Monday, June 30, 2014

"Where the Wind Leads" by Vinh Chung (2014)

This is the story of one family’s 11,000 mile journey from South Vietnam to America by way of Malaysia and the hardships; and miracles; they endured during their 5 month trip by land, sea and air. The Chung family was very well fixed in South Vietnam at the time of the war. Hard work and sacrifice had made them the equivalent of millionaires in the rice and importation business. Then the hard times came as Vietnam fell to the Communists.

The book is at once a memoir; a history; and a cultural overview of the differences between Asian – Americans. It’s also an adventure; and in the end it is a love story on several levels as well. In short; this is one helluva book.

Vinh Chung recounts his journey from childhood in a war torn Vietnam; the downfall of South Vietnam; and his family’s flight to America by way of Malaysia. The Chungs’ are a Chinese family, and the story of how the authors’ grandparents amassed a fortune is fascinating enough on its own. But throw in the risk that it took to leave Vietnam; after being stripped of everything they worked so hard for; and you have a riveting account of the immigrant experience in the late 20th century. And it’s not a pretty picture.

Mr. Chung’s parents and grandparents had built a small empire, beginning with literally handfuls of milled rice which they sold on the streets to get money to buy more. And when that became successful enough to require a truck; they went into trucking. But the empire they built was constantly under threat; from either the French, before the Second World War; the Japanese during the war; and the French again after the war. Then the Communists came, and the Americans came after them. Each used the South as a battleground for their ideologies. The result was the downfall of the South when America left, and families like the Chung’s were left to ponder their futures; and in some cases their fates.

Being Chinese also left the family open to certain prejudices. The Vietnamese were never overly fond of the Chinese; considering them to be interlopers. This is one of the most interesting portions of the book, with the author explaining the customs for marriage and the system of honoring their elders. Each child had a pecking order that was never broken. The eldest was the first hope for the next generation, and that child was expected to reach back and give his siblings a leg up in return.

As refugees the family suffered all of the trials attendant to dealing with smugglers and pirates. They were even cast adrift and left to die by the Malaysian Navy after they were stripped of whatever valuables they had been able to smuggle out of Vietnam. The author’s grandmother had secreted gold and cash in the linings of their clothes, as well as in her wicker chair. But when they find themselves adrift with no water or food, the value of life becomes more important than any worldly riches.

It is around this time that his mother has had a vision of a bearded man in a robe who chooses her family to live. She has no idea who this man is. But she remembers the vision. And, when the family is about to expire from lack of food and water, the father calls out to God for rain and it rains. As a matter of fact it rains so much that their tiny boat almost sinks. When he calls out to God again to make it stop; it does. These are the first steps which the family takes toward Christianity, a faith which will later define their lives in America.

Eventually the family is rescued at sea by a ship called the “Seasweep”, which is run by a Christian organization whose purpose is to aid the Vietnamese “boat people.” Eventually the family settles in Fort Smith, Arkansas; where they struggle to acclimate themselves to a whole new culture. Speaking no English, the father is forced to work menial jobs for minimum wage while supporting 8 children. Compared to his former life as an entrepreneur, this was bitter pill to swallow. 

This is also the story of an over achieving family who came to America by choice, under tremendous hardship. And they have lived the American Dream; from bottom to top. The author is a Harvard educated Doctor; fulfilling his father’s dream. The older kids were almost failures in their father's eyes for having only obtained Master’s Degrees!  

Mr. Chung’s account of meeting his future wife; who is Korean; and the struggle they both faced in trying to come to terms with their mutual attraction for one another is simply beautiful. Neither one had ever been kissed before. This portion of the book is truly a love story which will make you smile and remember your own youth.

I highly recommend this book as a way to understand the problems faced by the average refugee. You will come away with a new respect for the “boat people” in general; even as you recall the immigrant experience of your own ancestors and their journey by boat to the “new world.” And, in the end, you will come away with a better understanding of who you are. This is a wonderful, enlightening book.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"The Art of the Steal" with Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon (2013)

Crunch Calhoun, a semi-reformed art thief, agrees to get his old gang back together to pull off one last heist. The film is loosely based upon the documentary “The Art of the Steal” from 2009. That film follows the struggle for control of Dr. Albert C. Barnes' $25 billion dollar collection of modern and post-impressionist art. This film deals with a rare and legendary manuscript, the Lost Gospel of James; who was Jesus’ brother.

The plot centers around a group of misfits who plan to heist a rare book known as the “Gospel According to James”; who was Jesus’ half-brother. In reality the book is considered to have been written sometime in the 2nd century A.D. The earliest reference I could find to it; I actually look these things up;  is by Origen of Alexandria in the early 3rd century A.D.  Well, so much for the history lesson.

In a film reminiscent of “Boondock Saints”; “Snatch”, and a bit of “The Usual Suspects”, the cast of characters is varied and they are all flawed in one way or another. The cast is headed by Kurt Russell, who plays a semi-retired art thief named Crunch Calhoun. He is now self-employed as a stunt motorcycle rider. He excels at crashing his bike in spectacular ways; and is often referred to as “Aren’t you the guy who tried to jump those 6 minivans in Vegas?” His estranged brother; and all of their friends; are of this same mold.

When Calhoun’s brother Nicky, played by Matt Dillon begins to plot the theft of the James Gospel he includes Crunch in the plan without telling him. This sets off a chain of events that involves a crew of thieves who are as clueless as the ones in “Snatch”, and as inept as the killers in “Pulp Fiction”.

Along the way you will meet them all, Jay Baruchel as Francie and Tobin Kenneth Welsh as "Uncle" Paddy MacCarthy; his role may be one of the best in the film. Chris Diamantopoulos gives his all as Guy de Cornet, while Katheryn Winnick is absolutely charming in her own way as Lola.  Jason Jones is notable as the uproariously inept Interpol Agent Bick who is stymied at every turn by criminals who are even more inept than he is. There are Border Guards, Priests,  a stoned ice cream truck driver; played by Jon Steinberg; a belly dancer and a whole slew of other wild and zany characters, too numerous to mention.

