Saturday, July 17, 2010

Remembering Brooklyn native Barbara Stanwyck

Yesterday was the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most versatile, and perhaps influential, actresses of the past century. Born Ruby Catherine Stevens here in Brooklyn, she attended Erasmus Hall High School, and worked for a time at the telephone company before entering showbiz as a chorus girl in 1924. Four years later she went to Hollywood and began a career that lasted for nearly six decades. The film role for which she is perhaps best remembered is that of the villainous Phyllis Dietrichson, playing opposite Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity:

In the 1960s she played Victoria, matriarch of the Barkley clan in the TV western The Big Valley, and twenty years later was Constance "Conny" Colby Patterson in The Colbys. Over the course of her movie career, she was nominated for four Oscars, but never won. She received an honorary Academy Award for "superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting" in 1982. She died in 1990.

The Brooklyn roots of Chicago, and some Garden State rock: Smithereens and Southside Johnny

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've discovered in Eliot Wagner someone whose musical tastes are almost eerily similar to mine. One thing I especially like is that we have, from a rock critics' consensus point of view, the same lapses in judgment. Eliot has sent me several CDs of podcasts he's done over the past year or so, and on them I've found, among other things, some mostly critically despised oldies that I nevertheless love. Consider the clip above of the band Chicago doing "Twenty-five or Six to Four" live at Tanglewood in 1970. Chicago is one of those bands, like the Grateful Dead, that critics love to hate. For example, here's my late Bells of Hell drinking companion, Lester Bangs, dishing on their live album Chicago at Carnegie Hall (from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the posthumous anthology of Lester's writing edited by Greil Marcus; this review originally was published in Creem, February 1972):
In fact, I've only played [Chicago at Carnegie Hall] once since I got it, and never intend to play any of it again. ... Does it really matter that the songs sound exactly like they do on the studio albums except for being immeasurably more sodden and stuffed with long directionless solos? Or that the brass arrangements sound like Stan Kenton charts played backwards? Or that as technically competent as Chicago may be, there are just too many times when you can hear all the parts better than the whole?
I'm not enthusiastic about some of Chicago's stuff, especially Color My World (my taste in prom belly-rubbers runs more to the likes of My True Story by the Jive Five, or "Hearts of Stone" by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, about which more below), but I've found "Twenty-five" captivating since I first heard it during my third year of law school. I was surprised to learn that Robert Lamm, Chicago's keyboardist and vocalist, as well as the writer of "Twenty-five", "Saturday in the Park", and several other of their hits, grew up in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, New York, and began his musical training in the Grace Church youth choir, as did balladeer Harry Chapin.

For the next critically despised piece that Eliot and I both like, here's a band from Carteret, New Jersey:

Smithereens Behind the Wall of Sleep by Celtiemama (a commercial comes first).

Sometime in 1986, when my clock radio was tuned to WNEW-FM, then an AOR station, I was awakened by a group I'd never heard of, the Smithereens, doing a song called "Behind the Wall of Sleep", from behind which wall it abruptly transported me. I immediately liked the song, both for its balls-to-the-wall style and for its intriguing lyrical references: for example, to the swinging mod London that was a cynosure of my youth ("hair like Jeannie Shrimpton"), and to a hint of androgyny ("she stood just like Bill Wyman"). Critics complained that the Smithereens sounded too much like the Beatles or the Byrds (not a bad rap, in my view), though to me they sound like neither. They aren't as good as, say, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but they're good at what they do.

Thinking about the Smithereens led me to think of other Garden State rockers, and to depart from Eliot's play list (though I'm sure he'll approve of what follows). Two great rock acts emerged from the Jersey Shore in the early 1970s: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

"Southside Johnny" Lyon got his nickname from his early love of Chicago blues that he heard on a Newark radio station while growing up in the Jersey Shore town of Neptune. He later became a fan of Memphis style R&B, with its strong rhythmic base and horns accompanying guitars and keyboard. This provided the template for his band, the Asbury Jukes. In their R&B roots and use of horns, they were like the group Chicago; unlike Chicago, they were critically acclaimed but never a great commercial success. This may have been because they were overshadowed by Springsteen. There is not, and never has been, bad blood between Southside and The Boss. They have performed together and, perhaps most significantly, they have shared band members. "Miami Steve" Van Zandt and Max Weinberg have both performed with the Asbury Jukes, as has Patti Scialfa, who became Springsteen's wife. When the Jukes' third album, the 1978 Hearts of Stone, rated by Rolling Stone one of the top 100 albums of the 1970s and 80s (in my opinion it's one of the top ten rock albums of all time, and the only one I've loaded onto my iPod wholesale, as every track is magnificent), failed to sell as well as expected, CBS Records' Epic unit dropped them. Since then, Southside and the Jukes have soldiered on, with many personnel changes in the band. Perhaps the only constants have been saxophonists Stan Harrison and Ed Manion, and trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg. Springsteen's and Christina Black's article, "Lyon in Winter", from New Jersey Monthly, December 2007, reviews Southside's career post Hearts of Stone, noting his difficulty finding a new record deal because of his reluctance to do what the labels' A&R people wanted him to do. To free himself from such demands, he's now established his own label, Leroy Records, and has recently released a new album, Pills and Ammo, on that label.

