Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kitty Wells Is 91

It may be hard for modern country music fans to imagine, but there was a time when women weren't fixtures on the charts.

Kitty Wells, who celebrates her 91st birthday today, changed that.

In the early 1950s, Wells became the first female country music singer to top the charts with her song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," and she followed it with a string of hits over the next couple of decades that earned her the nickname, "Queen of Country Music."

I think it is fair to say that, without Wells blazing the trail, stars like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette might still have broken through, but their arrivals might have been delayed considerably. And that, in turn, likely would have postponed the appearances of their successors, like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.

Deservedly, Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. She is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame.

Would that be the distinction from which she derives the most pride? Perhaps.

She also is one of the few country stars — regardless of gender — who was born in Nashville. That's a distinction that might also be a source of pride for her.

But she might take more pride in the fact that her marriage to Johnnie Wright (who turned 95 in May) has lasted more than 70 years. Few marriages last that long, and my guess would be that even fewer celebrity marriages do.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Hero's Birthday

"I believe we need heroes. I believe we need certain people who we can measure our own shortcomings by."

Richard Attenborough

Today is Richard Attenborough's 86th birthday.

I'm not sure what modern viewers think of when they hear his name. Many may only know him as a film director, and he certainly has made his mark in that area. He won an Oscar as the director of one of my favorite films, "Gandhi," and he directed many other films as well.

Others may think of him as an actor, and he has had a distinguished career in front of the camera as well.

Certainly, moviegoers remember him as the grandfatherly entrepreneur in 1993's "Jurassic Park," but his time as an actor dates back to 1942.

That was a couple of years before he married his wife, Sheila Sim, who recently observed her 87th birthday.

In their 60–plus–year marriage, the Attenboroughs had three children together. One of their daughters, Jane, was killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, along with her own daughter and her mother–in–law.

An advocate of education, Attenborough took his grief and turned it into a positive, establishing the Jane Holland Creative Centre for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in his daughter's memory.

That was truly an heroic act.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Today Is Mother's Day

Everywhere else, today is August 27. In many places across this nation, schools have resumed classes. I guess it's another hot, hazy late summer day most places.

Today would have been my mother's 78th birthday so, on my calendar, today is Mother's Day.

I've been thinking today of my memories of her — her love, her warmth, the things she tried to teach me when I was growing up. And I've been thinking of the things she loved — her family, her first–grade students, the things in the world in which she saw beauty.

She was remarkable in many ways. When my brother and I were small, she made our Halloween costumes every year. She would start working on them weeks ahead of time with sewing patterns strewn in the living room and she always completed them with enough time to spare that she still could make any necessary alterations.

I never figured out if the objective was to save some money on Halloween costumes or give her an outlet for her creative energy. Maybe it was a little of both.

She couldn't have saved much money, though, after buying all the supplies she needed to make two costumes.

And she was a stay–at–home mom in those days. She taught for awhile when she was first married, then gave it up while my brother and I were young, but she went back to it when my brother and I were in our teens. She had an artistic flair. I always thought she was a good singer, but I don't know if she agreed, and she played no musical instrument so teaching an appreciative audience of first–graders probably fed her artistic leanings.

As a stay–at–home mom, her creative urges had to be satisfied by doing things for her children — like creating Halloween costumes. I recall being a little embarrassed, wearing homemade costumes when my friends got to wear slick plastic masks and fragile costumes from the store. I didn't appreciate all the things she did for us when I was small, but, today, I am filled with a sense of astonishment at the things she did, year after year. It's one of many things I wish I had told her before she died.

She may not have played a musical instrument, but she was fond of music, all kinds of music, really. Certain singers were particularly high on her list. One was John Denver, who died a couple of years after she did.

I never fail to think of her when I hear a song by John Denver. And one song in particular always makes me think of her. It was recorded when his most popular days were behind him, I think. I'm not even sure if Mom ever heard it. And, if she did hear it, I'm not sure if it had any special meaning for her.

But it does for me. It defines her spirit.

She and I shared a fondness for John Denver's music when I was young. And, until the day I die, "Perhaps Love" will be a reminder to me of all that she meant to me — and what she still means to me today.

The flood that took her life couldn't take that from me.
"If I could live forever
And all my dreams come true,
My memories of love will be of you."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gene Hackman on TCM

August is "Summer Under the Stars" month at Turner Classic Movies, with each night devoted to a different star.

Each night is good, but some are better than others. And tonight is one of those nights.

Gene Hackman — for my money, one of the best actors of the last half century — is being featured today. In the hours leading up to prime time and in the early morning hours, you can see him in some of his supporting roles if you wish, but I'm talking about a few films in which he was featured more prominently.

For example:
  • At 7 p.m. (Central), you can see him in 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde," the fourth–highest grossing film of that year. It wasn't his first film, but it was close.

    You can see several other stars who were on the brink of film stardom — Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Estelle Parsons — and you can see Gene Wilder in his film debut. You also can hear Flatt & Scruggs' instrumental piece, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which works in this film even though the bluegrass music style originated after Bonnie and Clyde's day.

  • At 9 p.m. (Central), you can see Hackman in 1974's "The Conversation," a thriller directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co–starring Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall.

    Coppola made "The Conversation" between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II," and it is clearly a departure in style. It wasn't as commercially successful as many films that year, but I think most movie fans would say it was one of the artistic highlights of the 1970s.

  • And then, at 11 p.m. Central, you can see 1988's "Mississippi Burning," co–starring Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand.

