Monday, November 28, 2016

To Rehab a Thief



Ginger (Tina Louise): What did you and your family do for entertainment?

Mr. Wiley (Don Rickles): We used to sit around and watch each other get skinny.

The castaways on Gilligan's Island were always having visitors to their little island who would promise — or at least imply — that they would take the castaways back to civilization but always wound up reneging on the promise.

In the episode that aired on this night in 1966, "The Kidnapper," Don Rickles played a man who had also become shipwrecked on the island. Well, his boat was beached with a bent propeller.

He kidnapped the women on the island, one by one, and demanded a ransom for each, which Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) always paid, being the only person on the island with money.

After Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise) were all kidnapped and returned, the other castaways learned that the kidnapper's plan was to kidnap each in succession and then start all over again, collecting ever–increasing ransom amounts. They decided that something had to be done so the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and the Professor (Russell Johnson) set a trap using Gilligan (Bob Denver) as the bait — but in typical Gilligan fashion he got scared and tripped the trap. In the chaos that followed, the Skipper caught the kidnapper, and they put him in a bamboo cage.

The Professor and the Skipper immediately began working to repair the boat. They wanted to make it seaworthy for a return to civilization.

While the kidnapper was in custody, Ginger wanted to psychoanalyze him. Ginger regarded her acting experiences as the equivalent of actual experience in other fields (kind of the forerunner to the Holiday Inn Express commercials — you know, "I'm not a doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night ..."). She had once been in a movie about a criminal who was psychoanalyzed in an attempt to get to the root of his criminal behavior, and she persuaded a skeptical Professor to let her talk to the kidnapper and find out what made him tick.

The kidnapper turned out to be quite a con man. He showered everyone with flattery, telling Ginger he thought she and Mary Ann were beautiful, which turned both their heads.

I could see something like that having that kind of an effect on a country girl like Mary Ann, but Ginger was a movie star who must have been accustomed to the attention of male admirers. I had a hard time accepting her response.

The Professor kept insisting that it is difficult to reform a hardened criminal, but Ginger persuaded the castaways to let the kidnapper out of his cage in a demonstration of their faith in him. And that's what they did. Then they threw a party for him. They had the best of intentions.

But the kidnapper didn't. At the party, he robbed the women of their jewelry as he danced with each. He picked the men's pockets, and then he slipped away, escaping on the boat that had been repaired by the Skipper and the Professor.

In a kind of an I–told–you–so moment, the Professor observed that it isn't easy to reform a hardened criminal.

"Come to think of it," Ginger replied, "that's how it turned out in the movie, too."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Path to Acceptance



Barney (Neil Patrick Harris): OK, here's my thing — if gay guys start getting married, then suddenly the whole world's gonna be doing it. That's how it works: they start something, then six months later, everyone follows. Like now everyone gets manicures.

Ted (Josh Radnor): Yeah. I don't get manicures.

Barney: OK, then, like getting your chest waxed.

Lily (Alsyon Hannigan): You get your chest waxed?

Barney: You know what I mean! Gay marriage is going to cause single life as we know it to die out. Think of how the American family will be strengthened.

The episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night in 2006, "Single Stamina," is the first time I can remember same–sex marriage being the topic of a sitcom episode.

For that matter I can't really remember anything on TV or in the movies prior to that time that dealt with gay marriage. I suppose there must have been, though. Same–sex marriage seemed (to me, at least) to surge from out of nowhere as an issue in the 2004 presidential election, and that was two full years before "Single Stamina" aired.

Something was its catalyst.

After years of observing the human condition, I have concluded that, like the stages of dying of which Elisabeth Kübler–Ross wrote, people go through stages of acceptance for social concepts that were previously alien to them.

I haven't evaluated this to the extent that Kübler–Ross evaluated her subject, so I don't have names for the stages, only general descriptions.

And those stages follow a recognizable trend line. I suppose the initial stage is a dramatic one roughly comparable to Kübler–Ross' anger and denial stages, a challenge to a long–held principle of the majority. And that, it seems to me, is a pretty good description of the mainstream reaction to the idea of gay marriage in 2004.

By the time the concept is one about which audiences can laugh openly, it seems to me that concept is well on its way to the final stage, acceptance.

Indeed, that appears to be the way things have turned out for gay marriage. Less than 10 years after this episode aired, gay marriage was legal in all states and most territories. It reached a level of social acceptance faster than probably was conceivable to most people a decade ago.

It took longer for the mainstream to accept unmarried couples living together or couples of different races marrying each other. Even today in some places and by some people such things are not taken in stride.

On the road to social acceptance, broadcasting plays a huge (in many ways unappreciated) role of catalyst. It is a mirror as well, reflecting where society stands on that road and sometimes providing perspective on how far society still must travel.

How I Met Your Mother didn't get on a social/political soapbox on this night in 2006 — well, there was one political reference but it was done in such an offhand way that it may not have been noticeable at the time, much less today when more context is necessary. I'll get back to that.

In the episode, Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) black and gay half–brother (Wayne Brady) came to visit. It was at a rather difficult time in Barney's life. It was winter in New York, and the couples in Barney's circle — Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), of course, and Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin (Cobie Smulders), who had recently become a couple — were settling into hibernation mode, in which they didn't go out or do anything. It had been driving Barney nuts.

But Barney's half–brother changed all that. As Lily observed to Robin (who was the only member of the group who had never met Barney's half–brother before), he was just like Barney — except for being black and gay. Robin was only told about James being gay, though — not that he was black.

After his arrival, James told the couples they should go out and have fun while they were young so they all went out to a club, where the theory of single stamina was explained.

Essentially the theory held that one could always tell at a club or a party which people were single and which were in relationships mostly by observing their behavior and body language.

For example, singles stayed on their feet to permit them to move around easily. Couples found the nearest place to sit.

Anyway, the gang began to suspect that, unlike Barney, James was also part of a couple. Their suspicions were confirmed when they saw him apparently sending a text to someone.

They felt they had no choice but to tell Barney that his half–brother was in a monogamous (the word was said in hushed tones around Barney) relationship. When Barney confronted James to find out the truth, James confessed that, yes, he was in a relationship. In fact, they were engaged — and he wanted Barney to be his best man.

Barney couldn't approve — not because it was a gay marriage, but because it was a marriage. And Barney was anti–marriage. He favored one–night stands.

But James convinced Barney to change his mind when he told Barney that he and his fiance were adopting a baby. The thought of being an uncle overjoyed Barney, and he toasted the couple at their wedding. He had come full circle.

I guess this episode was about acceptance — on many levels.

Oh, do you remember when I mentioned there was one political reference in this episode? Of course, you do. It was just a few paragraphs ago.

Anyway, the reference was made at James' wedding when Barney made a toast to the happy couple. Afterward, Lily observed that the toast made the father of James' fiance cry. Then she remarked, "He might have been doing that because he's a Republican."

I have never been sure whether that was a reference to the 2006 midterms or not.

This episode aired a few weeks after Republicans lost control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. It was probably taped before the elections, but pre–election polls indicated that a sweep was coming. The outcome did not come as a surprise to anyone.

