Save Your Nostalgia


Cronkitenasa

 

There’s a Facebook meme out there about Walter Cronkite, reminding people that there used to be programs on TV where a grandfatherly character (white, non-Jewish) read news you could believe in. This is nostalgia for a time when roles were clearly defined. Yes, Walter was a professional journalist. He was paid a salary to do his job. He had a support staff.

Today we get the news from each other. It’s a vast rumor mill that shares and likes memes, photos, and fragments of text. There are a very few “content providers” who actually write their own material. Most of us simply share, copy and paste. Some link to legitimate news sources, but most of us would rather argue with each other than cough up a subscription to the Times.

Remember, the same people who gave us the Vietnam war and the Invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan were complicit with the networks. I never saw Walter Cronkite interview Noam Chomsky. It was a square world back then, and we brought democracy to the rest of the world one bomb and a time. We dropped so many bombs on Laos over ten years that it surpassed the total explosives used in World War II. It averaged out to one B-52 planeload of bombs every 8 minutes. I don’t remember CBS news reporting that when it was happening.

Today, even though I live on the other side of the globe, I subscribe to the New Yorker. They send me my magazines, albeit a week or two late. It’s a lot smaller than I remember it, as it’s continually shrunk over the fifty years I’ve subscribed. Now I have to use reading glasses and sometimes a magnifying glass to read the small type font. I have to use a bright reading lamp. Still, it takes me four hours to read an entire magazine. There’s real substance there. And no, it doesn’t make me want to return to the States.

Advertisements

These Foolish Things


10849025_975592789146517_5790460190847926730_o

 

Martin Luther wrote this to a friend in 1530: “Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”

 

As a boy on New Year’s Eve 1912, nine year-old Louis Armstrong snuck into his mother’s bedroom and borrowed a pistol from the pocket of one of her customers. His mother was a prostitute, his father had abandoned the family, and they lived in a rooming house in the Red Light district. Armstrong fired the gun at midnight to celebrate the New Year, but lucky for all of us a policeman happened to be standing nearby and arrested young Louis. A judge sent him to the Colored Waif’s Home. On the way there the driver said “Don’t look so sad, son. This is a good place. We have a band. What instrument would you like to play?” Armstrong’s eyes brightened. “The drums!” he said. “Well, we’ve already got plenty of drummers, but we need someone to play the bugle when we raise and lower the flag. You think that might interest you?”

 

Within a few years Louis Armstrong was playing trumpet in New Orleans brothels He was in the right place at the right time for it was there and then that Jazz pretty much took shape. He is certainly the person most responsible for its popularity across the globe. Bing Crosby, who was the most popular singer of the day said that he thought Armstrong was the best singer alive.

 

Billie Holiday sang like Armstrong played the trumpet. Jimi Hendrix said he wanted to play the guitar the way Little Richard used his voice.

 

In 1955 in New Orleans, Little Richard pretty much single-handedly invented Rock and Roll in much the same kind of way Armstrong had forty years earlier. His first big hit was a sanitized version of a dirty song he had been singing for years to entertain the kind of people he hung out with, prostitutes, drug dealers, and petty criminals.

 

Until he sang at a high school talent show, nobody at Hume High noticed Elvis. Before his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the Hillbilly Cat had been driving a truck. Elvis told interviewers that his singing idol was Dean Martin. Dino had obviously modeled much of his style on the crooning of Bing.

 

The real mystery is where did Bing come from?

 

Bing was not born in a brothel in New Orleans, but to an Irish working class family in Spokane, Washington. He was well-educated and briefly attended law school before deciding to drop out and become a musician. He played the drums pretty well, but his crooning and his intelligent use of the newly developed microphone was what set his apart from his peers.

 

Within a few months of arriving in Los Angeles he was the talk of the town. He easily transitioned from microphone to motion picture camera, and led the way for Sinatra and Presley to do the same. Even though modern day listeners think of him as a square, Bing thought of himself as a proto-hipster.

 

In retrospect, all these developments seem unlikely. Culture and new ideas leap in unpredictable spasms.Until Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, Bing Crosby’s Christmas album was the highest selling album in history. Quincy Jones produced Thriller and it turns out he and Ray Charles had been roommates in Seattle, after the blind pianist arrived after getting as far away from Florida as he could by Greyhound Bus.

 

Decca records rejected the Beatles, deciding they had little to offer. George Martin proved otherwise. Aretha Franklin really took off artistically when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records understood and appreciated the real depth of her talent. Otis Redding was working as a chauffeur when he wrote and recorded “Respect.”  Two years later Aretha had the mega hit, but Otis did it proud, as well. Marvin Gaye was a session drummer at Motown in Detroit when one day he filled in for an absent singer.

 

There’s a line in the Bible, “God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”  Even if you don’t believe in God or the Bible, you’ve got to admit that the delightful surprises Fate unleashes as it twists and writhes its way through Space and Time give us cause for hope. Nobody has any idea of what’s really going on. We might as well expect to be pleasantly surprised.

 

NOTHING STOPPING ME


DSC_6101

the author thinking about nothing

It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.