    The movie isn't entirely historically accurate, but it presents a realistic portrayal of the volatile racial atmosphere that existed in the South in the 1960s.
As a student of history, I don't recommend using any of these films as primary sources for a term paper.

But, if you want to see some films that do a better than average job of conveying the sense of the times they portray, you couldn't do any better.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Monty Python Reunion

Before there was computer spam, there was Python spam.

If you are a Monty Python fan — and if you happen to be in New York on Oct. 15 — you can witness a reunion of all six members of the comedy troupe in observance of their 40th anniversary.

I think you will agree that a reunion that features all six would be quite an accomplishment, since the New York Times points out that Graham Chapman has been dead since 1989.

The only thing I can compare it to would be having a Beatles reunion around the millennium.

Details, details.

The Python reunion (slated for the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan) also will have promotion as a purpose. A new documentary, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut)," will be shown, followed by a question–and–answer session (I presume that, unless a "Weekend at Bernie's" kind of arrangement is planned, only five Pythons will be answering questions).

The reunion is being organized by the Independent Film Channel and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. After the documentary, the Pythons will receive an award from the British Academy.

Culture Monster, the arts blog for the Los Angeles Times, has a scoop: "By the way, did you know that you can buy for the kiddies the Monty Python and the Holy Grail Catapult Playset, a miniature version of the catapult that comes complete with not only miniature cows but launchable sheep and ducks? Hours of fun. But we digress..."

If you're a relatively new Python fan, don't worry. I'm sure that will be made clear in the documentary.

Veteran Python fans already know what Diane Haithman was writing about.

By the way, if the organizers need a catch–phrase for the reunion, how's this?

"Yes, we spam."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bernstein's Curtain Call

It was on this day in 1990 that the great American conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein conducted his final performance, concluding the concert with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Bernstein was nearly 72 — in fact, his birthday was six days later — and he had been suffering from emphysema since his 50s. During the performance of Beethoven's Seventh, he had a coughing seizure that was so severe it nearly brought the performance to a premature end. He persevered, though, and Deutsche Grammophon later released the concert on CD.

If you know much about Bernstein, you will probably agree that was probably an appropriate way for him to retire.

The selection of a Beethoven symphony, for example, was appropriate. In the 1980s, Bernstein was the conductor and commentator for a PBS series on Beethoven's music. The series featured the Vienna Philharmonic playing all of the Beethoven symphonies, and it probably did its part to link Bernstein's name with Beethoven's in the public mind.

That was fitting. Beethoven was one of the composers Bernstein admired most.

When I say it was an appropriate conclusion to his career, though, I am thinking also about how his career began. His father was a businessman who originally opposed his son's interest in music, but he often took his son to orchestra concerts. Ultimately — and perhaps in spite of his own misgivings — he did not stand in the way of his son pursuing a career in music.

I am reminded of what Dan Fogelberg wrote so eloquently in his musical tribute to his own father: "I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go."

Bernstein may well have faced other obstacles as he followed his star — most people do. But he was not deterred. And, because of that, the world was not deprived of his brilliance.

It reminds me of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I ask you to indulge me for a minute or two while I share it with you:
"It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle
Well–loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Alfred Lord Tennyson

I've been thinking about this poem a lot lately. And I think what it is trying to say is that it may be tempting to play it safe, but we never feel quite as vibrant and alive — even if we are in our 70s, as Bernstein was, or the aging king of whom Tennyson wrote — as we feel when we take a chance.

Perhaps that sensation of being truly alive comes from following the path we were destined to follow. Sadly, some people never discover what they were intended to do. Others do, but they take a different path because they think it will be more lucrative, even if it is not more satisfying for their souls.

Both, it seems to me, do a disservice to those people and the higher power that created them.

"That which we are, we are," Tennyson wrote.

Bernstein was no "idle king." And he did not remain idled in retirement for long. He died of pneumonia less than two months after his last concert.

How I wish I could have been in the audience when he made his final journey 19 years ago tonight.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Relevance of Woodstock

By Monday, Aug. 18, 1969, many people had left the Woodstock Festival.

But those who remained got to see one of the legendary musicians of the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix, who performed more than a dozen songs, including his astonishing rendition of "The Star–Spangled Banner."

I don't exactly think it is what Francis Scott Key had in mind when he was writing the poem at the Battle of Fort McHenry that became the lyrics of the national anthem. Nor, do I think, was it what they had in mind when the tune was a popular British drinking song in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But, at Woodstock, it seemed appropriate.

It wasn't Hendrix's finale. He played his most popular songs — "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe" — before leaving the stage.

And when Hendrix concluded his set, Woodstock slipped into the history books, a symbol of a generation — and clearly a source of continuing debate four decades later.

Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald tries to take some of the luster from the memory of Woodstock by reminding people of what is not being celebrated — the infamous Altamont concert later that year and the Manson murders that occurred 40 years ago this month.

"Sometime in the future, when their grip on the levers of the media has loosened, somebody will write a real history of the 1960s and the political awakening of Baby Boomers that will acknowledge it was marked by arrogance, self–indulgence, irreponsibility and totalitarian impulses," Garvin writes.

"When it does, Woodstock and Altamont will be combined in a single chapter, for it was the delusions of one that led to the tragedy of the other."

Maybe there is some truth in that. But it seems to me an oversimplified, if not wishful, appraisal of someone who never really "got" what Woodstock was about.

