Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Concerts for Bangladesh

"The Concert for Bangladesh" could have been the first movie my parents allowed me to attend by myself.

I'm not positive that it was. In fact, I'm almost sure that it wasn't. But if it wasn't the first movie I ever saw by myself, it was one of the first.

The movie was a film document of a benefit, multi–performer concert to aid the people of Bangladesh, who had been plagued by war and famine. Ex–Beatle George Harrison gathered together folks like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and others for a benefit show.

In hindsight, I'm sure it was the model for shows like Live Aid and other benefit concerts that were so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Eventually, the concert and the movie and triple album that came from it generated more than $200,000 in relief funds, but the organizers failed to apply for tax–exempt status, leaving the money snarled in an IRS escrow account for a decade.

I've heard that experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the participants.

Well, that really is another story.

I was quite young in 1972 when the movie was at the theaters, and I was ignorant of many details. I had an older friend who had been given the album for Christmas so I had heard the music before, but I didn't realize that there wasn't one concert for Bangladesh but two.

I don't think that made me unique. In fact, unless you were living in the New York area 40 years ago, you probably didn't realize there were two concerts.

Both concerts took place 40 years ago tomorrow in New York's Madison Square Garden.

In terms of musical content, the shows were almost identical. The songs weren't played in the same order, but there were few variations.
  • In the afternoon show, Harrison played "Awaiting On You All" and Dylan played "A Hard Rain's A–Gonna Fall." Neither song was performed that night, but both recordings were on the album and in the movie.

    Dylan also performed "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" that afternoon, but he did not play it that night. The recording wasn't included in the original album or movie, but it was part of a special edition DVD issued six years ago, and it was included as a bonus track on the reissued CD in 2001.

  • In the evening show, Dylan played "Mr. Tambourine Man." He didn't play that one in the afternoon and it wasn't in the movie, but it was included on the album.
The film combined footage from both shows, and — with the exceptions of the songs I mentioned — the rest of the shows were identical.

When I saw the movie, it seemed like one concert to me, not a compilation of clips from two different shows. I suppose it could be an example of how easy it is for even a semi–talented film editor to fool a young boy, but I'm not certain about that.

Clearly, I'm older now, but I wasn't able to differentiate the last time I saw the movie — and you really can't tell from listening to the album.

For all intents and purposes, the movie and album that were generated from the two performances on Aug. 1, 1971, might as well have been done in a single take.

The movie is streaming for free online today and tomorrow. Judge for yourself.

'Who's Next' Is What Was Next in Year of Classics

In an era when music listeners are conditioned to download single tracks rather than invest in an entire album with several songs on it — as music lovers had to do not so long ago, even after CDs became the format — it's a good idea to acknowledge a few things.

First of all, it seems to me that today's music consumers have more in common with those from their grandparents' generation, who bought singles that were often — but not always — compiled into a long–play album months or even years later, than they do with the baby boomers from which their parents came.

Although the technology had existed for years, LPs in the 1950s and early 1960s were often merely collections of successful singles with a couple of filler songs. There was no concept or theme, to speak of, except the age–old marketing theme of trying to squeeze every possible penny out of an artist's work.

Much of that changed — at least as far as albums were concerned — in the 1960s. Long–playing albums became the products of design, not happenstance, which meant that the second half of the 20th century was really a golden age for the album concept — and 1971 was possibly the epicenter for classic albums.

That year, Janis Joplin, Jethro Tull, Carole King, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart, John Denver, Black Sabbath, John Lennon, Don McLean and others released recordings that are still considered groundbreaking and innovative 40 years later.

One of them was "Who's Next," the album released by the Who on this date in 1971.

Now, when the topic of conversation is concept albums, I guess you could say the Who wrote the book.

Theme albums were really nothing new when the Who came along, but concept albums were something else as far as I was concerned. A theme album might have songs that were related to each other because they explored the same kind of emotion (i.e., love or fear) or experience, but there was no real unity beneath the surface.

Jazz and blues artists had been doing theme albums since the 1950s, and some of the rock 'n' roll groups (like the Beach Boys and the Kinks) dabbled with them in the 1960s.

But the Who really re–defined things with "Tommy" in the late 1960s — and that continued to influence what the group did for a decade.

