CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE STUMBLED INTO "THE SHALLOW ZONE." WATCH OUT FOR THE ROCKS. SOME OF THEM ARE SHARP.
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.

About Me

My photo

I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
MY SHALLOW MISSION STATEMENT

MY SHALLOW MISSION STATEMENT

MY SHALLOW MISSION STATEMENT
Not that there's any weight to it...
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?
VIDEO OF THE MONTH

Monday, April 30, 2012

HARD ON FOR HEARTBREAK


As always seems to happen when I post a top five pick list of anything, I find myself wanting to do another one. And since there's nothing I like better than a good song about heartbreak (not that I'm heartbroken at the moment), I thought I'd present you with my top five picks for songs geared toward the lovelorn. Because, even if you're not wearing duct tape around your heart, what's more fun than singing along with a song about heartbreak...preferably at the top of your lungs? So grab your Kleenex, and let's get to it.


Don't Say You Don't Remember, written by Estelle Levitt, with Helen Miller composing the music, was a huge hit for Beverly Bremers in 1972, reaching #2 on the US pop charts and shooting all the way to the top in the UK. Bremers was no stranger to success, having been a member of the original cast of the Broadway musical Hair as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But this song was her first stab at pop music, and its popularity garnered her a whole new audience of sobbing fans who identified with the image of a hopelessly besotted young woman who can't understand how someone who used to call her "baby" could suddenly have "forgot my name." It is a pretty wretched thought, speaking as someone who's been in that very position once or twice. The only thing wrong with this song is the first line in which Bremers recalls how her erstwhile lover "wrote on the corner of the table, this is the only one that will last." Why did he write it in the corner of the table? Didn't he have a piece of paper? And how come he didn't just say it? I guess we'll never know. But we love the song anyway. Even if it doesn't make sense.


Oh, my God. I can't even put into words how much I love this song...but since I'm including it in this post, I guess I'd better try. Written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean, and released on the Motown label in 1966, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted was a top ten hit for Jimmy Ruffin, older brother of temperamental Temptations front man David Ruffin. As heartbreak songs go, this is not only one of the best, but one of the most re-recorded from Motown's vast backlog of hits. But, really. What can you say about a song which begins with the lines "As I walk this land of broken dreams, I have visions of many things. Love's happiness is just an illusion, Filled with sadness and confusion. What becomes of the broken hearted. Who had love that's now departed?" If the lyrics are a bit overblown, that's as it should be. After all, what's more epic than a broken heart? Especially when it's your own? Unfortunately, the song's success in the US didn't translate into the commercial success that Ruffin deserved, and he relocated to England, where he continues to record and perform to a more appreciative audience.


One Less Bell To Answer may well be the perfect heartbreak song. Written by Burt Bacharach, arguably the master scribe of heartbreak songs, with Hal David, it was originally intended for jazz singer Keely Smith. It was re-discovered in 1969 by the Fifth Dimension, who included it on their 1970 debut album, Portrait. With power-belter Marilyn McCoo handling the lead vocals, the song is in a universe of its own when it comes to conjuring up the everyday heartache that follows a painful break-up. "One less bell to answer, one less egg to fry....but all I do is cry" pretty much sums up the way you feel when that Significant Other stops showing up for breakfast, relieving you of the responsibility to cook that extra egg, but dishing up a heapin' helping of heartbreak in its stead.


Have You Seen Her?, released as a single by the Chi-Lites in 1971, peaked at #3 on both the US and UK pop charts. Penned by Eugene Record, lead singer for the group, with the help of Barbara Acklin, the song documents the sad social demise of a man who has lost his love. He used to go to the movies with her, he tells us, but now he goes alone. In his misery, he is reduced to joking with strangers he meets in the park, where even the children seem to know that he's heartbroken and gather around to comfort him. While that last part might not go over so well in 2012, as a vignette from the early 70s, it's just plain morose. I mean, Dear God. Lone man on a park bench making feeble jokes with random children? Could life get any sadder than that? I like to think not. But one man's sadness turns out to be the radio audience's gain, affording us the chance to listen to tight harmonies and soul crooning that echoes the best efforts from the doo-wop groups of the 50's. Have we seen her? Sorry...no. But we understand why you're still looking.


Which Way You Goin', Billy? may be cheesy in the extreme, but as sung by Susan Jacks, former wife of Terry Jacks (Seasons In The Sun), on the single released in 1969 under the name "The Poppy Family", it's a soulful plea to a deserting lover that has lost none of its resonance in the ensuing years. "Which way you goin', Billy? Can I go, too? Which way you goin', Billy? Can I go with you?" may not be the most profound musical question ever hurled at a person called Billy (just ask The Fifth Dimension, whose Wedding Bell Blues features yet another recalcitrant "Bill"), but it's certainly one of the most heartfelt. In fact, by the time she gets to the second verse, Jacks sounds like she just might break down and cry. But she doesn't, even though the wretched Billy never gives her a reason for the sudden good-bye. But, really, the best part about the song is the little twist that comes in the last verse, when Jacks reveals that not only will she miss Billy, but that she will remain his wife. His wife? Damnation! Never saw it coming. Now that's a good heartbreak song!

Well, that's it for now. Hope you enjoyed our picks. Skol. xoxoxxoxoxoxxo

Monday, April 23, 2012

FIVE REALLY BAD SONGS WE SORT OF LIKE

Some songs are just bad. So bad that you can't imagine how anyone could ever have written them, much less managed to get them recorded. We paid homage to one such song in our recent post on MacArthur Park, the indisputable Rasputin of bad pop songs, written by Jimmy Webb in 1966, and recorded endlessly ever since, by a disparate array of artists, some of whom, like Richard Harris, weren't even singers. But the fact that MacArthur Park is still floating around on radio airwaves after all these years merely proves that, when it comes to music, there's a vast divide between what music critics consider worthy of airplay and what the general public wants to hear. In other words, "bad" sometimes equals "good", at least as far as record sales are concerned. It's just the way of the world, and nothing any critic has to say is going to change it. And so, in deference to that unassailable truth, I offer the following list of my top five picks for the worst pop songs ever...after MacArthur Park, that is. (And, yes...I kind of like them.) Ready? Let's get bad.



Honey, written by Bobby Russell, and recorded by Bobby Goldsboro in 1968, hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart on April 7, 1968, the same week that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr took a bullet on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. When it comes to cheese, this song oozes enough of the stuff to make a thousand plates of lasagna. From the very first verse, which begins "See the tree, how big it's grown, But, friend, it hasn't been too long, since it wasn't big" to the final chorus of "And honey, I miss you. And I'm bein' good. And I'd love to be with you, if only I could", it's a non-stop musical sob-fest. In between that saccharine first verse and the plaintive last chorus, we have a pair of newlyweds planting a tree and raising a puppy, a fender bender that makes the wife cry because she is afraid her husband will be mad, but he just says "What the heck!" which makes her hug his neck (his neck? really?), the wife becoming sick with an unnamed disease, and, finally, the tragic day "when she was there and all alone" that "the angels came", leaving the husband with nothing but his "memories of Honey." The only thing that could make this song any cheesier would be a motherless baby left naked and crying in its crib. Even without that image, just listening to this song is enough to make your cholesterol level shoot up several points. But, despite that, you should listen to it. At least once. Otherwise, poor "Honey" (I always picture Mary Tyler Moore) will have died in vain.



