Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger Dies

Given his reclusive nature, perhaps it was appropriate that writer J.D. Salinger died yesterday — and word of his death didn't get out until today.

He was an enigma to many and for good reason.

As a teenager, I read his iconic novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," which was published nearly 60 years ago. It still had a lot to say to people who were in the grip of the alienation and rebellion that are hallmarks of that age, and it helped me to realize that what I was experiencing at that stage of my life was precisely what other generations had faced and what future generations would face.

Salinger reassured me that I certainly wasn't the first — nor would I be the last — to have those feelings.

In December 1980, when ex–Beatle John Lennon was murdered by a twisted fan who had a copy of the book in his possession — and, apparently, had modeled himself after the narrator/protagonist of the book, Holden Caulfield — I retrieved my dog–eared copy of the book from my bookshelf and read it again, hoping to find some clue that might explain what had happened.

I never found what I was looking for — although I did gain a fresh appreciation and my respect was renewed for Salinger's work.

Salinger was 91. His birthday was nearly four weeks ago, on January 1. He broke his hip last May, but, according to his literary agent, he had been doing fine "until a rather sudden decline after the new year."

I guess those things are bound to happen when one has reached an advanced age.

We may never know the reason for the "rather sudden decline" in his health. But, today, I — and, no doubt, many who read and appreciated his works over the years — can't help wondering if there are manuscripts of his that will be published posthumously. Time will tell.

For now, rest in peace, Mr. Salinger.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Literary Double Reverse

I have written of my admiration for Mark Twain at my Freedom Writing blog.

Actually, my fondness for Twain's works goes back a long way. Among my readers are people with whom I grew up, and most of them certainly could tell you of times when I urged them to read Twain.

I read a lot of Twain when I was in high school and college. Sometimes it was an assignment. Sometimes it was something I did on my own. But, whether I was assigned to do it or I did it on my own initiative, I can't think of anything I ever read by Twain that I haven't (a) quoted directly, (b) mentioned generally in a conversation, (c) recommended to people, (d) cited in an article or term paper or (e) some or all of the above.

One book that I continue to recommend to people many years after reading it for the first time — even though, in recent years, it has been sacrificed in many places to the gods of political correctness — is "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

If you're a writer, you have probably dreamed of writing the Great American Novel. In my experience, the Great American Novel almost never comes along. But "Huckleberry Finn" is an exception to that rule. It has been called the Great American Novel by many people — and with good reason.

"Huckleberry Finn" was first published 125 years ago last month. But, as good as it is and as deserving of some attention, today I want to turn my attention to one of Twain's novels that was published a few years earlier, was decidedly not an American tale and may have been recreated in movies and recordings or served as the inspiration for other people's works as much as — if not more than — anything else Twain ever wrote.

I am speaking of "The Prince and the Pauper," which was, as nearly as I can tell, Twain's first foray into historical fiction. It dealt with two boys who were almost identical in spite of the fact that they had different parents. One of the boys was named Edward, and he happened to be the prince of Wales. The other boy was named Tom, and he was from a poor family.

The boys were born the same day but never knew of each other's existence until just before Edward's father, King Henry VIII, died, when fate brought them together. In the book, the two agreed to switch places temporarily, and, in the process, they discovered the pitfalls in each other's lives.

It was truly a daring subject for Twain to tackle in his first real attempt to write historical fiction. Much of the time, when one reads historical fiction, the characters are fictional, too. They may combine qualities of real people, but you seldom read historical novels in which a main character was a real person from history.

But that was what set "The Prince and the Pauper" apart from other works of historical fiction because this story dealt with an actual figure from more than three centuries earlier — Edward VI. And the historical record tells us that he became king of England on Jan. 28, 1547. His father had just died, and Edward was 9 years old. Nearly a month would pass before he was crowned at Westminster Abbey, which was not unusual, but, for all intents and purposes, he became king 463 years ago tomorrow.

Always a sickly boy, Edward died less than 6½ years after becoming king and was succeeded by his older sisters, Lady Jane Grey and Mary I. That is the historical record.

In the book, Twain wrote that Edward's experiences living in poverty and suffering at the hand of Tom's abusive father affected him. He pledged to govern wisely when restored to his rightful place, but that can be classified as literary speculation. Edward died before reaching the age of maturity; he was king in name, but in actual deed his reign was overseen by executors who had been named in his father's will.

We will never know if he would have ruled more mercifully than his predecessors, including his father, because — to my knowledge — he was never allowed to make any royal decisions.

Twain was always finding ways to work his real–world interests into his fictional works. He had a genuine fascination with science, and he combined that with his desire to write historical fiction when he wrote about time travel in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" several years later.