With an ending that even surprises this group of misfits, this is a movie which will have you scratching your head from time to time as you try and figure out all the twists in this unusual plot. And, when you finally figure it out you’ll go, “Wait a minute…” and want to watch it again just to be sure you got that right. It’s kind of like “The Usual Suspects”, only funny. This is one of Kurt Russell’s best movies in years. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Susie the Little Blue Coupe" - (1951)

This cartoon is for you Aliyah and Trinity. Grandma Sue is visiting you guys and I thought since I can’t be there myself, I’d post this for you. I also sent some Grandpa hugs which you can collect from Grandma. I wonder if you will be able to tell the difference. Love to both of you… XXOO Grandpa Robert

I’m one of those people who believe that everything has feelings. Even inanimate objects can elicit feelings of sympathy from me. Take a car as an example. We use it all day, and then leave it alone in the night, subject to the cold of winter and the sweltering heat of summer. It may sound crazy, but this has always made me feel kind of bad for whatever car I have owned. They serve me so well, yet they get treated just like any other tool; used for a purpose and then tossed aside until needed again.

That’s what really caught my emotions in this Walt Disney cartoon from 1951. The title says 1952, but the copyright is 1951, so I’m going with that date. The story begins with a man enamored of the automobile he sees in the window at the dealership. It’s almost as if she is calling out to him to take a drive, which he does.

From there the cartoon takes off, showcasing each aspect of a car’s life as seen from an almost human perspective. I had never seen this cartoon before, but it could’ve been lifted right from my imagination. Enjoy the cartoon; I’m going to take my car out for a tank of Premium. If the adventures of Little Susie are any indication of reality, then my car deserves it!

Note: This cartoon has gotten more "hits" than all of the Popeye cartoons combined. Something about this cartoon hits a nerve with many people. They seem to identify with either the car, or the driver.

We all love our cars. It's one of the only times we really get to be alone. We listen to our music, think out loud, and sing aloud, basically getting to be ourselves in the privacy of our automobiles. Some of us even eat there, right behind the wheel!

This cartoon was done by Bill Peet for Walt Disney Studios in 1951. The release date is 1952, which explains the discrepancy in dates.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Just Gimme Some Truth - The Right to Lie?

This is the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. I could show you a different photo and lie to you. Apparently lying has become a component of Free Speech. The recent Court decision which removed the caps on the amount of money donors can give to political candidates and parties; and the anonymity allowed with those donations, in the name of free speech; should give us all pause to think.

The case at hand will now decide whether or not states can make it a crime for political groups to lie about a candidate during an election campaign. And now, with all that new money floating around, you can expect the lies to get even more prevalent. It is hard for me to understand that lies are covered under Free Speech as intended by the Founding Fathers. Those guys fought duels over stuff like this. It was a matter of Honor. Slander and Libel were not readily tolerated in the 18th Century.

Essentially this new case involves an Anti-Abortion group named the Susan B. Anthony List in Ohio. In the 2010 election they attempted to put up a billboard claiming that then-Rep. Steven Driehaus, D-Ohio, supported public funding for abortions under the Affordable Care Act. The ad said, "Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion." There was a technicality involved in the truth of that statement and so the billboard company refused the ad. They claimed that it violated the law in Ohio which makes such lies a crime. The foundation then sued the billboard owner for violating his right to free speech.

When they lost the case the Susan B. Anthony group then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, on the grounds that the Ohio law is unconstitutional. They contend that under the Constitution the government cannot decide what false speech is in a political campaign. That makes no sense. And even more confusing is that if they claim that government doesn't have the sense to decide what false speech in a campaign is, then how can the Susan B. Anthony group expect it to be adjudicated in a court of law run by that same government? If the decision goes against them, will they even respect it? 

Some of the arguments arising out of this case are going to be specious at best, and ridiculous at their worst. Take these arguments in support of lying put forth by the Cato Institute and satirist P.J. O'Rourke, who take the position in their brief, that lies; which they call falsehoods; "are cornerstones of American democracy." They begin with the following 5 quotes from the recent past; the italics are mine.

"I am not a crook." (Richard Nixon) But he was, and knew it at the time he said it. And he resigned in disgrace for lying so much about so many things.

"Read my lips: No new taxes!" (George H.W. Bush)  He did raise taxes, and knew he was going to do it when he said he wasn't. As a result he became a one term President.

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman." (Bill Clinton) He did; and was impeached for lying to a Grand Jury. Found not guilty of lying on a technicality he cost his party the election in 2000 and became somewhat of a joke.

"Mission accomplished." (George W. Bush) It wasn't, and we are still mired in the events of post 9/11 as they relate to the costly and unnecessary War in Iraq.

"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it." (Barack Obama) What started out as a good and noble program became bogged down in falsities and ineptness; sullying anything good which he might have accomplished in the area of Health Care Reform.

I guess my point is this; if the government is going to sanction lying in political campaigns doesn't that right eventually extend to everybody and everything? Or, is lying only acceptable when it is done by PAC’s with tons of undocumented money to burn? It’s an interesting question, if only for the fact that the High Court would even consider ruling on such a clear cut topic. But nothing surprises me anymore. This is the same court which claims that it is okay to lie; they call it “misrepresent”; about whether or not you earned any medals while in the military. Or,  if you were even in the military to begin with.

I’m a simple man. John Lennon expressed it best when he sang “Just give me some truth!” That doesn't seem like too much to ask for.

Just Gimme Some Truth
(John Lennon)

I'm sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth

I've had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth

No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky
Is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me
With just a pocketful of hope
Money for dope
Money for rope

I'm sick to death of seeing things
From tight-lipped, condescending, mama's little chauvinists
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth now

I've had enough of watching scenes
Of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas
All I want is the truth now
Just gimme some truth

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"The Course of Empire" by Thomas Cole (1833-36)

Thomas Cole, whom I featured here yesterday, is one of my favorite American artists. His use of light is almost unparalleled among the American artists of his time. His work is remarkable in that it almost always carries a clear message. This group of paintings tells a story; much in the same way that his iconic “Voyage of Life” does.

