that not only would not suffer in comparison with the rest of his discography, but also deserve to be covered by other artists, if they haven’t been already, including “I Wish I Were Blind,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Living Proof,” and “Big Muddy.” He might have been better off compressing the best of the two CDs into one, but there was still much to treasure in these works.

·         * A chastened attitude. In the last decade, with greater sales and critical acclaim, Springsteen has chuckled about the reception of his two albums released in March 1992, noting that he had tried releasing happy songs and they hadn’t worked out well. But the happiness feels earned because of what he had to go through, including the public purging on these albums. Entertainers’ sense of their own fallibility cannot help but make their work more honest and better able to relate to the lives of others. The collapse of Springsteen’s marriage informs some of the most painfully truthful moments on the two CDs. On “Roll of the Dice,” he practically shouts his confession: “I’m a thief in the house of love/And I can’t be trusted.” 

t At times, the songwriter’s personal situation leads him to a realization of the larger state of human imperfection. “How beautiful the river flows and the birds they sing/But you and I we're messier things,” he observes in “The Big Muddy.”

nAll of this underscores a point made by Fr. Andrew Greeley in an article for the national Catholic weekly America back in 1988 about this lapsed believer's adult form of the faith: “Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope—in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood.”

SSpringsteen’s realization that he was no different from the mass of men only enhanced his ability to penetrate the hearts of other people. His Oscar-winning theme song for the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia, written in the first-person voice of a gay AIDS victim, would seem to be considerably beyond Springsteen’s experience—except that, in his moments of greatest uncertainty, far removed from the concert stage, he surely felt, as the song’s protagonist does, “unrecognizable to myself.”

 An interesting take on Human Touch and Lucky Town is offered by Matt Wardlaw, guest writing for the blog “Viva la Mainstream.”

Quote of the Day (Birdie Tebbetts, With a Thought for the New Baseball Season)

"If patience is a virtue, we will be a very virtuous club."--Birdie Tebbetts, Cleveland Indians manager, when asked how long he intended to stick with his large crop of rookies, quoted in “They Said It,” Sports Illustrated, May 27, 1963

Birdie Tebbetts was nothing if not a realist and a prophet, since the Indians concluded that season with a 79-83 record, landing them in sixth place, 25 ½ games behind the pennant-winning New York Yankees.

The Indians skipper was a baseball lifer given to speaking his mind. Few scouting reports could ever top this one he submitted once: “Major league stuff and a great arm. Screwy in the head. Eliminate head and I recommend him. Get good surgeon.''

His words also had a way of being borne out again over time, as during his playing days, when he dismissed his 1950 Boston Red Sox teammates as ''moronic malcontents'' and ''juvenile delinquents.'' After his experience with Josh Beckett's ugly little clubhouse clique last year, poor Terry Francona couldn’t agree more, I bet.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Quote of the Day (Diane Keaton, on Warren Beatty, Smooth Operator)

“When I compare Mother’s relationship with Father to mine with Warren [Beatty], there’s no question Warren’s promises were far more seductive than Jack Hall’s could ever be. After I confessed I was terrified to fly, Warren surprised me as I was about to board a flight to New York, took my hand, walked me into the plane, sat down still holding my hand, and never let me go until we landed. Once safe on the ground he kissed me, turned around, and flew back to L.A. On Valentine’s Day he bought me a sauna for one bathroom and a steam room for the other. He was full of magnanimous gestures. He also filled my head with crazy thoughts: I could be a director, a politician, as well as one of the most revered actresses in the world if I wanted. I would laugh and tell him he was out of his mind. But I loved it, every second, and I loved him, especially his insane largesse.”—Diane Keaton, Then Again (2011)

Years ago, after watching The Witches of Eastwick, a friend of mine had a dream involving star Jack Nicholson. “I’m going to get you,” he told her with the same devilish grin as his character in that movie, Darryl.

“Oh, no you’re not,” she shot back.

“Oh, yes I will!” he answered.

“Oh, no you’re not.”

“Oh, yes I will!”

“Well,” my friend concluded, laughing, “he got me, all right!”

