Monday, February 28, 2011

Quote of the Day (Luke Matheny, With the Best Line of the Oscars)

“I should’ve got a haircut.”--Luke Matheny, winner of the Oscar for live-action short for his film God of Love, gasping in astonishment before a worldwide audience of millions at his victory last night

You got that right, dude! How many times did your mom tell you this?

Now you learn, too late! Your ‘do is a character unto itself--sort of like John Turturro’s astonishing George S. Kaufman tonsorial tribute in Barton Fink.

As another winner from last night, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), might say, the moral of this story is simple: Listen to your mother!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Quote of the Day (Mother Dolores Hart, on Leaving Hollywood for the Convent)

''Monastic life is impossible for most people to understand. People think that it is a life that is shut off, or you're gone from the world, but it's exactly opposite. You are more embedded into the world. It's a way of love that includes everyone that you've ever loved.''—Mother Dolores Hart, quoted in Thom Geier, “Mother Dolores Hart: The Nun Who Kissed Elvis Presley,” Entertainment Weekly, Feb. 11, 2011

This year’s most unlikely Oscar voter--perhaps the most unlikely one in the 80-plus-year history of the Academy--is Mother Dolores Hart. Film fans with very long memories may recall her earlier life as a Hollywood starlet of the late Fifties and early Sixties, when she made 10 films (including Where the Boys Are) before walking away from it all to enter the cloistered Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.

Every year at this time, Hollywood engages in an awards ceremony not only flagrantly self-congratulatory but doubly laughable when you get a load of the vain bimbos and himbos on the red carpet. Though most readers of this blog would find Ms. Hart’s act of worldly renunciation in 1963 astonishing, the Tinseltown veterans who strut and fret their hour upon the stage must view her as something akin to a creature from another planet. (In fact, play Jeff Bridges’ 1984 film Star Man and see if his alien isn’t allowed a greater sense of humanity than most of the nuns depicted onscreen in recent decades.)

What a shame all this is--the men who run Hollywood will never understand the impulse behind Mother Dolores’ remarkable story, a total denial of self and commitment to God and others. Yet all of this comes with a funny bone that remains intact nearly a half century after she changed her life so radically. (In other interviews, when asked what it was like to kiss Elvis Presley onscreen in Loving You, she’s answered puckishly: “I think the limit for a screen kiss back then was something like 15 seconds. That one has lasted 40 years.")

The Entertainment Weekly article is fascinating not only for how Mother Dolores views recent Hollywood fare such as Black Swan, The Hurt Locker and Avatar (which won her vote for Best Picture last year), but also for the life she left behind (including a fiancee who, after their engagement ended, has never married) and the affectionate reminiscences of former co-stars such as Paula Prentiss Benjamin and Robert Wagner.

One hopes that someday, movie moguls will take to heart the true lesson of Mother Dolores' life: the persistent way that love abides, even in its most unexpected form.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

This Day in Rock History (Beatles' “Rubber Soul” Tops Album Chart)

Feb. 26, 1966--The Beatles’ sixth studio LP, Rubber Soul, remained at #1 on Billboard's U.S. album chart, where it had stayed since the start of the year. The LP represented strong evidence of the continuing maturation--indeed, mastery--of the British quartet as songwriters and studio innovators.

American fans of the Fab Four found a somewhat different track listing than the group’s home fans did. Only 10 of the dozen tracks on the U.S. vinyl release also appeared on the British one from December 1965: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” from the British Help! album substituted for four tracks that would later appear on the American Yesterday…and Today. In fact, U.S. and British releases would not contain the same tracks until the Beatles’ 1967 extravaganza, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

What was the Beatles’ greatest album? Sergeant Pepper’s comes in for the lion’s share of plaudits, but I don’t think Rubber Soul can be excluded from the conversation. At a time when the group were under relentless pressure for more singles, they managed to produce what became a landmark in what would become a staple of what we know now as album-oriented radio, an LP less a collection of singles than songs marked by significant experimentation and fertile collaboration.

Consider, for instance, the role of “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison. It took another three years, with the release of Abbey Road and its tunes “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” before his talents began to be acknowledged in all their dimensions.
But with “Rubber Soul,” Harrison started to move, albeit slowly, into the group songwriting space occupied by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with “Think for Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone.” His more important contribution at this point might have been simply to shape the group’s sound. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” gave evidence of Lennon’s sly wit (very sly--he set himself the challenge of writing about an affair without signaling to wife Cynthia that he was doing so!), but listeners were also startled by a new instrument: the sitar, played by Harrison, displaying his growing interest in Indian culture.

For a little more than two years, the group had been living every day at the beck and call of Beatlemania. However much fun it might have been at first, it had become exhausting by now, and Lennon in particular took stock with two songs of self-questioning and self-assessment: “Nowhere Man” and “In My Life.”

