Archive for the OBITS Category

Just Carrie: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher by Lauren Milberger on #StarWars40th

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

 

Guest contributor Lauren Milberger’s previous pieces for Travalanche have included essays on Gracie Allen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today she observes the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars with this tribute to the recently-passed Carrie Fisher.

“I don’t want my life to imitate art. I want my life to be art.” — Carrie Fisher

The day after Carrie Fisher passed away in December, and for subsequent days afterward, letters still flooded the U.K. newspaper The Guardian where Fisher had an advice column. Not because these people had no idea the actor/writer had just died, but because they thought maybe in some way Fisher could still reach out to them, just as her character Princess Leia had reached out when she was in need: “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

After its premiere in 1977, Star Wars became a surprise hit that not only changed the way films were made and how we consume them, but went on to become a global phenomenon. Its creator George Lucas has even referred to it as a “religion,” and for many it holds a cult-like quality over their lives. And what may just be a film for some, has for millions become a beacon of joy passed down from generation to generation. For most, Carrie Fisher’s likeness as Princess Leia has been in their lives since childhood or early adulthood. Whether the film was the glue that brought their family together or solace for them in bad times, Carrie Fisher’s status as a pop culture icon is one draped in the nostalgia of youth, a line ofdemarcation between childhood .and adult responsibility. I have to digress for a moment and admit that I began writing this essay the day after Carrie Fisher died; but when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away that same night, I just put it away. This is in fact my third, as they say in show business, “pass” writing about Carrie Fisher since her passing. For many, 2016 was a hard year personally and creatively, one which included the loss of so many great artists who had touched our lives. Carrie Fisher was no different but her connection to our childhood as a symbol of, well, hope, gave the end of 2016 even more of a sting. I ended 2016 with a scratched cornea, meaning the year had both figuratively and literally broken me. But I see now that my writer’s block was in fact caused by how hard it was to write about Carrie Fisher in the past tense – so much of her life was lived in the vibrant, take-no-prisoners, present. Because Carrie Fisher to me, and to millions, was more than a pop culture princess. She was a wit, a mental health and addiction advocate, a script doctor, an advice giver, a raconteur … a bullshit barometer. (Not to mention Dog Lover and Coca-Cola connoisseur) Carrie was once asked who she would be without Princess Leia: “Just Carrie” she responded plainly. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate forty years of Star Wars without Carrie Fisher. But maybe the best way to celebrate this day is to remind people of her real impact beyond the stars. So in celebration today here is my new (and a little of the old) essay, I hope you enjoy it.

“You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

I was lucky enough to have met Carrie Fisher a few times and crossed paths (more on that later) with her on a few occasions over the last fifteen years (as a fan). For me, Carrie Fisher was an inspiration at a very formative time in my life, and is even more so now, after her passing. Now, I’m not talking about Star Wars. And listen, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with remembering Carrie Fisher for Star Wars – as our Princess Leia, and later, General Organa. Carrie herself knew (and repeated in interviews) that she knew that would always be the first– and probably the last – line in her obituary. As she said in public and in private to those who knew and worked with her (including actress Maria Thayer who recalled the same story on my podcast The Fordcast), Carrie Fisher’s impact as a strong female character set the mold – or at least the on-ramp – toward women in (what Carrie called) “all-boy fantasies.” Women who stood up for themselves and were able to take the blasters right out of the boy’s hands and save themselves. First impressions for children are important, as is equal representation, inspiring across the boards and sexes. In 2004, on the radio show Fresh Air, Carrie recounted how she had gone to her first fan convention and was shocked when a woman told her that Leia had inspired her to become a lawyer. What Leia was, and Carrie Fisher became,​ was a role model – embodying a visual example for men and women, girls and boys – of what a woman’s place in the world could be: working alongside the menfolk, not two steps behind. In the end, Carrie Fisher the person became an icon, as herself: a kickass woman who, like Leia, spoke up for her beliefs and demanded to be heard. For it was in real life that Carrie inspired people, especially women, not only for being outspoken, but also the notion of survival with a sense of humor. Yes, I spent many a day as a tiny tot watching Star Wars religiously, while simultaneously chewing on the tiny nose of her Empire Strikes Back action figure; but it was her words as a writer that I mentally chewed on, way past my teething stage. Look – the internet is lousy with far more qualified people than myself to talk about Star Wars, especially today of all days. I would just be another voice in the crowd, and I don’t need or like to do what has already been done. Carrie taught me that. After her death, I was warmed by how many journalists and social media users took the time to remember Carrie Fisher the writer, the wit and – if I can be so bold – the humorist. Not to mention acknowledging her as a voice for mental health and addiction who has inspired millions fighting their own personal battles, Star Wars was just the vehicle that brought her to us. The same way Leia fought her war of resistance against the Empire, Carrie was fighting her own wars with mental health and addiction, and in time helped others fight this same battle by example.

