Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"My Favorite Year" with Peter O'Toole, Mark-Linn Baker, Jessica Harper and Joseph Bologna

This is one of my all time favorite movies. It takes place in the year and city in which I was born - 1954, New York. In it, Peter O'Toole proves the old adage that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Briefly, the movie concerns Alan Swann, played by Peter O'Toole, in what may be his best movie role ever, as a washed up and boozed out actor from the 1930's who is set to appear on the "King Kaiser Show", which is based on the old Sid Caeser show "Your Show of Shows". Joseph Bologna plays the part of the TV host who has severe reservations about having Alan Swann on his show. The man is too unreliable. He is, in short, a "has been".

A young writer on the show, Benji Stone, played by Mark Linn-Baker, really believes in Alan Swann's abilities, and so he takes on the responsibility of making sure that the aging movie idol appears sober, and on time, for the show. If he is unable to accomplish this seemingly easy task, he will be fired.

When Benji meets Swann, he is apalled at the condition of his idol. He is also equally determined to meet his obligation to the show. The complications which arise, such as taking Alan Swann to his mother's apartment in Brooklyn, ring so true that I can smell the cooking in the hallways.

While rehearsing for the show Alan Swann is confronted by his old demons, and Benji has his hands full with caring for the aging actor. When his idol comes to the realization that his TV appearance will be live before 20 million people, he is panic stricken and quickly attempts to run away from the set. Confronted by Benji the following exchange takes place, with Peter O'Toole delivering some of his best lines ever;

Swann: Stone... I'm afraid. I'm afraid. That's why I couldn't get out of the car to see my Tess, my child.

Benjy: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?

Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I'm flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I'm not that silly goddamned hero! I never was!

Benjy: To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don't tell me this is you life-size. I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them! And let me tell you something: you couldn't have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you you had that courage! Nobody's that good an actor! You are that silly goddamn hero! (To view this exchange in the trailer above, go to 1 minute and 43 seconds.)

One of the many things which makes this film so remarkable, is that Peter O'Toole's own life, at the time of this filming in 1982, so closely resembled that of his character's, Alan Swann. Art imitating life comes to mind...

Directed by Richard Benjamin, and with a talented cast, including Jessica Harper as Benji's love interest "K.C.", and Bill Macy as one of the show's writers, this is a highly unusual film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?" by Joseph Bau

If you are familiar with the film "Schindler's List", then you will remember the scene where a Jewish man and woman are married in the concentration camp at Plaszow. They used a silver spoon to fashion their wedding rings. A deathhouse bunk served as their wedding bed. Joseph Bau was a graphic artist and draftsman, Rebecca was the manicurist for the camps Commandant. Some viewers naturally thought that this scene was fictionalized. But every bit of that scene is true. And more remarkably, the couple were re-united at the end of the war. And they even managed to live happily ever after.

In this mesmerizing book, Joseph Bau tells the story of how he survived before the concentration camp. Roaming the streets without proper identity cards, and with no place to live, he and his brother are forced to live like homeless persons, walking the streets by day to keep warm, and sleeping wherever they can at night. Then came the ghetto. The stories of the Jewish fighters there, as well as the eventual destruction of the ghetto, are unforgettable.

The daily struggle against arbitrary Nazi brutality is well known, but the sheer inhumanity of it all grows with each telling. Life in the ghetto was hard, but some of the hardest days were yet to come, as the family is eventually transported to the the camp at Plaszow.

Arriving at the camp, two things happen that will alter the authors life forever. After witnessing the execution of his father, and in the midst of death all about him, he fell in love with a woman who would become his wife in this hell, and remain so, afterward in Israel. Their marriage would last 53 years. By coincidence, they were married on Valentine's Day, although at the time they were unaware of this.

Joseph Bau was spared by virtue of his talents as a draftsman and artist. He drew signs and maps for the Germans. This is how he met Rebecca. He was outside the construction office, attempting to make a "sun print", which is a reproduction of a drawing, made by using light sensitive paper and the heat of the sun, much as in early photography. It was a cloudy day, both in the weather, as well as his soul. Failure to complete his task meant the possibility of death at the hands of his supervisor. As he stood there, waiting for the sun to do it's work, a pretty girl asked him, "What are you trying to do?" He replied, "I'm waiting for the reluctant sun to come out. Could you, perhaps, take its place?" She ran away in embarassment.

He began to visit her daily before roll call, shining her shoes with a rag, bringing her hot water in the mornings. This was accomplished with the help of a simple disquise, a white kerchief. In the camps, men and women were almost indistinguishable, except for one thing; the white kerchief. The men used a cap to cover their baldness, while the women used a white kerchief to cover their shaven heads. Joseph used a white kerchief as a pass to the womens quarters.

Trading 4 loaves of bread for a silver spoon was hard enough, but getting 4 more for the camp's jeweler to fashion the spoon into rings was equally difficult. But it was done, and the couple was married, by the side of Joseph's mother's bunk. He then snuck himself into Rebecca's hut and climbed into her bunk, on the top tier, to consumate their marriage. This was not to be - as the camp was kept lit all that night while the Germans searched for men hiding in the women's barracks. Although Joseph remained undetected, 2 other men were discovered and beaten to death that night.

The book recounts how Rebecca managed to get Joseph on Schindler's "list", an action that would save his life. Eventually the couple was seperated and then re-united after the war. They raised a family in Israel, and Joseph became Israel's first animator, as well as an acclaimed author, artist and sometime poet.

The book is filled with some of Joseph Bau's sketches and poems. The series of events, which the author rightfully refers to as "miracles", all serve to illustrate the apparent randomness of life, while at the same time acknowledging that there may be forces greater than our own, which guide our actions, as well as our destinies.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Beatles - A Ticket to Candlestick Park

It was really impossible to find any good quality footage of the Beatles last concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco 45 years ago today. No one was quite sure that it would be the last tour, as the Beatles themselves did not announce the end of live touring until November of that same year. So I have substituted another live performance from 1966 in order to debunk the claim that the group had lost it's musical abilities to perform live.

This is the Beatles only one month before the concert in Candlestick Park. Aside from the bad acoustics, the band is tight, highly charged and still motivated to play live. And below is the interview given just prior to the show in San Francisco one month later, covering a range of topics. It's not the same cute group that landed here 2 and a half years earlier. They are more aware of their power as stars and ability to do and say as they please.

And finally, here is some of the actual 8mm footage, with sound, shot in Candlestick Park 45 years ago this evening. Even with the bad sound, the film still captures the excitement of the Beatles, in concert, along with the flavor of the 1960's.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Romare Bearden at 100 - Rodin's Missing Piece

Sue and I went to Davidson College yesterday to look at the Romare Bearden Exhibit. It is his 100th birthday and many art galleries across the nation are celebrating the occassion with exhibits by "mixed media" artists in the tradition of Mr. Bearden's work. This is Bearden's "Brown Paper Bag".

Bearden was a unusual fellow. He was born in 1911 in Charlotte, and died in New York in 1988. He was a social worker, as well as a talented writer, whose subjects covered art, music and history.

The exhibit did not contain any works by Bearden himself, but rather showcased the artwork of Kendall Buster and Chris Watts. They are both "mixed media" artists, Chris Watts being more inclined to collages, while Kendall Buster's works are more like sculptures. It was an enjoyable, low key affair.

But the thing that really caught my eye was this statue by Auguste Rodin. It has no penis! Now, I am not insecure, but I found this disturbing in some way. While I ranted about the cuts to the University's budget being responsible for this shortcoming, Sue postulated that the statue might have been damaged in transit. But, apparently Rodin did a whole batch of these statues, some as tributes to Balzac. But this one is titled "Jean D'aire Nu", and was done between 1884 and 1886.

The statue was part of a larger effort known as the "Burghers of Calais", which is set in 1347 during the Hundred Years War. It was a depiction of the 6 martyrs who chose to hand over the keys to their city in order that it be spared by the English King Charles III. The work was done in maquette between 1884 - 1886. The original resides in Paris. In the original group sculture, Jean is clothed and bears the keys which he will be handing over to the King. Rodin wanted to show him in a more humble pose. Hence, he removed his clothes, as well as some of his manhood. It seems to me that Jean's act of courage took some serious cojones, an act of self sacrifice belied in this depiction. The only other explanation I have for his lack of genitalia is that the artist was attempting to depict Jean as having been denuded, symbolically, by the King.

