Sunday, August 29, 2010

We Built This City

I come from a small family.

My mother was an only child, and my father had a sister who was six years older. Based on what I know of my aunt, she was something of a prodigy. I heard, for example, that she graduated from high school when she was about 16 and that she finished college before she was 20. Some time after that, she married a man who worked for General Electric, and she apparently devoted herself to her home and her three children.

My cousins were all older than I was, and, until I was about 10 or 11, they lived in the Netherlands. So I never saw them when I was a child.

They returned to the United States when I was about 12, but GE didn't send my uncle to Texas, where my grandmother still lived, or somewhere else in the South. Instead, GE sent them to Schenectady, N.Y. — more than 1,400 miles from Dallas and more than 1,100 miles from my hometown of Conway, Ark.

Even though we were finally on the same continent, it seemed to me that I might grow up without knowing that side of my family. But my parents were planning a trip to Vermont one summer to visit some old friends, and it was decided that we would stop in Schenectady and visit my aunt and uncle and the cousins while we were in that part of the country.

And so we did.

The youngest of my cousins was about five or six years older than I was so all three were around college age then. There were two boys and one girl. I think the girl was the youngest, and she may have still been in high school. I don't recall seeing the oldest — he may have been out of college by that time, might even have been married and living somewhere else.

But the middle son was there. As I recall, he had been away from home most of that summer and had just returned home. I even remember seeing his bags in the hallway. Maybe he had been taking summer classes at the college where he was enrolled. Anyway, our visit came during a period between the end of summer school and the beginning of the fall semester, and I remember my uncle teasing my cousin about missing the smell of cigarette smoke around the house while he was gone.

I have a memory of all of us sitting in my aunt's living room and talking, and I recall my aunt and uncle telling us that my cousin Cathy had just had her wisdom teeth extracted. That gave my father the opportunity to recall when my aunt had her wisdom teeth extracted. "She made sure we all knew about it," my father said.

Somewhere around that time, Cathy got up, excused herself and went to the back of the house, where her room was, and put a record on her turntable. And I could hear the familiar songs of Jefferson Airplane — "Somebody to Love," "Volunteers" and "White Rabbit," among others.

Those are the songs that I always associate with Jefferson Airplane. The group disbanded around the time of our visit to Schenectady and was soon replaced by Jefferson Starship, which later dropped the "Jefferson" part and just went by the name of Starship.

I always felt that was a corporate sellout, considering that Jefferson Airplane always seemed like the embodiment of the left–wing counterculture. Starship just seemed too commercial.

But when Jefferson Airplane crashed, Jefferson Starship rose from the ashes in its place. At first, there seemed to be little difference between the two. Grace Slick was still singing for the band, and it was churning out hits like "Miracles" and "Jane."

Initially, I suppose, I didn't realize just how commercial Starship really was. The parting of the ways, for me, came 25 years ago tomorrow, when Starship released "We Built This City."

I felt at the time that it was a perfectly horrid song — and that opinion was confirmed nearly 20 years later, when Blender magazine named it the worst song ever.

Now, that probably requires a disclaimer. Six years ago, Blender put together a list of what it called the 50 worst songs of all time, which was inspired by a VH1 special called "The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs ... Ever."

I'm sure you can think of at least one song — probably many more — that could fairly be said to be worse than "We Built This City." And that brings us to the catch.

In order to qualify for the list, the song had to be a hit at some point. It didn't have to reach #1 on the Billboard chart, but it had to be popular enough that it sold fairly well and got decent airplay.

Astonishingly, though, "We Built This City" actually did reach #1 on Billboard's chart about 2½ months after it was released as a single. So it qualified for inclusion in the list. People liked it. They really liked it. But I didn't.

The issues I have with "We Built This City" are too numerous to discuss here. But I've always been irritated by the lyrics. I guess I owe that to my training as a journalist and my experience as a copy editor. I can — and have — put up with a lot. But "We Built This City" was the straw that broke this camel's back.

Early in the song, for example, it refers to Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi playing the mamba. Mamba is the name of the species and subspecies of a deadly snake. My guess is that the writer of the song, Bernie Taupin, meant mambo, which is a dance. Poetic license?

I guess I expected better from Taupin. He wrote so many of the really fine songs that made Elton John a star. But words have meaning, and, when a lyricist uses a word simply because it rhymes with something else and not because it has a relevant meaning, that's just wrong.

Well, I suppose even the best song writers can come up with a clinker now and then.

Paul McCartney, for example, was half of the greatest song writing team in popular music history when he and John Lennon were composing songs for the Beatles. Then, after the Beatles broke up, McCartney went on to a very successful career as first the leader of the group Wings and then as a solo artist, writing several very good songs.

But he took his lumps from Blender — and justifiably so — for his collaboration with Stevie Wonder on the dreadful "Ebony and Ivory" and his participation in the Beatles' "Ob–La–Di, Ob–La–Da."

I don't have an argument with either of those selections, but I would include a third song, for which McCartney was responsible — "Let 'Em In," which was released 34 years ago.

It would be hard to beat the jejune quality of the chorus — "Someone's knocking on the door/Somebody's ringing the bell/Someone's knocking on the door/Somebody's ringing the bell/Do me a favor/Open the door/And let 'em in."

But I suppose it redeems itself, to a degree, by having lyrics that have some meaning — even if the meaning is an inside joke.

The song recites a list of names, which, as I learned later in my life, actually refer to real people. Well, most of them do:
  • "Sister Suzy" was McCartney's first wife, Linda.

  • "Brother John" is Linda's brother, John.

  • "Martin Luther" has never been made clear, but it probably isn't a reference to Martin Luther King, as might seem obvious. More likely, I have been told, it is a reference to Lennon, who was called "Martin Luther Lennon" by McCartney and the Beatles.

  • "Phil and Don" are the Everly Brothers.

  • "Brother Michael" is McCartney's brother.