The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia is yet another song composed by Bobby Russell, which pretty much makes him The Master Of Cheese as far as pop songs are concerned. To his credit, after writing it in the early 1970s, Russell decided that he didn't really like the song and was going to shelve it, but his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence (best known as Carol Burnett's "look-alike" sidekick on the comedienne's long-running, eponymous TV series) "had a feeling" that the song was destined for great things and insisted on recording it as a demo. The demo went nowhere. Even Sonny Bono, who was no stranger to the spreading of cheese for commercial gain, nixed it as a vehicle for his then-wife, Cher because he thought it would offend the singer's southern fan base (she had a southern fan base?). But that didn't put the kabash on Vicki Lawrence's "feeling", and so she went ahead and recorded the song herself, after which it was released as a single which went...yup, you guessed it...all the way to Number One on the Hot 100. If you've heard the song, and no doubt you have, you know it's about a young man unfairly charged and convicted of the murder of a man with whom his wife has been sleeping, when, in fact, it was his sister (the narrator of the song), who had actually pulled the trigger. But somehow, due to a tangled web of unreasonable reasons that take a long time for Vicki Lawrence to sing, she never gets the chance to tell law officials what really happened, including the fact that she not only committed the murder for which her brother ends up getting lynched, but that she killed her straying sister-in-law as well. It's a lot of blood-stained cheese to swallow. But apparently Vicki Lawrence isn't the only one who likes a little of the red stuff on her Velveeta. In 1973, country music wunderkind Tanya Tucker recorded the song with slightly altered lyrics on which a 1981 TV movie of the same name was later based. In 1991, country superstar Reba McEntire covered the original song, garnering her own top forty hit with it. Clearly, this is one hunk of cheese that didn't come with an expiration date.



Composed by Mary Dean and Al Capps, and recorded by Cher in 1973, Half-Breed also has the honor of having been a Number One hit on the Billboard Hot 100 despite the fact that it not only manages to insult Native Americans (guess Sonny wasn't worried about offending that fan base), but forced the rest of the world to watch Cher perform it while wearing a feathered headdress. Come on. She's mostly Armenian, for God's sake. What Cherokee lineage she does have comes from her mother Georgina's side of the family, along with a whole lot of English, French, Dutch, and German. Listening to Cher belt out lyrics like "Half-breed, that's all I ever heard, Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word, Half-breed, she's no good they warned, Both sides were against me since the day I was born" isn't as ridiculous as...say...watching someone like Kim Kardashian rake in tons of money for saying things like "I am Armenian, so of course I am obsessed with laser hair removal! Arms, bikini, legs, underarms... my entire body is hairless." But, let's face it, the former Mrs. Bono has recorded better songs. So why do I sort of like it? Because, like everything else she's ever sang, semi-ridiculous or otherwise, Cher gives it her all...just like the hundreds of drag queens who have been lip-synching to it ever since.



It's hard to know where to even start with this one. As bad songs go, Billy, Don't Be A Hero is in a category all its own. Released as a single in 1974 by Paper Lace, the Brit band that also gave the world The Night Chicago Died (another really bad song that we kind of like), it hit the top spot on the UK pop charts and probably would have done the same in the U.S. (because Brits and Americans not only share a common language, but a mutual love of musical treacle as well) if an American band called Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods hadn't beaten them to the sugary punch. The song's writers, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, have said that they intended it to be an anti-war song, but the only war going on in 1974 was the Vietnam War (which,as we all know, was never officially declared a war), but the song is actually about the Civil War, which was, of course, an entirely different situation than the one going on in Vietnam at the time. The song, in case you've never heard it, is about a woman lamenting the fact that her boyfriend has decided to join the Union Army, and as he marches off with the other soldiers, she cries out, "Billy, don't be a hero! Don't be a fool with your life! Billy, don't be a hero! Come back and make me your wife!" But it's already a lost cause because poor Billy isn't just going off to fight in a war, he's the title character in a really bad song, which means that he was as good as dead from the very first verse. But because there's a lot of song in between the first and last verses, including that ear-wormy chorus which requires musical surgery to extract from your head once you've heard it on the radio, we almost forget that fact by the time Bo Donaldson sings "I heard his fiancee got a letter, that told how Billy died that day, the letter said that he was a hero, she should be proud he died that way, I heard she threw that letter away", which makes this not only a bad song, but its writers guilty of shameless emotional manipulation. Still, while this song can hardly be credited with convincing anyone of the futility of war, it does deserve a grudging pat on the back for being the only song about the Civil War to ever hit Number One on both the British and U.S. pop music charts.



To be honest, the video for 1984's Wake Me Up Before You Go Go is probably worse than the song itself. But that's saying a lot. Songwriter George Michael has said that he was inspired to write the song after reading a note that his Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley left for his parents, in which he accidentally wrote the word "up" twice...as in "wake me up up", and, so, to keep things even, finished the note by writing "before you go go." From such mundane beginnings are really bad songs sometimes born! Clearly enamored of the idea of doubling words, Michaels added "boom boom", "bang bang", and "yo-yo" into the lyrical mix, thereby doubling his pleasure while, at the same time, doubling listeners' pain. But because the melody is so catchy and infectious, it doesn't actually hurt that much unless you're listening to it and watching the video at the same time. Seriously. The video for this song makes everything that fellow fey Brit singer Adam Ant ever did in the eighties look low-key by comparison. And whose idea was it to dress the band and the back-up singers in those oversized T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Choose Life"? The first time I watched the video, in the company of a gay friend, we both thought it was an anti-abortion song in disguise. Turns out the slogan was actually taken from a British anti-suicide campaign. Even so, it's a weird choice for a video for a song about wanting your lover to wake you up so that you can both go out dancing together that night. But Michaels obviously did something right when he wrote it because it went to Number Four on the British pop charts and all the way to the top in the U.S. And, of course, Michaels went on to write many more successful songs, one of which, Careless Whisper, should probably have been included on this list simply for the line "Guilty feet have got no rhythm." But because Careless Whisper also includes such a great sax solo, I decided to give it a pass. Not so for Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, which not only belongs on anyone's list of bad songs, but should be whipped into submission for not even pretending that it's anything else. Then again, maybe that's why I...uh...sort of like it. But let's just let that be our little secret, okay?

Friday, April 20, 2012

SOS! THE TRAGIC STORY OF ABBA'S UNTOLD PAIN

ABBA: BJORN ULVAEUS, BENNY ANDERSON, ANNI-FRID LYNGSTAD, AND AGNETHA FALTSKOG

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is something of a stretch. I mean, how sad can four millionaires be, especially four millionaires with as many hit records under their rhinestone-studded belts as the members of Abba have? True, money doesn't buy happiness, but for those of us who aren't packing 10 years-plus worth of gold records under our belts, rhinestone-studded or not, it certainly does seem that having a lot of money would go quite a long way in blunting whatever pain it is that we might be suffering from. But, then, we're not ABBA, are we?

ABBA, an acronym which stands for the first names of band members Anni-Frida (Frida) Lyngstad, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Agnetha Faltskog, is, of course, one of the most successful pop bands in history. That's quite a feat for four musicians from Sweden, a country about the size of California, and, prior to ABBA, not exactly what you would call a major exporter of catchy pop tunes. Prior to founding ABBA, keyboardist Benny Anderson performed with a cover band called the Hep Stars, who were known to their Scandinavian fans as "the Swedish Beatles." Guitarist Bjorn Ulvaeus was the front man for the Hootenanny Singers, a folk-skiffle outfit for which he began writing his first English-language songs, including a song called "Isn't It easy To Say", which was recorded by the Hep Stars in 1968. Around the same time that the future male members of ABBA were becoming acquainted professionally, Agnetha Faltskog was having success as a solo artist, racking up a number one hit on the Swedish pop charts when she was only 17, for which she received high marks from music ritics, who dubbed her the "Swedish Connie Francis." In yet another kismet-like crossing of paths, Agnetha was performing on a Swedish TV show in May of 1969 when she met future bandmate Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who, though Norwegian-born, had been living and performing cabaret-style music in Sweden since she was a teenager.

