Monday, February 27, 2012

Meryl Streep Wins Best Actress

When I was in high school and college, I saw every major Oscar nominee every year — so I always felt capable of carrying on an Oscar–related conversation with anyone.

And I always had my personal preferences for the major awards.

For several reasons, I seldom go to the movie theater anymore. One reason is that I just don't have the same level of interest I once did.

I suppose the same could be said of my interest in college basketball. The basketball team at the University of Arkansas was pretty good when I was a student there, but the quality has dropped off in recent years — and, with it, my interest.

I don't watch much college basketball during the regular season anymore, but I still watch the NCAA Tournament because that brings together the best teams from across the country.

The lineup changes from one year to the next, but there are a few constants, and one of them is that you can always count on Duke to be there.

Meryl Streep is kind of the Duke of the movies.

OK, I know that they called John Wayne Duke. I guess Streep would have to be called "Duchess." No matter which movie she is in, you can always count on her to deliver a memorable performance.

There has to be something that can be used to set Streep apart from all the rest — besides her record 17 Oscar nominations and the fact that she lost most of them to the finest actresses of her time.

But last night, she didn't lose. She won for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."

Makes me wish I'd seen it. Makes me hope it will find its way to cable soon.

Congratulations, Ms. Streep. It's recognition that is richly deserved, I am sure.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

When Mike and Gloria Split Up

Mike: I can certainly beat your atrocious spelling! Can you spell "atrocious?"

Gloria: Yes. M–E–A–T–H–E–A–D! Atrocious!

Over the years, everyone in the Bunker household was, at one time or another, the butt of jokes and the subject of episodes examining their individual shortcomings and weaknesses.

I would say that, most of the time, Archie was the one who was made to look petty.

Edith and Gloria probably ran about even for second place, and Mike was last, by far. I always thought there was more than a little bias involved. The series' creator, Norman Lear, was known to be inclined to liberal positions, and Mike was recognized as the representative of liberal causes on the show.

But that always made Mike's moments more poignant.

Perhaps the best example was the episode that first aired 35 years ago tonight. The episode opened with Mike and Gloria playing a friendly game of Scrabble that rapidly escalated into a fight when Gloria found Mike's smug attitude a little difficult to take.

"You've had every opportunity in the world to improve your mind," Gloria (Sally Struthers) protested. "The only opportunities I've had are to feed your face and clean your clothes and satisfy your lust."

Mike (Rob Reiner) thought he had found the perfect solution. "We just won't play games like this anymore," he said. And everything probably would have been just fine if he had left it there.

But then he took it a step too far. "Besides, it's no fun for me to win all the time, anyway."

I don't believe I would have said that. Well, I like to think I wouldn't have said it.

But then there would have been no plot to speak of.

Predictably, a fight ensued, and Mike left the house. But he didn't go far. He wound up at Archie and Edith's house next door. Archie would have been happy to let him get a room at a motel, but Edith insisted that he spend the night with them. The female boarder who was renting the room Mike and Gloria shared while they lived with her parents would sleep with Edith. Archie would sleep in the boarder's bed, and Mike would sleep in a cot.

This led to one of the great (and, sadly, often unrecognized) comedic moments in 1970s television.

It began with a typical Archie–Mike argument over the correct way to get into bed. I always thought it was a ridiculous argument. Archie was sleeping in a bed while Mike was sleeping in a cot, and there were some differences between the two.

But, basically, Archie was right — and that was a rare outcome on All in the Family. By the time this episode aired, Archie had developed a considerable inferiority complex when i came to his son–in–law. So many of their fights over the years had concluded with Mike looking like the intelligent college student he was and Archie came across as an illiterate fool.

Anyway, Archie had been right about the correct way to get into bed. Mike even said as much, but Archie was asleep — and Mike had no place to sleep because the cot had given way.

So he climbed into bed with Archie. And he tried to pour himself a drink of water and casually drink it without disturbing his father–in–law, but he was clumsy and spilled the water in the bed.

Archie's response was a textbook example of a slow double–take — and it led to a searing moment of insight for Mike. For what may have been the first time in the timeline of that series, Mike really saw himself as others saw him, or, at least, as Archie saw him — smug, superior, flaunting his education, looking down on everyone else.

"I do do that, don't I?" Mike said, and he thanked Archie. "For the first time since I've known you, you've told me something I can use," he said, and he made a beeline for his home — where he pledged to help Gloria go to college if that was what she wanted to do. Happy ending.