“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”

George Burns, a humorist in his own right, once said, “Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humorist. If you’re familiar enough with the work, comedy, and banter of Carrie Fisher, you know she possessed very little self-censorship when it came to letting an opportunity for a joke or pun pass her by – so much so that it was as if she had been a vaudeville comedian in a previous life. When asked where she got her personality, she replied, “Sears.” In fact, Carrie Fisher would be the first one to make a joke at the expense of her own death. In fact, she would want us all to laugh and make jokes. Yes, I think I would be paying Carrie Fisher the best possible tribute when I say she never left a hole – I mean, that she never left a void – go un- … okay, well maybe that isn’t appropriate for this medium … but Carrie would have loved the effort. Because what Carrie Fisher did was take ownership of her own narrative by making fun of it.

“I thought I would inaugurate a Bipolar Pride Day. You know, with floats and parades and stuff! On the floats we would get the depressives, and they wouldn’t even have to leave their beds – we’d just roll their beds out of their houses, and they could continue staring off miserably into space. And then, for the manics, we’d have the manic marching band, with manics laughing and talking and shopping and f*%#ing and making bad judgment calls.”

If Nora Ephron’s mantra was “everything is copy,” then Carrie Fisher’s might have been that “nothing is sacred” – or in her own words, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is just unacceptable.” Carrie weathered two marriages (she was actually married only once, but often called the father of her daughter her “second husband”), drug addiction issues, bipolar disorder, drug relapse, being committed, electroshock treatment, being left by her “second husband” for a man, her mother’s failed marriages (take a breath now and:), and her mother’s two husbands, who took all her mother’s money and left her bankrupt (and breathe again). However, Carrie found a way to comment and poke fun at every melodramatic moment of her life (“I am a spy in the house of me”); and, as absurd as it sounds, I am now half-expecting Carrie Fisher to comment on her own death, throwing out one of her one-liners on a talk show or in an emoji-riddled tweet (Most of her tweets, if you are unaware, were in need of a cartographer and a U.N. Translator). I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some letter in her will from Beyond. The. Grave. I mean, you can already trace Carrie Fisher’s life by her fiction (or roman a clefs) alone: Postcards From The Edge (rehab), Surrender To The Pink (first marriage), Delusions of Grandma (motherhood), and The Best Awful (institutionalization and release). There are her more recent memoirs detailing the in-between, as well, including the book and Broadway show Wishful Drinking, many of which echo lines and moments from of her aforementioned novels. You might say Carrie Fisher’s life was an open book (yes, I said it…); and, you know what, Carrie Fisher was fine with that. She said it helped her cope; and, just as importantly, it helped other people cope through her honesty. Since her death, stories of fans who spoke to Carrie at signings and conventions – and even in private twitter messages of advice about their shared troubles, have come out of the woodwork. She counseled, advised, and commiserated with people, not just by example as most celebrities do, but with the personal, imperfect precision of her candor. I say imperfect because what Carrie Fisher taught us was that perfect was overrated.