Perhaps it is not the sort of thing you can put into words. It certainly isn't the sort of thing that can be boiled down to a few neat concepts.

But I have a hard time seeing a relationship between Altamont and Woodstock.

Maybe their relationship — if one exists — is like the masks of the laughing face and the weeping face popularly associated with the theater.

Two extremes. The truth lies somewhere in between.

But Woodstock and Altamont were not bookends. Altamont may well have represented the "end of the hippie movement," as some have suggested, but Woodstock was hardly the beginning.

For that matter, neither was completely representative of the young of that time. There was clearly a dark side, which could be seen in Altamont, and there was the idealistic side, a yearning for something better, which could be seen in Woodstock.

It reminds me of a line from Oliver Stone's movie about the man who was president when Woodstock occurred, "Nixon."

In the movie, Nixon — who became known for, among other things, chatting with presidential portraits during his tenure in the White House — is seen talking to a portrait of John F. Kennedy. "When they look at you, they see what they want to be," he says. "When they look at me, they see what they are."

Maybe that is the paradox — Woodstock was about what the children of the '60s wanted to be, Altamont was about the imperfect reality. Consequently, perhaps Woodstock's memory has become inflated out of proportion.

Such a tug–o–war was not unique to the 1960s, just more visible than it has been for most generations. Good and evil have always been engaged in a conflict. Sometimes it is just easier to see in the movies — it is a theme that was played out in six films in the "Star Wars" series, and I don't think it was ever really resolved.

Go back and watch the films of "Woodstock" and "Gimme Shelter," the documentary featuring footage from the Altamont concert. The former truly is a tribute to peace and love, the latter is the opposite.

But history tells us that the Vietnam War didn't end because half a million people sang along with Country Joe McDonald's "I–Feel–Like–I'm–Fixin'–To–Die Rag."

And a fine line has always divided love and hate.

Which brings me to the most important question I have seen asked in this wave of Woodstock nostalgia, although it is the one question that wasn't really asked at all, at least not in the words that keep running through my head. It was more implied — by USA Today: Does Woodstock still matter?

Some people say it doesn't. Some say it never did.

But co–founder Michael Lang says it did and it still does. "A lot of those seeds planted in the Woodstock era are beginning to flower. From the green movement to sustainable development and organic gardening, all these things seem to be coming back to us."

And it seems to me that Woodstock's spirit can be seen in subsequent charitable music festivals, such as George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh a couple of years later and Bob Geldof's Live Aid in 1985, even if it is not recognized as the inspiration.

Yes, Woodstock still matters. In ways that are seen and unseen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Baptism of Woodstock Nation

On the third day of Woodstock, Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, the weather turned wet after Joe Cocker opened things up with a nine–song set that concluded with his rendition of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends."

A thunderstorm interrupted things for several hours. The performances resumed around 6 p.m. with Country Joe McDonald. The closing acts had to be pushed back to Monday morning.

But Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, had some remarkable performers — Ten Years After, the Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Johnny Winter (with his brother Edgar Winter), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Perhaps that day, more than the other days of the Woodstock Festival, held the answer to Todd Leopold's question at"What is it about Woodstock?"

Correctly, Leopold observes that, even though there were many festivals in 1969, no other festival became synonymous in the public mind with an entire generation. Woodstock retains that status 40 years later, and I suspect it will always be remembered as the defining moment of the "peace and love generation."

At some point on that August weekend, those hundreds of thousands of people became more than a bunch of folks who were gathered in a field to listen to popular musicians of the day. They became "Woodstock Nation," in many ways as mythical and temporary a place as Peter Pan's Neverland.

I think the thunderstorm that Sunday afternoon brought everyone together. It was like a shared baptism. Without it, Woodstock might well have been like all the other music festivals of the time. But it seemed to me, when I saw the movie of the event years later, and even today, when I see clips from the concert, that playing and dancing in the rain and the mud, even though no music could be heard, had a cleansing effect.

Not everyone felt that way. Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek that Woodstock was "a massive, teeming, squalid mess."

"If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat," he recalls. "For those of us who saw those things as a hassle, good music did not necessarily offset the discomfort."

I'm inclined to think that was a minority opinion. I'm sure there were some at Woodstock who were appalled by the conditions. Hosenball acknowledges that he "concluded that the crowd had grown too big for the venue" and "decided to check out." He reports that he "grabbed a one–way bus that the promoters had organized for would–be refugees, and on a rural highway several miles away from the stage, I hitched a ride from a carful of disappointed concertgoers."

But that was thinking that was more in keeping with the attitudes of the "squares" against whom many in the younger generation rebelled. Their elders were slaves to their creature comforts while Woodstock Nation was awash in a sense of innocence that, perhaps, was lost when four young people were gunned down at Kent State nine months later.

Well, even the boys of Neverland had to grow up eventually. And so did the residents of Woodstock Nation. Most of them are now in their late 50s or early 60s. Many married, had children and assumed adult responsibilities.

But for a single weekend in August, all that could remain in the unpredictable future. Most of the residents of Woodstock Nation were united in their desire for peace and their love for the music of their times.

And on that wet Sunday, at least, that was enough.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Evenings With Sir Paul

I'm having a very strange sensation today.

It feels kind of like Paul McCartney Week to me.

Well, by proxy.

Tomorrow night, McCartney will be playing in Tulsa, Okla., which is about 100 miles or so from where I went to college. I know someone who will be there. We went to college together. He's back in the area now, and he will be attending the show with his 10–year–old son. He e–mailed me about it recently and told me it will be his son's first rock 'n' roll show.