GHOSTS OF POP MUSIC PAST: GONE, BUT NEVER, EVER FORGOTTEN

It was shortly after that first meeting between the two future front women of ABBA that Anni-Frid met Benny while both were on tour in southern Sweden. Smitten by Anni-Frid's sultry looks and powerful voice, Benny offered to produce her next single, "Peter Pan" in September of that same year, with his friend Bjorn helping out on guitar. By that time, Bjorn and Agnetha were already a couple, as were Benny and Anni-Frid. Following a joint holiday on the island of Cyprus, during which the foursome tried out their harmonies with an impromptu performance for a group of United Nations soldiers stationed on the island, the two couples decided to record an album together. However, it wasn't quite ABBA yet. Benny and Bjorn sang lead on all of the songs, with the women providing back-up vocals on several of the tracks. A subsequent stage act garnered mostly negative reviews...except for the band's performance of a song called "Hey, Old Man", which featured the voices of all four members. Sensing that they were on to something, the boys in the band wrote more songs featuring the tight harmonies of their women, eventually penning a snazzy little glam rock-inspired tune called "Waterloo", which they recorded as an entry in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. "Waterloo" not only came away the winner, it raced up international charts, peaking at Number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The four bandmates had found their sound. Now they needed a name. Something a little more radio-friendly than the one they had been using, which was the unimaginative and immensely unwieldy "Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid." ABBA seemed like a no-brainer. The only problem was that there was already a well-known fish canning company in Sweden called ABBA. Fortunately, the band's manager, Stig Anderson (no relation to Benny) was able to convince the band members to go with the name anyway, pointing out that it was very unlikely that anyone one outside of Sweden had ever heard of the other ABBA. Even if they had, by the time the new ABBA had followed up their initial success with a string of hits, including "Honey, Honey", "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do", and "SOS", images of fish and fish canneries had been forever superseded by the titillating image of Agnetha and Anni-Frid standing side by side in the spotlight now trained intractably on the Swedish powerhouse pop group.

AGNETHA FALTSKOG: MARKED FOR GREATNESS...AND PAIN

So, how did a band that came together so organically go south so tragically? Well, it seems it started with Agnetha. Turns out that, despite the public accolades and critical acclaim which greeted the foursome in the early days of their international success, Agnetha was never really comfortable with the idea of being a superstar. For one thing, she hated crowds. Definitely not a plus when your entire life revolves around singing in front of thousands of fans on a regular basis. Following the band's break-up in 1983, Agnetha gave an interview in which she said that she had long been haunted by dreams in which she was being chased by hordes of fans who, on catching her, tried to eat her alive. On top of that, she suffered from an intense fear of flying, which, along with a deep-rooted sense of insecurity which no amount of artistic and commercial success could shake, and the guilt she felt over not being home to raise her two children by husband Benny, made life as a member of ABBA an ongoing personal hell for the sexy, blonde singer.

HER BEAUTIFUL FACE AND GAP-TOOTHED SMILE HID SUPERSTAR-SIZED AGONY

When Agnetha and Bjorn divorced at the height of the band's fame, Agnetha spiraled into a deep depression. After a few unsuccessful stabs at recording solo albums, she withdrew from the public eye, becoming, for all practical purposes, a recluse, much like that other famous Swedish star, Greta Garbo...but without the big, floppy hat and sunglasses. It probably didn't help that her auburn-haired counterpart, Anni-Frid had a much easier time finding chart success post-ABBA with a pair of New Wave-ish hits titled "Something's Going On" and "Deeper Breaths." Even her divorce from Benny, which took place around the same time that Agnetha and Bjorn hit the skids, seemed to have less of an emotional downside for Anni-Frid, who quickly found solace in the arms of Prince Heinrich Ruzzo Reuss of Plauen, and went to live with him in his family's ancestral castle in Fribourg, Sweden where they raised two children.

LUCKY IN LOVE, BUT NO STRANGER TO PAIN

But it wasn't all princely living for Anni-Frid, either. In 1998, Anni-Frid's daughter died of injuries sustained in a car accident which took place near Detriot, Michigan. A year later, her husband died of lymphoma. Fortunately for Anni-Frid, her late husband had been a good friend of members of the Swedish Royal Family, and through her association with them as well as with their support, she was able to turn her pain into gain, eschewing her former interest in music in favor of a newfound, zealous commitment to environmental issues.

THE SONG STYLERS BEHIND THE VOICES OF ABBA

And what of Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the shaggy-haired duo behind all those pop songs that made Agnetha and Anni-Frid so famous? Well, it didn't go so well for poor Bjorn, it turns out. Apparently, the former guitarist for the pop super group has been struggling with long term memory loss for some time now. Several years ago, just as the ABBA song-inspired movie Mamma Mia! was debuting in theaters, Bjorn went public with his malady, telling a reporter that he had no memory whatsoever of ABBA's participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. "In interviews I said that my trousers were so tight I could not even sit in the bus on the way to the arena," he said. "But I honestly do not know if that is true or it is someone who told me about it." He added that he has tried to combat the problem by extensive viewing of old videos, and has even tried hypnosis, but the gaps in his memory remain as large as the one between Agnetha's front teeth. (He didn't actually say the part about Agnetha's teeth, but it seems like a good analogy.)

As for Benny, it seems that, of the four former members of pop music's most commercially successful international singing group, he is the only one who has not yet been visited by major tragedy. On March 15th, 2010, Benny reunited with ex-wife Anni-Frid on the occasion of ABBA's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, the man behind hits like "Take A Chance On Me" and "Dancing Queen" told the audience, "If you live in a country like Sweden, with five, six months of snow, and the sun disappears totally for like two months, that would be reflected in the work of artists. It's definitely in the Swedish folk music, you can hear it in the Russian folk songs, you can hear in in the music from Jean Sibelius or Edvard Grieg from Norway, you can see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo and you can hear it in the voice of Jussi Björling. And you can hear in in the sound of Frida and Agnetha on some of our songs too."

AGNETHA AND ANNI-FRID THEN....

...AND NOW.

What more can one say, really? Except...thank you, Benny, Bjorn, Anni-Frid, and Agnetha, for having the courage to name your band after a Swedish fish cannery and, in the process, providing the world with some of the catchiest pop songs EVER.

Skol. xoxoxoxoxoxoxxo

Thursday, April 19, 2012

DICK CLARK VS PUNK: A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN AMERICAN BANDSTAND HISTORY

DICK CLARK, MEDIA MOGUL AND AMERICAN ICON

On Wednesday, when I heard the news that Dick Clark, American media mogul and former host of American Bandstand, had died of a massive heart attack at the age of 82, I thought three things. 1.) That it was very sad, but not unexpected given the man's poor state of health these last few years. 2.) That it's difficult to imagine anyone ever doing what Dick Clark did, which was parlay a simple job as the host of a music and dance show for teen-agers into a multi-faceted career that spanned nearly 60 years (I know, it's freaking amazing, isn't it?) which, according to celebritynetworth.com, resulted in a net worth of 200 million at the time of his death. 3.) That it was hard to believe that John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, former lead snarler for the Sex Pistols once appeared on American Bandstand with his post-Pistols band, Public Image LTD.

JOHN LYDON, AKA JOHNNY ROTTEN, FORMER LEAD SINGER OF THE SEX PISTOLS, ENJOYS A NICE PIECE OF TOAST AT HOME IN ENGLAND

Clark took over as the host of American Bandstand in 1956, four years after it first aired, and retained that position, while also serving as producer, until the show ended in 1986. During those 30 years, there were some pretty interesting performances by some acts who just didn't seem to gel with the show's clean-cut, mainstream, lip-synching premise. But in the primordial days before MTV videos, there really weren't that many other options for music artists who wanted to be seen and not just heard. There was Midnight Special, Soul Train....and American Bandstand. And so, in between the thrill of watching teen-aged couples of various abilities and fashion sensibilities dance to top 40 records, AB audiences were treated to performances by such disparate artists as Madonna, Sparks, Matchbox 20, Simple Minds, Charlie Daniels, George Thoroughgood, and Abba. Donna Summer once actually co-hosted the show, the only time a performer ever did so.

DICK CLARK: "AMERICA'S OLDEST TEEN-AGER" GETS DOWN WITH A YOUTHFUL AB AUDIENCE

Somehow, though, the idea of John Lydon sharing a sound stage with Dick Clark on AB is almost too horrific to contemplate. Unfortunately, I was a reluctant and disapproving witness to PIL's performance when it aired on St. Paddy's Day in 1980. Despite my former life as a punk-turned-New Wave singer with a decided distaste for the music mainstream and all that it represents, I find it equally distasteful when artists who owe everything to people like Dick Clark who popularized rock and roll for the masses and made it possible for even terrible singers like John Lydon to get record deals, return the favor by showing complete and utter disrespect to those people, especially on a show as high profile as AB was in its heyday.