McCartney’s craftsmanship, though, provided much of the glue holding the album together. There have been more celebrated instances in pop history of how a romantic breakup produced art (most notably, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear), but the end of Paul’s relationship with actress-girlfriend Jane Asher produced some of his best work to that point, including the Rubber Soul songs “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You.”

Bonus Quote of the Day (Sylvia Plath, on Meeting Her Lover and Doom)

''Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes….and bang the door was shut and he was sloshing brandy into a glass and I was sloshing it at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it.

''We shouted as if in a high wind … and I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband scarf which has weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never find again, and my favorite silver earrings....And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when he came out of the room, blood was running down his face….Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists….And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you.''—Poet Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1956, on meeting future husband and betrayer Ted Hughes the night before, in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kulik (2000)

Some years ago, Edward and Nancy Caldwell Sorel collaborated on a text-and-illustration series for The Atlantic Monthly called “First Encounters.” I forget if this fateful meeting between star-crossed poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes ended up in the series. In a way, it shouldn’t have: the sheer violence of the event, and our knowledge of the horrifying end of their union, would have overwhelmed every other meeting of illuminati that the Sorels chronicled.

Most of what I’ve omitted, indicated here by ellipses, relates to other people at the wild literary party in Cambridge attended by the American Plath and the Briton Hughes. I deleted it because it would be of limited interest to my readers; 30 years ago, when the first version of the journals appeared, much of this was omitted, I think, because Hughes feared that the people mentioned (many still alive) would be all too interested in how they appeared.

But that early expurgated edition, though it included much of the alcohol-fueled groping and violence between the pair, also deleted the details about Hughes ripping off Plath’s hairband and earrings. That, in a way, is telling, because looked at in its entirety, it becomes clear that this passage is not just about sex but also possession: possession of objects, possession of another human being, and possession of one’s self.

That theme starts subtly. Plath had inquired about the handsome, dark mysterious stranger as soon as she saw him, “but no one told me.” It’s hard to resist the inference that many of these uncommunicative people were women who might have wanted Hughes for themselves (including, as it happened, Hughes' girlfriend of the time, who was understandably upset at how he looked after Plath got through with him for the night).

Instead, Plath engages in what, in its immediacy and violence, can only be thought of as what Charles Darwin termed “sexual selection”—the principle that determines the winners in the struggle for existence.

This passage becomes compelling not merely because of its all the emotion and energy that Plath invests in this act, but in the objects that mean so much to her: her hairband, itself symbolic of nature (it has “weathered the sun and so much love”), and her “favorite silver earrings.”

Already, foreboding pulses beneath the wild instincts on display (she writes of the hairband “whose like I shall never find again”), but everything is given over to the moment and its fervid remembrance several hours later. A mere four months later, the two married.

“These violent delights have violent ends,” Friar Lawrence ineffectively but accurately warns in Romeo and Juliet. For all of Plath’s astonishment in her journal that “the worst thing happened” the night she met Hughes, the truly awful events--the “violent ends” of their union--would occur later: Plath’s suicide, following Hughes’ infidelity and separation, in 1963; the suicide four years later of the woman for whom he left Plath, Assia Weevil, and her murder of their child; and, like a bomb going off nearly a half century after the initial fuse was lit, the 2009 suicide of the son of Plath and Hughes, Nicholas.

Quote of the Day (P.G. Wodehouse, on Dangerous Dining in Hearst’s Castle)

“Meals are in an enormous room, and are served at a long table, with [William Randolph] Hearst sitting in the middle on one side and [actress-mistress] Marion Davies in the middle on the other. The longer you are there, the further you get from the middle. I sat on Mario’s right the first night, then found myself being edged further and further away till I got to the extreme end, when I thought it time to leave. Another day, and I should have been feeding on the floor.”—Humorist P.G. Wodehouse, in a letter to a friend describing his visit to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, Feb. 25, 1931, quoted in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland (1975)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Chicago Electoral Divisions)

“In Chicago elections one’s antipathies are always nicely divided. The division is usually between idealistic incompetence and corrupt quasi-competence. Corrupt quasi-competence, the way of the Daley dynasty, père et fils, for better and worse generally wins the day. The result has been that the city kept humming along, with all its messiness pushed under an ample carpet: horrible public schools, heavy debt, lots of street-gang murder in slum neighborhoods to go around. But beautiful trees were planted everywhere, and the snow got shoveled off the main thoroughfares. Chicago, the city that works—that is, if you don’t look too closely.”—Joseph Epstein, “The Rahmbomb…and Other Chicago Players,” The Weekly Standard, February 21, 2011

The city that Rahm Emanuel takes over from the Daleys (Richard II is in the accompanying image) is merely an urban microcosm of the quandary that Woody Allen once foretold: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces the crossroads path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. I pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quote of the Day (Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the Death of Keats)

“Oh weep for Adonais!—The quick Dreams,
The passion-wingèd Ministers of thought,
Who were his flocks, whom near the living streams
Of his young spirit he fed, and whom he taught
The love which was its music, wander not,—
Wander no more, from kindling brain to brain,
But droop there, whence they sprung; and mourn their lot
Round the cold heart, where, after their sweet pain,
They ne’er will gather strength, or find a home again.”—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

On this date in 1821, the sickly Romantic poet John Keats died of tuberculosis at age 25 in Rome, far from his native England. (A year later, his admirer Shelley died in a drowning accident.)