Only in this case he explores a society rather than an individual. The man who commissioned the work was Luman Reed, a successful merchant and a patron of some of America's earliest artists. The paintings were completed between 1833 and 1836.

When you look at these paintings it is important to remember the time in which they were done. The early part of the 19th century was witness to the rise of democracy and self-rule on a scale that had never been achieved. It was a time of intense optimism. To my eye, Mr. Cole was giving us a warning as to where our path would inevitably lead us; back to the beginning. A quick look at the news of the day suggests that he may have been on to something...

In this first painting of the series, "The Savage State", Cole depicts a wilderness environment. A buckskin clad hunter and Native Americans in canoes are depicted as living off the land. There is a dark quality to the painting, almost as if we are at the beginning of something greater.

In this second painting, titled "The Pastoral State", things are more ordered in appearance and you can sense the coming of something better. An old man drawing in the dirt with a stick, perhaps planning a building, and children playing and dancing all indicate an ordered way of life. Peace abounds.

The third painting, "The Consummation of Empire", is filled with the light of the noonday sun. Man is at his acme, seen as Rome, in all of its splendor. Abundance, along with decadence, have replaced the "Pastoral State." The whole depiction is one of man as "King" over all that he sees.

In this fourth painting, "Destruction", the city is under siege and in flames. The bridge is almost at its breaking point and the statue with no head seems to be urging the throngs forward. The only questions here are, where he is leading them, and why do they obey?

And, in the final painting, "Desolation", the sun has set, and the city-state is in ruins. All of the structures are being reclaimed by nature, and there are no people to be seen. All the "kings" are gone, along with all of their perceived accomplishments. The moon is rising, indicating that night, or darkness, has begun to settle on the land. This is the culmination of all of man's efforts to rule supreme.

It's easy to see just what I love about the works of Thomas Cole. They are; at once; a combination of history, art and philosophy. And that is a combination that can set my mind to wandering and wondering...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Voyage of Life" by Thomas Cole (1842)

Thomas Cole was an American landscape painter of the 1800's. His best works were done in the 1840's. Born in 1801 he lived a short life. He was only 47 when he died in 1848.

His most famous work; a series of 4 paintings; is called "Voyage of Life." They are so good that he was commissioned to do a second set- identical to the first. One set remains in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the other is housed in NY but is constantly on tour somewhere.

Examine the drawings in order and a story emerges of the struggle we all endure to get through this crazy thing called life.

In the first painting, “Childhood", you see the man as a baby, swaddled in the boat with his Guardian Angel at the tiller, guiding him from the mouth of the cave, as if just being delivered from his mother’s womb. The landscape is verdant and ripe with the promise of the future and growth. The hourglass at the bow is full with sand and time is of no concern. His whole life is before him.

The second painting, "Youth", shows the boy at the tiller and the Guardian Angel is stepping off and bidding him Godspeed as he sets out on his own course. Notice the beautiful and illusionary castle in the background. The boy is heading for that dreamlike goal. (Aren't we all?)The waters are calm and the sands are still abundant in the hourglass. The boy is filled with confidence in his future.

In the third painting, "Manhood", we see the boy as a middle aged man, filled with tribulations and at the mercy of the elements. He thinks his God has forsaken him as the angry clouds blow foul weather upon his dreams. The tiller is broken and the Sands of Time in the hourglass at the bow are drawing low. He is supplicating himself to a Higher Power, seeking to change what he now perceives to be his fate. In the background you see the glow of his Guardian Angel, who still watches over him, though the man cannot see this.

In the fourth and final painting, "Old Age", he is resigned to his fate. He is no longer struggling to reach an illusionary goal. The tiller has broken off; he is no longer the Master of his own fate. The Sands of Time have run completely out. The seas have calmed and the winds abated. The Guardian Angel has returned to lead him to the Light and his Eternal Reward.

With his use of light and symbolism Thomas Cole’s works come to life. The story told in these 4 paintings is universal. They reflect what we all endure, in different ways, on our own "Voyage of Life."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Art of the Flirt

I have wanted to write this for a long time but I keep putting it off as some people might find the topic to be off putting. But, after listening to some local talk show radio host tackle the subject the other day, I realized that the time has come for some words of wisdom on the subject. Being the only one available on the payroll, I will assume that task.

The ultimate flirt is not about sex at all. Actually, a good flirt is a one-time thing; a flash which you remember for its brightness and surprise. If you wind up taking it further than that it becomes a whole new ball game; lots of rules there. A flirt is spontaneous; and beyond any rules. An example;

I’m in my car riding along; stop for a red light outside one of the nicer malls. (This is an actual event - not one of those dream sequences.) Car pulls up next to me with a good looking woman in it. She’s doing her hair, fixing her lipstick, oblivious to my watching. She looks over; startled; and I give her the A-OK sign and a wink. 

Now, I never wink. That’s something only guys like Clark Gable, or really cool cab drivers can pull off well. But I did; she was caught off guard and blushing, gave a little wave of thanks as the light changed and we drove off, never to meet again.

The idea is that a good flirt makes both parties feel good about themselves; as well as displaying an attraction for the other person. Not necessarily physical, either. Just something between two people on a personal level; could be at the store where you shop. That fun little exchange of banter when you go through the checkout; it means something to both of you. You both get to feel special; and if you’re old, still viable.

But most flirting is instantaneous, and then the moment is gone. That magic has sailed. Remember the voyage; because that’s a moment you’ll never get back. They write songs about it.

I must be wrong; because most of the callers put it all down to sex and conquest. The men and women were equally predatory. I put that down to too much of TV’s “The Bachelorette.”

Here’s a poem I wrote in 1984 in New York City; a wonderful place for flirting. At least it used to be. This was my reaction to one of those moments. As I said, they write songs about it.

She Took Me

She took me;
quite by surprise;
as I was walking;
one hand grazing a sandstone stoop.

