Friday, May 30, 2014

So Now It's Okay to Like the Bee Gees?

Barry Gibbs, the last living Bee Gee, is playing to large crowds in a solo U.S. tour in 2014. He started in the huge Boston Garden, which is where I once saw the Rolling Stones. It's very big.

 Rolling Stone (the magazine) celebrates this with a collection of YouTube versions of "13 Essential Barry Gibb Tracks," most of them from the Bee Gees, beginning in the late 60s. The accompanying paragraphs are laudatory. They suggest that David Bowie essentially copied the Bee Gees in his early albums. So it's okay to like the Bee Gees now? Finally?

 When they started, the reigning tastemakers at Rolling Stone considered them Beatles Lite. Their middle period albums were ignored, their hits ridiculed. And that's before they rode the Disco wave with their songs in Saturday Night Fever, which was of course beneath contempt.

 Contempt was the attitude we faced when we included their first albums in our 1967-68 continuous play mix back in the Galesburg House for the Bewildered (169 W. First Street, now a national historical monument. Wait--update: they tore it down) where the tunes of that fantastic year were our senior year soundtrack at Knox College. Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Creem, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Buffalo Springfield, even Vanilla Fudge, but...the Bee Gees?

Two of the 13 Essential Tracks are from those first two albums.  "New York Mining Disaster 1941" is an acknowledged classic from their first one, and their first radio hit.  "To Love Somebody" also from that album (not in this list) was even bigger. "Holiday" was the third hit from the Bee Gees First.

But the critical bloom was off the rose already by their second album Horizontal, so the surprise of the Rolling Stone choices is "World," which led off the album and is immediately picked up thematically and musically in the next track.  Their daffy surrealism turned eerie, approaching what French surrealists like Eluard and Apollonaire might have written if they were in a rock band.  "Daytime Girl" sets a pattern of dreamy forboding.  Still, they could craft a radio hit when they wanted--though "Birdie Told Me" is a classic pop song, the album's hit turned out to be the melodic and yearning "Massachusetts."  Though "World" made the Brit charts, it was too weird for the US, or in those days, Rolling Stone.  Now apparently it's an essential.

By the time of their double album Odessa (with the red felt cover--I've still got it) the Bee Gees were more often ridiculed than respected.  Still, I continued to purchase and listen to every Bee Gees album in the early and mid 70s. Idea played at Iowa, Mr. Natural in PA. My allegiance while I was writing about rock at the Boston Phoenix was considered a puzzling eccentricity.  I do remember reading one writer somewhere (it may have even been on an album cover) brave enough to write a positive essay, though a lot of it was about how quixotic he was considered, how defensive he sometimes had to be.

 Now Bruce Springsteen is doing a Bee Gees song--and one from the disco era--and Gibb is doing a Springsteen (neither of them terribly good at it.) But that's less of a departure than Rolling Stone's--musicians by and large did not buy into the snobbery. Many recorded Bee Gees songs and copied their riffs. Musicians are like that.  (Irony here is that Jon Landau, by now the multimillionaire manager and former producer for the Boss, was the reigning imperial power as the record review editor at Rolling Stone in those years that established the Bee Gees as bad taste.)

 So I welcome the conventional wisdom to what I already knew: the Bee Gees were unique, unquestionably strange, but frequently haunting and oddly joyful.  I'm glad that at least one of them lived long enough to get some love as well as fame and fortune.  Welcome to the fan club.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Icons Connecting the Past and Future

In the 1960s it was becoming clear that pop culture was becoming American culture. By now that seems perfectly normal. The media covers pop music and movie stars as our royalty, television shows and movies like the latest artistic and cultural events. Scholars study Beatles lyrics and Doctor Who scripts. The new myths of gods, goddesses and heroes are the scifi and superhero sagas. But that didn't seriously begin to dominate until the 60s.

 Early boomers will remember the roots of this change in the 50s and 60s, especially as icons of those decades and earlier reemerge in the news one last time. The death of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers reminds us that aspects of pop culture are really refinements of folk culture.

 I've just been rereading William Eastlake's early novels and came upon this sentence: "The secret in creating anything new seems to lie in borrowing all you see and hear about you and adding one small touch." That's often true in music particularly. Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon talked about the Everly Brothers both in terms of the music they transformed and their effect on the music that followed theirs (like Simon & Garfunkel.) (Ronstadt was even better in this Time Magazine piece--the rest of it requires registration but even the intro paragraph adds something.)