"Tommy" was called a rock opera, which was like a traditional opera in that it told a story. It evolved into a fairly successful movie, too, just as some traditional operas have.

But the music was entirely different.

Later, the Who released "Quadrophenia," another rock opera. In between, "Jesus Christ Superstar" told the stories from the Gospels in a unique and compelling way.

There have been other attempts by popular performers to write rock operas in the years since — few have been very successful — but my best guess is, that when most people think of rock operas, those three are the ones that come to mind.

"Who's Next" was hardly a rock opera — that was really a highly specialized kind of composition — but it was more conceptual than thematic.

I felt that way long before I learned that the album actually has its roots in a science fiction rock opera composed by Who guitarist Pete Townshend.

That rock opera was intended to be the followup to "Tommy," but the Who abandoned it in favor of the album that was released on this day in 1971. Some of the songs from Townshend's project wound up on "Who's Next." Others could be found on the group's 1978 album, "Who Are You."

On "Who's Next" can be found some of the Who's most memorable songs, such as "Baba O'Riley," one of the compositions from the rock opera project, which may be more familiar to modern listeners as the theme for the CSI: NY TV show.

Rolling Stone says "Who's Next" is the 28th best album of all time — and it is hard to argue the point (unless it is to take issue with some of the albums that Rolling Stone ranks ahead of it).

In addition to "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley," you'll find songs like "Behind Blue Eyes," "Bargain," "The Song Is Over" and "Going Mobile."

Great stuff.

Even 40 years later, the music still sounds fresh.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Rich Pageant of Life

Maria (Elke Sommer): You should get out of these clothes immediately. You'll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.

Clouseau (Peter Sellers): Yes, I probably will. But it's all part of life's rich pageant, you know?

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Like most people, I first became aware of R.E.M. when the band released its first single in the early 1980s.

But it would be many years before I actually purchased an R.E.M. album.

It wasn't that I had any objection to R.E.M.'s music. Far from it. I found the band pleasant enough to listen to when I was driving somewhere or when, usually for lack of anything better to do, I switched on the radio in my apartment.

And I went to see them in concert once with some friends of mine.

I just never bought any of their albums — at least, in the days when recordings were still being issued in vinyl.

I bought a few R.E.M. CDs when that became the format of choice.

And I remember borrowing from a friend — and almost wearing out — an R.E.M. album that was released 25 years ago — "Lifes Rich Pageant."

At that time, R.E.M. was still regarded by most people as underground or alternative rock — not the sort of thing one heard frequently on mainstream radio.

I guess things really began to change for R.E.M. around 1987 or 1988 — when "The One I Love" was released and R.E.M., with the mainstream acceptance that single brought, became visible proponents of political causes.

(Ironically, Jason Ferguson of Paste Magazine asserts that "Lifes Rich Pageant" was the "last 'real' R.E.M. record" in an article about the 25th anniversary re–release.

(It is true that most of the band's commercial success was yet to come, but that didn't mean that R.E.M. sold out to achieve it. The music was merely packaged in ways that were more palatable for mainstream consumers.)

Mainstream acceptance was still in the future in 1986. So, too, was the occasion when I borrowed that album from my friend.

For that matter, it has been awhile since I have listened to "Lifes Rich Pageant."

But it's a funny thing. I've noticed that every time I do listen to it, I can remember precisely what I was doing, even what I was thinking, when I borrowed it all those years ago. It may sound like a cliche, but it really does seem as if it happened only yesterday when I hear that album.

My life had entered what I regard as my soap opera period at that time. I was working as a copy editor for a morning newspaper, which meant I had to work odd hours — and that fact had already been a major factor in the failure of otherwise promising relationships.

I loved my job, but there were other things I wanted to love, too, if you get my drift. It was the cause of considerable tension in my life.

Anyway, I remember a weekend in late 1986 or early 1987 when an especially attractive woman moved in next door to my apartment. I met her briefly the day she moved in — as I was leaving for work and she was bringing in her belongings.

She was accompanied by a handsome young man. I assumed he was her boyfriend. (I later confirmed that he was, in fact, her boyfriend — but not for long.)

