Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?

 

 

A wedding

On Saturday, I went to a wedding.

It was actually a ring ceremony, the couple having been married previously, by Queen Latifah.  Seriously: at the Grammys.  So this was a kind of ‘reading each other our vows’ kind of thing, an exchange of rings, followed by a reception.  But it was really lovely, just a beautiful event.  Many many tears were shed, a few of them by a sentimental old fool of an uncle.  That would be me: my nephew Spencer was half of the marrying couple, marrying Dustin, a wonderful guy we have all grown to love.

The ring ceremony was held at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake, a place I had never previously visited.  It’s sort of an open square, with a small conference center in the middle, next to the skating rink. The skating rink alarmed me, passing it; I had a brief moment of panic, wondering if we would be expected to skate.  I never could ice skate, not even a little bit, and I think if I were try to it today I would just, you know, die.  But no; we were in a nice reception room, with lots of exceedingly uncomfortable chairs, just like most weddings have.

I got there way early.  My son and I had gone out to dinner, but he needed to go home and change, and his apartment is not handicapped accessible, so he dropped me off. So I got there in time to watch Betty Who practice.  Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You” had provided the music for Spencer’s Home Depot proposal video, a video that had gone viral and made Spencer and Dustin famous.  She had become friends with them, and was singing at the ceremony.  She finished practicing, and I ended up chatting briefly with her; mostly a ‘you sing beautifully,’ ‘thanks!’ kind of conversation. She was lovely; gracious and humble.

Other guests began arriving. My wife and daughters came; my son showed up, now dressed appropriately. The reception hall filled up. Everyone wearing their finest, looking happy.  As always with wedding events, I knew approximately a third of the people there.

Music started up.  First, an instrumental version of Christina Perri’s lovely “A Thousand Years.”  We didn’t hear the lyrics, obviously, but I know the song well, and rehearsed them in my mind: “I have died, everyday, waiting for you, darling; don’t be afraid, I have loved you, for a thousand years, loved you for a thousand years.”  Beautiful lyric, beautiful song, and perfect for the event.  As the music played, members of the wedding party started coming down the aisles, in pairs.  Lots of them; this couple is very loved, by many people.

Then, another instrumental; this time, the music introduction to Macklemore’s “Same Love,” the song played at the Grammies when they were married there.  Again, a wonderfully appropriate selection.  The lyrics may have seemed tendentious to some, but this was just the music; perfect.

Finally, Betty Who sang.  Her song, “Somebody Loves You” is an upbeat dance groove; for the wedding, she sang it like a ballad, just guitar and vocal.  It was . . . I’m running out of synonyms for beautiful.  Check a thesaurus: it was radiant.  Exquisite, lovely.  Resplendent.

As she sang, Spencer and Dustin came down the aisle.  They read their vows to each other.  And I think probably both of them would say that they’re not writers, not eloquent, but I thought both vows were eloquent and simple and perfect.  Heartfelt.  I can’t remember all they said, but I do remember Spencer saying ‘I will always be kind,’ and I know he will be, he is, that’s him, that’s Spencer.  A kind man, a gentle man, a joyous and generous man. He was weeping, and then Dustin read his vows, promising to be tender with Spencer’s heart, and maybe he was weeping more, and so was I and so were Spencer’s sisters, standing there, and so was everyone else.

And then they were done.  And we sat there a little, not sure where to go, not wanting, really, for the feeling to pass.  And the reception was in another building, and we went, and there was dancing.  But hardly any chairs, and the ones there were uncomfortable, and so we left.  I don’t really dance anymore.

But it didn’t matter.  We’d seen something lovely, we’d been part of something splendid and human and real and moving. Two wonderful human beings joining their lives together forever. And I thought; if ever there was a time to just be happy for people.  Just a time to be joyful.  Completely, wholly, uncomplicatedly, unambiguously happy.

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ‘em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931′s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grammy Awards

Last night, my wife and I and our daughters had a deeply weird experience, watching, for the first time ever, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards.  I essentially never watch awards shows on TV, except for the Oscars, which I watch every year.  And I freely and fully admit that I’m sort of an old fuddy-dud.  But I’m not remotely hostile to popular music, nor to contemporary music. One of my daughters is a huge Katy Perry fan, and I rather like some of her music.  I waited with great anticipation the arrival of the new Arcade Fire album, have listened to it many times, and think it’s terrific.  Nor am I remotely hostile to rap, or hip-hop.  I like Macklemore, for example.  My wife and I discovered Pentatonix this year, and think they’re amazing.  Naively, I assumed that Reflektor (the Arcade Fire release), would be up for Album of the Year, and that Pentatonix would be under consideration for Best New Artist.

And I’m not bitter that neither Arcade Fire nor Pentatonix were mentioned, either of them, ever, at any time.  To me, they were the two musical highlights of the year, but that’s not what the Grammies are about, apparently.   The music honored at the Grammies is, I suppose Top Forty, if that meant anything anymore.  It’s “Music that you would hear on the radio, if anyone listened to the radio, which no one does anymore.”  It’s so strangely anachronistic, this talk of ‘albums’ and ‘records’ in an age where music is almost entirely delivered via digital downloads.

Still, watching the Grammies, what I did not anticipate is how bad the musical performances would be.  I was actually sort of hoping I would hear music by people I didn’t know, and that I would like some of it, and want to buy it.  This did not happen.  For the most part, the musicians who performed were utterly dreadful.  A whole bunch of awards were given out, in obscure and infinitesimally differentiated categories.  Meanwhile, a bewildering array of performers both ancient and modern, or often enough, both together, would perform, either indifferently or catastrophically. And the ubiquitous and sinister presence of Jay-Z reigned over the proceedings, rather like Michael Corleone presiding over his father’s funeral.

Without question, the nadir of the evening’s performances involved the music of Chicago, as butchered by the untalented, smarmy and smirking Robin Thicke.  Chicago sounded terrific. That great horn section had its usual precision and polish, and Robert Lamm’s voice is as strong as ever.  They began “Does anybody really know what time it is?” with Lamm singing, and sounded, well, like Chicago, as good as ever.  Then Thicke put an execrable gloss on the vocal.  It was all downhill from there.  Thicke butchered two more Chicago songs, to complete the medley, and then that great horn section was somehow induced to provide backing for Thicke’s performance of his own loathsome hit, “Blurred Lines.”  I still shudder at the recollection.