Also, since weddings are traditionally held in June (although they can and do occur in every month in the year), James' wedding may have been in June, possibly five months before the election, and Lily's comment may have been a reference to the difficulties Republicans had been having in all the areas that would come back to haunt them on election night.

And gay marriage was one of many issues in those midterms.

Of course Lily's remark could have been a reference to Republicans' reputation for conservatism.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Putting Your Best Foot Forward



"Frasier, if you overanalyze every detail, you will rob us of the joy of the moment. It will be our wedding night all over again."

Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth)

In the Thanksgiving episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996, "A Lilith Thanksgiving," the Cranes were in Boston for Thanksgiving — but only because the headmaster of an exclusive school had agreed to meet with Lilith and Frasier on Thanksgiving morning, and they were eager to have their son Frederick admitted to the school.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) made a reasonably good impression when they first went to meet with the headmaster — but afterward they began to second–guess everything they had said and done and made return visits to try to amend what had transpired before.

The first time they did this, they returned to the headmaster's home on a ruse — Lilith would pretend that she had lost an earring when they were there before. Once they were there, Lilith felt compelled to embellish the story, telling the headmaster that the earrings were treasured gifts from Golda Meir.

Then she found herself in the position of having to elaborate on that when the headmaster asked her how she met Mrs. Meir.

Lilith told the headmaster that was an interesting story, then she rather clumsily passed that baton to Frasier, saying, "Frasier, you tell it much better than I do."

And Frasier indulged himself in a little ad–libbing of his own, saying they had met through Mrs. Meir's grandson, "Oscar."

"That would be Oscar Meir?" the headmaster inquired.

"You can imagine the ribbing he got!" Frasier replied.

Frasier and Lilith were nothing if not obsessive. In that regard they were perfect partners.

They kept returning to the headmaster's house each time they thought of something else they should do to reinforce their interest in the school. They were concerned that Frederick might not get the only available slot, that it might go to the child of an alumnus or a generous benefactor.

That was not foremost in the headmaster's mind, though. He was trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for some guests, but it wasn't coming along well, and the near–constant interruptions weren't helping.

Under this circumstance, Lilith and Frasier decided to made their bid to be the headmaster's holiday benefactors.

After the headmaster observed that his turkey was so undercooked "a skilled veterinarian could still save him," Lilith and Frasier returned to Lilith's home and took the turkey that Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had been cooking in their absence so they could give it to the headmaster to curry favor with him.

In essence, they wore down the headmaster, who finally told them that Frederick was admitted — but he would be immediately expelled if either Lilith or Frasier ever came to the school for any reason or attended any school events, including graduation.

Lilith and Frasier agreed, of course. For them, the holiday had been a success.

Niles, meanwhile, was still looking for the turkey that had vanished into thin air.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Darrin's Man Cave



Did ya ever have one of those days when you just didn't feel like going anywhere or doing anything? Just wanted to lay around the house or the apartment, munch on some popcorn and feel no particular pressure to accomplish anything?

That was the essence of the story told on Bewitched on this night in 1966 — "Oedipus Hex."

When the episode opened, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) was being a busy neighborhood activist, working with a group of ladies to raise money for new playground equipment. She planned to host a meeting at her house for a brainstorming session on how to raise the money.

But as busy as she was, Samantha was fretting about Darrin (Dick York). He was stressed out about his work, and Samantha wished she could get him to relax. Her mistake was confiding this to her mother (Agnes Moorehead). Endora insisted that men were like children without their work, and he would just be a nuisance if he took the day off.

Without Samantha's knowledge, Endora cast a spell on a bowl of popcorn that made anyone who ate from it a couch potato; in typical Endora fashion, she did this simply to prove her point. And she did. Darrin grabbed a handful of popcorn on his way out the door, and it did its thing. Darrin turned around and went back in the house, telling Samantha he was taking the day off. She didn't know why he had changed his mind, but she was pleased.

Then one by one others fell under Endora's spell — the milkman, the TV repairman and Darrin's boss Larry (David White), who came over to see what was going on — and Samantha got suspicious.

Samantha convened her committee meeting, and Darrin and his gang of ne'er–do–wells moved their inactivity to the patio where they swapped Army stories. It became, to use a popular term, a man cave.

But as the morning wore on the committee wasn't getting anything accomplished, largely because of the distraction of the boisterous group on the patio. Samantha, who by this time had figured out what was going on, used her knowledge to her advantage and offered some popcorn to the frazzled ladies, which helped them relax, and Darrin and the slackers started calling their friends and associates to put the squeeze on them for contributions to the playground equipment fund.

They met the ladies' goal. No fundraising programs like a raffle would be necessary.

Endora's plan had failed.

And, after Endora removed the spell as she had promised Samantha she would do and everyone began to leave, Darrin told Samantha the morning had been enjoyable, relaxing, and they ought to do it more often.

Samantha, of course, had found the morning anything but relaxing.

No special lesson to be learned from that episode, I suppose, except that being a couch potato isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite rewarding.

Monday, November 21, 2016

'Rocky' Did It Right



Mickey (Burgess Meredith): Your nose is broken.

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone): How does it look?

Mickey: Ah, it's an improvement.

If there is anything that is almost guaranteed to engage a movie audience, it is a story about an underdog overcoming the odds — and when director John G. Avildsen's "Rocky" made its debut on this day in 1976 movie audiences got enough of that to keep them satisfied until "Hoosiers" hit the big screen 10 years later — although they had plenty of those underdog movies, some good and some not so good, in the interim.

They always do. Movie makers know underdog stories make money. Well, that ones that do it right make money — and "Rocky" did it right.

I well remember the first time I saw "Rocky." It was in a theater in my hometown. Now my hometown theater — well, the one of my early childhood — was one of those spacious theaters with a lobby and a balcony and one truly big screen, but it had been out of business for awhile by the time "Rocky" made its premiere. So I never got to see it in that setting (although I have often wished that I had). I saw it in the more compact theaters in which one sees movies today — more like screening rooms than theaters, if you ask me, but that's a topic for another time. By modern standards, it was rather tiny. It only contained two screens — but that allowed twice as many movies to be shown and, therefore, provided twice as many options for consumers in my hometown.

The arrival of that two–screen theater produced as much buzz in my hometown as the arrival of the first McDonald's.

Anyway, in that more modern moviegoers' milieu, I saw something from the old days of which I have heard but I have seldom actually seen. I saw an audience stand and applaud when the movie was over.

A sport of some kind is always good for that kind of reaction (for a real–life example, one need look no further than this year's World Series, won by the Chicago Cubs for the first time in more than a century) — even though other pursuits can be used. "Rocky," of course, was about an individual sport — boxing. Team sports are good, too, but they teach a different kind of lesson that extols different values. Those movies are tributes to the virtues of teamwork and unselfishness. Movies about individual sports are more about determination, self–sufficiency and resourcefulness.

You couldn't really say Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) was down on his luck. He had never had much in the way of luck. He wasn't a bum, as Marlon "I coulda been a contendah" Brando memorably said of himself in "On the Waterfront." Rocky really could have been a contender. He was a Philly brawler who had squandered his prime and figured he would never get to fight for a title, not even once. (In the words of a Beatles' song, "Isn't he a bit like you and me?")