That's the kind of thing that makes me envious of my friends who found someone to share their lives with. The ones who have sons also get to experience these father–son moments — a first ballgame or a first rock concert, whatever shape the coming–of–age ritual may take.

(For instance, a guy I knew in school has established a personal tradition. When each of his sons has reached a certain age, the two of them go on father–son camping/fishing trips in the Canadian wilderness. It sounds like fun, but it isn't quite the same thing as spending an evening with Sir Paul.)

I've never met my friend's son. But I've been to ballgames with his father, and I've been to concerts with his father. In fact, I remember that, within a relatively short period, he and I went to concerts by REM and Eric Clapton and we went to a major college football game. I had a blast each time. I know his son will, too.

Imagine ... seeing Paul McCartney in your first concert. I think Three Dog Night performed at my first concert.

For that matter, the only Beatle I have ever seen in person was Ringo with his All–Starr Band. Now, Ringo is a Hall of Famer because he was with the Beatles, but he isn't a legend on his own like Paul McCartney.

I hope that young man appreciates the fact that he will be seeing a legend. I was about his age when I saw Three Dog Night. It was an enjoyable show, but it took me several years — and many concerts headlined by B–list entertainers — to work my way up to genuine legends.

So I have to wonder — what's next when your first concert experience is Paul McCartney? Where do you go from there?

Then, on Wednesday night, McCartney will be here in Dallas. I won't be going to that show, either, but my pastor will.

I don't know if he has ever seen McCartney before. But if this is his first time, I hope he enjoys the show. I'm sure he will. From what I have heard, McCartney puts on quite a performance.

I suspect that my pastor will get more from the show than an evening's entertainment — although I have no doubt McCartney will deliver. My pastor's a musician himself, and he plays with a band that participates in many charitable fundraisers locally. I've never been to a concert with him, but I know, as a writer, that I am influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, by things I read.

My guess is that it works the same way with musicians. On a conscious level, my pastor will enjoy listening to Sir Paul. He may even feel moved to sing along with him. And, on a subconscious level, he may be accumulating tips that will add to his performances in the future.

My old college friend is also a musician. There was even a time when he and I collaborated on songs (trust me, though, the Lennon–McCartney team is in no danger of being replaced in the public's affections). And I'm sure he'll be doing the same thing.

All kinds of things will be going on at the shows in Tulsa and Dallas this week. Wish I could be there.

Have fun, y'all.

Memories of Woodstock

If you were at the original Woodstock festival 40 years ago today, you were treated to some of the era's biggest psychedelic and guitar rock performers — Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, the Who, Jefferson Airplane.

That's a pretty memorable lineup.

After 40 years, though, writes Katie Hawkins–Gaar for, memories can be hazy. I'll give you that one.

Hawkins–Gaar reports that some of the participants at Woodstock don't remember certain points from the festival.

They might not remember some of the finer points about their journey to Woodstock. But if some of those details aren't clear anymore, they must remember how awe–inspiring it was to see all that talent assembled in a single place on a single day. And they must have known that the world was watching, even if the New York Thruway was closed. (Well, actually, I've heard that Arlo Guthrie got that one wrong.)

And, surely, they saw the sea of people on that hillside — and they knew this was no ordinary music festival, even though there were many of them that summer.

Woodstock was special. It was unique. It was, seemingly, the proof the pacifists wanted to support their claims that people of all races could come together in peace and harmony.

And it did work — for a few days. I rather doubt it would have succeeded on a long–term basis.

In its way, Woodstock was the "yes, we can" moment for the Baby Boomers. It wasn't about politics or economics. It was about courtesy.

But I sometimes wonder if the patience displayed by the attendees at Woodstock held up — strained though it must have been by the conditions — because they all knew it was a short–term solution.

Well, be that as it may, I have to confess that I enjoyed reading Gail Collins' reflections on her experience at Woodstock in yesterday's New York Times. She began by saying that the reminiscences of that weekend 40 years ago are "beginning to make me feel like Frank Buckles, the 108–year–old last surviving veteran of World War I."

She told an amusing story about having to look for food for herself, her brother and six companions because she "left the picnic basket behind on the front porch."

Then she made this observation: "The lesson I took away from it is that whenever anybody asks you to do something off the wall, you should really try to do it — unless it involves being unethical or a two–plane connection. You might not enjoy it while it's going on, but somewhere down the line the anecdotes will always come in handy."

She acknowledges, though, that "[w]hen I was actually at Woodstock, it never occurred to me anybody was going to want to discuss it 40 years down the road."

But they do, and Collins shares an insight with today's young folks. "The Woodstock–mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby–boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did, and that when they are old themselves there will probably still be some 108–year–old telling them how everybody slept in the mud but that it was worth it because Janis Joplin sounded so awesome and the people were all mellow," she writes.

"Current younger generation, I know you would be equally good–natured if you found yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the world with 400,000 other people and a bunch of bands. But it will never happen because although you will have many, many fine adventures of your own, you will never be cut off."

I guess that's the flip side of modern technology. Cell phones and GPS are great if you're stranded somewhere, but they make it darn near impossible to duplicate the Woodstock experience.

Which leads me to an inescapable conclusion. No matter how many commemorative concerts they have held or will hold in rural New York, there will never be another Woodstock. It belongs to the Baby Boomers.