Luckily, there was more to Keats’ life and work than an untimely death. The poems he created in his short life have won a devoted following in the years since, including by no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who included lines from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” as the epigraph of his 1934 novel about expatriate Americans, Tender is the Night.

Here is a fascinating blog post featuring a YouTube recording of the great novelist paying tribute to this literary genius who died all too young, reciting, from memory "Ode to a Nightingale."

(My post today was inspired by friend and fellow blogger Linnea, who is not only a Keats fan but a one-woman cultural salon. For proof, see her blog Art Ravels. I've bookmarked it and hope that you will, too.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quote of the Day (George Washington, Founding Realist)

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”—George Washington, assessing the possibility that a double-agent could betray the Continental Army, in a letter to Major General Robert Howe, Aug. 17, 1779, quoted in The Writings of George Washington: 1778-1779, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (1890)

Americans revere George Washington, born on this date in 1732, for his virtue, but he himself had few illusions about the best qualities of most men. It wasn’t only because, for four years before he wrote the above line, he had become all too familiar with the price men would make him pay to supply the needs of his army or even with information on enemy troop movements.

No, Washington, for at least the last two decades, knew too well the base instincts underlying the scramble for office. In 1757, he allowed his name to be put forward as a candidate for the Virginia House of Burgesses--a position he may have felt as practically a birthright, given that his great-grandfather, father and elder brother had all served in the post.

But as a colonel charged with defending the colony from Indian attack, he had made clear his conviction that the “villainous Behavior of those Tippling House-keepers” had undercut military preparedness. This did not sit well with the tavern interests of his area, who threw their weight successfully behind two opponents.

The ambitious young colonel learned his lesson. A colonial law at the time stipulated that no inducements were to be offered to voters, but the latter thought that any candidate who didn’t “treat” them was an inhospitable stiff. And so, come the next election, Washington made sure to purchase 144 gallons of wine, rum, punch, beer and hard cider to distribute at the polls. It worked--he won handily this time.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Washington’s fellow Virginian James Madison wrote in The Federalist #51. I don’t think it was an accident that this thought, so similar to the general’s in terms of lack of illusions, was written by another politician who had lost an election to the House of Burgesses in his twenties because of hostility to colonial liquor interests.

Historians have argued for years about the intellectual sources of the worldviews of the Founding Fathers. As far as I’m concerned, the influence of John Locke, Francis Hutcheson and other Enlightenment figures can be overstated. In the republic of alcohol, Washington, Madison and all too many other figures had learned all too much about catering to the masses because of the tradition called "swilling the planters with bumbo."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (Martina McBride, on Hope and Prayer)

“God is great, but sometimes life ain't good
When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway.”—“Anyway,” written by Martina McBride, Brad Warren and Brett Warren, performed by Martina McBride, from her Waking Up Laughing CD (2007)

I saw Martina McBride sing this composition of hers last night on the cable TV music show Private Sessions, and the performance was so impassioned and inspirational that I knew it merited a blog entry. Her message: In the depths of winter and adversity, hope remains not only necessary, but even possible.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quote of the Day (Len Lesser, on Being “Uncle Leo” on “Seinfeld”)

“Uncle Leo became a whole new thing for me. After sweating out every job, my God. Now it’s everywhere I go. I was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, watching people put notes in the wall, it’s an esoteric day, very silent, very nice. All of a sudden: ‘Uncle Leo, where’s the watch?’”—Actor Len Lesser, on his late celebrity achieved as “Uncle Leo” on the sitcom Seinfeld, quoted in Bruce Weber, “Len Lesser, Uncle Leo on ‘Seinfeld,’ Dies at 88,” The New York Times, February 18, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quote of the Day (Thomas Gray, on the “Inevitable Hour” of the Grave)

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”—Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)

The English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771) published this, probably the most famous elegy in the English language, anonymously 260 years ago this week. He had been mulling it perhaps for as much as eight years. 

Then, even after completing it in 1750, Gray circulated it among friends for another year before the editor of one cheap periodical, having gotten his hands on it in the meantime and saying he would print it (as it happened, with errors), forced the author to put it into the hands of the more prestigious publisher Dodsley. But for that first hack, Gray—who only published a handful of poems in his lifetime—might have ended up like the “mute inglorious Milton” he memorialized here.