That was a source of frustration for Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the operator of a gym and trainer of would–be contenders, which, in turn, was a source of friction between Rocky and Mickey.

But then Rocky was offered an opportunity to fight the champ, a fellow named Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to mark the occasion of America's bicentennial. The champ didn't take the fight seriously, but Rocky did. He got up in the predawn hours to drink a glass of raw eggs and run in the dark, cold streets of Philadelphia, and he used sides of beef as punching bags in a meat freezer under the management of his friend Paulie (Burt Young).

Mickey swallowed his pride and approached Rocky about helping him prepare for the fight, but Rocky, briefly succumbing to that all–too–human tendency to engage in a little "how do you like me now?" banter, refused. When Mickey walked away, humbled and hurt, Rocky followed and reconciled with him.

Now, in case you have never seen this movie — and, frankly, it is hard for me to imagine anyone who hasn't seen "Rocky" by now — it is important to realize that Apollo wasn't looking for a legitimate fight. He was looking for more of an exhibition, a fight against an unknown on New Year's Eve. Rocky didn't get his shot at the title because he had been an up–and–coming contender. He was chosen purely at random. The champ saw Rocky's nickname — "The Italian Stallion" — and liked its possibilities as a marketing angle for the fight.

The champ never thought the Italian Stallion would be a serious threat, and he didn't go through serious preparations for the fight, which kind of foreshadowed, in a life–imitates–art kind of way, Buster Douglas' stunning upset of seemingly invincible heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in 1990. In one of my enduring memories from the movie, Apollo's trainer (Tony Burton) watched with alarm a TV report on Rocky's training regimen in the meat locker and kept telling Apollo to come watch the segment. But Apollo was too busy going over marketing plans for the fight.

Many things were finally coming to Rocky after a lifetime of waiting. Here he was getting a chance, at long last, to fight for the title, and he had also found love. Adrian (Talia Shire) was Paulie's sister, kind of plain and quiet. She worked at a pet store and lived with Paulie. She cooked his meals, cleaned his house, did his laundry. Apparently as a younger man he had promised to look after her because the family had concluded she couldn't look after herself. "I don't get married because of you," he yelled at her in frustration the night she moved out of his house — and into Rocky's tiny apartment. Maybe her family thought she was retarded or autistic. Fact was she was just introverted.

It was probably the love story — more than anything else — that made "Rocky" and its many sequels work. Most people probably fantasize about doing whatever they do professionally so well that they receive standing ovations and live handsomely for the rest of their lives.

Most people never achieve that, of course, so they can't relate to "Rocky" on that level (except in their dreams), but most people probably do find love — some don't but most do — and sometimes it is against the odds, in their own minds if no one else's.

On that level, most people probably could relate to "Rocky" in their real experiences — even if they had never participated in a sport, whether team or individual.

Rocky's love for Adrian was at the heart of everything he did. The movie was as much about his commitment to her as it was his commitment to giving his very best shot in the fight of his life. Maybe — no, make that probably — more.

So much of that is due to Shire's performance. Audiences already knew her as the Corleones' sister from the "Godfather" movies, and she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Godfather Part II."

She received a Best Actress nomination for her work in "Rocky" as the shy, sensitive Adrian. It was a powerful performance, all right, and perhaps she should have won — but she won neither Oscar.

"When she hesitates before kissing Rocky for the first time," wrote film critic Roger Ebert, "it's a moment so poignant it's like no other."

In a way, I guess, the audience already knew how the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed would turn out before it even happened.

It didn't really matter, I guess, if Rocky wasn't a winner in the ring (except it always bothered me that, in the fight scenes in the first and subsequent Rocky movies, when punches landed, they always sounded like car doors being slammed in echo chambers).

He won the love of his life against all odds.

And so, too, did the movie. It won Best Picture (as well as Best Director and Best Film Editing) at the Academy Awards — in spite of heavyweights like "All the President's Men" and "Network" on the Academy's ballots.

Talk about your underdog–makes–good finish.

And Bill Conti was nominated for — and probably should have won — the Oscar for Best Original Song. "Gonna Fly Now" is such an iconic movie tune now. Forty years later it lives on in more memories than the winner of that Oscar, Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams' "Evergreen."

Take my advice. If you have a daunting task facing you and you need to get pumped up, listen to "Gonna Fly Now." Works every time.

Actually, Conti probably should have been nominated for Best Original Score. But there is a limit for even an underdog's triumphs.

Spoofing the Spies



"They're going to kill me for knowing too much. That's the first time I've ever been accused of that!"

Gilligan (Bob Denver)

One of the things I liked best about Gilligan's Island was the way the characters got to do spoofs on things and played other roles in addition to the ones they normally played. Sometimes the episodes were spoofs on familiar stories, like "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Cinderella," and sometimes they were spoofs on the pop culture of the time.

That was what the episode that aired on this night in 1966, "The Invasion," was about. To be more specific, it was a spoof of the popularity of secret agents in the movies and on television in the 1960s. I guess that was a byproduct of the Cold War with James Bond on the big screen and I Spy and Get Smart on the small one.

On Gilligan's Island the plot was set up one day when Gilligan (Bob Denver) was fishing — and hooked a briefcase with the words "Top Secret" written on it. All the castaways wanted to see what was in it, but the Professor (Russell Johnson) prevented each one from opening the briefcase, which was presumably locked.

But at one point, the Professor pounded his fist on the briefcase and the top sprung open. The Professor immediately slammed the top shut — but not before observing that it contained files of secret military plans.

The briefcase had handcuffs attached to it, and Gilligan quickly handcuffed himself to the briefcase — before realizing he had no way to unlock himself.

And the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) noted that, whenever military agents came looking for the briefcase, they would find Gilligan attached to it — and assume he knew too much.

Later that night, while he was sleeping, Gilligan dreamed he was a secret agent (with the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, of course) and most of the castaways were spies trying to get it from him. The one exception, as I recall, was the Professor, who played Gilligan's superior officer.

Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) played the head of the evil organization trying to get the briefcase from Gilligan, and Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer) played his assistant. Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), Ginger (Tina Louise) and the Skipper all played evil agents.

Some of the elements from secret agent/spy movies and TV shows that Gilligan's Island used in its spoof were:
  • In the dream, Mr. Howell was bald, just like the criminal mastermind in the James Bond movies.
  • Ginger said, "Sorry about that, Chief." If you have ever seen Get Smart, you know that was one of Maxwell Smart's catchphrases.
    Another one of his catchphrases was "Would you believe ..." Ginger used that one, too — but in another episode.

At the Heart of What Scares You



"Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!"

Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive)

By modern standards, the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein," which was showing on the big screen on this date in 1931, seems hopelessly primitive. It has no splashy special effects, and there was not a slasher in sight.

But there is probably no more iconic horror movie in film history — and there was no more successful movie in 1931–32 than "Frankenstein." In those early Depression years, "Frankenstein" easily outdistanced all comers at the box office.

Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the archetypal stars of the 1930s horror genre and long–time staples of midnight movies on TV, but Lugosi had little regard for Karloff. In reference to Karloff's performance in "Frankenstein," Lugosi dismissed Karloff's acting as "grunting." There was a certain amount of truth to that — although, to be fair, that was what the role called for. Karloff was not instructed to speak actual words in his role.

Lugosi considered — and perhaps rightfully so — the fact that he had to recite lines in English in spite of his heavy Hungarian accent a challenge that London–born Karloff did not face.

But even though "Frankenstein" is 85 years old today, do not make the mistake of thinking it is irrelevant, outdated or anything similar. It is still unsettling in its examination of the mad genius (Colin Clive) who brought the monster to life.

In short, it is at the heart of what scares you.

And even after 85 years, it is still the definitive monster movie, along with Lugosi's "Dracula," which also was released in 1931.

The American Film Institute ranked "Frankenstein" #56 on its list of the Top 100 thrilling movies while "Dracula" came in #85.) Now regarded as film classics, both were ignored by the fledgling Academy Awards.

Many elements of "Frankenstein" have become cliches over the years. Some were parodied in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," one of my favorite comedies.

There were other parts of "Young Frankenstein" that parodied elements from two other movies in the "Frankenstein" series, too, so it would be a mistake to think that "Young Frankenstein" only made references to the first film.

But one of my favorite scenes from Brooks' parody was when the monster (played by Peter Boyle) encountered the young girl. In the original, the monster threw her into the lake. That portion of the movie was considered so terrifying that it was edited by censorship boards in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

I guess audiences had never really seen anything like it before — even though "Dracula" was in theaters nearly a year earlier.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Welcome to Crackerbox Palace



OK, I know that "Thirty–Three & 1/3," the George Harrison album that was released in the United Kingdom on this day in 1976 (the U.S. release came five days later), wasn't the best he ever made.

Far from it.

But I liked it then, and I like it now, perhaps entirely because it contains one of my favorite songs from Harrison's solo career, "Crackerbox Palace."

I wouldn't underestimate another factor, though.

I didn't get that album the day it came out. I got it a month or so later — after I had been given a stereo for Christmas. This stereo was equipped with an 8–track player so Harrison's album was the first 8–track I ever bought.

My 8–track collection never got to be very large, but as long as I had that stereo, I had the Harrison 8–track, and I played it repeatedly.

Four singles were released from the album. The first was "This Song," which preceded the album by a couple of days.

It was all right, kind of reminiscent of Harrison's commercial style, I thought — at least up to that point.

There was, as one of the lyrics suggested, "nothing tricky about it." It was a spoof of the court case of "My Sweet Lord" and the allegation that it was a copyright infringement of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine."

(A few months before "Thirty–Three & 1/3" was released, Harrison was found guilty by a district court judge of "subconsciously" copying the Chiffons' song and fined more than $1.5 million, which included about three–quarters of the revenue from the single and a significant part of the revenue from the sales of the three–record set "All Things Must Pass" on which it appeared.)

But "Crackerbox Palace," it seemed to me, demonstrated how much Harrison had learned — especially about writing creative lyrics — from working with John Lennon all those years.

And I've always been a Lennon fan.

"Crackerbox Palace" was released as a single a couple of months after the album hit music stores.

The third single was a 20–year–old Cole Porter tune called "True Love," which was introduced to the music–loving world in the movie "High Society." Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly sang it.

Covers have been done by Jane Powell, Richard Chamberlain, Nancy Sinatra and in a duet by Elton John and Kiki Dee. I think even Elvis did a version of it.

But Harrison's was the only one I know that was done in a blues rock fashion.

Seeing Double



"I can't talk right now, Duke. I'm in the Twilight Zone."

Martin (John Mahoney)

It is said that everyone has a double somewhere in this world.

That probably makes the odds against encountering your doppelgänger extraordinarily high. For example, I'm in Dallas, Texas. Suppose my doppelgänger is in Europe somewhere — or perhaps Australia or Russia. I haven't been overseas in a long time (I was in my teens), and I have no plans to go overseas anytime soon. Unless my doppelgänger plans to come to America — Dallas, specifically, since I rarely travel — we will probably never meet.

Considering the size of the world, that's likely to be the case for most people. The song may say it's a small world, but the truth is that it is we the people who are small — at least when compared to the world. A person's doppelgänger is likely to be half a world away. Might as well be on the moon.

My guess is that doppelgängers (assuming they do exist) hardly ever live in the same city — but that was how it apparently was for Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and his doppelgänger in the episode of Frasier, "Mixed Doubles," that aired on this night in 1996.

When the episode began, the Cranes were enjoying various pursuits at home, and Daphne (Jane Leeves) came in from her date, confessing that she and her boyfriend had broken up. The news was not exactly greeted as tragic by Niles, who had been pining for Daphne since the series began more than three years earlier. He told Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) that he was going to confess his feelings to Daphne.

Frasier urged him to wait. Daphne was vulnerable and needed more time to get over the shock. He had waited this long, Frasier noted. One more day wouldn't make a difference.

Ah, but it did.

When Niles came over the next day, he was on the verge of telling Daphne how he felt when she received a phone call from a fellow she met the night before when Roz (Peri Gilpin) took her to a singles bar to take Daphne's mind off her former beau.

This fellow apparently had swept Daphne up on the rebound, and she was no longer available, but Niles had, as he called it, a "fallback plan," which was to have Roz take him to that singles bar — which she did, and Niles met a charming young woman named Adelle (that is the correct spelling, by the way — Niles' opening line was to ask if she spelled her name with one L or two). They started dating.

Then, when Niles was introducing Adelle to his father and brother, Daphne came in with her new beau, Rodney — and he was the mirror image of Niles. He had many of the same quirks and mannerisms.

Niles couldn't see it at first, but his father and brother certainly did. In one of my favorite moments from the Frasier series, Martin and Frasier retreated to the kitchen upon realizing that Niles and Rodney were like two peas in a pod and said to each other simultaneously, "What the hell was that?"

Frasier said they should tie a bell around Niles' neck so he could be identified.

When Niles realized how alike he and Rodney were, he was furious. Frasier had talked him out of approaching Daphne the very night she fell for Rodney.

But Rodney apparently hadn't fallen as hard as Daphne had. Frasier and Niles soon discovered that he was seeing Adelle.

When they confronted Rodney, he told them he planned to break things off with Daphne that evening over drinks. Niles suggested that he should do it instead, and Rodney agreed.

So Niles kept the date with what he thought would be an unsuspecting Daphne — except that she had been running late so she called Rodney and he told her everything.

And then Daphne and Niles had a heart–warming conversation that, in its way, foreshadowed what was to come.

If you have never seen this episode, it is well worth seeing. Funny and poignant at the same time.

Friday, November 18, 2016

'Achtung Baby' Was a 180-Degree Turn for U2



I'm not what you could call a fan of U2. Don't get me wrong. I like many of the band's songs, and I have owned some of U2's albums in the past. Today I have some of the band's CDs on my shelf. That doesn't make me a fan, though.

I once worked with a guy who was really a fan of U2. He knew every song, every album. I'm that way about some groups, too, so I understood.