There are 12 copies of this maquette. They were cast by the Georges Rudier Foundry, of Paris, in 1973 from the original in the Musée Rodin, located in Paris.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Donna

Can you believe that my old neighborhood of Kings Highway/Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn is in Zone A of Hurricane Irene? I hope everyone there is safe and dry. This is what it looked like in 1960, though officially the hurricane had been downgraded prior to hitting the city. Here's a link to the weather in the old neighborhood- Zip Code 11229, if case you no longer live there.

The first hurricane I remember in Brooklyn was in 1960 and was called Hurricane Donna. It rained and howled for about 12 hours, then the skies opened up blue and fresh. There might have been a rainbow - but I'm not sure. Then it got dark again as the second half passed over. The funny thing is that Hurricane Donna formed on August 28th, 1960 and hit the east coast of the US at the tip of the Florida Keys, turning Northward on just about the exact path of this Hurricane Irene. Although it was a hurricane when it made landfall, by the time it hit New Jersey it was really just a tropical storm. But it was my first awarenwss of a hurricane at all, and so to me will always count as the first for me.

This is the boardwalk in Coney Island at 10 AM this morning - waiting for the rain...

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Food Blues" by Shel Silverstein - Recorded by Bobby Bare

I don't think you can find two people from such divergent backgrounds, who worked together for decades, shaping and influencing American pop culture, than Shel Silverstein and Bobby Bare. Everyone knows Shel Silverstein for his Playboy cartoons of the 1950's, as well as his travelogues, and still later his books, little gems such as "The Giving Tree." But his role as a songwriter of funny little ballads is not given as much attention as it deserves. He spanned every genre from country to pop to children's songs. And he did it effortlessly. He reportedly wrote on any available scrap of paper, from napkins to gum wrappers.

Bobby Bare is one of those country performers who made the transition from "straight" to "outlaw" during the late 1960's and early 1970's. He was one of the Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings crowd, who helped break down some of the old barriers in country music. Today's country music, which is mainly 1960's pop and rock, owes a large debt to these guys for putting some new life into the genre just as it was gasping for air.

During the 1970's and on through Shel Silverstein's death in 1999, the two continued to collaborate on several projects, most notably the 1998 release of "Old Dogs", for which Shel Silverstein did the artwork, produced and even wrote some of the tracks. The performers were Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis.

These are the lyrics to an earlier collaboration from about 1978. Health foods were just gaining traction, and some folks were having problems with it. That's the gist of the song. Shel Silverstein wrote it- Bobby Bare recorded it. You can listen to the recorded version below the lyrics.

"Food Blues" by Shel Silverstein

I was waitin' in Rosie's Restaurant
When the waiter came up and said, "What do you want?"
I looked at the menu -- it looked so nice
Till he said, "Let me give you some advice."

He said, "Spaghetti and potatoes got too much starch,
Pork chops and sausage are bad for your heart.
There's hormones in chicken and beef and veal.
A bowl of ravioli is a dead man's meal.

Bread's got preservatives, there's nitrites in ham,
There's artificial coloring in jellies and jam.
Stay away from donuts. Run away from pie.
Pepperoni pizza is a sure way to die.

Sugar rots your teeth and makes you put on weight,
But artificial sweetener's got cyclamates.
Eggs got cholesterol, there's fat in cheese.
Coffee ruins your kidneys, and so does tea.

Fish got mercury. Red meat is poison.
Salt's gonna send your blood pressure risin'.
Hot dogs and bologna got deadly red dyes.
Vegetables and fruits are sprayed with pesticides."

So I said, "What can I eat that's gonna make me last?"
He said, "A small drink of water in a sterilized glass."
And then he stopped and he stared and he thought for a minute,
And said, "Never mind the water - there's carcinogenics in it."

So I got up from the table and walked out in the street
Realizing that there was nothing I could eat.
Now, I ain't eaten for a month, and I'm feeling fine...
'Cause he never mentioned beer, whiskey, women and sweet red wine.

You can hear the Bobby Bare recording here;

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Muzzled" by Juan Williams

This is a book I have been waiting for. In case you don't recall, Juan Williams, the talented Prize Winning Journalist from the Washington Post, was summarily dismissed from his post at NPR, where he had hosted a show for several years. His crime: he gave his opinion concerning the way in which "random" searches are conducted when boarding airplanes. He spoke his mind. And that of millions of other Americans, who in the wake of 9-11, have been understandably uncomfortable when on airplanes with traditionally dresssed people of the Islamic faith.

The usual reasoning employed to make you feel "wrong" in your thinking this way is based solely on the fact that the 19 hijackers on September 11th were not dressed traditionally, but rather in American style clothing. Of course they were! They didn't want to face any extra scrutiny while carrying out the acts of terror that had been planned by other Islamics who were dressed traditionally. This is so basic a concept it is hard for me to believe that those in charge of NPR can't see the foolishness behind their "politically correct" thinking.

I am not a big fan of NPR, I find them often to be merely the "flip side" of Rush Limbaugh. I prefer my news from other sources, eschewing commentary for real reporting. That's not to say that I don't support NPR in principle. And I have my own favorite columnists, whom I read in the newspapers. I welcome diversity of opinion as a way to form my own. So, that's why I read this book.

I expected some sort of diatribe concerning liberal bias, and assumed that this book was the bridge for Mr. Williams to cross over to the more lucrative Conservative side of the media. I was pleasantly surprised at what I read.

Mr. Williams has written a well balanced book about the lack of real political discourse in America today, and what it means for our futures. He explores the economic, as well as social, implications of a society where every word must be measured carefully in order not to offend. He takes both sides of the political spectrum to task in an orderly fashion, pointing out the follies of extremism, and the negative effect that "politically correct" speech has on an open discussion of anything. And that includes the current debt crisis, which has only been pushed to the sidelines pending the next election.

No matter how you feel about NPR, or Juan Williams, this book has much to say about the future of civil discourse in America. And it ain't pretty. It's like Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"My Lament" - With Apologies to Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" is one of the world's most recognizable works of art. It depicts a man trying to silence the voices in his head. He is, of course, going about it in the wrong way, merely locking those voices inside. I have used this iconic painting here to illustrate my own feeble attempts to block out all of the voices of the "talking heads" on TV and radio. I actually wrote it after reading the morning paper. This painting is very special to many people, and as such, I hope that I have not upset anyone with my use of it here.

The places I’ve known, and people I’ve seen,
Have cast all that I’ve learned in a terrible sheen.
Disruption, corruption, it’s all a bad scene,
Promulgated by the Bad Dream Machine.
Bipartisan politics, with no in between,
Can make even the healthiest of people turn green.

They call some states red, color other ones blue,
But I like mine neutral, so what should I do?
When they cast all our futures in a horrible hue,
The resulting malaise sticks just like glue.
As you forge on ahead to determine what’s true,
They turn it around and blame it on you!

So, call me a cynic, or call me a liar,
But they’ve set it all up for a big funeral pyre.
And while we’re not looking and they start the fire
The flames will go licking, higher and higher.
With smoke that obscures the thugs- all for hire,
There is no escaping an ending so dire!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"All Shook Up"

We had the aftershock from the earthquake today. It was kind of weird since we're waiting on Hurricane Irene in the next few days. Somebody must have gotten confused! Anyway here's Elvis singing "All Shook Up" in celebration of this unusual North Carolina event. And next week we get the frogs and locusts....

"Area 51" by Annie Jacobsen

Few other places on earth have generated as much controversy, or mystery, as Area 51,located in the desert of Nevada. To make matters even more complicated, the area simply does not "officially" exist. And therein lies the key to the enigma that has spawned TV shows, books, movies and given birth to the entire UFO debate. This book examines all of these things.