 Adapting folk culture in a different way is seen in the life of Pete Seeger. He only slightly changed folk songs (though his strengthening of the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" helped it become immortal) but he applied them to contemporary issues with roots in the past, such as civil rights, an end to war and preserving the natural environment. Here's Josh Marshall's remembrance, and one by Bruce Springsteen. 

To put it another way, as Marshall McLuhan did, each new medium (or form) at first adopts a previous medium as its content. So we've seen in our early boomer lifetimes how television took program models from radio and movies, which had earlier adapted them from the stage. As this essay says, the now classic early TV comedians brought sketches and approaches they adapted from the rich stage traditions of vaudeville. This was true of one of the great TV comedians and comic actors of the 1950s who died recently, Sid Caesar. Here's more of what I've written about him on this site, and still more on another.

The death of actor Ralph Waite is an occasion to recall how deeply and for a long time he has been part of establishing a cultural image, first as the young father on The Waltons and most recently as a father and grandfather figure on the TV series NCIS and Bones. I will also remember him for a little known but culturally evocative fantasy film about JFK called Timequest. Here's a biographical obit.

 Finally, the little girl who helped a country and a culture through the dark days of the Depression has passed away. One of Shirley Temple's proudest moments was that in one of those movies, she held the hand of the immortal dancer Bill Robinson--perhaps the first time a white female had touched a black male on the silver screen.  This reminds us of pop culture's role in change, as all of these examples do in different ways.

Friday, December 27, 2013

R.I.P. 2013: The '70s and '80s

Among those we lost in 2013 that boomers will remember from the 1970s and 80s: Peter O'Toole, seen here in his singular 1972 film The Ruling Class; C. Everett Koop,  the 1980s Surgeon General who spoke out on the health dangers of smoking; actress Marcia Wallace of The Bob Newhart show; Roger Ebert, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer for criticism; Phil Ramone, record producer for Billy Joel and other stars; Jean Stapleton, star of All in the Family; Bonnie Franklin of One Day At A Time.

Not pictured: pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, New York mayor Ed Koch, Baltimore Orioles manager Ed Weaver, actress Eileen Brennan, photographer Allen Sekula, All in the Family writer Mickey Rose.
C. Everett Koop
Marcia Wallace
Roger Ebert
Phil Ramone

Jean Stapleton
Bonnie Franklin

R.I.P. 2013: the '60s

Among the many lost in 2013 boomers remember from the 1960s: astronaut Scott Carpenter, comedian Jonathan Winters, actress Karen Black, actor Milo O'Shea (Ulysses); Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors; Lou Reed, first of the Velvet Underground; Paul Williams, founder and editor of the pioneer rock magazine Crawdaddy;  singer Richie Havens; Bobby Rogers of Motown's first big group, The Miracles; David Frost, who first attracted American attention by importing his hit series of topical satire from the UK, That Was the Week That Was. 

 Not pictured: actor Tom Laughlin (the Billy Jack movie series), Ray Dolby (Dolby sound), musicians J.J. Cale, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Alvin Lee, Mary Love, Rich Huxley (the Dave Clark Five).  Liberal Catholic writer Andrew Greeley; perennial White House reporter Helen Thomas, documentary filmmaker Ed Pincus; cinematographer Marcello Gotti (Battle of Algiers) record producer for the Rolling Stones etc. Andy Johns, poet Anselm Hollo, and Syd Bernstein, the promoter who brought the Beatles to America.  

Jonathan Winters

Karen Black

Milo O'Shea

Lou Reed
Ray Manzarek of The Doors
Paul Williams, ed. of Crawdaddy
Richie Havens
David Frost (That Was the Week That Was)

Bobby Rogers of The Miracles

R.I.P. 2013: The '50s

Among those we lost in 2013 who boomers remember from the 1950s:  Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion effects in many 1950s movies, including Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers; Mouseketeers Annette Funicello and Dick Dodd; actress Julie Harris (James Dean's heartthrob in East of Eden); singer Patti Page; baseball great Stan Musial; actor Frank Bank (played Lumpy on Leave It To Beaver); Don Nelson (writer for The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet); Ray Brown (50s car designer, of the Edsel among others); cartoonist Peter Hoffman (Steve Roper) and pianist Van Cliburn, the first American to win a major piano competition in Russia.