Still I am hardly qualified to select the best U2 album ever made, but if I was asked which one I like best — and that could change if I hear a U2 album I have never heard before — I would name "Achtung Baby," the album that hit music stores 25 years ago today.

I don't know if it was the best album the band ever released — I like "War" and "The Joshua Tree," too — but I can say that it is the best U2 album I have heard in the last 25 years.

It certainly was different.

For reasons I never really understood, U2's "Rattle and Hum" was panned when it was released in 1988. I liked it, and it did pretty well commercially, but still it was widely criticized.

So when U2 released "Achtung Baby" three years later, the band had a few surprises in store for folks; even people who had been listening to U2 for many years had to have been surprised. What had come before had a distinctly American sound to it, but the music on "Achtung Baby" had an — I don't know — postmodern British sound. It incorporated elements you typically found on David Bowie's albums.

Five singles were released from the album. "Mysterious Ways," which was released as a single about a week after the album, was the most successful in the U.S., reaching #9 on the charts, but "One," which followed four or five months later, climbed to #10.

Those two songs and "The Fly," which was released as a single nearly a month before the album, all went to #1 in U2's home country of Ireland.

Back to that new sound.

Seldom, if ever, do you see a band do an about–face as successfully as U2 did on "Achtung Baby."

That was clear from the very first song, "Zoo Station."

"Achtung Baby" was inspired by the reunification of Germany, and the music, in its way, has always reminded me of Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live character Dieter and the comedy sketches about his fictitious West German TV show Sprockets. Those sketches were popular at about the same time as the album was riding the charts. Maybe that's where I make that mental connection.

Anyway, "Achtung Baby" was widely accepted, sold 18 million coies, got great reviews, debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart, won a Grammy and has been named one of the all–time great albums by several music critics.

Now, that is a successful transformation.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Second Chances



Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey): You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god. How can he ever find out what he can really do? I don't want this to be the high point of his life. I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17 years old.

Coach Dale (Gene Hackman): You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

There were a few exceptions, but just about every kid I knew when I was growing up fantasized about being at bat in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series with the game on the line or diving into the end zone for the game–winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. I'm sure the scenario played out in every head when we played pickup games after school and on weekends.

"Hoosiers," which was in theaters on this day in 1986, appealed to that kind of fantasy — one that was equally improbable. It was about a small high school basketball team in Indiana rising from obscurity to win the state championship. But it was about more than that. It was about second chances.

I was once asked on a job application form to identify my favorite word and explain why it was my favorite. I immediately entered the word redemption. It has long been my favorite word. I couldn't say how long — since whenever I first realized that storybook lives in which people make steady uninterrupted climbs to the tops of their chosen professions are rare — but I can tell you why.

Life has a way of doing its thing and taking you along for the ride. Even if it is taking you in a totally different direction than the one you intended, your objection means nothing. As John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

That is where redemption comes in. Redemption is the assurance that, no matter what happens in your life, no matter how badly you may think you have screwed up, it need not be permanent, and just about everyone in "Hoosiers" seemed to be seeking redemption of one kind or another.

Redemption offers hope.

At first I thought it was kind of a "Rocky" sort of movie — you know, the underdog wins it all, defying all odds and naysayers — although I did not realize until recently that "Hoosiers" made its theatrical debut about a week before the 10th anniversary of the premiere of "Rocky."

But subsequent viewings have persuaded me that Hickory's climb to the top was really secondary. The story was about being given a second chance.

"I was a sportswriter once for a couple of years in downstate Illinois," Ebert wrote in his review of the movie. "I covered mostly high school sports, and if I were a sportswriter again, I'd want to cover them again. There is a passion to high school sports that transcends anything that comes afterward."

I had a similar experience. When I was fresh out of college, I too covered high school sports, mostly football (but not full time; I was a general assignment reporter so I wrote about a wide range of things, not just sports), and one of the schools I covered was probably as small as Hickory, the school that was featured in "Hoosiers," but I never had the experience of covering a high school team, large or small, that was on its way to a state title.

When I was in high school, though, the basketball team won the state championship, and that was very exciting but hardly unexpected. The out–of–the–blue quality of fictional Hickory's rise to the top was the kind of stuff dramatic movies are made of.

But, oh, those second chances — when a character in a movie makes the most of a second chance and wins redemption, that is what truly brings a lump to one's throat. That's true, audience–engaging drama. The viewers, reminded of the shortcomings in their own lives, always respond to a character successfully seeking redemption. It is the classic underdog, with or without a sports backdrop. And doesn't everyone feel like an underdog at least part of the time?

"Hoosiers" was mostly about a second chance for a fellow named Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman), a gifted but volatile coach. His temper got him into trouble in the past, and he became an untouchable in the coaching world. The Hickory job was clearly his opportunity — perhaps his last — to get back in the game of life.

He struggled at first, prompting the mother of one of Hackman's faculty colleagues to observe, "Sun don't shine on the same dog's ass every day, but you ain't seen a ray of light since you got here."

"Hoosiers" was also about a second chance of sorts for the town drunk (Dennis Hopper), whose son was on the team and embarrassed by his father's public antics when under the influence. Hackman made the basketball–savvy Hopper his assistant — on the condition that he remain sober — which was a second chance for the fractured father–son relationship. Hopper received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

And there was a talented basketball player who, for his own reasons, had decided not to play. Like just about every place in Indiana, Hickory was basketball crazy, and there was a widespread belief that the team could do great things if this young man would play.

But the faculty member whose mother made that remark to Hackman had encouraged the young man to pursue things that would help him get out of the small town; she did not believe basketball could do that. This faculty member (Barbara Hershey) had her own issues and was, in her own way, seeking redemption, too.

As I say, just about everyone in Hickory was seeking redemption of one kind or another. And they all coalesced around the basketball team.

I have admired Hackman's work for a long time, and I will never understand why he wasn't nominated for Best Actor for his work in "Hoosiers."

But the movie received only two nominations — Hopper's for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Score.

Suspicious Behavior



"Well, well. You're the first woman I've ever met who said yes when she meant yes."

Johnny (Cary Grant)

I am a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's movies — something, as I have written before, that I picked up from my parents — but nearly all of his movies were before my time, and I have often wondered why his movies didn't win more Oscars. After all, many of his movies are considered classics today. You will always find them on "best of" lists. The American Film Institute included four Hitchcock movies in its list of the top 100 movies of all time. AFI included nine of Hitchcock's films in its list of the top 100 thrilling movies of all time.

Hitchcock himself was nominated for Best Director five times, but he never won. In spite of directing many of Hollywood's brightest stars in the 1940s and 1950s — some, like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, in multiple films — only one received an Oscar.

That was Joan Fontaine for her performance in "Suspicion," which was in American movie theaters on this day in 1941.

Hitchcock wasn't nominated for his directorial work in "Suspicion," but the movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Score of a Dramatic Picture in addition to Fontaine's Oscar for her acting.

Fontaine played an introverted, rather frumpy heiress who married a rogue/charmer (Grant) she met on a train. After their honeymoon, Fontaine's character began to discover her new husband's shadowy past. He was a rather reckless gambler who sold two of her antique chairs to pay off a gambling debt, and she became suspicious of his motives when one of his friends turned up dead under mysterious circumstances.