The first UFO "crash" in Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947, provided a unique problem for the United States government. We had just won the Second World War with the use of an atomic bomb. We were the only nation, at the time, to have a weapon of such destructive force. Of course, it was only a matter of time until the Soviets would catch up and develop a bomb of their own. To this end they employed the same people we did in our endeavors to perfect missile technology.

When Nazi Germany fell in 1945, among the spoils of war were the top Nazi rocket scientists. We got Von Braun and a few others. The rest were "divided" between Britain, France and Russia. While the Americans worked primarily on high altitude bombers and missile delivery systems, the Russians were working on satellites and jet propulsion. Here's where things get interesting.

Suppose, just for a moment, that you are the President of the United States in 1947. You receive the news that a Russian "craft" of unusual design has crashed in the desert outside of Roswell. Its trajectory indicates that it came from the Northwest, having crossed over several of our most sensitive military areas in the Southwest, before crashing. The "pilot" was killed and his body stored for examination. The craft itself was identified as a disc, with no wings, and had Russian markings on the interior surfaces.

The letter posted here mentions a Dr. Vannevar Bush, a man who founded Raytheon in 1922. The letter is dated within months of the events at Roswell. Raytheon is the Greek translation of "light from the gods." He headed the Office of Scientific Development which controlled the Manhattan Project. He was involved in the research and development in every aspect of Area 51. Just who was this man and how did he garner so much power in regards to "national security" and the 60 odd year coverup of the events at Area 51?

The first press release identified the craft as the object that had been plaguing the newly created United States Air Force (up until the end of World War Two it was the Army Air Corps) all that summer. There were many reports of an object on radar in the area, but the object had eluded the radar operators on several occasions. This time, however, the craft had literally landed in our laps. With questions pouring in faster than the disc had traveled, an explanation needed to be concocted which would satisfy the public's concern, while not insulting their intelligence. The next day the first press release was scrubbed and the object became the now contentious "weather balloon."

That story was then used to cover up all manner of experiments taking place at the Nevada Test Firing Range in the desert outside of Las Vegas, including Area 51, where the "alien" craft had been taken. In that same area the United States, desperate to find out what was going on behind the "iron curtain", began to test high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. This was the beginning of the U-2 program and the road that led to the 1960 shoot down of Gary Powers, a civilian employee, flying a U-2 over Russia's most secret facilities. That failure led to a cancellation of a summit between Nikita Khrushchev and President Eisenhower. It also set the stage for the most dangerous years of the "Cold War".

Khrushchev used the incident to show the world that there was a "criminal conspiracy" against the Soviet Union, based in the United States. He even named the culprits; a private contractor, the military and the President were all involved in an effort to illegally cross the Soviet border and gather intelligence to which they had no right. The program had been ongoing since 1956, and denied by the United States government. But this time the Soviets had the pilot, Gary Powers, and pieces of the plane as proof of their assertions.

Eisenhower was forced to admit that the plane existed, but insisted that it was used for atmospheric tests. His only other choice was to have admitted lying to the American people since 1956, thus lending credence to the Soviet claims of the earlier missions. Further denials were not possible, given that the pilot was still alive and in Soviet hands.

The first jet engine experiments were conducted over the Mojave desert in California during the early days of World War Two. The plane, flying out of Edwards Air Force Base, was a Bell XP-59A. With no propellers, it was an unusual sight, so “dummy" propellers were affixed to the nose of the aircraft during tests. The only problem was that the test range was right next door to the training facility being used to train P-38 pilots. When they saw an aircraft without propellers, trailing smoke, zooming high above the desert, the first real UFO stories were born. Prior to that time the only UFO stories came from science fiction books and the famous Orson Welles broadcast of "War of the Worlds" in October of 1938.

Almost all of the UFO sightings in the United States can be traced back to experiments conducted at Area 51. But those experiments pale in comparison to some of the other stuff these same scientists were working on. In addition to the experimental aircraft, there were medical tests being done on children, and adults, with Plutonium. These experiments were conducted along the lines of the Nazi "medical" experiments conducted during World War Two. Some of the experiments were even conducted with the participation of ex-Nazi scientists, working for our own government and under the supervision of Vannevar Bush. Since all of this was being done under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, most of those details are still classified.

But, by far the most dangerous of all the experiments conducted were the two named Teak and Orange. Teak would scare Werner Von Braun so badly that he simply walked away from the program. Teak was the first of two nuclear test explosions undertaken to see what would happen with a high altitude detonation of a thermo-nuclear device. It was expected that the range of fallout would be greater with increased altitudes. To this effect they decided to go way up - as high as the ozone layer, for the tests. There was some concern about what would happen if the ozone layer were breached, but these concerns were brushed aside, the assumption being that Mother Nature would repair the damage by itself. To this day we have no idea of how much damage was done by these two tests. Think about that the next time someone talks to you about your responsibility for the depletion of the ozone layer. It's not just the result of your car. A strong case could be made that the ozone depletion began with these experiments. Evidently, Werner Von Braun thought so, too. Still, the experiments continued, under the secrecy surrounding Area 51.

As late as 1958, on August 27th, the 30th, and again on September 6th, three nuclear tipped warheads were fired atop X-17 rockets launched from the USS Norton Sound off the Coast of South Africa. The missiles pierced the stratosphere and the nuclear devices exploded 300 miles into space - this time above the ozone layer. The architect of this brainchild was a former elevator operator who had become a physicist, Nicholas Christofilos. He reasoned that a nuclear explosion above the atmosphere, but still inside the earth’s magnetic field, would disrupt the arming devices aboard any Soviet missiles seeking to make their way into the United States. The experiment was a failure. The price paid by our Ozone layer has never been divulged.

The ionization of fuel was another series of tests which were conducted at Area 51. It was reasoned that by adding cesium to the rocket fuel the radar returns of the Soviets against our missiles would be rendered useless. That experiment did have some limited success, but the question remains, what did we do to the atmosphere? Once again, the answer is still classified.

The book is quite expansive, even delving into the history of military aviation as it regards the United States. The nation's first aviation reconnaissance for military purposes was in 1916 when the Texas based First Aero Squadron sent planes over the Mexican border to track Pancho Villa. Over the next 90 years this program would gain in popularity, eventually giving way to the unmanned drones used today, which were first developed within Area 51.

Actually, that story is compelling as well, although it does not directly involve Area 51. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. was flying a classified mission aboard a B-25 bomber when he was lost over Germany in the later days of the Second World War. What was that mission? It was the world's first remotely controlled bombardment of an enemy installation. Kennedy, flying the B-25, which was loaded with the explosive Torpex, would fly the plane close to the target, bail out, and then be retrieved by the plane following him. That plane would radio direct the B-25 to its final destination. Great idea, but it didn't work. The plane exploded before the target was sighted, killing the entire crew.

There is so much information in this book that I will have to read it a second time in order to really absorb it all. With its meticulously detailed 150 page section of sources and notes, this book is the most revealing look ever produced about Area 51. If you are willing to approach this book with an open mind, and can put TV shows such as "Roswell" behind you, this book just might teach you something about the relationship between the military and private defense contractors. The biggest questions posed in this book are how we allowed this all to happen in the first place, and why we allow it to continue today.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"What a Wonderful World" - Two Versions

I'm just taking it easy for a day or so. But I ran across this gem on You Tube. I was going to post something more about the universal appeal of music, and the perceived threat that it poses to organized governments. Really, I have it all laid out in my head, but am too lazy to do it today.

But basically, you take a song like "What Wonderful World", which has been done by so many artists over the years, and explore the general societal circumstances under which is was written, and the different cultures, in which it turns up. And you begin to see the universality of music.

Louis Armstrong recorded the song first. It was recorded in New York City, where Mr. Armstrong lived, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. The song itself was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss that same year. George Douglas is also sometimes listed as a co-writer. It didn't get a lot of mainstream airplay at the time, though it did "chart".

The song was about just what the title said - "What Wonderful World" it could be. Not a great record for the radio to be playing while the listeners were viewing the daily "Body Count" of the war on the evening news. The song was recorded on August 16, 1967,and went to number one in Europe. It did moderately well among the jazz set of the time in America, but didn't really hit it's stride until it was featured in the film "Good Morning Vietnam".