To be honest, I didn't think much of that. I mean, beautiful people have always been attracted to other beautiful people, haven't they? Occasionally, you do see a beautiful person with an average — or, rarely, a homely — person, but that is the exception to the rule.

I thought she was very beautiful, and I also thought I wasn't in her league. Not even close. There was no reason why I should have given her another thought.

Nevertheless, I developed a kind of infatuation with her. With our schedules, we might as well have lived in different hemispheres, but, in one of life's cruel ironies, we lived right next door to each other.

This woman worked regular daytime hours — her vehicle was always gone whenever I got up, and it never returned to the apartment building before I had to leave for work, but it was usually there when I got home around 1 in the morning.

Her apartment always seemed dark when I got home during the week. Sometimes the lights would still be on when I got home on Fridays and Saturdays. And sometimes another vehicle, which I concluded must belong to her boyfriend, was parked next to hers when I got home — and I could tell, thanks to the rather thin walls in my building, that some bedroom gymnastics were taking place next door.

To drown out the sound, for a time I listened to "Lifes Rich Pageant," and my song of choice was "I Am Superman" — which, in hindsight, wasn't a great song, either musically or lyrically. But I think I was drawn to the line "I am Superman, and I know what's happening."

It was sort of my way of dealing with the pain of knowing that a woman I desired so much was giving herself so completely to someone else — just a few feet away.

My friend didn't have any trouble telling which song I favored on that album after I returned it to him — but he never knew why I preferred it over other songs that were better (and still doesn't, unless he reads this blog entry).

I listened to "I Am Superman" so many times that track was scratchy from the wear. And if I live to be 100 and that song is playing as I draw my last breath, it will still remind me of that time in my life, of the woman next door when I was in my 20s.

I've heard it said that popular music is the soundtrack of our lives. I don't know if the songs on "Lifes Rich Pageant" achieved that level of popularity, but, for awhile there, it was the soundtrack of my life.

The rich pageant of my life.

A Dog Named Beau

Thirty years ago tonight, the world was anticipating the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in a matter of hours.

And, in fact, an estimated audience of three–quarters of a billion people the world over tuned in to watch Charles and Diana's wedding. Millions of those viewers were Americans who got up early — or stayed up very late, if they were on the West Coast or in Hawaii — to watch the ceremony.

I must admit now, I was one of those people who got up early to watch the proceedings from London. It was a memorable sight, a "fairytale wedding," said some, the "wedding of the century," said others.

Yes, sir, it was a memorable moment — but it wasn't the only one.

I was a bit more blurry–eyed that morning than I had expected to be, even with the alarm going off at around 4 a.m. I had had every intention of getting to bed earlier than usual the night before, but then I heard that actor Jimmy Stewart would be a guest on The Tonight Show the night before the wedding — and I decided I had to stay up long enough to see that.

American TV viewers had a different kind of memorable moment when Stewart, mostly retired by that point, recited a poem he had written in tribute to his deceased golden retriever, Beau.

When he finished, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the studio — or in America. Certainly, there wasn't a dry eye among those viewers who had ever loved a dog.

The poem probably was, as Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon, later recalled, "forgettable." Stewart had a folksy style that was endearing in its way, but the words of his poems were far from profound, and it isn't likely that you would find any of them in an anthology of great literary works.

"[B]ut Johnny was moved by the way Jimmy Stewart delivered it," McMahon wrote. "Jimmy was a blend of great actor and great person. Both Johnny and I were in tears. Just a couple of maudlin mutt mourners."

They weren't alone.

I think the truth is that Stewart was just being himself, the same guy he had always been. He just didn't know any other way to be.

"I've always been skeptical of people who say they lose themselves in a part," Stewart said once. "Someone once came up to Spencer Tracy and asked, 'Aren't you tired of always playing Tracy?' Tracy replied, 'What am I supposed to do, play Bogart?' You have to develop a style that suits you and pursue it, not just develop a bag of tricks."

What America saw on The Tonight Show 30 years ago tonight was no bag of tricks.

It was Jimmy Stewart being himself — the same guy who once threw tennis balls to Beau and stroked Beau's head when he climbed into Stewart's bed.

And that was a priceless gift.

So, too, is the memory of watching two of the truly gentle gentlemen — Stewart and Carson — together.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Re-imagining the Planet of the Apes

I saw the original "Planet of the Apes" at the old single–screen theater in my hometown.