This sort of thing kept happening. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (unaccountably wearing a hat he stole from Smokey the Bear), joined something called Daft Punk, a French duo who wear helmets, making them look like Boba Fett’s Eurotrash nephews, resulting in an utterly forgettable dance groove.  All the mystery of Imagine Dragons’ terrific song “Radioactive” was wiped clean by a frenetic, baffling and incomprehensible rap intrusion by someone I hope never to hear about again in any context whatsoever named Kendrick Lamar.

It also seemed to be a night for burying hatchets.  Next month, CBS will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut, and so both Paul and Ringo were there, and performed.  Ringo sang his one hit from his one album: I thought “Photograph” held up nicely.  Then he played drums for Paul (and was I the only one wondering if this would be the last time?), as Paul performed his new single (!), “Queenie Eye.”  Paul’s voice is shot, but the man’s past 70, and there’s still that charisma.  And Ringo’s got to be 73, and doesn’t look a day past 60.  But, sitting right there on the same row, about four people down, there she was: Yoko Ono, with I think Julian Lennon as her date.  And in a tribute to the “outlaws of country,” Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson sang “Highwaymen” really badly, then were joined by Merle Haggard for “Okie From Muskogee,” a song which in 1969 was a direct rebuke to country outlaws (and hippies) and to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson specifically.  (Boy was it weird hearing Willie Nelson sing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”).   But time wounds all heals, and the old guys seemed to enjoy their time on-stage together.  They were joined by Blake Shelton, who’s too young to have any historical ties to the others, but who seemed to be up there so there’d be one person on stage who can still sing and play the guitar.

There were some nice moments. Sara Bareilles and Carole King sat at pianos and sang two songs together, one by each of them: “Brave” and “Beautiful,” and the result was both brave and beautiful.  They represent different generations of women who do the same thing–singer/songwriters.  And they were both clearly thrilled to be up there, and the songs were great.  John Legend was similarly terrific; just sat at the piano and sang a good song really well.  Simple and great. A young country artist named Kacey Musgraves, who I’ve never heard of, sang her new hit, “Follow your arrow,” and I liked it and her some, though I’m not sure who told her that turning her Mom’s Christmas sweater into a short, short skirt was a good idea. But they were wrong.

Lorde won for “Royals,” a terrific song that I like a lot better in Pentatonix’ cover version.  Lorde, channelling Morticia Adams, also performed it, in a twitchy, odd, tuneless performance that made her look nuts. Katy Perry wore a witch costume, all the better to writhe on what seemed to be a hemlock stripper pole; a unifying theme of the evening seemed to be ‘tribute to bad musical theatre choreography’. Whenever things lagged, bring on the smoke effects and pyrotechnics!

I learned some things.  I did not know, for example, that Pink had been working out with the Cirque du Soleil choreographers.  But she has, and either lip-synced or sang while doing acrobatics.  Sadly, she was joined by a completely forgettable band named, if memory serves, Fun; not an inspired pairing.  I discovered that Metallica can still rock, and were memorably joined by the pianist Lang Lang–the result was a cacophonous mess.  I learned that Taylor Swift can fling her head around while singing, but not while singing well, apparently; the overall performance was embarrassing.  And I learned that Keith Urban sang play him some blues guitar; his duet with Gary Clark Jr. was okay.

Meanwhile, the Jay-Z thing just got weirder and weirder.  Beyonce’s opening number was tuneless and ugly.  Jay-Z joined her at the end, and the place went wild, but it rather felt like a soccer stadium in North Korea going wild when Kim Jung Un ‘scores’ a ‘goal.’  At one point, Jamie Foxx went up to present a winner in some category, and made some sort of comment along the lines of ‘gosh, Beyonce is sure pretty.’ An act of lèse majesté; apparently: he back-tracked frantically, babbling incoherently, then racing through his list of nominees.  There was absolutely this whole ‘Jay-Z can and will have you killed if you displease him’ sort of vibe.  Even the CBS producers caught it; the camera kept cutting to Jay-Z after each performance, as though looking for The Godfather’s blessing.

These award shows, like everything else in pop culture, are meant to build to a climax, and last night was no exception.  The climax last night was supposed to be a kind of marriage equality affirmation, in which Reverend Queen Latifah married 33 couples, some gay, some straight, while Macklemore rapped his “Same love” anthem, and Madonna, dressed like Colonel Sanders, blessed the proceedings.  In fact, that was why I was watching; my wife and I know one of the couples getting hitched. Trust CBS to blow it.  We hardly got to see the marrying couples at all; the camera was much more interested in what had been the point of focus the whole night, the spectacle of celebrities applauding celebrities.  (But for what are some of these people celebrated?)  We did not see the couple we’d watched the whole night to see.  What we saw instead was lots of Pharrell Williams’ silly hat and Jay-Z’s baleful glare.  And Taylor Swift dancing to everything.

I imagine that, for the marrying couples, having the whole thing nationally televised was probably kind of fun.  Having Queen Latifah preside was probably pretty cool. Macklemore’s song probably seemed appropriate.  Still, the CBS broadcast turned what genuinely is an important and sacred moment into something star-infested and tacky.  And they didn’t need to.  Let the camera linger. Actually show the couples.  Show them crying, embracing, kissing.  Show something human, for heaven’s sake.

So, yeah, the Grammy Awards of 2014 were kind of a bust.  They honored some mediocre songs and performances, as well as a couple of good ones.  The performances were mostly bad, but not uniformly.  Still, it’s three and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.  Won’t be watching next year, no matter who gets married.

Why were the Beatles the Beatles?

Nerd fun: get a book at the library, read it, buy it, read it again, buy a copy for your son, then have long phone conversations with him about it. The book, in this case, is Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years.  961 pages.  This is part one of Lewisohn’s proposed three volume (!) history of the Beatles.  The extraneous colons in the title can be explained by the fact that the entire series is going to be called The Beatles: All These Years.  Anyway, you’re either the kind of person for whom the first 961 page volume of a proposed three volume history of the Beatles is the most entrancing thing on the planet, or you’re baffled by the whole prospect; suffice it to say that I am the first kind of person, and so is my son.  And it’s as good as I hoped.  Lewisohn is an indefatigable researcher, thorough to the point of obsession, and he writes with precision, style, and humor.  My only quibble with him is that his book ends in 1962, and now I’m going to have to wait who knows how long before the next one appears.  Darn him.

I don’t plan to review it, though, not here, not now.  I mean, you’ve already decided, haven’t you?  You’re already either going to buy it, like, today, and take it straight home and let the laundry and dishes pile up while you get it read, or you’re not.  No, I want to talk about another issue entirely.  I’m going to talk about Malcolm Gladwell.