The composers, Bob Thiele and George David Weiss were both long known in the jazz circle as writers and producers. Bob Thiele was with Impulse Records, and had worked with many of the legends of his time, including John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, and Charlie Haden.

David Weiss, was strictly a songwriter, having penned some great songs in his time. If he had only written Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love", that song alone would've cemented his place in music history forever.

George Douglas is somewhat of a mystery, so I have nothing to say about him.

Then ukelele atrist Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, known simply as IZ, took it to a whole new level when he re-recorded the song as a medley with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in Hawaii on the album "Ka 'Ano'i" in 1993. I have posted that video here before, it is truly a moving portrait of a very unusual artist. In a way, he has made that song his own epitah, as it was recorded shortly before he passed away in 1997.

Watch the video through to the end. It really is a stunning piece of work. By coupling "What a Wonderful World" with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" he has completed the circle of thought. His message is that, although it "could" be a wonderful world down here, there is someplace waiting where that dream has already been achieved. In short, there is always hope.

And I think that's why music is such a threat to certain groups. Whether you believe that or not, it's still a very comforting thought. The scenes after 2 minutes and 40 seconds are of IZ's funeral, in the blue waters of his beloved Hawaii.

There will always be people who can't stand hope. It makes them feel threatened. Sometimes they have used music for propaganda, but it doesn't work for long. Real hope is hard to fake. So, this one's for them!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Betty Boop - "Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam the Sham and the Pharohs.

Sue is in Texas visiting Aliyah and Trinity. I hope they get to watch this cartoon. Very imaginative thinking went into this one and that's what makes it fun to watch. It's one of my favorite cartoons, done with one of my favorite songs as background.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Toots Hibbert and Willie Nelson

Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals fame, is one of the fathers of reggae music as we know it today. A few years back he did a couple of album cuts with Willie Nelson, including this classic "Still is Still Moving to Me." This collaboration proved, once again, that music has no boundaries. It transcends cultures and renders useless the political lines which divide us.

When I was traveling in Greece during the late 1970's the government lifted it's restrictions on many Western artists, including The Beatles, who had not made a record in almost 10 years! You may wonder, as I did at the time, what is this fear of music? The answer is simple.

Music is one of the most powerful, and effective, means of communication. They can outlaw everything under the sun, but nothing can still the music in your own heart.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Cabin In The Sky" with Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Eddie Rochester (1943)

This is one of those movies which I have watched quite a few times over the course of about 40 years. Each time it is more of a delight than the last time. It deals with the age old question of just what happens to us when we die. That it confines itself to the traditional interpretation of Heaven and Hell does nothing to diminish the pleasure the viewer can get from watching it.

Little Joe, played by Eddie Rochester, is married to Petunia, played with real heart and soul by Ethel Waters. Joe is a "sporting" man; in other words, he prefers drinking and gambling, along with the company of women other than his wife, to working hard and making something of himself. In spite of these faults, Petunia is very much in love with him.

He rewards this love by fooling around with Georgia Brown, played by Lena Horne, drinking and finally getting knifed in a gambling club, which begins an epic struggle between Heaven and Hell as to whom his soul belongs to. Satan argues that, since the man lived a life of sin, his soul is forfeit to the Devil, and accordingly, he shows up to claim his due.

But what about Petunia? She is a blameless person, who now finds herself with her heart broken at the loss of her love. She prays in such earnest that God sees fit to give him 6 more months in which to prove that he is worthy of both God's grace, and Petunia's love. This turn of events really ticks the Devil off, and he proceeds to place every obstacle he can find in Little Joe's path, in order to claim the soul he feels rightfully belongs to him.

The scenes in Heaven, with Louis Armstrong as the Trumpeter, and Kenneth Spencer as "The General", who works at the direction of God himself, are extraordinary. Rex Ingram, who as both Lucifer, and Lucius Ferry, Little Joe's "best friend" and gambling buddy, are reminiscent of Dorothy's awakening at the end of "The Wizard Of Oz", in that the characters she encountered in that magical place were all people she really knew here on earth.

Surrounded on all sides by temptation, and conciously unaware of the high stakes for which he is playing, Little Joe is torn between his love for Petunia and the "sporting" life. Will he fall prey to the Devil's tactics? Or will Petunia's love pull him through?

With a cast of the best of the African-American performers of the time, including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Butterfly McQueen and Ruby Dandridge; whose beauty rivals that of Ms. Horne; and under the careful direction of Vincente Minnelli, this movie comes to life right off the screen. The "Shine" sequence, featuring John William "Bubbles" Sublett as Domino Johnson, and as himself, was choreographed and directed by the great Busby Berkeley, though he is uncredited in the film. If you have never seen this wonderful movie before, you should.

Here, courtesy of You Tube, is a 14 minute "short" synopsis of the film, which includes some of the most memorable scenes;

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"We Were There" Edited by Robert Fox

This is a perfect book for summer reading. It is a diverse collection of some of the best, and most famous, of eyewitness accounts from the 20th Century. Comprised, as it is, of a variety of historical events, some related, some not, allows the reader to pick the book up, or put it down, at will. You can start anywhere you want to in this book and still not disrupt the flavor.

I dove in on the accounts of the famous Christmas Eve Truce during the First World War. And I got a surprise - there were two such Christmas Eves, one in 1914 and again in 1915. These are eyewitness accountings of the earliest days of the war, when many of the soldiers did not want to be there. Fraternization with the enemy was forbidden, but when the British saw the lights from the candles on the German Christmas trees, all rules went by the wayside. The result was that the two armies, who only hours before had been trying hard to kill one another, gathered in "no man's land" for an impromptu celebration of a common holiday. The Germans provided the beer, the English brought the football.

Equally of interest to me was the account of Harold Bride, the wireless operator aboard the HMS Titanic the night she hit an iceberg and sank, with the loss of over 1,700 lives. Though I have read it before, and even own a copy of it, has never diminished the awe which this piece inspires in me.

The world of science is also represented here, with accounts from the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, as well as Madame Curie and her discovery of radium, which would rock the field of medical science for decades to come.

Social Revolution was very much in the air in the years leading up to the First World War, and that subject is covered with accounts of the pre-war protests which shook England at the time. I was blissfully unaware of just how many people did not want to go to war for the "glory" of the empire. Whole families were involved in this endeavor, and many were jailed for their beliefs.

The birth of the Soviet Union, and the fall of Tsar Nicholas, which would come to color the entire 20th century, is a primer in the rise and fall of Communism. The effect that the Soviet Union had upon the world, for better or worse, cannot be discounted as it continues to color the events of today.

Women's Suffrage is given it's due, as women in the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, struggled to gain equality under the law. One woman, Emily Wilding Davison, actually died for the cause when she ran on to the track during the Epsom Derby in 1913. Hoping to disrupt the race just as the King's horse was due to fly by, she was struck and killed by the horse.

The book chronicles the 20th century from it's opening days until the dawn of the 21st century. A perfect example is Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance and the gripping account of her misadventure in the early days of Artic exploration.

The high flying days of the 1920's, when prosperity seemed to be on a never ending upswing, is explored through the stories of the people who first rose, and then fell, on the roller coaster ride of economics. The parallels of this era with our own current financial woes, is a blueprint of history repeating itself in a never ending cycle.

The bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, and the affect it had on Kurt Vonnegut and his future writings, notably "Slaughterhouse 5", is gripping. It actually makes me want to re-read that book.

The world of entertainment is given some space here as well, as this was the century which ushered in mass communications such as radio and television. The power that entertainment, and entertainers, would come to hold over public opinion, and it's roots, are examined through the words of those who lived it.

Through the Depression and the resultant Second World War and beyond, this book is a pleasure to pick up and just jump right in. The "Sources and Acknowledgements" section is a treasure trove of things to be read in the future.

