Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Taste Of Lymon

Frankie Lymon, born 70 years ago today, was lead singer of The Teenagers. Unfortunately, he didn't get that far past his teens, dying in 1968 at the age of 25.  But he left behind some great tunes:



Forgotten Man

When people talk about Buffalo Springfield, they're usually thinking about Neil Young or Stephen Stills or sometimes Richie Furay, since they wrote and sang the songs.  But what about the man behind them, and today's birthday boy, Dewey Martin.  He was always there with a steady backbeat:





Saturday, September 29, 2012

The New Normal

Maybe it's the success of the return of Dallas, but I sense a trend in this fall's new TV shows--they like naming them after specific places: Chicago Fire, Made In Jersey, Malibu Country,  Vegas, Nashville. (The last one has gotten the best reviews as far as I can tell.)

Titles don't make or break a show, but I can't think of too many great series of the past named after specific, real-life locations.  I'm trying to imagine the titles we would have had if this were the trend: Mary In Minneapolosi, Boston Bar (and sequel Seattle Psychologist), Washington Wing, Albuquerque Blues.  Not sure if they have the same ring.

TB

Happy birthday, Tommy Boyce.  He had some success as a performer, but was better known as a songwriter, especially for the Monkees.








Friday, September 28, 2012

For Those Of You Who Missed The 80s

Happy birthday, Alannah Currie.  She was the female member of the Thompson Twins.





What's Your Position On Avatar?

Earlier this week President Obama gave a speech to the UN General Assembly where he tried to strike a tone that was tough yet diplomatic.  America had been attacked overseas and something had to be said, but at the same time the President didn't want to further inflame the situation.   Perhaps nothing would have worked, since the true problem goes beyond speeches, harsh or pretty.  Still, there were a few moments I think the President went too far in the "diplomatic" direction, moments that might be called appeasement.

First there was this:

That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.

Should the President be attacking the video?  I understand the President is trying to reach out to those who feel offended, but isn't the real problem people who don't know how to handle feeling offended?  It's not really about the video, after all (which most people involved in this controversy haven't seen).  If Muslims had rioted over a more cultured and respectable critique of Islam, would that make a difference to the President?  Would he say "finally, a well-done attack on Islam"?

Furthermore, the President is taking time out to be a critic.  On behalf of the United States, he's stating the video's message must be rejected.  Is that his call?  There are lots of fairly crude attacks on religion out there (including some highly popular pieces of entertainment), but I don't see the President saying what we should think about them.  It would seem he's taking this position because the video (allegedly) caused some attacks.  Wouldn't this make the protesters feel, if anything, more justified--not only did we get the attention of the American President, he even agreed that we should be outraged.

Then, in a series of paragraphs about where the future must go, there was this:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.

I'm not sure what he means by slander, but it could be taken to mean practically any criticism.  But criticism of people's beliefs is central not only to freedom of speech, but to freedom of religion.  People disagree on many things, and while they should refrain from violence, attacking ideas, and historical figures, is hardly beyond the pale.

In any case, why is the President telling the world where it must go when it comes to religion?  It's not the UN's job to ensure any particular religion succeeds or fails.  And certainly the President isn't pronouncing a new American policy that we will protect the popularity of Islam.  We offer freedom of religion--more than any other country--but we don't guarantee any religion's success.  Not even Christianity, which has always enjoyed majority status here. (Imagine if the President promised that.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vote Veto

According to estimates, early votes will account for over a third of the total in our Presidential election.  Why isn't this a scandal?

If you can prove you can't make it to the polls on election day, I can maybe see how the state would allow an early ballot, but otherwise everyone should be voting at the same time.  We should wait till all the evidence is in and our minds are collectively concentrated.

I suppose most of the early voters wouldn't change their preference anyway, but elections should mean something rather than be the cutoff point of a months-long auction.  Or maybe we should go the whole way.  Let's just have four-year voting.  You only get one ballot, but you can cast it any time you like.  I bet Hillary Clinton would have liked that.

AW

Let's say goodbye to Andy Williams, a singer in but definitely not of the rock era.








Wednesday, September 26, 2012

June In September

I just missed the 95th birthday of June Foray.  You may not have heard of her, but you've heard her.  She's one of the greatest voice artists of the 20th century.

Here's but a small sampling:


I Love Ya, Olivia

Happy birthday, Olivia Newton-John. She had a pretty successful recording career in the 70s and 80s, with fifteen top ten hits and five number ones.  For soft, mainstream rock (with an occasional country tinge), she wasn't bad.

I like her earliest hits best:







In the 80s, she got a heavier beat, but was still fun:


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Future Shock

The latest Rolling Stone has a piece on Detropia, a documentary (that I haven't yet seen) about how my home town is collapsing.  I can't link to it directly, but here's how it starts:

Want a glimpse of what the Republican vision for downsizing government could mean for America's cities?  You could do a lot worse than visit Detroit.

Wow.  You gotta work pretty hard to look at a city that's been controlled by Democrats for fifty years and turn it into a warning about Republicans.

Meet Dmitri

It's Dmitri Shostakovich's birthday today!  Like other Russian artists of his day, he had a lot of trouble dealing with the Soviet government, but that never stopped him from doing great work as a composer.




Monday, September 24, 2012

Mersey Me

Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, turns 70 today. (Does he have a pacemaker?)

They signed with Brian Epstein which meant for their first #1 hit in England they got a song written by Mitch Murray that the Beatles had essentially turned down. (Lennon and McCartney wanted to write their own singles.)  Sounds pretty good to me.



Their next British #1, also written by Murray and based on a Jerry Lewis catchphrase, was even better.


Emmy Memo

Another year, another Emmy Awards.  The show was nothing special, but at least it didn't go overtime. There were a lot of good nominees this year, and some decent winners, but also some rather unfortunate picks.

I guess the big story was Homeland practically sweeping the drama awards--best show, actress, actor and writing. (It inexplicably lost direction to the weakest nominee, Boardwalk Empire.) I guess the Academy was ready for a change--this was the first time Mad Men ever lost.  Homeland is a good show (though I'd put it behind Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad), and Claire Danes definitely deserved her Emmy, but Damian Lewis?  He shouldn't even have been nominated.  He broke Bryan Cranston's streak, and Jon Hamm has still not won this award.  After years of Brit Hugh Laurie not winning when he deserved to, why suddenly give it to Lewis?

Another surprise was Aaron Paul repeating for supporting actor.  All the nominees were worthy--best category, really--but if anyone from Breaking Bad was going to win, you'd think it'd be Giancarlo Esposito.

In comedy, the voters weren't willing to share the wealth, so Modern Family won its third Best Show Emmy in a row.  Not a huge surprise, and it was probably the best of the nominees.  A little more surprising, the Academy stuck to their favorites--Family 's Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen both won their second Emmy for supporting work.  It was possible to believe the voters would start spreading the Emmys around the cast, but it looks like Ed O'Neill, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Sofia Vergara are never going to win.  As a sidenote, I think once you win an Emmy for playing a character, you shouldn't get nominated again for that character.  (I didn't agree with either win--Ty Burrell is still the best thing on the show while, and Mayim  Bialik does a lot with a thin character on Big Bang Theory.)

Jon Cryer was a surprise choice for Best Actor while Academy favorite Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in her first year on Veep took Best Actress.

I don't have much to say about the other genres, but really, it's getting ridiculous, giving Jon Stewart's show the variety award every year.   The same goes for The Amazing Race and reality. Miniseries and movie were combined, and the tiresome Game Change won a bunch of awards, as did the awful Hatfields & McCoys.

I've left the worst for last. Louis C.K.--who won elsewhere for his comedy special--took best writing for a comedy series. (His show, which maybe deserved an Emmy, wasn't even nominated.) Normally I wouldn't mind, but he was up against Community's "Remedial Chaos Theory," one of the best half-hours of TV I've seen in years. I realize the Emmy voters don't think much of the show, but I was hoping the brilliance of the episode would help them overcome their animus.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bop Till You Drop

John Coltrane died at the age of 40 in 1967.  Otherwise, he might still be blowing today.  He sure got a lot done in his short life.  He worked with Miles and Monk and then went in his own direction.  Anyway, happy birthday.