JOHN LYDON AND PUBLIC IMAGE LTD: THEY HAD A GOOD BEAT, BUT YOU COULDN'T DANCE TO 'EM

But that's exactly what Lydon and company proceeded to do after being introduced by Clark and given the stage to perform two of their "hits." (Bands like Public Image LTD don't really have hits, of course, but let's just pretend for the sake of this post.) Following an awkward moment of banter between Lydon and PIL bassist Jah Wobble, the band launched into what was supposed to be a lip-synched version of a song called "Poptones." Except Lydon refused to lip synch, apparently because, being the ex-lead singer of the Sex Pistols, he had agreed to be the show not to perform, but to prove that he could still not perform and somehow continue to get booked on shows like AB. He did a damned fine job of it, too. Instead of lip-synching to the band's song, he traipsed through the audience, making faces at the camera, and shoving people on to the dance floor. And it didn't get any better when PIL started playing their second song, Careering, for which Lydon also refused to lip-synch in favor of yet another stroll, this time on the dance floor, where he kept getting in the way of the dancers, some of whom he engaged in conversation, and, finally, pausing to apply nose drops.



Some of the audience members didn't seem to mind so much. It was the 80s, after all. And the days when artists were respectful and well-behaved during public performances were definitely on the wane. Clark never missed a beat as host, treating Lydon and his band with the same respect he afforded to all of the performers who appeared on the show. But it was a strange moment in AB history all the same. Needless to say, PIL was never invited back to perform on the show. Six years later, AB completed its 30 year run, its simple, straightforward, half hour format no match for the encroaching age of video and the jaggernaught that was MTV. And Dick Clark...well...we all know what happened to him. Hats off to you, Mr. Clark. I give your record a "10."

Monday, April 16, 2012

BOTTOMS UP AND BLOTTO: A SHORT HISTORY OF DRINKING ON CLASSIC TV SITCOMS

My friend had a question for me last night. Why have I been maintaining such a furious posting schedule for this blog lately? Short (tempered) answer: I'm quitting smoking. However, since I am going to continue to write and drink, I find it somehow comforting to take refuge in those pursuits whilst trying to extricate myself from the former one. So...brainstorm...why not offer the blog-reading world a post on drinking habits as they have been portrayed in classic sitcoms? It works for me. Yeah, true, having a cigarette right now would work even better, but I'm not gonna give into the urge. Nope...not yet anyway. And so...

ITS ALWAYS COCKTAIL HOUR SOMEWHERE, DARLING

Looking back on classic sitcoms, there seems to have been a real paradigm shift, as far as drinking is concerned, around the time that Jerry Mathers started to like girls on Leave It To Beaver.

JERRY MATHERS AS "BEAVER CLEAVER": MILK AND WONDER BREAD ALL THE WAY

That was about 1963, the last year the series ran on TV, and with its demise and that of the "wholesome 1950s values" it attempted to portray, there seemed to arise in TV Land an entirely different attitude toward the way in which the imbibing of alcohol was depicted on the small blue screen. Take The Dick Van Dyke Show, for instance, that savvy treasure trove of early 1960s pop culture and show biz references created by Carl Reiner, which ran for five stellar seasons on NBC, starting in 1963, the same year that Leave It To Beaver ended.

DICK VAN DYKE AND MARY TYLER MOORE: WOULD THEY HAVE BEEN THIS HAPPY WITHOUT THE NIGHTLY COCKTAILS?

It's a pretty well-known fact that Reiner based TDVDS on his own life as a television comedy writer living with his wife and son (Rob Reiner, who would, of course, go on to play "Mike/Meathead Stivic" on All In The Family) in New Rochelle, New York. I, personally, can't even drive through New York and see a sign for New Rochelle without wishing that I could somehow make one of those "Twilight Zone" turns on the road and find myself back in Reiner's New Rochelle, the one that apparently existed in the early 60s if you were a TV comedy writer married to a beautiful former USO dancer who traipsed around the house in capris and met you at the door every night with a cocktail and the promise of dinner. Face it, Rob and Laura Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) were always drinking.


If it wasn't after work cocktails, it was drinks and dinner in the city, or wine in some little Italian restaurant. There was no shame or justification involved. It was the early 1960s, for God's sake. The same early 1960s that the brilliant AMC drama Mad Men portrays so well. Interestingly, years after the series ended, Van Dyke and Moore both sought treatment for alcoholism. Van Dyke even starred in the Emmy-winning TV movie, The Morning After, about an alcoholic struggling with his disease. But that has nothing to do with Rob and Laura, who I like to imagine as now living in a retirement village somewhere in Florida, sipping cocktails with the equally elderly Buddy and Sally as they decide which local restaurant to hit for that night's "early bird special."

DARRIN AND SAMANTHA STEVENS: DID THEY DRINK TO ENDURE ENDORA? SEEMS LIKELY.

Around the same time that the Petries were enjoying their 5 o'clock cocktails in New Rochelle, Darrin and Samantha Stevens (played by Dick York and Elizabeth Montgomery, respectively) were tossing back their share of highballs on Bewitched, which ran on ABC from 1964 to 1972. Not too surprisingly, the Stevenses (is that how you write it?) lived in Westport, Connecticut, next state over from New York, so, conceivably, they could have met the Petries for drinks some night (perhaps via Samantha's broom). But, like the Petries, the Stevenses (damn it, that's how I'm going to write it) seemed to do most of their drinking at home, although I never saw them go out to dinner without ordering drinks as well. In another, unavoidable reference to Mad Men, it should be noted that Darrin Stevens made his living as an advertising executive, and that his boss, Larry Tate (David White) was every bit as big a drinker as Roger "Ulcer Boy" Sterling. So, in a sense, Darrin and Larry could be considered the prototypes for the mad men on Mad Men. But back to drinking...

SAMANTHA STEVENS IN FRONT OF SHELVES AND SHELVES OF LIQUOR. NO WONDER SO MANY OF HER SPELLS WENT "A-RYE."

Despite all of the imbibing of spirits that went on in the Petrie and Stevens households, there were some 1960s sitcom households where drinking never seemed to be a factor at all. Most notably the Carol and Mike Brady household. I defy anyone to scrounge up even one episode in which either Carol or Mike tossed back a drink inside that split level home that architect Mike supposedly designed all on his own. Not even in the two part episode on which the entire Brady clan took a trip to Hawaii. That's understandable, of course, since the show was aimed primarily at a youthful audience who presumably looked at the Brady kids as role models. Hell, the one time when Greg Brady (Barry Williams) took a brief sabbatical from being good to smoke a covert cigarette, Mr. Brady went ballistic on him. It didn't matter that, in real life, Williams had a thing for Florence Henderson, who played Carol, or that, by the end of the show, Maureen McCormick (Marcia) had begun making the rounds of Hollywood parties and was experimenting with cocaine use. Drinking and smoking were just not done on The Brady Bunch. You have to skip on over to another ABC sitcom, The Love Boat, to see a member of the Brady family with a drink in hand. Turns out it's Maureen McCormick, who appeared on a Love Boat episode in the second season of the show. She wasn't playing Marcia, of course, but after so many years playing that role, it's hard to see her in anything without thinking of Marcia Brady.

MAUREEN MCCORMICK SIPS AN ADULT BEVERAGE ON THE LOVE BOAT (OH, MARCIA, MARCIA, MARCIA!)

Returning to more adult-oriented sitcoms, there was no dearth of drinking on one of my favorite shows of the 1970s: The Bob Newhart Show. Like Rob Petrie and Darrin Stevens, Dr. Bob Hartley was a professional man, a psychologist, for whom drinking was a regular, unexceptional occurrence.