Well, that was how they resolved conflicts on sitcoms in the 1970s.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Surrealistic Album

Forty–five years ago, preparation for the so–called "Summer of Love" was in its nascent stages.

In the evolution of California's identification as the Ground Zero of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the "Summer of Love" was a seminal moment — or, at least, it was a seminal concept.

I'm not sure you could say that the "Summer of Love" really lived up to its hype. There were race riots in major cities, causing death and destruction and leading the season to be informally dubbed "The Long, Hot Summer."

There was a lot of disillusionment in the summer of '67. At times, there didn't seem to be that much love — even of the manufactured variety.

I was in elementary school at the time, and I was blissfully unaware of the subtle nuances of the words that were used by the adults, but I do remember how the counterculture was generally portrayed in popular media. "Hippie" was a synonym for dirty, in both the sanitary sense and as an allusion to the counterculture's negative influence on social standards.

There was a popular notion, for example, that young men who wore their hair long were unclean, that they didn't bathe regularly — that they might be homosexual.

I grew up on a college campus; my father was a religion and philosophy professor. And I knew, from my observations of his students, that the popular stereotypes were wrong — or, at least, that they did not apply to everyone.

The students I saw might have had long hair, but it was clean, and so were their clothes. And most, if not all, seemed to enjoy the company of girls.

Many of my father's students were genuinely concerned about the injustices and inequities of their time, and, in their searches for their own identities and the roles they were to play in this new and frequently frightening world, they often chose to show their solidarity with their alienated brothers and sisters through their language, their hair and their clothes.

And their music.

In January of 1967, I guess, the idea of a "Summer of Love" was born at an event called the Human Be–In in San Francisco. It was, perhaps, an inevitable reflection of the perfect storm of protest that existed at the time — the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam merging with the social movements for racial and sexual advancement.

At this so–called "gathering of the tribes," the music of the emerging "psychedelic" movement was provided by several area bands, among them a group called Jefferson Airplane.

Jefferson Airplane was a pioneer of the psychedelic (or acid rock) genre, along with groups like the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Cream, the Moody Blues and others. The band had formed a couple of years earlier, but most people outside San Francisco probably never heard of Jefferson Airplane before 1967. That changed, and the Be–In almost certainly played a role in the enhanced exposure.

So, too, did the album Jefferson Airplane released in February — "Surrealistic Pillow" — which featured the two songs for which Jefferson Airplane still is best known — "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."

Both songs were written by Grace Slick when she was with a different group, and they were packaged in the first Airplane album on which Slick performed.

When Rolling Stone released its list of the Top 500 songs of all time, those were the only Jefferson Airplane songs on the list — and both were featured prominently in the pre–Summer of Love press.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that, with the possible exception of Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco," no other popular song summed up the mood of the young of that time quite as well as either of those Jefferson Airplane tunes.

There was an odd kind of dynamic involved in having those songs on the same album.

"Somebody to Love" was the group's greatest commercial success, and its title had an obvious link to the theme of the Summer of Love.

Both songs featured Slick's powerful vocals. "Somebody to Love" was probably the more conventional of the two, but "White Rabbit," with its allusions to psychedelic drugs, did the better job of capturing the spirit of the times.

Every era has its anthems that express the essence of that era, and "White Rabbit" was such a song for that time — but it went even farther. It had a life and a personality all its own, and it still exerts its influence nearly half a century later.

Styles have changed dramatically since the 1960s. But people still want somebody to love, and some people (the more adventurous ones) still chase rabbits.

"Surrealistic Pillow" reaches out across the decades, conjuring images of a unique and long–ago time and its people.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sammy Visits the Bunkers

I've written before about the episode of All in the Family that first aired 40 years ago today — when Sammy Davis Jr. made his legendary guest appearance — so I won't go into the details of that episode.

Been there, done that, as the TV commercials used to say.

It is one of those classic TV moments that, if you are old enough to remember seeing it the first time, you only need to describe in a few words — and someone else who is old enough to remember it will nod knowingly, smile, perhaps laugh. Nothing more needs to be said.

It's like the episode of The Carol Burnett Show in which the cast parodied "Gone With the Wind."

Or the episode of M*A*S*H in which Henry left the series for good.

Or the episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Chuckles the Clown died.

Or several episodes of I Love Lucy.