Musical Comedy

Been listening to some Broadway cast albums lately, in particular three fairly recent shows that are about making the audience laugh and little else--The Producers, Monty Python's Spamalot and The Book Of Mormon.  All three are major hits, but I find their scores lacking.

Past Broadway shows that meant to be funny above all else, such as How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Little Me, still had what I'd call "real" scores (by major composers like Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim, from whom you'd expect nothing less). Whether the numbers work or not, they're original, with well-crafted lyrics.  The songs, even for Forum, where Sondheim was taking a break from the integrated style created by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, strongly fit the characters and the situation, and generally move the plot forward.  Some of the numbers are also strong enough that they've found life outside their shows--"Brotherhood Of Man," "I Believe In You," "Comedy Tonight," "I've Got Your Number," "Real Live Girl."

The scores to these newer shows, as amusing as they are, don't compare.  Part of this may be the composers are mostly writers taking a bash at music, but I think it's also that lower standards have invaded Broadway.

Look at The Producers.  Based on a funny movie (that I prefer), the songs, by Mel Brooks, get their laughs, but are still second-rate.  They mostly sound like songs trying to sound like Broadway tunes rather than original works.  A few of the numbers are taken from the movie, where they worked quite well as Broadway parodies within a straight comedy, but a whole show of parodies doesn't make for a score that stands on its own.



Something similar is true with Spamalot.  Once again, I prefer the film, but then, I prefer my Python undiluted.  The numbers in the movie work not only because they're funny, but because they come out of nowhere and add to the general absurdity.  The score of a Broadway musical can't have numbers that don't seem to fit, they have to hold up the show.  I'm not saying the numbers are no fun, but, written by Eric Idle and John Du Prez (and adding Neil Innes' fine contributions from the movie), they're pastiche and little more.  Self-consciousness has always been part of Monty Python, but in a big Broadway show, numbers like "The Song That Goes Like This," "You Won't Succeed On Broadway" and "Whatever Happened To My Part?" get laughs but don't add much to the proceedings.  The show is still fun, but I don't think I'd ever consider buying the sheet music.



The closest of these three to a great score is The Book Of Mormon.  I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park are talented, but maybe their secret weapon is co-writer Robert Lopez, who also worked on Avenue Q. Even when they parody older styles, the songs are imaginative and stand on their own.  They're also very funny.  The biggest problem is the show uses a rock standard when it comes to lyrics, so there are lots of bad rhymes and poorly stressed lines, which can be jarring.  I guess they figure their fans won't care.  If these young men applied themselves, and adopted standards they don't believe in and think are pointless, who knows how far they'd go?


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Making A Living

Happy birthday, Billy West.  Not the great voice actor, but the screen comedian born 120 years ago.

Charlie Chaplin released his first film in 1914, and within a year was a huge international star.  There were legions of imitators, and the best was Billy West. In 1917-1918, West made a series of one-reelers that, if it weren't for just a little something missing (such as lack of invention), you could almost mistake for the real thing.

And as the Eric Campbell-like bad guy, you've got Oliver "Babe" Hardy, years before he was teamed up with Stan Laurel (who for a time was another Chaplin imitator--not to mention an old roommate of the actual star).


Dynomite

The Runaways were put together as much for their age and image as their music, but it turned out they had some natural born rockers.  Above all, today's birthday girl Joan Jett.  She went out on her own and did quite well.  There was one monster hit, her cover of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," but I think she did better than that.






Friday, September 21, 2012

Press On, Preston

Rock and jazz musician Don Preston turns 80 today.  He's worked with a long list of greats, but the era I care most about are the years he spent with Frank Zappa, where he played keyboards as a member of the Mothers Of Invention.






Sister Sister

Ruth McKenney, a journalist from Columbus, Ohio, moved to New York City with her sister Eileen in the 1930s.  They paid $45 dollars a month for a rundown basement apartment in Greenwich Village.  She wrote a series of stories about herself and her sister which were published in The New Yorker and later collected in book form, but that was just the beginning.  Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov adapted the book for the stage, setting the action in the apartment, and the play, directed by George S. Kaufman, was a huge Broadway hit in the 40s. (Tragically, Eileen and her husband, novelist Nathanael West, died in a car crash four days before the played opened.) It was the kind of middlebrow comedy that Broadway loved back then, but has since mostly left the stage and moved into television.

The McKenney sister's tale (changed to Ruth and Eileen Sherwood) is best known to us today as the basis for the musical Wonderful Town, a Broadway hit in 1953, book by Fields and Chodorov, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  However, there are two films made from the play entitled My Sister Eileen that have nothing to do with Wonderful Town, and by chance I saw them both last week.

First, there's the 1942 adaptation of the play--in fact, it was released when the show was still running--starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen.  It starts in Columbus and spends some time on the streets of New York, but is never too far from its stage origins, with most of the film set in the apartment, where a lot of characters just happen to be running in and out.

The film is a breezy comedy that doesn't hit the heights of the kind of screwball stuff that Russell was so good at.  If it has a problem, it's probably Janet Blair. She's a fresh-faced lass, but doesn't quite have the sexiness I think the role calls for.  The point of the play is that men are always falling for Eileen and this leads to all sorts of trouble. I'm not saying Blair isn't lovely, but Russell is arguably as goodlooking and certainly has more charisma. Of course, that's the movies--even that average-looking sister has to be attractive.  In the play, the relatively dumpy Shirley Booth played Ruth.

Russell would go on to star in Wonderful Town, which keeps most of the characters and incidents from the play and movie--and ads a classic score (allegedly written in six weeks).  Columbia, which made the first film, owned the rights to the story and sought to bring Wonderful Town to the screen.  But studio head Harry Cohn didn't like how much the score would cost, so decided to remake the film with original music by Leo Robin and Jule Styne.  The end result from 1955 is another charming work that deserves a look.

I remember catching a bit of it on TV years ago. At first I thought I'd stumbled onto a film version of Wonderful Town, so it freaked me out when they started performing numbers I'd never heard of.

This one stars Betty Garrett as Ruth and Janet Leigh as Eileen.  That's more like it.  Garrett is by no means ugly, but she's not Hollywood beautiful, while Leigh is a knockout. It also has a young Jack Lemmon on the verge of stardom as well as Bob Fosse as a young swain.  Fosse did the choreography and already we can see the beginnings of the style that would make him one of Broadway's greatest directors of musicals.

Eileen was always supposed to be more naive than Ruth, but that difference isn't as strong in the 1942 version.  That probably has something to do with how women were portrayed on screen.  In the 30s and early 40s, even "dumb blondes" were fairly wised up.  By the 1950s, Hollywood liked them so innocent as to be almost stupid. It's the difference between Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.

The story is also more innocent.  It's was always a fairly innocent look at New York.  Originally set in the 30s, the girls have to withstand the occasional wolf, but for the most part the great big city's a wondrous toy.  By the 1950s version, set not only in Greenwich Village, but also Hollywood musical-land, everything is cute and sweet.  When Bob Fosse suggests Eileen is a bit "Bohemian," she takes it as a great insult.  And the wolfs who chase Eileen are never going to do more than request a chaste kiss.

The script generally follows the original's plot, often quoting it verbatim (which itself was verbatim from the  play), but it's more successful at getting out of the apartment.  I guess a musical is forced to open up if just for the dancing.  The tunes are serviceable, and would be a lot better if the memory of Bernstein's score weren't in our heads.  Probably the best number is a challenge dance where Fosse and Tommy Rall let 'er rip.  There's also a fun seduction number where Lemmon puts the moves on Garrett.  Of course, he's only joking, but that doesn't stop her from marching out in a huff.

