Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ken Burns

In September 1990, I was in graduate school. My classes met at night, and I was taking two classes that semester so I was away from home a lot during the week.

But for five consecutive nights — from Sunday, Sept. 23 to Thursday, Sept. 27 — I tried to be home as much as possible to see Ken Burns' documentary, "The Civil War," on PBS.

Burns, who is 56 today, caused quite a sensation in 1990 with his documentary. It was really a national obsession. The series drew 40 million nightly viewers that week, making it PBS' most–watched program ever. It is regarded by many as Burns' magnum opus, even though he has done similar documentaries on jazz, baseball and World War II since then.

"The Civil War" used photographs, paintings and newspaper graphics from the time, combining them with actors reading actual quotes from letters and speeches. Historian David McCullough was the narrator and many other famous people — among them Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, Hoyt Axton, Colleen Dewhurst and Garrison Keillor — read the quotes.

The documentary also made something of a celebrity of an historian named Shelby Foote. A native of Greenville, Miss., Foote wrote a three–volume history of the war, but he was largely unknown until the documentary aired with Foote providing extensive commentary. His soothing Mississippi accent attracted quite a public following.

The documentary also featured renditions of a number of songs that were from the Civil War period. The only piece that was not from that period, the theme song, was written especially for the documentary — but many people believed then and continue to believe that it was a Civil War era composition.

The 11–hour documentary is well worth seeing, and it has been available for several years in a five–DVD set. So, if you didn't see it 19 years ago, you can rent it or buy it. If you do, you may understand its enormous appeal.

Thanks for sharing that with us, Ken. And happy birthday.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Birthday of a Cat

You may not know the name Yusuf Islam, but you may be familiar with the name Cat Stevens.

They are one and the same. And he has answered to several names in his life.

On this day in 1948, Steven Demetre Georgiou was born in London. His father was a Greek–Cypriot. His mother was Swedish. They ran a restaurant near Piccadilly Circus in London.

When he embarked on a musical career as a solo artist, he took the name Cat Stevens because "I couldn't imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for 'that Steven Demetre Georgiou album.' " So he made his first name his last name and added an "s." He settled on "Cat" as his first name because "in England, and I was sure in America, they loved animals."

I suppose that conclusion is open to debate. Not everyone loves animals. And some people may like cats but they are allergic to them. Nevertheless, the record–buying public seemed to love Cat Stevens. In the 1970s, he had several hit albums and hit singles. I think it would be difficult to find anyone over the age of 40 who never heard even one of his songs — and there were many that were played frequently on the radio.

I remember the first time I was exposed to the name of Cat Stevens. I was visiting the home of one of my friends in the early 1970s, and his parents had an extensive cassette collection displayed in racks in the living room. Next to cassettes of albums by Simon and Garfunkel and other popular artists of the day I saw cassettes of "Tea for the Tillerman," "Teaser and the Firecat" and "Foreigner," three of his most popular albums.

The name intrigued me, and I wanted to hear his music. Then, after I sought out his music and heard it, I realized I had heard it before without knowing the name of the performer.

It was in the late 1970s that he converted to Islam, married and mostly gave up his career as a composer and a performer. But his recordings continued to sell. In fact, it was estimated a couple of years ago that his earnings are about $1.5 million annually, even though it has been more than 30 years since he released a record under the name Cat Stevens.

He took the name Yusuf because it is Arabic for Joseph. He said he felt drawn to the Old Testament story of Joseph, a man who had been bought and sold, because his experience in the music business made him feel like he was bought and sold.

He remained out of the spotlight in the 1980s and into the 1990s, devoting himself to educational pursuits, but he gradually returned to music. In 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he expressed his "heartfelt horror" and sang "Peace Train" for the Concert for New York City that October. It was the first time he had performed that song in public in more than two decades.

Three years later, when he was flying to the United States to meet with Dolly Parton, he was denied entry into the country and sent back to the United Kingdom because the CAPPS system flagged him as a security risk. Parton had recorded "Peace Train" nearly 10 years earlier and was planning to record another of his songs. That, apparently, was the reason he was traveling to America.

As is often the case with artists, he turned the experience into a composition — a song called "Boots and Sand." He recorded it last year with Parton, Paul McCartney, Alison Krauss and Terry Sylvester. The song is an iTunes bonus track on his recently released album, "Roadsinger."