Multiple phrases from this poem have continued to be quoted years after its first appearance, but the last line in the above quote is really the heart of the work. I’ve had occasion to ponder it more and more recently, having watched one relative after another (including my mother this past fall) pass away.

Gray is almost brutally egalitarian here: all the distinctions of wealth and fame count for nothing in the face of death. And yet, I’m of the opinion that brutality is only part of what happens at this point, that a life well-lived will also bring a more glorious immortality in the resurrection.

(The portrait of Gray here, by the way, is by John Giles Eccart, painted a few years before the appearance of the poem.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (“Dracula,” Showing Why You Can’t Trust Teetotalers)

Count Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi): “This is very old wine. I hope you will like it.”

Renfield (played by Dwight Frye): “Aren’t you drinking?”

Dracula: “I never drink… wine.”—Dracula (1931), screenplay by Garrett Fort (and five uncredited others), adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker and the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freund (uncredited)

I first saw this version of Dracula—released 80 years ago this week—when I was a kid, on a Saturday-morning show called “Creature Features.” I made it all the way through poor Renfield's bite from the ol’ bloodsucker before it scared the hell out of me and I turned it off.

A decade later, on a high-school field trip into New York, I saw the Broadway revival with Frank Langella. The centerpiece was not the Renfield scene, but the one where Langella, still young and possessed of all his dark hair, went into full matinee-idol mode, methodically circling innocent Mina's Victorian bedchamber before sinking to his knees next to her, ready for his seduction. When she let out a cry, just before intermission, all the girls from my group gasped in delight, giving the distinct impression that they wouldn't mind being in her place.

It wasn’t until several years ago that I saw the Spanish-language version of this film, shot simultaneously as the more English one, using the same sets and filmed at night, but with different actors. Yes, the English-language version had Bela Lugosi (who would not have repeated his Broadway triumph had not the original Universal Studios choice, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, died).

But the foreign one was more vigorous (Dracula slaps a mirror out of Dr. Van Helsing’s hands), the acting better, the script closer to the barely suppressed eroticism of Stoker’s novel (sample line: “The next morning, I felt very weak, as if I had lost my virginity”), and the clothes leaving less to the imagination (on the DVD, the female lead, Lupita Tovar, recalled her grandson saying, after seeing her in a revealing costume: “Now I know why grandpa married you!”).
Over the past several months, visiting the offices of our family physician, I've grown used to the sight of Twilight's Robert Pattinson, the young-adult counterpart to Bela, in a photo on the wall. In the popular imagination, the vampire shows as much life as the Count from Transylvania.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Video Classic of the Day: Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely”

Valentine’s Day brings all kind of reflections about love, but let’s not forget the unrequited kind. I don’t think that the agony of love’s absence has ever been evoked so movingly as in the 1979 hit “You’re Only Lonely” by J.D. Souther.

The singer-songwriter might be better known as one of the architects of the ‘70s Southern California sound with tunes covered by The Eagles, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt (“Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight,” “Her Town Too,” and “Faithless Love”). But he may have reached the zenith of his career with this plaintive cry of the heart, which he sings in Japan in 1990 on this YouTube clip.

I’ve sometimes wondered why this song, unlike the others named above, hasn’t been covered by more artists. But then again, it’s impossible for me to conceive of anyone else performing this better.

Quote of the Day (Frank O’Connor on Yeats in Love)

“Once, when we went in a taxi to some Board meeting, I paid the taxi driver and [poet W.B.] Yeats grabbed the money frantically from his hand and created a scene while he tried to find money of his own — always a difficult task for him as he could never make out where his pockets were. I said, 'Oh, stop it, WB,' and he turned on me. 'You don't understand, O'Connor, ' he gasped. `I wouldn't mind, but my wife would never forgive me.’ Maybe only a story-teller can understand this, but I knew that a man who worried about what he was going to tell his wife about who paid the taxi fare was a man in love, whatever anybody else might think.”—Frank O’Connor, A Frank O’Connor Reader, edited by Michael Steinman (1994)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Quote of the Day (John XXIII, on Men in the Likeness of God)

“If all men are in the likeness of God, why should I not love them all, why should I despise them? Should I not rather revere them? This is the reflection which must hold me back from in any way offending against my brothers, for I must remember that they are all made in the image of God and that perhaps their souls are more beautiful and dearer to God than my own.”—Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII), diary entry for February 1900, in Pope John XXIII, Journal of a Soul, translated by Dorothy White (1965)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Day in Pop Music History (Smokey Makes U.S. “Shop Around” for Motown)

Feb. 12, 1961—Motown Records, a toddler of a music company in Detroit, won mass acceptance from a white audience with “Shop Around,” its first million-selling single, penned by company creator Berry Gordy and his friend, the lead singer of the group recording it, Smokey Robinson of the Miracles.