In 2008, Gladwell published Outliers, a terrific book about why some people are successful and others aren’t.  I love Gladwell too, and liked that book.  In it, he talks about the Beatles, and asks this: why were the Beatles the Beatles?  Why, in other words, that group of guys, coming out of the unpromising environment of Liverpool–why did John, Paul, George and Ringo get to change the world.  Why not some other foursome?  Of the hundreds of thousands late-50′s/early 60′s groups of teenage friends who wanted to start a garage band, why the Beatles?

The traditional answer is simple: they were geniuses.  They were just more talented than other kids.  Gladwell doesn’t think so.  His answer, though, is equally simple (even simplistic); they were great because of Hamburg.  Starting in August 1960, the Beatles were booked for a long gig in Hamburg, Germany.  They actually had four separate stints in Hamburg, from 1960 to 1962.  That was the period where John, Paul and George developed their style, figured out what they were doing. Their schedule in Hamburg was grueling: seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day.  Gladwell points to research that shows that it takes around 10,000 hours for someone, however talented, to perfect a skill.  Well, Hamburg is where the Beatles put in the time.

I would refine this theory a bit.  The Beatles’ line-up in Hamburg is very different from what it became.  Their bass player was John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe; their drummer was Pete Best.  Sutcliffe was no musician, though he did become an adequate bass player in time. When the Beatles landed the Hamburg gig, they didn’t have a drummer.  They brought Pete Best because he was their one friend in Liverpool who a) owned his own drum kit and b) could get away for four months. But he was never better than mediocre.

Rock and roll is built off the interaction between the bass player and the drummer.  Rock is about rhythm; it’s about a driving bass line and a strong, powerful beat.  For the Beatles to succeed in Hamburg, the other three guys had to compensate for Sutcliffe and Best’s inadequacies.  One way they did it was to stomp.  They became known for stomping their way through their songs–compensating for Pete Best’s lack of rhythm by (eventually) destroying the Kaiserkeller’s flimsy wooden stage.  When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band (to marry Astrid Kirchherr, the fashionable German girl he met there, who left her mark by suggesting the Beatles’ haircut), Paul (reluctantly) agreed to become their bass player.  (Sadly, Sutcliffe never did marry Astrid; he died in 1962 of a brain aneurism).  When they later fired Pete and replaced him with Ringo, they suddenly went from a band without strong bass or drums to a band with a phenomenal bass player and one of the best drummers ever.  But they’d had to learn to compensate for poor bass/drums support, which may in turn have forced John and George to tighten up their guitar work, and John, Paul and George, their vocals.

Okay, so if Hamburg was so important, why did the Beatles succeed while other British bands (even Liverpool bands) playing in Germany did not succeed?  Specifically, why did the Beatles make it big, instead of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes?

Listen to this song.  Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was an exciting band, more experienced than the Beatles, with a more charismatic lead singer.  They got the better Hamburg gig, and played there longer.  They had a better drummer than Pete Best–specifically, Ringo Starr, who was their drummer in Hamburg. I listen to that recording, and I like it a lot.  It sounds to me like an early Elvis Costello song.  There’s a DIY early punk vibe to it that’s really pretty cool. It’s also one of their three recordings ever.

So I don’t doubt that Hamburg was important to the Beatles success.  But they got fantastically lucky in some other ways.  First of all, they got lucky when Brian Epstein agreed to manage them.  I think casual Beatles fans think of Epstein as this ‘gay guy with a huge crush on John.’  No.  I mean, sure, he was gay, but there’s no evidence he ever had a crush on John. More to the point, Brian Epstein was  a very successful businessman, one of the most successful in Liverpool.  He ran a department store, and was a pioneer in design, display, marketing.  He had a job he was very very good at, one that made him a fortune, and one that he’d become bored with.  He wanted a new challenge, and when he heard the Beatles perform in the Cavern, he thought promoting them might be exactly what he wanted to do.

The Beatles had been managed by, essentially, high school friends.  Suddenly, they had a guy who knew how to market, knew how to write a contract, knew and was known by the business community.  His department store sold records (indeed, it was one of their biggest money-makers), so he had professional contacts in the music business.  But Epstein also was new to the management game. He was imaginative and innovative–he was willing to try new approaches.  It’s not possible to imagine a better manager.

And he was able to connect them with George Martin.  Only the single most creative and visionary music producer in the entire British music industry.  One story among many; it was Martin who heard them sing “Please Please Me” and say ‘it’s not a ballad.  Play it twice as fast.  It’s a rock and roll song.’  And the rest is history.

So why were the Beatles the Beatles?  There’s one more factor, one I hesitate to mention.  Because I’m a Dad.

Go back to 1960, or earlier, ’58, ’59.  Imagine yourself in the position of Jim McCartney.  Your son, Paul, your brilliant, talented son, isn’t doing what he’s so capable of doing.  He could ace his A and O levels. He’s easily bright enough to become anything–a doctor, a lawyer, an architect maybe.  He’s got the ability to surpass the genteel poverty of lower-class Liverpool, and what does he do? Blow off school every chance he can.  Waste all his time with that thuggish greaser juvenile delinquent John Lennon.  Waste all that time with that worthless rock-and-roll trashy music.

And here’s the thing: Jim McCartney loved music.  He owned a piano, and played it well.  He’d had a band for years, playing local events; weddings, parties, dances.  He paid money (when money was very tight indeed) for Paul to take music lessons.  Which Paul mostly blew off as well.

You could say the same thing about all the Beatles.  John’s beloved Aunt Mimi wanted nothing more than for her wonderful, smart, talented nephew John to make a success of his life. She got him into art school, basically cajoled school officials until they reluctantly let him in.  She knew he could excel academically.  He couldn’t be bothered.  Same story for George; he actually had an apprenticeship, the pathway to middle-class success.  Quit to be a Beatle.

To become a success, you do have to practice, long and hard, 10,000 hours of pure hard work.  And it helps if you’re really really really really talented.  And, boy, is luck ever important.  Meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right point in your life; man, that’s so crucial, and it’s infuriating because it’s something you can’t control.

But you also have to rebel.  You have to want it so badly that nothing else matters.  You have to reject the well-meaning advice of loving parents.  You have to do things that make no sense.  Like leave Liverpool for four months to play in a bar in Hamburg Germany when you’re seventeen years old (that’s how old George was; Paul was a year older).  Quit your apprenticeship, throw over your entire future, to go to a crappy bar in the worst part of Hamburg, to play six hours a night, except for weekends, when it was ten.