  • "Auntie Jin" was McCartney's aunt.
And there is more. Later in the song, "Brother Michael" is replaced by "Uncle Ernie," which is a reference to the Who's Keith Moon, who played the character of Uncle Ernie in the film version of the Who's "Tommy."

"Auntie Jin" was replaced by "Uncle Ian" — whoever he is/was.

If Blender wants to come up with a revised list, I don't object to keeping "We Built This City" in the top spot. And most of the songs on the original list certainly deserved to be there.

But I wouldn't mind if "Let 'Em In" was in the Top 50.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Late, Great Stevie Ray Vaughan

I was driving along in northeastern Oklahoma one spring night in the mid–1990s.

The sun had gone down, and I was listening to the radio. Fortunately, I had found a classic rock station nestled in among all the country stations in that neck of the woods, but it kept fading in and out on me, and I had to keep adjusting the station to keep the music playing in my car.

I remember listening for about an hour, and the music that was played was your standard issue classic rock. They were all songs I recognized from my youth, which is now more remote than I ever dreamed it would be, but I couldn't tell you exactly what they were.

Anyway, the songs played, one after another. As I say, it was the kind of stuff you usually hear on a classic rock station — I think they played some Dylan and some Who and probably a Beatles song or two, and a whole bunch of what I would consider the lesser lights of the classic rock era — recognizable but not necessarily legendary.

Then one song ended (I don't remember now what it was), and there was something like a couple of seconds of silence before the DJ came on the air and, in solemn tones, simply said, "The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan."

And the next thing I heard was the opening riffs of "Crossfire."

The date wasn't an anniversary of anything special (that I know of) from Stevie Ray's career, but, when "Crossfire" was finished, the DJ played "Little Wing," Stevie Ray's spine–tingling cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic.

And he capped that with "Texas Flood." I don't think the song was written specifically for Vaughan, but it sure gave him a great opportunity to show off his Texas blues style.

Well, for whatever reason, the DJ played a three–song tribute to Stevie Ray that night. He never said why. He just went on to whatever his next song was after his triple shot was finished.

But it was clearly a deviation. I listened to that station for a couple of hours that night. Sometimes the reception was better than at other times, but I never heard so much as two consecutive songs by another performer — let alone three.

Now, I've never objected when someone wanted to play some Stevie Ray Vaughan — especially in the last 20 years. In case you didn't realize it, it was 20 years ago today that Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin.

I remember that day very well. I was working for a newspaper in north Texas (a comparatively short drive — by Texas standards — from Oak Cliff, the section of Dallas where Stevie Ray was born in 1954). I was working for an afternoon paper, so it was necessary to come to the office early in the morning in order to get the paper done in time.

In those days, I didn't usually work on Mondays, but that day, for whatever reason, I did.

On Sunday, Aug. 26, 1990, Stevie Ray played for a sold–out audience in Wisconsin, then boarded a helicopter that was supposed to transport him to Chicago. But it crashed shortly after takeoff.

I slept later than I planned to that Monday morning so I didn't switch on the TV while I was rushing around, getting ready for work. And I don't remember why, but I didn't switch on my radio in my car. So I didn't know what had happened.

But I knew, when I walked into the newsroom, that something had happened. My co–workers were gathered around a small TV in the corner of the newsroom, watching reports from Wisconsin. No one said a word.

As I walked through the door and crossed the newsroom, I could clearly hear the TV reporter recounting how Vaughan's helicopter had crashed some four or five hours earlier. By the time I arrived at the TV, I already knew what had happened.

They had a big funeral for him in Oak Cliff later that week.

Nearly 30 years earlier, Oak Cliff achieved a certain amount of national notoriety for being the home of accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. And 30 years before that, criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde met in Oak Cliff.

But Oak Cliff probably never had as many famous people walking its streets as it did that day in 1990. Among those who attended Stevie Ray's funeral were Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton (who had participated in an all–star jam in Vaughan's final show a few days earlier), Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the members of ZZ Top and many more.

In all, it was estimated that more than 1,500 people were crammed into the church where the service was held, and more than 3,000 stood outside in the heat of a late August day in Texas. All to pay tribute to a boy who, it could probably be said, came from the wrong side of the tracks.

He was 35 when he died.

It's hard to believe he's been gone as long as he has. It's even harder to imagine what he might look like at the age of 55 or what he might be doing today.

But the one thing I don't have trouble imagining is that Stevie Ray would be doing something musically. He might have gone in unexpected directions if he had been alive for the last two decades, but, unless he had to have his arms amputated for one reason or another, I have no doubt he would be playing his guitar.

Like John Lennon 10 years earlier, Stevie Ray Vaughan was taken much too soon, and the world was deprived of the unique contributions he would have made.

As a result, we have all been poorer since that helicopter crashed in Wisconsin 20 years ago today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Legacy of the 27 Club

"A broom is drearily sweeping up
The broken pieces of yesterday's life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary."

Jimi Hendrix
The Wind Cries Mary

I guess you could say next month will be the 40th anniversary of the birth of the "27 Club."

What's that? You don't know what the "27 Club" — or, as it is also known, the "Forever 27 Club" — is?

Well, it isn't really a club. To put it as succinctly as possible, it's a somewhat informal grouping of famous musicians who died at the tender age of 27.

It has been observed, when the subject of the "27 Club" has come up, that people can and do die at every possible age, but it is unusual, to say the least, for so many well–known people in any profession to die at such a young age.

I suppose the "club" began on July 3, 1969. On that day, I guess, much of the world was anticipating the historic flight of Apollo 11 that was only a few weeks away. But Brian Jones, one of the charter members of the Rolling Stones, drowned in his swimming pool on that occasion. He was 27 years old.

One isn't enough to form a club, though, which brings me to September 18, the 40th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix in London.

Hendrix also was 27 years old when, on Sept. 18, 1970, he consumed alcohol and sleeping pills — and then choked on his own vomit. Over the years, I heard a lot of things. I heard it was suicide. I heard it was accidental, that Hendrix was unfamiliar with the medication's dosages in foreign countries.