BOB NEWHART AND TV WIFE SUZANNE PLESHETTE WERE NO STRANGERS TO A STIFF ONE EVERY NOW AND THEN

Not only did the Hartleys drink on a regular basis, but on Rhoda, another sitcom from the same era which starred Valerie Harper, a transplant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (where there was also a whole lotta drinkin' goin' on) , Rhoda's doorman, Eliot Carleton (voiced by Lorenzo Music, who also provided the voice for Garfield the Cat in the cartoon series) was always drunk. Carleton's signature greeting, "This is Carleton, your doorman",was a running joke on the show, and the fact that Carleton always slurred the words when saying it was part of the joke. These days, the other characters on the show would probably be planning an intervention. A funny intervention. Good luck with that.

LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY GET DOWN WITH SHOTS OF "SHOTZ" BEER

But when it came to 1970s sitcom drinking, the girls on Laverne and Shirley were the queens. While Laverne (Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams) weren't what you'd call hardcore drinkers, they spent most of their day working the assembly line at the fictitious Milwaukee "Shotz Brewery", and when home, had no compulsion about seeking liquid courage from shots of cooking sherry. Laverne's favorite drink might have been milk and Pepsi (yuk), but she and roommate Shirley existed in a working class world where there was no shame attached to drinking, even if the drink of choice for most of the characters was almost always a bottle of domestic beer.

HARRY MORGAN AS COL. POTTER TOSSES BACK A DRINK ON MASH

Of course, for those who eschew domestic spirits, there was always M*A*S*H*, the long running 70s series on which Hawkeye Pierce and the rest of the medical staff somehow managed to save lives and maintain regular drinking habits whilst serving on the Korean war front. In fact, the only characters who didn't drink on the show were the injured and dying...and possibly Radar, who I can't ever recall seeing with a drink in his hand. Probably because he was too busy holding on to that teddy bear. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) even had a still in his room, for God's sake. Now, that's a commitment to drinking.

ALAN ALDA AS "HAWKEYE PIERCE": HE WAS ONE DOCTOR KNEW HOW TO KEEP SPIRITS UP

It goes without saying that this post wouldn't be complete if I didn't give at least a brief nod to the king of drinking sitcoms: Cheers. The series, which ran on NBC from 1982 to 1993, not only took place against the backdrop of a Boston bar "where everybody knows your name", it spawned a legion of real life "Cheers" bars. And yet, despite all the drinking that went on in every episode, the show never really drew on actual drinking for its laughs. If anything, the show seemed to mark a definite shift in the way that drinking is portrayed on sitcoms. The fact that the owner of Cheers, Sam Malone (Ted Danson) was a recovering alcoholic was an important element of the show, and very much in keeping with the country's less accepting attitude toward wholesale drinking as a form of recreation. Even on Frasier, the show's successful and equally long-running spin-off starring Cheers alum, Kelsey Grammer, most of the drinking was limited to the imbibing of fine wines, an occasional Scotch and soda, and Martin Crane's beer. The characters on Fraiser met not in a friendly Seattle watering hole but in a coffee bar, where they bared their souls over lattes and cups of espresso.

CLIFF AND NORM HOIST A COUPLE OF COLD ONES AT CHEERS

Nope. Drinking isn't what it used to be on TV sitcoms. But, then, what is? Even in real life?

Skol. xoxoxoxxoxoxxoxo

Saturday, April 14, 2012

CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD: WHEN FRED MACMURRAY WAS HOT

TITLE STILL FOR "DOUBLE INDEMNITY", 1944

In 1935, James Cain, who had made a name for himself as the author of the bestselling crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, published his second contribution to the genre, a novella called Double Indemnity. The novella was based on a real life murder that took place in New York in 1927, which Cain had covered whilst working as a journalist in that city. The murder had been carried out by an unhappy Queens housewife called Ruth Snyder and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray, who assisted Snyder in taking out a large insurance policy on her husband before the murder--an insurance policy that included what was known as a "double indemnity clause", which meant that the beneficiaries of the policy would receive double the original amount if the insured happened to expire due to accidental causes. Unfortunately (for them), Ruth Snyder and her lover were not exactly what you could call criminal masterminds, and the form of accidental death they chose for Snyder's husband was a staged burglary, during which they garroted him, stuffed his nose with chloroform-soaked rags, and killed him.

RUTH SNYDER: A "SHOCKING" EXAMPLE OF WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN AN UNHAPPY HOUSEWIFE CHOOSES MURDER OVER MOOD ELEVATING DRUGS

The dumb-ass duo were quickly identified, caught, charged, and convicted of the crime. Both were sent to Sing Sing where they were summarily executed by virtue of the "electric chair", affording Snyder the dubious legacy of being the first woman to be executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Enter James Cain, whose fictionalized version of the case received rave reviews and was soon making the rounds in Hollywood as the potential source for a movie. After a bidding war among several major studios, movie execs at Paramount finally bought the rights to the novella for $15,000. However, whatever joy they felt in obtaining the rights were soon overshadowed by the problem of how to make a movie in which the two main characters were inherently dishonest, self-centered, and unrepentant regarding the monstrous crime for which they had been convicted. Hollywood stars lived and thrived on the adulation of their fans. What fan wanted to see the object of their adoration play a cold-blooded murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever? Not only that, but they needed someone to turn the novella into a screenplay. And then someone had to direct it. It was a minefield of possible naysayers. But then someone thought of Billy Wilder.

BILLY WILDER: THE LITTLE MAN WHO RAISED THE BAR FOR FILM NOIR

Billy Wilder was the talented son of Jewish parents who operated a successful cake shop in Austria-Hungary (now a part of Poland) before moving to Berlin when Wilder was still a boy. Following the rise of Hitler's murderous Third Reich in the late 1920s, Wilder left Berlin for Paris, and then, in 1933, relocated to Hollywood, where he began pursuing a career as a screenwriter. Short (tiny, really) and decidedly eccentric, Wilder didn't have much success with his chosen profession until, finally, in 1939, he collaborated with fellow German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch on the screenplay for Ninotchka, a "screwball" comedy starring Swedish drama queen Greta Garbo in her first role as a laugh-magnet. The movie did so well that Wilder soon became a hot commodity in the previously indifferent Hollywood community, and, in 1942, made his directorial debut with an otherwise forgotten film called The Major And The Minor. When Paramount execs approached him with the offer to direct a film based on Caine's novella, Wilder was all about the "yes" word, but told them that he was going to need a co-writer. After some deliberation, it was decided that the best man for the job was Raymond Chandler, creator of fictional P.I. Philip Marlowe, the dark, complex, infinitely witty protagonist of "The Big Sleep", "Lady In The Lake", and "Little Sister." Although Chandler had no experience writing screenplays, Wilder admired his ability to weave dialogue and action within the framework of a story. Unlike Caine, whose sparse, journalistic writing style had been honed in New York newspaper offices, Chandler had a knack for creating characters and putting them in situations which allowed them to display a complex variety of emotions without ever missing a beat when it came to that all-important hard-boiled banter. What better writer to take on a project like Double Indemnity?

RAYMOND CHANDLER: IMPASSIVE EXTERIOR, HARD-BOILED CENTER, SILVER TONGUE

The problem was, Raymond Chandler was every bit, if not more, eccentric than Wilder. Although he had been born in Chicago, Illinois, Chandler was the son of a British woman of Irish descent who had immigrated to the United States to live with family after being estranged from her husband. When Chandler was two years old, his mother relocated back to England, taking him with her. That's where Chandler grew up, and where he first fell in love with the idea of becoming the successful author of dreamy, romantic stories which took place in idyllic English gardens and chintz-draped drawing rooms. Somehow, though, after spending his formative years in English boarding schools and his early adulthood making an unenthusiastic stab at a career as a civil servant, he decided that he would be much happier living back in the United States. And so, in 1912, he returned to America, settling first in San Francisco, and then, following the end of WWII (during which he served with the Canadian RAF), Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Cissy (a woman 18 years his senior whom he married in 1924) lived for the remainder of their lives.