It was ironic, too, I suppose, given the fact that Davis was a supporter of Richard Nixon — very publicly so, in fact, which was a cause of some tension between him and other black performers.

Sammy Davis never really fit the mold of prominent black entertainer. He did seem to try, but he just didn't quite make it. I always got the feeling that black Americans viewed him as something of a racial sellout, and he often appeared to be trying to make it up to them.

Maybe he didn't need to, but he may have felt that he did.

He voted for Democrats in his 20s and 30s and was a visible supporter of the civil rights movement, but he reportedly felt snubbed by John F. Kennedy when he was left off the entertainer list at the new president's inaugural party — allegedly because of his recent interracial marriage.

Consequently, he became a supporter of Nixon's during his presidency — but gravitated back to Democrats after Nixon resigned.

His sense of alienation really predated that event. In the late 1950s, as a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack," Davis objected to Sinatra's calling the group of performers "the Clan" on the grounds that it reminded people of the Ku Klux Klan.

I'm not sure if it did or not — that was before I was born, and I have no memory of hearing Sinatra, Davis, et al., being referred to as anything other than "Rat Pack."

Maybe Davis was overly sensitive. Perhaps the politically correct influences of that time put that particular bug in Davis' ear.

Anyway, when All in the Family became a hit, Davis lobbied for a guest spot on the show. It wasn't hard for him to get it — he and Carroll O'Connor (who played Archie) were friends, and I have heard it was O'Connor who had the idea of having Davis kiss him on the cheek at the end of the show.

Whatever the source, it was an inspired moment of entertainment, a good–natured way for Davis to have a little fun at his own expense. A little more than four years earlier, Davis had kissed Nancy Sinatra on a highly rated TV special. It was one of the first interracial kisses in television history, and it caused quite a stir at the time. Practically no one would so much as bat an eye at it today.

That's what icons do, I guess. They do extraordinary things that few, if any, others have done before, and they render those extraordinary things ordinary by the time they're done.

What Sammy Davis did on All in the Family 40 years ago tonight truly was extraordinary by contemporary standards.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Forty Years of the Peach Corps

Today is both the birthday of a very good friend of mine (happy birthday, Brady) and the 40th birthday of an album that played an important role in my teen years — "Eat a Peach" by the Allman Brothers Band.

All sorts of celebrations have been and will be held to mark the occasion, not the least of which is a special radio program that is being aired nationally. The hoopla is well deserved. "Eat a Peach" is often said to be the Allmans' best album.

It was tragic that "Eat a Peach" was the last Allman Brothers album to include one of the brothers, Duane Allman, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971. He would be 65 if he hadn't been killed, but he is eternally in his mid–20s.

Duane died during the final recording sessions, and the surviving band members decided to re–name the album. Originally, it was supposed to be called "The Kind We Grow in Dixie," but, after Duane's death, they decided to adapt a comment he made to an interviewer who asked him what he was doing for the revolution.

"There ain't no revolution," he said, "it's evolution, but every time I'm in Georgia I eat a peach for peace."

That resonates with me.

I grew up in the South, and there were many times in my childhood when I ate fresh peaches from roadside stands in the summer. My mother was fond of east Texas peaches, and we always managed to get some in late June or early July when that year's crop was starting to come in.

She would then make the sweetest refrigerator peach pies I've ever tasted, and that is one of my favorite food memories from my childhood. I don't think Mom ever made the connection between peaches and peace, but she was certainly an advocate of peace during her lifetime so I don't think she would have objected.

I often wish I had that recipe, but it was lost long ago.

But even if I didn't have such pleasant associations with peaches, I still would count "Eat a Peach" among my favorite albums.

First of all, it was a double album — and that was something special in the 1970s.

To put things into context, the storage capacity for a CD is probably two or three times what it was on those old vinyl LPs. Therefore, when you buy an album on CD that was originally released as a double LP, every track from that album usually will fit on a single CD.

That's a distinct advantage with "Eat a Peach" — as anyone who ever owned the LP will tell you.

Two whole sides of that double album were devoted to a single track that went on for more than half an hour. It was a concert track called "Mountain Jam," which was recorded at the Fillmore East in New York in the spring of 1971.

Since it was divided into two sides, there was always a strange gap in the middle of the recording when the turntable changed records. On the CD, it is played continuously. No awkward interruptions.

That's great for someone like me. I was an Allman fan in the 1970s. Might be a bit tedious for more casual listeners, though.

