Why We No Longer Hear Angels - and a Few Words about Tennis, Chess, Prison & the Healing Power of Classical Music
If you’ve ever visited the circus or a city like San Francisco, then you know a barker is someone who stands outside a theater or sideshow and calls out to passersby to get them interested in what's happening inside the tent. The word comes to mind just now because there seems to be a lot of barking in the public arena these days. And a lot of braying too. All of it a distraction from the things that probably matter most to you—if you haven’t been too distracted by all that noise to figure out what that is.
So, let me depart from my usual commentary in order to share a few things I found touching recently, which you may find interesting too.
WHY WE NO LONGER HEAR ANGELS
The following clip is from Faraway, So Close—a beautiful 1993 film by Wim Wenders, which I heard about this year from a writer friend on Twitter. At only two minutes and fifteen seconds, this bit of dialogue gets to the core of why all that barking can be harmful. It depicts a telepathic conversation between two angels, Raphaela (Nastassja Kinski) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), as they consider why it’s so difficult for their guidance to reach us the way it used to back in the day.
Sometimes girls just wanna have fun--even when they're anchoring the news.
When I first saw this video, it made me happy. But not in the way you might think. Watching the ladies do their thing was fun. What made me happy, though, was vindication, that feeling you get when you find out you were right after all. Since I hate to say, "I told you so," I wont.
But I will say this. Back when I anchored TV news -- and it was a while ago -- the higher-ups brought in consultants who pushed a concept called the "happy talk" format. This was light chit-chat between segments, which sometimes rose to the level of repartee, but not often. I wanted to live in an ideal world back then, not the real one. So with all the self-righteousness of Martin Luther tacking his 95 Theses to the cathedral door, I resigned from the news business and wrote an essay saying why. The essay was eventually published in a textbook and taught for a while in college classrooms. But the only "reformation" to come out of it occurred within me.
Over the years, the consultants have come up with other ways to jump-start flagging newscast ratings, since merely delivering information was not enough to hold the public's attention. If you've been near a TV set when the news was on, you already know what I mean. Reporters jumping from airplanes. Confessing to past sins. Weeping on air. Becoming the news instead of presenting it.
But what you see in this viral video featuring newscasters in Memphis, Tennessee, is the best move yet. Nearly three million "hits" within 36 hours. Coverage in Cosmopolitan online. Why didn't anyone think of this before?
I predict the woman in the purple dress will soon resign her job as co-anchor to become a Hollywood actress. She will star in a remake of Lost Horizon called Quan Yin, which will be completely innocent of any other meaning Quan Yin might have. The movie will flop. But this viral video will live on. I also predict a slew of copycats coming to a screen near you. Other newscasters have already posted their versions of this so-called "Hit the Quan Challenge." (If you do not yet know what "Quan" is, a trip the Urban Dictionary will prove most enlightening.)
When the consultants first invaded the news department where I worked and told us every newscast must have an animal, a fire, and no politics unless the "governor was caught on tape screwing his secretary," one of my colleagues, an award-winning journalist, asked, "How low can they go?"
Now we know the answer. Happy Talk News has become Happy Feet News.
Keep your seat, Mr. Sondheim. There's no need for clowns. Just bring on the penguins. And fear not. This is not the beginning of the end of broadcast journalism: that happened a long time ago.
(Spoiler Alert. If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading now.)
Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again. It’s the formula for a happy ending. Even Romeo and Juliet are united again in death. It’s what audiences look for, one of the time-worn traditions of classic storytelling - something we find ourselves hoping for even when we know better. There’s something in us that believes in love. That love will find a way. That somehow or another, things will work out. Never mind that Thomas Moore called romantic love an illusion. Or that Nietzsche considered it an unsatisfactory basis for lasting relationship. We know better. Take away love—and life sucks.
Which is why Whiplash—wonderful as it is—winds up being a bit of a downer. The abusive character played by Oscar-winning J. K. Simmons calls to mind a similarly abusive figure played by Lou Gossett, Jr., in An Officer and a Gentleman years earlier. The young drummer of Whiplash reminds us of the young Richard Gere trying to make something of himself, to move past the father’s failures and to become if not his own father (in the words of Ralph Ellison) at least his own best self. But first the metaphorical apprentice knight of these twin stories must deal with two obstacles—the abusive mentor and a girl from the lower stratum. In the military film, Debra Winger is one of the local townsfolk. In the jazz movie, Melissa Benoist attends “lowly” Fordham University instead of the most prestigious musical conservatory in the country and has no idea what she wants to major in.
It is one thing to find an abusive drill sergeant in a military film, and quite another to see such an unlovable character in a film about art. Except the brief appearance of an African-American female attorney and two non-speaking female characters in Whiplash, Melissa Benoist must carry the feminine for that film. And even she is banished as the main character decides to go it alone against the so-called mentor whose abuse may have contributed to the eventual suicide of a former student.