Last year, a "roadie" for the 1960s pop group the Animals published a book in which he claimed that Hendrix's manager admitted killing Hendrix. But the plausibility of that claim came into question when it was revealed that his manager wasn't even in London on the day Hendrix died. Apparently, he was in Spain.

Well, whatever the truth was, Jimi Hendrix died on Sept. 18, 1970. And two famous popular musicians were dead at the age of 27 within 18 months.

I vaguely remember hearing news reports of Hendrix's death at the time. But I really have no memory of any mention of the "27 Club."

Perhaps people didn't really start talking about the "27 Club" until a couple of weeks later, when Janis Joplin died at the age of 27 of what was deemed to have been a "probable" heroin overdose.

If there wasn't talk of a "27 Club" after Joplin died, it may have begun in earnest following the death on July 3, 1971, of the 27–year–old lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison. Morrison, too, may have been a victim of heroin, but he died in France, where medical examiners were not compelled at that time (French law may have changed in 39 years) to require autopsies if they found no evidence of foul play.

And, in fact, the medical examiner claimed that no such evidence was found at Morrison's death scene so no autopsy was performed. And the actual cause of his death has remained shrouded in mystery ever since.

(Ironically, following Jones' death, Morrison published a poem that was written for Jones, and Hendrix dedicated a song to him on American TV. Another of his contemporaries, Pete Townshend of the Who — who is still living — also wrote a poem for Jones.)

But, by that time — or, certainly, a short time later — people began speaking of the "27 Club." It has been reported that the sister of Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, has said that her brother spoke, when he was a child, of wanting to join the "27 Club."

Cobain would have been a child in the 1970s. And, in April 1994, he did join the club, committing suicide a little more than a month after his 27th birthday.

Some people have resisted including Cobain since he deliberately took his own life, but the fact is that he died at the age of 27 and he was the lead singer of what may have been the most popular band in America at the time of his death. I have never heard any conditional circumstances mentioned for being included in the club other than the fact that a person must be a musician and must die while he/she is 27.

Actually, if we're going to be technical about this, the so–called "27 Club" appears to have begun more than three–quarters of a century before Jones and Hendrix died.

In 1892, a pioneering Brazilian composer named Alexandre Levy died at the age of 27. He merged classical music with Brazilian folk music. The cause of his death remains unknown.

And many other musicians — all, to a certain extent, famous although none as well known as the first five I mentioned — have died at the age of 27 since that time. Bluesman Robert Johnson, for example, died at 27 more than three decades before Brian Jones did.

Unofficially, I guess Johnson really was the first member of the club. He was a performer, after all, and there are recordings of his performances that still exist. Maybe he was overlooked because of the segregated world in which he lived.

"Pigpen" McKiernan, one of the founders of the Grateful Dead, was 27 when he died. So were Peter Ham, the leader of the group Badfinger; Gary Thain, Uriah Heep's ex–bassist; and many others.

It's a bigger club than you might have thought.

A much smaller club, however, is made up of those who, while they may have died young, left something significant behind (besides compositions and recordings) through which they could continue to influence future generations.

Less than a month before he died, Hendrix opened such a place that could mold and promote the performers of the future. As Ben Sisario reported today in the New York Times, Electric Lady Studios, which was founded by Hendrix on Aug. 26, 1970, still exists, even though most of New York's big–name studios have closed their doors for one reason or another.

And Sisario points out that, in addition to housing tapes from Hendrix's studio sessions there, Electric Lady has had many famous performers record there, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder.

I'm inclined to believe that no one — and I suspect that includes Hendrix himself — thought Hendrix would be dead less than four weeks after Electric Lady opened.

But I think he would be pleased to know it has existed longer than he did.

It's a kind of immortality.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Thirty years ago, most American moviegoers had never heard of "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

In those days, only South African audiences (with the exception, perhaps, of movie reviewers who were devotees of foreign films, including those that had not made it to American theaters) were aware of its delightfully original tale about something of a culture clash between modern society and the more primitive Bushmen who existed in a kind of blissful ignorance of the outside world until an empty glass Coke bottle fell from the sky.

But those South African viewers made the film the biggest box–office success in the country's history.

Two years later, after English voiceover work had been dubbed in, the film went overseas and made it to the United States, where it was shown theatrically in a limited release. In 1984, it enjoyed a full release in the United States and was a modest hit.

To be sure, the story was strange, a real fish–out–of–water plot — actually, three plots.

You had a primitive Bushman (played by an actual Bush farmer who was, in many ways, as primitive as the Bushman he portrayed) who, believing the Coke bottle had been sent by the gods but being unable to comprehend the reason for it and dismayed by the unfamiliar and unpleasant behavior it evoked, embarks on a journey to find the end of the earth and throw the bottle off the edge; a painfully shy scientist who is infatuated with a new school teacher (and former newspaper reporter); and a group of guerrilla fighters who are running from government troops.

If you're wondering how these three stories could possibly intersect, you'll have to see the film for yourself. And it shouldn't be hard to find. It was out on video tape many years before DVDs came along, then was released on DVD, as was its 1989 sequel, "The Gods Must Be Crazy II."

From time to time, it also can be seen on cable.

As disarmingly entertaining as the film was, though, it was far from controversy–free.

For example, the original film (and its sequel) presented the Bushmen as enjoying an almost utopian existence in comparison to the complicated Western lifestyle that could be found in abundance a few hundred miles away. But, in fact, by the time the first film was made, the Bushmen had already been through many years of social changes that had been documented in several anthropological texts.

And those changes had involved interaction with what the film called "civilized man."

While the portrayal of the Bushmen in the two movies may have been accurate of some of the Bushmen in the 1980s, there were many who had been exposed to white people and Western culture by that time. Thus, for many, the sudden appearance of an heretofore unknown object, like a glass Coke bottle (do they even make glass soda bottles anymore?), wouldn't have been such a jarring experience.

There was also some conflict over the prospect of racism in the film. Some people thought the protagonist's character was insulting and demeaning, given his inability to understand the gods and the logic of their apparent "gifts."