It seems ridiculous that anyone could ever have thought that Cat Stevens, a pacifist and philanthropist, was any kind of security risk or represented a threat of any kind. But that is symptomatic of the post–9/11 world in which we live. Especially if one is a Muslim.

Well, happy 61st birthday, Cat. Er, Yusuf.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate

When I was a child, I recall that Rowan and Martin had a routine on their "Laugh–In" show in which the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award was bestowed upon someone or something for some questionable accomplishment.

The name of the "award" apparently was inspired by a movie from the mid–1960s called "The Fickle Finger of Fate."

I say this as a way of making an observation about Michael Jackson.

I hope this will be the last time I feel the need to write about Michael Jackson. I may not have the same kind of personal connection to him that some people apparently have, but I did like him. I liked the Jackson Five when I was a child. Although I never bought any of the albums he recorded as an adult, I always admired his talent.

And it seems to me that, even though I am sorry he died so young, perhaps the fickle finger of fate did him a favor. In memory, he will always be a young man, doing the moon walk on stage, performing astonishing moves to "Thriller" and "Beat It." The "old" Michael Jackson will never exist in the public mind, just as the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana will always be young.

It is the tradeoff one makes when one dies young, even if he/she is not famous. To die young is to be forever frozen in memory.

Sometimes I look at obituaries and see an obituary for a person who was elderly — but the picture that runs with the obituary was taken during the Korean War nearly 60 years ago. Such a person may be remembered at different stages of life by different people. But no one will have a memory of an arthritic Michael Jackson, no longer able to do his famous moon walk. No one will remember a Michael Jackson with gray hair or wrinkles or weak eyesight.

That Michael Jackson will only exist in speculation.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Weekend at Michael's

Yesterday's memorial for Michael Jackson was "more tasteful, moving and apt than the week and a half's media circus that led up to it," writes James Poniewozik for TIME.

That probably goes without saying, although I found it tiring by the time the 2½–hour broadcast concluded. As the program wound down, I had to wonder, who is being eulogized? Is it Gandhi? Mother Teresa? John Paul II?

No, the "King of Pop."

It was hard — indeed, it is still hard — to separate Jackson from his legal woes and "questionable choices," as Berry Gordy put it, no matter how many gold and platinum records he had.

Or how many stars sang and danced at Los Angeles' Staples Center.

But, ultimately, it was, as Poniewozik put it, "a goodbye to a son, brother and father, as we were reminded when Jackson's family took the stage at the end of the event. His daughter, Paris — previously shielded, like all his kids, from the media — had the tremulous last words: 'I just wanted to say I love him so much.' "

There will be more Michael Jackson news in the future — when a final resting place is determined, when the toxicology reports assess the cause of his death, when the inevitable issues surrounding his estate come up. There is no need to prop him up like the corpse in "Weekend at Bernie's," rigged to wave a gloved hand at the tug of a string.

For now, let's leave his family — and his fans — alone to come to terms with their grief. And let him take his place among the other cultural icons who died too young.

And it would be nice if the media would resume coverage of the many matters that still affect those who are living. There is no need to recite them here. We all know what they are.

Suffice to say there are many lives hanging in the balance today.

And, to borrow a line from one of Jackson's songs, it don't matter if they're black or white.

What matters is that they are human beings, facing a crisis.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Please Excuse My Morbid Thought

I was reading a report on the arrangements for Michael Jackson's memorial service on Tuesday, written by Alan Duke for CNN.

Here are the first couple of paragraphs:
Some lucky Michael Jackson fans got the e–mails they were hoping for Sunday, saying they've won two free tickets to Tuesday's memorial service.

"OMG OMG OMG OMG i got tickets to the michael jackson memorial service!!!" Deka Motanya wrote Sunday afternoon in a Twitter message.

The 8,750 fans chosen were summoned to Dodger Stadium Monday to pick up their tickets and have a wristband placed on their arms to prevent them from reselling them.

Doesn't it seem to you that this is all getting a little out of hand?

I mean, I'm sorry the man died, but Twittering about winning tickets to his memorial service, like this is the first show in his "This Is Really It" tour, is kinda disturbing. Don't you agree?

In fact, I'm sure some savvy marketers have been thinking about an opportunity they squandered, probably (and perhaps without realizing it) in the name of good taste — a whistlestop funeral procession from California to Gary, Ind. They could have had memorial services in as many towns as they liked — only they would charge for the tickets.

And they could probably get their asking price — and raise some money for Jackson's estate in the bargain. Minus their commission, of course.