Fontaine's character wondered if he planned to kill her for her money, especially after he questioned a friend of hers, who happened to be a mystery writer, about poisons that could not be traced, and you had all the pieces in place for a classic Hitchcock psychological thriller.

In the end, though, Grant's character was vindicated, and, in truly Hitchcockian fashion, the movie shifted in the final minutes from a tale that cautioned wariness when facing the unknown to a cautionary tale about making assumptions based on incomplete and inaccurate information.

It was Fontaine's movie, and she was rewarded with the Oscar, but Grant was the one who really stole the show with his magnetism.

The story I have always heard is that Grant was frustrated by what he perceived as Hitchcock's preferential treatment of his leading lady. That shouldn't surprise any student of movies. Hitchcock always had an eye for lovely ladies, and he featured them prominently in his movies. Fontaine was merely one in a rather long line that included the likes of Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren.

I guess Grant found this particularly egregious, though, perhaps because it was pretty well known that he thought Fontaine was unprofessional and temperamental, and he pledged never to work with Hitchcock again.

They must have patched things up because they made three more movies together, including perhaps my favorite Hitchcock movie of all, "North by Northwest."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Frasier's Obsession



Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): That's it. I'm quirky. I'm delightfully quirky.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Do you realize that your delightful quirk has brought your life to a standstill?

Warning for those of you who are mathematically challenged (or "innumerate" as one of my graduate school professors liked to say in an effort to make that condition equivalent to illiteracy): I'm about to throw some numbers at you.

The episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 2001 was called "The Two Hundredth." It was actually about the 2,000th episode of Frasier's radio show. It was also the 200th episode of the Frasier TV series.

None of that had much to do with the story.

The story was on a suitably psychiatric theme — obsession. The number of episodes was merely used as the base for the story. It was also, I suppose, a rather creative way of observing the milestone for the TV series.

The episode began with about three minutes' worth of Frasier doing his radio program. In syndication, this part was cut out to make room for more commercials. That was a shame because it featured a very special guest, Microsoft co–founder Bill Gates.

There really wasn't anything particularly special — or, for that matter, particularly relevant to the rest of the episode — about Gates' appearance. It was an opportunity to kind of poke some fun at Frasier and his well–known quirks.

In syndication, the episode begins with the part that came next. Frasier, Martin (John Mahoney), Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) were going out to dinner to celebrate Frasier's 2,000th radio episode.

As he was preparing in his room for the evening, Frasier opened the doors of what appeared to be a sweater cubby — but was actually where he kept cassette recordings of his shows. He had tapes of every show he had ever done, and he deposited the recording of that day's show in its slot in the cubby. He glanced at the shelves filled with cassettes, smiled his satisfied smile, then closed the doors and started to walk out of his bedroom.

Then he stopped with a quizzical look on his face, went back to the cubby, opened the door and gasped. Then he summoned the other members of the household to his room where he interrogated them. Apparently, one of the tapes was stored upside down — and, upon closer inspection, the tape was not one of his shows but a collection of the greatest hits of Hall & Oates.

Turned out that Daphne was the culprit. She had been having trouble with her boombox and wanted to experiment with it to determine whether the problem was the tape or the boombox, but she only had the one cassette so she borrowed one of Frasier's to test the boombox — and discovered that the boombox, not the tape, was the problem. Frasier's tape got caught in the heads of the boombox and was ultimately ruined.

Frasier tried everything he could to replace it. He first tried the station's archives, but he soon learned that tapes were recycled at the space–strapped station. Only tapes of recent programs were in the archives, and no tape of the show, which would have been about 5½ years old at that time, could be found.

His next step was to seek the help of his listeners — so, using one of his favorite words, Frasier told his listeners he had a "boon" to ask of them. He explained that his collection was missing a tape, and, although he realized it was a long shot, he wanted to see if any of his listeners happened to have a tape of the show.

At first, no one did, but then the station called Frasier at home, where he had been in a kind of funk, to tell him a caller had called in saying that he had a tape of the show.

The caller (played by Adam Arkin) turned out to be an obsessed fan who had a wall filled with Frasier's photos and an answering machine recording that played Frasier's catchphrase — "I'm listening."

After spending some time with the fan, Frasier decided that he wouldn't take the tape after all, that he would leave his collection incomplete. He also worried about the influence he had had on the fan. The purpose of the show, he told the fan, was to help people lead better lives, "and I'm afraid I've hurt yours."

When he returned to his apartment, he told Daphne and Martin that he had not brought the tape home with him after all.

"Tonight," Frasier said, "I saw an example of how an obsession can take over a man's life. I don't want to be that man."

Good advice. Of course, Frasier proved incapable of following it.

Arkin was nominated for a 2002 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

An Unusual Bonding Experience



Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Do people really care this much about a basketball game?

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Are you kidding? This is Seattle; it rains nine months out of the year. We take our indoor sports very seriously.

Niles: Well, I know you always have.

The classic father–son bonding experience has something to do with sports.

Much of the time, it is the experience of playing catch — or some variation on that — in the yard. Fathers who aren't particularly athletically inclined may still bond with their sons over sports by watching games on TV — or, better still, at the ballpark.

My relationship with my father was one of the latter. He wasn't into playing catch, as I recall. We probably played catch a few times when I was a child, but it isn't a vivid memory for me. But I can remember watching football games with him on TV. In fact, it is something we still do to this day.

There are some fathers and sons who, for any number of reasons, don't bond over sports at all. The relationships that Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) had with their father Martin (John Mahoney) were in that category. Martin loved sports, especially the local Seattle teams, but Niles and Frasier weren't interested in sports.

But in the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996, "Head Game," Niles and Martin bonded over sports in an unexpected way.

The episode began with Frasier asking Niles to fill in for him on his radio show while he was away — ostensibly to attend a convention of radio psychiatrists (in reality, Grammer was checking in to the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse treatment).

Thus, Niles' presence on his brother's radio show was explained.

As Niles concluded his first day's program, Bulldog (Dan Butler) came in to do his show and told Niles and Roz (Peri Gilpin) that the guest on his show would be a player for Seattle's basketball team. The player had been capable of great things at one time but had hit a skid.

When they were introduced, the player recognized Niles as the psychiatrist he had just heard on the radio and sought some advice to help with his slump. They stepped out into the hallway where they could talk. Niles suggested a few mental exercises, but it was obvious that he was clueless about sports. Bulldog called him back to the studio. The amused player rubbed Niles' head as they parted.

That night the player broke out of his slump and hit a game–winning shot. In the postgame interview, he gave Niles the credit.

That made Niles a local hero — and perhaps nowhere was that more true than in Frasier's apartment, where both Martin and Daphne (Jane Leeves) carried on about his achievement.

At the radio station, everyone was patting him on the back and giving him a thumb's up. Roz had a bunch of faxes waiting for him praising him for helping Seattle's star player get back on track.