As a parent, as a father, I find this horrifying.  I find it terrifying.  I want my kids to be successful.  I want them to excel.  I want them, above all else, to be happy.  And I . . . did the smart thing.  I didn’t get on a motorcycle and go to New York or LA to make it as an actor or writer or director.  I got a degree, from a good college.  I got a PhD. I was sensible, and I’ve had a career I’m happy with.  I have no regrets for the choices I made.  None.  Really.

But the Beatles had to rebel.  They had to reject well-meaning parental advice.  They had to want it so much that nothing else matters.  And they did.  And they became the Beatles.

And so did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  And they didn’t get lucky and the Beatles did.  And in 1972, Rory Storm (or rather Alan Caldwell), took an overdose of sleeping pills, his music career having completely disappeared.

That’s what haunts me about this discussion.  So many kids, so many dreams, so few of them fulfilled.  And luck, pure dumb luck intervening way way too seldom. Dangerous thing, ambition.  Great, glorious, exciting.  And terrifying.

 

 

 

Ylvis

So I’ve been sitting here with a cold, laughing my head off, having just discovered a new band.  When I say ‘new band,’ I mean, to me they’re new.  They have a YouTube video, after all, with over a hundred million hits.  It’s what they’re known for.  You’ve all probably all seen it many times over.  It’s the video “What does the fox say?

I’ve heard they did the video mostly as a joke, and that’s quite possible.  But it has all the qualities I’ve noticed in song after song of theirs: an incredibly catchy tune, a fun video, a mock serious lead singer (with a terrific pop voice), and head scratching lyrics.  I mean, what?  What does the fox say?  It’s like a Sesame Street video, as written by Christopher Durang and produced by Weird Al.

But again, boy, is that tune catchy.

Ylvis is basically two Norwegian guys, brothers, Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker.  Vegard’s older by four years; are now in their mid-thirties.  They added a third guy, Calle Helvevang-Larsen for their TV show Ikveld med Ylvis (Tonight with Ylvis).  They’re basically a variety comedy act.  Terrific musicians, with their own off-beat sense of humor.

They’re very Norwegian, though, in their approach to comedy, and often in the subjects they’re attracted to.  I wonder if American or international fans really get a lot of what they’re about.  For example, there’s this. They’re on the set of their TV show, and then the other two leave Vegard alone, and he looks soulfully at the camera and sings “You raise me up.”  You know that song, a favorite of Josh Groban, covered many times by many other artists. Originally, though, it was written and recorded by Secret Garden, a Norwegian band.  Well, Norwegian/Irish.

Okay, so Vegard’s singing, and suddenly he turns, and starts singing to a middle-aged blonde woman (who can barely keep a straight face).  What? Who?  Well, it’s Erna Solberg.  Prime Minister of Norway.  Imagine Chris Rock or Will Farrell singing “You raise me up” to Barack Obama.  I just think that’s a very funny bit.

And the great thing about is that Vegard has a lovely voice.  (So does Bård).  And even when he’s singing this pretty uplifting song absolutely straight, you know there’s a catch; something funny is going on, even if we don’t get it yet.

I also love the satire of their song (and video) “Jan Egeland”.  The real Jan Egeland is one of the most respected politicians in Norway.  Heck, in the world. Here’s his Wikipedia page. An indefatigable worker for peace and human rights. An extraordinary diplomat. Hard to think of an American equivalent, except maybe Jimmy Carter.  But it’s essentially impossible to imagine an American comedy rock band doing a song with these lyrics:

“When he’s sad, he goes to funerals,

in unusually heavy rain.

Large amounts of water in his face, but that doesn’t hide his pain.

He breaks down just like a homo,

And starts crying just like a girl,

But I guess you can cry, and still be a man, when your day job is saving the world.”

 

And no, the song is not a slam on Egeland.  The tone is triumphant, the intent is sympathetic and reverential. With those lyrics. (And Jan Egeland is said to love the song–thinks it’s hilarious).

The Cabin (quick content warning before you link to the video) is similar, though again, I think it’s hilarious; it’s funnier if you know the cultural context.  Norwegians (like Utahns, come to think of it), love their “hyttas“–rustic cabins. They love getting away to the mountains, love the getaway thus provided.  At least Norwegian guys do–it’s no secret that some Norwegian women are less enthusiastic.  The song has a lovely R&B feel, and it’s basically a love song, a paean to rustic simplicity and authenticity.

“Sixty square meters of heaven on earth, a tiny wooden paradise.

My own private pinewood Taj Mahal,

except for the shape and the size.”

The song also, of course, makes abundantly clear why his wife hasn’t joined him there for ten years–it’s tiny, freezing, unsanitary. But it’s his Taj Mahal.  And it’s completely his.  Except for having to share it with, like, eight family members.

I also love their Christmas parody song, “Da vet du at det er jul“, which, sadly, you have to speak Norwegian to get. But it’s great, every Christmas cliche imaginable.  And then quite horrible realities intrude.

More accessible to non-Norwegian speakers is “Stonehenge“. in many respects, it’s like “What does the fox say?”, in that it asks an unanswerable question, and also has an insanely catchy tune. (Bit of a content advisory for that video too, sorry).  I mean, seriously, why did they build Stonehenge?  And wouldn’t you give your car to find out the answer?  Even a really reliable Honda Civic?

Finally, let me recommend “Someone like me.” It’s a really pretty, sort of Burt Bacharach-esque love song. With a really nasty dub-step beat. Really funny stuff.

Who can Ylvis be compared to?  Lonely Island comes to mind, a band Ylvis say they admire, but hadn’t heard of until very recently.  I think more of Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand comedy rock duo.  Check out their Hiphopopotomus vs. Rhymenoceros. Much of the same goofy fun, combined with musicianship. Or maybe a bit of Stephen Lynch.

But Ylvis isn’t any kind of copycat band. They’re uniquely, goofily Norwegian; internationally minded, sophisticated, exceptionally bright, influenced by musical styles from everywhere, but also with their own take on what’s funny.  Check ‘em out.  Except you already have.

 

 

 

Yes!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced their nominees for 2014 induction.  You can vote here. We’re allowed to vote for five candidates, and as usual, I’m really really torn.  Honestly, it wouldn’t break my heart if they all made it.  But two bands in particular seem controversial.  KISS is finally nominated.  And the other band is Yes.