In passing,
I turned my head
to see her face and
the quizzical, puzzled look –

Not without affection or fondness
for whatever it was that she could see
at that moment.
A look as if
she wanted to know more…

East 73rd at Madison Avenue
August 22nd, 1985

The illustration at the top is Eugene Blaas' 1902 "Flirtation at the Well."

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Johnny Carson" by Henry Bushkin (2014)

It’s time for some light summer reading. This is a great “beach” book; also ideal for the extra wait at the airport. Henry Bushkin was Johnny Carson’s attorney/business manager for about 20 years during the 1970’s and the 1980’s. He became friends with the late night show host and was very involved in every aspect of his life; both personally as well as professionally.

The author paints a portrait of a Johnny Carson the public hardly knew. He was the gregarious, happy go lucky man we all came to know and love on television; but beneath that façade was a more complicated individual; who could go from being the nicest guy in the world, to a vindictive and petty man in a heartbeat. But that aspect is not the sole focus of the book.

Mr. Bushkin was a young newly minted lawyer when he met Johnny through a friend in 1970. So this is also an account of a young inexperienced attorney learning the ropes in one of the most competitive businesses around; the entertainment industry. It is also the story of 3 of Mr. Carson’s marriages. (Interesting note: all 4 of Carson’s wives names began with J.)

When the authors career takes off; and his friendship with Carson becomes solid; Mr. Bushkin learns that there are limits to his employer’s largesse. Everything seems free and easy, but there is always a price to be paid. As he becomes involved in every aspect of Johnny’s life; including lining up female companionship for his boss; he falls prey to the easy access he has to women. This takes a toll on Johnny’s wife; Joanna; whom the host is able to mollify by purchasing large diamonds, cars and other luxury items as a way of apologizing.

But Mr. Bushkin is caught up in the whirlwind of easy access and eventually loses his wife because of it.
The stories are fast and furious as Mr. Bushkin recounts their escapades together in Los Vegas; at the Presidential Inauguration of Ronald Reagan and Mr. Carson’s 5 year run heading the Oscar Awards. 

As things get bigger and Carson Enterprises soars, the author reaps huge financial rewards from his sometimes brilliant work. But all good things must come to an end and soon he finds himself caught between his desire to stay with Carson or to strike out on his own.

The line between friendship and employment can become blurred by many things. This is true in all of our lives. But, when you add the lure of easy money and star power to the mix, it can become an intoxicant to be avoided. Still, when all the money and power is gone, the memories that are left can never be erased. You just have to decide if it was all worth it. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"The Nearness of You" - by Haogy Carmichael (1941) 2 Versions

There are two ways in which I wanted to approach this post. The first was through Keith Richards’ autobiography “Life”; which I am in the process of re-reading. I wanted to simply compare the original version of this song by Hoagy Carmichael with the one recorded by Mr. Richards along about 1979. It was written in 1941 and has been recorded by just about every major name in show business. But it’s not a song you would usually associate with Keith Richards.

The second approach was more along the lines of “look what happens to the Rolling Stones whenever Mick Jagger leaves the stage.” In the video above the band backs Keith in his rendition of “The Nearness of You”, and towards the end he performs a beautiful guitar solo in the way in which only he can.

It’s a bit like the performance of “You’ve Got the Silver” in the “Shine a Light” concert at the Beacon Theater. (I was actually on the list for the $25 tickets and didn’t go!) There was all this high rock and roll energy filling the air one moment and then this beautiful, cooling performance by Keith and Ron Wood; mesmerizing the audience with the song.

The best part of watching the performance of this Hoagy Carmichael song is the back story. In the book “Life” the author recounts having made a tape of himself, along with Bobby Keys, doing a version of the song.  He then gave it to an associate who forwarded it on to Mr. Carmichael. This is about 6 months before Mr. Carmichael passed away in 1981. He actually listened to it and took the time to phone Keith Richards in Barbados to tell him how much he admired it.

As a matter of fact he claimed that Keith Richards version was closer to the way he had originally conceived the song! To say that Keith was bowled over by the phone call would be a major understatement. So, here are the Stones; sans Mick Jagger; doing a wonderful version of the song written by Mr. Carmichael over 70 years ago.

And here is the link to Hoagy’s version; I was unable to find any live footage and I couldn’t get the big machine to allow me to download the audio except by a link.

Mr. Carmichael circa 1953

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"Butterscotch and Soda" - Little Audrey (1948)

I post a good many cartoons, but not enough of a variety to suit my granddaughters. Popeye can't really hold a candle to Dora the Explorer. So, stuck for an idea I googled the phrase “classic cartoons for girls” and came up with this character, Little Audrey, and I actually remember seeing a few seconds of these on TV when I was a kid. They were the ones that came on when I went to get a snack. Being a boy I wasn't interested in Little Audrey, but now that I've taken a look at one of these cartoons, I’m a bit intrigued.
Little Audrey is actually based upon the Little Lulu comic strip character created by Marjorie Henderson Buell. These cartoons came about between 1947 and 1958 when Paramount decided not to renew the Little Lulu series. Little Audrey’s voice is done by Mae Questel, who also did almost all of the other major female cartoon characters for Paramount, including Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.

The plot of this cartoon, which was the first of the Little Audrey releases, is fairly simple. Audrey can’t stop eating candy and her Nanny is at her wits end concerning what to do about it. In desperation she finally searches the entire house, discovering Audrey’s hidden stashes everywhere and destroying them all. When Audrey discovers her candy missing, she goes into shock and enters a dreamland of; you guessed it; Candy!

But even enough of a good thing can become too much and Audrey ends up locked in a dream world where the very things which she craves all seem to turn against her, singing out their warnings to her in a very clever song “Tummy Ache Blues”, written by Winston Sharples and Buddy Kane. When Audrey finally comes to, she is met by the face of her Nanny; who thought she was dying; but now holds out a box of chocolates, telling Audrey that she can have all the candy she wants.