That even though she was born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of a movie star and a pop star, and starred in a global franchise as a Princess, that didn’t mean she was free of problems – far from it. “Say your weak things in a strong voice,” she would say, “I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.” She inspired many to take ownership and control of what might otherwise tear them down, and not just in brief fan encounters. Carrie Fisher was known to bring strangers and friends to stay in her guest house: those who needed a place to stay, addicts in recovery, even one woman she had just met at an AA meeting who was living in her car. Carrie once expressed that it gave her a sense of community, being open and honest about herself with people, even strangers. She felt that commenting on her own life in humorous ways helped her feel somehow outside of it all, looking down. This way of living life, of not feeling ashamed of one’s own weaknesses – of making sure life was funny – became a battle cry for many people, including myself. And although I personally don’t struggle with mental illness or addiction, she opened my mind up to a world I would have never been privy to. She had this effect not only on her fans, but on many people. The outpouring of remembrance on Twitter from people who had never met Carrie, or who only met her briefly, spoke of how she touched so many with an openness we normally don’t grant to strangers. Even Mark Hamill, her Star Wars co-star (Luke Skywalker) said the same about Carrie when he recalled their first meeting. Stories still pour into Twitter and Facebook about people who sat next to her at a charity event, or on an airplane. And the overall theme (except for maybe the guy who got drunk with her in first class) was that Carrie’s connection to people seemed to come from a genuine place. Sharon Horgan, the star and creator of Catastrophe (Carrie Fisher’s last filmed performance), said “Carrie Fisher was so real it was dangerous.”

“So it’s not what you’re given, it’s how you take it.”

My story with Carrie Fisher may be the least interesting. The first time I met Carrie Fisher was after I had just moved to New York and there were far more Barnes & Noble around than there are today. I attended a free signing for Carrie’s book, The Best Awful. It was a moment I had been waiting for since my mother took me as a young teen to the used book store in our home town and I bought a beat up copy of Surrender The Pink. Carrie, first of all, was funny, and that meant something to me at that age. I don’t remember when I first knew that, knew that she was funny – that she could spin words in the air the way my youthful mind dreamed up, in comic couplets and wry, irreverent phrases. All I know is that Carrie Fisher being funny was what led me to buy that first book, and later pay more attention far past a childhood fancy. And I knew long before I read her fiction, the above-mentioned quote, ​“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true…” resonated with a little dyslexic girl who was struggling. I had clung to that phrase as my own mantra. When I would come home from school, crying my eyes out from being bullied, there was that line telling me: “Have a sense of humor. Life is hard. You can get through this.” I would try to craft my own one-liners (e.g. “Majoring in acting in college is a high-priced degree in waitressing,” and “I’m Jewish, the other white meat!”) and practice my “talk show” banter. I wrote her quotations, among others, on my notebooks and brown paper-covered school books. I borrowed her other books from the library and never missed a talk show appearance. Any memories of Star Wars I had slowly faded away, replaced by Carrie Fisher The Writer. At this signing, not only had I brought her current book, but the aforementioned beat-up copy of Surrender The Pink. I was young and nervous, and sat in the back.

On every seat in the small room across from Lincoln Center, were papers with the rules of Barnes and Noble: no pictures (pictures in line that don’t stop the line are fine), and no signed memorabilia…books only! I saw two people holding Return Of The Jedi 8x10s (a young man and woman) sit down next to me, read the paper, and then leave. I was appalled. “How dare they!” At least stay and hear her read her amazing words. Carrie arrived and posed for pictures in a comedic way that suggested she found the whole idea absurd. After all, that was her persona: the child of a celebrity who saw it for what it was, in all its, well, absurdity. After Carrie read from her book, I made my way through the line until I was finally face-to-face with my hero. “You make me want to be a writer,” I blurted to her and then she smiled and said only one sentence to me. It confused me, so I gave her an odd look back, and just walked away. What had she said to me? Later, while recounting the story to a friend, I tried to remember. She had said something about…trying. I think…

My friend interrupted, “Did she say, ‘Do. There is no try?’”

“Yes,” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”

“That’s Yoda, Lauren. She spoke Yoda to you.”

The last time I had seen Empire Strikes Back was in high school and it wasn’t like I hadn’t had all the Han Solo and Princess Leia scenes memorized; but, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me she would speak Star Wars to me. I wasn’t there for Star Wars. And my friend and I both just laughed our faces off.