"The Prince and the Pauper" is a classic, and it has led to not only more than half a dozen film and TV adaptations but also countless stories that must have been inspired by Twain's original tale.

It seems like such an obvious theme, doesn't it? How many times have you seen a movie or an episode of a TV show where the story was based on the notion that two people looked alike? Perhaps someone wrote such a story before Twain came along, but I have to think he originated it. Even if the stories that served as the foundation for some movies or TV shows are said to have been inspired by something else, I still have to think that Twain played a role.

"The Parent Trap," for example, was based on a book that was published nearly 40 years after Twain died. In that story, the two people who looked the same were twins who went with a different biological parent when their parents divorced. I can't help wondering if Erich Kästner, the author of the book that inspired that movie, wasn't, in turn, influenced by Twain, who wrote "The Prince and the Pauper" nearly 20 years before Kästner was born.

Likewise, I wonder if Twain was at the heart of the inspiration for the movie "Dave," in which Kevin Kline plays both the president and a man who earns some money impersonating him. When the president is incapacitated, his unscrupulous chief of staff gets the impersonator to step in and pretend to be the president, giving the chief of staff the opportunity to wield the actual power from behind the scenes.

That story, it was said, was inspired by Anthony Hope's "The Prisoner of Zenda." Hope was closer to Twain's age. He was born about 28 years after Twain, and he wrote his book about 13 years after Twain wrote "The Prince and the Pauper."

It seems plausible to me that Hope's tale of a political decoy could have been inspired by Twain's story. But I have seen nothing to confirm that.

I don't know if either of those books were influenced by "The Prince and the Pauper." But it makes sense, doesn't it?

Even if the authors didn't realize it themselves, it makes sense.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Who's Super Bowl Setlist

Ordinarily, my posts that are sports–related can be found at my Tomato Cans blog.

But, long before I started blogging, I learned that things often overlap in life. And that's especially been the case ever since the Super Bowl started promoting halftime shows with big–name entertainers.

Things have sure come a long way since Up With People performed at halftime of the Super Bowl. In recent years, halftime entertainment has been provided by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and, in an unfortunately memorable moment, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.

This year's entertainment will be provided by legendary British rockers the Who. It won't be the original Who, of course. Bassist John Entwistle has been dead since 2002, and drummer Keith Moon has been gone even longer, since 1978. But Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are still around and, as long as they are still around, The Who will exist.

Certainly, The Who will exist on February 7, when the modern incarnation of the band will perform at halftime of this year's Super Bowl. And yesterday, Townshend told Billboard about the songs that will be sung that night.

So, based on that interview, here are some videos to give you a taste of what to expect.

Townshend says the show will start with "Baba O'Riley." You can find a clip of the band performing that song at the top of this post.

Next on the setlist is "Pinball Wizard" ...

... followed by, in Townshend's words, "a bit of the close of 'Tommy.' "

Next will be "Who Are You."

The set will close, Townshend said, with "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Even if you're a fan of one of the 30 NFL teams that won't be playing in the Super Bowl, you'll want to see The Who. Trust me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

True Love

For those who are in love, whether they are married or not, Valentine's Day is perhaps the most important holiday on the calendar.

It may not be as lucrative for florists or candy makers or greeting card printers as it has been in more prosperous times — although, as I observed last year, even the recession didn't seem to dampen some people's enthusiasm and it may be that way this year as well — but it seems to me that, if ever there was a holiday when the old adage that "it's the thought that counts" should apply, Valentine's Day would be the one.

Expressions of true love come from the heart, not from the wallet.

Of course, money is no object if one is as prosperous as Niles Crane. And, while longtime watchers of Frasier could tell you that Niles' relationships with his first two wives lacked something (although, with both being independently affluent, those relationships certainly didn't lack money), his relationship with Daphne never lacked the most essential ingredient for a happy Valentine's Day — love.

And his money did give him the means to travel to England to try to reconcile Daphne's estranged parents — because he believed it would make her happy.

Certainly, money is important. But a relationship that relies only on money isn't much of a relationship, is it?

Personally, I found the relationship between Niles and Daphne to be wildly improbable, and I stopped watching the show for awhile. But I came back after I saw the episode that included the clip I have attached to this post.

Men and women have been so stereotyped over the years — men as unfeeling brutes who care only about satisfying their primal lusts, women as nags, shrews, harpies — that the scene appears to be contrary to the truth, but I believe it expresses a truth that is seldom acknowledged.