History is a living thing, and contains lessons to be learned. You just have to pay attention, lest we make the same mistakes over and over again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Billy C. Wirtz - "Female Problems"

When Sue and I first saw the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz we were living in Baltimore, Maryland. This was about 1985. We ran into him at a bar in Fell's Point. We wandered in and there was this denim clad, tatooed, convict looking guy sitting at the piano. We both looked at one another as if to say, "Do we really want to be here?" Well, we stayed, and have been fans of the Right Reverend ever since.

Part boogie woogie, part blues, Billy Wirtz can tinkle the ivories along with the best of them. With a style reminiscent of Jelly Roll Morton, Johnnie Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Meade Lux Lewis, coupled with lyrics that will set your mind reeling, this guy travels from coast to coast delivering his own brand of the "gospel."

His timing and comedic abilities always shine more brightly with each passing year. And boy, can he work an audience! This video is Mr. Wirtz in his current incarnation, sans tatoos and red hair.

As if his musical and lyrical talents weren't enough, he also hosts a radio show in Florida, which seems to be where he is based, and also writes a travel column for several mainstream newspapers. This video is tame, as far as his music is concerned. This song really highlights his abilities as a showman. With a seasoned performer like Billy C. Wirtz, the night is never a disappointment. Check his schedule out and be sure not to miss this incredibly talented performer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Bus

I can think of nothing that says "I am completely out of touch with the people" more than this bus does. Aside from the cost of this behemouth, the excuses of security and privacy are bogus when you consider that this bus is being lead, and followed by, other security vehicles, fully equipped to handle just about anything that may come up. And let's not forget the air cover. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is coming within 50 feet of this bus.

I think the President inherited a lousy job, with every thing imaginable going wrong, even before he took office. But I have to tell you that I am sorely disappointed with his Presidency. Having lost control of his own party in Congress, while holding a majority in the Senate, and still getting nothing done which was promised in 2008, I do not think that I would be re-miss in stating that he just might need this bus after all!

I believe the American people need to demand that all of the former Presidents, who are still living today, form a committee to work in tandem and undo the mess which they have helped to create. A team composed of these former presidents, who are still all on the payroll, would represent both parties, and may be the only way to end the partisan politics and gridlock which are bringing America to its knees. It is an unusual solution to be sure, but then again, these are unusual times.

P.S. I just saw that the 2 buses- there are 2 buses- were made in Canada, while the President travels the country preaching job creation. You cannot make this stuff up! Robert / Wednesday / August 17, 2011

"Passages: Green Wall" by Artist Tetsunori Kawana

Sue and I had the pleasure of seeing this unusual and thought provoking work of living art at the Mint Museum in Charlotte yesterday. The artist,Tetsunori Kawana, has created a maze, of sorts, using 20 foot long baboo poles along with some cut bamboo stalks to evoke a jungle-like labyrinth. It is, in the words of the artist himself, intended to make people aware of the connection between "people and nature interacting- that's the most important thing."

And he succeeds in doing just that. From the inside, at certain angles, I was reminded of the jungles that I have seen. But, remember that art is really about what the recipient takes from it, and from the outside, I was reminded of Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York and the Cyclone roller coaster, which was also made of wood, though very old. It held a sense of the mysterious, not unlike that of Tetsonuri Kawana's work. In a sense, both perspectives are connections to nature, one being the natural world of jungles; and the other being a natural reflection, drawing upon one's own experiences in life to interpret the art before them. For me it was the urban jungle and the Cyclone.

The work was assembled over the last three weeks, using green bamboo and volunteers to assist in the assembly. It will stand in place, in front of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, for a year before moving on. During that time it will change colors and hues, lending new meaning to this unusual work. Sue and I will be re-visiting Mr. Kawana's work from time to time to experience those changes.

With the artist on hand for the occasion, along with some cultural festivities, this was a wonderful event for lovers of art, as well as families looking for something different to expose their children to. All will be richer for the experience.

ありがとうございます。 Mr. Kawanza.

Irving Henkin 1893-1975

Today would have been my Uncle Irving's 119th birthday. Maybe. It might be only his 114th birthday. We'll never know for sure. The Henkin's were rather secretive about most such things, and so we don't know a whole lot about them. The following has been presented here before, but just in case you haven't read, or heard about my Uncle, I have reprinted his story here, beginning with the story of how his parents, my great grandparents Max and Rebecca, came to America, and how that move eventually affected me through my relationship with this magical man whom I knew as Uncle "I". To leave out the story of his parents would leave his own story incomplete.

The Henkins never were sticklers for the truth- there was no doubt about that. If it was ten men they’d seen, they told it as a hundred; a 20 car freight train was 200 cars long; a five dollar win at the track was fifty. You know the type - colorful and fun to be around.

Well, it all started with this horse….

The story had been around for years and then died out for awhile- and since I may be the only one left to tell it, here goes;

Max “Pops” Henkin (we think that’s the last name- no proof) had a livery stable in the “old" country. A very vague place - somewhere near Kiev in the Ukraine region - Some small shetl that, no doubt has long been gone. But it would’ve been nice to know the name. It was there that “Pops”; everyone called him that; met and married Rebecca, and it was there that he operated his livery stable.

One day a man came in with a wonderful looking horse, well bred, fed and easily led. This was a mighty steed - 14 hands high, and with a spirited manor. “Pops” could not afford him and he so he turned the man away. But this man was persistent, and made Max an offer he could not refuse, and so he became the owner of this prize animal. Accordingly, and expecting a great profit, he put the horse up for sale, advertising it everywhere within a days journey of his shetl outside Kiev.

All hell broke loose soon after when he was charged with being in possession of a horse belonging to the Czar. He was released pending a trial in which he would have surely been convicted, and so he took his family out of Russia, through Italy and then to Spain and on to probably Canada, although no records seem to exist to support that. But they don’t show up as entering America either, but nevertheless, they were here.

“Pops” had 3 children in America with Rebecca. They were Nathan, Issac and Dora. Issac was my Grand Uncle through my mom. He and “Pops” had lived with my Mom's family through the World War II years while she was growing up in Brooklyn, NY. He was like a Grandfather to me and no words can express the love I had, and still have, for this man.

Issac was later known as Irving - due to the tall tales he told we sometimes called him Uncle “Lie”- but he was always Uncle “I” as far as I was concerned.

He was born, alternately, depending upon whom you asked, in Vineland New Jersey, Philadelphia, or New York City. Everyone agrees that it was on Aug 15th- but the year varies- 1893, 1895 or 1898 - take your pick. He was old enough to collect Social Security when I was 5 but worked until a year before he died in 1975. And he was too young to serve in World War I- registering in August of 1918, just 3 months before the Armistice. He probably was trying to avoid detection as an illegal for fear of being sent back to the "old" country. His father had crossed the ocean to escape Europe and Irving had no desire to retrace “Pops” steps – he didn’t want to go back - as a deportee or a soldier.

He apparently worked for the American Railway Express Co and later went into the Garment Industry as a buyer of furs. He used to bring me samples and to this day I can tell real from fake chinchilla, mink, sable, rabbit and even lamb. We had raccoon tails by the armload and attached them to the handlebars of our bikes and the backs of our hats, and even flew one from the antenna of the old Plymouth.

When I was younger, he would take me, and later, when I was older, I would meet him at the furriers where he worked on 7th Ave in the Garment District. The cutters, the tailors and sewing operators all treated me royally and I was fascinated by this aspect of my Uncles life.

Although he was already 60 when I was born, for 20 years he took me every Sunday to the beach in the summer, movies in the winter, and ice cream sodas and walks on Friday nights. He always regaled me with the stories of all the people he had met in his business as a furrier and how everyone knew him all over the city.

The Friday night walks were the most special times I spent with Uncle “I”. In spite of his age he never failed to make that 1 hour trip each way to watch the news, eat dinner and "talk" a walk with me. By "talk" a walk- I mean that we would talk and walk. We would go to the candy store on Kings Hwy and 15th Street and he would buy me an ice cream soda and afterwards give me a Standing Liberty or Benjamin Franklin half dollar. And when "magic time" was done I would walk him around the corner to the Quentin Road entrance of the BMT for his 1 hour train ride back to Manhattan. They said he had no where to go, but I know better- he came to see me.