‘There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”

I’ve often said being dyslexic is like having a buffet not of your choosing and everyone’s plate is different. Carrie Fisher grew up with a love of books and words, and so did I – only that part of my life was a tragic romance. And today, her frankness still resonates with me – especially after, three years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease … ”Say your weak things in a loud voice.” This is the first time I have admitted publicly to what has been a four year struggle with my health. And even now, saying this in print is scary. Here’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: she was still sensitive and vulnerable and filled with self-doubt like all of us are – and this isn’t a guess, this is based on her own words and her Twitter feed. Up to her death she was still fighting against Hollywood’s and society’s age and beauty restrictions on women: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.” Or in a lighter mode, at Montreal’s Just for Laugh’s Festival 2016, “Can everybody see me okay? I have to double check because I’m from Hollywood, and ya know, women my age tend to be invisible there.”

Her last book, The Princess Diarist, published only a month before her death, contained Fisher’s personal diaries from when she was nineteen and filming Star Wars in 1978. It was raw, unedited and unflinching, and showed – at least to ​me – a young women I recognized as once having been ​in my life, and one I think many women could relate to. It also showed how far Carrie Fisher had grown emotionally. What many creators of current heroic female characters in pop culture seem to forget is that strength in a woman (or any human) isn’t about how strong she is physically, or how little emotion she expresses; it’s that vulnerability is its own form of strength. “Be afraid. But do it anyway,” was how Carrie Fisher said it. That’s bravery.

“I have problems; my problems don’t have me.”

What I think may be most important thing about the last years of Carrie Fisher’s life is that, unlike her Fresh Air interview in 2004, she now understood not only what Star Wars meant to people, but also what she had meant to people. There is a moment in HBO’s Bright Lights, the documentary about her and her mother (most likely filmed in 2014), in which Carrie tells the camera that she believes her fans look up to Leia and not her. Yet with all the stories of people’s interactions with Carrie, sharing their stories with her, of how she had helped them with their depression, anxiety, and so on, I can’t imagine that, by the end of those two years, she didn’t see how they loved her, just Carrie. She looked people in the eyes, made sure they got a picture (even when they weren’t allowed to), held hands, and often hugged people as soon as they started crying. She showered them with actual glitter, because everyone deserves a little glitter in their life. Some might say she faked this for the money. Carrie herself even comically called them “lap dances” but at least from the outside it looked like the resurgence of Star Wars had helped her understand her own appeal. ​Through the release of The Force Awakens I found myself being reminded of my love of Star Wars and my first introduction to Carrie. I had forgotten what it had meant to me. I started co-hosting a Harrison Ford podcast and now, if someone quotes Yoda to me, I know it. Because of that podcast, I was lucky enough to attend the Catastrophe TV panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and the premiere of Bright Lights at the NY Film Festival with Carrie (Debbie actually called and sang to us over the phone). It even seemed odd to me at the time, but in 2016 I crossed paths with Carrie Fisher about four times. The last time I saw Fisher was a signing for The Princess Diarist, in NYC. If you’ve seen Bright Lights or read her Twitter feed, you’ll understand why I gave Carrie a package of Coca-Cola Lip Smackers, because it made me laugh and I thought it would make her laugh, too. It did. I also had the feeling I should give her a little note to tell her how she had helped me. The signing was November 22nd in New York City, and she collapsed on Dec 23rd, preparing to land in Los Angeles.

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

Meryl Streep’s posthumous quotation from Carrie at the Golden Globes this year, “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” seemed like the fitting epitaph to her life. And then about a month after Carrie’s passing, a Women’s March ​was held around the world. A feminist icon herself, Carrie was there, to my own surprise and delight. In posters and signs, shirts and slogans, the rabble-rouser Princess from the rebel base shone big and bright. Mixed in with the rebel princess signs were a few “Carrie Fisher sent me,” because send us she had. After Carrie Fisher passed away, her ashes were kept in a giant, vintage Prozac pill-shaped impromptu urn (a favorite item or hers). Not her idea, per se, but her spirit. So…we should all be so lucky be live life big enough to end up in a big, giant, porcelain Prozac pill. Carrie Fisher’s life, like the books she loved, now has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Carrie went from the Princess to the Jedi Master. She became Obi Wan Kenobi the teacher … or perhaps one of the letters sent to The Guardian sums it up best:

“Hi Carrie….I know you’re dead. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to respond to those who are sick and suffering, because come on, you were super-human in life – and in death you’ve become even more powerful.”