I believe that most men who are in love would make any sacrifice for the object of their affection, even fly halfway around the world, as Niles did, although most can't afford something like that. And I believe most men secretly wish the women they love would acknowledge their efforts as openly as Daphne did.

I'll admit, that is probably a little presumptuous on my part, but I do know this: If any woman ever spoke to me the way Daphne spoke to Niles, there would be nothing I would not want to do for her.

I still don't know how likely it is for a woman as beautiful as Daphne to fall in love with someone like Niles, although — in my mind, at least — it seems like a good argument for that old platitude, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

But love isn't really about beauty. It's about a connection between people.

I hope you are fortunate enough to have found that connection in your life.

And, if you have, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine's Day — in spite of the economy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Animal Crackers

The other day, with all the Jay Leno–Conan O'Brien stuff in the news, I wrote about my yearning for the days when Johnny Carson was the king of late night.

I didn't realize, when I wrote that, how timely it was. In fact, I didn't realize it until today, when I discovered that yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Carson's death.

Actually, it's been even longer since Carson left The Tonight Show. He retired in May 1992. For anyone who grew up with Carson, it is astonishing to believe he has been gone from our TV screens nearly 18 years.

At the risk of sounding like someone in the grip of "Good Old Days Syndrome," as I have heard it described, Carson was the best. Perhaps this is the most accurate barometer: You could never tell from watching him on his show how intensely private he was. I've heard it said that Ed McMahon, Carson's sidekick, referred to him as "the most private public man who ever lived."

And if anyone would know, it would be Ed McMahon.

Carson made it look so easy. That is something people with talent tend to do. They make difficult things look easy. You see them doing whatever it is that comes naturally to them, and you think to yourself, "I could do that!" And then, when you try, you suddenly discover how much effort is required to make something difficult look so effortless.

Dennis Miller touched on this very thing not long after Carson died. He was a guest on The Tonight Show, and he was telling Leno about how poorly he had done the first time he hosted a talk show. When the show was over, he received a call from Carson, who told him, "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Missing Johnny

The recent Jay Leno–Conan O'Brien flap has made me more nostalgic than usual for the days when Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show.

If you're too young to remember Johnny Carson, you have my sympathy. You missed what was truly a golden age for television. Frankly, I don't think either Jay or Conan is very funny, and The Tonight Show was never as good after Johnny retired. It's probably been 16 or 17 years since I've watched it.

But Johnny was different. It was one of the indisputable signs that I was growing up that my parents agreed to let me stay up to watch The Tonight Show occasionally. But even when I got into high school, it wasn't the sort of thing they let me do every night, so, when I moved on to college and I was living in the dorm, there were few things that made me feel as grown up as being able to watch Carson whenever I wanted.

Carson continued to define that feeling of freedom for me. And it was constant. I probably moved five or six times before Carson retired, and every place I lived, I could switch on my TV on a weeknight and see the familiar face and hear the familiar voice of Johnny Carson. I was home.

It reminds me of a lady who knew my parents. After they retired, she and her husband traveled around in an RV, visiting their children and grandchildren — and old friends, like my parents. Once, when they were visiting, I was in the RV with my mother and her friend, who was showing us the window sill over her sink, which was filled with doodads — salt and pepper shakers, a small figurine of a bird, a framed picture of one of her grandchildren.

"Everywhere I go," she said, "I make my little home."

That was what Carson's presence did for me. It made my little home. It was reassuring, like being able to see Walter Cronkite deliver the news of the day.

How could NBC get me back as a viewer? Start running reruns of the old Carson shows in the slot that is currently being given to The Tonight Show. I would stay up and watch those.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Last week, I wrote about a gift card an old friend gave me for Christmas — and how I used part of it to get the CD of Don McLean's "American Pie" album.

I've been listening to that CD a lot. It was one of my mother's favorite albums when I was a child, and it brings back memories of that time in my life. But I've learned, as I have listened to it in recent days, that it has a lot to say to me at this time in my life.

I suppose this goes without saying, but there are things I understand now that I didn't understand when I was 10.

I got the album because I remember the title song and "Vincent," but I keep listening to it because of songs I have been rediscovering, songs I heard from time to time when I was a boy and my mother played the record from start to finish. She loved "American Pie" and "Vincent," and there were times when she would just play those songs. But sometimes she let the album play all the way through so hearing those other songs revives long dormant memories.

Songs like "Empty Chairs."

That song conjures up memories of things that hadn't yet happened in my life when I first heard it, but they are significant now. Mostly, I guess it reinforces how unprepared I have often been when things happened.

Like memories of my first real love and how crushed I was when she left me. It was something my teenage mind had not anticipated. I don't know why. But McLean captures the feeling in his refrain:
"And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you'd go
Until you did I never thought you would."