Julie Harris 

Patti Page

Stan Musial
Don Nelson--writer for Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
Frank Bank (Lumpy)

R.I.P. 2013: Stars of Our Fathers

Most of us Boomers had childhoods and adolescences that included old movies on TV, including many from the 1940s.  So the stars of our fathers (and mothers) were familiar to us, too, at impressionable ages.  Here are some of those stars we lost in 2013. Above: Joan Fontaine.
Esther Williams

Eleanor Powell
Deanna Durbin

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
 By Jonathan Cott
 Yale University Press

 Born in 1933, she was an academic and an academic's wife when she heard "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets on the radio, and changed her life. By the mid 1960s she was the devastatingly beautiful American writer who first brought high culture smarts to popular culture manifestations, and among other things helped give birth to a boomer generation of rock critics like me, and everybody who wrote for Rolling Stone.

 So she was a natural for an extensive Rolling Stone interview published in 1979. It's hard to imagine now an analogue to Susan Sontag who would be the subject of such a treatment today. But even with her accomplishments to that date--the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, the equally original On Photography and Illness As A Metaphor, with thoughts and a point of view responding to her own confrontations with cancer and the medical system--many important accomplishments were ahead of her, notably her activities in Sarajevo during the Balkan warfare (where she directed a production of Waiting for Godot with a background of gunfire outside the theatre), her book Regarding the Pain of Others and her novel In America which won the National Book Award in 2000. Revelations about her bisexuality--including her own admission-- also emerged some years after this interview.

 Jonathan Cott conducted the interview, in which literary allusions are as likely in the questions as in the answers. About a third of it appeared in Rolling Stone, and though there is conversation in the book that is less interesting, having the whole interview published is certainly worthwhile. Sontag (Cott writes) enjoyed the interview process and the best exchanges show how engaged both participants were.

 Sontag remained a champion of modernism and of a 1960s sensibility in the best sense. She battled back against the revisionism and reaction already underway just as the counterrevolution of the 80s began. "The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the sixties basically hasn't worked out and couldn't work out. But who says it won't work? Who says there's something wrong with people dropping out? I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the primary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal." 

Cott also contributes a brief introduction which quotes from Sontag's writing, including this startling gem: "There is no possibility of culture without true altruism." That's what we needed and got from Sontag--bold, against the grain, forthright and well-stated. And that's what we miss.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

And Everything is Going Fine
 Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
Criterion Collection

 I last talked with Spalding Gray at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata, California, on the afternoon of his last Center Arts performance here. I’d had dinner with him in Pittsburgh (along with six or eight others) several years before, where the general conversation was high-spirited—at least until he quietly observed that he couldn’t laugh anymore. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t.

 But when I ran into him at Wildberries he smiled broadly and spoke with enthusiasm about the Humboldt landscape. It was January 2001, just months before he suffered major injuries in a car accident, including brain damage. In this film about his life, Spalding Gray says that the years leading up to the 2001 accident were the happiest of his life. Three years later he was dead, presumably by suicide.

 Spalding Gray virtually invented the autobiographical monologue, although he preferred to call what he did “poetic journalism.” Several of his monologues became feature films, including Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987) and Gray’s Anatomy (directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1996.) Soderbergh and his team assembled pieces of video—monologues, interviews, reflections—into a kind of posthumous autobiography, with the help of Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow.

 There are gaps (notably in the years of his greatest celebrity) and the portrait that emerges may or may not be accurate (there’s emphasis on death and suicide throughout.) But the contours of his life and career are here, from childhood obsessions to the fatherhood that started those happy years. Between them were the yearnings and penchant for seeking extremes, and then the need to construct monologues about the resulting experiences.

 In the film he says that at a certain point he got tired of talking about himself, and sought ways to talk about other people. I witnessed him one sunny afternoon in PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, soliciting stories from an assembled audience. He was a careful, caring listener, and people responded. Later he told some of these stories with as much pith and power as he told his own.

What seemed to brighten his life in the happy years he described was fatherhood.  It happened as chaotically and neurotically as all the disasters he describes in his monologues.  But this one turned out for the best.  He enjoyed being a father, a family man, and apparently was good at it. His son wrote music for this film.