“Back then I was always looking ahead to who I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I

already was, and the wished-for me was most likely based on who other people seemed to be and

the desire to have the same effect on others that they had on me.”

Carrie Fisher — 1956-2016 

RIP Ringling Brothers, Part 2

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , on May 21, 2017 by travsd

Today, as we warned a few months ago, is the final performance ever of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus

The circus world will carry on. But RBBB was an institution, the only American arts organization I can think of that ranks with, say, Mount Rushmore, or the Statue of Liberty as an American monument. A living American monument. P.T. Barnum started presenting performers in 1835, when New York City was by our standards a village at the very bottom of Manhattan. There is no American theatre, and no American theatre artist or show biz performer who doesnt owe something to his enterprises. With my apologizes to my beloved Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, to have his name wink out on marquees, as well as those of James A. Bailey and the Ringling Bros, is a dark day for America, and the world. No Barnum, no Broadway and no Hollywood. Fuck you, Seth MacFarlane and Ricky Gervais, for cheering about it online. The RBBB wasn’t an entity reducible to a single policy (however badly that policy needed to be changed or revisited). It was the mother of American show business.

For my recent address on the state of the American circus go here.

Southern Comfort: R.I.P. Powers Boothe

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

When I was in my late teens, my buddies and I, fans of Walter Hill’s recent hit 48 Hours (1982), somehow stumbled upon his earlier not-such-a-hit Southern Comfort (1981). I’m thinking it was shown on cable, and/or had come out on video, but the upshot is I watched the film several times, and loved it. Action films per se aren’t usually my thing, mostly because the vast majority of them are so formulaic, and on top of that, as a general rule, I find onscreen violence for its own sake (fist fights, gun play, explosions) exceedingly boring without, at the very least, some sort of angle to make it interesting. Walter Hill ALWAYS brings such angles to the table. In fact, 48 Hours was a great example — it hybridized two different genres, comedy and the police thriller, in a way that ended up being extremely influential. It’s not Hill’s fault that now there are a million comedy-buddy-cop-movies. He can take pride in having created the template.

Southern Comfort has a million such angles: a Louisiana bayou location; exotic Cajun culture, a moody Ry Cooder soundtrack. And it has the only kind of macho hero I’m interested in: one who has palpable brains. Actors with this quality are rare enough that I can easily rattle off the ones I like: William Holden, George C. Scott, Tommy Lee Jones. With such heroes at the center of the picture, whether it’s present in the script or not, you can at least project some kind of higher battle onto whatever’s transpiring. It not just “man vs. man” but “man vs. society” (usually the dregs of society) in such pictures. For me, Powers Boothe had this quality, and in Southern Comfort, you don’t have to project it, Hill’s script is all about it.

The film is about a unit of Louisiana National Guardsmen who are sent out on maneuvers in the bayou, and, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and ineptitude, run afoul of local Cajun trappers…with fatal consequences. And so this is another reason the movie is a favorite of mine: one of my favorite story structures is the “And Then There Were None” scenario. We meet a diverse group of people who are thrust together for whatever reason,  and then, just as we are getting to know and like them, one of by one, a malevolent force picks them off.  The formula is generally used to good effect in disaster movies and war pictures. It’s also used in slasher movies, generally to much worse effect, because the whole concept hinges on character; if it’s poorly written and acted, the structure has no impact. In Southern Comfort, Hill not only wrote a riveting script, but put together a terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Boothe, it’s Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Alan Autry (billed as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, et al as the Guardsmen; Brion James stands out as one of the Cajuns.