If time travel was possible, I would like to go back and try to explain that to her. I would try to tell her how shocked I was. Maybe it would help her to understand why I sometimes said and did things that hurt her.

I was trying to deal with my own hurt.

At the same time, "Empty Chairs" brings back memories of Mom in ways "American Pie" and "Vincent" never could. "American Pie" and "Vincent" remind me of her when I was growing up, but "Empty Chairs" gives me a perspective I didn't have when the album was new, I was a child and my mother was in the prime of her life.

I don't know why, but until the day my mother died, it never occurred to me that a time would come when she would be gone. It should have, I guess. I have many friends who have lost a parent; some of my friends have lost both parents. Even when they have lost a parent unexpectedly — as I did — they've all seemed to be better prepared than I was. And there's a part of "Empty Chairs" that reminds me of that time, when I felt like I had been caught flat–footed and unaware.

It isn't really a song about the loss of a parent. It's more a song of regret over the loss of a lover. But that wasn't part of my personal experience when I was a child and Mom brought the album home for the first time.

There is a part of "Empty Chairs" that always makes me think of Mom.
"Never thought the words you said were true
Never thought you said just what you meant
Never knew how much I needed you
Never thought you'd leave, until you went."

Those first two lines, in my mind, are an explanation for my reactions at times when she told me things. You know how kids can be. They look at their parents as prehistoric relics who have no clue how things operate in the real world.

Now, as an adult, I know she told me the truth and that she meant the things she said. I guess those lines from the song tap into my thoughts from when I was a child, when I perceived things differently than I do today.

There is another twist that I have encountered in this song — and more may yet emerge. It unleashes memories of other things from my childhood — the people (my grandparents, family friends, classmates) who are gone, the places (my hometown, the schools I have attended, the employers for whom I have worked) that have changed. It is not unusual for me to sit down in an evening, put on a CD and have memories from childhood to the present day dance through my mind.

They say that, as you are dying, you see your life before your very eyes. If that is true — and no one can tell me who lived long enough after the show began to inform any bystanders of it — it is likely to be a movie I have seen more than once. Sometimes this seems like the confirmation of something Mr. Leland said in "Citizen Kane." He said memory was "the greatest curse ever inflicted on the human race."

Maybe he was right. You could probably start quite a debate on that one observation. Well, that isn't my intention. It's a personal matter, I suppose, so let's leave it at that. But there is no getting around the fact that there are many times in life that are painful to recall. You can chalk that up to anything you like — ignorance, immaturity, inexperience. When you get right down to it, don't we all have things we would do differently if we could?
"Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can't forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs."

We all have our regrets, whether it was the love that slipped through our fingers or the people and places we left behind. And it is also true — for most of us, I guess — that, even when we grow up, we still need our parents. And we miss them when they're gone.

I will always be grateful to Mom for the things she gave me, including my appreciation for the music of Don McLean. I will always miss her.

And I will always regret that the people who have come into my life after she left it never got to know her.

They'll never know what they missed.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Elvis at 75

Today, in case you weren't aware of this fact, is Elvis Presley's 75th birthday.

I knew this day was coming up. I grew up about two hours or so west of Memphis, which is, of course, the site of Graceland, Elvis' home. Elvis' birthday always draws a crowd to Memphis, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote today about special observations that were planned for Presley's 75th birthday. It's a pretty big deal, and I spent a lot of time wondering what I should say.

But, in the end, it occurred to me. What can one say about Elvis Presley that hasn't already been said in countless ways? The man has been dead for more than 30 years. He was in his early 40s when he died, an event that was comparable in its impact on that generation to Michael Jackson's death nearly 32 years later.

It is indeed ironic — as we have been told many times since Jackson died last summer — that Jackson was briefly Presley's son–in–law, even though Presley didn't live to see it.

In spite of the apparently bogus "sightings" of Elvis, which seem to have tapered off in recent years, he remains a "what if" from another time. When Elvis' name is mentioned, one asks the same thing one asks about John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix: What do you suppose he would have done if he had not died?

I once heard Ringo Starr speculate that Lennon "would have been quite a force" if he hadn't been killed in 1980. I assume the same would have been true, at least for a little while, of Presley if he hadn't died in 1977.

Perhaps he wouldn't have been as much of a force as he was in his 20s. I can't say I was ever an Elvis Presley fan — the Beatles performed the music of my childhood — so I can't say I'm an expert on his career, but I did have a copy of the "Sun Sessions" album, a collection of his early recordings like "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." My impression is that Elvis was a singer and a musician, not a composer, so it seems unlikely that we would have heard many (if any) new Elvis compositions. But I'm sure he would have continued to tour and probably record songs written by others.

