John Roberts, he of the supercilious drug-store cowboy smirk, has reassured Americans that this is a different country from the United States of 1965.
In those bad old days we had George Wallace and Ross Barnett and Bull Connor standing in front of universities and bridges and other public places to represent their side.
Now we have Mitch McConnell blinking in the glare and doing that lisping thing he does when he is being evasive and using the new mantra of the latter-day Wallaces: The country is different now. Count on hearing that a lot.
To quote another worthy, Clarence Thomas, now it’s done high-tech.
Now it’s done state-by-state by demanding more identification from the marginal and the mobile. Show us your papers, please. Watching the lines at the last election, gee, always in the poorer neighborhoods, was a throwback to the back of the bus. Now the Supreme Court has voiced its approval, with the chief justice saying “Our country has changed.”
In some ways, yes, it has. There were the two victories for gay rights on Wednesday. And when I turn on the television, I find prophetic voices like Melissa Harris-Perry and Joy Reid on MSNBC and two of the finest members of the House, Elijah Cummings of Maryland and John Lewis of Georgia.
Lewis said the Tuesday decision was a “dagger” in the heart of a movement. He has the right to speak of violence, after being beaten nearly to death on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The struggle has been like a flame, leaving John Lewis strong and pure, a living testimony to better selves. He looked stricken the other night. The police beat him in 1965. Now in this different country, it’s done by lawyers and election officials, state by state.
I’m glad I stood next to James Gandolfini for five minutes after a Nets’ game a few years ago, to ascertain for myself that he was not Tony Soprano, not really. He had the wariness, the watchfulness, of an artist, not a gangster.
Gandolfini and his cast mates and the great David Chase made me commit to that show. I had not watched any series since M*A*S*H ended, but I planned my Sunday evenings around the Sopranos. (Driving through Hazard, Ky., a decade ago, asking motel managers if the rooms had HBO.)
I do a riff on why Tony is my role model – I’m sure my wife is quite sick of it. He is modern man. He loves his wife, loves his kids, has a large family and takes his work seriously. (I then launch into the part of the riff about a hot psychiatrist and a hot car saleswoman and an intriguing one-legged Russian home aide -- who dumps him!)
By the weirdest of Chasian ironies, Svetlana was a point of reference in The New York Times on the same day Gandolfini’s photo was on the front page for the worst possible reason. A letter to the editor about electronic surveillance and liberty quoted Svetlana as an admirer of America.
Tony made me worry about his health. Glimpses of him in those déclassé sleeveless undershirts or in bed or at the pool made me worry that he was having too many meals with too many associates – all that cheese, all that pasta, all that meat, all those desserts. Basta gia, enough already.
Were there too many rehearsals around those tables? Did Artie send over too many antipasti? All I knew was that I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them, the people or the plates. David Chase and his associates found a universe full of amazing characters who moved from real life to the screen for that one role.
Robert Altman did the same thing, envisioning Jim Bouton, the pitcher, as a fugitive who needs to be whacked; finding musicians I had met in the bars and corridors of Music City and putting them in his movie Nashville, and casting Virginia Madsen as a stunning red-headed angel of death, and getting Lindsay Lohan to perform what I fear will be the high point of her acting career in Prairie Home Companion.
Chase and his people did the same thing with musicians and civilians – put them in a series with Tony Soprano. He exposed Tony’s demons early – witnessing his father cutting off a finger of a deli operator who has not paid his debts. Tony’s childhood anxieties have lasted, linking the finger and the spicy ham, capicola, pronounced gabagool in the Neapolitan dialect. In the series, when Gandolfini referred to his terrors, he would say, “You know, you know, the gabagool.” After that, there really is no point watching anything else, ever.
I sometimes saw James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano and I imagined a season ending in which Tony would gather up his family and go to Boca Raton and enter a witness protection program. I saw the potential for a limited form of remorse, the chance of living another life. That was my hope for my role model.
The last we saw of Tony Soprano, he was in a restaurant with his wife and son, about to have a meal. Then the screen faded black. Everybody has an interpretation. Mine is: Tony ordered spaghetti puttanesca and a couple of cannoli and lived a long and peaceful life, somehow. I wished nothing less for James Gandolfini. Addio, maestro.
James Agee is back, with a revived version of the work he did with Walker Evans in the American South during the Depression. His ear supplied the words and Evans’ eye supplied the photographs of stoic people trying to survive.
Here is another great collaboration I seek out at Father’s Day: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s adaptation of Agee, sung by Eleanor Steber at a concert in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10, 1958.
The song works for Mother’s Day but even more for Father’s Day, because the lyricism and discordance suggest what is coming soon. Agee’s father died in 1916, which was commemorated in Agee’s A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee’s death.
The song describes Agee’s family sitting outdoors, in a time before air conditioning and television. It begins:
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy….
I heard it first on WQXR-FM years ago, and bought the CD, Eleanor Steber in Concert, 1956-58. I later read that Steber was from Wheeling, West Virginia, and wondered if she would have felt any affinity for Knoxville, further down the Appalachian range.
The song reminds me of summer evenings in the 1940’s, when my family stayed outdoors, in our own back yard in the borough of Queens, to catch some slight breeze. I remember fireflies and the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio and my brothers and sisters and my parents.
This is where I usually lose it:
All my people are larger bodies than mine...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth…
When I play this song, I think of our parents, talking about books and politics and the old days, suggesting what is possible for us in our lives.
For those of us who know that our parents were good to us, this is a memory. For others, it may be an ideal, a hope.
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The concert above is from 1948, when the work made its debut. The pianist is Edwin Biltcliffe.
Jane Redmont’s web site has a wise tribute to the song, and includes the lyrics:
My childhood friend Alan Spiegel wrote a lovely biography and critique of Agee in 1998:
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.