About 10 years ago, with a bit of time between flights, I chatted for a minute with security guards at Dayton Airport. They had “quite a bit of excitement” there earlier that day, one told me. “Smokey Robinson came through. What a great, classy guy!”

The guards were white and late middle-age--hardly the audience for the 20-year-old singer when he first burst upon the nation’s consciousness with that swooping, swooning, acrobatic tenor voice.

But their reaction testifies both to the cross-over impact made by the first record label owned by an African-American, as well as Smokey’s own unbounded personal charisma.

It wasn’t surprising that he took the label to the top. After all, the first song released on Motown Records two years before was the Miracles’ “Bad Girls,” and the first slotted for national release was the group’s “Way Over There.”

Moreover, if Gordy--a former Korean War vet, boxer and Ford Motor Co. worker who wrote tunes in his head to break assembly-line boredom--had the ambition and marketing savvy to make broaden the audience of records traditionally considered "rhythm and blues" to whites, it was Robinson who, with his friendliness and uncanny ear, would work with upcoming acts in the company (e.g., Mary Wells, The Temptations), crafting songs to their talents, as Motown vice-president throughout the rest of the Sixties.

To put “Shop Around” on the map at all, though, Robinson and his bandmates had to follow the hard-driving Gordy's lead. First, Gordy dissuaded Robinson from offering the song (written, the singer recalled, “like water," in less than a half hour) to the label’s Barrett Strong, convincing him that it would be better if the Miracles performed it with Smokey’s wife, Claudette Rogers, singing lead.

Several weeks later, dissatisfied with the results, Gordy called Robinson at 3 in the morning with a brainstorm: He could fix the record with a faster beat. He was able to persuade the reluctant and bleary-eyed Robinson that this time it would work, but it was up to the latter to round up his fellow musicians right then and there to re-record it.

Robinson wasn’t completely successful in this last endeavor--the piano player was missing, requiring that Gordy himself step into the role for the moment--but the new beat, along with the substitution of Robinson for Rogers in the lead, was everything the producer promised.

In time, Gordy was able to present the thrilled band members with their first gold record at the state fair, and to watch with satisfaction as they landed a gig on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” It also launched Smokey and the Miracles on a decade of further hits, including “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Tears of a Clown,” and my personal favorite, “Ooh Baby Baby.”

Quote of the Day (Elton John, With “Tough Love” for Billy Joel)

"At the end of the day, he's coasting. I always say, 'Billy, can't you write another song?' It's either fear or laziness. It upsets me. Billy's a conundrum. We've had so many canceled tours because of illnesses and various other things, alcoholism. He's going to hate me for this, but every time he goes to rehab they've been rehab light. When I went to rehab, I had to clean the floors. He goes to rehab where they have TVs. I love you, Billy, and this is tough love.”—Elton John, on fellow piano man and ‘70s icon Billy Joel, quoted in Austin Scraggs, “Elton John: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, Feb. 17, 2011

Sir Elton John calls this “tough love,” but there’s a simpler one-word description that Billy Joel might more properly appreciate: “honesty.” You know, what’s “hardly ever heard.”

Elton is just the guy to provide this. He not only has delivered blunt messages before (as his Rolling Stone interview recounted, he hilariously—and properly—took Madonna to task at the Q Awards in 2004 for lip-synching at what were supposed to be live events), but he also has benefited from it, personally and professionally.

The above quote hints at the personal “tough love,” in the form of rehab; the professional kind was delivered by Ryan Adams a decade ago, who pushed him toward a return to his old form on the CD Songs From the West Coast. (How well that attempt succeeded is another matter--but at least he tried.)

How much of Billy Joel’s writer’s block is due to creative inertia and how much to substance abuse and/or depression? (This is the man, remember, who composed “I Go to Extremes.”) Hard to tell. But many of us would like to see a break in the pattern.

For his part, The Piano Man isn’t taking Elton’s comments too much to heart, releasing the following statement: "I've worked with Elton for such a long time and I've enjoyed our relationship too much to let something as random as these comments change my affection for him. Elton is just being Elton."

Come to think of it, maybe it would be better if Billy did get mad—and tried to prove Elton wrong about his waning creative energies.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Quote of the Day (Abe Lincoln, Leaving the Town He Loved So Well)

“My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”—Abraham Lincoln, “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861, in Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (Library of America edition, 1992)

Abraham Lincoln, his biographers tell us, was not a great extemporaneous speaker; he had to work and work for hours to get phrases just right. This particular speech, given straight from the heart, from the back of a train taking him to the White House, was about as close as he got. But even in this case, as soon as he was done, he sat down and polished what he had just delivered until it took the media-ready form it is here.