Wonderful Town has them both beat, but since there's never been a movie version (though it has been revived on Broadway), these two films will have to do.  They might make for a fun double feature.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Most Successful Gogi Ever

Happy birthday, Gogi Grant.  She's been singing since the 50s, but she hasn't been charting since "The Wayward Wind" was a #1 for eight weeks in 1956 (back when a bunch of artist would record the same song).  I guess this is the kind of music rock and roll killed.


The Hapster

Happy brithday, Frank De Vol. He was an arranger, composer and actor.

He was Oscar-nominated for four scores--Pillow Talk, Hush...Hush, Sweet CharlotteCat Ballou, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.  He also wrote several popular TV show themes, including Family Affair, The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons.



He appeared on a lot of TV, often playing a sad sack. His best known role was probably as bandleader Happy Kine on Fernwood 2Nite and America 2-Night.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pre-Rehab

Happy birthday, Kim Richards.  She's 48 today, but you may remember her as a child star.  She was introduced to us in the 70s as Prudence in Nanny And The Professor, and later appeared in several Disney movies such as Escape To Witch Mountain. Yes, as an adult she's become the aunt of Paris Hilton, been in rehab more than once, and is one of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, but I'd rather ignore all that.

A friend of mine once thought she, as a teen, was really cute.  Some years later her started a correspondence.  Except (and I'm fuzzy on the logistics) it turned out friends of his were pretending to be Kim Richards in the letters he received.  He finally got wise when in one of the messages she admitted that she hadn't been working much lately, and was mostly making money on her back.  (Though considering how things turned out, that wouldn't have been the worst thing that happened to her.)

But let's return to those innocent days when she had a bright future as the youngest cast member of a new show on ABC:





PS  It really bothers me that the tic tac toe lines aren't even.

Why Didn't He Slide?

It seemed like the world was coming apart in the summer of 1968.  War, assassinations, riots, the whole structure of civilization was in question.  But to Detroiters, still recovering from the previous year's riots, it was also a chance to follow a great baseball team.

That's what Tim Wendel's book Summer Of '68 is about. Not just the Tigers, but baseball in the middle of all that turbulence.  And it was quite a year.  The Year Of The Pitcher.  Denny McClain won 31 games, the batting average against Luis Tiant was .168, and Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12! In the American League, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting crown with an average of .301.

It was also the last season where the winner of each league won the pennant and went directly to the World Series.  And what a Series that was.  The two greatest pitchers in baseball, McClain and Gibson, faced off, but it was Mickey Lolich who won three games, all complete.  And Tiger stalwart Al Kaline, who'd missed a lot of the regular season due to an injury, hit .379. (Manager Mayo Smith had four outfielders who could hit, so he moved centerfielders Mickey Stanely into the shortstop position, even though Stanley had never played there before.)

The Cardinals, World Series champs of 1967, won the first game 4-0 with Bob Gibson breaking a record by striking out seventeen Tiger. Soon, the Cardinals had a 3-1 lead in games, and it looked like it was over.  In the fifth game, the Cardinals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning. In the fifth inning, still leading 3-2, the best runner in baseball, Lou Brock, was thrown out at the plate when outfielder Willie Horton fired a ball directly to catcher Bill Freehan. (It's the photo on the cover of the book, and also the one I'm using.)

It was the Tigers from that point on.  They scored three runs in the seventh inning to take the game and had little trouble handling the Cards in the next two outings even after they returned to St. Louis.

Detroit would have plenty of problems in the futures, but for a short moment, everyone was happy.  Baseball would change too, as Wendel notes, but that's all part of what made the summer of '68 so special.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

No Couch Trip

Doctor Detroit was on TV so I thought I'd check it out.  I hadn't seen it since it was released, and I wondered if it could be as bad as I remembered.  It was.  Dan Aykroyd is a born character actor and has always had trouble carrying anything alone.

The plot is about a straitlaced professor of literature who gets involved with a bunch of prostitutes (one played by future-wife Donna Dixon). Their pimp, on the run, convinces Aykroyd to take over and in the end he defeats the pimp's main enemy, Mom.  The trouble is nothing in the film makes sense.  There's no reason for him to get involved in the first place and once he does there's no reason for him to succeed.

I suppose I could forgive all this it there were some funny scenes, but the stuff we're supposed to laugh at--mostly Aykroyd's characterizations--aren't much.  The music isn't bad, particularly the theme by Devo and an apperance by James Brown, but it's not enough to make you forget the story.

The film flopped.  Aykroyd made some big hits around this time, such as Trading Places and Ghostbusters.  Try to imagine the former without Eddie Murphy, or the latter without Bill Murray.  They'd still be better than Doctor Detroit.

JR

Happy birthday, Jimmy Rodgers.  He was a big singer in the early days of rock and roll.  For better or worse, he first charted with his biggest hit, "Honeycomb," which went to #1 in 1957.



But he had plenty of other solid hits:




Monday, September 17, 2012

Breaking News

I'm a sucker for animal stories-the following jump at the National Zoo's Panda-cam website hooked me immediately

National Zoo scientists have detected a secondary rise in urinary progesterone in its female giant panda, Mei Xiang. more
 


Up The Tubes

Happy birthday, Fee Waybill.  He was front man for the Tubes.






Supes

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid. (I didn't buy many, but I had friends and relatives with big collections.)  A big battle of the time was Marvel versus DC.  Marvel was hip, with its leading character, Spider-Man, being a troubled teen who fought crime while wisecracking.  DC was square, with its top name, Superman, being a thoroughly decent fellow who fought for truth, justice and the American Way.  I guess I preferred Spidey, but Supes was cool, too.  For one thing, he was invulnerable, with numerous superpowers.  That's fun for a kid, but horrible for the writers.  How do you make trouble for a guy who's invincible?  Well, you put his loved ones in danger.  (There was no more dangerous job than being Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen).  Or you take away his superpowers.  Or give superpowers to others.  Or you have him face magic.  Sometimes you give him amnesia.  Sometimes he just pretends to be in trouble and you find it was all part of the plan.

Superman was the ultimate superhero.  Pretty much every other major superhero in the comics was a variation or reaction to him.  And now Larry Tye's book Superman: The High-Flyinig History Of America's Most Enduring Hero, gives us the full story.

It all started with two shy Jewish teenagers from Cleveland.  Jerry Siegel was mad about science fiction and heroic literature, and his friend Joe Shuster had an artistic bent.  They developed Superman for years before a comic book publisher decided to put the character into print.  There had been heroes with superpowers at least since Homer and the Bible, and the early 1900s saw plenty of pulp characters with great skill and goodness righting wrongs.  But Superman felt fresh, and took off immediately when he first saw the light of day in 1939.  He was the character who kicked off the golden era of superhero comics.  Batman and Wonder Woman would soon follow at DC, but Superman was first, and the most popular.

We're so used the story today we forget how original Superman must have seemed.  A great origin story (which developed over the years)--sent away as a baby from an exploding planet to Earth, growing up with foster parents teaching him decency, putting on a secret identity of the meek reporter Clark Kent while fighting crime in a cape and tights.  Then there was the whole Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent dynamic, a love triangle with only two people.

The publishers had Siegel and Shuster sign away all rights for $130, and for many years Siegel has been painted as a martyr, but the book makes clear that throughout the first decade of Superman comics, Siegel and Shuster were quite well paid.  Later they sued Warners, who owned Superman at the time, and received a guaranteed income for the rest of their lives, but it's not as if they made millions for DC comics in those early years while living in poverty.  Siegel did try to create other characters, but never hit the jackpot again.

That's just the beginning, of course.  Superman would be incarneted in almost every medium available, usually with great success--comic books, comic strips, radio, serials, animation, books, Broadway, movies and TV.  And every decade got the Superman it wanted, with whoever was in charge working to catch up Superman to the times (or at least not too far behind the times).