But that's OK. It's like the wistful way my grandparents used to speak of gathering the family around the radio to listen to Jack Benny or Amos 'n' Andy — or President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats — in the 1930s. TV didn't exist yet, and when it came along, it changed the nature of home entertainment.

It was like that with Woodstock. It was a defining moment for a generation that is justifiably proud of what happened 40 years ago this weekend. Today's generation — and future generations, for that matter — will have massive shared experiences, too, but they will be different. That is what will make those experiences unique and memorable.

And something worth talking about 40 years later.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How Does It Feel to Be On Your Own?

Word is coming out that, last month, one of the legends of popular music was unrecognized when he was found wandering in a residential neighborhood in the rain by police in Long Branch, N.J.

The word "legend" is often applied to people who may or may not be legends. But in the case of Bob Dylan, it may be — if anything — inadequate.

Dylan's influence on music, on culture, on society may be measureless. Granted, he isn't the 20–year–old who burst onto the scene in 1962. He is in his late 60s now. But when he stumbled into the yard of a home with a "For Sale" sign, the sight of an "eccentric–looking old man" apparently made the occupants of the house nervous, and they called police.

Police officer Kristie Buble, who, at 24, is only a few years older than Dylan was when he recorded his first album, went to "earnest lengths" to establish Dylan's identity, reports Chris Francescani of ABC News, but he had no ID on him.

As Francescani observes, Buble probably should have been able to determine that he was, indeed, Bob Dylan. He was in the area as part of a national concert tour, but she apparently was oblivious to that fact. Francescani also points out that Dylan was "hooded, disheveled [and] rain–soaked." That — and 40–plus years — made him look different than the youthful Bob Dylan she had seen in old photographs.

"He was acting very suspicious," Buble said. "Not delusional, just suspicious."

And her suspicions increased when he said he was touring with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

Anyway, she took him back to the tour buses to verify his identity. Once she did, apparently she just said, "Have a nice day," and left.

I think I would have asked for an autograph. Or maybe a picture of me with Dylan. But that's just me.

At the very least, I think I would have honored his request to take him back to the neighborhood once his identity was verified.

Buble admits she was skeptical of his identity when they were driving back to the tour buses. But there would have been no doubt about her passenger's identity on the return trip.

And how many chances do you get to chat with Bob Dylan?

The Eye of the Beholder

When I was growing up, there were many times when I heard my parents lamenting the fact that they had lost touch with good friends.

Most of these friends were people they had known when they were all serving as missionaries together in Africa, but each returned to the United States at different times.

As time passed, many of the mailing addresses my parents had for these friends became outdated. Letters and Christmas cards may have been forwarded to new addresses for awhile. Perhaps some found their destinations initially, but eventually they must have stopped reaching their intended recipients and wound up undelivered, collecting dust in the post office.

I have often thought that it is a shame that the internet didn't exist in those days. My parents could have used it to look for lost friends. Once they found those friends, they could have used e–mail to stay in touch.

And they could have used sites like Facebook to reconnect with people. I signed up with Facebook in January, and I have been amazed at how many old friends I have reconnected with in a matter of months.

One is a friend I have probably known since we were about 11 or 12. I don't think we went to the same elementary school, but I am pretty sure we were in middle school together, so we probably met in sixth or seventh grade.

Many of our classmates got married not long after high school graduation. Some of those marriages have proven to have staying power, but many have not.

In my friend's case, love came to her later in life, but it seems that it is of the lasting variety. We were "chatting" on Facebook recently, and she was talking about her relationship with her husband, how it is based on mutual love. My friend has had some serious health problems in recent years, and she mentioned (in what I could only imagine were tones of amazement since the conversation was written and not spoken) that her husband "thinks I am beautiful and sexy even when I know I can't possibly be."

That, it seems to me, is the definition of love — an attraction based not merely on physical desire but on other, more intangible factors.

And, with all due respect to my friend, this isn't about what she thinks of herself. It's about what her husband thinks. If he thinks she is beautiful and sexy, she is. No one else's opinion matters.

It is often expressed this way: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

That quote is frequently attributed to Plato, but, apparently, it is a misquote, a boiled–down version of what was actually a more profound statement:
"Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may."

I have written about the subject of beauty before, but poets and philosophers clearly disagree on what beauty is. It is a topic that has bewildered writers for a long, long time.

Here are some examples:
  • "Beauty is not in the face," wrote Kahlil Gibran. "Beauty is a light in the heart."

  • Although he wrote of very young lovers in "Romeo and Juliet," it seems to me that Shakespeare was on to something more lasting and meaningful than physical attraction when he wrote, "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."

  • Aristotle called beauty "the gift of God."

  • Socrates, perhaps thinking only of physical beauty, called it "a short–lived tyranny" — and, in truth, few people are fortunate enough to retain their good looks as they age. So, possibly, Socrates was right if one thinks of those who learned little when they were young except how to use their looks to get by without having to do much.

  • I've always been fond of what Lord Byron wrote: "She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes."

    Now, that's poetry.
Love and beauty remain enigmas to modern observers. Many people mistake lust for love. People want to possess that for which they lust. And lust is based on the external, not the internal. No wonder so many marriages fail.

This ongoing quest may have been best summarized by Dr. Frasier Crane, who said in an episode of his popular TV series, "We do not choose love. It chooses us." And it chooses on its schedule, not ours.

In my experience, the relationships that have lasted have been the ones in which people describe each other as "soulmates." That is a concept that transcends physical beauty and speaks of something that will endure through the phases of life.