  This DVD includes an informative “making of” extra, in which Soderbergh owns up to his cowardice in avoiding Gray after his accident. It also includes Gray’s first monologue, “Sex and Death to Age 14.” Although chaotic, it had his signature emphasis on details as well as the humor and honesty (and the poetic inventions) that he would learn to structure in his later, more mesmerizing works.

 The film’s title comes from a monologue in which Gray talks about his father’s attempt to create the perfect suburban home, but even though “everything is going fine,” there was always one more thing to buy or do to create the completely protected life.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Boomer Elder: Steinbeck's 1960 America

John Steinbeck was one of the first authors (as opposed to the first poems or stories) of literary reputation I read independently, and probably the very first. I read some of the volume of his six shorter novels that was on my mother's bookshelves (the same book I now have on mine) and I vividly remember reading his 1961 novel The Winter of Our Discontent in the Readers Digest Condensed Books version.  But the first actual book I  remember is Travels with Charley: In Search of America (Viking Press.)It was first published in 1962 when I was in high school, and I read a library copy of it then. A few years later I bought the paperback, read that and kept among the books that traveled with me for decades.

 Steinbeck set out with his dog Charley, driving a truck topped by a custom-made "little house built like the cabin of a small boat" for his living quarters. He named the vehicle Rocinante. He equipped it with more than it seems it could hold, including guns and fishing gear partly for a cover story. (I recall being particularly impressed by the typewriter and reams of typing paper.) Most of the gear turned out to be superfluous, which he admits with the self-deprecating humor that characterizes the book.

 It was a journey of ten thousand miles through 34 states over several months, with a few breaks to visit family and meet up with his wife along the way. He made the now obligatory decision for such books to stay off the interstates. His stated purpose was to become reacquainted with the country he once knew but hadn't seen in decades.

 He began after Labor Day in 1960, at the age of 58. He'd been "rather seriously ill" the winter before, he admitted, but even if the trip was taxing beyond his capabilities, he faced that possibility with bravado. "And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It's bad theatre as well as bad living."  His son later put it in starker terms: Steinbeck knew he was dying, and wanted to see the country one last time.

The year Travels with Charley was published, Steinbeck somewhat unexpectedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award caused controversy, with charges that it was not merited--similar to the furor when Sinclair Lewis became the first American writer to win the prize. Steinbeck mentions Lewis in this book, noting his few meetings with him in Lewis' declining years, when he was still scorned in his hometown. Apparently paraphrasing Lewis, he wrote: "The only good writer was a dead writer. Then he couldn't surprise anyone any more, couldn't hurt anyone anymore."

Steinbeck mentions him as he passes Sauk Center, Minnesota, with its sign, "Birthplace of Sinclair Lewis." "Brings in some tourists," Steinbeck observes."He's a good writer now." Steinbeck died just six years later, at the age of 66, having published little of consequence and no fiction since this book. More than 50 years later, several of his novels remain integral to the mythology of America. He brings in some tourists to Salinas, California. He's a good writer now.

  Travels with Charley is a personal account, the tale of a voyage which includes observations of what and who Steinbeck encountered. The traveler's mood, his penchant for getting lost, spates of bad weather and the illness and treatment of his dog, are just about the only dramatic elements. But some of his observations do suggest how America has changed, and how it is the same (or at least on the same track) as in 1960. Steinbeck bemoans the disappearance of local speech, of the local in general, small towns or even the city of Seattle (though he gives more credit than some to corresponding improvements in living standards.) He is emotionally bothered by "the frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth" of Seattle: "Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning...I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction." This was not yet the popular theme that it became, for several decades at least if no longer.

 On the other hand, while in our time commentators bristle at ostentatious Texas politicians suggesting that the state might secede from the Union, Steinbeck observes in 1960, "Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization --The American Friends for Texas Secession. This stops the subject cold. They want to be able to secede but they don't want anyone to want them to."

 Steinbeck was traveling during the 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This is a pivotal campaign in American history (and very absorbing to me at the time) but Steinbeck (a JFK supporter) found few people who would venture an opinion about it. A certain atomic age foreboding was also present, at least in Steinbeck's mood.

 Some of Steinbeck's masculine insistence and style may strike readers today as a little too Hemingwayesque and anachronistic, but his misgivings about the effects of the march of modernity on the country he loved, especially the natural world, still resonate. He notes that cities are already ringed with trash--"In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index." There is some deft description of what various parts of the country were physically like in 1960.