As I have mentioned here before, it typically took movies a year or two to get to my small hometown so it wasn't a new release when I saw it. In fact, my memory is that the first sequel — and, possibly, the second — had been released to the theaters before I finally saw the original "Planet of the Apes" for the first time.

But that didn't matter to me. I enjoyed the movie very much, and I have watched it several times since.

Fast forward about 30 years.

On this day in 2001, a remake of the "Planet of the Apes" was released. Movies make the theatrical rounds a lot faster today than they did when I was a child. I was mildly curious about the movie — and I had every intention of seeing it at the theater (so I could adequately compare that experience to the one from my childhood) — but I let too much time pass in the summer of 2001.

And, before I knew it, the movie couldn't be found at the theaters — and then there were those terrorist attacks on September 11, and, well, if you're at least old enough to drive, you're old enough to remember how that altered lives in both permanent and temporary ways.

Anyway, I was distracted from it, and I didn't get around to seeing it until many years later.

By that time, I had read a good deal about it. I knew that it wasn't a literal remake — more of a conceptual one, what is called a "re–imagining" of a story — and I knew this one would be radically different.

And, when I did see it, I must admit there were several things about it that I liked:
  • The special effects were impressive.

    If you want to see how far special effects have come in a relatively short period of time, watch the first "Planet of the Apes" and then watch the remake.

    In fact, as I watched the remake, I could only guess what the original would have been like if those effects had been available.

  • I must also admit that, for the most part, the apes in the remake had more personality than the ones in the original. At least, I saw what appeared to be more genuine emotion on the faces of the apes in the remake.

    If an ape was angry, you could see the anger. If an ape was amused, you could see mirth. If an ape was in love, you could see passion.

    Now, back when I saw the original, I thought the makeup was good. But, when I saw the remake, it made the makeup in the original look like the rubber masks with holes for the wearer's eyes, nose and mouth that people have been buying at novelty shops for years.

    I suppose that is a credit to the enormous strides that were made in makeup in the intervening 33 years.

  • For that matter, the humans in the 2001 version were much more advanced than the humans in the original.

    They weren't mute, the way they were in the first movie, which obviously changed the nature of their relationship with the apes. If they could speak and be understood, that elevated them above the role of animal and household pet.

    The introduction of humans' ability to speak clearly made it essential that the story be re–imagined. I could understand that.

  • I wasn't impressed with the story, though, or some of the actors, but I was impressed with elements of both — sometimes simultaneously.

    Take, for example, Paul Giamatti's performance as Limbo, an orangutan who trades in humans.

    Giamatti has done some noteworthy things in the decade since he appeared as Limbo, but I always think of that performance when I think of him.

    That's kind of ironic, too, I guess. I mean, if you didn't know that was Giamatti underneath all that makeup, you would never guess it.

    Anyway, I was especially fond of his character's sales pitch for children: "The little ones make wonderful pets, but be sure you get rid of it by puberty. One thing you don't want in your house is a human teenager!"

    Most veteran parents probably would agree.

  • And, of course, I could appreciate — on multiple levels — the irony of Charlton Heston's cameo appearance.
I couldn't deny it. There were parts of that movie that, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, were enjoyable, admirable, even likable — but not throughout.

The sum of its parts neither met nor exceeded the parts by themselves — which were good, they just lacked unity.

Perhaps the best examples were the respective endings. The ending of the 1968 version was clear. It made the original story complete — yet it set the audience up for a potential sequel (and there were four of them).

In 2001, the ending was much more ambiguous — and less satisfying. To date, there have been no sequels (although I have heard that an August release is planned for a prequel).

"Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting," Ebert wrote.

Well, here we are, 10 years later — and, while I have no numbers to back it up, I presume Ebert was right.

If you want to examine specific aspects of filmmaking, I would have no trouble recommending the 2001 version.

But if it is a more complete cinematic experience that you seek, I would have to recommend the original.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Latest Member of the 27 Club

The news that Amy Winehouse was found dead in London yesterday really couldn't have come as a surprise to just about anyone — given her history.

I've been observing the reactions to all this from my friends via Facebook in a kind of detached way. In all honesty, I can't say I was one of her fans. I didn't follow her career closely. I wasn't overly familiar with her music.