The book devotes chapters to various versions of Superman.  There's the radio show in the 40s where many classic parts of the Superman story were first developed.  There's George Reeves, the Man of Steel on TV in the 50s, who comitteed suicide (though some think he was murdered).  There's the madhouse behind the production of the Superman movie of the 70s, with millions being thrown around with little rhyme or reason, and, amazingly, a huge hit and good movie emerging.  There's the gigantic comic reboot of the 80s where everything was destroyed so the comic could start over again, and the death of Superman in the 90s.  As I write this, there's yet another reboot--an eagerly awaited Superman film to be released next year.

It's pretty clear the Superman myth won't die.  At least not as long as there's money to be made.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vocal Ease

Happy birthday, Jon Hendricks.  As part of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross he helped revolutionize jazz singing. But forget the revolution, it's just a lot of fun.






Speaking In Code

I recently watched Sunday In New York, one of those forgettable sex comedies they made so many of in the 60s. It's somewhat memorable in that we can see a young Jane Fonda, in 1963, starting to develop her acting chops.  The play, presented on Broadway a couple years earlier, is mostly remembered for helping make Robert Redford a star. (He wasn't in the movie version, but when it opened he was starring in the Broadway blockbuster Barefoot In The Park, the movie of which he and Fonda would star in.)

Norman Krasna adapted his play for the screen and is only partially successful opening it up.  Too much of the action is stuck in one apartment (though there is some NYC location shooting which is fun). On stage, the farcical action can gather momentum, but in a movie it just feels claustrophic. The real problem, however, is what Hollywood would allow then.  There's an awful lot of talk from Fonda, along with costars Rod Taylor and Cliff Robertson,  about how far a girl should go and what she should expect.  It's all supposed to be very salacious but it's disappointing because you know, with the Production Code still in place, the only thing anyone will do is the right thing.  There'll be lots of misunderstanding and no sex. It's depressing.

Fonda and the gang are game, but the movie isn't.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

No Show

It's TV season, with lots of new shows out there.  I was going to discuss one I recently watched.  The critics didn't particularly go for it, I don't like it, and I doubt it'll get much better.

But then I noticed that three acquaintances of mine work on the show.  I don't think they read this blog, but you never know.  I'd hate to run into them at a party and have them quote me on how terrible this project they've been slaving over is.

So that takes care of that. Maybe a year from now, after this turkey is canceled (I hope), I'll reminisce about how bad it was.

Definitely

I meant to celebrate the birthday of Graham Maby, who turned 60 this month. Better late than never.

Maby was a central part of the early Joe Jackson sound.  It's almost impossible to imagine Jackson's early albums without that insistent bass.





Friday, September 14, 2012

Best Wishes, Morten

Happy birthday, Morten Harket, lead singer of the Norwegian band A-ha.  They recorded a bunch of albums, but are known to most people in the English-speaking world for one song, "Take On Me."  That's Morten as the hero in the video:


Must Read?

I just read Top Of The Rock: Inside The Rise And Fall Of Must See TV.  It's an oral history--a collection of voices who witnessed first-hand the dominance of NBC's Thursday night schedule in the 80s and 90s.  Littlefield, who was a vice president at NBC and later head of entertainment during these years is the author (if that's the word) as well as the most prominent voice in it.  It's quite a story.  TV has had big nights before--CBS on Saturday in the early 70s, ABC on Tuesday in the mid to late 70s, but I can't think of a network night that was so big for so long.

It started with Cheers.  A flop at first, it was loved by critics and insiders so NBC, not doing well in general, was willing to renew it.  (A fair number of the shows in this book weren't immediate hits but eventually picked up fans, especially in reruns--TV has changed since then and most shows get the axe pretty quickly if they don't generate numbers.) Then came The Cosby Show which blew the roof off.  It shot to #1 where it stayed for five years with mindboggling numbers--its ratings were double what American Idol got.  With Cosby in the lead at 8, Cheers was moved to Thursday at 9 where it became a ratings winner.

So the first decade of NBC dominance on Thursdays could be called the Cosby/Cheers era.  But nothing lasts forever.  Cosby's ratings dropped and it left the air.  Cheers was still popular but after 11 seasons decided to go out on top. NBC, and newly installed President Littlefield, had to find replacement hits.  What saved then was Seinfeld.  Already on the air, Littlefield recognized this was a special show and helped maneuver it into a #1 powerhouse.  It got on the air through odd enough means as it was--NBC liked Seinfeld but had no development money left so paid for the show through funds from the special events group.  Then they allowed Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld to run it their way, and since they were comedians but not seasoned showrunners, they broke all the rules, which somehow worked.

Then came Friends, which NBC put on at 8 and became a companion hit to Seinfeld.  So the second decade could be known as the Seinfeld/Friends era.  Also, after the two-hour comedy bloc, came ER, which for the next several years would trade off with Seinfeld for #1 bragging rights.  NBC came up with the slogan "Must See TV" and it stuck.  The Thursday night lineup dominated the 90s and NBC made billions, far more than the other networks.

Then Larry David left Seinfeld and Jerry ran it alone, but soon enough felt it was time to leave. (I think the show lost something when David left, though it was still enjoyable).  Seinfeld was still on top and Jerry was offered an amazingly lucrative deal to keep it going--the opening offer from the head of General Electric (which owned NBC at the time) was $110 million for another season.  But Seinfeld felt the show had gone as far as it could go, and wanted to leave before the public got tired.  (Of course, with what he'd already been paid, and his portion of the syndication, money probably wasn't an issue.)

A few years later Friends and ER left, and NBC's dominance was no more.  Also, Littlefield, who'd helped his company make so much money, was let go.  In fact, in 2004, the once proud Peacock dropped from first to last among the four networks--a feat never before achieved.  It's got some good shows still, and has kept up the Thursday night comedy lineup (not including the intrusion of The Apprentice), but the ratings have not been the same.

You probably know a lot of this story already, but I recommend the book for its backstage look at how these shows came together.  After the fact it's easy to claim you knew it'd be a hit all along, but everything is a crapshoot, and most shows fail.  In fact, plenty of the stuff developed for Thursday nights (Caroline In The City, The Single Guy) was mediocre and is now forgotten. But all it takes is a few hits to turn a network around.

The book's chapters mostly center on particular hit shows: Cheers, The Cosby ShowMad About You, Frasier, Friends, ER, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Will & Grace.  Plenty of stars tell their story, along with the writers, the producers and the suits (like Littlefield).  Special attention is paid to James Burrows, far and away the top comedy director in the business.

Much of the stories deal with how great everyone was, though let's not forget these were hits, so people would be pleased.  Luckily, there are enough stories about how someone screwed up or was an ingrate or how some show stunk so that it's not all sweetness and light.  It's also interesting how some actors were practically begging for roles--Lisa Kudrow, Sean Hayes, George Clooney--while others had to be coaxed back into TV--David Schwimmer, Helen Hunt, Debra Messing.

Common to all the hits, though, is how actors start out just hoping to catch a break but once the show is a hit are suddenly in the driver's seat, with executives doing whatever they can to keep them happy.  (And some are screwups who need interventions, like Kelsey Grammer at certain points.)

The book also gives you an idea of what the suits do, though I'm still not entirely clear.  Certainly they make deals with the talent, create the schedule and decide whether to renew or cancel. But they also give notes and it's hard to say if this is a good idea.  Some of the notes make sense business-wise (such as adding a woman to the cast to increase audience appeal), but would the shows be better off without their interference?  Littlefield, following previous executives like Grant Tinker, believed in gathering the top talent and giving them their freedom, and it certainly paid off in some great, and successful, shows. In TV today, where the audience is more segmented and less patient, the networks have a much more hands-on approach.  Has this worked?  Certainly there are still plenty of decent network shows, but a lot of the most interesting stuff now happens on cable where the creators are given more leeway.