Others, though, felt the story was a condemnation of both modern society and racism that elevated the Bushman to heroic status, given his quest to purge his small Bush community of a seemingly benign element of Western civilization.

As I mentioned earlier, the farmer who played the Bushman in the movie, a fellow named Nǃxau from Namibia, seems to have had a lot in common with the character he portrayed.

Before he was cast in the movie, he had only seen three white people in his life (which was estimated to have been more than 35 years at that time), he didn't understand paper money at the time he made the first film (although he seems to have learned about it by the time the sequel was made), and he never kept more than 20 head of cattle on his farm because, reportedly, he couldn't count any higher.

He didn't know how old he was, which would be no different, I presume, from the Bushmen in the movie. Their nomadic lifestyle didn't seem to include a system for keeping and storing records so it wasn't possible to consult his birth certificate or any other document. But someone (probably an anthropologist) estimated that he was born in 1943 or 1944.

He died of tuberculosis about seven years ago. So, if there are any additional "The Gods Must Be Crazy" stories to be told, they will have to feature his character's descendants.

But, judging from the reception that was given to the sequel, I think it's fair to say the story's shelf life has expired. The fact that no further projects have been undertaken in the last two decades clearly suggests that this is not a "Rocky–" or "Jaws–"like franchise.

Even so, the endearing quality of the original makes it a must–see for any movie lover.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Into the Great Wide Open

I guess I am, by nature, what is known as a "morning person." At least, I was until I got to college.

I'll get back to that in a minute. First, permit me to reminisce a bit.

I grew up in central Arkansas, a state that is on the outskirts of the South geographically but (unlike Texas) is far more Southern than Western in its attitudes, climate, accents and other things.

Arkansas had its pluses and its minuses, I guess, and there were certain aspects of life there that I didn't like, but one of the things I did like about living in Arkansas was the fact that there was always a time in the early hours of the morning when the temperature was cool and the air was still.

Sometimes — for example, during an unseasonably hot stretch of weather in the summer — that time was brief. But if you happened to be awake at that time, it was an ideal time to think, to meditate, without fear of interruption.

In the fall and the spring, that time was considerably longer, and I used to enjoy waking up before anyone else in the household, opening the window in my bedroom and smelling the freshness in the early morning air.

Sometimes I went over the homework assignment I thought I had completed the night before — and, on more than one occasion, I discovered and corrected mistakes I had made. To this day, I believe that some of the grades I received when I was in junior high and high school were better than they would have been if I had opted to sleep an extra hour on some mornings.

Well, I am reminded of things like that this morning for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I awoke around 5 o'clock this morning.

The reason I did was simple. It's just been too darn hot here in Dallas the last three or four weeks.

Now, I know it gets hot in Dallas. I used to visit Dallas in the summers when I was a child. My grandparents lived here. Many of my parents' friends still lived here. And I know that, occasionally, the temperatures get into triple digits.

Most of the time the temperatures stay in the 90s. That's hot but not unpleasantly so. The heat index might get into triple digits, which makes it more uncomfortable, but the actual temperature usually doesn't. And, at night, it usually cools off enough that I can sleep.

But, lately, we've been getting into the 100s every day (with nighttime lows in the 80s). The air conditioning is running constantly — and the only thing that scares me more than the anticipation of my utility bill these days is my fear that my air conditioning will go out on me.

(It's happened to me before, about six years ago, in August. I struggled to sleep for four nights before the apartment management replaced my air conditioning unit. The memory of that time is incentive enough to hope and pray it never happens again.)

When I got up this morning, the temperature was 86°.

Today's going to be another scorcher, with a projected high of 105°. But, if the forecasts are correct, the temperatures will be going down gradually as the week progresses. Tomorrow, the forecast high in downtown Dallas is 99°. Currently (and that is definitely a crucial word when one speaks of Texas weather), forecasts call for highs of 94° on Wednesday, 96° on Thursday, 95° on Friday, 92° on Saturday and 95° on Sunday.

That's not jacket weather, but, after nearly a month of 100–plus–degree days, the difference should be noticeable.

And, what's even better, after tonight the nighttime lows are projected to be mostly in the 70s. The forecasts I've seen call for a low of 73° on Thursday night. I don't know if it will drop to that level or not — this is Dallas, after all, and it is August.

That doesn't help me right now, though.

Today — actually, tonight — I will be starting a new job as an adjunct journalism instructor at the nearby community college campus. I probably could use another hour or so of sleep, but I'm awake. Wide awake.

And I'm nervous. Without going into too much detail, I taught journalism on the university level in Oklahoma many years ago, but I gravitated away from both journalism and teaching. In the last couple of years, though, I have been out of work, like millions of other Americans, and the opportunity came up to teach journalism again.

Originally, I was supposed to teach two journalism courses this semester — news writing and news editing. Unfortunately, one (news editing) had low enrollment so it was canceled. I agreed to teach something I have never taught before — developmental writing — which meets for the first time tomorrow.

The news writing class meets tonight. And I'm nervous about that, but it's the kind of nervousness you have when you're about to do something you haven't done in a long time.

Developmental writing meets tomorrow, and, if anything, I am more nervous about that because it is a subject I have never taught before. Perhaps it is something that is better suited for someone with academic training in English. Then, again, perhaps these students can benefit from learning the basics of writing from someone with a journalism background.

I guess I will see.

I said earlier that my tendency is to be a morning person. That changed in college, when I found myself staying up all night to finish stories for my journalism classes or to study for major exams. Then I got my first newspaper job, which had more traditional hours (it was an afternoon paper), but I often found myself having to work at night so, rather than pay time and a half, the newspaper would compensate me in the form of time off during the day. Sometimes that made for short nights.

After two years of that, I took a job with a large metro paper, working on the sports staff as a copy editor. It was a morning paper so I worked nights. The hours varied, but, most nights, I didn't get home until after 1 o'clock. I kept my curtains closed because I couldn't run home and jump into bed. I need to wind down, and I didn't want to be wakened after about four hours.