Nevertheless, it is so poignant—and so filled with the (correct) premonition that he would never return—that it has earned its own, just place among his memorable addresses.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quote of the Day (Ralph Nader, on Model Changes and Safety)

"The annual model change ritual is not a meaningful innovation for the public safety and welfare. Its purpose is to ‘stir the animal’ in the car buyer. It is aimed not at the reason of men but at their ids and hypogastria.”—Ralph Nader, testifying before Congress, Feb. 10, 1966, quoted in Justin Martin, Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (2002)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This Day in TV History (“All in the Family” Tackles Gay Theme)

Feb. 9, 1971—All in the Family, the CBS sitcom demolishing taboos ever since its debut four weeks before, pioneered treatment of gay characters in an episode co-written by creator Norman Lear.

Last month, I was unable to write about the 40th anniversary of the irreverent comedy that was an institution in my house throughout the Seventies. This particular episode, "Judging Books by Covers," gave me that opportunity again.

The archetypal comedies of the 1970-71 season for the “Tiffany Network” were All in the Family (hereinafter referred to as AITF) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM). Veteran TV director John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show), who had the opportunity to work on the pilots of both series, chose AITF because it was an extraordinary “experiment,” particularly in its use of language--i.e., the then-extraordinary, for TV, series of racial and ethnic slurs cast in every direction by blue-collar paterfamilias Archie Bunker. This episode proved him right.

As a comedy centered on character, MTM has aged better than the more ripped-from-the-headlines AITF. Indeed, the only signs distinguishing one season of MTM from another were a) the absence of Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, both of whom had spinoff series of their own; and b) Mary’s changing fashions and growing professional self-confidence.

Nevertheless, for all its stylish wit and its exquisite balance between character complexity and consistent high standards throughout its run, MTM sometimes pulled its punches—or, at least, was forced to by network censors. Mary Richards, for instance, was transformed from a divorcee to a single working girl who lit out for Minneapolis after being jilted by her fiancé. It wasn’t until its third season that the show featured a homosexual character: Phyllis’ brother.

At the time of the AITF episode on homosexuality, television shied away from treating gays. There were certainly flamboyant types on the air, mind you (e.g., Paul Lynde’s “Uncle Arthur” on Bewitched). But it was impossible to see homosexuals in anything other than the stereotype of Ernie Kovacs’ lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils.

Come to think of it, Rich was only half correct when he signed on for what he believed to be an “experiment” in AITF. It was more like a revolution.

Particularly in its early seasons, AITF was centered around the assault of the modern world on Archie. He perpetually retreated to the male domain of Kelsey’s Tavern when he couldn’t take what always seemed to land on his doorstep at Hauser Street in Queens. But in this episode, even Kelsey’s was no longer a place where he could figure out, as the opening song “Those Were The Days” went, “girls were girls and men were men.”

What drives him there to begin with this time is the open-arms treatment of daughter Gloria and son-in-law Mike of their friend Roger—or, as Archie puts it, “Sweetie-Pie Roger” or “Tinkerbelle.” Roger has just returned with pictures from a vacation in England (“a fag country,” Archie tells “Meathead” Mike), and it looks like he’s raided every clothing shop on Carnaby Street. It’s all too much for Archie, who’s glad to get away to his favorite bar, filled with macho guys like his friend Steve, a former professional football player.

Bit by bit, Archie is rattled there, too. For starters, he can’t understand how Steve could not only know Roger, but act friendly toward him. But his world is really turned upside down when Steve (after beating him a couple of times arm-wrestling) confirms the secret Mike had earlier heard from the bartender: it’s not fluttery Roger who’s gay, but he-man Steve.

At the time this episode aired, it was only a year and a half after the Stonewall riot, and a full four years before former pro running back David Kopay came out of the closet. It would take a half-dozen years more before primetime TV featured an ongoing gay character: Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on Soap.

This particular episode was supposed to air February 2, 1971, but it was moved back a week. One wonders if his controversial subject matter was behind the move. Lear certainly had to battle network censors countless times to get his way, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was one of those cases.

Ironically, the censors might have relaxed if they had known that nobody would be watching the show. That’s what happened in its early weeks. Everybody associated with the sitcom, in fact, was ready for CBS’ cancellation announcement throughout the spring and early summer.

The first inkling that things might be different came to Rich, on vacation in Hawaii at the time. As he recounted in an appearance on the public-radio show Fresh Air a few years ago, a Japanese woman he met told him she had to go home to watch AITF. “That Archie Bunker, he’s my husband,” she said.

He had been hearing such comments more frequently, and in increasingly surprising cases such as this one. The universality of this character began to impress itself on him. Several weeks later, CBS network executive Fred Silverman, pleasantly surprised that summer reruns of the show were proving to be a smash hit, issued a stay of execution. The next year, AITF stormed to the top of the ratings, where it stayed through much of the rest of the decade.