There is, and always has been, a close connection between the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone Magazine and Columbia records.  This makes sense, because the most important founders of the RRHOF were Ahmet Ertugen and Jann Wenner.  And HOF voters have always despised progressive rock. Jethro Tull is not in the HOF.  Nor is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, nor is Gentle Giant, nor King Crimson, nor the Moody Blues.  Pink Floyd made it, but they were only tangentially prog.

The reality is that the Rock and Roll of Fame voters are largely comprised of rock historians, many of them from Rolling Stone Magazine, who think prog rock sucks.  They think it’s pretentious, they think it’s not really rock and roll.  They think it’s the very definition of terrible music.  And as a lifelong prog rock fan, as a person for whom, in high school, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull and Yes were the sound track to my life, that’s a highly offensive attitude.  So last year, when Rush made it on the ballot (and was voted into the Hall by fans), it felt very much like the prog rock camel’s nose slipping under the tent flap.  This year, let’s bring in the rest of the camel.

Which is another way of saying, yes!  to the fact that Yes made it on the ballot.  And so did Peter Gabriel.

But this year, I’m going to do something else.  I’m going to compare the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees to Baseball Hall of Fame inductees.  I mean, the first is clearly modeled on the second, including the name ‘Hall of Fame.’  Plus I think this might be kind of fun.

Here are the candidates, with my comments on each:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band:  NO.

They were up last year, and I think will be on the ballot every year until they get in.  Someone at the Rolling Stone really really likes this band.  Let me say, first, that blues-based mid-sixties rock bands are not exactly in short supply in the Hall.  They had two great albums, basically.  They played at Woodstock.  I just don’t see their accomplishments as sufficiently substantial to warrant inclusion. Baseball equivalent: Pistol Pete Reiser.  (Reiser was a great young player, very short career due to frequent injuries).

Chic: NO.

Important disco band. I love the guitar lick on “Le Freak.”  But disco is already well represented in the Hall.  I vote no.  Baseball equivalent: Omar Moreno.  (Slick fielder, very fast and fun-to-watch baserunner, couldn’t hit, didn’t stick.)

Deep Purple: NO.

I love Deep Purple.  The opening guitar lick for “Smoke on the Water” is iconic.  Great keyboard work from Jon Lord, great guitarist in Ritchie Blackmore.  Very tough call, but the band didn’t last quite long enough for me to vote for them this time around.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Parker. (Old Pirates outfielder; genuinely great player, not quite HOF material).

Peter Gabriel: YES

One of the great innovators in rock history, a restless explorer trangressing musical boundaries.  Also a guy who reinvented the rock video, turned the four minute mini-movie into an avant-garde art form.  Enthusiastic yes: he’s gotta be in.  Baseball equivalent: Dennis Eckersley (Brilliant starting pitcher, even better relief pitcher; versatile and superb).

Hall and Oates: Blarg.  NO.

Just too top 40 for my taste.  To make the HOF, you have to do more than craft hit after hit.  I get why they’re nominated, but they’re the bottom of the pile this year. Baseball equivalent: Steve Garvey.  (Dodger first baseman, big star, massively overrated).

KISS: NO.

But a tough call.  I’m voting no, frankly, because I just don’t like their music very much. And everything about their approach seems cynical to me. “You wanna like some music your parents will HATE? Right?”  But they were influential and popular.  (Speak of cynical, though: I don’t think it’s an accident that KISS got nominated the same year Yes was.  The HOF loathes both bands, but recognizes they have very large and vocal fan bases. And while we can all vote five times, only the top vote-getter automatically makes it in).  Baseball equivalent: Jose Canseco. (No one liked his antics, but grudgingly had to admit his gifts).

LL Cool J: NO

One of the great rappers, I think he’ll make it in eventually.  But I like the idea of promoting diversity–having inductees representing a variety of sub-genres.  And N.W.A. is more important, historically.  Baseball equivalent: Bernie Williams. (Great player on those great 90′s Yankees teams, not quite enough resume to be in).

The Meters: NO.

Fantastic New Orleans funk band, though. Really like ‘em.  But they had kind of a short career, then became a sessions band, recording with a huge variety of other artists.  A lot of great bands up for induction this year–sadly, for me, they don’t quite make the cut. Baseball equivalent: Luis Tiant. (Red Sox pitcher, fun to watch, contorted his body oddly before each pitch).

Nirvana: YES.

The easy choice this year.  Obvious yes.  Incredibly important band, historically and artistically and culturally.  Baseball equivalent: Pedro Martinez: (incredibly good, but sadly short career, not in the HOF yet, but will be soon).

N. W. A.: YES.

We’re just moving into the rap era.  Because of the Hall’s eligibility requirements–they can’t be nominated until 25 years has passed since they released their first record–Tupac, Biggie Smalls, that generation is just starting to be nominated.  N.W.A. is one of the most influential bands in history, a band that showed the radical political power of rap.  Easy call.  Baseball equivalent: Rickie Henderson (greatest lead-off hitter in history, but not really recognized as great until the Bill James revolution changed how we look at the game).

The Replacements: NO

But I hate myself for not voting for them. I know they influenced everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Fall Out Boy. And every few days or so, I get in the mood for some DIY post-punk indie and go to my Replacements Pandora station. But I’m not sure they were ever quite . . .  substantial enough for this company. Baseball equivalent: Fernando Valenzuela: (Remember Fernandomania?  So immensely charismatic and fun, and then it all went away).

Linda Ronstadt: NO

A very reluctant no. I love her music, owned several albums, plus had a huge crush on her based solely on her Hasten Down the Wind album cover. I don’t like Hall and Oates and I do like Linda Ronstadt, but I won’t vote for either this year for much the same reason: they had a lot of hits, but weren’t important historically.  Baseball equivalent: Don Mattingly.  (Yankee first baseman; not quite as good as we thought at the time).

Cat Stevens: YES

I love Cat Stevens’ music. I listen to it all the time, and I think there was a time, about 1974 or so, when his music kind of saved me.  I found hope in his music when I was feeling kind of hopeless; he’s honestly one of the reasons I went on a mission.  And I admire his courage; converting to Islam because of the peace he found in it.  I love this guy–he has to make it in.  Baseball equivalent: Barry Bonds. (Controversial choices, but my gosh was he great).

Link Wray: NO

I get his historical importance.  But does the Hall really need another late-50′s guitar player?  Not given the strength of the other contenders.  Baseball equivalent: Bruce Sutter.  (Cubs pitcher, invented the split-fingered fastball.  But was he that great on his own merits?)