And the player sent over courtside tickets to that night's game. Niles took Martin and Daphne to the game, but the player seemed to have fallen back into his slump. He came to Niles for advice during a break in the action and confided that he had followed all of Niles' suggestions, but nothing worked. The only thing different was that he hadn't rubbed Niles' head as he had done in the radio studio. So he did, and then his luck changed.

Niles had a dilemma. He didn't feel right about taking credit for the player's turnaround when his psychiatric advice had nothing to do with it. He was simply, in his own words, "a rabbit's foot."

So he told Martin they would not go to games anymore. Martin didn't take that too well. He had just been bragging on the phone about how he was "living large" with courtside seats and VIP parking. Now it was taken away from him. He would be going to no more basketball games.

However, Niles did go to the arena to talk to the player.

It seemed that Niles had persuaded the player that he could not continue to be a good–luck charm.

But as the episode drew to a close, the audience knew the player was planning to cut some of Niles' hair, presumably to keep handy for those times when he lapsed back into a slump. The last thing the audience saw was the player holding some scissors behind his back.

I've heard that the episode was originally written for Grammer — but, as I say, he was elsewhere and the episode was used to showcase Niles instead.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Analysis of a Letter



"As you pointed out, Sigmund, there's a link between anger and wit. Anger turned inward is depression. Anger turned sideways is Hawkeye."

Sidney (Allan Arbus)

In the episode of M*A*S*H that first aired on this night in 1976, "Dear Sigmund," Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) was making one of his frequent visits to the 4077th. There really were times during the series when Sidney seemed to be a glutton for punishment.

But there was a method to his madness. He believed "there's something special" about the unit — a healing quality — so, when he went there one night to play poker, he wound up staying for weeks trying to resolve problems he was having with a case that had turned out badly. After working with a patient for a long time — and believing they were on the verge of a breakthrough — Freedman's patient "listened to the voices" in his head that had been telling him to end his life.

It was a "Richard Cory" kind of tale. At least it struck me that way. I don't know if Sidney's patient was wealthy or not; I only know he had been having problems and was seeking psychiatric help.

Anyway, in a letter Sidney was writing to Sigmund Freud, he referred to the compound as a "kind of spa," reporting that "the waters are pretty good here." (I presume that would only be if they were mixed with some of Hawkeye's and B.J.'s homemade hooch.)

Speaking of Hawkeye (Alan Alda), Freedman wrote about how Hawkeye had made the rounds in post–op one day "with a personality that had split 2 for 1" — and a pair of diver's flippers on his feet.

Most of Sidney's letter dealt with different ways the M*A*S*H folks found to occupy themselves during their down time — one of which was the poker game. By far the thing that occupied most people's thoughts and actions was a wave of practical jokes that had been sweeping the compound. No one knew who the practical jokester was or who might be his next victim.

The viewer always knew when the jokester had struck, though. One time a bench in the mess hall tipped over when someone sat at the end of it. Another time Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) got black rings around his eyes after using binoculars.

The joker turned out to be B.J. (Mike Farrell). Sidney found out when he discovered B.J. filling a hole in the ground with water. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) had been digging the holes to be prepared for air raids.

"As loud as you can," B.J. said to Sidney after enlisting his help in the practical joke, "shout 'Air raid!'" Which he did — and Frank came running out of the tent and dove into the hole, not realizing it was full of water.

On what was apparently a very cold first day of spring, the folks in the compound gathered outside for a brief ceremonial unveiling of a cherry blossom they had been trying to grow. They quickly covered it up and returned it to a makeshift greenhouse where it had been kept — and apparently would remain until springlike weather arrived to rejuvenate the frozen earth.

Sidney felt rejuvenated enough by that point to leave, observing as he did that happiness is "like springtime at M*A*S*H. If you can't see it or find it, you just go ahead and make it."

Which is pretty good advice.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

A Hunka Hunka Burning Love



Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): You know, I've been thinking of sending him someplace.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Like a resort?

Frasier: Like to live with you.

Niles: Oh, yes, the last resort.

Frasier's (Kelsey Grammer) problems with relationships that failed were well known, but his greater problems may have been with relationships that worked.

Case in point — the Frasier episode that first aired on this night in 2001, "Bla–Z–Boy."

Over breakfast one morning, it was observed by Martin (John Mahoney) that it was the eighth anniversary of his moving in with Frasier. Niles pointed out that Frasier's marriage didn't last eight years, and the conversation evolved into a determination that, if Frasier and Martin were a man and a woman, they would be common–law spouses. Further discussion determined that, when you included the time Frasier spent in Martin's home before he went to college, they had been living together for 26 years.

The subject really rubbed Frasier the wrong way, especially after Roz (Peri Gilpin) observed at the cafe that, after a conversation about coffee that they had had frequently in the past, they argued like an old married couple. It didn't help when Martin said, "See how he talks to me? And on our anniversary."

At one point, Frasier was watching a documentary on TV, but Martin kept distracting him by eating pretzels and adjusting his chair, which made an annoying squeaking sound. Frasier finally gave up and left the apartment to go for a walk. Anyway, Martin tried to correct the problem with the chair by oiling it but accidentally spilled some oil on Frasier's recently cleaned carpet. That, of course, had Frasier up in arms.

Martin insisted it had been an accident, but Frasier, in a typical psychiatrist's fashion, said there were no accidents. Martin continued to say it was an accident, that it wasn't malicious, as Frasier suggested.

Frasier said he didn't think Martin knew the difference between an accident and a malicious act. Martin walked over to Frasier and said that he did. The stain on the rug was an accident, he said, then pointing the oil bottle at Frasier and squeezing it several times, spraying oil on Frasier, he said, "This is malicious!"

Frasier had to replace the carpet, which necessitated moving the possessions from the living room to the balcony while the carpet was being installed. That included Martin's chair, which was positioned where the sun, shining through Frasier&aspos;s telescope could set it on fire.

And it did.

When Niles and Frasier realized what was happening, they ran out on the balcony and tried to put out the fire. But the chair toppled over and crashed on the sidewalk, just in front of Martin and Daphne (Jane Leeves) as they were returning from their walk.

(I'm not sure of this, but I think that was the only time the sidewalk in front of Frasier's building was ever seen. At least, I can't think of another episode when it was seen.)

Frasier claimed it had been an accident, but Martin reminded him that he had said there were no accidents.

Niles tried to mediate. He tried to get the two of them talking, but the effort failed. "You do this for a living, do you?" his father asked derisively.

Matters had reached a critical mass, and Martin tried to make amends by purchasing a new chair, one he thought Frasier would like. And he did.

But Frasier had something else in mind. He had reconstructed Martin's chair. It wasn't being made anymore, but he took some pictures of the old chair to a craftsman who re–created it. As for the material, he tracked down the manufacturer and, after forcing them to admit they made it, he had them re–weave it.

The result was that Martin's chair, the one Frasier had loathed from the beginning, was now the most expensive piece of furniture in the apartment.

Frasier seemed to have come to terms with his feelings about his relationship with his father. He offered to take his father, Niles and Daphne out to dinner, observing as they were leaving the apartment that he bet they could get free pie if they told the waitress it was their anniversary.

"Bla–Z–Boy" won the 2002 Emmy for outstanding sound mixing in a comedy series or special.