(Incidentally, Anthony Geary and Phil Carey, who played, respectively, Roger and Steve, would go on to bigger roles on daytime soap operas: Geary on General Hospital and Carey on One Life to Live.

Quote of the Day (George Ade, on a Particular Woman)

“She was short on intellect, but long on shape.”—Attributed to George Ade

The American humorist and playwright, an inspiration to radio legend Jean Shepherd, was born on this date in 1844.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Bishop, With Her Credo)

“I believe:
that the steamship will support me on the water,
& that the aeroplane will conduct me over the mountain,
that perhaps I shall not die of cancer,
or in the poorhouse;
that eventually I shall see things ‘in a better light,’
that I shall continue to read and continue to write,
that I shall continue to laugh until I cry with a certain few friends,
that love will unexpectedly appear over & over again,
that people will continue to do kind deeds that astound me.”—Elizabeth Bishop, notebook entry quoted in Brett C. Miller, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet was born 100 years ago on this day.

Monday, February 7, 2011

TV Quote of the Day (Stephen Colbert, With Advice for Kids of Tiger Moms)

“Get back to that Mendelssohn concerto before she drowns your bunny!”—Comic Stephen Colbert, advising children subjected to the Chinese parenting strategies summarized in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, quoted in Dave Itzkoff, “Arts Beat: “Tiger Mother’ in Stephen Colbert’s Den,” The New York Times, January 26, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Ronald Reagan Born)

Feb. 6, 1911—Ronald Wilson Reagan, America’s 40th President, was brought into the world as a 10-pound baby, with the services of a midwife rather than a doctor that his family couldn’t afford, in a three-bedroom, walk-up apartment in Tampico, Ill.

It was the kind of Middle American community to which the future actor and politician long paid tribute and that biographers Lou Cannon and Anne Edwards claim profoundly influenced him. Nevertheless, Reagan's parents left Tampico within a few years after his birth, and he resisted revisiting it for much of his life. The one indelible memory from his very early years in this village that he didn’t mind relating: the image of a white house with high ceilings, a place he felt comfortable.

On the centennial of his birth, even Reagan’s admirers and loved ones have grappled with the duality of a man who, for all his geniality, remained utterly remote. His daughter Patti, locked in a love-hate relationship with him for much of her life, observed that his “presence felt like absence.”

That same absent quality comes through in today’s New York Times op-ed contribution by biographer Edmund Morris, a vivid piece about an episode late in the President’s life: his sudden desire, three years out of the Presidency, to revisit his birthplace.

Morris poignantly evokes “an old man in retreat — withdrawn, halting and perplexed,” already emitting the first signs of the Alzheimer’s that would finally claim him. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer never really offers a glimpse into the politician who long shied away from looking back at his origins.

If you want to understand Reagan’s reluctance to go home—as well as the values of the place that bred him—I think you can’t simply read the facts of his life. You have to supplement it by listening to what is, for me, the high point of the careers of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel following their breakup: their brief reunion in 1975, in the form of one of their greatest songs, “My Little Town.”

The dual nature of this tune is not unlike the dual nature of Reagan himself. Its dominant initial impression is Garfunkel’s majestic voice, soaring as it sings of seemingly halcyon childhood days of believing in a god who “keeps his eye on us all” and pledging allegiance.

Before long, though, that voice, still golden, is creating images that increasingly call into question what the narrator learned in “my little town”: clothes hanging “in the dirty breeze,” a rainbow with only black colors because “it’s just imagination they lack.”

Before long, it’s painfully clear that this factory town is a place to be escaped from: one where the narrator is “just my father’s son,” where he is desperate to leave: “saving my money,/Dreaming of glory.” The listener can’t believe what he has just heard Simon and Garfunkel sing: “Nothing but the dead and dying/Back in my little town.”

And so, I think, it must have been for Ronald Reagan. The one time he returned to Tampico before his late-life visit, during his 1976 Presidential campaign, paralleled his race that year: a triumph that went oddly sour. The Hennepin Canal, being built at the time of his birth, no longer generated employment or was even open to boat traffic, and the The Hooppole, Yorktown and Tampico (HY&T) Railroad had stopped running a generation before.
According to Morris, Tampico was now no more than “a depressed village on the Illinois corn flats” that turned worse when its “least desirable citizen” somehow managed to make it to the front of the line and plant a big wet kiss on Nancy Reagan’s face. Moreover, according to a Fred Barnes article in The Weekly Standard, Reagan didn't even get to see the bedroom where he was born on that visit: The apartment was then rented and locked. (It's now open to the public.)