The same self-confidence, if not the same mischievous air, for years was part of the modus operandi of Nicholson’s good friend Warren Beatty. In her recent memoir, Ms. Keaton recounts a piece of gossip related by a friend about a pick-up by the legendary lothario that ended up in the Waldorf Astoria, and how “we all swore we would never fall into that kind of trap. Not us.” Naturally, like my friend in her dream with Nicholson, Ms. Keaton did.

Over the years, in addition to Ms. Keaton, Beatty’s conquests included Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Michelle Phillips, Britt Ekland, Janice Dickinson, Julie Christie, Carly Simon, Goldie Hawn, Isabelle Adjani, Madonna, Elle Macpherson, and Annette Bening (the only woman to get him to the altar). 

Whew, my fingers got tired just typing all those names! But evidently, Beatty’s seldom did. (What inevitably comes to mind at this moment is Woody Allen’s wish that, if there is reincarnation, he’d like to come back “as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.”)

The eternal question—why did so many women, when it came to the star, do one thing after starting out to do the other?—can only be partly explained that he was, as Ms. Keaton put it, “drop-dead gorgeous.” There’s also his keen intelligence as a film professional (witness his work on Reds, which, as I wrote in a prior post, was one of the most ambitious and fully realized epics in Oscar history), and even, astonishingly enough for a self-evident narcissist, the deep kindness and generosity recorded in Ms. Keaton’s memoir. 

Today, Shirley MacLaine’s little brother turns 75. The most wonderful thing I can say about this star, who has been in the business now for 50 years, is his acceptance speech for the 2008 American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, when he thanked his industry for leading him to Bening, “who has given me the most important thing of all, which is her love.”

Thursday, March 29, 2012

This Day in TV History (Jack Paar Signs Off ‘Tonight Show’)

March 29, 1962—Exhausted from his high-wire broadcast act, talk-show host Jack Paar, who had walked off The Tonight Show in a huff two years before when a joke was censored, stepped down for good after five seasons, having utterly transformed his last-night perch.

Providing taped farewell messages that night were Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Billy Graham, Bob Hope and Jack Benny—famous figures of their time, now legendary. But the on-air guests, for the most part, were more of a time capsule: comics Jack E. Leonard and Buddy Hackett, opera star Robert Merrill, and Alexander King, a journalist-press agent-memoirist-raconteur who practically became a fixture for Paar.

The DNA of Paar runs through every host who does a monologue. But it’s a safe bet that most Americans who remember his successor, Johnny Carson, will have a tougher time calling to mind the man who turned a variety-show format inherited from Steve Allen into the gabfest we know today.

Paar established some essentials of the late-night format—notably, the monologue, the guest host and the sidekick (in Paar’s case, first, briefly, Franklin Pangborn, then Hugh Downs)—but the form was far looser, the hours longer, and the host far, far more unpredictable. 

Today, a host might tend toward schtick (Leno), edginess (Letterman), or the class clown who can’t believe his good luck in landing this particular gig (Fallon). Paar was of another order entirely: by his own admission, “complicated, sentimental, lovable, honest, loyal, decent, generous, likable, and lonely. My personality is not split, it’s shredded.”

So, what was his show like? From what I’ve read, the blogger Showbiz David gives a pretty adept summation

“Paar was like no one else I had ever seen. Brilliant and witty, raw and restless and unpredictable. Daring to take risks born of his open-minded political views. His guests did not venture onto the set to pitch records or movies. Or more TV shows. They came on to talk because they had the gift of witty gab.”

Viewers really did not know what they would get with Paar:

·         * He might be chatting with Nixon—or to that young, bearded revolutionary in Cuba, Fidel Castro.
·         * He might talk to saintly humanitarian Albert Schweitzer—or allow free rein to a wickedly funny Judy Garland, as in the following YouTube clip.
·         * He might invite Mickey Rooney to leave his show after the multiply-married actor made an erratic, drunken appearance, then make up with him later—or engage in enduring feuds with columnists Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell.
·        *  He might delight the audience with a slightly off-color joke about “water closets”—then make their jaws drop when he walked off the air after discovering network censors had deleted the material without telling him beforehand. (He stayed off the show for several weeks.)