RAYMOND CHANDLER AND BILLY WILDER: COLLABORATORS BUT NEVER EXACTLY FRIENDS

After working at a number of different jobs, including one as an oil executive, Chandler realized that his true vocation was still that of writer, and so he began writing crime stories for pulp magazines, gradually perfecting the character of Philip Marlowe, in which guise the former English schoolboy treated the world to some of the best, most influential "hard-boiled" dialogue to ever see print. By the time Wilder approached him with the idea of collaborating on the Double Indemnity screenplay, Chandler was firmly ensconced in his role as one of America's top crime fiction authors. Although he agreed to work with Wilder on the screenplay, he was not used to working with a collaborator, especially one as unapologetically quirky and controlling as Wilder. It was a battle of wills from the very start. Wilder had a habit of walking around the writing room with a whip that he liked to crack against his thigh, which bothered Chandler immensely, as did Wilder's refusal to take off his cap during writing sessions, which, according to a distressed memo Chandler sent to studio execs, made the crime writer feel as though Wilder intended to just up and leave the room at any moment, a prospect which sometimes kept him from being able to concentrate on the work at hand. Another issue for Chandler was Wilder's alleged propensity for barking out orders to him, such as "Open the window, Ray", to which Chandler took great offense. Somehow, though, the two men managed to finish the screenplay. But having solved that problem, they were now faced with the larger one of finding actors to play the protagonists. Wilder decided to ask Barbara Stanwyck.

BARBARA STANWYCK: TOUGH BROAD FROM BROOKLYN TURNED MOVIE STAR

Barbara Stanwyck (born Catherine Ruby Stevens in 1907) was one tough cookie. When she was four, her mother had been killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving street car. Following her mother's death, Stanwyck's father took off to work on the Panama Canal and was never heard from again. In her teens, Stanwyck dropped out of school to join the Ziegfield Follies, a job which she held for several years, supplementing her income by working as a dance instructor at a speakeasy which catered to a gay and lesbian clientele. Eventually, she found her way to Broadway, where she received accolades for her role in a play called "The Noose", precipitating a summons to Hollywood where she made a screen test for a role in the silent film, Broadway Nights. She didn't get the role, but, after being cast as the star of another film called The Locked Door, she was well on her way to a storied career as one of Hollywood's classic chosen few. By the time Wilder broached the idea of playing the lead role in Double Indemnity, Stanwyck was one of the most sought after actresses in the industry as well as one of its most notorious hard-asses. After reading the screenplay, she had no trouble telling Wilder what she thought of it, which was that she wanted nothing to do with it. "People are going to hate this woman," she told him. "She's a terrible person. Why would I want to play a murderer?" Wilder's reply? "Well, you are an actress, aren't you?" The words hit home. Stanwyck agreed to do the film. Now all that remained was to find an actor to play her lover and fellow murderer.

FRED MACMURRAY: HE WAS SURPRISINGLY GOOD AT BEING BAD

Fred MacMurray, best known in the latter years of his career as the "Dad" in the 1960s sitcom My Three Sons and his work in such G-rated Disney fare as Flubber, was a native of the Midwest, an incongruously wholesome member of the Hollywood community whose academic prowess had earned him a full scholarship at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he was known for his chops as a singer and a saxophone player. After college, MacMurray sang with a series of big bands before making the move to Broadway and, following his success there, to Hollywood. He was an unlikely choice to play opposite Stanwyck in a movie like Double Indemnity, even though in writing the screenplay, Wilder and Chandler had opted to make the Judd Gray character slightly more likable than the Ruth Snyder character by reinventing him as an opportunistic insurance salesman whose criminal actions are the result of misguided lust rather than the pathological sense of indifference to the sanctity of human life which drives the character as written by Caine. Even so, MacMurray's initial response to Wilder was the same as Stanwyck's. He was an actor known for his work in light, romantic comedies. Sometimes he played the saxophone as well. He was not the actor that Wilder was looking for, he insisted. Case closed.

MACMURRAY AND STANWYCK: UNLIKELY CO-STARS IN THE GREATEST FILM NOIR OF ALL TIME

Except it wasn't. Wilder wanted MacMurray. Like all great directors, he just had a feeling that MacMurray was right for the role, and he refused to take MacMurray's "no" for an answer. So he invoked a contractual clause that gave him the right to "force" MacMurray to take the role, which made MacMurray very unhappy, but being the upstanding guy that he was, MacMurray sucked it up and signed on to play "Walter Neff", insurance salesman, adulterer, and reluctant murderer opposite Barabara Stanwyck's "Phyllis Dietrichson", bored housewife, adulterer, and far less reluctant murderer.

FRED MACMURRAY AS "WALTER NEFF" LEAVING THE DIETRICHSON HOUSE IN PALO ALTO, CA

Film critics have written volumes on the film noir masterpiece that is Double Indemnity. It would be presumptuous and futile to attempt to do a better job here. But there are very few film scholars who do not include Double Indemnity in their list of greatest American films of all time. From the moment Walter Neff makes his first visit to the Dietrichson house and is instantly mesmerized by the sight of Phyllis Dietrichsom standing at the top of the stairs in a bathing towel, it's clear that this is a film with a dark underbelly. The love affair between the doomed pair may take place against the sunny backdrop of a California summer sky, but the sun's rays are speckled with dust as they ooze in past the shuttered corners of the living room windows in the dark, gloomy house where Phyllis and her husband co-exist within the framework of a loveless marriage that is already as dead as her husband will be shortly after signing (without realizing it) the insurance contract with the fateful double indemnity clause. The lust that drives Neff to agree to assist Phyllis in carrying out the murder is the usual, understandable kind (she's gorgeous, despite the awful, cheap-looking blonde wig she insists on wearing), but it has no staying power. Neff has already begun to rethink it before the murder even takes place. Ironically, it's his stellar record as a top notch insurance salesman that keeps him in the game. He wants to see if he can get away with it. He's a player, a womanizer, with no close family ties. If he loves anyone at all, it's not Phyllis, but Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster who works for the same company, with whom he shares the film's most poignant moments. The relationship between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes has been called the film's "real love story." Perhaps it is. But although it's clear from the start that the two men feel a strong sense of affection for one another, it's equally clear that, when it comes to an innate sense of right and wrong, Keyes is miles ahead of Neff.

EDWARD G. ROBINSON AS "BARTON KEYES"

When first offered the role of Keyes, Edward G. Robinson, like his two co-stars, wasn't sure he wanted to do it. The veteran actor (born Emmanuel Goldberg in Bucharest, Hungary in the late 19th century) was used to playing the lead roles in films like Little Ceasar and Kid Galahad. But he was smart enough to realize that, as an aging actor, he was better off taking a supporting role in a good film than he was waiting for another starring vehicle that might never come. In agreeing to play Barton Keyes, Robinson not only ensured his place as a participant in one of the most lauded film noirs of all time, he provided the film with its only true depiction of conscience. As much as Keyes loves Neff (and he does, without question), he loves the concept of justice more. The fact that it is Keyes who, without meaning to, turns out to be the "key" element in the taking down of Neff and Phyllis, is film noir at its finest.

CHEAP BLONDE WIG, SUNGLASSES, AND LUSTFUL DESIRE EQUALS "KILLER" FILM NOIR

When Double Indemnity hit theaters in 1944, it was praised by critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, none of which it won. MacMurray's riveting performance as the amoral, but ultimately tortured Walter Neff was an aberration in his long career, in which the only other "bad guy" role he ever played was that of Shirley MacLaine's philandering boss in The Apartment, the 1960 film also directed by Wilder, and which co-starred Jack Lemmon. Barbara Stanwyck went on to star in many more films, receiving four Academy Award nominations in all, and, finally, garnering an Emmy for her work in the 1980s TV series Falcon Crest. Raymond Chandler continued to write books about Philip Marlowe and, in 1951, co-wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Strangers On A Train. But although they never again worked together in a film, the five huge talents behind Double Indemnity deserve the gratitude of anyone who has ever settled down in front of a television screen to watch a "classic film noir" movie. Double Indemnity was...and remains...the standard bearer of the genre.