So, while it may not be exactly what Plato said, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul Dies

When one has reached the age of 94, it can hardly be a surprise when that person dies.

Somehow, though, it always seemed — to me, anyway — that Les Paul would defy the odds.

Well, no one lives forever. And Les Paul died today of complications from pneumonia.

The world has lost one of the most important guitarists and innovators it has ever seen.

But his musical innovations may well live forever. Even if they don't, though, they won't soon be forgotten.

As Jon Pareles wrote for the New York Times, Paul was a "tireless tinkerer." In fact, he was more than a tinkerer. He was a pioneer who developed the solid–body electric guitar, giving rock 'n' roll music its distinctive sound.

The sound was adapted to other musical forms, though, and today, it is no longer the exclusive domain of rock 'n' roll. Just about any genre that includes an electric guitar utilizes the solid–body electric guitar.

That isn't even considering his many other musical innovations. It is safe to say that modern music wouldn't sound the same if Les Paul hadn't come along.

And he was here for a remarkably long time. Most of us can only hope to still be around at the age of 94. Not only was Les Paul still around, he was still making music. I've heard he was still playing the Iridium Jazz Club in New York on Monday nights, and I know he played at Carnegie Hall four years ago — when he was 90.

The world is a poorer place because Les Paul is gone. But it is a far wealthier place because he was here.

Ringwald's Reflections on John Hughes

It has been a week since director John Hughes died of a heart attack in New York.

I wrote about this last Thursday, but I didn't really feel the same sense of loss that others did. Many of his movies represented something of a transitional period for a different age group. I mean, I enjoyed his films, like "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," but they weren't my personal statements of adolescence. I had already been through that phase of my life.

Last week, I don't think I fully realized what Hughes' passing meant to many people. To me, he was a gifted director. To others, his death was another nail in the coffins of their childhoods.

Actress Molly Ringwald, who appeared in several of Hughes' films, summed things up rather well in a guest column she wrote this week for the New York Times.

If you haven't read it already, please click on the link and read it when you have a few minutes. I'm not going to quote from it or analyze it or add to it in any way. I would prefer to let her words speak for themselves. Hughes' death was more personal for her than it was for most because she knew and worked with the man, but she shared the same affiliation with his movies that others of her generation did.

And that is all I am going to say — except that I encourage you to read Ringwald's column — especially if you belong to what is known as "Generation X."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Birthday Milestone

It wasn't so long ago that living 100 years was a rare accomplishment in the human experience.

Medical science has come up with drugs and other treatments that can extend lives that probably would have ended much sooner even 20 or 30 years ago. As life expectancy has increased, so has the number of centenarians.

When Richard Bare was born on Aug. 12, 1909, his parents probably had little reason to think that he would live to see the dawn of the new millennium, much less his 100th birthday. Reaching one's 100th birthday was not unheard of at the time, but it was more infrequent than it is today. There are more than 96,000 people in America who are at least 100 years old.

Bare joined that group today.

At this point, perhaps you are wondering, who is Richard Bare? Well, he is a director/writer/producer who spent most of his career working in television, but he did a lot of film work, too. He wrote, produced and/or directed more than 60 one–reel short subjects with titles that typically began "So You Want ..." from 1942 to 1956.

That series began with a film called "So You Want to Give Up Smoking," which was somewhat radical considering that it was made more than 20 years before the surgeon general linked smoking to cancer and respiratory disease and launched a public health campaign. Other self–help titles in Bare's "So You Want ..." series dealt with needing glasses, allergies, impending fatherhood and occupational goals.

As a writer, he was responsible for episodes for "Going My Way" and "Route 66."

But his most lasting legacy may be the work he did as a director. He was the director of some films and episodes of several TV series, including "Alias Smith and Jones," "Nanny and the Professor," "Lassie," "Maverick," "Petticoat Junction" and "77 Sunset Strip."

His most noteworthy directorial efforts, though, may have been for the original "Twilight Zone" and "Green Acres."

Bare produced some of the most classic "Twilight Zone" episodes, including "To Serve Man." And he directed virtually every episode of "Green Acres."

His career apparently ended in the early 1970s, but he announced in November 2007, at the age of 98, that he was working on a revival of "Green Acres."

Nothing has come of that planned revival, to my knowledge. And, even if Bare managed to launch a new incarnation of the series, the cast would be almost entirely different.

But the fact that he was working on it at his age should be an inspiration to us all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Champlin Leaving Chicago

I guess there aren't many American rock bands that have been recording as long as — or longer than — Chicago.

You could probably mention the Rolling Stones and the Who in that exclusive group, although the personnel for each has changed over the years. And they are British groups — a subtle distinction, perhaps.

Among American bands, Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys in terms of commercial success (albums and singles). That's what Billboard says. For that matter, when one speaks in terms of longevity, the Beach Boys probably don't belong in the conversation, having disbanded in the 1990s.

Chicago was formed in 1967, going by the name "The Big Thing" at the time, but its first album was released two years later, in 1969, a few months before man first walked on the moon, hundreds of thousands of people descended upon a rural part of New York for the Woodstock Festival and the Manson family killed seven people in a two–day rampage.

From that debut double album — "Chicago Transit Authority" — emerged some of the songs that I most associate with Chicago to this day — "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" "Beginnings" and "Questions 67 and 68."

There have been other songs, of course, many other songs, that are uniquely Chicago, and they made the band the top–selling American group in the 1970s.