Late-night TV, particularly as Paar practiced it, can be punishing. Coping mechanisms are many and various: hobbies (Leno’s motorcycles), sessions with psychiatrists (Letterman), plenty of time off (Carson). But Paar seemed to have fewer of these, and he decided to call it quits in early 1962.

Paar was still only in his mid-40s when he gave up the host’s seat, but he never reached the same heights again. NBC obliged his wish for more normal, family-friendly hours with a weekly variety show, but it was gone in three years, without making the same cultural impact as his talk show. 

In 1975, ABC convinced Paar to come out of retirement to take up battle against Johnny Carson. It’s true that no challenger was really ever able to take on “The King of the Night” in his 30-year supremacy of The Tonight Show, but Paar’s, because of his history, was particularly anti-climactic.  Carson’s stranglehold on Hollywood guests was particularly strong, and some of Paar’s targets—marijuana, long-haired kids, and gays—were off-putting in those times. Paar seemed like a show-biz Rip Van Winkle--asleep for a decade, then awoken to find a world changed completely in his absence. The show was gone within a year. The host who seemed impossible to replace in 1962 was all but forgotten by the time of his death, at age 85, in 2004. Though segments of his show survive on YouTube, entire episodes are far, far harder to come by, as NBC made it a practice to erase old shows so the tapes could be re-used--a practice they continued with Carson.)

And yet, it seems unfair to leave him sad and diminished. Paar couldn’t sing, dance or act, but he had a feeling for the intimate communication fostered on the small screen. Several years after going off the air, he gave a writer on his show, Dick Cavett, a sense both of his possibilities and those of the “boob tube.” At first, Cavett, remembering the call in his recent essay collection, Talk Show, was astonished by what he heard from his old boss: “Kid, I’ve only got one piece of counseling for you. Don’t do interviews.”

As Cavett started to ponder how he could retain his new job if this advice were taken, Paar elaborated, with words that would be taken to heart by his listener, but by not many others in the current talk-show environment:

“I mean don’t just do interviews, pal. You know. ‘Interview’ smacks of Q-and-A and David Frost and his clipboard and ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and crap like ‘most embarrassing moments.’ Don’t do any of that. Make it a conversation.”

TV Quote of the Day (Conan O’Brien, on Italy’s Defeat in Soccer)

“The U.S. beat Italy in soccer for the first time ever….America hasn’t embarrassed Italy this badly since the first Olive Garden opened.”—Conan O’Brien on Conan, quoted in “Sound Bites,” Entertainment Weekly, March 16, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quote of the Day (Digger Phelps, on Al McGuire)

''I learned defense from Bobby Knight and psychology from Al McGuire. People need to be refreshed on what Al McGuire was. He was a rock. He was the best. He did for Milwaukee in college basketball what Vince Lombardi did for Green Bay in pro football.''—Former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, on rival and friend Al McGuire, quoted in Frank Litsky, “Al McGuire, 72, Coach, TV Analyst and Character, Dies,” The New York Times, January 27, 2001

I have a confession to make: I’ve not only paid virtually no attention to March Madness this year, but in decades. The last time I did was in the Bird-and-Magic show back in ’79. But if you want to know the truth, the time I felt a truly powerful tug to the NCAA finals was two years before that. 

For nearly a decade, Al McGuire had been making a run of it in either the NCAA or the NIT: shouting, gesticulating, cajoling, ref-baiting, anything to bring his Marquette team to the Promised Land. It had been a Sisyphean struggle: going 26-0 in the regular season in ’71, only to lose in the regional semi-finals when star Dean Meminger fouled out; in 1972, in the second round, exiting at the hands of McGuire’s old nemesis, Kentucky; in 1974, after reaching the Final Four, losing largely because of two technical fouls levied on the coach; and in 1976, falling before Bobby Knight’s unbeaten Indiana. 