I assume that, at this stage of his life, he would have given up touring, but he might still have been recording in the studio, possibly at Graceland. He might have recorded some duets with his daughter.

When someone dies young, like Elvis did, there is a sense of wasted potential. We will never know what Elvis might have done in his 50s, 60s, even his early 70s.

It seems to me that may be why many folks report seeing Elvis in convenience stores or walking along a lonely stretch of highway.

They are still reluctant to permit that potential to slip away forever.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Gift of Music

An old friend gave me an gift card for Christmas.

Now, let me explain something up front: I've always tried to use a gift card for something I think the giver might have chosen. OK, I haven't always succeeded at that, but I've done pretty well.

This holiday season, I've been thinking about my mother a lot. She was a big influence on me — the books I read, the movies I love, the music I listen to. Her fingerprints are all over my life.

Anyway, I've known this friend since my college days, and she was acquainted with my mother. Mom loved music, especially acoustic guitar, and my friend does, too. It really astonished me, when we knew each other in college, how similar their tastes were.

So I decided to use the gift card to get some CDs that remind me of Mom, and the first one that came to mind — Don McLean's "American Pie" — arrived today.

I vividly remember the day Mom picked me up at school after she had been to the record store to get "American Pie." She didn't get the single — the song was 8½ minutes on the LP, and it was divided up into two parts on the single. It is his signature song, and many people have tried to interpret its imagery over the years. McLean has confirmed some but not all, and he has said he prefers to let the song speak for itself.

The song was a huge hit when I was a child. For awhile, some radio stations played only part of it, but most played the entire recording. That isn't the kind of thing that happened very often in those days. For that matter, songs that are eight minutes long don't get played much on the radio today, either. But "American Pie" was the rare exception to the rule — like "Hey Jude" or "Layla."

Mom got the whole album, which seemed like a wild extravagance to me at the time, but it wasn't "American Pie" that drew her in. In fact, I'm not even sure if she had heard the song before she bought the album. She apparently was inspired to buy it because of another song — "Vincent," McLean's tribute to Vincent Van Gogh (although, at first, Mom thought she had gotten the wrong album because she believed the song's opening line, "Starry, starry night," was actually its title).

Well, those are the two songs that I have always remembered from that album, and those are the two that just about everyone would recognize. But the CD has reacquainted me with some really good songs I had forgotten about,

like "Till Tomorrow," a sensitive ballad that is probably as good as anything McLean has ever written.

It is followed on the album (after "Vincent") by a pensive tune, "Crossroads," of which I have a memory tugging at my brain of my mother humming when she played it on our stereo. And today, when I hear the lines, "They walk one road to set them free and find they've gone the wrong direction," it still has the power to take my breath away.

It is punctuated by a love song, "Winterwood," that reminds me of songs I used to hear on central Arkansas radio stations as a child. Perhaps it reflects McLean's influences, which included (in addition to Buddy Holly) Burl Ives, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.

After that, the wistful mood returns with "Empty Chairs," a song that reminds me of the John Denver and Simon and Garfunkel albums my mother liked to play when I was growing up.

I guess McLean needed a change of pace; hence, "Everybody Loves Me, Baby," which, in a way, sounds like an outtake of "American Pie" with lines like "Fortune has me well in hand, armies 'wait my command My gold lies in a foreign land buried deep beneath the sand."

The CD has a song, "Sister Fatima," that was dropped from the reissue that came out nearly a decade after the album was first released.

Perhaps it, along with "The Grave," was too political. I've heard Vietnam vets speak of how affected they were the first time they heard "The Grave."

The album was capped by "Babylon," which actually wasn't written by McLean. It's a traditional tune with a McLean arrangement. It reminds me, in a way, of Crosby Stills Nash & Young singing "Find the Cost of Freedom."

Well, that's where the album that Mom had ended. And this is one of the times when I regret that Mom didn't live longer. The album was first released as a CD the year after she died, then, in 2003, a CD with two bonus tracks was released. The CD with the bonus tracks is the one I got, and it makes it seem like a brand–new recording.

I haven't been able to find videos of the bonus tracks, "Mother Nature" and "Aftermath," but the songs fit the mood of the rest of the album. It has kind of a somber quality, which is appropriate, I guess, for an album in which the most popular song repeatedly spoke of "the day the music died."

Well, 2010 is a good time to listen to this album and appreciate Don McLean's contribution to the culture. He will be 65 in October.