You could hardly switch on your radio in those days without hearing Chicago, and if you were hearing songs like "25 or 6 to 4" or "Colour My World" or "Saturday in the Park" for the first time, you didn't need to wait for the end and the disc jockey's confirmation that you had been listening to Chicago. You already knew.

Subsequent albums gave listeners more of a taste of their jazz–rock style, a unique sound at a time when it seemed everyone was trying to emulate the Beatles or the Stones or the Who.

But time marches on and, by 1981, original guitarist Terry Kath was dead from a self–inflicted gunshot wound and musicians like Laudir de Oliveira and Donnie Dacus, both of whom joined the band in the 1970s, had departed. By the mid–1980s, another original member, Peter Cetera, was gone.

In 1981, vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Bill Champlin joined the band, and there he has remained for nearly 30 years. During that time, he has made important contributions to the band's continued success, not the least of which was providing the vocals for "Look Away," the chart–topping song on Billboard's year–end Hot 100 in 1989.

But today, it was announced that Champlin is leaving Chicago to pursue a solo career at the age of 62. The Champlin era is ending.

Four original band members — Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider — still remain. No doubt they will reinvent Chicago, as they have done many times before.

It won't sound the same — it never does. But I wouldn't bet against Chicago making it work.

And I wouldn't bet against Champlin, either.

Monday, August 10, 2009

For a Friend

As you may have noticed, I like posting videos with my blog posts. I write three blogs — this one, as well as a blog about current events/history and a blog about sports. And I've posted videos on each one.

Most of the time, I prefer to post videos on my blogs when they are relevant to something I am writing about — an anniversary of some kind, the birthday or death of someone famous, something like that.

I like posting videos, mainly because it is my way of sharing something that is meaningful to me with my readers. And I especially like doing it here, because this is my entertainment blog.

Well, this evening I was chatting with an old friend of mine on Facebook, and we were reminiscing about our high school days. She's been encouraging me because I have been unemployed for quite awhile, but there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for me, after all. I was asked to come in to interview on Thursday for a job as a music editor for a local online news website. She told me that she thinks this interview is the start of good things for me, and I really want to believe that is true.

Of all the people I knew in high school, she was probably the most trustworthy.

My friend was an accomplished musician when we knew each other in high school, and I visited her many times in her home. On one of those occasions, she introduced me to the recordings of Maynard Ferguson. We talked a little about him tonight.

Ferguson is deceased now. As a matter of fact, one week from Sunday will be the third anniversary of his death. I suppose I could have waited until then to post this video. But I wanted to take this opportunity to share a video of him performing now.

Because he isn't performing just any song in the attached video clip. He's performing one of the first songs my friend played for me all those years ago.

And I want this song to be in my head when I go in for my interview.

It's symbolic, I suppose. But it's also a damn fine rendition of "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from the 1976 movie "Rocky," the story of an underdog, seemingly past–his–prime boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight title and almost pulls it off.

Thanks, Phyllis. It's good to have you in my corner.

Remembering Three (Actually Four) Days of Peace and Music

Next Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of an important cultural event in America.

On Aug. 15, 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in White Lake, N.Y. — known to history as the "Woodstock Festival" — began "3 Days of Peace and Music." Because of bad weather, it wound up extending into a fourth day.

Literally and figuratively, the 1960s were coming to an end — and not entirely in keeping with the peace and love mantra popularly associated with the young people of the time. By mid–August of 1969, the decade had about 4½ months remaining. The Manson family had just killed seven people a week earlier. Before the year was over, a concert–goer would be stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel during a Rolling Stones concert. In the last three years of the 1960s, nearly 40,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

Against that backdrop, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair convened for three days of peace and music — and, against the odds, met its goals.

Maybe that is why, as Jon Pareles wrote recently in the New York Times, "Baby boomers won't let go of the Woodstock Festival. ... It's one of the few defining events of the late 1960s that had a clear happy ending."

Roughly half a million people attended the festival. Originally, there was an admission price, but when so many people showed up, organizers quickly decided to make it a free show.

And those who stayed were treated to nearly three dozen of the era's best musical acts, although there were some noteworthy performers who chose not to attend, even though they were invited — Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell.

Richie Havens opened the show at 5:07 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969. Not very well known at the time, Havens developed a following after his appearance at Woodstock. In 1971, John Lennon, for example, told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that Havens "plays a pretty funky guitar."

You can see for yourself in the attached video clip.

Bigger names were yet to come, but Havens' performance was followed that Friday by Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez — as well as Ravi Shankar, a nearly 50–year–old Indian musician whose work was introduced to Western audiences by George Harrison of the Beatles.

Sanitation was bad, food was in short supply, and the weather was poor at times. But in spite of the obstacles, it was a remarkably peaceful event, considering that preparation was inadequate for the huge turnout. There were two deaths — one a heroin overdose, the other a person in a sleeping bag who was run over by a tractor in a nearby field. There were also two births and a few miscarriages.

For a few days in August 1969, a spot in rural New York was truly a city, with births, deaths, even a marriage (I think) — but without the crime, the violence and the cultural clashes that plagued real cities then and still plague real cities today.

Forty years later, it stands as a monument to what people of good will can achieve.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Abbey Road

It turned out to be an iconic moment in rock 'n' roll history, but, at the time, it was something of a rush job.