These cartoons were the product of Seymour Kneitel and illustrators Al Eugster, Bill Hudson and Irving Spector. Though the Nanny character is a stereotype; just as the character of Little Audrey is; the Nanny is clearly the wiser of the two. Now, I wonder how this one will stand up next to Dora the Explorer?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Moondog - Jazz Great

If you were alive and living in New York City during the late 1960’s then you are familiar with Moondog, the blind Viking poet who wandered up and down 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) in the West 50’s. What many people don’t realize is that he had a name. Born Louis Thomas Hardin, Moondog was a presence felt not only by New Yorkers, but also by many of the stars and musicians who passed through the city.

Janis Joplin recorded one of his songs, “All Is Loneliness”, in 1970; and Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz musician, was the subject of his world renowned composition  “Bird’s Lament." Charlie Parker was known as “The Bird.” Moondog's  recording career spanned the years 1953-2005. He even cut an album with Julie Andrews. Much of this work was done while he was living in the streets.

Basically, Moondog, was born Louis Thomas Hardin on May 26, 1916. He is most remembered for standing around on 6th Avenue in the West 50’s from about 1948 until the early 1970’s. If you meet anyone who claims to have seen him after 1974, then they are not telling the truth. That was the year he moved to Germany, where he pursued his art and music in a more serious manner.

He was blind, and a composer, musician and poet. He is even credited with having invented a couple of musical instruments. When he came to New York; sometime around 1944; he decided that he was going to live on the streets as much as possible. He did have a few apartments over the years; and was quick to accept temporary shelter when offered; but mostly he really did live on the streets around 6th and 57th.

His clothes were a self-styled costume of what many believe was Odin, the Norse God. We used to refer to him simply as a Viking. In all the years I saw him I never once saw anyone harassing him. And New York is a tough town! Mostly we spoke to him hoping for a reply, or even a poem. He actually composed music on a braille pad of some kind.

I have no idea why I started thinking about him about a week ago. I even posted a little thing about him on my Facebook page. I got just one comment. You have to be kind of special to “get” a guy like Moondog. You have to color outside the lines a bit to understand his thinking.

I once made the deliberate decision to live in a rooming house with a toilet down the hall in a rundown section of Baltimore for $35 a week. I had $20,000 in my pocket and more in the bank. I just wanted to experience life in that way. To me it was art.

For Moondog the streets were both his canvas and a balnk soundtrack; both needing to be filled in. He passed away in 1999. It’s a good thing in a way. I don’t think he would have liked the 21st Century. Hell, I’m not even sure he ever accepted the 20th.

For everything you ever wanted to know about Moondog, start with Wikipedia and then expand your search to include You Tube. There are a couple of good articles there just underneath of the videos.

And here is a sample of his music, “Bird’s Lament”;

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Juneteenth - A Brief History

Today is Juneteenth. This is the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas were first informed of their freedom from slavery; over 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent passage of the 13th Amendment. It’s sad that this was not part of the curriculum in school when I was a kid. The way things were taught back then held that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Period. That was the correct answer to the question.

It even comes up that way on the Andy Griffith Show, in the episode “Andy Discovers America.” And that was a show which took place in the South! The story of Juneteenth is such a joyful one that I am surprised at how it escaped the attention of most folks until the late 1960’s and the rise of African-Americanism as a recognized field of study. Remember that the next time someone says that we don’t need a Black History Month.

Basically the story of Juneteenth is that it is the day in 1865 when the slaves in Galveston, Texas; and the western states in general; found out that they were no longer slaves. Imagine that. You wake up one day and find out you’re not a slave any longer. Where do you go? What do you do? So, mixed up with all the joy there had to be a certain sense of apprehension about the immediate future. It’s the exact reversal of you and I waking up tomorrow and being told that we are now slaves.  Either scenario is almost unimaginable; though the former is preferable to the latter!

Also known as Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day, it is celebrated to commemorate the Emancipation of the last remaining slaves in America.  General Order #3 which was the legal instrument by which the Federal Government informed not only the newly freed slaves; but also the government of Texas in general, that slavery was at an end. Texas was the last of the former Confederate States to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation, even after hostilities had ended.

This was largely due to the fact that the Confederate States of America had never formally agreed to an end to the war; either by treaty or proclamation. The Confederate States were left without any leadership after their government in Richmond fell and the leaders fled. The effect of that is still felt today. President Johnson would proclaim the War Between the States to be at an end the following year; in May 1866.

On June 18, 1865, General Gordon Granger, along with about 2,000 troops came to Galveston and took control of the state, Primarily the reason for this was the reluctance of the state to end slavery within its jurisdiction. The following day the General issued the Order while standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa.

This is the text of “General Order No. 3” which was read on June 19, 1865;

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s many African- Americans had begun the Great Migration from the Southern and Western states to the big cities. The decline in Juneteenth celebrations occurred during this period. Just as slavery had robbed them of their African customs in the past; industry in the free world would now rob them of some of their new customs as freed persons.

It was actually the Poor People’s March in 1968 which put this colorful and lively holiday back on the cultural map. Although not an actual Federal Holiday, the date is observed in almost all of the states in some fashion. 

The photo at the top was taken in Galveston on Juneteenth circa 1900.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Scylla and Charybdis

This is a cool story and is a perfect example of reading being a key to self-education. I was reading a biography about Johnny Carson when I came across a phrase with which I was unfamiliar. I caught the meaning, but not the source. So, I looked it up. The phrase was Scylla and Charybdis and was used in reference to being in an awkward situation with little choice and dire consequences. At least that is what I inferred from what I read.  I wasn't too far off, as it is usually used to denote being between a rock and a hard place. Here’s why.

Scylla and Charybdis were the sea creatures who guarded the Straits of Messina; a place I have been to many times in the Navy. The first was Scylla, who was located on the same side as the Italian mainland and took the form of a 6 headed monster. The other, Charybdis was located by the shoals off the Island of Sicily and was characterized as a whirlpool. It was a double blind of sorts, as to pass too closely to one would put you in the range of the other.

This story is all a part of Homer’s story in "The Odyssey" as he is forced to choose which of the two demons he must face to successfully navigate the Straits. (He is described as having just passed the Island of Sirens.) He decided to risk the wrath of Scylla which would cause the least amount of casualties, rather than the whirlpool of Charybdis which would have meant the loss of his entire crew.