Littlefield, by the way, doesn't stint on attacking other suits.  In fact, if the book has a villain, it's Don Ohlmeyer.  Ohlmeyer was named President of NBC in 1993 and had a rocky relationship with Littlefield.  If Littlefield and others are to be believed, Ohlmeyer was a bully and a drunk who often didn't even understand the value of his hit shows.  Eventually there wasn't room enough for both of them and Ohlmeyer (who did, after all, oversee highly remunerative years) saw to it that Littlefield was fired.  Eventually Ohlmeyer was gone as well and since then there've been a number of names running NBC, all into the ground.  In fact, the book is especially vituperative toward executive Jeff Zucker, whom several state didn't get, or even like, TV.  Steve Levitan, who created NBC's hit Just Shoot Me!, made sure to sell his next big show to ABC. It's Modern Family, and if NBC had it, they might still be calling Thursday night Must See TV.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Atonic For Troubled Times

Remember the good old days when music used every single note in the chromatic scale and had no tonal center?  If you don't, time to catch up on birthday boy Arnold Schoenberg.



Not that he couldn't be tonal when he wanted to.

Singing On MT

Happy birthday, Mel Torme, you Velvet Fog.






Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Poll Dance

The conventions are over and the latest polls show Romney behind. Hoping to rally the troops, conservatives have been bringing up old Presidential races where their candidate was losing.  For instance, here's Powerline discussing the 1980 election, where Reagan was 8 points behind in the October Gallup poll. Another favorite is Dukakis leading Bush by 17 points after his convention.

Republicans (and Democrats) should stop these pointless comparisons.  Yep, being ahead in a poll now doesn't mean you'll win later, but we should also understand each election is its own animal, and once you go back a generation or two, it's hard to draw any conclusions that apply today.

Look closer at that 1980 polling. It's amazing how the numbers bounce up and down.  In January, Carter is beating Reagan almost 2 to 1. In June, Reagan overtakes him and by late July he's ahead by 16 points. Then Carter regains the lead but in the last poll, Reagan is once again ahead.  (Meanwhile, you've got John Anderson pollings in the 20s and eventually ending up with less than 7% of the vote.)

We simply don't have that sort of volatility any more.  Go to the Gallup website and check the daily tracking poll.  You'll discover a close battle this year where Obama has shuttled between 50% and 43% while Romney's top and bottom have been 48% and 42%.

Why the change?  The main reason, I'd guess, is a more polarized electorate (and polarized parties), where the vast majority know how they'll vote from the start.  Also, decades ago there wasn't 24-hours-a-day coverage of everything political, so the public barely concentrated on the Presidential race until the last couple months.

Today, we know how at least 35 states are almost certain to vote.  It wasn't that long ago that everything was up for grabs. Look at 1964--LBJ wins 44 states with 61% of the vote. But by 1972 Nixon wins 49 states and almost the same percentage.  In 1984 Reagan wins 49 states with 59% of the vote. Those days are over.  In 2008 Barack Obama got the biggest majority of any Presidential candidate in a generation, and it was only 53%.

This election is still well within Romney's grasp, but that doesn't mean Republicans should look back to learn any lessons.  That country doesn't exist any more.

You Gotta Have Hart

I just read a biography of Lorenz Hart, A Ship Without A Sail.  This is at least the second bio of Hart I'm aware of, and most lyricisists don't get even one.  Maybe it's that his lyrics cut deeper than most, maybe it's that he lived such a tragic life.  Either way, Hart was responsible for more songs in the Great American Songbook than all but a handful of people.

Like so many of the great Broadway songwriters, he comes from a New York Jewish background.  His father, Max, was a lively man who apparently made his living swindling people on real estate deals.  Lorenz looked at the songs of his day and thought they could be better--smarter, more literate, more lively.  His greatest innovation was introducing the vernacular into songs.  Up till then, most Broadway lyrics, good or bad, seemed to be imitations of European models, mostly operetta, with fairly stiff language.  After Hart, a whole new world opened up, one we're still living in.  Hart also didn't believe in hit songs so much as songs integrated into shows that became hits.

He had the good fortune to work with an immensely talented youngster by the name of Richard Rodgers.  It took them a few years to break through, but once they did in 1925 with The Garrick Gaieties, featuring "Manhattan," it was one big show after another. In the second half of the 20s alone, they had songs (usually the entire score) in 14 productions, which included numbers such as "Mountain Greenery," "Thou Swell," "My Heart Stood Still," "The Blue Room," "You Took Advantage Of Me" and "Dancing On The Ceiling."

When the Depression hit, they went to the newly-talking Hollywood.  Workaholic Rodgers didn't like the slow pace and lack of control (though real alcoholic Hart didn't mind so much), but even then they were able to turn out such hits as "Lover," "Isn't It Romantic?," "You Are Too Beautiful" and "Blue Moon."  By the middle of the decade, they came back to Broadway to stay, turning out almost nothing but hits from 1935 till Hart's death in 1943.  They'd learned a lot, and from this point on, the shows, and the songs, were deeper:.  Some of the titles: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes In Arms, The Boys From Syracuse and Pal Joey.  Some of the songs: "My Romance," "Little Girl Blue," "There's A Small Hotel," "Where Or When," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is A Tramp," "Have You Met Miss Jones?," "Spring Is Here," "Falling In Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "It Never Entered My Mind," "I Could Write A Book," Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" and "Wait Till You See Her."

Hart had his demons, however.  He was homosexual at a time when you couldn't openly talk about it.  He was a heavy drinker--it's what ultimately did him in.  And he was very short.  No one dies from shortness, but being under five feet tall made him feel inadequate, and may have led to his drinking.  Even as he was turning out his best work, Hart became less and less reliable.  Finally, Rodgers turned to Oscar Hammerstein to write a show that Hart didn't want to work on.  It became Oklahoma!, a bigger hit by far than anything Rodger's did with Hart, and a herald for a new sort of show.  Hart may have been happy for his partner, but he also saw he wasn't needed.  Rodgers still tried to work with him, and even though ill, Hart helped update their old hit A Connecticut Yankee.  One of Hart's last lyrics was the classic "To Keep My Love Alive." He still had it, but he died a few days after the show opened, only 48.

Hart has been attacked for his writing--most notably by Stephen Sondheim.  And much of what Sondheim says is true. Hart's work was slapdash, often awkward.  But he more than makes up for it by his wit, his liveliness and his power.  He can be breathtakingly simple when necessary, and he can write about the pain of love with more depth than almost any other lyricist.  He can also be very funny.  Yes, he often strains for effect, and relies on certain tricks too much, but there's so much life in his words--and Rodgers' music--that Hart ended up creating a catalogue that shows no sign of letting go its grip.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One-Hit Wonder Who?

Happy birthday Charles Patrick, lead singer of The Monotones. They will forever have a place in the hearts of all rockers for their big hit of 1958:


Oh Happy Days

The AV Club is looking at TV shows that ran over 100 episodes. Their entry on Happy Days has a thesis--that creator Garry Marshall set out to create a quiet, wistful comedy about the 50s and sold out that vision in an attempt to be popular. I guess that's one way of looking at it.  I think a better way is Marshall saw the show wasn't working and decided to fix it.

Marshall started out writing jokes, a profession where it's easy to know if you've succeeded.  Did you hear anyone laugh?  Indeed, most of his writing before he created his own shows was done for live audiences--Joey Bishop, Jack Paar, Dick Van Dyke and so on.

The first show he created (with partner Jerry Belson), Hey, Landlord, was a failure.  The second, The Odd Couple, was a success.  Not a huge hit, but it ran five years, was well-respected and won Emmys.  The first season was done one-camera style. This allowed for more subtle performances, but Marshall figured he needed the experience of a live show to make the comedy come alive, too, and so switched to the multi-camera format for the rest of the run.  I think this was good for the show--the actors may be "bigger," but it's worth it for the added vitality, and it also requires the writing to get real laughs.