Yes: YES

A thousand times yes.  Of course Yes belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To say otherwise is just pure snobbery and prejudice.  One of the greatest bands in history, a band as important to the seventies as the Rolling Stones or Who were to earlier generations.  Baseball Equivalent: Tom Seaver: (yes, Tommy Terrific. That good).

The Zombies: NO

But not a bad choice. Again, though, it’s not like the RRHOF has a shortage of British Invasion sixties bands.  I’m not kidding–Herman’s Hermits will make it some day.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Kingman: (at the end of the day, just another slugging first baseman).

Anyway, I put the link above. Vote! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs your input.  And remember: Yes is, in fact, on the ballot this year.  Just a reminder.. . .

The Creation of Anne Bolelyn: A Review

Susan Bordo is a fan of Anne Bolelyn.  She’s particularly fond of the various ways in which Anne has been portrayed in films, novels and plays.  Her new book, The Creation of Anne Bolelyn isn’t really a biography of ‘England’s most notorious queen.’  It’s more a feminist social history of the various ways Anne has been represented through the years.  If you are reasonably cognizant of the Tudor period in English history, and if you’ve enjoyed, say, The Tudors, Anne of a Thousand Days and/or The Other Bolelyn Girl, you’ll love this book.  Love it.  (Well, maybe not TOBG.  Bordo’s not a fan of that particular take on Anne).  It’s this good; before reading Bordo, I was not familiar with Howard Brinton’s play Anne Bolelyn: after reading Bordo, I purchased a copy.  If you’re looking for a solid, well-written, well-researched biography of Anne, I recommend Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Bolelyn, or Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower.  Or try Tudorhistory.org.  Good stuff there. That’s not to say that Bordo’s book doesn’t include solid and interesting biographical material; just that biography is not its focus.

But it’s a great book, witty and fun and smart.  My only quibble; she left out Rick Wakeman’s record album The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  I’m listening to it now while I write this blog.  I know it’s just instrumental music, Yes’ legendary keyboardist’s take on each of the wives.  But I defy anyone to listen to his Catherine Howard track and not admit that he got it right.  (I also love Jane Seymour from that album–his Anne Bolelyn strikes me as a titch melodramatic).

Ahem. Continuing.

Anne Bolelyn did not have six fingers on one hand, and it’s exceptionally unlikely she had a vestigial third nipple.  She was dark in complexion, possibly with what we would call ‘sallow’ skin, and with dark, though probably not jet-black hair.  Her body was tall, slender, possibly even boyish.  (Natalie Portman’s not terrible casting, actually, if she hadn’t been handed a script that so dismally misrepresented its subject).  In an era when a white complexion and a buxom frame were considered desirable for women, she would not have been regarded as beautiful.  She was educated in the French court of Marguerite of Navarre, whose salon was the most forceful, brilliant and liberal in Europe. Anne therefore received the finest education available to a 16th century European woman.  That, Bordo thinks, is what attracted Henry to her–her wit, her intelligence, her advanced and informed views on the major issues of the day.  She was not a Lutheran, but she was a Protestant, and her personally library included every major intellectual influence of the day.  She was, in short, someone Henry had not previously encountered, a brilliant, forceful, smart, funny, intellectual woman, his equal and partner.

One prevailing view of her is that she ‘bewitched’ Henry, seduced him into apostasy and murder.  That’s essentially the portrayal of The Other Bolelyn Girl, Natalie Portman playing Anne as a vicious and conscience-less seductress.  This was the view promoted by Anne’s bitterest enemy in the Tudor court, Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from Spain.  Chapuys was a fervent Catholic, and a forceful defender of Katherine of Aragon.  He detested Anne, for what seem to have been personal and political reasons.  Unfortunately, Chapuys was also a prolific and capable writer.  His accounts of the period are an unmatched historical resource.  But his biases were also clear, and have to be accounted for by any judicious historian.  Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Bolelyn Girl did not break new ground in her novel–she merely recycled the Chapuys Anne.  The opposing Protestant view (found in, for example, Foxes’s Book of Martyrs, portrayed an entirely innocent Anne, heroic and virtuous, the victim of a rapacious and evil king.

Finding the ‘real Anne’ between those ‘whore or saint’ stereotypes is probably impossible, and certainly extremely difficult.  But I find Bordo’s Anne convincing.  Henry VIII was an intelligent and well-educated King. I think it goes without saying that he had a rather forceful personality. It’s preposterous to imagine an Anne Bolelyn who wrapped him around her (vestigial) little finger, an Anne who drove him reluctantly to murder close friends and advisors like Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Nor is it remotely plausible that Anne, once she became queen, would have been foolish enough to commit adultery.  (In fact, the specific accusations of adultery under which she was condemned were almost entirely physical impossibilities; specific instances in which she could be proved to have been hundreds of miles away from the men with whom she was supposed to have been sleeping).

No, the far more plausible reality was probably this: Anne Bolelyn was a witty, charming and brilliant woman who became Henry’s partner and wife, a committed Protestant who introduced him to authors who grounded Henry in Protestant thought, a capable administrator who proved an effective co-governor. Anne probably also saw Thomas Cromwell as a friend and co-Protestant advisor, and so he proved to be.  But Cromwell was, above all, a politician and survivor.  When he saw Henry’s growing displeasure with Anne’s inability to provide him with a male heir, Cromwell was smart enough to turn on his former ally.  It’s unlikely that Anne was complicit in the death of, say, More, though.  Henry had proved himself capable of violence and murderous jealousies and rages years before he met Anne Bolelyn.

Not many of Anne’s writings have survived.  Henry had all her letters burned, though a cache of his letters to her has survived.  Those of her writings that have survived, though, reveal a direct and straightforward style, and a matchless courage.  The greatest Annes of stage and screen portrayal (and Bordo particularly admires Natalie Dormer in The Tudors Showtime miniseries, and Genevieve Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days), have captured Anne’s intelligence, humor and strength.  She was, I think, genuinely her daughter’s mother.  And her daughter was the greatest King England ever saw.

 

Hating rock bands

I’m a loyal reader of Salon.com–like their politics, like their movie reviewer, like some of their articles, including the ones that I passionately disagree with.  Yesterday, they posted a splendid example of the latter: their music critic’s take-down of the Eagles.

His name is Stephen Duesner, and his arguments basically add up to these three points: 1) the Eagles suck, 2) Chuck Klosterman is wrong for suggesting that they don’t suck, because they do, and 3) the only reason deluded posers think they don’t suck is that they sell a lot of records, which is irrelevant because they suck.