There were eight other tracks on the album, and I always thought the best were blues–rock songs like "One Way Out" and "Trouble No More."

Those tracks were on the third side, where the recordings that Duane completed before his death could be found.

The whole album was a tribute to Duane's memory. He was a participant in the "Mountain Jam," and the final side, as I say, was exclusively tracks that included Duane.

The first side, though, was kind of the band's affirmation that it would move forward, ever mindful of Duane's contribution to the past but eager to embrace the future.

That attitude was summed up in the first song, "Ain't Wasting Time No More," and what might be called a kinder, gentler Allman Brothers seemed to be emerging in the track "Melissa."

"Sometimes it all seems to come down to the question of survival," wrote Tony Glover in Rolling Stone, "and learning to live with loss."

The album was "a simultaneous sorrowed ending and hopeful beginning," Glover wrote, and I believe that is true.

The Allman Brothers survived. I can't imagine what my teen years would have been like if they had not.

As far as I was concerned, that certainly was hopeful.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Dickens of a Birthday

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

"we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Charles Dickens
"A Tale of Two Cities"

As one who has always aspired to be a writer, I am left breathless by the greatest of the writers, so many of whom came along in the 19th century — Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brownings, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Ralph Waldo Emerson, many others.

And Charles Dickens.

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, an event that is being marked the world over, and I feel safe in stating that few, if any, writers of Dickens' time — or of any other — possessed his flair for realism, comedy and characters.

Especially the characters.

I've always held that a good story has good characters, and there have been few characters who were more enduring than Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Others, too.

Every Dickens novel has memorable characters who, as none other than Virginia Woolf said, "exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild yet extraordinarily revealing remarks."

But even that doesn't capture the full range of Dickens' character development.

Take, for instance, Madame Defarge in "A Tale of Two Cities."

In the reader's first encounter with her, she is silent. But the reader is acutely aware of her knitting. It makes her seem harmless, in a way — submissive, devotedly domestic — but the reader comes to see how she is driven by bloodlust during the French Revolution and the role her knitting plays in her life as a tricoteuse at the public executions.

As I say, she is silent at first, communicating with her husband through darting glances and subtle nods. The reader comes to understand these things better, but, to the naked eye, it is tragically deceptive.

Often, those characters were modeled after people in Dickens' life. That's a common strategy for writers — I have frequently been advised, whether by teachers, professional colleagues or friends, to write about what I know — as is the time–honored method of writing (in as disguised a way as possible) about one's life experiences.

There wasn't anything new about those literary devices in Dickens' day. He just used them more effectively than his contemporaries. Maybe it was more personal for him than anyone ever realized.
"[L]ike many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."

Charles Dickens
"David Copperfield"

Well, "David Copperfield" had several autobiographical elements to it. There was never really any secret about that, even in Dickens' time.

But there was certainly more to Dickens.

He was a passionate advocate of social reform and took the occasion of his first visit to America in 1842 to write of his objection to slavery.

I am certain he would, at the very least, empathize with the modern–day Occupy movement. Financial disparity is a kind of slavery; the issues aren't the same, of course, although that may depend upon one's interpretation.

Anyway, following Dickens' death in June 1870, Queen Victoria wrote of him in her diary: "He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes. He felt sure a better feeling, and much greater union of classes, would take place in time. And I pray earnestly it may."

Still waiting on that one. But it may yet come to pass.

In the last six or seven decades, though, it hasn't been necessary to wait long for a movie or TV adaptation of Dickens' works. When I was a child, a movie based on "Oliver Twist" was a big winner at the Oscars and a top money earner, and its success apparently inspired another Dickens adaptation (this one based on "A Christmas Carol") a couple of years later.

There have been others since. The stories have a timeless appeal.

As Annie Fischer observes, in the Kansas City Star, Dickens' "cultural relevance lives on."

Indeed it does.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Something to Talk About

There are some recordings I can listen to without having any thoughts whatsoever about the people and places in my life when they were released.

But, for many reasons, that is rarely the case with songs and albums that were released in 1977.

I'm not sure what the precise reason for that is — if, in fact, there is a specific reason. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the fact that, although I was still young, I was maturing rapidly, becoming more aware of many things of which I had been mostly unaware before. Many of my "discoveries" that year left deep, permanent impressions on me.

And my most influential discovery was probably in the form of my first serious love.