Forty years ago today, photographer Iain Macmillan was given about 10 minutes to shoot the photos that would include the shot that became the cover of the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album. So he ascended a 10–foot step ladder shortly before noon and photographed the Beatles walking, single file, across the street crossing.

It was a Friday. Even for 1969, the street seems fairly empty — for the middle of a workday.

See the fellow standing on the curb on the right? His name was Paul Cole, a tourist from America who was in his late 50s at the time. Apparently, he was unaware that he was being photographed and didn't realize that he had, in fact, been included in the album cover until he saw it several months later. He may not have known that the four men who were crossing the street that day were the Beatles.

And maybe I'm somewhat dense, but I only recently noticed that there is an actual Beetle parked on the left. Kind of ironic, don't you think? As I understand it, the car belonged to someone who lived in an apartment across the street from the studio. I've heard the vehicle was sold at an auction in the 1980s and currently is on display at a Volkswagen museum in Germany.

Well, "Abbey Road" remains my favorite Beatles album. Nearly six years ago, when Rolling Stone published its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, "Abbey Road" was 14th. Four of the albums ahead of it were also Beatles albums. I could quibble about the rankings, but I won't. Still, "Abbey Road" is my favorite.

And, apparently, it is a common occurrence for visitors to Abbey Road to re–enact the Beatles' street crossing while someone shoots their picture. Sort of a souvenir. Even four decades later.

Half of the Beatles are gone now. But the surviving half of the famous songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney — Sir Paul McCartney, now 67 years old — is currently on tour. He will be in Atlanta a week from today, Tulsa a week from Monday and Dallas a week from Wednesday. I don't know what concert tickets sell for these days, but if I could spare it, I wouldn't mind seeing Sir Paul in concert. I've heard he puts on quite a show.

In the meantime, would you like to see what's happening on Abbey Road right now? Click here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Director John Hughes Dies

Director John Hughes died of a heart attack today in New York City. He was 59.

You may not recognize the name. But you're bound to recognize the titles of many of the films he directed, wrote and/or produced — "National Lampoon's Vacation," "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Uncle Buck," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Home Alone" and "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York."

Hughes was known for stories about teen angst and coming of age. And he had a tendency to use the same actors in films frequently. Anthony Michael Hall, for example, appeared in four of Hughes' films in the early 1980s. One of Hughes' clear favorites was the late John Candy, who was featured in eight Hughes films.

Hughes was something of a recluse in the last 15 years of his life. And he was something of an enigma even before he disappeared from the movie scene. His own youth never really mirrored the lives of the young people in his movies. By his own admission, he lived a middle–class existence and never really felt inclined to rebel against his parents the way many of the characters in his movies did.

But he did use the town where he went to high school, Northbrook, Ill., as the setting, even if he didn't identify it by name. Often, the town went unidentified or was called "Shermer, Ill." It is my understanding that Shermerville was the original name that was given to Northbrook.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Martin Sheen is 69 Today

I have admired actor Martin Sheen's work for a long time.

I can't say for sure the first time I saw him perform in anything. His credits go back to 1961, and most of his work in the 1960s was on TV, but my family didn't have a TV until 1966 so, while he appeared in episodes of many popular series, like "Route 66," "The Outer Limits," "My Three Sons," "The Defenders," "Flipper," "Mission: Impossible" and "The Mod Squad," I can't honestly say that I remember seeing him on TV shows when I was a child.

His TV career continued into the 1970s, but he began to branch out into made–for–TV movies as well as theatrical release movies. My best guess is that I first saw him in the 1974 TV movie "The Execution of Private Slovik," which was based on the true story of Eddie Slovik, a World War II soldier who remains the only American to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.

I saw him in another TV movie that was made that year, but I didn't watch it when it first aired. Instead, I saw it a few years later, when one of my high school teachers showed it to us in class using the newest technology, the video cassette recorder. The movie was "The Missiles of October," a dramatization of the Cuban missile crisis. Sheen played Robert Kennedy in the film, a part for which I thought he was ideal.

In the years since then, I have seen him in many movies that I like — "Apocalypse Now," "Gandhi," "Wall Street," "Gettysburg." He was a narrator for Oliver Stone's "JFK." And, many years after it was released, I saw him in what he has often said is his best film, "Badlands," which was loosely based on Charles Starkweather's murder spree in the late 1950s. His co–star in that film was a young actress named Sissy Spacek, who became more familiar to audiences a few years later after appearing in the film adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie" and winning an Oscar for her performance in "Coal Miner's Daughter."

And I am a great admirer of Sheen's performance in the TV series "The West Wing." It went off the air in 2006, but it explored many timely issues and often educated viewers in unexpected and entertaining ways.

Against his father's wishes, Sheen deliberately failed his college entrance exam in order to pursue an acting career. Sheen apparently was very close to his father, who died while Sheen was filming a TV movie based on John Dean's book, "Blind Ambition." Because of the filming schedule, Sheen wasn't able to attend the funeral so he grieved for his father while filming a scene in which Dean cried in his jail cell.

He has been politically active in his adult life and has participated in many protests, for which he has been arrested dozens of times, and he has been quoted as saying, "I love my country enough to suffer its wrath."

A devout Roman Catholic, Sheen has said, "I consider myself a liberal Democrat, but I'm against abortion." That is something to which I can relate. I consider myself a progressive Democrat, but I have become more of a centrist on many issues as I have grown older. I am not against abortion, but my positions on other issues have changed.

Happy birthday, sir. I hope to see you in many other projects in the years ahead.