This is the origin of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place”, which also gave rise to the more modern “from the frying pan into the fire.” In Latin the phrase is “incidit in scyllam cupiens vitare charybdis” which translates as “he runs on Scylla, wishing to avoid Charybdis.”

This is what I love the most about reading. Everything I learn is another piece of the puzzle. But here’s the problem with learning stuff on your own. Most of my life I have been reading about things I have never heard pronounced aloud. President Truman had this same problem. 

I wish I had a buck for every time I mispronounced a name or word that I have come across while reading. But I also wish I had just a thin dime for each time I have been told I was pronouncing something wrong by someone who knew the correct pronunciation, but had no clue to the meaning behind the words. Undoubtedly, I would be awash in small coin.

The photo at the top is of the Castello Scilla located on the coast of the mainland at Calabria.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"The Poppy Is Also a Flower" with Grace Kelly and Omar Sharif (1966)

The War on Drugs has been going on a long time now. This film was produced with funds from the United Nations. It stars many of the big names in Hollywood at the time. It was written by Jo Eisinger from a story by Ian Fleming. The 100 minute film was directed by Terence Young and produced by Euan Lloyd and aired in an 80 minute format on ABC before it was released in its full form to the theaters the following year.

The stars include Stephen Boyd, Senta Berger, Yul Brynner, Trevor Howard, Rita Hayworth, Angie Dickinson and Marcello Mastroianni. Trini Lopez and E.G. Marshall also make appearances in the film, which opens with Grace Kelly explaining what a poppy is, setting the stage for a story about drug smuggling and its effects upon society.

What makes the film so compelling to watch; in spite of it’s being a bit dated; is that it is the same story that is still being played out on the world stage today. “Narco-states”; with plenty of cash to spend; allow the heroin trade to flourish in spite of the best efforts by the entire world to stem the flow of illicit drugs into their own countries.

In this film the heroin trade is coming from the Iranian-Afghan border, where agents working for the United Nations place a nuclear tracking device in a shipment of heroin in order to track it on its journey to Europe.

Some of the filming was done in Iran itself, with weeks spent on location. It was funded by Xerox and the stars all accepted $1 apiece in compensation for their work. Terence Young actually left his job as Director on the film “Thunderball” to take on this project. 

The film was the last of a 4 part series of movies made for television by the United Nations to shed light on some of its lesser known activities. It was also released in Europe under the titles “Poppies Are Also Flowers”; “The Opium Connection”; and also as “Danger Grows Wild.”

No matter what you think about the War on Drugs, this film will give you pause to mull over the fact that since at least 1966 the world has expended an awful lot of time and energy; along with money; fighting a battle it cannot ever hope to win.

You can view the full 100 minute film here or watch it on You Tube;

Monday, June 16, 2014

"Supreme City" by Donald L. Miller (2014)

New York is the greatest city in the world by any measure. To paraphrase Dickens in “A Christmas Carol”, you must realize this “for any good to come of it.” But the growth of the city from the quaint days of the “Gay Nineties” to what it became after the Second World War required a growth spurt unlike that seen by any other city before or since.

That is what author Donald L. Miller sets out to prove with this ambitious and informative biography of the city between the turn of the century and the beginning of the Second World War. And he does it with style as he explores both the physical changes to the city’s skyline as well as the men who wrought that change. Along the way he takes us on a tour of the speakeasies and nightclubs, as well as the back rooms of the politicians and the boardrooms of the big corporations.

Carefully researched and annotated, this book covers such diverse topics as the changing modes of transportation and the expansion of the subways, the building of the Grand Central Railroad Station and the rise of Park Avenue, and the city wide construction boom which would push the city’s boundaries further northward.

In the fields of Entertainment; radio; vaudeville; theater; a new invention called TV; musical recording; and even the motion pictures; all had their start in the Big Apple.

As far as Politics and Personalities go, this book explores the characters of the day; Tex Guinan and her saloon; the speakeasies; Mayor Jimmy Walker, Ziegfeld, William S. Paley and the rise of mass media.

The major events of the 1920’s; Lindbergh’s parade after soloing across the Atlantic, Valentino’s funeral and the rise and fall of Tammany Hall are all given their respective dues.  

The author covers all bases in an effort to paint an accurate portrait of Manhattan during 3 of her most fascinating; and active; decades. These are the years which made New York what she is today; quite simply put; the most fantastic city in the world.

This book is an excellent companion to the book “Gotham” which chronicles the history of Manhattan from the time of Hudson to the present. They go well together on my shelf.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jimmy Scott - "Everybody Needs Somebody" (1950)

Jimmy Scott passed away on Friday in Las Vegas. He was a tremendously gifted singer who influenced everyone from Billie Holiday to the Four Seasons and Little Anthony. He is the only singer who could make Madonna cry with his vocals. His career spanned the late 1940's and almost ended in a dispute with his record company in the late 1960's. But quality cannot be denied and Mr. Scott made a comeback in the last 20 years of his life, still performing until quite recently. Explore his work on You Tube and see what you missed.


"Learning to Smile Again" - Johnny Hartford 

This is not the version of the song I wanted to post, though it is close. The performance is almost the same, but the sound is lacking in quality. For whatever reason the big machine wouldn't recognize the code from You Tube and so I had to settle for this. But I can provide a link to the better version, and I will.

I have posted Johnny Hartford here before. He is a direct link to the days before Delta Blues, Appalachian Music, and even New Orleans Jazz. His is the world of the steamboats which once plied the Mississippi loaded with cotton, and slaves, as it transited the Big Muddy. The grand boats weaved through free and slave states alike, giving birth to new music and even literature. Mark Twain once piloted a river boat there, and so would Johnny Hartford. He was a man of the river, you might say.

Apparently the following link is to the album which is now out of print. Johnny Hartford rented a studio and set it up with one spotlight and a small area in which to perform his personal favorite songs; some of which he wrote; some of which were always there. He uses every bit of his body, heart and soul in each song. His voice doubles as train whistles, steamboats, washing machines. He even provides a rhythm section in the form of his considerable tap dancing talents as he both sings and plays his fiddle; or sometimes banjo; or sometimes guitar. Al;l while singing.