Recalling Country's Roots



Most of the songs on Merle Haggard's "Roots Volume 1," which was released on this date in 2001, were written before my time — many in full or in part by Lefty Frizzell, one of Haggard's major influences although Haggard did contribute one original composition as well as songs by Hank Williams and Hank Thompson.

Still "Roots Volume 1" was primarily a tribute to Frizzell and the almost joyful mood of his music. Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote for Allmusic.com that the album was "an unexpected return to how country records used to be made."

If that is true — and I have no reason to think it is not — I'm sorry I missed those days.

It isn't the weepy kind of country music I so often heard in the barber shops and hardware stores in my then–small central Arkansas hometown when I was growing up. The melodies had more of a bounce to them, if you know what I mean, and the lyrics were clever. A perfect example is Merle's rendition of Frizzell's biggest hit, "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)." Throw that in with Merle's version of Williams' "Honky Tonkin'," and you may get an idea of what to expect from this album.

I have never really been a country music fan, but I was familiar with "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)." In my hometown, it would have been inconceivable not to be familiar with that one.

But "Roots Volume 1" introduced me to Frizzell songs I knew nothing about.

It's a good album, a fun album to listen to, but it reminds me of a lesson I learned early in my career in newspapers.

From the title, you probably expect there to be a Volume 2, but that would be a false expectation. There was no Volume 2. (It's like starting a news story with the time element, which is almost never the most important part of a news story — but you might be surprised how many people will start their news stories with when something happened rather than what happened.)

I don't know if Merle planned to make a second volume of his versions of old country songs. If he intended to do so, he never followed through.

The closest he came, I suppose, was when he released "The Peer Sessions" in 2002. It was a collection of classic country songs, similar in style, but most of the tunes were written by Jimmie Davis or Jimmie Rodgers. There were no Lefty Frizzell songs on that one.

When I worked for newspapers, I learned early that, if you're going to run a series of articles on a subject, you better have all the articles written and ready to go before you ever publish the first one. Otherwise, you're just asking for trouble.

We had different reasons for that in the newspaper business than Haggard almost surely had in the music business, but the reasoning is sound in both cases.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Late, Great Stevie Ray's Final Album



Stevie Ray Vaughan had been deceased for more than a year on this day in 1991 when an album of 10 of his previously unreleased recordings was released.

(Well, actually, one of the songs had been released on an album when Vaughan was alive, but the recording of the song that was used in the posthumous album was a different version.)

Called "The Sky Is Crying," the album was a bittersweet reminder of how much we lost when Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin in August 1990. It was a collection of pieces written mostly by other artists, like Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, but there were a couple of songs penned by Vaughan.

And there was one song, "Life by the Drop," that was written by Doyle Bramhall, one of Vaughan's friends.

Bramhall clearly knew Stevie Ray's style. I always thought the song was perfect for him. It captured his style in a way that none of the other songs did.

The title track was written by James, but Albert King probably recorded the most widely recognized version of it.

Much of the album was the hard–driving blues for which Vaughan was known, but it was really a showcase for Stevie Ray's diverse (if unheralded) guitar styles. They were all influenced to a certain extent by the blues, of course — but the influence was not exclusive.

My favorite track has always been an instrumental piece called "Chitlins Con Carne." That one really was different for Stevie Ray. I have often wondered why he recorded it. Did he just do it as a lark with no intention of releasing it?

Perhaps. I haven't heard any other songs that could have been used on an album with it. But surely these weren't the only outtakes in Stevie Ray's portfolio.

"Chitlins Con Carne" was written by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and it offered a glimpse into the jazzy side of Vaughan's musical personality, which was an intriguing departure. Stevie Ray was a great guitarist, one of the best who ever lived, but he seldom seemed to stray from what made his reputation. Most of the time that is a good strategy. Dance with who brung you, Texas football coach Darrell Royal used to say, and it was advice that Texas–born Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to take to heart.

But the tracks on "The Sky Is Crying" allowed Stevie Ray to step out of his comfort zone — from the grave, if you will.

Hendrix's "Little Wing" was a rare opportunity to hear Stevie Ray doing blues rock. Stevie Ray's style was more blues than anything else.

The songs on "The Sky Is Crying" were recorded in sessions from 1984 to 1989. For reasons that may have been known only to Stevie Ray, they weren't included on albums from 1984's "Couldn't Stand the Weather" to 1989's "In Step."

It all worked out in the end, though. The 10 tracks combined to form what may have been Stevie Ray's best studio album — perhaps even better than "In Step."

The 25th anniversary of the release of "The Sky Is Crying" is a reminder of what we lost, and it revives questions I heard asked when "The Sky Is Crying" was released.

How many other unreleased Stevie Ray recordings are there? And when will we get to hear them?

'Madman Across the Water' Was Elton John's Finest



There can be no disputing the fact that Elton John has made a lot of albums in his life, and most of them have been pretty good.

I've always thought his best work came early in his career, when he was putting out two or three albums a year, and my personal opinion is that his very best album — "Madman Across the Water" — was released on this day in 1971.

I always liked the title song best. It was different from the others, not destined for release as a single or extended radio airtime. For that the album offered "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer."

The song had a haunting, symphonic sound that I really liked (credit Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements for that). I can't explain it any better than that. Much of the remainder of the album had the kind of pop sound for which John is probably best known — although several songs showed a flair and a poet's touch that one rarely finds on an album by a 24–year–old.

"Madman Across the Water" wasn't his most popular album. It did reach #8 on the Billboard chart, which was a lot better than it did on the U.K. charts, but there were several other albums that went to #1. Still, I kind of thought it had something for everyone.

As I said, I liked the title track the best, but there is no denying the popularity of the singles. "Levon" reached #24 in the United States, and "Tiny Dancer" made it to #41.

Again, though, there were many other Elton John songs that reached greater heights on the charts.

Interesting thing about "Tiny Dancer." Well, more than one.

For one thing, I think it had some of the most delicate piano playing I have ever heard, and it transitioned subtly yet beautifully into a broader, more complex arrangement.

"Tiny Dancer" wasn't a huge hit in the United States, and it wasn't even released as a single in the United Kingdom. Fact is, it enjoyed its greatest success in Canada, which was where John's career really got started, and Australia. "Tiny Dancer" made it to #19 on the Canadian charts and #13 on the Australian charts.

There was more great piano on "Levon," which reached #6 on the Canadian charts. It, too, offered John's unique piano style, and it was one of John's many collaborations with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

The natural assumption is that the song had something to do with Levon Helm since, reportedly, The Band was John and Taupin's favorite group in those days.

But Taupin claimed a few years ago that the song had nothing to do with Helm.

Jon Bon Jovi, who idolizes John, covered the song for a tribute album to the songwriting team. Supposedly, "Levon" is his favorite song

As I say, "Madman Across the Water" is my favorite Elton John album — although some, like "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," come close to matching it in my mind. It kind of runs out of gas near the end, but that's OK.

It's still great. Most of the tracks give the impression of being major works by themselves.

As, indeed, most of them are.

And when that is the case, you can overlook the misfires near the end.