For the most part the Guardsmen, stand-ins for the human race, are all idiots. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief — that a group of guys from Louisiana would be so ignorant of this cherished local culture, and so lacking in respect of people on their own home turf. By “respect” I don’t just mean manners, but also a healthy fear and wariness of those with superior skill. The Cajuns have lived in these parts for generations. They know every inch of the terrain, whereas the Guardsmen are hopelessly lost, the proverbial Babes in the Woods. The Cajuns live off the land as trappers. THEY LAY TRAPS. And the nearest law is very far away. But the Guardsmen provoke them needlessly, steal their boats, scare them with their machine guns (which only fire blanks, but the locals don’t know that). It seems very much a metaphor for Vietnam (and Hollywood hadn’t yet fully rolled out Vietnam as a genre. That would come during the second half of the decade.) It also anticipates by a decade some real life domestic run-ins like Ruby Ridge.

Aloof and above all these assholes are Boothe and Carradine, who manage to keep their wits about them and emerge from the ordeal with their hides intact. Boothe was an inspired choice, one not every producer or casting director would have been smart enough to make. At the time, he was best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Jim Jones in the CBS tv movie The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). He had been so good in that part, so creepy and chilling, it was hard to imagine he could ever be a hero in anything, let alone ever be anything but Jim Jones ever again. But, when we saw him in his many subsequent roles, a palpable decency came to seem one of his fundamental qualities. A strong, silent type with a thoughtful nature. (Although, with that dark brow, he could still play a villain, as in in his memorable turn as Curly Bill in 1993’s Tombstone).

At any rate, despite the many things I’ve seen him in over the years, Boothe’s role in Southern Comfort will always be the one I think of first. It’s not a part that required much emotional range or anything, his character is merely sensible and stoic, but I like what the character represents, and how Boothe inhabited that character, in an old fashioned Hollywood kind of way. He passed away yesterday at age 68, of what we are told were “natural causes”. (Not too natural, 68 is pretty young). He was always a welcome sight on screens big and small and will be missed by fans like me.

 

R.I.P. Jean Stein

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by travsd

It took surprisingly long for word to trickle down to me that Jean Stein has left us (she died April 30, The New York Times reported on it on May 2). It was an apparent suicide; she was 83 and depressed, and she appears to have leaped from her 15 floor Gracie Square apartment. That is a spectacular, melodramatic and flashy end for a famous person; I’m kind of shocked the world isn’t talking about it (but then I’m not so shocked. After all, we’re trying to keep from drowning at the moment. Today, my feeds are full of people trying to prevent the overturning of Obamacare; and planning protests about 45’s visit to NYC today).

I spoke to Stein on the phone once. I applied to be her personal assistant about 10 or 15 years ago. She graciously told me I was overqualified, which was no doubt true, but that’s never a consolation when you badly need a job. She no doubt wanted an intern-slave to do all the drudgery, with no backtalk and no questions asked. Still….ya know…Beckett was Joyce’s assistant. There’s something to be said for taking a turn at somebody’s feet.

Stein’s book Edie (about socialite-model-actress-trendsetter Edie Sedgwick) is on my shortlist of favorite books (along with Helter Skelter and A Night to Remember) which I have read numerous times and will without a doubt read many times again. It’s better described as a job of editing than a job of writing, but the story she and her collaborator George Plimpton tell in this case, is so ripping, riveting and richly eloquent about America, families, art, capitalism, sex, EVERYTHING, that you can’t put it down. Like those other books I mentioned, I tend to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which usually takes several hours…much like, I dunno, watching Warhol’s movie Empire, but if it were fascinating instead of excruciating. My wife is also a big fan; the copy in our home belongs to her.

I was much less enamored of Stein’s most recent book West of Eden, which came out last year. I couldn’t even finish it actually. Whereas Edie seemed the definitive, epic encapsulation of its subject, West of Eden (about Hollywood) seemed to work much harder for less effect, telling numerous somewhat interesting stories where a single story, told in greater depth would have been much more effective. It’s disappointing, because Stein was essentially Hollywood royalty. Her father, Jules Stein, founded MCA, that HUGE talent agency (to tie it into familiar subjects of this blog, Stein’s clients included Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Frank Sinatra). Jean’s own life was dazzling, as well. She was Elia Kazan’s assistant when he directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had an affair with William Faulkner. She was an editor at The Paris Review and at Grand Street. And she raised two highly accomplished daughters: Katrina vanden Heuvel has been the editor of the leftwing The Nation for many years; Wendy vanden Heuvel is an actress and teacher who worked with the likes of Joe Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski and is on the board of the 52nd Street Project. There’s a great interview with her here. 