So I got into the habit of sleeping late for the next 4½ years. Then I moved to Texas to work on my master's degree. And I got a job working at the newspaper, which was an afternoon paper, but editors had to be at work before the sun came up on weekdays in order to get everything done.

And the difference in my lifestyle was — literally — night and day.

After I got my master's, I took the job teaching journalism. And I enjoyed it, although I always felt I got mixed results. But, after my mother was killed in a flash flood, I felt the need to be close to my father, who had been injured in the flood but survived. And I returned to Dallas.

I worked as a writer/editor for a trade magazine for a couple of years, but after that, I sort of gravitated away from journalism.

Now, I'm about to return to the classroom. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm nervous about it at the same time.

I guess, when you combine my nervousness with my tendency to be a morning person, I'd be up early, anyway, even if it wasn't as hot as it has been. And I'll probably be waking up early every day until I feel more relaxed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Maureen's Milestone

Seems like I've been doing a lot of writing about death lately, here and in my other blogs.

Therefore, it's a nice change of pace to be able to write today about someone who is still living — Irish–born actress Maureen O'Hara.

You seldom hear O'Hara's name anymore. She made her last film appearance a decade ago, just as she was entering her 80s. She is 90 today.

She was quite a saucy redhead back in the day, though, and she shared the screen with many of the top leading men of her era, but she seemed particularly drawn to projects involving her friend John Wayne and director John Ford.

O'Hara made her screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" when she was still in her teens. Her subsequent film credits include appearances in "How Green Was My Valley," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Rio Grande," "The Quiet Man," "The Parent Trap," "Spencer's Mountain" and "The Rare Breed."

And, thanks to some on–the–ball scheduling, you can see the passion she could bring to the screen tonight on Turner Classic Movies when TCM shows two of her best films with Wayne — "The Quiet Man" at 7 p.m. (Central) and "Rio Grande" at 9:15 p.m. (Central) — as part of its daylong salute to O'Hara in its annual "Summer Under the Stars."

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Death of the King

I was about to begin my senior year in high school when Elvis Presley died on this day in 1977.

In fact, I remember that we had a special assembly of the members of the senior class at the high school in my hometown that day. Seems to me the assembly was in the late morning, and it ran for about an hour or so, but I could be a little off on that.

At any rate, Elvis hadn't died when I left my house that day, but he was gone by the time I got home. Now, how long it took me to get home, I couldn't tell you. See, in those days, I was dating a girl who was a year behind me in school — but her family was hosting a foreign exchange student who happened to be in the senior class. So I took the exchange student to the assembly for the seniors and introduced her to people until her head was reeling.

Then we returned to my girlfriend's home, where we found my girlfriend, her mother, her sister and her brother watching TV. Until that time, I had seldom seen a family that enjoyed TV as much as that one did, but watching TV in the middle of a summer weekday was really unusual for them. Ordinarily, weekday television meant game shows in the mornings and soap operas in the afternoons.

But I was a teenage boy who was in love. I was blind to just about everything around me. So I didn't give it much thought at first. I just focused my attention on my heart's beloved. But my attention soon shifted.

In 1977, we didn't have cable TV. We just had the three traditional networks — and each one was zeroed in on those almost iconic gates on Presley's property, waiting for the hearse carrying the King's body to emerge.

It was "breaking news" long before 24–hour news networks popularized the phrase. To that point in my life, there had been relatively few events that had been considered so important that all three networks covered them live — the Apollo 11 moon landing (and the launches of the manned space missions that preceded it), the departure of President Nixon (and the Senate and House hearings that preceded it) and (although I was too young to remember it at the time) the John F. Kennedy assassination.

I don't know how long I stayed at my girlfriend's home that afternoon. None of us could have been called Elvis fans, but we watched the news reporters, who rapidly ran out of "news" to report and descended on the crowd outside Graceland's gates, asking insipid questions. At some point, I left.

When I got home that afternoon, a similar scene greeted me. My mother was watching the news reports, and the screen showed the streets of Memphis lined with people of all ages, all colors. Mom wasn't close to being an Elvis fan, but she was transfixed by what was happening.

I don't remember anything special about the weather on the day Elvis died. I guess it must have been hot. It was mid–August, after all, and Elvis was in Memphis, which is about two hours due east of the Arkansas town where I grew up. I don't recall any heat records being set in the summer of 1977, but it would be a safe bet to presume that it was hot on that day — simply because it always is.

It probably wasn't as hot as it has been lately — and I'm not going to suggest that it's been nearly as hot as it was in the summer of 1998 or the granddaddy of hot summers, the summer of 1980 — but it's been hot enough.

Christopher Blank of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports that a candlelight vigil proceeded as planned last night in spite of a heat index of 118 degrees.

The vigil drew 15,000 people. The P.R. director for Elvis Presley Enterprises said that was a typical turnout for the vigil.

Not bad, you say?

Well, to put it in perspective, Graceland attracts about 600,000 visitors every year. I don't know if it is open every day, but let's say it is closed on Sundays. That would mean that average daily attendance is about 1,900 people. If it is only open on weekdays, average daily attendance would be nearly 2,300.

And if it is open every single day — except Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving — daily attendance would be around 1,600.

The big events — the anniversaries of his birth (in January) and his death — could be expected to bring in more visitors than usual.

But does that explain why a candlelight vigil on a blisteringly hot summer night in Memphis lured seven times the typical daily attendance for the 33rd anniversary of Elvis' death?

In many ways, Elvis is receding into cultural history. His death may always be shrouded in mystery, but, if there is still a sizable contingent of folks who think Elvis faked his own death, they haven't been reporting many "sightings" in recent years.

I guess, if Elvis did fake his death, he's getting a little old to be wandering along highways and stopping in at convenience stores.

But his popularity endures. All you have to do is look at Graceland on a hot August night.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paying the Fiddler

"This would be a great world to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler."

Will Rogers

It was three–quarters of a century ago today that America lost one of its most beloved humorists, Will Rogers.