(I'll say this about her music — there were times when it reminded me of the music of Jim Croce, a performer from my adolescence who also died young. They had different styles, but there were moments when I would hear things in Winehouse's songs that brought back memories ...)

So I've been keeping my opinions to myself. I've expressed my sympathy to those who seem to be truly grieving this loss because I know all too well how it feels to lose someone who was important to you — even if you never met that person.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't have anything against female singers — I admire the recordings of the likes of Janis Joplin, Carole King and Joni Mitchell as well as groups with prominent female members, like Fleetwood Mac and Heart.

But that was the music of my generation. Winehouse always seemed to have more appeal for folks of my goddaughter's generation — and for some who are a little older than that. In particular, I have been thinking of the young women from my journalism classes in Oklahoma about 15 years ago.

That generation had its own musical idols, of course, but it has had a certain connection with the next generation, too. I suppose there is always such an overlap in musical tastes from one generation to the next — although I would like to believe (as I suppose everyone would) that there will always be a segment of the population that will be drawn to the music on which I was raised.

Anyway, one of the young women from one of those classes observed on Facebook that she was "bummed" about Winehouse's death — but she did not say she was surprised.

And it really is hard — for me, at least — to act surprised. Yes, it is tragic. But it wasn't a surprise. With Winehouse's history of drug and alcohol abuse, how could it be a surprise to anyone?

Presumably, there will be an autopsy to determine what it was that killed her although it won't be scheduled until at least tomorrow. That should answer all — or, at least, most — of the questions that are raised by the death of one so young.

I guess most of us have our suspicions about what the cause will turn out to be. But, unless it turns out to be foul play, the cause isn't as important as the fact that my generation and the ones that have followed are linked in another way now, too.

Winehouse is the latest singer to join the 27 Club.

Actually, it isn't so new for people like that ex–student I mentioned earlier. When she was in school, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, took his own life at the age of 27. That was her introduction to the 27 Club.

And, while people my age and older like to think it was the musical stars of our generation who originated the 27 Club, as I wrote here nearly a year ago, the club appears to have its roots in the 19th century.

Yes, Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison brought attention to the 27 Club and made it appear to be more than an ironic coincidence that they should all die at the same age. Clearly, it isn't new for us, either.

(Maybe it was new when our great–great–grandparents were young lovers.)

For most of those in my goddaughter's age group, though, this is something new. And perhaps that is the ultimate purpose of the 27 Club — to remind us how fragile and fleeting life can be.

Parents would like to spare their children the pain and ugliness of the world, but they know deep down that they can't do that.

Amy Winehouse's life story is a reminder that there are no guarantees.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summertime ... and the Listening's Easy

If you are a follower of Billboard magazine's "Adult Contemporary" chart, you might be interested to know that it made its debut 50 years ago today.

Apparently, for a few years prior to this day in 1961, there had been a growing desire on the part of many radio stations in America to play popular songs without becoming known as "rock 'n' roll" stations. The music industry had to acknowledge that there was a portion of the market that wasn't rock 'n' roll — and it wasn't country — and respond appropriately.

Billboard's response was to devise a chart that would list the current best–selling recordings that the magazine had decided were not rock 'n' roll songs. Billboard had written about this a few times before so the list was hardly a surprise for regular readers.

Thus, in the beginning, there was a general hits chart — and, from that, a more style–specific (or, perhaps, content– is a better word) chart was derived that was known, initially, as Easy Listening.

The format was established enough by 1965 that Billboard was able to treat it as it did other genres. By that time, it had been through a number of name changes already — a year after it was introduced, it was known as "Middle–Road Singles," then it was known as "Pop–Standard Singles" in 1964.

In 1965, it was known again as "Easy Listening," and it retained that designation through the 1970s. In 1979, it was renamed "Adult Contemporary," and those words have been part of the chart's title, in one form or another, ever since.

The early editions of the list were led by the artists and the kind of songs you probably would expect — the songs were often show tunes and love songs, and performers who specialized in them tended to be the top sellers.

That's why it seems strange to me that the very first #1 recording on this chart was called "The Boll Weevil Song." Perhaps you aren't familiar with the song. It's a blues song, about 100 years old now, according to some folks, and it has been recorded by several blues artists.