So this wasn’t one of those deaths of a person torn from us too soon, a life unlived, of unfulfilled promise. Stein gave the world a lot. Still there is a poeticism about her sudden, horrifying departure. It’s just the sort of thing she would have loved to have written about. It’s just the kind of event one read about in her books.

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

R.I.P. Rich Conaty

Posted in OBITS, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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Well, I’m, very blue today to hear that Rich Conaty has passed. I’d heard that he was very sick, but I somehow missed the news that he’d left us. I’ll let my 2009 profile on him stand as my tribute.

I had the pleasure of Rich’s company many a time — got to ride shotgun as he hosted his influential WFUV radio show The Big Broadcast, and hung out with him at Vince Giordano’s gigs. In fact it was Rich who introduced me to Vince, back when he and the Nighthawks had their weekly engagement at a very funky old place in Chinatown. Rich was a generous guy and (it seemed to me) oddly lonely for someone so well known and loved. And I was always really perplexed and intrigued by the fact that he’d discovered that early big band music on his own; it wasn’t handed down to him by an elder practitioner. (I don’t know why it seems that weird to me; it parallels my relationship to vaudeville). At any rate, I find I’m beginning to eulogize him and I doubt I will top my previous appreciation so here it is.  Bon Voyage, Rich — thanks for all the pleasant sounds.

Tribute to a Teacher

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, OBITS with tags on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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I learned this weekend the devastating news that a pivotal person in my life was near death. Even hearing that it was close in these raw, heartbreaking days was enough to double me over with grief. I cried myself to sleep at four in the afternoon. I just now got the news that she had passed — how perfect to hear it at the same time I learn the news about Betsy Devos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education. For my friend Lee Mania was a schoolteacher. She must have been so distraught at the developments of the past few weeks. I hate to even think of her witnessing the country we’re about to become. Her passing now is merciful.

Lee was my best friend’s mom, and she came into my life when I was about 11 or 12 years old, at a time in my life when she was the IDEAL person to have nearby. The way some kids sprout up like bean poles, or suddenly grow beards, or bulky biceps, I felt the thoughts in my head, the words on my tongue expand and multiply with terrifying, dizzying swiftness. And with my home life I could have gone in so many ways — I kid you not, I could have been Timothy McVeigh. There was anger and violence and alcoholism and dark, dark discourse behind the walls of my own house. And there was real danger of my echoing it, perpetuating it. But I had a number of great teachers. Including Lee, who wasn’t my teacher, but taught me. To this day, I think of her as one of the most brilliant people I ever knew. She was incredibly articulate, erudite and funny. She bantered. And she talked to young people (she taught fifth grade) with the kind of respect most grown-ups reserve for other adults. She was the first adult in my life who seemed to sense who I was and knew how to talk to me, how to converse in such a way so to include ALL of me, and in so doing, she catalyzed my transformation into who I am right now. That’s not too strong to say.

Lee was kind and patient and the most rational person I had ever met. In fact, her parenting style was so calm, I didn’t even recognize it as such at first. They used to have this little Japanese car; I’d slam the lightweight door shut when I got in, adolescent fashion, and she’d say “You know, you really don’t have to slam that.” She must have had to say it 50 times before I understood that she was asking me not to do it. That was not how behavior got corrected in my house.

Her son Matt was my best friend from grades 7 through 12. When I was about 13 she brought the pair of us to the JFK Library up in Boston soon after it opened. A small thing for them, to have me along. For me, it was the sort of thing that changed my life. And so much that she valued, like her love of Bob Dylan, got transmitted to me by hanging out with her son.

Yeah, I’m an absolute fuckin’ wreck right now. But there’s something just kind of perfect about her leaving us just now. Just perfect. All I got at the moment besides sorrow is a world of gratitude and a determination to deserve the investment she made in me. Lee, you were a really, really good teacher.

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