He calls them ‘loathsome.’  He cites The Big Lebowski (the epitome of movie coolness), and lines by The Dude, the character played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, (the coolest character in that movie, or, you know, in any movie ever), as evidence of the total uncoolness of the Eagles.  He points to the historic enmity between Eagles’ fans and fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as proof that Eagles’ fans were infinitely less cool than CCR fans, as evidenced by The Dude’s professed preferences.  I mean, seriously.  You have to choose: CCR or Eagles–choose wrong and there’s clearly something wrong with you.  And, hint, choosing the Eagles would be. . . . can you guess. . . .

But look at the unspoken assumptions underlying these ‘arguments.’  Despite their popularity, the Eagles are bad, and rooting for them is bad, because they’re ‘inauthentic.’  Compared to CCR, they’re a band that doesn’t know who or what they are, musically or lyrically. They don’t stand for anything.  CCR, by golly, that’s a band that’s authentic!  Listen to one of their hits: hard driving drums, bass, lead guitar and John Fogerty’s raspy tenor.  And they were politically engaged, they stood for something.  Compare these two songs: CCR’s 1969 hit ‘Fortunate Son’, and the Eagles ’72 hit ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.‘  Intense vs. mellow.  Anti-Vietnam vs. pleasant little love song.  Driving guitar, vs. relaxed and lengthy guitar solos.  Vocal solo vs. vocal harmony, even.  There’s kind of a country feeling to both songs, actually–country rock.  But it just makes CCR sound more relevant.  The Eagles just come across as privileged and Hollywood.  Non-angsty.  CCR sounds like a band that’s fighting with their last breath of air to end Vietnam.  Even after they broke up, the Eagles kept doing it: Don Henley wrote ‘Dirty Laundry’, which could be read as a song attacking the voyeurism implicit in journalism, but could also be seen as a song about how mean the news media could be to celebrities. The Eagles sound like sell-outs. Hollywood limousine liberals.

Those objections are all essentially moral, aren’t they?  The Eagles are morally inferior to CCR.  Their fans, therefore, are morally inferior to CCR fans. If you like the Eagles, you’re comfortable, lazy, politically unengaged, complacent.  You’re the ‘kind of person’ that likes ‘that kind of music.’  How gauche of you.  How safe and bland and white bread your tastes.

Look at the Eagles greatest single hit: ‘Hotel California.‘  Duesner says that song reveals them as ““self-absorbed Hollywood liberals,” “uncaring womanizers,” and “cokeheads of the worst kind.” Uh, really?  I would suggest that it’s a song with lyrics both enigmatic and revelatory, suggestive and mysterious, a song that relies on its words more than most rock songs do, and that sets those words brilliantly.  One of the things I like about it is that I don’t know immediately, on listening, what it means, and that’s a good thing.

Sorry, but I like CCR a lot and I like the Eagles a lot, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. When I was in high school, the same debate raged over Zep v. the Who.  If you liked Led Zeppelin you couldn’t like The Who, and vice-versa.  Well, they were my two favorite bands.  I agreed with the partisans of both.  Another recent Salon article argued for a re-appraisal of Rush, speaking of a band you’re supposed to hate if you’re cool.  And Yes, a band you’re pretty much required to despise, if you want to retain your self-respect.  Well, Yes is one of my favorite bands, a band I remember with great fondness seeing in concert in 1973.  Along with Gentle Giant–my favorite band ever.  And Jethro Tull (sneer!).  And I’m also nuts about Bob Dylan and the Band and Arcade Fire.  And Willie Nelson and Waylan Jennings and David Alan Coe.  And the Bee Gees (and who cares if disco sucks).  And AC/DC. And Motley Crue.  And Neil Young.  And, heck, I don’t care, any band that makes interesting music that makes want to listen to it again.  Any band.  Journey and Genesis and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.  I think it’s possible, perfectly possible, to really like, I mean, sincerely and personally like both the Screaming Trees and Karen Carpenter’s voice and the Carpenters’ music.  Bread, and the Sex Pistols.  Aimee Mann and Taylor Hicks. Musical Theatre music and Grand Opera, and hard-core jazz.  Frank Sinatra and Tom Waites.  Bing Crosby and Joe Cocker.  I like She and He.  And the Roches. And I like Grace Potter; like her a lot.

Here’s what I think: Jesus said we shouldn’t judge people because he thought we shouldn’t judge people.  And judging the moral worth of our brothers and sisters in the world because of different musical preferences is unjust and inappropriate.

I think there’s no such thing as in-authentic music.  I think there are just musicians, trying to tell their stories and share their tunes.

I think that a band that sells a whole lot of music isn’t morally inferior to bands that sell fewer records.  I think that selling a whole lot of songs suggests a band that lots of people want to listen to.  And that’s okay.  I also think there are lots of bands doing fantastic music that no-one’s heard of, and therefore that don’t sell a lot.  I like bands like that too, bands that don’t get great marketing, maybe with a sound that’s a little off-beat.

I think that there’s no such thing as musicians selling-out.  I think people are just trying to be heard, and creating the best music they’re capable of.  And fighting to survive in a brutally tough industry.

I think it’s wonderful when young people find the music that speaks to them.  I think old people (like me) tend to recoil with horror at the terrible crap those darn kids like.  How dare they?  I think we should shut up.  The “get off my lawn” crowd doesn’t have a horse in this race.

I also don’t think there’s such a thing as immoral music.  I think all music, really, is pretty wonderful, even though there are some kinds of music that I don’t personally care for.

I also don’t think there’s any such thing as music that ‘sucks.’  I think that’s a juvenile way to express what’s basically a difference in taste.  I think that declaring The Dude, a fictional character in maybe the eighth best Coen brothers movie, the ultimate arbiter of coolness or suckiness is just silly.  Even though I also like that movie.

And I like this song.  And don’t apologize for liking it. Or, frankly, anything else I like.

 

 

 

Boycott the Russian Olympics?