He took me to baseball games at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, to the circus at the Old Madison Square Garden, and to Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Show. He was Jewish to the core, but the blue lit Nativity scene, complete with real Camels on stage - made him weep from the majesty of it. He knew every doorman, every usher, and every cabbie. We would go to the Stage Delicatessen on 7th Avenue and he knew all the comedians, actors and characters there, including the owner, Max.

We would miss parts of first acts trying to get to our seats as he stopped to acknowledge greeting after greeting, mostly from the people that worked in the places we visited, but sometimes people in the audience would call out to him, as if they desired his recognition, as well as to just say hello. He was a shy and gentle man, yet he seemed well liked and commanded some degree of affection and respect wherever we went.

He would go to Las Vegas every year to feed the slots and bring home the old solid silver Morgan Dollars from the 1880’s and the Peace Dollars from the early 1930’s. He never won, but he’d save those last 2 dollars for my brother and I.

Occasionally, he would stay over, especially if a game had gone into extra innings or overtime, depending on the season. He would sleep in my bed and I would take a folding cot in between my bed and my brothers. I would cover it with blankets and sheets and get underneath, pretending that this was my submarine. When I emerged I was always confronted by the sight of his teeth in a glass on my desk.

I still recall how, at least once every summer at Rockaway Beach, he would duck into a bar for a beer to catch the game and a peek at the baseball score. He didn’t smoke or drink but he would order a beer and bum a cigarette. He’d smoke it without inhaling, enjoying a moment of male camaraderie. It always seemed so mysterious to me, this bachelor world he lived in- hotels and restaurants. It was glamorous on the one hand, and lonely on the other.

If I characterize this part of Irving’s’ life as mysterious, it is probably because I never once went up to his hotel room. I suppose he considered it improper or ill advised to take a child up to his room with him. But he gave the most important gift of all to me. His time.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Touched by Fire" by James M. Perry

Wars have always given birth to future Presidents of the United States. Our first President was a General. The War of 1812 gave us two more military Presidents, as did the War with Mexico in the 1840's. The Civil War gave us five Presidents who had been "touched by fire." The Spanish-American War gave us one. The First World War gave us at least 2, and the Second World War gave us a string Presidents from Eisenhower through Ford. Almost half of our Presidents have been products of the military. But the Civil War gave us the most number of Presidents who had actually seen combat, in essence, "touched by fire." Their experiences in the war would color their leadership, as well as help to chart the future course of our nation.

Beginning in 1869, at age 46 years old, General Grant would become the youngest President elected up to that time. That record would not be broken until Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President-elect at age 42, and that would not be surpassed until John Kennedy's election, at age 43, in 1960. (The discrepancy in who was actually elected at a younger age, versus being inaguarated, comes from the change in the date of inaguaration, which changed from March to January, in 1933 with the swearing in of Franklin Roosevelt.)

Grant was a natural choice for the office after Lincoln's Vice President had finished the slain President's term in 1868. Grant was, after all, the hero of the Civil War. He did, however, make a lousy President, and his administration was marked by scandal after scandal as he was manipulated by the Barons of the Gilded Age. Only Mark Twain, by assisting Grant in the writing of his memoirs, would save Grant from poverty. He died shortly after completing the book.

Grant was a product, like his nemesis General Lee, of West Point. He had failed at everything prior to that endeavor, and even in that he graduated at the bottom of his class. After the Mexican War he left the Army and tried his hand at everything imagineable, failing at them all. The outbreak of the Civil War brought him back into the Army, and with his daring tactics and agresssive leadership, he was able to prosecute the war to a speedy conclusion.

Grant was followed into office by Rutherford Hayes, who had served in the Civil War as a Major in the 23rd Ohio Regiment. These men were all volunteers, including an 18 year old Private named William McKinley. That he would actually form a bond with the future, and much older, Major Hayes, would seem unlikely, but is nonetheless true.

Major Hayes won the hearts of his men the day that the 23rd received their weapons. Due to the actions of President Buchanan's last Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, a Southerner, most of the modern weapons had been shipped South in the days leading up to the outbreak of the war, leaving the North short on modern rifles. The boys of the 23rd refused, at first, to accept the old weapons and were actually threatened with being shot for doing so. That order came from Lieutenant Colonel Matthews. Major Hayes took a different tact, going from tent to tent, lecturing the boys in a kindly way and reminding them of the lack of weaponry at the outbreak of the American Revolution, inspiring them to return to the arsenal and take up their arms. The 23rd would go on to extinguish itself in the West Virginia campaign.

The next, and third, President to spring from the Civil War was James Garfield. He was an inspired leader of men, and would go on to fight in the the Big Sandy campaign, which though crucial to the sucess of the war, gets surprisingly little note in the history books. The Big Sandy was critical due to the fact that the valley, and the river named for it, ran along the line between West Virginia, which was Union, and Kentucky, which was not officially a Confederate state, but so conflicted in it's loyalties, that it was essential that the Union maintain hold of it. And with the help of future President Garfield, it remained a part of the Union. Garfield's exploits in the Big Sandy made his future career. That he was only President for six months, dying at the hands of an assassin during his first year in office, in no way diminishes this accomplishment.

After Garfield there was a period of 8 years before another Civil War veteran was elected to the Presidency. This was Benjamin Harrison, who was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who had also been a General in the Mexican War before he became President. That Benjamin Harrison would follow so closely in the career path of his grandfather was surprising, as prior to the war he had no political ambitions at all. His contribution to the war came during the infamous March to the Sea under General Sherman. He lead the 70th Indiana into battle in Northwestern Georgia, as well as the neighboring states of Tennessee and Alabama.

After Harrison's reign in the White House there was another 8 year spell between a Civil War Veteran becoming President. William McKilnley, who had entered the war as an 18 year old Private, would be the last of the Civil War Presidents. Elected 38 years after the war had ended, he presided over the nation in the middle years of "Jim Crow" laws down South. Like Garfield, he too was shot by an assassin. Present at both assassinations was President Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln. It remains one of the most unusual facts of American history that he was present at the deaths of 3 American Presidents, including his father's.

This was a very insightful read, with much information about the battles in which each man made his mark. The battles fought, and sacrifices made, by these men, and the admiration of the men who served under them, paved the way for their eventual elections as President. And their experiences in that war would color their leadership in office, while shaping the nation in which we still live today.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Colocasia Esculenta - Elephant Ears

It's no secret that Sue is the gardener at our house. I am the beneficiary of all her efforts to make our yard look so beautiful. These elephant ears are a perfect example. They have grown about 2 feet in just a few short months. Of course the hot weather, with temperatures over 100 degrees for weeks, along with high humidity and daily thunderstorms have helped. They are now as tall as I am.

I have always loved these exotic looking plants, as they remind me of the jungle, both the ones I saw in the Tarzan movies as a kid, and the ones I trekked through as a young adult. They are beautiful in my yard, something to be appreciated from an aesthetic point of view. But out in the real world this is a very useful plant.

Aside from the obvious food source it offers some animals, it is also home to insects as they flit around, doing what comes naturally. But there are other uses as well, some of which apply to humans.

For instance, I once used an elephant ear leaf as a rainhat, slanting it upon my head so the rain would flow from front to back, both shading my eyes and keeping me semi-dry all at once. Natures poncho. And although I have never had to - they can be used to gather water during a rainfall. Such a beautiful and useful plant.

Growing up in Brooklyn we had window boxes on our window ledges. Our preferred plant was the geranium, usually in bright red. To this day I cannot look at a geranium without thinking of 1310 Avenue R in Brooklyn. We had the only window boxes in our 70 family apartment building. That was one of my father's hobbies. He also cultivated Bonsai trees, which fascinated me no end.

But the elephant ear, Colocasia Esculenta, is a plant with takes over 2,000 forms. In some countries they are considered part of the Taro family, with the roots being a prized source of food. In my yard however, I don't need them for food, or even a rainhat. I just like looking at them and letting my mind wander.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Who's On First?" with Abbott and Costello

I want the day off, so I'm just posting one of my favorite Abbott and Costello pieces. There are so many permutations of this bit, from movies to TV and radio appearances, each one slightly different due to the timing and the audience reactions. This one is from the movie "The Gay Nineties."