Something similar happened with Happy Days.  It was created as a nostalgic look at a time Marshall remembered well, and as such was rejected.  Luckily for its creator, it was later swept onto the air when the 50s nostalgia movement overtook the nation.  But that was never enough. The show at first was about small things, and was relatively realistic. The main trouble was, for all its sweetness, it wasn't that funny.  In fact, it was sort of dull. Soon, audiences were drifting away.

Irving Berlin once said a good song is one that sells a lot of copies.  I don't know if Marshall feels the same way, but he'd seen success and failure, and understood you don't just get a network show so you can experiment with your feelings.  There's more than one way to make a good show, and if yours is flailing around, you take steps.

He recognized a couple things. First, Happy Days needed the jolt of a live audience to get out of the doldrums.  Sure, you may lose a little nuance, but you'll gain so much electricity that it's worth it. Second, he recognized that Fonzie, a character who was almost an afterthought in the original conception, was the breakout. Put him front and center--with the lead, Richie--and the audience should respond.  This is not selling out so much as acknowledging reality.

So he went live, moved Fonzie over the garage and suddenly had the biggest hit on televsion.  It started a Garry Marshall empire, with successful spinoffs Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.

The AV Club says this kind of retooling rarely works, because audiences can sniff out when they're being condescended to.  Actually, I'd say major retooling (as opposed to minor retooling which every show goes through) rarely works because it's a sign you're in trouble to begin with, and it's hard to fix something that was born broken.

More important, I don't think Marshall was saying "okay, you dummies, you didn't like subtle, I'll give you obvious." It was more like "I was glad to get this on the air, but now that I see it I've figured out a way to make it come alive."

Irving Berlin would have been proud.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fred And Delly

It was never written that Fred Astaire would be a movie star.  Sure, talkies came in when his Broadway stardom was at its height, but Fred was slight of build and balding, with big ears and a weak chin, not to mention a thin, reedy voice.  Hollywood wasn't beating down his door, and if he had the wrong material in his first project or two, he'd now be a footnote in film history, instead of the screen's greatest song-and-dance man.

But he'd be remembered in the theatre, where he and sister Adele (whose birthday is today) were an electfying team who epitomized the Jazz Age.  And, presumably, after she left the act, he'd have gone on for decades as a charming, talented leading man.  However, this team's work is lost to the ages, and can only be recreated by reading old reviews, listening to a few old recordings, and staring at old photographs.  Happily, Kathleen Riley has done some research and come up with her book The Astaires, painting a picture of this dazzling team.  It's a short book, less than 200 pages of text, but it lays out just what they did and why they were famous.

They started in show biz as children.  Born in the 1890s, they were thrust into Vaudeville by their estranged parents, who lived through them vicariously (and, in certain periods, financially).  Born in Nebraska, they moved with their mother to New York, where they trained and soon became a successful act.  Adele was a bit older and generally considered the star.  During their years of growing pains, the act had to change and for some time they left the stage, but returned and worked their way back to the top.

By the late 1910s, when they were young adults, Broadway producers took a liking to them and they worked as featured dancers, generally stealing any show they were in.  Especially big was their wacky "run-around" exit which they put into more than one production.  They represented a youth, charm and vitality that few others could match and soon were starring in their own shows, introducing classic songs and routines, often with music by that other 1920s examplar, George Gershwin.

They took their shows to London and became even bigger there. It's hard to overstate how huge the reception was.  This was a Britain beaten down by World War I, and the Astaires represented the excitement and hope of the modern age, and the New World.  They were feted not only by the critics, but by the intelligentsia and royalty.

Whether in New York or London, they rarely made a wrong step (though signing up to do Smiles with the old-fashioned Flo Ziegfeld produced a rare flop in 1930).  Since we have no film of Adele performing, we can only guess that she must have possessed some magic.  She wasn't a great beauty, nor a great singer, but she was effortlessly charming. (She also didn't work as hard as Fred for the effect.  He was known as Moaning Minnie, while she was Goodtime Charley.) But it's not as if Fred wasn't noticed  He would sometimes exaggerate in later years how he was a lesser light, but the critics recognized he was a great dancer and even a fine comic actor.

Adele, in the early 30s, was ready to leave show biz and marry Britain's Lord Cavendish, but she wanted to go out in a hit.  The Astaires got one with one of the greatest revues in Broadway history, The Band Wagon.  After she was gone, her brother went out on his own in Gay Divorce--a show not well-reviewed, but featuring the giant Cole Porter his "Night And Day" and proving Fred could hold his own.  When he brought the show to London, his sister was in the audience and surprised at how her former partner had become a sex symbol.

Soon after he became a major Hollywood star.  Adele was still offered roles on stage and in movies, but she turned them all down.  Her marriage, however, was not a happy one.  She had a stillbirth and a miscarriage, all while her husband sank into the alcoholism that would kill him before he was forty.  Fred married and moved to Los Angeles, which probably increased Adele's loneliness in her castle in Ireland.  Fred, somewhat against his will, was teamed up with another partner.  Though he couldn't know it at the time, Ginger Rogers, not Adele, would be the name to which he'd become inextricably linked.

As brother and sister, they remained close through the years (and their stage mother Ann stayed involved as well), even as they were far apart physically.  Fred worldwide fame makes any book about their career as a team a prologue, but it's good to know there once was a great team known as the Astaires.

Tripping

Once Frank Zappa's career was up and running, talented musicians from everywhere would apply for positions in his band.  One of them was percussionist, and today's birthday boy, Artie Tripp.  He played with Zappa for a few years and then with Captain Beefheart.  He later became a chiropractor, which sounds like a good job for an ex-drummer.








Sunday, September 09, 2012

Double Day

It's September 9th (9/9) which can only mean we're going to post two hit songs sharing a title:




The American Way

Right-wing radio talk show host Dennis Prager has a new book out, Still The Best Hope.  That's the best hope for the world, and he's talking about America.

To Prager, there are three paths the world may follow--Leftism, Islamism or Americanism.  His book is broken up into three parts, showing why the first two paths fall short and how the last will save us. Unfortunately, this is not a rigorously argued book so much as a collection of talking points strung together.  Not that there can be no value in giving example after example of what you believe, but it means the book has little cumulative effect. Prager thinks the Left is wrong about almost everything, but giving a bunch of anecdotes about when they've been wrong (or, at least, wrong according to him) doesn't mean too much when no doubt the Left could pick out countless examples where it believes Prager's side is wrong.

More important, I don't think Prager correctly analyzes the situation.  I have no idea where the world is going, but I don't think the choices are as stark as Prager has it.  I will admit that Islam, particularly the more extreme elements, represents a very different world view from the West's.  But Prager's battle between the right and left?  He exaggerates the differences, as close rivals often do.  Yes, there are distinctions between liberals and conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, or Americans and Europeans, but it's hardly an insuperable gulf.  Both sides come out of the Western liberal tradition, and their differences, and big as they may seem, are intramural squabbles.  Compare the fights today with how things were 80 years ago--then you had, as perfectly viable choices, fascism and communism.  Both have, for the most part, fallen apart as ideologies.  Instead, we now have a right and left which are mostly two sides of the same coin.

For all the differences Prager imagines he sees (and I don't think the Left will see themselves in the portrait he paints--if I had the time, I'd go through how almost all his examples are hyperbolic), the areas of agreement between today's right and left are so great that they almost swallow up most disagreement.  After all, today's right in America isn't that different from a 1950s liberal (except that the right may be more liberal).  The left and right may emphasize different things, but they both believe in the same things: democracy, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, open scientific inquiry, equal rights, due process and so much else that makes the West the West.  Yes, sometimes they fail to protect these rights as strongly as they could, or go about it in different ways, but they still have the same basic roots.