I've heard it said that you never forget your first love, that your first flame never quite burns out. I don't know if that is true, but I know I will never forget Karen.

She's still living, married with two mostly grown children she has raised in my hometown — which I find somewhat ironic since, when we knew each other, she had only lived there for about a year and didn't really seem to care for it.

Her family had lived in Indiana and California when she was younger — and she often seemed eager (to my great disappointment) to leave the town I loved so much as soon as she was old enough and, perhaps, return to one of those places — or try someplace new.

Frankly, I figured at the time that I would stay there the rest of my life, and Karen would move on somewhere else. As things turned out, though, she stayed there, went to college there, met her future husband there and built her adult life there.

I, meanwhile, moved away a few years later and never moved back. Ironic, huh?

Karen and I met and began dating in the summer of '77. Fleetwood Mac released "Rumours," which is often regarded as the group's finest album several months earlier, 35 years ago today, in fact, but every song on it brings back vivid memories of that relationship with the white–hot intensity of a blooming love affair — and so my memory links the album to hot summer days, not cold winter ones.

I suppose that is because I bought a copy of that album late that spring, shortly before Karen and I met, and we used to listen to it on summer evenings in her parents' living room — with the lights out.

But I didn't buy the album for with that purpose in mind. As I recall, I bought the album before Karen and I met. I was already familiar with several of the songs on that album. I wouldn't have bought it if I hadn't been.

My memory is that I first heard songs from the album being played on the stereo in a small record store I used to frequent after school. It was located in what had been a long–vacant building and was called Dr. Gonzo's Records and Tapes — with a clearly hand–painted sign out front.

It was sort of a combination record store/head shop with incense always burning, and I guess a lot of the people who shopped there had somewhat unsavory reputations.

But, in spite of that, I got to know the owner of the store pretty well. He knew a lot about music, and he always steered me in the right direction. Besides, he had the best record selection in town.

My memory is that his store was the first in town to stock "Rumours" — and it is entirely possible that I first heard songs from that album in that store and not on the radio.

I did hear a lot of songs from "Rumours" on the radio that year, though. It was one of the most popular albums of the year, maybe one of the most popular albums of my life to that point, and several of its songs became group mainstays.

I guess anyone who is old enough to remember the 1992 presidential campaign associates "Don't Stop" with Bill Clinton's rallies and TV commercials — but it always reminds me of 1977.

Sometimes I have random memories of riding in cars with my buddies and hearing that song playing on the radio. Sometimes the memories are more specific than that. But the one thing of which I'm absolutely sure at all times is that the song triggers memories from 1977, not 1992.

Most people, even people who were alive in 1977, probably think "Don't Stop" was the most popular song on the album, but, technically speaking, it wasn't. "Dreams" actually made it to #1 on the charts; "Don't Stop" reached #3.

"Rumours" was one of those albums that just kept generating hit after hit after hit and continued to influence the charts for months after it was released.

I've always regarded "Go Your Own Way" as sort of a signature song for Fleetwood Mac, but it was actually the fourth most popular song from "Rumours," peaking at #10 on the charts.

"You Make Loving Fun" peaked one spot higher than "Go Your Own Way" — and there was a time (probably when it was a staple on the radio) when I looked at that song as a group signature piece.

But, in my mind, I am reminded more of my relationship with Karen than I am any of the other times I have heard that song — and I've probably heard it thousands of times since 1977.

That's only natural, I guess. It's perfect for a young couple in the grip of passionate love, and it became a hit after Karen and I started dating. We even regarded it as "our song" for awhile. On summer evenings when we were sharing the experience of young love in the dark of her parents' living room, "Rumours" was nearly always the first record that played softly in the background.

We had something of a ritual. There were certain records that we played almost every evening, and I got to where I could tell how much time had passed merely by knowing how many sides of our standard LP playlist had been played. (By process of elimination, I could also estimate about how much time we had left before the curfew imposed by her parents.)

These days, when I listen to "Rumours," I almost feel as I did way back in '77 — that exhilarating feeling of being young and free and having everything ahead of you. We've all been there, right? It's what Joni Mitchell called "the dizzy dancing way you feel as every fairy tale comes real."

Maybe that explains the enduring appeal of "Rumours" and why it still speaks to us in 2012.

Even if the fairy tale smashes in a thousand pieces — and even if we know in advance that it will — we are powerless to resist pursuing it, anyway.