(If you haven't lived in the South, you might not be familiar with boll weevils, either. They're insects, pests as far as cotton farmers are concerned. Well, the word pest probably isn't adequate. They devastated cotton farmers before and during the Great Depression — which happened to be when many of the initial followers of the Easy Listening chart were born.)

The version that was a hit 50 years ago today was recorded by Brook Benton, a popular performer of the time who was known for his rock 'n' roll recordings — but also for his R&B and blues stuff, too, which made him something of a crossover artist, I guess.

Actually, applying the label of "rock 'n' roll artist" to Benton seems inappropriate to me. His two breakthrough hits from 1959 — "It's Just a Matter of Time" and "Endlessly" — would have been right at home on an Easy Listening chart if such a thing had existed at the time.

And if you listen to the other hits he had in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I think you would conclude that he was more of an easy listening artist. He sure wasn't an Elvis or a Buddy Holly or a Chuck Berry. He was more like Nat King Cole.

(In fact, Benton and collaborator Clyde Otis originally offered those breakthrough hits to Cole — but, after Otis joined a music label, he persuaded Benton to record them instead.)

As I say, Benton recorded many songs that would have earned prominent spots on an Easy Listening chart — but it was the song about boll weevils that was popular when the chart debuted. Weird. Good song but weird.

Boll weevils aren't lovable or cuddly. Thus, it seems very odd to me that they should have such a role in the history of this kind of chart. If you haven't heard the song, the title read kind of like an ode to roaches.

It's also odd, I think, that, given the kind of songs Benton frequently recorded, he never returned to the top of the Easy Listening chart. He did come close, though — with his comeback song, "Rainy Night in Georgia," in 1970.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Some Things Never Change

"When I was one–and–twenty
I heard a wise man say,
'Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.'
But I was one–and–twenty,
No use to talk to me.

"When I was one–and–twenty
I heard him say again,
'The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.'
And I am two–and–twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true."

A E Housman
From "A Shropshire Lad"

I started writing short stories as soon as I learned how to make letters on paper, and I've been writing, in one way or another, ever since.

My mother, above all others, encouraged me to write, and I will always be grateful to her for that encouragement.

I've done all kinds of writing in my life. It is my form of self–expression.

It is odd, I suppose, that I have seldom written poetry. I guess I have never really felt comfortable with it — although there was a time when I dabbled with poetry in the form of song lyrics. One of my college buddies played the guitar and wrote several tunes but felt his lyrics weren't strong enough.

So I told him I would write some lyrics for him, and he could try to adapt them to music he had already written. Our arrangement eventually did yield some songs that he played with his band — none of which has amounted to much.

Other than that somewhat modified form of poetry writing, I haven't composed many poems — except for some occasions when I was in love (that was really much more of a cause–and–effect kind of thing).

But Alfred (better known as "AE") Housman did.

Housman was a classical poet, considered one of the leaders of his age, and, to be sure, he lived in a different time. But he wrote of things that are eternal.

It was 75 years ago this year that he died, and he seems to be disappearing from memory — except for those English majors who may still study his works today.

That is a shame because his poems, particularly the cycle of poems titled "A Shropshire Lad" (which was published near the end of the 19th century), had many valid observations about young people that are still good today — because, when you get right down to it, young people don't change. They simply acquire wisdom as they get older.

You see, some things in life simply cannot be learned by proxy. Some things must be learned first hand, and the pain those experiences bring must be felt.

And much of it is the byproduct of living, as Housman makes clear in "A Shropshire Lad."

Young people probably won't understand what he says in his poetry — but they never have. To quote one of my favorite movie lines (from "It's a Wonderful Life"), youth is wasted on the wrong people.

Some things never change.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Schwartz's Magic

"He had a very good life. It's just too bad it had to come to an end."

Mildred Schwartz

If you were around in the 1960s or 1970s, you were influenced by Sherwood Schwartz, who died Tuesday at the age of 94.

It was unavoidable, really, even if you never watched any of the many TV series he wrote, created and/or produced — and that was practically impossible since, at least once, damn near everybody saw at least one episode of at least one series that bore his stamp in some way.