But, on this date in 1977, victory was finally McGuire’s. It came in dramatic fashion: Marquette had tied the game when North Carolina’s Dean Smith put on his four-corners delay offense, which had frustrated other opponents. Then Marquette got the ball and it was their turn to slow down the tempo. It worked, and against a strong squad that included Walter Davis, Phil Ford and Mike O’Koren, Marquette pulled it out, 67-59.

And then, on the baseline of the court, occurred one of the most unforgettable moments in sports history: as the realization sank in that, at last, he had won the long-elusive prize, in what was to be his last game, McGuire, overcome by memories dating back, he recalled in this YouTube video, to "Belmont Avenue," wept despite himself. 

I couldn’t help but identify with the scrappy coach now letting his heart out for all to see. To start with, he was, in a phrase my Irish-American family might say, “one of ours,” having grown up working in his family’s saloon in Rockaway, N.Y., “the Irish Riviera.” He was “one of ours” in a way that Jack Kennedy—aristocratic, cool, finally unapproachable—couldn’t be. I always thought  of him as up from the city streets. If that last phrase means anything to you, you might hear the echo of New York Governor Alfred Emanuel Smith, who bore the same first and middle name of the coach and whose run for the Presidency occurred the same year as his birth. It was, simply, a thrill that “one of ours” was a master of the city game.

Last year, on the brink of Chris Mullin’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, his St. John’s coach, Lou Carnesecca, told The New York Times’ Harvey Araton, “He was born inside a basketball—you know what I’m trying to say?” McGuire would have, because he was the same type: a gym rat. Oh, he might not have had the talent of his brother Dick (who would join him a year later in the Hall of Fame, and who I discussed in this earlier post), but he lived for the smell of the arena and the sound of that ball bouncing on the court.

I don’t think many people realized at the time—I sure didn’t—what McGuire’s triumph meant for college basketball fans. He walked away—and stayed away—from a game that had meant so much to him—consumed him, really. He left on top of the game, sparing us scandals involving recruiting (a task he loathed); hanging around for too long, after your personal style has become an anachronism; or, in its way worse, retiring, only to come back a year or two later, batteries recharged, to another school or even pro team, with a fatter contract this time, and his old school university left behind.

When he stepped away from his coach’s perch, McGuire gave fans another gift: a brash, funny lingo, as a sportscaster for NBC and CBS, that led The New York Times to term him "the James Joyce of the airwaves" before the 1995 NCAA tournament. Some of the lines are true, out there for all to see (“I think the world is run by C students”); but more often, it was a term that sharply defined a player or a moment. Think of it: “white knuckler,” “aircraft carrier,” “sand fights,” “French pastry,” or the one he had come to know intimately at Marquette, “The Big Dance.” 

On the court, and even more so in the broadcast booth, McGuire embodied a different kind of Irish archetype: not Paddy but what the novelist Peter Quinn, in the title essay of his collection Looking for Jimmy, terms "Jimmy," a melding of Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Walker, gifted with a "blend of musicality and menace, of nattiness and charm, of verbal agility and ironic sensibility, of what today is known as 'street smarts.'"

The average raw skill and ability of college players may be higher than in McGuire’s time, but I doubt if I’m missing much by not watching March Madness lately. After all, with the great coach and announcer gone, the carnival gates are closed. There isn’t a show that could top it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Photo of the Day: Stretching Toward Spring

Another shot, taken more than two weeks ago now, of Crystal Lake in my hometown, Englewood, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, on Irish Protest Elements in His New Album)

“I called on a lot of roots and Celtic elements because I use the music to give the story a historical context. ‘Death to My Hometown’ sounds like an Irish rebel song, but it’s all about what happened four years ago. I want to give people a sense that this is something that’s happened over and over again; what happened in 2008 happened before the turn of the century, and just after the turn of the century—it’s a repetitive, historical cycle that has basically landed on the heads of the same people.”—Bruce Springsteen on his new album Wrecking Ball, interviewed by Jon Stewart, in “Bruce Springsteen’s State of the Union,” Rolling Stone Magazine, RS 1153 (March 29, 2012)

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Day in Classical Music History (Mysterious Beethoven Death Solved?)