If anything, Ronald Reagan wanted to be more than “just my father’s son” that the narrator of the Simon and Garfunkel song lamented being. And now, we come to a curious disagreement about what else was in the building where Reagan was born. Morris and Barnes note that the Reagan apartment was over a bank; another article I came across, by Steve Martens of the Herald-Review (Decatur, Ill.), claims it was over a bakery. But yet another, by architect and city planner Richard Thornton, offers more details. A bank occupied the ground floor of the "Graham Building" from 1919 to 1931 and a bakery from 1915 to 1931, but a saloon was on the first floor from 1896 to 1915--including the birth date of Reagan.
The saloon downstairs would not have been present by the time of his 1976 disastrous return, but even the wisp of its memory would have been enough to revive an image he had spent much of his life overlooking or expunging from his mind: Jack Reagan, tolerant, kind-hearted shoe salesman, sprawled out a few years later on the porch of their Dixon home, drunk, as he was all too often because of the disease of alcoholism.

Again, like the Simon and Garfunkel character, Ronald Reagan dreamed of glory in Tampico and the other Illinois communities where his father’s varying fortunes took the family—Galesburg, Monmouth and Dixon. The man who showed him the way out was the hero of his young manhood: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At first glance, it would seem well-nigh impossible that the product of a Midwestern down-on-their-luck family who went on to question the foundation of the modern American welfare state and to undermine the American conservation movement could have any affinity for the Northeastern patrician who was the architect of the American safety net and the second-most-influential President concerning the environment (taking a back seat only to distant cousin Theodore). But in a professional and personal sense, the two Presidents had elements in common.

Reagan’s first major job out of college was as a radio announcer. FDR’s live “fireside chats” impressed him with more than simply its sense of timing and dramatic enunciation, as Reagan explained during his own Presidency a half-century later: “His strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problem. I will never forget him for that.”

Forty years after first absorbing those seminal lessons in communication, in the interval between governing California and winning the Presidency, Reagan returned to radio with weekly commentaries that kept him present in the public eye. Some of the same FDR hallmarks—humor and well-turned metaphors and similes—allowed him to communicate, simply and directly, with his target audience.

Reagan’s life resembled that of the hero of his youth in another, less flattering way: While impressing their children with warmth, the two aspiring politicians were never around long enough to serve as stabilizing influences. They were so busy saving the world that they often didn’t see that their own progeny were drowning.

As they entered adolescence, the children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt became painfully aware of the divisions between their parents resulting from FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer and the stress involved with his adjustment to life after polio. The five children who survived to adulthood struggled for professional footholds or, simply, marital stability (19 marriages and 15 divorces).

The record with the Reagan children wasn’t this catastrophic, but it featured episodes of sharp, often public pain. Maureen and Michael, the two older children from Ronald’s marriage to actress Jane Wyman, felt shunted aside when their father remarried and started a new family. The title of Michael’s autobiography speaks volumes: On the Outside Looking In. On Michael's wedding day, Ron and Nancy chose to go to another wedding on the same day: that of Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia, at the White House.

Growing up, Maureen was annoyed to find that her father had not yet told her half-sister Patti about her existence yet (they hadn’t gotten that far yet, Ronald said—as if that explained everything). During Maureen's campaign in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1982, her father—by then President—perpetually had a pained expression on his face when asked about it, as if he wished it could all go away.

Until the onset of her father’s Alzheimer’s, Patti seemed to act out in public at every turn, with one embarrassing tell-all screed and episode (e.g., posing nude in Playboy) after another.

Even Ron Jr.—the youngest in the family and the one with the least ambivalent relationship with his parents—seems to have produced his new memoir, My Father at 100, in an attempt to pierce the veil his father kept over his own life. Much of it is simply goes back to the places where his father grew up: “to arrive where we started,” in the words of T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets, “And know the place for the first time.”
Back to FDR. Like Reagan, the President who guided America through the Depression and World War II possessed charisma to spare while leaving most visitors unsure if they had really penetrated that genial surface. But FDR's remoteness, we know now, was a mask, a device that allowed him to discern visitors' intentions and vulnerability without revealing his own (especially the frailty left by polio). Reagan's sense of inner withdrawal can only be ascribed to Alzheimer's rather late in his adult life. More telling might have been his admission that, after coming to Dixon at age nine, he'd been slow to make friends. "In some ways, I think this reluctance to get close to people never left me completely," he wrote in a rare introspective moment. "I've been inclined to hold back a little bit of myself, reserving it for myself." He might have imbibed certain values in his Midwestern small towns while growing up--belief in the American dream, the bright line between good and evil--but also a sense of isolation, even embarrassment, about his origins.

Quote of the Day (Henri Nouwen, on “God’s Unconditional Love”)

“God’s unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. God continues to wait for us as a loving parent waits for the return of a lost child. It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do.”—Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (1997)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quote of the Day (James Bond, Consoling Himself)

“Follow your fate, and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-rate motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist, pickled in alcohol and nicotine.”—Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love (1956)