Well, it's too late now.

Friday, July 03, 2009

We Are The World ...

... and the world will be tuning in Tuesday for Michael Jackson's memorial service.

Todd Leopold of CNN speculates that the service "could be one of the most–viewed events of all time."

I can't argue with that. We've had wall–to–wall coverage ever since Jackson died more than a week ago — and we seem sure to have a lot more coverage until the investigations into the Diprivan allegations are finished.

It certainly makes sense that the memorial service would attract a sizable audience. Even those who are at work can tune in through the internet. And the same will be true all over the world. There will be people watching in the wee small hours of the morning.

In his analysis, Leopold seems to have considered every angle and every kind of event that has drawn large viewing audiences — the JFK assassination, the Beatles' first appearance on American TV, Apollo 11, the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas," the finale of "M*A*S*H," Princess Di's funeral, Super Bowls. It certainly seems plausible to believe Tuesday's memorial will exceed them all as a shared experience.

I've heard Jackson's death compared to Elvis Presley's. In terms of its impact on a generation, I'm sure that is true. I have no doubt that Presley's memorial would have drawn a television audience to rival Jackson's, but you have to keep in mind that technology was much more primitive in 1977.

And the world's population was much smaller 32 years ago. What's more, as improbable as it may seem to today's youth, there were some people who, by choice or circumstance or perhaps both, did not have a TV. Of those who did own TVs, most were not on cable, and those who were did not have CNN or any other news channels because they didn't exist.

The Big Three — ABC, CBS and NBC — provided plenty of coverage at the time, though. I remember watching the hearse leave Graceland with Presley's body — and the streets lined with people as far as the eye could see. And the networks may have covered his memorial service, too, but I honestly don't remember. He died around the time that school was resuming, and I must have been at school that day because I have no memory of his memorial.

But the raw numbers for Presley — and even Princess Di 20 years later — may be dwarfed by Jackson's.

It's become increasingly difficult to estimate how many people watch the same event on TV at the same time. The most efficient thing to calculate is perhaps the number of TVs that are tuned to a given network at a given time, but, as Leopold observes, "[N]obody knows how many people are watching in groups or in public places." Several people may watch an event or program on the same TV. That is how many Americans followed the news of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and people who had a TV in their office gathered around it when the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the history of these shared events, Jackson's memorial may be the biggest of them all. We've been getting some indicators of what to expect.

I recall that, in the weeks after Elvis Presley's death, many of his records sold well, but I don't recall anything to rival Jackson. A few years later, when John Lennon was murdered, there was a surge in the sales of Beatles records, but, again, it wasn't really comparable. In the week since his death, I've heard that Jackson has nine of the albums in Billboard's Top 10.

Jackson's service will be held at the Staples Center, where he was preparing for the comeback concerts he didn't live to give. To gain admission, one must have one of the 17,500 free tickets that will be distributed via lottery.

Los Angeles' acting mayor is already urging citizens who do not have a ticket to stay at home and watch on TV, and the police have warned the public that people without tickets will be turned away or arrested.

But I'd still be willing to bet there will be a large crowd outside the Staples Center on Tuesday.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Karl Malden Dies

It seems to be a routine thing lately, but today we have learned of another celebrity death. This time, it is actor Karl Malden. He was 97.

What do you think of when you think of Malden? Do you think of his Oscar–winning performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire?" Do you think of "On the Waterfront?" Or "Ruby Gentry?" Or "Patton?"

Do you think of his television role in the series "The Streets of San Francisco?" Or his many commercials for American Express?

I think of all those things and more. I think of his role as the determined stepfather of a murder victim in the made–for–TV movie, "Fatal Vision," which reunited him with his co–star from "On the Waterfront," Eva Marie Saint.

I think of his performance as Anthony Perkins' father in "Fear Strikes Out."

As a fan of "The West Wing," I remember his appearance, in 2000, as the president's former priest who visits the president when he is agonizing over whether to grant a last–minute pardon to a condemned man. It was a brief appearance on what I have always thought was one of the best episodes of the series.

And I think of his performance as Reverend Ford in 1960's "Pollyanna." I have attached a clip from that movie, in which Malden's character reminds his congregation that "death comes unexpectedly."

Well, when you are 97 years old, I guess death isn't all that unexpected.

Malden had a long career — and one of the longest marriages in Hollywood. His wife of 70 years survives him.

Rest in peace.