The triumphant ending of Whiplash leaves one feeling a bit odd, however. The final wordless exchange between teacher and student is unsettling. Even though he has proved himself beyond "measure" in that final solo, his eyes say all. Despite the teachers’ harrowing cruelty, those eyes still seek his approval. Succor of any kind—be it from loving father or willing girlfriend—is denied in favor of this ugly man’s affirmation.
In An Officer and a Gentleman, the hero manages to make the grade and get the girl. By the end of Whiplash, Melissa Benoist is gone. Art is lonely. But it must not be loveless. There is, arguably, a moment of transcendence at the end of Whiplash. It seems fleeting, though, and devoid of the self-assurance that ought to come from such an episode. Also, the film’s ending seems to justify the relentless abuse—and the teacher’s argument that he did it to push his students toward the greatness that came out of “Bird” after Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at the teenaged Charlie Parker.
The film tells us that there is no room for the girl when a man seeks to find his way to greatness. And that message is malarkey. This film knows nothing of Ariadne’s thread and has never heard the testimony of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. It tells us that some men can do without the feminine on the road to greatness. And it leaves us with a boy who does some really great drumming. But looking at that last wordless exchange at the end of the film, we see that he is a long, long way from becoming a great artist.
Here are three clips worth noting. Let's begin with break-up scene from Whiplash, followed by two versions of Duke Ellington's "Caravan," which figures prominently in the film. The first is the final solo from the movie. The second is the classic solo from the cymbal-throwing Jo Jones. If you were a drum, which drummer would you prefer?
If you are interested in the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, which occurred on this day in 1948, you must look elsewhere. Go to that other place for blogging about the rise of Hitler (1/30/1933) or the ritual execution of Oliver Cromwell in 1661. There was other tragedy too, which occurred in Northern Ireland, on this day in 1972, when British Paratroopers opened fire and killed 1400 unarmed civil-rights marchers in Derry, Northern Ireland. Let it be noted that evil occurs in the world. That it cannot be ignored. But let it not be something upon which we dwell or nourish within our inner garden. Let it not be the thing we think too much on. Or grow with our mind's attention to it. Let it not be. Or rather, Let It Be.
Which brings us to the point of another noteworthy event that occurred on January 30, 1969. If you read the headline, you already know. There's something about that final Beatles concert that calls to mind unforgettable dialogue from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest. Found? In a handbag? At a train station? Well, it was a rooftop this time. And when you check the video below, you'll see the incredulity of Wilde's dialogue written on the faces of London police. The Beatles may seem mild by today's standards, but in 1969, they were some bad-ass musicians. After the police shut down the concert, John Lennon said, "I’d like to say ‘Thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.”
Here then is a three minute clip from the final concert, followed by 35 minutes of audio, followed by two clips from Julie Taymor's paean to the Fab Four, the rooftop scene in Across the Universe.
Can One Song Honor the Memory of the Challenger & Also Our Connection to Henry VIII, Jackson Pollock & Alan Alda?
January 28. This date has all the earmarks of a constellation within which individual stars compete with one another for our attention. It's the anniversary of the tragic Challenger space-shuttle explosion in 1986. King Henry VIII died on this day in 1547. Colette was born. So were painters Jackson Pollock and Alice Neel. Alan Alda, Sarah McLachlan, and Nicolas Sarkozy also have birthdays today. On January 28, 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice. One could wax eloquent on each of these -- if only there were time and space to do so.
Suffice it then to mark this day with a song that seems to encompass them all. It was on this day in 1985 that a bunch of musicians got together to record U.S.A. For Africa's "We Are the World."
There have been other versions through the years, each with its own take on a familiar theme. Regardless of how the song and its imitations may seem in hindsight, one has to admit that it bears the mark of poetic truth. Perhaps that is why it has struck a chord with more than 34 million viewers on YouTube alone, to say nothing of the millions more who have downloaded it on iTunes or purchased a jewel-cased CD. It carries a message that can never be stated only once, finally and forever. Maybe that message is what the world's religions, each in its own way, have all been striving for all along. That we recognize our connectedness to one another -- and love the world as ourselves. Since, as the poet tells us, no man is an island. We are each a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Who knew as early as January 16th that 1938 would see Hitler invade Austria, Japan declare war on China, or General Franco declare victory in the Spanish Civil War? There was nothing in the stars to indicate the arrival later that year of Superman, Bugs Bunny, and the first use of a seeing-eye dog. Nor perhaps did anyone realize the Fair Labor Standards Act would get rid of child labor that year and make the 40-hour work week the national standard throughout the United States.
Those were all history-making events. But so was Benny Goodman's appearance at Carnegie Hall on January 16th of that year. Already famous as the "King of Swing," even he had not conquered the legendary hall, which was then home to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of the renowned Arturo Toscanini. When the idea was first brought to him several months earlier, Goodman laughed out loud. It was unthinkable that the august venue of classical music might also find an audience for jazz. Although often referred to as "America's classical music," jazz was nevertheless seen as low brow and undignified.