When I was a kid one of my favorite shows on television was the "Abbott and Costello Show". I loved watching them screw Mr. Fields out of the rent with their unique brand of mathematics. But the "Who's On First?" routine is still one of my favorite bits of comedy. I actually have this in MP3 for listening in the car. There is no accounting for taste...

While browsing through You Tube I came across this gem from the Bush years in the White House. It's based on the above routine and is very funny. It involves President Bush finding out that President Hu has become the new head of China.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Alabama Moon" with John Goodman and J.D. Evermore with Jim Bennett and Uriah Shelton (2009)

This may be the shortest, yet greatest, role ever undertaken by John Goodman. He is not the star. But he is the force behind this wonderful movie about a boy, Moon, played by Jim Bennett, who lives in the woods with his father, whom he calls "Paps". They have lived in the woods, just as the early settlers did, taking what they need from the land as they need it for as long as Moon can remember. They live in a hole in the ground.

"Paps", played by J.D. Evermore, is certain that "the law" is after him. No reason is ever given to the boy, who simply accepts what his father has told him to be true. His mother passed away some years earlier, and Moon does not really recall her. His only link to her is an old snapshot of her taken when he was very small, just before she died. His father has taught him to write "smoke letters", which he claims, when burned, can be received by the deceased.

When "Paps" is injured in an accident and dies, Moon finds himself alone. At the age of 12 he buries his father and continues to live in their hole. His father has taught him all the survival skills he needs; he can trap, hunt, cook and make camp wherever he finds himself. He even knows about herbs and their medicinal properties. In short, his father has taught him everything which he needs to know in order to survive outside of "civilization" except for one thing; being alone. His father's last instructions were for Moon to head towards the northwest, Montana, or even Alaska, where he felt the boy could grow up alone and unbothered.

When Moon ventures out of the woods to make good on his plan, he encounters a local deputy, Constable Sanders, played by Clint Howard, who is an evil version of Barney Fife. The Constable remands Moon to a youth facility, where the boy proceeds to lead a mass breakout. Although most of the boys return on their own, Moon, along with Hal, played by Gabriel Basso, and the sickly Kit, played by Uriah Shelton, make good on their plans to hole up in the woods until spring, when they will make their way to Alaska.

When Constable Sanders pursues the boys, he proves unequal to the task, losing them several times. Hal breaks away, heading to his father's trailer alone, while Kit and Moon remain in the woods. When Kit takes ill from the weather, Moon is forced to leave him by the side of the road, waiting with him until someone stops to help. He then takes off again.

By this time John Goodman has made his appearance as the mysterious, but good Mr. Wellington, a local attorney, who seems only to be interested in helping the boy. And that's as far as I will take you on this fantastic journey which will pull you in every direction as you watch the story unfold. This is one of the best "coming of age" films I have ever seen.

The superb acting of all three boys, alongside veteran actors John Goodman and J.D. Evermore, make this a film very well worth watching. With an excellent screenplay by James Whittaker, from the novel by Watt Key, this movie is directed with true eloquence by Tim McCanlies.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The small waste can bounced off of my brother’s head and he slammed into the picture frame, shattering the glass and cutting his wrist as he fell to the ground. The old man stood over him, yelling, “That’s your mother- she’s MY girlfriend and that’s who I care about!” He was about to strike another blow, he was like that, given to seemingly out of control rages, though I had often suspected he was, at all times, by virtue of his outbursts, in perfect control. My slender, but firm, hand reached out to stay his arm as he arched it backwards. “That’s enough!” I yelled. “He’s bleeding!”

The old man stood back and surveyed the damage he had done. His eyes took in the form of his crumpled older boy on the floor, weeping; and the broken frame and glass which sprinkled the black and white tiles of the foyer, the blood on the wall, and he stared in disbelief.

I began to clean up the mess as the two former combatants, who had only moments before been so bold and loud toward one another, slunk away, as if by doing so they could undo what had just happened.

The glass was cleaned up, and the frame removed to some long forgotten corner of a closet. The old man finished cleaning and dressing my brother's wound, and then we all went to the hospital to see Mom.

It was Valentine’s Day 1969. My brother was 16 that day and wanted to see his girlfriend, whom he would later marry. My father wanted to have a little birthday/Valentine’s Day party in the day room at the hospital for my Mom. I just wanted to see her. And she just wanted to see us.

Why am I writing this story now, after so many years? What point am I trying to make? Only that the simplest of emotions, and the best of intentions, can sometimes both backfire and blow up in your face. There is no explanation for our emotions, sometimes there is only damage control.

Note: The photograph was taken in July of 1969 on a trip to Florida. The flag, at St. Augustine, is flying at half staff. I have always remembered this as being in honor of Senator Everett Dirksen, who had just passed away. Evidently my memory fails me, as Senator Dirksen did not pass away until September.

This Week In Music - 1969

Monday, August 8, 2011

"Beyond the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave...." by Elizabeth Keckley

Before you read this you need to know that this is my first review of an "electronic" book, or in this case, a book on line. You also need to know the full title, which did not fit above. It is properly known as "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House" by Elizabeth Keckley, 1818-1907.

Washington, DC has always been a riddle to me. On the one hand it has always been the cradle of modern democracy, while at other times it has been, at best, a city best known for it's hypocrisy. Never was this more true than during the days of slavery.

It is hard to fathom a nation that was founded on the principles of all men being equal by the will of God, while at the same time there were slaves not only working the plantations of the Southern states, but toiling as well, as dosmestics and laborers, in the nations capital city. That some were even held in bondage in the White House itself, is even more astounding.

In this narrative, Mrs. Keckley describes her birth in 1818 as a slave, and also her youth, being abused physically, and later, sexually, at the hands of her owners. She even fathers, unwillingly, a son by one of her "masters." Determined to win freedom for herself and her son by "manumission", she is at first denied this course of action. When her master dies, her mistress allows her to raise the money and buy her freedom. Working as a seamstress, this took three years, from 1852 until 1855 when she and her son were "emancipated." She then went to Baltimore, Maryland where she worked as a seamstress, and also attempted to organize other women of color into the trade. In 1860, when that effort had failed, she moved to Washington, D.C. This decision would both change her life, as well as cement her place in history.

In mid 1860 Mrs. Keckley found herself broke and unable to pay for the license necessary for free Negroes to remain in Washington for longer than 6 months. Remember, this was the capital city of our country. The license was finally given to her, free of charge, by the Mayor. In a strange set of circumstances, she becomes employed to make a gown for Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and after that, she is summoned by Mrs. Lincoln, upon her arrival in the capital, and becomes her seamstress. She also becomes Mrs. Lincoln's life long friend and confidante, which makes this narrative even more interesting.

This is my first experience with a book "on line", the web address is provided below. I invite you to read it and share your thoughts on this remarkable woman and her story. In complete honesty, I must tell you that I found it hard to read the book on line, and will be looking for the book itself to explore it more fully. But just the ability to go on line and find this book is a wonderful use of technology.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"The Missing Martyrs" by Charles Kurzman

Here is a book which is grossly mistitled - and as a result - a bit misleading. The real subtitle to this book should not be "Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists", but rather it should read, "Where are the Moderate Muslims?" The basic premise of this book is that only a small percentage of Mulims worldwide are extremists, and that fact renders the rest of the 1.2 billion Islamic adherents blameless for the acts of the minority. Ah, but were that true...

Let's explore Mr. Kurzman's reasoning a bit. By his thought process the Vatican Sex Abuse scandal is just the product of a few misguided Catholic Priests, and not representative of the religion as a whole, even though the Vatican did everything in it's power to sweep it under the rug.

The whole Nazi thing; just a few errant soldiers taking things too far. Wouln't want to paint the whole German Third Reich with too broad a brush. After all, the people living just outside of the death camps "had no idea."