This is the way most Americans heard music back in the middle of the 19th Century; in the days before Edison invented the wax cylinder; or Marconi the wireless. If you didn't go to church you most likely never heard live music. And if you did it was probably at a tavern or political gathering with the entertainment performed by someone dressed just like Mr. Hartford.

Most people remember him as the guy who stood up with Glen Campbell each Sunday evening playing the banjo to the song he wrote "Gentle on My Mind." But he was so much more. It ocurs to me that there must be a reason I am thinking about him lately. Well, I just looked and it's been 13 years since his death from cancer at age 64. Of all the artists who have passed in that time period Johnny Hartford is the one I probably miss the most.

But watching these videos; the link to which is provided below; he lives forever; tapping and singing his way into our collective American experience. The music has it's roots in Scots-Irish ballads but became decidedly American in both composition and lyrics. It was the precursor to everything which came after in American music. I hope you enjoy the clarity of the following performance;

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Flag Day - 1960's TV Style

Today is Flag Day and I thought it might be cool to look back at the old TV sign offs. I always enjoyed the one with the jets streaking across the sky, but this one is pretty good. It showcases many of our nation's monuments, all while rolling the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner across  the screen. I wonder if they even teach it in school anymore?

Heritage is something which must be nurtured from one generation to the next. Tradition does not stay alive of it's own accord. Take the time today and look at our flag and think beyond the current state of politics. That is not the real America represented by the flag.

The flag has been temporarily high jacked. It won't be the first time; or the last. But it's the actual meaning of the stars and stripes which count most. The meaning of the red and white stripes and the stars on a field of blue. Keep that spirit alive and we can't lose. What was it that David Crosby once wrote? "Teach your children well...."

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lucky Lindbergh in New York - June 13, 1927

Today is Friday the 13th and I thought I’d counter the image of the day as unlucky with footage of “Lucky” Lindy – Charles A. Lindbergh – in the ticker tape parade which was given in his honor on this date in 1927.

Lindbergh had returned to the United States on a Navy ship and his first stop was in Washington, D.C. where he was honored by the President for his solo flight across the Atlantic, which was a first. 

Others had already performed the feat, but none had gone solo. From Washington he went to New York City where he was feted by a crowd larger than any before or since. The parade he was given that day is widely acknowledged as the biggest ever given in NYC, which has thrown quite a bit of confetti over the years.

Mayor Walker presented him with the City; not just the key; he gave him run of the entire city. At the time Lindbergh had won the $25,000 purse for his flight but was having trouble spending any money. Even when he wrote checks the people kept them as souvenirs. (Hey, maybe he was on to something at that…)

The film at the top is a short newsreel from the time with some footage of the events in New York. If the parade was over sized it is because New York was the point from which he began his flight, so naturally the people were overjoyed at his return to celebrate the finished deed.

And this film is a 7 minute summary of the whole Lindbergh flight; from take off to the parade.

I hope this changes any negative feelings you may have been harboring about the day. If the 13th was good enough for “Lucky Lindy”, then it is good enough for me.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Promised Land" with Frances McDormand and Matt Damon (2012)

Matt Damon and Frances McDormand both shine in this true to life story about a large energy firm coming to a small town with promises of big bucks for everyone who leases their land to the company for fracking. Damon plays Steve Butler, a hard charging rising star at Global Energy. His job is to visit towns which have the potential for natural gas deposits beneath the surface and then buy the lease rights from the cash strapped farmers with nothing left to sell but their futures.

There is a rumpled high school teacher Frank Yates; played with great effect by Hal Holbrook; in the town who shows up at the very first meeting between the residents and Steve Butler. He talks about the science behind fracking and why it is not in the best long term interests of the town. Steve challenges his assertions, only to become aware the teacher is really a retired MIT Engineer who teaches high school because he is bored.

As Steve and his partner, Sue Thomason, become more involved in the town they are drawn to different people. She is drawn to the local gun shop owner, while Steve is falling for a local school teacher named Alice; played by Rosemarie DeWitt;  he has met. These relationships have a way of undercutting Global’s sales pitch, and also manage to get under Steve’s skin as he comes to realize the full impact of what he is doing to another small town like the one in which he was raised.

When an unexpected environmental activist shows up to tell the town about all the dangers inherent in fracking, Steve is unnerved to the point of blowing the assignment. His partner has no such scruples, and is willing to continue in their efforts to deceive the town.

What happens next is unexpected and revealing. It puts a fine edge on the growing debate about fracking and what it means to the people who live in the areas affected. This is an important film to see as it tackles the issue in a way that is more revealing than just watching the news.

Very well written and directed, this film may not change your mind, but it will make you think about your opinion on fracking.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Daily News Lobby

This is the lobby of the old New York Daily News building at 220 E. 42nd Street in Manhattan. The globe revolved and was lit from beneath. The floor was made of marble in the form of a compass rose. The globe itself weighs almost 2 tons. The pit beneath it contains a mirror so that you can see Antarctica. Around the edge of the pit there is an inlaid floor which denotes the direction and distance to the major cities around the world. There are also a bunch of thermometers, barometers and wind speed indicators which held me captive as a boy.

The building was constructed between 1929 and 1930 in an L shape with a loading dock on one side. Being located on East 42nd Street, only minutes from Times Square, allowed the News to get its paper’s on the streets more quickly than her competitors. Remember, in the 1930’s there were over 20 daily newspapers in New York City.

220 East 42nd Street is stilled referred to today as the Daily News Building, although the paper relocated to 33rd Street in the 1990’s. But the lobby is still intact and the globe still spins continuously. By the way; when the building first opened it was noted that the globe was spinning the wrong way! It was corrected almost immediately. The globe makes a complete rotation in about 10 minutes; which is 144 times faster than the actual earth turns.