When he succeeded in bringing jazz to Carnegie Hall that year, Goodman broke down the barrier between the classes - for a while at least.
The concert was a raging, history-making success. Goodman's orchestra included Gene Krupa, Count Basie, Lester Young, Harry James, Johnny Hodges, and Lionel Hampton. Many of them are easily identifiable in the video clip below, which serves up the exceptional Goodman hit, "Sing, Sing, Sing," inter-cut with still images that reveal the life of the time. It all seems archaic now, but the music in this clip steps outside of time to become something memorable. It may be jazz, but it's undeniably classic.
Moms Mabley Sings "Abraham, Martin & John" (1969) & The Pointer Sisters Live (1975) - Birthdays for Moms & Ruth Pointer
We were not supposed to listen to Moms Mabley when I was a kid. Her humor was too risque. So of course, we listened to her whenever we visited our friends. Some of them knew her off-color jokes by heart and would recite them in the cafeteria while the nuns patrolled the aisles to make sure we were behaving ourselves. I still laugh when I recall the way we tried to imitate Moms' raspy voice, retelling her jokes as if we knew all about the life we were being protected from. Example: A burglar breaks into Moms' bedroom. She wakes up and says, "What do you want - I hope."
Anyway, in 1969, at the age of 75, she sang an unforgettable version of "Abraham, Martin & John," which made it to Number 2 on the music charts. It was one year after Dr. King's assassination. This voice we associated with vulgarity perfectly expressed the pathos of the moment. See for yourself in the following clip from her performance on The Merv Griffin Show. I suppose I could have tweeted this, but I had to have it on my website. I just had to.
Ruth Pointer Turns 68?
Here she is with her sisters in a live concert recorded in 1975. This was when they were doing their '40's thing. And they're terrific. You can see and hear the craft that led to later hits like "Jump" and "Neutron Dance" and so many others. And let's go ahead and include "Jump" too. It's a celebration. Happy Birthday, Ruth!
Two Good Reasons to Celebrate December 14 - Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery" Author) & Clark Terry (Montreux Jazz Festival)
On July 29th of this year, the New Yorker magazine published "Paranoia," a recently discovered short story by Shirley Jackson, who was born on this date in 1916. By now, just about every high school student since the 1960's has read, "The Lottery," her most famous story, which the New Yorker published in 1948.
According to shirleyjackson.org, that story generated the "largest volume of mail ever received by the magazine - before or since - almost all of it hateful."
I re-read the story before penning this blog, and it still gives me chills. Of course, I'm predisposed to feel that way, given news reports pouring in from Centennial, Colorado, where a high school student took his own life after critically shooting another student, an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What makes me think of Jackson in this context is that everyone who knew the shooter said what a "nice" guy he was. That's exactly how you might describe any of the characters in "The Lottery." They're this neighborly, smiling group of small-town folk, gathered in the town square as if for a concert. You'd never know from all this "niceness" that they're about to stone a woman to death.
"Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," the story's oldest character says nonchalantly. That's our clue that the poor victim is a scapegoat. In the Bible, a scapegoat was an actual animal upon whom the collective sins of the people had been placed. It strikes me that this is what our children have become. In last year's Newtown shootings and in Columbine, and now Centennial, to name the few that come quickly to mind, the children have been made to carry the sin of internalized violence about which we are largely unconscious.
Carl Jung wrote that "unconsciousness is sin," and that may be why we see the same dumfounded expressions - the same mindless search for answers, the same entrenched debate about guns - after each of these once unthinkable catastrophes. We're unconscious of how the acceptance of violence in our culture has separated us from sanity. We accept violent movies, TV shows, and video games. We agree to it in song lyrics. We watch it on the news while eating pizza and gulping soft drinks. We accept it the way Jackson's characters in "The Lottery" accept the terrible thing they are about to do. And it's anybody guess - the luck of the draw - which school-age child will become the next scapegoat, the bearer of our collective sin.
If you don't have a published copy of "The Lottery" handy, I've included a 10-minute film version (released in 2007) below. If little Davy looks familiar, it's Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, from The Omen. Be forewarned - the filmmakers changed it a little. But the basic idea is there. Also, the New Yorker published quite an interesting interview with Jackson's son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in the same issue as "Paranoia," and you can find that here.
Moving on to a happier subject, jazz great Clark Terry turns 93 today. Born December 14th in Saint Louis, MO, he is best known as an innovator of flugelhorn jazz. But his work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones has taken him through swing, hard bebop and eventually to the Jazz Masters Hall of Fame. The clip below features the birthday boy himself at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival in a performance of "Samba de Orfeu." Jazz fans will recognize Oscar Peterson on piano, Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet on vibes. Ronnie Scott, Joe Pass (guitar), Niels Pedersen (bass), and Bobby Durham (drums). It's fourteen minutes of fun. Makes you feel like dancing, don't it? So go ahead, why don't you? There's nobody here but us chickens.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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