Deaths are often described as tragic. That seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me. Most deaths are regrettable. And some rise to the level of tragic.

Rogers' death really was tragic. He and pilot Wiley Post died when their plane crashed in Alaska. Rogers was 55 years old.

(I guess it is both ironic and tragic that former Sen. Ted Stevens perished in a plane crash in Alaska earlier this week. Stevens was in his 80s — and, while it is seldom a shock when someone in that age group dies, the circumstances must be seen as tragic. The ironic part, I suppose, is the fact that a well–known person died in a plane crash in Alaska only a few days before the 75th anniversary of Rogers' death.

(It is of little or no consolation to those who lost loved ones on Tuesday, but this is a reminder that technological advancements have not conquered all things.

(To put this into perspective, I suppose, Stevens would have been 11 years old when Rogers' plane went down. But he wasn't living in Alaska at that time in his life. He was born in Indiana, where he lived until sometime in his teens. He did not come to Alaska until he was an adult.)

Along with Mark Twain, I guess Rogers is my favorite humorist of all time.

And let me be clear about something here. I differentiate between humorists and comedians.

When I think of a humorist, I think of a writer, first and foremost — and it ought to be clear to anyone who reads my blogs that I have a special reverence for writers. Twain was a writer, noted for his newspaper and novel writing. Rogers was a writer, too. He did other things, among them entertaining people in vaudeville and in the movies, but he was a writer. In fact, he wrote his newspaper column while he and Post were flying across Alaska in the summer of 1935.

I like a good comedian, too, but I think of comedians as people who tell jokes on a stage. They can be more than that — my absolute favorite comedian of all time, George Carlin, was more than just a joke teller. He was also an author in his later years.

But Carlin made his reputation with his stage comedy. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" shtick will still be a classic decades from now — even if, as seems likely, it becomes routine for all seven words to be uttered on television (which, undoubtedly, will render that once–scandalous routine quaint, and wouldn't that amuse Carlin?).

In the summer of 1994, the year before my mother died,
my parents paid a visit to the Will Rogers Memorial
in Claremore, Okla., where the humorist is entombed.

Will Rogers was a humorist, perhaps the last true humorist this country has had (well, maybe that's an exaggeration in a country that has produced the likes of Mike Royko and Erma Bombeck since Rogers' death). And, no matter which side of the political fence his readers occupied, they all loved him. Maybe that is why he said, "I never met a man I didn't like."

(To give you an idea of just how open–minded Rogers was, he said that about Leon Trotsky.)

Maybe it was a mutual admiration thing. Everyone liked him so he liked everybody.

I can't help feeling that there is a certain amount of harmony at work here on the 75th anniversary of Rogers' untimely death. It kind of appeals to my sense of order.

In my hometown tomorrow, a memorial service will be held for my friend Phyllis, who died on August 5 (which happens to be the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death — an ironic note, given that Phyllis was an old movie buff). I've been writing a lot about Phyllis at my Freedom Writing blog since she died, and I expect to write about her from time to time in the future. She had that kind of influence on me.

She brought a lot of love and a lot of laughter into the lives of everyone who knew her. I think just about all her friends would agree that she, like Rogers, never met anyone she didn't like.

And just about everyone liked her, too.

She was human, of course, and, therefore, must have rubbed a few people the wrong way in her life, but their number must be few.

As I think about my friendship with Phyllis, I remember many laughs, and I recall that we spoke about many things. But I don't remember talking much about humorists and comedians.

Oh, we talked about funny performers we both enjoyed watching in movies, like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers, and we talked about the TV sitcoms we liked. But I don't remember talking about Will Rogers, and I do regret that.

Especially now that she, like Rogers, has paid the fiddler.

My time for that will come as well. And, if the afterlife exists, I am sure I will see her again.

But I will always be sorry that we never discussed Rogers and Twain in this life.

I really doubt the subject will come up in the next world.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Star 80

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died."

Theodore Roosevelt
On the death of his first wife

It was 30 years ago today that one of the most tragic events of my youth — up to that time — occurred.

Now, there had been other tragic events in my then–young life — the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, for example, or the unexpected death of Elvis Presley — but the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten had to rate as one of the most shocking.

She came from Canada, where she had met a pimp (there is no kinder word to use) who fancied himself a big–time promoter. He became something of a Svengali to her, making nude pictures of Stratten when she was still underage and submitting them to Playboy. The editors apparently agreed that she was very beautiful and made her the Playmate of the Month in August 1979, when she was 19.

The next year, she was named Playmate of the Year, which she discussed with Johnny Carson in the attached clip. She had started making movies. Her license plate read "Star 80," and she certainly seemed to be.

But Stratten made a fatal mistake. She married the pimp the summer she was Playmate of the Month, and his behavior became increasingly erratic and irrational as her life and career began to take off while his seemed to stagnate. The couple separated.

Her husband became obsessively jealous of Stratten, something of which many of the people in Stratten's life — including Hugh Hefner — sought to warn her. He hired a private detective to follow her, and the reports the detective gave him were not good.

By August of 1980, Stratten had begun an affair with director Peter Bogdanovich, who was directing what turned out to be Stratten's final motion picture, "They All Laughed," and she agreed to meet with her husband to discuss what she apparently hoped would be the terms of a civil divorce.

But it was not to be.

What happened on that day can only be surmised. Stratten's husband was still living in the house he had shared with her, but he was then sharing it with a mutual friend and two women. Stratten came to the house around noon. The investigator called the house about 30 minutes past noon, and Stratten's husband answered the phone and assured the investigator that everything was fine.

A few hours later, the women came home from work. They saw the cars belonging to Stratten and her husband in the driveway, and they saw that the door to his room was closed. They assumed the couple needed to be alone and did not disturb them. Shortly thereafter, they left to get some dinner.

Not long after that, the mutual friend came home and, acting on the same set of facts, chose not to interrupt the couple. When the women returned from dinner, they told the friend they hadn't checked on the couple earlier. Apparently, no one did for three more hours, until late that night — when the detective called and said he had been trying to reach Stratten's husband for several hours but there was no answer.

