Friday, December 26, 2014

R.I.P. 2014 70s and 80s

Several fond figures from TV some boomers in the 70s grew up on: Ralph Waite, the father in The Waltons, Dave Madden of The Partridge Family,  Ann B. Davis of The Brady Bunch, John Henson, puppeteer for The Muppets.

Music of the 70s and 80s lost Tommy Ramone, last surviving member of The Ramones, and Bob Casale, founder of Devo.  Also singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester.

Saturday Night Live lost its voice--announcer Don Pardo--as well as 80s star Jan Hooks.

Film lost Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters), cinematographer Gordon Willis (Annie Hall and many others),  producer Sal Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), director Paul Mazursky (Blume in Love), director Richard Attenburough (Gandhi) and filmmaker Wu Tainming.

Film, television, stage and more--beginning with Mork & Mindy, Robin Williams was everywhere.

In the big world, the editor who helped bring down a corrupt president, Ben Bradlee.

R.I.P. 2014: the 60s

From 60s music: most recently singer Joe Cocker.  Earler in the year: Jack Bruce (bassist for Cream), guitarist Johnny Winter, Bobby Keys (sax player for the Rolling Stones and a solo artist), Ian McLager (keyboards, the Faces), Glenn Cornick (bass, Jethro Tull), Paul Revere (lead singer, Paul Revere and the Raiders.)  Bobby Womack, Jay Traynor (Jay and the Americans.)

Also lyricist Gerry Goffin (with Carole King) and songwriter Peter Callander.

From the folk world, Pete Seeger, who belongs in every decade from the 30s on, but reemerged with the 60s folk boom, including mentoring Bob Dylan; and (speaking of Dylan) Carla Rotolo, whose enthusiasm got Dylan gigs and a recording contract.  And a girlfriend--her younger sister, Suzy.

A major if recently forgotten figure of the 60s counterculture was Steven Gaskin, whose Monday Night Class at the Family Dog in San Francisco was immense and amazing (I was there for several, including the First Annual Holy Man Jam.)  He later left the city and established The Farm, an experimental community that still exists.  Marking his passing, the Sun Magazine re-published a 1985 interview  and an example of a Monday Night Class.

Movies lost director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and French director Alain Renais, actor Maximillian Schell ( Academy Award for Judgement at Nuremberg.)

Writers crucial to the decade: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones).

R.I.P. 2014: The 50s and Before

From 1950s TV: comic genius Sid Caesar. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., star of 77 Sunset Strip.

From 1950s music: Phil Everly (left) of the Everly Brothers.  Bob Crewe, producer for The Four Seasons and songwriter ("Big Girls Don't Cry.")

Icon from the 50s and before: Shirley Temple, who produced a 1950s TV series of fairy tale adaptations that ranks among her lasting accomplishments.

From the World War II era: Chester Nez, Navajo code talker.  Alice Herz, oldest survivor of the Holocaust.  Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, last survivor of the Enola Gay crew that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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.