He wrote for The Red Skelton Show in the 1950s. He supervised scripts for My Favorite Martian. He wrote, created and produced big hits like Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, shows that are still popular decades later. In fact, I would argue that they have become cultural icons.

It would be easy to assume that Schwartz led a charmed life, that everything he touched turned to gold and stayed that way, but he had his rough patches like anyone else.

There were conflicts with Brady Bunch star Robert Reed over the storylines. Reed was a Shakespearean–trained actor who often felt the Brady Bunch scripts were mindlessly silly and, frankly, beneath him.

Schwartz didn't get along with Skelton; in fact, he had it written into his contract that he would not have to meet face to face with Skelton — a fact that many viewers of the day would have had trouble accepting if they had known about it because Skelton was such a beloved figure.

And, like every other writer in Hollywood, he had scripts and series pilots that were rejected over the years.

He did not have a charmed career — but he was more successful than most.

Not everything was rejected. But even those shows that weren't rejected and managed to be part of the network TV landscape for a season or two did not leave lasting impressions on most viewers.

Schwartz also wrote, created and produced less remembered but equally entertaining series in those years, like It's About Time and Dusty's Trail.

If you watch an episode of either series today — and, frankly, I don't know if either is available on DVD — you'll see clear similarities between those series and Schwartz's big hits. You'll see similar plots. You'll hear similar lines. You'll even see some of the same people (Bob Denver, also known as Gilligan, was in Dusty's Trail in the 1970s.)

So, while people are praising Schwartz's magic touch today, I'm not sure such praise is entirely warranted.

Yes, he was creative. But he often was more creative at recycling stories and lines that hadn't worked in another series but did work in a new one with different characters than he was at creating brand new stories.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean, Schwartz was a showman. He understood the art of entertainment. And he must have understood the fickle hit–or–miss nature of TV and the role that program placement played (and still plays) in a series' success.

If they had been positioned differently, Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch might have lasted a season or less — and It's About Time and Dusty's Trail might have been the ratings hits.

In the early days of television, there was a fine line between success and failure — and, I suspect, it is even moreso now with hundreds of channels available to cable and satellite subscribers.

Schwartz was better at walking that line than many of his contemporaries. And that is why you have probably been influenced by him in some way — even if you weren't around when he enjoyed his greatest successes.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

In the Beginning ...

Today is a special anniversary in the annals of popular music.

It was on this day in 1957 that the two halves of perhaps the most famous songwriting team in history — John Lennon and Paul McCartney — came together for the first time.

It was in a place called Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. Lennon's band, the Quarrymen, was performing at some sort of social function at St. Peter's Church. McCartney happened to be there — although why I do not know.

Anyway, why he was there doesn't matter, I guess. The point is that they were introduced to each other 54 years ago today. By October, McCartney had joined the Quarrymen. A few months later, so did George Harrison.

The rest is history, I suppose. Lennon and McCartney formed a partnership and agreed to share the credit for all songs that were written by them, either collaboratively or separately. Between 1962 and 1969, Lennon and McCartney composed approximately 180 songs, most of which were recorded by the Beatles.

As just about any Beatles fan will tell you, most of those songs were not collaborative efforts. Most of them were written, entirely or mostly, by either Lennon or McCartney.

It was more of a team effort in the early days. Many of their early songs were compositions in which one had written an incomplete song that the other completed by adding a "middle eight," which tended to have a different melody from the rest of the song and acted as something of a bridge.

There was a competitive element in their work in those days, and it produced some truly influential songs. "Yesterday," for example, has been cited as the most recorded/covered song ever by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Later on, nearly all of their songs were individual efforts.

Lennon spoke about the dynamic tension between his style and McCartney's — which was so critical in the creation of the Beatles phenomenon. In an interview near the end of his life, he told Playboy that McCartney "provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes. There was a period when I thought I didn't write melodies, that Paul wrote those and I just wrote straight, shouting rock 'n' roll."

Typically, it wasn't hard to tell who was responsible for which song. The primary composer usually sang his songs on the albums so, if you could differentiate between the two voices, you could figure it out.

And, as Lennon observed, many of his songs were of the "straight, shouting rock 'n' roll" variety while McCartney leaned more to love songs and ballads.

But they struck a balance that worked — and worked well.