At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

 

 

THE DESIRE FOR CELEBRITY


color garden

 

I taught for many years, mostly at the University level, but most recently I taught high school students in Paraguay. Since this was an English conversation class, I was attempting to get them to talk about anything, rather than to just listen to me talk at them. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.

 

All of them said “famous.” Some wanted to be movie stars. I thought that odd, because in humble Paraguay we were far removed from Hollywood or any important cultural center.  When celebrity culture grew like a malignancy back in the eighties, I thought this would be temporary, but almost forty years later its spread to infect most of the organism. Maybe social media and smartphone use has something to do with it, but the desire to stand out from the crowd by becoming famous is now thought of as admirable. It’s a legitimate goal for anyone who can afford to take the plunge.

 

Wanting to be famous is the desire to be loved by strangers. Based on the values we ostensibly hold and attempt to teach our children, this seems an odd goal to set for oneself.

 

In Paraguay, almost no one I met had ever been anywhere else. The super-rich visited Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, and then went shopping in fancy malls. Often fifteen-year old girls would go in a group, chaperoned by a rich aunt. I suppose it’s normal for teenagers to be impressed by celebrities, and to want to be more like them, but it seems from the perspective of this retired American as if the whole world has become a shallow teenager.

 

When I taught in Thailand, I was teaching classes in performance for broadcasting at the University level. The students there all hoped to become celebrities. Thailand doesn’t have much a movie industry, but they crank out lots of daytime dramas to air on television. Nobody pays them much mind. They don’t want to be Thai TV stars, they want to be International movie stars.

 

Even though their English language abilities were often minimal, many of my students were very cute. In Thailand, boys and girls both aspire to the same level of cuteness. Even though Hello Kitty was invented in Japan, it seems to have found a permanent home in Thailand, where cuteness at all costs is the national motto.

 

Cute and sexy aren’t the same thing. In fact, they’re almost opposites. If your path to being famous depends on being super-cute or super-sexy, you’re in trouble, because there are more people on that road than it can handle. Time is of the essence, and it’s always running out. Better get there at just the right time and don’t dawdle!

 

Maybe someday young people all over the world will snap out of it and decide that their goal is to be kind, to develop charity in whatever situation they find themselves, to learn diligence and patience, but most of all to see service towards others as a lofty goal all in itself. Screw being famous.

 

Maybe they will realize that the desire to be loved by strangers is an artifact of a sick culture based on voyeurism.

Touched by a Stooge, Real Life Encounters with the Howard Brothers


images (1)

Kids growing up in the fifties and sixties in America often saw the Three Stooges on  their local TV channels.  The two-reel short subjects that had been cranked out by Columbia pictures from the thirties to the early forties were now fodder for cheap programming, and by virtue of the fact that anything so numerous and cheap would be replayed continually meant that many of us who had memorized most of the Stooges shorts also saw our fill of Gene Autrey “Radio Ranch” serials, Flash Gordon and The Little Rascals.

But we knew the world of the Stooges better than our own backyards.  The films we saw were scarcely thirty years old at the time, which would make what we’re talking about the equivalent of today watching TV made in the late eighties.  Something like the Power Rangers.

Most kids get up earlier than do their parents, and at least in cities, TV programming began at dawn. (Farm TV also began at dawn but was limited to a man stiffly reading the Livestock and Feed market prices, along with a brief weather report.  Then the TV channel left the air until evening)  As a child in a Chicago suburb, I would carry my bowl of Cheerios to the Silvertone to watch Industry on Parade newsreels, to hear mellifluous announcers narrate the saga of Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife, as ore became pot and pan which is turn helped a harried homemaker make dinner.  I would watch whatever was on. This included religious programs and armed forces recruitment films, endless re-runs of World War II footage and any other free programming the stations had to offer at that hour.  In the afternoon, after school, the fare was more kid-friendly, Bomba the Jungle Boy, early Tarzan movies, and of course, the Stooges.

Fifties kid-TV offered a puzzling pot-pourri, and stew that gave glimpses of a more ethnic America that one saw on Ed Sullivan or What’s My Line?  For me, the Stooges held the greatest mystery of all.  Why were these three Jewish men so poor and so mean to each other? I thought Jews had money and were funny, but these guys slept three to a bed, owned one suit of clothes each and were always looking for work for which they had no skill or training. Were they brothers?  Who was that woman who threw them out of bed in the morning?  Their mother or their land lady?

The TV became the parent in locis, and seemed to say every time he or she was flipped on (after fifteen seconds of warm up, first a dot, then a full screen) “Welcome kid, this is the world you were born into.  Good luck.  Looks kind of scary sometimes but it’s not that bad.  Could be worse.  You could be that kid in the iron lung on display at the State Fairgrounds, the one staring up through the little window while other kids walked by, some dropping a dime in the little bucket that hung at the head of the machine.

Besides, the Cuban missile crisis is just a few years in the future and we’ll probably all be incinerated by then.  So drink your Kool Aid and yukk it up with our good friend the Station Engineer, who is half-heartedly pretending to be a cowboy or a clown, and who is looking forward to that happy hour drink he always takes as soon as this kiddy show leaves the air.”