The clip above, courtesy of handsatlanta, shows Southside and the Jukes doing the Springsteen-penned "Talk to Me" (originally released on Hearts of Stone) at Lake Como, New Jersey, as broadcast on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show in 2007. Southside manages to coax a lovely though reluctant harmony vocalist, wearing--God bless her--a pink Mets cap, to join him onstage. One of the Jukes is wearing a Mets jersey. You can see why I love this video. I figured Southside and the Jukes were Mets kind of guys.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010); Harvey Pekar (1939-2010); George Steinbrenner (1930-2010)

My wife, a good Episcopalian who believes in astrology, tarot, and ghosts, also believes that deaths always come in threes. The past several days have seen the deaths of three disparate but, for me, important men.

Tuli Kupferberg

What amazes me most about Tuli? That he became a rock star in his 40s (something I still fantasize about doing in my 60s)? That he was on the countercultural cutting edge through the hipster/beatnik/hippie/punk/grunge/hipster phases? That he could sing about swimming in a river of shit, then do another song the lyrics of which were a Blake poem? He and Ed Sanders named their group the Fugs, with inspiration from Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. In 1948, Rinehart and Company wouldn't publish a book that contained the word "fuck", and Mailer couldn't write dialogue among American soldiers in the Phillipines in World War Two without using that word liberally, so Mailer compromised with a misspelling. This led to Tallullah Bankhead's saying, upon meeting Mailer, "Oh, so you're the young man who can't spell 'fuck'."

The clip above, courtesy of tulifuli, is described in its accompanying notes as follows:
Some time in the mid or late 1990's, before it's [sic] release on the Fugs Final CD part 1, Tuli performed "Where is My Wandering Jew?" on Coca Crystal's Manhattan public access TV show, "If I Can't Dance You Can Keep Your Revolution." Charming hostess Coca introduces Tuli who introduces the song and explains some of the references. "The Wandering Jew is a figure from medieval Christian folklore whose legend began to spread in Europe in the thirteenth century. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer's indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate's estate."(Wikipedia)

Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar was a very neurotic guy who lived in Cleveland all his life, dropped out of college because math courses gave him too much anxiety, and, until his retirement at age 62, worked as a file clerk in a Veterans' Administration hospital. In the early 1960s, he became friends with R Crumb, who was then living in Cleveland and working as an illustrator for American Greetings. Crumb had just begun experimenting with drawing comics, and when Pekar gave him ideas for his own strip, Crumb drew them for him. Pekar's strip evolved into American Splendor, which was about the everyday adventures of a file clerk living in Cleveland who looked a lot like Harvey Pekar. His work has been compared to that of Chekov and Dostoyevsky.

George Steinbrenner

Anyone who's read this blog knows that I loathe the New York
Yankees. You might suppose that I also loathed their principal owner, one of two Americans commonly known simply as "The Boss". Actually, my opinion of him was complex. I inherited from my father a visceral dislike of people with "overinflated egos". However, I came to realize that without such people, life would be--let's face it--dull. The societal dough needs the gas given off by leavening to rise.

Years from now, I suspect, Steinbrenner will be remembered less for the seven championships his team won during his incumbency than as the man who destroyed the House that Ruth Built (see photo above). While I was fond of the old Yankee Stadium, if not of the team that made it home, I found some perspective in this piece by New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden, who lives near the Stadium, in an apartment allegedly once occupied by Babe Ruth.

Some words of Steinbrenner's that should be remembered (other than "Billy, you're fired!") were uttered thirty seven years ago, when he had just become the Yankees' principal owner. Asked by a journalist if he intended to get involved in the day-to-day management of the team, he said, "I'll stick to building ships."

Update: The American Bar Association Journal notes that, by dying in 2010, Steinbrenner may have saved his heirs about $600 million.

Today's Times has a fond reminiscence of a dashing young Steinbrenner by a high school girlfriend.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mets avoid sweep.

Yeah, it's kinda like "Unemployment rate stays below 10%." I take my comfort where I can. There are some nice things to say about this game. Santana got run support and a win, bringing his ERA below three. Rodriguez got a three-up, three-down save. Pagan went three for five. There were no errors. Bottom line: the Mets are still in contention (OK, they'd be in contention even if they lost, but they'd be six games behind instead of four, and their ability to beat the present division leader would seem, to say the least, very doubtful).

Funny, but when Reyes was hurt yesterday, I thought the Mets would probably win today. I know memory can be tricky, but it seems they usually win the first game after an injury to a starting player. I suppose it's because everyone else on the team feels the need to play better to make up for the loss. Has anyone done a statistical analysis of this?