For instance, Prager fears big government.  So do I, and I'd like to see it cut.  But the "American" way that Prager wants us to follow isn't that different from a European welfare state.  Sure, we want rugged individuals to make their own way, but if Republicans (or Prager alone) were in charge, how much smaller would the government be?  Hopefully we could cut spending enough to deal with the deficit, but I don't see us getting rid of Medicare or Social Security (at least not entirely, even if we rename the programs), nor do I see us getting rid of public education.  And the Right doesn't seem that interested in cutting the military, while we're at it.  Meanwhile, nations like Sweden have adopted market-oriented reforms when they discovered their welfare state cost too much.  So when all is said and done, one side wants to spend a few percentage points more than the other on government?  This is hardly the same battle as freedom of religion versus sharia law.

Prager argues for the "American trinity," as he calls it, which amounts to freedom, religion and E pluribus unum.  As to freedom, I'm all for it--I bet more radically than Prager.  I think gay partners should be allowed to marry.  I think drugs should be legalized.  I think we should get rid of obscenity prosecutions for anything consenting adults do.  For some reason, this isn't the right's concept of freedom (or the pursuit of happiness)--they'll support only the freedoms they see fit to allow.

As to religion, Prager says we need Judeo-Christian values, with the public believing in ethical monotheism. (He also claims the left doesn't believe in this, though I don't think it's that simple.) This is his greatest hobby horse, but he has a tough time of it.  He claims without belief in a single Supreme Being, there can be no absolute morality, no meaning to life, no wisdom, no free will, and a host of other things.  But there's barely a moral stance that religious believers don't disagree on, so how can he say religion leads to absolute morality or guarantees greater wisdom?  For instance, he's an absolute demon on claiming we must must must have the death penalty--I'd think this is an issue up for grabs which religious people can disagree over, but not in Prager's Americanized world.  For that matter, he allows for different religions--you can follow his concept of Judeo-Christian values without even being a Jew or a Christian. But many of these religions and their sects believe in mutually exclusive things, so what it amounts to is Prager saying you can believe in a false god and false prophets, and that will lead to the proper morality, whereas believing in the world that we can all directly experience will lead you down false paths.

Finally, there's E pluribus unum.  A wonderful idea.  But for a guy whose greatest fear is big government, it's somewhat odd that he wants the entire world to follow the American plan.

Prager may be correct that America is the world's last best hope.  I just don't think this is the book to prove it.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Breaking Break

So Breaking Bad is done for the year. Sure, the new TV season is starting, that'll help tide me over. But there's nothing like BB to concentrate your TV week.  Sunday becomes the climax everything else revolves around.

I guess I'll have to search through YouTube for new videos that remix old episodes to keep me going.  It'll keep my mind off the fact that when the next eight are over, that's it.






That's Your Opinion

In The New Republic, Richard Posner takes on Atonin Scalia and his recent book on judicial interpretation. Posner--who's known Scalia for decades--doesn't hold back (and to no surprise his piece has been attacked be conservatives.) Those familiar with Judge Posner's thoughts on jurisprudence won't be surprised.  To Posner, anyone who claims to be an originalist, capable of coming up with objective, non-political decisions, is either lying or fooling himself.  You can't just look at the words of a law, old or new, and know what it must mean in every case.

Language contains ambiguity, and lawmakers can't figure out every eventuality.  It's up to a judge to figure out how best to fit the law to the present circumstances, and using the dictionary definition of every word in a statute at the time it was passed (difficult in itself, as Scalia once admitted to me), can only get you so far.  To figure out the intention of the legislature (and that's assuming you consider the intention controlling, and what level of intention at that) is not a math problem, it's a matter of interpretation. (Why do you think they're called "opinions"?) All sorts of issues may be relevant--the meaning of the words is just the starting point.  The grand notions of our Constitution can be argued back and forth, but, as Posner notes, even relatively simple things, like what does "sandwich" or "animal" mean within a statute, isn't obvious.

Scalia can't help but recognize this so allows himself enough outs, such as canons of construction, that give him room to maneuver.  But what of textualism, then, when certain canons allow the "originalist" to make decisions based on so many thing in addition to the mere words or the law?  The original concept of originalism seems to evaporate.

Every judge has to work from some theory, consciously or otherwise, even as they claim to be umpires calling balls and strikes.  Originalism is a popular theory on the right since it so often leads to conservative decisions (though it's easy enough to couch any opinion in the language of orignalism if desired).  One wonders how popular originalism would be if it led to more liberal opinions.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Akron Girl

"I'm not the cat I used to be/I've got a kid, I'm thirty-three."  That's what Chrissie Hynde sang in "Middle Of The Road" back in the 80s.  Now that kid of hers must be around thirty-three.  (Should Chrissie be singing "End Of The Road"?)

Anyway, it was a good song, as were so many others.  So happy birthday, Chrissie.





Bye Bye Buddy

He died in 1959, only 22 years old, so he might still be with us if he took the bus.  Happy birthday, Buddy.  Did you think we'd still be listening to your music?








Thursday, September 06, 2012

L'Age DO'R

Happy birthday, Dolores O'Riordan.  She's the lead singer of The Cranberries, one of my favorite fruit bands. (I like them better than Tangerine Dream and Blind Melon and maybe The Smashing Pumpkins though I still prefer The Raspberries.)


Whose Vox Is Gored?

According to The Hill: "Al Gore is calling for an end to the Electoral College — the system that cost him the presidency in 2000."  (It probably cost him the presidency, but we'll never know--if we had direct elections, the candidates would have campaigned differently, though presumably the bombshell about Bush's DUI would still have come out the Thursday before the election, helping to drive millions of undecideds toward Gore.)

The Founders didn't think the President should be elected by the people, but changes in the Constitution have made this country more democratic, so it seems a logical evolution.  It won't happen, though, since it's not in the interest of too many small states.  But if it did, would our system be better served?

I suppose it would help guarantee the President has the confidence of the public, since he'd at least have the most votes. (Not necessarily the majority--Bill Clinton never had that, for instance.) But that's not quite Gore's complaint: "I’ve seen how these states are written off and ignored, and people are effectively disenfranchised in the presidential race."

Let's leave aside how casually people toss around the word "disenfranchised" these days.  It is true when you've got the Electoral winner take all, candidates will concentrate on the swing states, wherever they may be.  But if it were all about votes, wouldn't the candidates ignore all those wide open spaces in the middle of the country where the population is sparse?  The candidates would spend most of their time in the corridors from Boston to DC, Cleveland to Minnesota, San Francisco to San Diego, and pop around a lot in Texas and Florida.  A whole bunch of states would simply be airplane stops.

As long as the President has to win a majority of the country--whether electoral votes or direct ones--the candidates will concentrate on where they can do their campaign the most good, and ignore a lot else.  The people who are ignored will just have to be happy they can vote for Senators (which the Founders also didn't like), Representatives and a whole lot of local stuff.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Don't Bother Asking For Explanations

Happy birthday, Al Stewart.  He's been a professional musicians for decades, but is remembered for his work in the 70s, especially "Time Passages" and the following:


Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

On a Lincoln Navigator:  IIRISKY.  The guy drives a Lincoln Navigator.  Just how much risk is he really taking?

MORCATS. I assume this guy wants more cats. Or is it Morris Katz?

LA FREAK. A fan of Chic?  Or another LA Guy?

I[heart symbol]COWBZ.  Is this from a cowgirl?

77R8DRS. I assume he means the '77 Super Bowl that the Oakland Raiders won, and not the less impressive '77 season.

ALYFHPY.  She may be happy, but how does her boyfriend feel.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

LA Gal

Los Angeles was founded on September 4th.  I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to play The Stampeders biggest hit.


MCD

Michael Clarke Duncan is dead.  He worked as a bodyguard for celebrities while doing bit parts in movies, often playing bodyguards or bouncers.  He got a good role and some attention in 1998 as one of Bruce Willis's crew in Armageddon, and Willis helped him get his next major role, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

This was the part of John Coffey in The Green Mile.  The movie's based on a Stephen King novel, and King has always had trouble writing African-Americans.  He seems afraid to make them flawed, so he tends to make them magical.  John Coffey follows this tradition, a giant black man put on death row (falsely, of course) who has the power to heal.  The role is mostly cliche, but Duncan does a great job finding the humanity in it, and the pathos.  He lost the Oscar to a very dull Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules.  He should have won.