March 26, 1827—Late in the afternoon, lightning streaks illuminated the room where Ludwig van Beethoven lay dying. The composer, as defiant toward the elements and death as he had been all his life toward musical and social convention, raised and shook his fist at the storm raging outside, then, exhausted from the struggle, slumped back and perished. 

After 20,000 lined the streets of Vienna to pay final tribute at his funeral, questions began to crop up about the cause of death. Foul play didn’t come up, mind you, but all kinds of other possibilities did, especially because of the ill health with which the composer struggled so long.

Beethoven had been caught in a rainstorm a few months previously and he had never been the same afterward, so pneumonia was one logical cause of death. But over the years, some wondered about dropsy, a condition involving an accumulation of diluted lymph in body tissues and cavities. Some mentioned alcoholic cirrhosis, infectious hepatitis, sarcoidosis and Whipple's disease. Still others speculated darkly about syphilis, a disease that, before Paul Ehrlich’s discovery of the “magic bullet” that would kill the microbe bearing the condition but not the patient, involved shame for its sufferers and their families. Syphilis, it was suggested, could have caused the deafness that altered the course of the composer’s life.

Over the last decade, what appears to be a solution to the mystery was proposed. It came not from a musicologist, a historian/biographer, nor even a doctor, but from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The medical detective work began with strands of the composer’s hair clipped from his head the day after his death by the young musician Frederick Hiller. The precious relics stayed through several generations of Hiller’s family until after World War II, when they presented it to the Danish physician Kay Fremming in gratitude for his work on behalf of Jews. After his death, they were purchased by four American admirers of the composer.

Now, a question might be popping into the heads of Tea Party sympathizers (even some who aren’t): Why on earth was the Department of Energy concerning itself with this rather than, say, diminishing American reliance on foreign oil? Well, as one of the medical detectives, Dr. William Walsh, explained it in a PBS interview in 2005, his collaborator on the process was studying how bacteria can take lead and other toxins out of the environment, while he himself was trying to understand the causes of autism and Alzheimer's Disease. 

The researchers were able to dispense with the most sensational hypothesis of Beethoven’s cause of death. They found no traces of mercury, the most common treatment in those days for syphilis.

But the medical detectives came up with a connection between Beethoven’s death and the physical agonies that began to plague him in his early-to-mid-twenties. None of the many doctors he consulted could alleviate his terrible abdominal pain. By the age of 29, he was writing his brother that he had contemplated suicide over the condition. 

Using DNA analysis of the strands from Beethoven’s hair as well as a fragment of his skull, Dr. Walsh, an expert in forensic analysis, concluded that Beethoven's misery had been caused by lead poisoning. The composer might not necessarily have even been exposed to high levels of this, but if he could not eliminate the poisons from his system, they would have accumulated over time. It might have contributed to his death as well.

The work of Dr. Walsh might explain much, but it also opens another avenue of speculation: for instance, on Beethoven’s level of productivity compared to other greats of the classical era, Frank Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

In a college music humanities class, our instructor had pointed to the number of symphonies this trio had composed: Haydn, 106; Mozart, 41 that are formally numbered; Beethoven, only eight. That last total, the instructor explained, came about because Beethoven was attempting not so much to complete a composition as to utterly transform a particular musical form.

The more recent medical diagnosis makes one wonder about the suggestion by my instructor. What if Beethoven was not simply being perfectionist, but was also horribly distracted by his medical condition?

Traditionally, it’s been Beethoven’s deafness that has been cited as a contributing cause of his depression and irritability. The lead poisoning diagnosis fills out the picture, but there’s one thing it can’t do: account for the composer’s refusal to take any drug that might dull his mind during composition, or explain the courage he needed to surmount his frailty.