The friend then forced his way into the room and found them both naked and dead. Investigators, using the evidence from the scene, could only piece together the sequence of events. Stratten's husband apparently killed her with a shotgun, then killed himself.

When I heard the radio reports the following day, nothing was said about the two being naked or what may have happened prior to the shootings. But the sordid tale soon was told, first in a comparatively tame made–for–TV flick called "Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story" starring Jamie Lee Curtis and then in a more graphic big–screen version called "Star 80" starring Mariel Hemingway.

As I say, it may have been the most tragic event of my life to that point.

Other tragedies have followed, of course, in the three decades that have passed — public ones, like the murder of John Lennon a few months later, the explosion of the Challenger shortly after takeoff in 1986 and the death of Princess Diana, as well as private ones, like the deaths of my mother and various friends — and they seem to come and go with a certain amount of regularity.

Many of those tragedies seldom cross my mind (except for the ones that touched me personally), but, even though I never met her, Dorothy Stratten's sad story has stayed with me all these years, and I have thought of her more often than I ever thought I would 30 years ago.

Why? Perhaps it is because she was so young and beautiful and then was snuffed out, as Elton John wrote, like a candle in the wind.

I have seen her movies (there are only half a dozen or so, and she isn't credited in at least one of them, so small was her part in it) and I think she had some talent, but it is hard to tell. Once in awhile, you come across an actor or actress who may be physically attractive but makes it clear from the beginning that he or she is much more than a pretty face.

More often, though, it seems to me that you need to see someone in several films before you can reach a conclusion about his or her talent.

And that, I guess, is the tragedy of Dorothy Stratten. The potential was there. But it was unfulfilled.

If she hadn't been murdered, she would be 50 today. She might still be beautiful, but it would be a mature beauty, and she would have played progressively more mature roles. As hard as it may be to believe, she might have played the role of a grandmother in the movies a time or two by then. In 30 years' time, she could have become a mother and a grandmother in real life.

It is safe to say that we would know, on Aug. 14, 2010, what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story." We would know whether she was as great as she was often said to be.

But that we will never know.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Feats Don't Fail Me Now

Drummer Richie Hayward, one of the co–founders of Little Feat, has died.

He had liver cancer, but that wasn't what killed him, I've been told. His cancer seems to have been under control, but a respiratory ailment with which he struggled for much of his adult life was the actual cause of his death.

It is an occasion for me to remember an album I had when I was in high school, a two–record live set called "Waitin' for Columbus." I never owned any of the group's studio albums — I listened to most of them at one time or another but always found them to be inferior to live performances.

Little Feat really defied definition. At the All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes Little Feat as "a wildly eclectic band, bringing together strains of blues, R&B, country, and rock & roll." Little Feat was all that and more, but it always seemed to have more energy, more feeling, more soul on live albums than studio ones.

The first incarnation of Little Feat dissolved after the death of frontman Lowell George a year after "Waitin' for Columbus" was released. The band re–formed in the 1980s and seems to have enjoyed a new life as mostly a touring band — and Hayward appears to have been a big part of that.

I can't say I have ever been a devoted follower of Little Feat. "Waitin' for Columbus" is the extent of my Little Feat collection, mainly because it had the best versions of the best songs of the Lowell George era.

But I'm sorry to see Hayward go, just as I was sorry to see George go.

In a business that is loaded with cheap copies, Little Feat has always been a sharp original.

It will be less original without Hayward.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm Glad I Didn't Know

Whether you read what I write at this blog or my other blogs, you're probably getting tired of reading about my friend Phyllis, who passed away last week.

She's going to be a tough topic for me to let go — even after next Monday, when many of our mutual friends are sure to be in our hometown of Conway, Ark., for her memorial service. I can't be there, but I still have a very strong feeling that I'm never going to shake her, that she will always be there in the recesses of my mind, whatever I do, wherever I go.

And I will probably feel a need to write about her from time to time in the future. Sometimes, I am sure, it will be because something has reminded me of her. And other times, I am sure, it will simply be because I miss her.

I was on the phone last night with a mutual friend who is in Conway working on the plans for the memorial service. He seems to be holding up well, although there were times in our conversation when he sounded like he was struggling to maintain his composure. And I know there were times when I struggled to maintain mine.

Phyllis loved and appreciated music, all kinds of music. Really, it went beyond that. She was very talented, able to play instruments and sing better than anyone else I have ever heard. When the Bible said to make a joyful noise, she really took it to heart.

If ever anyone made a joyful noise, it was Phyllis.

Now, even though we grew up in a small Southern town where country music could be heard playing on the radios in just about every gas station, store and waiting room in town, my taste in music always leaned to rock 'n' roll, jazz, the blues. I was familiar with the country stars and hits of the previous generation, but I didn't really follow them.

What I learned of the country music of my day I learned from Phyllis. In fact, I will always remember one hot summer evening after we graduated from high school when we drove, along with a classmate named Ellen, from Conway to Pine Bluff to see Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris in concert.

I don't know how Phyllis felt about the country performers who came along later in her life. We never discussed, for example, Garth Brooks, who may be one of the most influential country performers of the last 20 years.

Now, I'm not saying that I am — or ever have been — a Garth Brooks fan. He burst onto the scene in 1989, the year after I left Arkansas, and then, in April of 1990, released as a single (at a time when vinyl albums and 45–rpm singles were still being produced and sold) what has come to be regarded as his signature song, "The Dance."

In the 20 years that have passed, I'm sure many people have drawn comfort from the words of the song — which could be interpreted as a tribute to a passionate love affair that has come to an end but has always seemed to me to be about accepting the death of someone to whom you are close.

Hindsight, as just about anyone will tell you, is 20/20. And, when I think of Phyllis these days, I am reminded of the words of Brooks' song.