Is it too much for the world to ask, no, make that expect, the Islamic heirarchy to demand obedience to the Fatwah's issued against terrorism? They seem to have no problem with obeying these edicts against people of other faiths, including cartoon journalists. What is this double standard, other than an excuse for terrorism?

Within hours of Anders Behring Breivik's terrorist attack in Norway, the worlds Christian community had denounced his actions as that of a madman. Compare that reaction to the dancing in the streets by Muslims worldwide after the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

This strip from the Charlotte Observer, third article down, shows the true statistics as per the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center in their annual report. Terrorism, though currently less sucessful, is clearly on the rise.

I'm afraid that this book does not "wash clean." It is, instead, in my opinion, a manipulation of facts and figures, all of which are designed to have the reader reach a conclusion which is in sharp contrast to the simple reality that mainstream Islam has not done enough to curb the militant dissidents among their ranks. That such inactions cast a light of suspicion on the faith as a whole should come as no surprise. That this review is bold enough to state the obvious, and leave me a bit fearful of the reaction to it, should not.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lucille Ball

Today is Lucille Ball's 100th birthday. As a comedian, dancer, and even in the field of pantomine, she was a hard act to beat. Her shows, with husband Desi Arnaz at her side, made television history and set the format for the modern sit-com still in use today. This is one of the highlights from the "I Love Lucy Show." In this clip is all you will ever need to know about this woman's timing and comedic capabilities. This is the famous Marx Brothers "Mirror Scene", reprised here with Lucy playing Groucho's part opposite Harpo. The above clip begins with some real Marx Brothers antics, so be patient. It's worth the wait.

And here is another clip from the "I Love Lucy Show." In this episode Lucy is attempting to slim down in time for a nightclub number with Ricky. This clip showcases her dancing abilities.

"I Love Lucy" was a groundbreaker for so many reasons, not least of which is that it marked the beginning of video taping TV shows and later, using these tapes to invent TV syndicated re-runs as we know them today. The fact that the show still airs, in almost every country, including China, 50 years after it's first broadcast in 1951 undercsores the universal appeal of Lucille Ball's character. She is still the embodiment of men and women, everywhere, and our own comedic attempts to sometimes be more than what we are, and then laugh at ourselves if we fail.

Happy 100th Lucy!

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Billy Liar" with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (1963)

Tom Courtenay gives one of his best performances in this off beat comedy set in 1963 England. Billy is the complete antithesis of Michael Caine's "Alfie." Rather than a predatory womanizer, Billy is a victim of his own overly imaginative mind. He cannot do anything without turning it into fantasy and self glorification. As a result he has a low level job at a mortuary, 2 fiancees, for whom he has only one ring, and who each believe that he is on the verge of a big breakthrough in show business as a writer in London. These exaggerations have earned him the nickname Billy "Liar" among his friends.

Living at home with his "mum" and dad complicates things even more for Billy, as he struggles to find a place for himself in the adult world. There is however, one friend who really believes in him. Julie Harris plays the carefree, purse swinging young woman who travels to London, has lovers and pursues whatever she desires. She is the penultimate "free spirit." She continually encourages Billy in his quest to embrace himself. Can she do it? More importantly, can he allow it?

As the noose tightens around Billy's neck, life, and his own fantasies are slowly strangling him. He has told so many lies, and stretched so many truths, that living is becoming somewhat of a mine field for him to navigate on a daily basis. When a family tragedy intervenes Billy finds his hand forced. He must choose between what is expected of him, or take a chance on finding the real Billy. With the help of Julie Christie he comes to a point where a decision must be made.

This is a delightful, and off beat film along the lines of "Morgan" and "Alfie", which all reflect the cultural changes taking place in Britain at the time. These changes grew largely out of the devastation of World War Two and the feeling of isolation many of the younger generation were feeling.

With the glory of the war behind them, and the pressure of their parents for them to "make something of themselves", this generation would embrace the arts and entertainment to effect a change from what they felt had become a staid society. This is the environment in which all of the major British artists of the 1960's were raised. The devastation of World War Two is clearly evident in many of the background shots in the film. This was a country that had been bombed, but never bowed, in the midst of rebuilding. That same spirit would lead to a renaissance in music, art and film. This film is one of those efforts.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Stealing The General" by Russell S. Bonds

This is the story which everyone has heard of. It was even made into the famous silent comedy by Buster Keaton, "The General." In reality, of course, it was no comedy, but rather a very tense and daring mission, behind Rebel lines. Had it been successful it would have shortened the war by about a year, or more, and saved tens of thousands of lives. That it failed is in no measure attributable to any deficiencies on the part of the men. Were mistakes made? Yes. Were there things which could have altered the outcome of the raid? Of course, there always are. But that's Monday morning quarterback stuff; Should've, could've, would've.

April 12th, 1862, barely one year into the Civil War, James Andrews, a smuggler, and a band of 19 Union soldiers, all volunteers, set off to steal a Confederate railroad engine. Its name was The General. It was a twin to the locomotive Texas, which would chase it down over a distance of 48 miles, while running backwards, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The chase was short, but filled with every imaginable thrill one would expect from an epic Hollywood movie. Tracks were torn up, and telegraph lines cut as The General ran northwards from Georgia to East Tennessee, hoping to cut the Confederate supply lines and shorten the war.

But they hadn't counted on a spunky little conductor, one William Fuller, who was simply incensed that "someone has stolen my train!" He chased the train at first by foot, and then with a railroad handcar, before boarding The Texas for the final leg of the chase, which came to an end only after The General had run out of fuel and water. With both trains equally matched; they each had been built by competing firms but were identical in all aspects, including their 5 foot driving wheels and a 22 inch strokes; the race is a dead heat until the very last moment, when the crew of The General hops from the train, taking to the woods for even further adventure as they try to avoid capture as spies.

The author, Russell Bonds, has carefully reconstructed each moment of what became known as "The Great Locomotive Chase." Using letters, government documents, telegraph transcripts and personal journals, he is able to take the reader on a roller coaster of a journey, first by rail, and then on foot and canoe, through the woods of Tennessee as the raiders attempt to escape their fates, and the eventual capture, trial and execution of several of the prisoners.

Two of the men had to be hung twice, as their ropes broke on the first try. One man hung too low to the ground and so Confederate soldiers dug out the earth beneath his feet while he slowly strangled to death. Only eight of the 19 men would make it home, where they were honored by President Lincoln with the Nation's first Medals of Honor, which are often referred to mistakenly as "Congressional" Medals of Honor.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book involves the escape through the backwoods country of Tennessee, which was about as divided over the war as Virginia had been. At one point there was even talk of Eastern Tennessee breaking away from the Western half of the state in order to remain in the Union, much in the same manner as West Virginia had done. Had that happened, there would have been no need for James Andrews and his volunteers to undertake the mission in the first place.

History is often a series of accidental happenings and circumstance. At times it is colored with people who rise above the obstacles which confront them as they attempt to change the course of events. The Great Locomotive Chase was one of these times. The story of the General, with, or without, all of its inaccuracies, will live on forever. It is a story of courage, and dishonor, on both sides. As usual, there were heroes, and villians, on both ends. A riveting book.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tom Jones - 1968 on BBC Four

This is one of those records which can transport me back to a time and place so vividly that I can still feel the raindrops pelting the car on the side of the road outside Miami in 1969. We were on a road trip to St. Augustine, and then down to Miami, to see my mother's cousin who owned a nightclub there. The music on the car radio ranged from rock to pop to folk to Broadway show tunes.

That's the way it was then. With only the AM radio for entertainment, and no "ear buds", families shared the time, and music, while in the car. It was a good system, and as I've said, I can still feel the rain pelting the car, and see and hear the thunder and lightning raging outside the windows of our 1966 Pontiac. This version of the Tom Jones hit differs only slightly from the released version, but when you watch him sing, it opens a whole new dimension to the song. He's really feeling it.

Although this Tom Jones song was over a year old when we made the trip, I do remember it coming on a few times, especially when we pulled over to wait out that violent thunderstorm. It's a very distinct and pleasureable memory, safe in the car with my parents. And I even remember the follow up song being Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay", which my Mom really liked. This was our last vacation together as a family.