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Big Bang Theory,’ on George Lucas)

“I'm sorry, but I'm not going to watch the Clone Wars TV series until I've seen the Clone Wars movie. I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.”—Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons), in The Big Bang Theory, “The Lizard-Spock Expansion,” Season 2, Episode 8, written by David Goetsch and Jennifer Glickman, directed by Mark Cendrowski, air date November 17, 2008

Sunday, March 25, 2012

This Day in Pop Music History (Birth of Elton John, ‘Captain Fantastic’)

March 25, 1947—Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in a council house in Pinner, Middlesex, England to a former communications clerk on an RAF base and the pilot she married. The latter’s attempt to instill military-style discipline into his shy, sensitive, piano-playing son backfired. Not only did the marriage fail, but the son embraced Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as his idols and, for the longest time, personal hedonism as his preferred lifestyle. It’s a pretty safe bet that Stanley Dwight would have been astonished to know that, when his first-born turned 50, he would be knighted, under the show-biz nom de plume he had taken for himself years before: Elton John

The reaction against his father’s sartorial strictures (no Hush Puppies allowed, for instance) might have been nearly a decade tardy after the Dwights’ 1962 divorce, but when it finally came, it was enacted with spectacular force and for all the world to see. John might have entered the commercial stratosphere at the height of Glitter Rock, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of another musician who could match him as the Liberace of Rock, what with his endless varieties of eyewear, platform shoes, top hats, soccer outfits, Ziegfeld showgirl plumes—add what you will, because there’s a fair chance John wore it.

His show business name derived from Elton Dean, saxophonist for the pop pianist’s Sixties band Bluesology, and blues singer Long John Baldry. But more startling than the Christian name and surname he came up with was his middle name: Hercules. It might seem an affectation oddly macho for him, but like the Greek mythological hero, he had to endure a series of labors (starting with his authoritarian dad) before passing into legend:

·        * The rough pub where he cut his musical teeth as a teenager; 

·        *  A manic, fame-spurred lifestyle of outrageous spending and crazy demands that, for sheer insanity, might have climaxed when, frightened by turbulence in the air, he demanded that the pilot of his plane “Stop the wind!”;

·       *   The engagement in his twenties that put him on the brink of suicide (a situation chronicled in the hit “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”); 

·      *    Revealing his sexual orientation when rock ‘n’ roll was at its most homophobic;

·         * The breakup of his marriage in the late Eighties;

·         * Addictions to alcohol and drugs that it took him more than a decade to shed;

·       *   A protracted, painful court battle over musical copyrights with his mentor, Dick James;

·         * A rancidly erroneous report by the British tabloid The Sun that the star kept several guard dogs with larynxes removed so he didn’t have to hear them bark (sparking a libel lawsuit ending with the paper retracting its claims);
·        *   A throat-cancer scare.

If you’re a baby boomer like myself, Elton was nearly inescapable in the early-to-mid Seventies, with seven consecutive albums that went number-one in America. He might as well have been given an entire portion of the radio dial all to himself in those years. That’s the level of commercial success that Warner Brothers record executive Joe Smith had in mind when, for the famous October 27, 1975 Newsweek cover story on Bruce Springsteen, he wondered what level of success The Boss could achieve, let alone sustain: “He's a hot new artist now, but he's not the new messiah and I question whether he will establish an international mania. He's got a very long way to go before he does what Elton has done, or Rod Stewart or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin."

We know what happened to The Boss, but we also know what happened to Elton: perhaps not the supernova phenomenon he had, but certainly sustained, consistent success (save for a brief dip in the late Seventies) since then, even in the musical theater (The Lion King, Aida, Billy Elliott). And, for all the differences in persona between himself and Springsteen, the two have this in common: they are virtually without peer as live performers. (Elton’s flamboyance in concert might have a more desperate quality to it: he was once quoted as saying that the stage was “about the only place where I feel safe.”)

A few more points about Sir Elton:

·         * How many can match him for the number and range of his duet partners—to name a few, John Lennon, Billy Joel, Kiki Dee, Tina Turner, Shania Twain, Leon Russell, even Luciano Pavarotti?

·        *   How many can match him for the number and range of his feuding partners—Madonna, George Michael, Keith Richards, Simon Cowell? (See this "Daily Beast" post.) 

·         * Besides the hundreds of songs he has written over the years, in collaboration with Bernie Taupin and, more recently, Tim Rice, he has also either released or performed in concert some interesting cover tunes, including by Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Stop”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), George and Ira Gershwin (“But Not For Me”),  and Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini (“Moon River,” in this You Tube video, to a French audience).