I really am glad that I didn't know how or when — or why — Phyllis' life story would end. For that matter, I'm glad I wasn't aware of just how serious her condition was in the last month she was in the hospital. There was nothing I could have done — except hope and pray. And there were already plenty of people doing that, I imagine. Would one more person hoping and praying have tipped the scales and permitted Phyllis to recover? I don't know.

Our lives really are better left to chance. On a note Phyllis wrote about herself on Facebook last year, she said, in response to a question, that she would like to know in advance the day of her death — if such a thing was possible. But, if what people say of God is true, it seems enough to me that God knows when everyone will die. That is knowledge that I do not want or need.

When someone you care about dies, there is always, it seems to me, a tendency to wish you had known ahead of time so you could say your goodbyes. But I've been in the position where I knew someone I cared about was dying and I was probably seeing that person for the last time — and yet, I could never bring myself to say the things I wanted to say.

On those occasions, my friends were dying of cancer or some other disease, and maybe the very act of saying "goodbye" seemed like giving up. That is something I have never been prepared to do.

Afterward, I regretted not saying it — but I still prefer not to know when death is going to come to me or anyone else. If it's going to come as a shock, let it come as a shock. The pain will wear off eventually. Guess it beats knowing that you or someone you love has three days — or three hours — left. What would you do with the time that remained?

And, while I sure could have missed this pain, that would have meant that I'd have had to miss the dance. Knowing Phyllis was a real kick. I'm sorry for those who never had that pleasure. I'm sorry she's gone. I hope we'll see each other again. I'm glad she was in my life.

My life wouldn't have been nearly as rich if Phyllis hadn't passed my way.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Patricia Neal Dies

Over at my Freedom Writing blog, I have been writing in recent days about the death last week of a good friend and ex–classmate, Phyllis.

She was a lover of movies — and, in the latter years of her life, she was afflicted by colon cancer so I guess she had a highly developed appreciation for people who overcome personal suffering. In both respects, Patricia Neal fit the bill.

Neal, who died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 84, had a somewhat meteoric rise in films, exploding on to the Broadway scene at the age of 20 and then appearing in her first film at the age of 23. During the next 15 years, she appeared in nearly two dozen motion pictures, among them "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Hud." She also did some TV work, including a 1964 episode of "The Outer Limits."

For her work in "Hud," Neal was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. She was also honored with awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. She was in her late 30s and the sky seemed to be the limit for her.

But it seemed that no sooner had Neal received all this recognition than her life seemed to collapse around her. She suffered a series of strokes that left her in a coma for three weeks. Then, in spite of semi–paralysis, limited vision and a severe speech impairment, she learned to walk and speak again, resuming her career a few years later with an Academy Award–nominated performance in "The Subject Was Roses."

Whereas her earlier roles had involved something of a Garboesque sex symbol quality, Neal seemed to realize that she had entered an entirely different phase of her career, and she took on new kinds of roles in different kinds of projects. One such project, TV's "The Homecoming," which served as the basis for the popular 1970s TV series, The Waltons, earned her recognition that was similar to what she received for her big screen work.

I often wondered why Neal did not continue her role on The Waltons, then I learned that the creators of the series were concerned that her health wouldn't permit her to make a commitment to a weekly series. So actress Michael Learned, who was some 13 years younger than Neal (and had never, as far as I know, suffered a stroke), was chosen to play the role of Olivia Walton in a series that ran for nine years.

But Neal, who was in her 40s when she made "The Homecoming," might have been capable after all. I don't think she was ever nominated for anything she ever did on TV or the big screen after that, but she did many things in the next four decades, though, including appearing in a musical drama with Billy Ray Cyrus and Heather Locklear last year, and proved that people could overcome afflictions after her recovery from her strokes, inspiring many who might otherwise have given in to their limitations and their personal depression.

Phyllis and I often discussed movies and movie stars, but we never, as I recall, discussed Patricia Neal. I wish we had, but I think I knew her well enough to say that she would have spoken of Neal with a lot of admiration.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Goodbye, Norma Jean

It was 48 years ago today that Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home in Brentwood, Calif.

Few people have been as mysterious in death as Marilyn. She was beautiful in life — and because of that, I suppose, a lot of people wrote her off, dismissed her as a dumb blonde — but she was much more than that. Dumb blonde was a role she played, and she played it well, although it lacked depth. Sometimes, it even lacked a name.

She had a lot of talent. I guess most people think of her in comedic roles, such as the ones she had in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Seven–Year Itch." And she did excel in those roles — at least, as much as the roles themselves would allow.

But on rare occasions she got to stretch her wings and take on heavier roles. Her final role, as Roslyn Taber in John Huston's "The Misfits," offered a glimpse of what might have been if she hadn't died on that August night in 1962 — but instead had lived into her middle age, even if it didn't include the husband and children she craved.

Cast opposite her childhood idol, Clark Gable, in what turned out to be the final film appearance for both, I felt Monroe delivered a solid performance, as did Gable and the rest of the cast — Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach. I happened to see the film recently — for the first time in several years — and felt impressed by things that wouldn't have been clear to anyone when the crew completed filming.

Mainly, I guess, it struck me that, while the film was telling the story of the end of the old West, it was also the film obituaries of Monroe and Gable — and it had some statements to make about their careers. I guess, when you get right down to it, neither of their careers turned out the way they had hoped, even though both were idolized by millions.

And that's a shame, I think, because both had more talent than the body of their work would indicate.

For them, "The Misfits" may have been an apt title for the final chapter of their careers.

Elton John's song, "Candle in the Wind," also summed up Monroe's complicated relationship with the world — and perhaps her disappointments as well. Strangely enough, that title was one of the first things that popped into my head when Princess Diana was killed.

I had no idea at the time that it would become synonymous with that tragic time for millions the world over. It just seemed appropriate to me. And then, of course, after a few adjustments to the lyrics, it did become Princess Diana's anthem.

But it was Marilyn's song first. And, no matter how many times I hear Sir Elton sing about "England's rose," I will always associate that song with Marilyn.

Excuse me. Norma Jean.