The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled for mid-February, 2014, in Sochi Russia.  Recently, there have been calls for the United States to boycott those Olympics, a la Jimmy Carter in 1980. Back then, the issue was Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.  The Soviet Union hoped for its Summer Games to be a huge propaganda coup–we wanted to head that off.  Now there are two reasons expressed for an Olympic boycott.  First, the Obama administration floated a trial balloon over boycotting over Edward Snowden, still comfortably ensconced in Moscow’s Sheremetyovo airport, a la Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s sort of oddly prophetic 2004 movie, The Terminal.  (Actually, I think Snowden may be out of the airport temporarily).  Anyway, the Russians aren’t interested in extraditing Snowden, and Snowden did a Very Bad Thing.  Essentially, he revealed that the NSA was involved in massive spying on US citizens, which thing we never suspected, despite the fact that precisely that kind of intel-gathering was central to the plots of every episode of 24, Homeland, and the most recent James Bond movie.  Anyway, over half the American people regard Snowden as a hero–we’re not going to boycott an Olympics over him.

But the other reason to boycott an Olympics is more serious.  It relates to the fact that Russia has gotten really weirdly religious in recent years, with the Orthodox church both insurgent and oddly fundamentalist.  One way this has manifested itself has been the passage (the unanimous passage), of ludicrously anti-gay legislation.  The law prohibits anyone from “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.”  Human Rights Watch called it “”a profoundly discriminatory and dangerous bill that is bound to worsen homophobia in Russia.”  Pride rallies, public displays of affection, or even just being openly gay can get you arrested in Russia.  A second law provides for three years in prison for anyone “offending the religious sensibilities of the faithful.” The latter was partly a reaction to the actions of Pussy Riot, the completely awesome Russian all-female punk protest band, who staged a massive protest in an Orthodox cathedral, and got arrested for it.  Both laws passed both Duma and the Federation Council, the two legislative bodies of the Russian Federation, with full support from Vladimir Putin.

The US has other beefs with Russia.  Obviously a big one is Syria, where Russia supports the thugocracy of Bashar Assad in that country’s miserable civil war.  Since the US supports (more or less covertly) the rebels opposing Assad, the whole thing has a distinct Cold War flavor; another US-Russian proxy war. We’d like to push for nuclear disarmament; Putin’s stone-walled us there.  Plus Putin stole Bob Kraft’s Super Bowl ring.  I know that last one isn’t very important, but it strikes me as oddly symbolic.

Robert Kraft is the owner of the New England Patriots.  In 2005, he went with a group of American businessmen to Russia, and met with Putin.  At a reception, Putin mentioned how much he admired Kraft’s ring.  Kraft’s Patriots had just won the Super Bowl, and Kraft was proud of the ring.  (Super Bowl rings are these really gaudy baubles).  Kraft showed Putin the ring; Putin put it in his pocket and walked off. Kraft would very much like it back.

Putin, when apprised of this story, insisted that Kraft gave it to him. Or maybe there was some kind of translation error.  Either way, he’s not giving it back, and that says something.  One is that the leader of the Russian federation has sticky fingers.  I see you nodding: don’t we Americans see Russia as essentially a kleptocracy–a massive criminal undertaking?  Another is that Putin likes his bling really ostentatious and garish.  But another is this: Kraft was part of a deputation of American businessmen interested in investing in Russia. And that’s important too. As loathsome as Vladimir Putin usually comes across in American media, Russia under his rule has been a fantastic success story.  We Americans have a lot of skin in that game.

We have to remember that Russia has essentially only known about 8 years of functioning democracy–the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who served in office from 1991-99.  Oh, and about five months under Alexander Kerensky in 1918.  When Yeltsin resigned, the Presidency passed to Putin.  Yeltsin was fantastically unpopular when he left.  He tried to transform Russia’s decaying industrial infrastructure to capitalism.  It was shock therapy, instant privatization.  And the price was immense corruption. A lot of Russian oligarchs sort of didn’t get capitalism and failed, leading to unemployment and suffering.  A few got it all too well, leading to criminality. . . and suffering.

And also fantastic success.  For example, another big sports story recently has been the NBA basketball team, the New Jersey Nets.  A Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov bought the chronically underachieving franchise, and got co-owner Jay-Z to front a move to Brooklyn. They built a huge new arena, which they can fill any non-game night by announcing a concert featuring their co-owner and his wife.  Meanwhile, Prokhorov has built a super-team.  Their line-up next year: Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson? They could win it all.  And that weird partnership–Prokhorov and Jay-Z, two self-made men, as long as you don’t scrutinize too closely where they got their start-up capital.  Russian billionaire?  In minerals?  Who got real real successful in around 1995?  And what exactly was Jay-Z doing before he found his rap muse?

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”  Honore Balzac.

Let’s face it: Putin‘s been a success. He’s popular in Russia because Russia has prospered as never before under his leadership.  Massive economic growth, high employment, tremendous growth in energy and industry and high tech and the automotive industry.  Yes, he’s former KGB, and yes he has ties to the Russian Mob, and yes he’s a weird guy, a narcissistic self-promoter.  He’s also the best Czar Russia’s had.  Because, let’s face it, Russia’s basically always been an autocracy. It’s always been heavily bureaucratic (there’s never been a time when Gogol’s The Inspector-General wasn’t hilarious), and it’s always been violent and it’s always been mean and cold and everyone’s always liked their vodka.  That didn’t change under Communism, and it hasn’t changed under Putin.

One difference is that the Orthodox Church, once banned, is again resurgent.  And Putin’s cultivated a cult of macho.  The sad result of that combination is a newly minted homophobia.  Which we’re against, and should be.  But we don’t want some ineffectual symbolic protest, I don’t think.  Can we make a difference?  Would a boycott be a good idea?

One symbolic action is to toss your bottles of Stolichnaya Vodka; that’s been happening, despite the fact that Stoli’s CEO condemned the anti-gay laws in very strong terms.  Another is diplomacy–I do think the Obama administration needs assurances that gay athletes will be safe in Sochi.  The LGBT community is furious over this, and absolutely right to be.  We should join their voices however we can.

But I’m against a boycott.  I think the best thing we can do is cheer for all athletes, straight and gay, and most especially those who wear a gay pride ribbon while they compete.  Most especially, we should cheer for Blake Skjellerup, speed skater from New Zealand, who has been an outspoken opponent of the boycott movement, saying “I’m an out gay man, and I’m going to a country where it’s basically illegal to be gay.  I think (competing) is a great statement of support.  I don’t know what greater thing I could do.”

Past Olympians, especially gay athletes, have opposed a boycott:  Martina Navratilova, Greg Louganis.  Harvey Fierstein opposes it.  Most have pointed to the example of Jesse Owens, and the statement he made when he competed in the ’36 Berlin Olympics.  I think we shouldn’t boycott.  Just cheer really loudly for Blake Skjellerup.  And any other out athletes at the Games.