The lobby also boasted a news stand from which you could buy every major newspaper in the country, as well as the Paris edition of the Tribune. The walls held an abundance of clocks; each one telling the time in some other city; both in America and overseas. This was a place where a 12 year old boy could hang out and let his young imagination run wild. I know; I was that boy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Disorder In the House" Warren Zevon w/ Bruce Springsteen (2003)

Warren Zevon was one of the more unusual musicians to come out of the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s. His lyrics were always filled with imagery to dwell on. His music was sharp and stood out from much of the syrupy rock ballads which were so popular at the time. And, arriving as he did, on the back end of the disco craze, his songs were a soothing return to meaningful lyrics sung to a basic rock beat.

This song is from his last album, “The Wind”, which was released just after his death from cancer the same year. His destination with the end made him hyper aware of the limited time he had left in which to write and record, and also produced one of his finest albums. Bruce Springsteen plays guitar and adds his signature vocals to the track, making it even more special.

Here is a link to Mr. Zevon’s last appearance on the David Letterman Show in October 2002, where he discussed his terminal illness and how it affected his creativity in a positive way.

And here is another one showing Bruce Springsteen recording the solo for the record with Mr. Zevon;

"Disorder In The House" by  Warren Zevon & Jorge Calderón. 
From the album "The Wind" released in 2003.

Disorder in the house
The tub runneth over
Plaster's falling down in pieces by the couch of pain

Disorder in the house
Time to duck and cover
Helicopters hover over rough terrain

Disorder in the house
Reptile wisdom
Zombies on the lawn staggering around

Disorder in the house
There's a flaw in the system
And the fly in the ointment's gonna bring the whole thing down

The floodgates are open
We've let the demons loose
The big guns have spoken
And we've fallen for the ruse

Disorder in the house
It's a fate worse than fame
Even the Lhasa Apso seems to be ashamed

Disorder in the house
The doors are coming off the hinges
The earth will open and swallow up the real estate

I just got my paycheck
I'm gonna paint the whole town grey
Whether it's a night in Paris or a Fresno matinee

It's the home of the brave and the land of the free
Where the less you know the better off you'll be

Disorder in the house
All bets are off
I'm sprawled across the davenport of despair

Disorder in the house
I'll live with the tosses
And watch the sundown through the portiere

Disorder in the house
The tub runneth over
Plaster's falling down in pieces by the couch of pain

Disorder in the house
Time to duck and cover
Helicopters hover over rough terrain

Disorder in the house
Reptile wisdom
Zombies on the lawn staggering around

Disorder in the house
There's a flaw in the system
And the fly in the ointment's gonna bring the whole thing down

The floodgates are open
We've let the demons loose
The big guns have spoken
And we've fallen for the ruse

Disorder in the house
It's a fate worse than fame
Even the Lhasa Apso seems to be ashamed

Disorder in the house
The doors are coming off the hinges
The earth will open and swallow up the real estate

I just got my paycheck
I'm gonna paint the whole town grey
Whether it's a night in Paris or a Fresno matinee

It's the home of the brave and the land of the free
Where the less you know the better off you'll be

Disorder in the house
All bets are off
I'm sprawled across the davenport of despair

Disorder in the house
I'll live with the tosses
And watch the sundown through the portiere.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"An Idea Whose Time Has Come" by Todd S. Purdum (2014)

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 currently under fire by Conservatives, this book comes at a crucial time in our country. With a skillful hand author Todd S. Purdum takes a good look back at just how hard it was to get the legislation passed in the first place; and thereby exposing the risks to be run should we let it be overturned.

Think of a life; in which your legal rights as we know them today; were suddenly altered. What if local laws trumped federal laws whenever you left the Interstates? The W.C. Fields line from “My Little Chickadee” comes to mind. As he is being led off to his own hanging, our wayward hero is heard to cry “I’m new in town, where can I purchase a Book of the Rules?” This may seem absurd on its face, but it’s not too far from the reality which would set in should the Civil Rights Act ever be repealed.

At the time that the Act was made into law, there were sections of our country; not just in the South; where people of color, read that as non-white or “different”, could not obtain a hotel room for the night, or even sit in a restaurant to eat. The hotel maids that touched the sheets of the white patrons were black. The cooks in the restaurants were black. It was an absurd embarrassment. At the time we were engaged in a Cold War with the Soviets, and having a hard time claiming the moral high ground against a backdrop of racial discrimination.

The author draws upon the best writings, and writers, of the Civil Rights chroniclers and then adds to their perspectives of life “in the forefront” by taking a hard look at the people who were actually involved behind the scenes in the legislative process. (The bibliography of this book could serve as a syllabus for a complete course on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.)

After the Freedom Riders; after Selma; there was still no legal basis for an end to Jim Crow in the South until it was codified into law. This book is the story of that end of the Civil Rights struggle. With a colorful cast of characters; every bit as varied, and sometimes flawed; as their counterparts in the front lines were, this book will have you recalling all of the political figures you remember from the news growing up in the 1960’s.

There are President’s Kennedy and Johnson; both struggling against the winds of change to secure the rights of all Americans to vote. There are the Senators; ranging from Humphrey to Dirksen and Thurmond; with one of the longest filibusters in our history as the Senate belatedly comes together to pass a bi-partisan Civil Rights bill. There are enough characters in here to fill a novel; with the difference being that these people actually lived and changed lives in the bargain.

The real difference between this book and the many others concerning the Civil Rights Era is that this book concentrates on what was happening in Washington, D.C. at the time of the protests. While the protests may have been the catalyst for change; without new laws to back up those changes, there is no telling what the fate of the movement would have been. And the story of the wrangling, and the deal making that went into getting the bill passed is every bit as exciting; and at times infuriating; as the actual struggle on the ground was.

Mr. Purdum has taken all of the available information of the Civil Rights Struggle and  written a newer, more concise history of the Civil Rights Act; one which will be appreciated by readers who were not alive at the time these events occurred.

There are very important lessons to be learned from this book; the most important of which is just how hard it was to get this law passed in the first place. And that lesson calls to mind a very important question; why would anyone want to do away with the Civil Rights Act? Bear in mind that the next time this battle is waged it will be more about economics than color.