Skol. xoxoxoxxoxoxoxxo

Friday, April 13, 2012

PASSING STRANGE

If, like me, you happen to be a fan of obscure, anachronistic words and phrases (which I hope for your sake you're not because it's a passion that only breeds trouble), you probably already know that the common 19th century phrase "passing strange" is derived from the larger (by one syllable) 19th century phrase "surpassing strange." What does that have to do with anything, you ask? Well, calm the bloody hell down, and I'll tell you. It has to do with one of my other great passions---rock and roll. That's right. There are a lot of strange things connected to rock and roll. Don't even pretend to be surprised. And since today is my birthday, I'm going to indulge myself by sharing some strange rock and roll stories with you. So grab a beer (I'd suggest a cold Stella Artois or Carlsberg), bite another head off a bat, and put on your listening ears....or eyes, I should say. In which case you'll be reading, not listening. But you know what I mean.

Our first strange rock and roll story takes place on Feb.3, 1959, otherwise known as "The Day The Music Died", which is how singer/songwriter Don McLean refers to it in his classic 1970s mini epic of a song, "American Pie", which, coincidentally, is also sometimes referred to as "The Day The Music Died." That's because Feb. 3, 1959 was the date on which rock and roll icon and Texas homeboy Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue", "That'll Be The Day") died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba") and J.P. Richardson (aka "The Big Bopper"). Nothing so strange about that, really. The history of rock music is littered with the bodies of talented plane crash victims (Jim Croce, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Ronnie Van Zant among them). But what's strange about this particular plane crash is that two of the victims, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, were both haunted by recurring dreams involving plane crashes before they actually died in one. Intrigued? Let's start with Buddy Holly.

BUDDY HOLLY: ROCK AND ROLL ICON WITH A PRECOGNITIVE DREAM?

In 1958, several years after Holly and his band, The Crickets had their first chart success with hits like "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be The Day", Holly met and married Maria Santiago, a receptionist for New York music exec Murray Deutch, the owner of Southern-Peer Publishing. The couple were, by all accounts, very happy together and looked forward to many years of togetherness sharing in Holly's success as one of the first great stars of the rock and roll music industry. There was just one niggling little bit of negativity. Shortly after their marriage, Holly began to have a recurring dream in which he and his new wife were standing on the rooftop of their apartment building in New York looking up at a plane which seemed to be coming toward them from a cloudless sky. Sometimes the dream would end at that point, with the images simply fading away, leaving Holly with a vaguely unsettled feeling after he awoke. Other times, the plane would land, and Holly would board it, unable to stop himself, and then it would take off again, with Holly looking sadly out the window at the receding figure of Maria still standing on the rooftop.

BUDDY HOLLY AND THE CRICKETS (THE CRICKETS SURVIVED)

Holly told Maria about the dream and the sense of sadness he always felt after having it, but since it was a dream, there was nothing much that either of them could do about it. Presumably, they just put it out of their minds as Maria went on being the best rock and roll wife she could be, and Holly continued to write catchy rock and roll hits, the success of which, for some reason, never seemed to douse his predilection for wearing those nerdy black-rimmed glasses and bow ties. Interestingly, though, at the same time that Holly was having his unsettling plane dreams, his future tour mate, teen idol Ritchie Valens was having plane dreams of his own. However, Valens' dreams had started years before, when he was still an elementary school student in his hometown of Los Angeles, following a horrific incident in which a plane crashed into the schoolyard, killing several students and injuring several more. Valens might even have been among them if he hadn't stayed home sick on that particular day. But instead of rejoicing over that fact, Valens developed an intense fear of flying, which was somehow telegraphed to his younger sister who, shortly before Valens left on the fateful tour with Holly and Richardson, reportedly begged him not to go, telling him that she didn't want him to die. But of course, Valens went, and the rest is another sad chapter in rock and roll history.

RITCHIE VALENS: TEEN-AGED DREAMER WITH A FATEFUL DESTINY

J.P. RICHARDSON (THE BIG BOPPER): HE FLEW BECAUSE OF THE FLU

What is also interesting about this strange story is that the three rock and roll stars weren't supposed to be on that plane at all. The plane, which was piloted by a 21 year-old local man (who was killed as well) had been charted by Holly because he was tired of riding in the poorly maintained, drafty tour bus that had brought him and the other musicians to Clear Lake and was supposed to take them to their next gig, which was 380 miles away in Moorhead, Minnesota. Because the plane could only accommodate three passengers, it was somehow decided that Holly, Valens and back-up musician Waylon Jennings would be the ones to go, leaving everyone else to endure another long bus ride. But Richardson, who was suffering from a mild case of flu, asked Jennings to trade places with him, which Jennings agreed to do, with the teasing comment, "I hope your old plane crashes." Which, of course it did. Jennings was reportedly haunted by that last remark for the remainder of his life. Perhaps that's the reason he wrote so many poignant songs? Just sayin'.

THE CRASHED PLANE WRECKAGE IN A FIELD OUTSIDE CLEAR LAKE, IOWA

OTIS REDDING: R & B ICON ON A DOOMED FLIGHT PLAN

Our next strange rock and roll story involves 1960s soul singer Otis Redding, the man who gave the world songs like "Heard It Through The Grapevine", "Try A Little Tenderness", and, of course, "Sittin' On The Dock of The Bay", which turned out to be Redding's final hit. But as so often seems to happen in rock and roll, Redding's success was marred by sadness. A Georgia native, Redding was the son of a gospel singer and a housekeeper, both of whom supported his passion for music, which he indulged singing in the local Baptist church and, later, singing on a local radio station every Sunday night, earning a whopping six dollars for each performance. When his father contracted tuberculosis and died a short time later, Redding left school to pursue music full time. By the late 50's, he was touring the so-called "Chitlin Circuit" with an R & B band called Pat T Cake and The Mighty Panthers, which resulted in his being signed eventually to Confederate Records, where he had his first "race hit" with a song he wrote called "These Arms Of Mine." The success of that song led quickly to wider recognition for the passionate singer, and by 1965, Redding was a solid R & B star who had made enough money to buy a 300 acre ranch in his native Georgia, which he dubbed the "Big O Ranch." But even with a string of hits under his belt, Redding had yet to record the song that would afford him true iconic status. That auspicious event took place on December 6, 1967, when Redding recorded "Dock of The Bay" for Stax Records before heading off to tour with his band. As they always did at that point in Redding's career, the band was traveling in Redding's own plane, a Beechcraft H18. After playing a one nighter in Nashville, they flew to Cleveland, where they played two more shows and made plans for their next gig, which was to take place at the University of Wisconsin, near Madison.

OTIS REDDING IN HIGH ENERGY PERFORMANCE MODE (AND COOL LEATHER PANTS)

Now here's where the story gets all strange. The band that was supposed to open for them at the Wisconsin gig featured quirky guitarist Rick Nielson, who would later make a name for himself as the quirky guitarist for the equally quirky rock and roll outfit known as Cheap Trick. But in 1967, the band with which Nielson was playing was called "The Grim Reapers." Shuddery, isn't it? Even more so because, on the day that Redding and his band took off for Wisconsin, the weather was very bad, and they were warned not to go, but Redding refused to wait. Three miles away from their destination at Truax Field, the soul singer's plane crashed into Lake Monona, killing all but one of the passengers on board. Redding died, on the third anniversary of his idol Sam Cooke's death, without knowing how hugely successful his last recording would become.

THE FORMER ELLEN NAOMI COHEN IN A MOMENT OF OVERDRESSED REPOSE

Our final strange rock and roll story features the inimitable Ellen Naomi Cohen. Never heard of her, you say? Well, that's because, by the time she became famous as one fourth of the 1960s powerhouse pop quartet The Mamas and The Papas, the former Ms Cohen had ditched her birth moniker in favor of the much catchier "Cass Elliot." Yes, we're talking about Mama Cass, whose throaty, alto vocal stylings provided the group with that special harmonic oomph that made music critics wet themselves, just as fellow "mama" Michelle Phillip's willowy blonde looks gave the group its sex appeal (and made adolescent boys wet their bed sheets). Oddly enough, though, Mama Cass's powerful, deep voice almost kept her out of the group. Back when the group was still an unknown trio playing one nighters in a string of bars and clubs, Mama Cass, who was an old friend of Mamas and Papas lead singer Denny Doherty, for whom she reportedly always carried a torch, approached group founder John Phillips and asked if she could join them. Phillips said no. Not because she was so heavy (I'm not judging her, just stating a fact), as it has sometimes been alleged, but because she couldn't hit the high notes in his songs. Phillips was nothing if not a control freak, and when it came to his music, he could be an absolute tyrant. (Which makes one wonder why he allowed his winsome waif of a wife Michelle to sing with the group since she really wasn't much of a singer, a fact that is readily apparent if you listen to the group's one song, "Dedicated", on which she was featured as lead vocalist.)