Duncan worked in movies and TV regularly after that, even showing a flair for comedy, but he never got another role as good as Coffey.  Still, with his size and voice, he was always a memorable presence.


Monday, September 03, 2012

Encore

I enjoyed yesterday's Hal so much I thought we'd do it again.





After Math

Last week's Breaking Bad ended with a big moment: Walt kills Mike.  Much of this week's episode--that last till next year!--"Gliding Over All," deals with the repercussions.   But then it moves on, quite a bit ahead, in fact, taking us to another moment we've all known was going to happen, we just didn't know when.

We start with Walt at HQ watching a fly.  Walt's dealt with flies before.  Now, Todd (his Victor) comes in after his latest assignment, getting rid of Mike's car (with Old Joe's help).  Only thing left to do is dissolve Mike's body, now lying in the trunk.  In other words, business as usual.  Walt says "It had to be done" but we know it didn't.  Does Walt?

Jesse picks this moment to drop by.  He wouldn't take kindly to Mike's death.  Walt fake assures him that Mike made it out, which leads to their latest pressing problem--Mike's nine lieutenants who have no reason any more not to talk.  (I suppose Walt could try to pay them, but that's not his style.) Walt freezes Jesse out.  You're not a partner any more, I'll deal with this.  And he shuts the door. Walt being cold to Jesse is maybe more painful than anything else in this show.  They've had their ups and down, but their relationship is central to this show, more so than Walt and Skyler's. Walt and Jesse's divorce is harder to take.

While Walt takes a shower (in his bathroom where he keeps his copy of Leaves Of Grass) Hank is talking to the one of the Nine, trying to see who'll sell out cheapest.  Each of them wants to make a deal, which will go to the lowest bidder.  Luckily for Walt, this gives him a little time to make his move.

Walt, in full Heisenberg mode, meets Lydia in a restaurant.  He's there to pick up the list of names that only she has.  But she fears once she gives it to him she'll be of no more use and be added to the list. (Mike's lawyer has also been added.) Walt mocks her--the idea that he'd kill her right there and now in a public place.  She goes on to explain how she helped Fring with distribution and can make millions more for him, especially with her international connections through Madrigal, particularly in the Czech Republic. (I'd think his product would be big in Iceland.) Walt listens and is actually convinced.  This is the move Fring was going to make.  Assured, Lydia writes down the names and leaves, and we discover Walt brought along the ricin vial.  Lydia had him pegged.  She also says "we're going to make a lot of money together." Just what Tuco said not long before he beat an assistant to death.  Walt's in quite a different place now. Or is he?

Walt returns the ricin to behind the wall socket.  It's been around almost since the beginning, and been pulled out more than once, but never used.  Hard to believe it won't eventually come into play.  Who will be the target? Skyler? Jesse? Hank? Walt?

Anyway, on to business.  Todd (aka smashed-in Matt Damon) has lovely relatives--white supremacists with tons of prison connections.  They question if they can kill all those people within a two-minute window.  Heisenberg, almost contemptuous, tells them to figure it out.  That's what he's paying for.  And this is what Heisenberg lives for.

So the next day, as Walt counts down the time, we get a beautiful Breaking Bad montage of numerous deaths, while Nat King Cole sings Jerome Kern.  This is the most deadly Walt has ever been.  Okay, more people died in the plane crash, but that was fallout, Walt didn't plan it, whereas Walt paid for this.

The plan works.  Why?  Because Heisenberg desired it.  The news soon gets to ASAC Hank, who's none too pleased.  They thought they were carrying the aces, but the deck has been reshuffled.

At Hank's place, Walt plays with Holly as the news of the prison killings is on TV.  Marie turns it off as depressed Hank comes home.  Hank takes a long look at Walt.  They've had a lot of these moments in the show, where you can read it either way, but they're always misdirection--so far.  Once Hank knows, we're in the endgame.  Anyway, Hanks tells Walt a story about an old job he had marking trees in the woods for destruction.  Very symbolic, no doubt.  But mostly Hank is tired of his present job.  It's no fun to chase monsters.

This leads into a second montage to "Crystal Blue Persuasion"--about time they used that song.  Lots of clever cuts, as we watch Walt's empire thrive.  This is what he always dreamed, and damned if he isn't pulling it off big like Fring.  Todd is doing a good job, Skyler seems to have accepted her lot and is laundering as best she can, Lydia is making sure she's still needed, and Saul is taking his cut (bet he's glad he's still in business with Walt). The blue stuff rolls out and the money rolls in so fast they can't count it. By the end, even Walt is exhausted.

Now Skyler is at Hank's place, hanging out with Holly and Flynn. After her son leaves, Marie notes that Skyler seems to be over her depression.  So it's been three months, maybe it's time to take the kids back. Even Marie didn't think they'd be staying this long. Skyler returns home and sees tired Walt sitting out by the pool. She asks him to take a drive.

They go out to a storage space.  Inside is a pile of money so big you'd need a truck to haul it around.  (How much?  Depends on the denominations of the bills, but it could be more than 100 million).  She can't possibly launder everything he's been giving her, even with a hundred car washes.  She says isn't it enough now?  Let's have the kids back, let's have our lives back.  Three months ago, Heisenberg would have said no, but maybe Walt is coming back, and the shock of seeing all that money in one place helps wake him up.

Walt goes for his latest cancer screening.  Is the news there also waking him up?  He thinks about his life as he washes his hands in the bathroom where he first hit the paper towel dispenser when he discovered he wasn't about to die just yet.

At Jesse's place, he's just hanging out--it feels like he's out of the show, but they couldn't possibly allow that. Then there's a knock.  Jesse looks out the window and it's Walt--the one who knocks..  He goes to get something--presumably a gun--and then opens the door. He invites Walt in and puts away his bong.  It's an awkward meeting of two people who have been through so much but had a tough break-up. They talk about old times, cooking in the RV. (They tell stories, though oddly don't bting up the one about being stuck in the desert with seemingly no way out--that's a lot better than Walt's story about running out of gas so Jesse had to walk three miles to a station.)  They also discuss killing the Nine, which Walt insists had to be done.  Jesse's not coming back, and Walt understands.  This does seem to be a different Walt.  We know this for sure when Walt says he's left something on the porch. It's a whole lot of money--presumably the five million he owes Jesse.  So Walt has done right by his boy.  Jesse takes it inside, leans back and puts away the gun he brought out just in case.

New Walt goes home and talks to Skyler.  He's out.  It may seem hard to believe, but he's telling the truth. (I wouldn't think this makes him absolutely safe, but certainly things have got to be safer.)  Next thing you know, the kids are back home and Hank and Marie are there to.  Everyone is having a  good time. Happy endings all around.  Except this is Breaking Bad, which doesn't do happy endings.  We watch the scene with dread, knowing some shoe is about drop. Will Todd make a move?  Will Lydia decide maybe Heisenberg isn't necessary?  Will some other associate thinks it's not yet time for Walt to quit?  Then Hank excuses himself and we know what's going to happen.

He sits on the can and, looking for reading material, picks up Leaves Of Grass.  And there's Gale Boettichet's inscription to Walt.  Oh Hank, everything was going fine--not just for Walt and Skyler, but you and Marie.  Close the book, this can lead to no good.

Anyway, the final showdown is in place.  We've been waiting from the first show for Hank to realize who his brother-in-law is.  It's a chilling moment. How does Hank play this?  He's got to go after Heisenberg, but it's a relation, one he loves and has accepted money from.  It won't be good, no matter how it works out.  And that's what we have to wait another year to find out.

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