I find that the innocent wonder of my first reading at 15 or so sets unrealistic expectations for the actual book, but there are some fine sentences, and the sense of the man and his times that was worth revisiting, or let's say, visiting by the person and reader I am now, older than he was then.

 Perhaps the most poignant passages for me this time were his descriptions of having a couple of curious wolves in his gunsights, knowing that--according to the standards of the time--he should shoot them because they are considered "vermin"--but losing the impulse to kill them, and choosing to spare them. To the extent that he left a couple of cans of dog food behind for them. There is an elegiac quality that emerges now and then, that seems best expressed in this account. There is a sense of approaching the end, when his strongest desire is to leave as much life behind as he can. And I expect there's something of the impulse I feel as the years go by: live and let live, gracefully and with mercy.

 In the years since the book came out it has apparently inspired similar journeys (apart from the many taken for literary purposes), and this attempt to retrace the journey exactly by Bill Steigerwald, who claims that Steinbeck fudged or fictionalized various aspects of it. Steigerwald is unduly harsh about it, deriving much of his debunking from a timeline which may well have been different and rearranged in composition. Some rearranging is actually pretty normal. Spalding Gray used to call himself a "poetic journalist," and most autobiographical writing either purposely, necessarily, unconsciously or artfully changes what happened and in what order. The travel and the book are related but separate journeys.

Friday, December 28, 2012

R.I.P. 60s-70s Arts & Entertainment

Among those we lost in 2012 were these important figures in the culture of the 60s and 70s: Don Cornelius, creator and host of TV's Soul Train.  Robin Gibb of the BeeGees, a group that expanded the Beatles-style music of the 60s and created a whole new phenomenon in the disco era of the 70s.  Ravi Shankar, classical Indian musicians who became known in the U.S. in the 60s and beloved ever since.  Dave Brubeck, jazz pianist and composer,pictured here with the quartet that made Time Out, the biggest selling hit jazz album of the 1960s.  Davy Jones of the 60s TV and recording group The Monkees.  Donna Summer, the female voice of the disco 70s. Levon Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, the group formed in the late 60s that became prominent in the 70s as well.  Peter Bergman, member of the unique 1960s comedy quartet, Firesign Theatre, whose first four albums became a surreal soundtrack of the decade.

Not pictured: singer and songwriter Scott ("If You're Going to San Francisco...") MacKenzie, film critics Andrew Sarris (of the auteur theory) and Judith Crist, actors Larry Hagman and Phyllis Diller, writer and director Nora Ephron, art critic Hilton Kramer, British actor Victor Spinetti (Help!),singers Etta James and Andy Williams, artist LeRoi Neiman.  May they rest in peace and their work live on.

R.I.P. 1960s-70s The Big Stage

Among those we lost in 2012 who influenced the shape of the 1960s and 1970s: Barry Commoner, whose 1971 best selling The Closing Circle helped make ecology the topic of the decade.  Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon.  Alexander Cockburn, journalist and gadfly beginning in the 60s and 70s.  George McGovern, carrying on the Kennedy legacy in the 60s and making a brave and honorable run for the presidency on an anti-war platform in 1972.  Gore Vidal, whose voice in books, on TV and elsewhere made him one of the 60s prime public intellectuals.  Russell Means, activist at Wounded Knee in 1973, Native American advocate and actor in succeeding decades.  Mike Wallace, TV journalist who began to make his mark in the 1960s.  Helen Gurley Brown, whose Sex and the Single Girl in 1961 and editorship of Cosmopolitan magazine helped shape the sexual and women's revolutions of the 60s and 70s.    

R.I.P. 1950s and Before

Among those we lost in 2012: Dick Clark, who started his career with American Bandstand in the 1950s, and remained ageless for decades.  Marc Swayze, artist for the original Captain Marvel comic books who created Mary Marvel.  Herb Reed, last surviving original member of The Platters, one of the great groups of the 1950s.  Andy Griffith, film actor who scored big in 50s TV.  Peggy Ahern, already grown up when the Our Gang comedies became TV staples in the 50s.  Lucille Bliss, who voiced the pioneer 1950s TV cartoon hero, Crusader Rabbit.  Dorothy McGuire of the McGuire Sisters, stars of records and TV in the 50s.  Don Grady, whose best known TV role was in My Three Sons.  Gone now, but their work lives on.