MICHELLE PHILLIPS: WINSOME AND WILLOWY DESPITE HER WEAK VOCALS

But we're not here to trash Michelle Phillips, who, despite her lack of vocal talent, still seems like a nice person. We're here to explain the strange reason that Mama Cass was finally allowed to join forces with the pop quartet. It was because of a lead pipe. One day, as she was walking past a construction site, a lead pipe fell off some scaffolding and hit Mama Cass on the head. She suffered a concussion and spent three days in the hospital, after which, inexplicably, she found that her voice had changed and that she was suddenly able to reach those soary notes that Phillips wanted her to reach.

THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: GOOD SONGS AND GREAT HARMONIES KEPT THEM AFLOAT IN A SEA OF NON-STOP INTERNAL DRAMA

MAMA CASS ELLIOT ENJOYS SOME DOWN TIME WITH FELLOW MAMA MICHELLE PHILLIPS AND FELLOW 60S ICON AND FAN JIMI HENDRIX

But the strangeness doesn't stop there. Fast forward to 1974, several years after the Mamas and Papas had broken up amid a maelstrom of internal strife and conflict, including an affair between Michelle and Denny, as well as rampant drug use on the part of all four group members. Now a solo act, Mama Cass was in London, playing to sold out crowds at the Palladium. Her success as a solo artist reportedly meant a great deal to Mama Cass, who had long harbored doubts about her ability to attract a following on her own. In fact, she was so thrilled by her reception in London that she called former fellow mama Michelle from the flat in which she was staying and said something along the lines of "I just played to a sold-out crowd at the London Palladium. Now I can die happy." According to Michelle, "(Cass) had had a little champagne, and was crying. She felt she had finally made the transition from Mama Cass."

The phone call between Mama Cass and Michelle allegedly took place on July 28th, 1974. The next night, following another successful show at the Palladium, Mama Cass returned to her flat, went to bed, and died in her sleep at the age of 32. When her body was discovered the next day, there was reportedly a ham sandwich on the night stand next to her bed, which gave rise to the still rampant belief that she died after choking on the sandwich, despite the fact that a subsequent autopsy revealed no traces of food in her windpipe. Instead, Cass Elliot's cause of death was determined to be a heart attack, the probable result of a recent extreme weight loss of 80 pounds in eight months, which she supposedly achieved by fasting four days a week. Whether or not there was really a ham sandwich in her bedroom when she died is still a cause for speculation, especially since, being Jewish, it seems unlikely that Cass would have opted for a ham sandwich over, say, a bologna and cheese one. But the rumors persist to this day, sadly, overshadowing her otherwise triumphant last days as a solo artist, not to mention the much more interesting (and strange) fact that Who drummer Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in the very same flat four years later. The number of the flat? Number 9...the number immortalized by equally doomed rock and roller John Lennon in his nonsensical Yoko Ono-assisted contribution to the Beatles' "white album." It just doesn't get any stranger than that.

CASS ELLIOT: SINGING FOR THE ANGELS

Well, there you have it. For now anyway. Remember...rock and roll will quite possibly save your soul, but it's almost always "passing strange."

Skol. xoxoxxoxoxxoxoxo

Friday, April 6, 2012

EASTER: JUST ANOTHER PEEP SHOW

SQUISHY, COLORIZED, POLARIZING PEEPS

Growing up, I was not a fan of Easter. It had a lot to do with the fact that I was raised Pentecostal, which meant that my family spent a lot of time in church, even when it wasn't Easter. On Easter Sunday, the resentment I felt over being forced to sit for a good three hours or more in a crowded pew singing hymns and listening to a sermon underscored by the threat of hellfire and damnation was compounded by the discomfort of wearing "Easter clothes." We're talking new dress with itchy polyester ruffles, white tights, a pair of patent leather Mary Janes, and a hat. Usually an ugly one, chosen by my mother, who, like most Pentecostals, was not imbued with a strong sense (or even interest) in fashion. If it was "cute", flower-laden, and cheap, it got the Easter nod. I was forced to wear it.

AN EASTER BONNET: FLOWERS OVER FASHION

AT LEAST SHE DIDN'T HAVE TO WEAR AN EASTER BONNET

The only real salvation, for me anyway, was the Easter basket that was always waiting for me when we returned home from church. Chocolate Easter bunnies and malted milk balls may not have made up completely for the pain of enduring those hours in church, but they were definitely a welcome diversion. Which brings us to...Peeps.

PEEPS: MARSHMALLOW AND FOOD COLORING GONE HIDEOUSLY WRONG

You know 'em. Chances are, you've scarfed down a few at some point in your life. And as Easter "treats" go, they're probably one of the most polarizing contributions to the genre. For those of us who are not particularly fond of marshmallow, they're a harsh reminder of all that is wrong with the commercial aspect of Easter. Bright yellow (or sometimes pink, blue, green, or purple), Peeps are to Easter what green beer is to St. Paddy's Day. Sure, they're cute and festive-looking, but that doesn't mean we should be encouraged to ingest them. Underdone lamb with mint sauce is one thing. Squishy, artificially colored marshmallow shaped like baby chickens is quite another, thank you very much for asking.

LAMB WITH MINT SAUCE: AN EXPENSIVE EASTER ALTERNATIVE TO PEEPS

Still, despite my dislike of Peeps, I've always found it annoying when people proclaim their hatred of something without really knowing anything about what it is that they claim to hate. Of course, as far as Peeps are concerned, it comes down to a matter of taste. Even so, it's still a good thing to know your enemy. And so what do we know about Peeps? Well, according to our friends at Wikipedia, Peeps are manufactured by the Just Born company, which is located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and which was founded in 1953 by a Russian immigrant called Sam Born. Seems that, on coming to Bethlehem, Born purchased the Rodda Candy Company, which gave him access to Rodda's marshmallow chick line. Up until that time, the chicks had been painstakingly created by hand, but Born did away with that time-consuming process and began mass producing the little chicks, adding other animal shapes along the way, including, not surprisingly, bunnies. A classic Easter treat was born. But it didn't stop there. In 2009, the company introduced Peeps lip balm, which comes in four different flavors---grape, vanilla, strawberry and (yuk) cotton candy. Before that, in 1999, scientists at Emory University (with apparently a lot of time on their hands) decided to test the "indestructibility" of Peeps. The marshmallow confections were subjected to all manner of brutality. They were doused in boiling water, submerged in liquid nitrogen, and enveloped in clouds of cigarette smoke. What was the verdict? The scientists announced that "the eyes of the confectionery wouldn't dissolve in anything". Not only that, but according to the scientists, Peeps eyes are insoluble in acetone, water, diluted sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide.

PEEPS ON FIRE: THEY'RE "INDESTRUCTIBLE", SCIENTISTS CLAIM

A LITTLE HOT COCOA WITH YOUR PEEPS?

IMPALED PEEPS: STILL EDIBLE

SMOKE 'EM UP, JOHNNY...AND GIVE ONE TO THE CHICK

And so what are we to make of all this? Well, aside from the fact that Peeps can withstand fire, acid, and hot water, it really all comes down to the fact with which we started this post. Peeps are an Easter classic. One that you either love or hate. But as for me, well, I'll be munching on a chocolate bunny this Sunday.

CHOCOLATE RODENTS: A NON-SQUISHY SEASONAL CLASSIC IN GOOD OL' BLACK AND WHITE
Skol. xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo