My ode to Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker was followed by these photos from my good friend and master photographer John McDermott, long-time soccer presence, now riding the range (on his bicycle) in northern Italy.
John wrote: "One of my favorite assignments ever was to go to Colorado for a German magazine and shoot a story on contemporary cowboys. I had a great time, but ended up with a sore butt and back, not being used to riding a horse up and down steep trails. The deal with the cowboys was, “We'll give you a horse but then you need to help us with the cattle when we need you. So I got to play cowboy a little too."
John added: "The shoot took place at a ranch and in the mountains outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. The rodeo was the Cattleman’s Day event held annually in nearby Gunnison. One of the best assignments ever. The Germans were good for that. I did a lot of lengthy photo reportage assignments for Focus-on mega-churches in Texas, on the medical marijuana industry in California, on earthquake preparation in SF, on writer Isabel Allende and many others. They tended to give more space to good photography than most American magazines did. Of course, now most of the American magazines are either greatly diminished, online only, or just gone."
Well, cowboys are supposed to be gone, too, but John McDermott's photo essay -- and Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker -- prove that cowboys endure.
GV adds: Several people couldn't open the Thomas McGuane short story, so I took the liberty of downloading it here:
Suzyn Waldman speaks Bostonese.
Chris Russo speaks Rabid Canine.
Congratulations to both icons of the New York ear (and head, and heart) who have just been voted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Their endurance has demonstrated the power of the spoken (or sung) word, for people driving a car or working out or just lazing in a chair. Radio lives. And Suzyn Waldman and Chris Russo have endured for decades, from their early days on WFAN.
Waldman is the radio compañera of John Sterling, the long-time play-by-play mainstay of Yankee games. Sterling, bless his heart, provides shtick and nicknames and operatic exaggeration to back up his long career of calling games.
Suzyn Waldman (from Newton, Mass., and Simmons College; but you could hear that) had an earlier career in musicals – most notably playing Dulcinea in “Man of La Mancha.” Then she gravitated to talking about sports and was hired by WFAN.
Was she a novelty act? She blew up that stereotype by doing what the best reporters do, on any beat. She hung out. She asked questions. And she won the respect of players, managers, coaches and the informed beat writers.
From her time in the clubhouse, she knew what player was favoring a sore leg, or was in the doghouse, or had a weakness for a slider. The listener came to rely on her commentary, always politely but authoritatively following Sterling’s calls. Plus, she can follow the fickle bounces in distant corners of a stadium.
Yankee fans soon realized: Suzyn Waldman knows her stuff.
Not only that, but Waldman became such a moral force that she brokered a reunion between George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra, who rightfully harbored a grudge against The Boss for having fired him. Blessed are the peacemakers, like Suzyn Waldman.
Christopher Russo materialized as a sports reporter on the radio spectacle called “Imus in the Morning” – dominated by the equally brilliant and vicious Don Imus.
Your ear could not miss Russo’s babbling patter that resembled Daffy Duck in the cartoons.
When the station morphed into all-sports WFAN, he was paired with the opinionated Mike Francesa. (Imus called Francesa and Russo “Fatso and Froot Loops.”) In 1991, I wrote a column about Russo in which I unearthed his secret life: his mom came from England and was reportedly horrified by his diction; he had attended colleges in three different countries – England, Australia and the U.S., and before that he had attended a private school in New York State.
Away from the live microphone, I detected a pleasant, centered, educated and ambitious kid who had taken speech therapy and did not mind admitting it.
My headline (columnists got to write their own headlines in those days) was: “Mad Dog Is a Preppie.”
He and Francesa were wired, babbling about game strategies the night before or pending trades or players who had popped off; I will admit there were times when I needed to see if the odd couple could flush out an owner or a commissioner or an agent. Nobody wanted to be hectored by Mike and the Mad Dog.
It was compelling radio, in its way, as long as they lasted together. These days Russo is on Sirius. Sorry, a lot of new things like Sirius and podcasts are outer space to me. I’m a child of radio.
I can still remember Edward R. Murrow scaring the hell out of me with his war dispatches from London when I was 4 and 5, and when we managed to survive that war, I found Arthur Godfrey’s jovial variety shows and Red Barber’s erudite calls of the sainted Brooklyn Dodgers.
I discovered music on the radio – from Crosby and Sinatra to Aretha and Bob Marley and The Band and Dolly Parton, disk jockeys from the long-ago Jack Lacy on WINS-AM to William B. Williams on WNEW-AM (until I heard him destroying a vinyl record, live, on the air, by some new shaggy-haired kids from Liverpool.)
Radio: Garrison Keillor, NPR, Jonathan Schwartz and Peter Fornatale on WNEW-FM, the doomed classical station WNCN, and nowadays an upgraded WQXR-FM particularly Terrance McKnight from Morehouse, 7-11 PM weeknights, the eclectic John Schaefer on WNYC and the great interviewer Brian Lehrer, WNYC, both AM and FM.
Baseball? It was invented for the radio, or vice versa, never more than when the grubby forces of Major League Baseball condemn Mets or Yankee games to other networks.
Radio is a vibrant medium, all on its own – and Suzyn Waldman and Chris Russo are deservedly in the Radio Hall of Fame.
A 300-pound man is gliding down the river in a canoe.
His appearance, his shabby belongings stuffed into every corner, are straight from the last thousand homeless people you saw, under the bridge, on the subway bench.
But Dick Conant did it differently. He had the intellect and knowledge of the med-school applicant he once had been. He could paint. He carried hard-covered books in his canoe, and some days he just lazed by the river and read.
He also could read the river, could decipher the maps, could extract knowledge from other riverman (and more than a few riverwomen) he met on his missions along the Intracoastal.
People on the banks, people seeing him lug his jumbled belongings through the streets, stopped to talk to him, were stunned by his intellect, by his knowledge, and also by his tales of a girlfriend named Tracy waiting for him back there somewhere. People never forgot him.
America – free-falling into cruel anarchy these days – is built upon wanderers. It’s in our blood. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Jim. Daniel Boone and family making their way through the Cumberland Gap in 1769 as if it belonged to them instead of the natives. Lewis and Clark, ditto, toward the Northwest. John Ledyard’s canoe trip down the Connecticut River from New Hampshire – in 1773. The guy hitch-hiking on Route 66, singing to himself, a regular Chuck Berry.
Dick Conant struck a chord. Sometimes the people on the riverbank, meeting this strange hulk, ingesting hot sauce the way other people suck on a Tic-Tac, grew quiet, as if confronting some inner wanderer.
Hmmm, they thought. Hmmm.
That’s what Ben McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, thought a few yards from his home on the Hudson River, where the Dutch once encountered the Lenape. McGrath was fully nested, job, wife, growing family, but he was fascinated by this articulate and charismatic giant who secured his canoe near McGrath’s backyard. Hmmm.
In the interests of journalistic/literary curiosity, McGrath chatted him up, and vice versa. And when the big man pushed off, McGrath went with him, in a way. Dick Conant was canoeing downriver for perhaps the last big jaunt of his wandering days, and McGrath tried to stay in touch.
Then one day on a bad stretch of North Carolina river, the canoe turned up, but not the man.
An authority found McGrath's name scribbled on a river map and called him, and McGrath wrote a haunting piece for the New Yorker. He was now into it, big-time, collecting every name and phone number and e-mail address Conant had scribbled somewhere.
The only name and address missing was that of Tracy, the lost love Conant always said was waiting for him back in Montana, or somewhere.
Now, McGrath has written a touching book entitled “Riverman: An American Odyssey,” recently published by Alfred A. Knopf, including photos of Conant, and photos of a few of his paintings.
How did a college soccer player (Albany State) come to be most at home on rivers? McGrath writes about the large and complicated Conant family (he likes every Conant he meets) and all have their version of what happened to kid brother Dicky: too many drugs, too much booze, the late 60’s. (The book is worth it for the meeting at Woodstock between Dick Conant and Jimi Hendrix.)
There is a one-sentence allusion to the young boy's quick exodus from a church summer camp: inexplicably, McGrath lets it sit there for many chapters before another quick allusion or two as to why Dicky left that camp, and never seemed the same.
That human mystery aside, “Rivertown” is a touching ode to all river towns, most of them falling apart, a century past their prime, but inhabited by people still in touch with the water rushing past.
I’ve known rivers (see below): Hannibal, Mo., two visits in the late ‘50s: Louisville, Ky., when my young family rode our bikes alongside the Ohio; as a news reporter, accompanying ecologists on a canoe glide on the Youghiogheny, a tributary of the Monongahela; Uncle Harold Grundy’s cottage in Bath, Maine, a few steps from the Kennebec he had dredged before WW II -- I never appreciated river towns as much as I do now, via the mobile Conant.
McGrath solves no mysteries. He writes that Conant either sighted or imagined Tracy, a latter-day Dulcinea, an American Beatrice. Conant drank and danced gracefully in river-town bars, telling people how he was soon going soon to be with Tracy; women were charmed by his eloquent faithfulness; but he never got back. (Unless he’s there now.)
("Cathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
("I'm empty and aching and I don't know why." --- "America," Paul Simon.)
McGrath writes the book half expecting Conant to ring him from some river town and fill him in on the empty canoe, about his recent adventures.
The alternative is to slip onto the river in a suitable craft, just to see what’s out there.
From the classic poem by Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Gary Bartz has recorded his version: “I’ve Known Rivers.”
I. The iPod. I read the news the other day, oh, boy. Apple is discontinuing the legendary iPod – probably because the company created such a useful, durable machine that it is no longer profitable.
The iPod made it possible to store up 1,000 individual songs in a “pocket-size rectangle with a white face and polished steel frame weighed 6.5 ounces,” as the NYT wrote – with the operator able to file them in categories or playlists -- every person a DJ.
I will never forget when my kids gave me one, more than 20 years ago, and gave me some lessons until I got the knack of downloading from an Apple computer -- entire CDs.
I still remember New York’s valuable and eclectic John Schaefer on FM radio, playing an entire CD, “Casa,” songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, played by pianist and arranger Ryuichi Sakamoto, cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and singer Paula Morelenbaum, three talents uniting in Portuguese and English. I had it downloaded within days.
My “collection” ranges from Yo-Yo Ma’s vibrant “Silk Road Journey” to the gentle classical trio of “Butterworth, Parry, Bridge,” from the signature opener music from “The Sopranos” to Nina Simone singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
I have not added to the collection in a decade for two reasons – (a) I am totally out of current music, to (b) I don’t have much access to the Apple laptop that could catalogue an entire CD in a few minutes.
Best discovery: I was never a fan of the “Bee Gees” until I discovered that my go-to album for a brisk two-mile walk on the soft track at the high school is the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever” – an old guy thinking he’s John Travolta strutting under the El in Brooklyn or in the Saturday night disco.
The article in the NYT about the end of the iPod did not mention repairs/upgrades. I don’t trust companies so I will have to be gentle with the iPod…and all those songs.
II. Vinyl Lives! The other day WQXR played the classic version of “Peter and the Wolf” with kindly old Uncle Lennie (Bernstein, that is) narrating the Prokofiev score. My wife said, we used to have a “record” of it…50 years ago or so. I riffled around in my closet and found a couple of cardboard boxes filled with old records, including “Peter and the Wolf,” and put it on the Fisher turntable (circa 1975 – with Amazon still supplying a needle every decade or two.
My exploration of the Vinyl hoard led to two records that dated me back to the summer of 1982, the Barcelona regional of the World Cup. My journalist friend Alex Martinez Roig invited me out to dinner in a suburb of Barcelona – and introduced me to the music of Joan Manuel Serrat – a baritone philosopher/critic – and later Alex gave me an album.
That same week, I was alone on my birthday, and there were no games, so I bought a ticket to an open-air concert in a Barcelona park, by Maria del Mar Bonet, a Majorcan folk singer. She and her band gave a great show, and on the way out I asked a couple to recommend their favorite album of hers, and the next day I dropped into El Corte Inglés and bought it and schlepped it home in my luggage.
Since rummaging through my vinyl, I have played these two thoughtful Catalan artists, and through the magic of a Fisher turntable, I feel it is summer in Barcelona, and I am turning 43.
But in fact, it is 2022, and Serrat’s brief against the madness is as current as, well, of course, Russia invading Ukraine. (English translation here:)
III. Memories of Kate and Anna. The Thursday Times informed me that Martha Wainwright has written a memoir. Good grief, is she really 46? But the part that really got me was the NYT’s casual mention that Martha’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, “made 10 albums as part of a duo with her sister Anna before her death in 2010.”
Sacré bleu. That’s like saying the New York Knicks had a pretty decent team back in the early 1970s with people you might have heard of, named Frazier and Reed and Bradley and DeBusschere.
I’m sorry, but Anna and Kate McGarrigle (and sometimes their more homebound sister Jane) were “The McGarrigles,” a haunting sassy mixture of Irish and Quebecoise – who wrote bilingual songs about love and sex and politics and long sisterly walks in the snow.
My point about this talented tribe: beyond the talent of Kate’s former husband, Loudon Wainwright III, their son Rufus Wainwright, and their daughter Martha Wainwright (and never, ever, forget their talented Brooklyn-born band member, and philosophy professor, Chaim Tannenbaum) there were “The McGarrigles,” mostly Anna and Kate.
The Times article by Emily Gould makes Anna and Kate sound like footnotes to the present, but they were wonderful, and many, many thousands of us still miss them, badly.
* * *
I could recommend dozens of their songs, but for these purposes, I go with Kate pounding the piano and singing her dear heart out on “Stella By Artois," (ignore the youtube mis-spelling) about a love affair that lasted just about as long as their band’s trip “from France clear through to Galway.” I dare you not to shed a tear.
North Americans have come a long way with Brazil and music. When I was a kid, we had the movie,“The Road to Rio” with Crosby and Hope -- don’t bother – but in the early 1960s I first heard “Song of the Jet,” (Samba do Avião) a Tom Jobim song, sung by Tony Bennett, about a jet landing in Rio. Now we were getting somewhere.
In the same magnificent decade for music, we heard a version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” music by Antônio Carlos Jobim, in a collaboration by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and In the same decade, we got the bossa nova – Brazil ’66 – Sergio Mendes. About the same time, a skinny kid from Bahia captivated listeners and ticked off the authorities and lived to smirk about it.
I’ve been listening to Veloso for over a decade, partially because of my friends Altenir and Celia, but also for the music that flows so copiously, a veritable Amazon of Veloso -- love songs, political songs, tributes to indigenous people, their cultures disrupted by invaders from Europe.
On one of his CDs, there is a song called “Manhata,” in his reedy but purposeful voice, about “uma canoa,” as he describes a Lenape maiden piloting her canoe on one of the streams criss-crossing a certain island in North America. (The streams still exist in the basements of high-rise Manhattan. Surprise!)
About three minutes in, the peaceful gliding turns into a cacophonous stroll through modern “Manhata” – Blare of horns! Rattle of drums! That would make sense, since Veloso has often performed in the city and seems to find a higher level of ego and motivation in Bigtown.
In 2008, Veloso was the subject of a DVD, “Coração Vagabundo" (Wandering Heart) during his tour of Sao Paulo, Japan and Manhata – preening when pretty girls smiled on the street and cabbies honked their horns in recognition. His kind of town. (Blitzer informs us that Veloso keeps a flat in the East Village.)
As a writer and a fan, I am envious of the access Blitzer had with Veloso in Rio, and also with musicians I admire like David Byrne and Jacques Morelenbaum. Also, Blitzer’s article quivers with the presence of Tom Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil.
The article also takes us from the dictatorship that spared Veloso in the ‘60s to the current regime of Jair Bolsonaro, who considers it a good day when bulldozers take down dozens of acres of the rain forest.
But enough from me. Jonathan Blitzer writes the story so well. Perhaps you subscribe to the New Yorker, as I do, or perhaps you can call up a freebie from the website. Here is the link, and good luck:
Did I mention that Veloso also sings Cole Porter....and Michael Jackson (above) with a touch of Lennon/McCartney at the end ?
Also, for a great swath of contemporary Brazilian music, my friend Andrea Dunn plays two hours every Monday, from 1-3 PM, Eastern Time, on KDHX (88.1 FM) St. Louis https://kdhx.org/
Tom T Hall passed on Friday, He was a country songwriter who informed my work, telling stories about people. He observed every-day life, regular people, and made them real, with a large dollop of insight and sympathy and wit.
I read the lovely obituary in the Sunday NYT by Bill Friskics-Warren and I tried to remember when I first heard Tom T Hall.
I think it was after I had been one of the first reporters on the scene for the terrible mine explosion in Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. I came back many times, met a lot of survivors – “the widders,” as they say.
Turned out, Tom T. Hall was there soon after. He and a buddy drove a pickup from his home in Olive Hill, Ky., not far from the coal region, and he observed with a storyteller’s eye, including the sheriff and the undertaker whom I had met. Maybe he had read my stories, maybe not. Didn’t matter. He put it to music, got it perfect.
(The “pretty lady from the Grand Ole Opry” is Loretta Lynn, who had come off the road to play a charity concert in Louisville in 1971, for the survivors. That’s how I got to know Loretta, and later helped her write her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”)
In the next years, I collected cassettes of Tom T Hall’s best albums and songs and would play them as I drove around Appalachia. .
Some of his best songs were about lost or unrequited love:
“Tulsa Telephone Book” --
Readin' that Tulsa telephone book, can drive a guy insane
Especially if that girl you're lookin' for has no last name.
“The Little Lady Preacher” --
(A picker remembers the gospel singer he backed up every Sunday morning: “She’d punctuate the prophecies with movements of her hips.”)
We never met, but I took my young family to see him in New York in the mid-70s. I learned that he had settled in the lush outskirts of Nashville with his wife, Miss Dixie, herself a fixture in Music City, who passed a few years back.
I owe Tom T Hall a great debt because he helped me recognize the best parts of people, as flawed as we all are. Only he put it to music and he sang it.
In honor of Tom T Hall – a requiem for the older friend who taught him to pick, and other stuff.
What is still there, within silent, impassive elders?
How can they be reached, revived, made happier?
This video suggests something more can be done, with mind, with balance.
It comes from Australia, from the ABC Science outlet, and it shows elders, people suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other debilitating conditions, responding to the universal blessing – music – and its partner, dance.
* * *
At this point, you might prefer to just watch.
* * *
But let me add this: I was hooked in the first few minutes because the video reminds me of my mother’s last months in the very nice Chapin Home in Jamaica, Queens.
She had suffered a stroke plus other indignities of old age, and she rarely spoke.
Sometimes my wife would pop in with CDs of operas we knew my mother loved -- “La Boheme” or “Madame Butterfly”-- and my mother would smile with recognition.
She did not burst into song or try to dance to “Musetta’s Waltz” but she surely perked up. A few times she even spoke my wife’s name.
Some of the other residents would migrate to the room, and listen to the music, which brought smiles and nods and humming memories of the past.
In this video, the Australian network delves into the science and the mysteries of the impact of music, but there is so much more to be learned. My wife, who knows more than I do about the science of the brain, asks if, by watching these transformations, couldn’t therapists use the power of music, the muscle memory of youth, to enable daily physical and mental action?
* * *
I can tell you this: my kids and grandkids could dig up the music that stirs me, right from my vintage iPod with the click wheel.
My thanks to Bruce-from-Canada, for calling my attention to the Australian science video.
There are people out there, breathing a killer virus at you.
There is also a ton of snow on the ground where I live.
My suggestion: try tuning out the Lame-Duck Orange Sicko for a day.
I did it over the weekend. Good Stuff on everywhere. .
I started with a link from a friend known as The Cork Lady. (Ireland, that is.) She and her husband sent me a link to a concert via the shut-down Metropolitan Opera -- Bryn Terfel with a holiday concert from his native Wales.
What a wonderful surprise: the concert (with no audience) was in the Brecon Cathedral – a place we know and love, in the highlands above Cardiff, The vivid stained-glass brought back memories of a beautiful summer evening, still light outside, our friend and host Alastair (like all Welsh men) singing in a chorus.
While Terfel and a talented cast took turns, my mind drifted to Brecon in long-ago summers --sheep being marshalled by border collies, the jolly sound of tourists on canal boats from the nearby Usk River, trips to upscale pubs along the canal, and Alastair going to Brecon market to buy lava bread (pungent, allegedly edible seaweed from the coast.) Not exactly Christmas memories, but lovely memories nonetheless.
At 5 PM, another link – this one via the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn, my friend from his days as a zone-busting shooter for Hofstra College. No. 20 was known as Radar on a 23-1 team.
Radar writes as he shot – smoothly -- his latest book, Pagan Virtues, just out.
Stephen’s poetic aim is still perfect but his voice does not permit him to read his own work these days. In a weekly web poetry reading, called LitBalm, some of his new work was read, and read well, by his friend Indran, while Stephen listened in one of the squares on the laptop grid. Keep lofting these jumpers, man.
At 9 PM, we turned on the local PBS station, Channel 13, with its Saturday-night feature -- a classic, or classy, movie (sometimes, inexplicably, displaced by drippy oldie concerts). But not Saturday.
Mercifully, there was the Trevor Nunn movie version of “Twelfth Night,” from 1996, Shakespeare’s gender-bender comedy, with a cinematic shipwreck and looming Cornwall hills and castles and Helen Bonham Carter falling in love with a saucy emissary with a highly dubious mustache draped across her kissable upper lip.
The cast, as in any English rendition of Shakespeare, was marvelous, but let me praise two: Nigel Hathaway as Malvolio, the resident mansion bully, and Ben Kingsley, for goodness’ sakes, as an omnipresent troubadour (with a really nice voice, his own; it turns out that Kingsley was once urged to pursue singing by his pal, John Lennon.)
(We recently saw a stage version of Twelfth Night via the marvelous National Theatre's at-home series, prompted by the pandemic. In that version, Malvolio is female, played by Tamsin Greig, and her comeuppance seems more cruel than Hawthorne’s.) During the final scene Saturday night, when everybody finally figured everything out, I had tears in my eyes. Good Shakespeare does that to me.
The antidote for tears came nine – count ‘em, nine – minutes later, on “Saturday Night Live,” the last new one for a month apparently. The host was Kristen Wiig, one of the all-timers, visiting her old haunts.
Her opening bit was singing the wintry standard “My Favorite Things,” and when she botched the lyrics, she was joined by another all-timer, Maya Rudolph, who also botched the lyrics, and was in turn joined by the current all-timer Kate McKinnon.
Regarding McKinnon: I am watching SNL more in my “retirement” than I ever did, and am totally enthralled with McKinnon
In the all-time web ratings of SNL females, I propose St. Gilda as first, and Tina Fey as second (those laser eyes, looking right at you), and McKinnon now ranks third, with me.
I love her versions of Rudy and Dr. Fauci and that fuzzy little attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and McKinnon also aces some dark-side female roles, throwing off heat in all directions. How Shakespearean.
That brings us to Sunday.
The far-flung family of Anna and the late Kate McGarrigle is staging a virtual reunion, Sunday, all over the world, apparently. It will be streaming (at a price) and available for two weeks, starting at 3 PM. The cast includes longtime backup Chaim Tannenbaum, third-sister Jane McGarrigle, and other staples of that wonderful time. I will catch it, and think of Kate.
* * *
Also, Nick and Teresa Troiano Masi (Terry and I worked on the paper at Jamaica High) have a grown daughter, Terri Dierkes, who is a cantor in a church in Connecticut, and a leading member of a lovely Christmas concert, which aired Sunday. Details at:
Finally, ongoing, for a season of great plays in our homes, the National Theatre is showing 12 filmed plays, for quite modest fees. We've seen about half in recent years. Wonderful stuff.
* * *
There’s a pandemic out there. Nasty weather all over.
Stay safe til the vaccines get here.
You can't watch The Dangerous Fool every second.
Ride it out. Stay safe. Happy Holidays to all.
Bad enough that epic ballplayers are passing. Now it’s Toots.
Our oldest, Laura, caught him two summers ago in Albany, the gateway to Almost Heaven, Adirondacks.
“Bucket list item for me,” Laura typed Sunday from Upstate, when we heard about the passing of Toots Hibbert, age 77, the lead singer of Toots and the Maytals, classic reggae group, which was around for, oh, forever.
I remember when I became aware of Toots. I was a regular listener on WNEW-FM, since it became the great pioneer rock station in 1967.
For years, Dave Herman had the morning drive-time show that ended at 10 AM. One morning he said he would have, live in the studio, the great Toots Hibbert. And kept telling us, as the final hour ticked away.
Finally, about 9:50 or so, Toots arrived in the studio. Only thing was, his mind and his voice had not yet arrived. Brother Dave tried to engage him on why he was in New York, where he was playing, plug his latest album, etc. etc., but Toots emitted only monosyllables.
About 9:58, Toots started talking…and talking….a deep-throated but lilting monologue, right up to the signoff music the universal signal that the station is about to move on to news weather, the next host.
Ultimately, click, the engineer cut Toots off, mid-sentence.
“I think I like this guy,” I said, and I went out and found his cassette (yes, it was that far back), “Funky Kingston,” with songs like “Pressure Drop” and ”Time Tough,” plus the adaptation of John Denver’s song, “Country Roads,” but in the Maytals’ version it becomes “Almost Heaven, West Jamaica.” I loved it, just as much as I love the ruined mountains of Appalachia, and I loved Toots from afar. Never saw him, but the cassette endured. Laura says she has replaced her copy two or three times.
Toots had a sound – I’ll let the pop music critics explain.
He wasn’t Bob Marley, whom I regard as musical divinity, but Toots’ earthly voice and rhythm told of joy and pain, good times and bad times. And made you want to move.
I never caught him live and never will, but Laura and Diane drove down to the Capitol Region in August of 2018 to catch Toots.
“Toots. Free concert. Diverse Albany crowd. Weather,” Laura messaged on Sunday morning as we commiserated.
The band had driven all the way from California and barely got there on time. The band played Toots in for a good 5-10 minutes before he finally walked on from the back. Then. It was ON. He was older and somewhat stiff but still totally commanding and powerful and totally adept at working the crowd.
I typed, “Got any photos?” and the cellphone quivered and hummed and buzzed.
She added: "One of the great nights out. Ever."
(The following ode to Iowa was written before all hell broke loose in the ramshackle "system" that was supposed to collate the Democratic caucus results Monday night. Even before the network failed to produce while the world was watching, visiting savants like Chris Matthews were questioning -- in front of the earnest citizens -- why Iowa got to hold the highly visible first "primary" scrimmage every four years. With these reasonable questions being raised, Iowa may lose its prominent spot. Shame. There ought to be a place for well-meaning Americana -- but maybe not with an ignorant and vicious wannabe dictator getting a free pass from his party enablers. Poor Iowa, caught up in the tumult. My original praise for Iowa and skepticism about a caucus:)
They are highly motivated, conscientious American citizens.
But what in the world are they doing?
Why don’t they just vote?
Then I remember, Iowa is different, or so they say.
I’ve been there three times and liked all three visits. (More in a bit.)
While trying to make sense of this caucus thing Monday evening, I remembered one of my favorite musicals – “The Music Man,” by Meredith Willson, that’s with two L’s, and don’t you forget it.
A con man (Robert Preston) gets off the train in River City, Iowa (Willson was from Mason City) and tries to chat up the townspeople, only to receive a bunch of double talk, some of it polite.
The result: “Iowa Stubborn.”
That charming character trait emerged Monday in snow-covered Iowa (or “I-oh-way,” as some of the denizens insist.)
“The caucus is like cricket,” I told my wife. (We once saw the great West Indies team play a tuneup in a Welsh country town.)
“Cricket is easier,” she said, meaning – bat, ball, tea.
This caucus thing determines who wins the delegates, who has the momentum, or maybe not.
It’s a portrait of Iowa. The Grant Wood painting, American Gothic.
I am affectionate about Iowa – after first noting that its populace does not at all resemble that of my home town of New York.
My first trip to Iowa was in 1973 when Charlotte Curtis, the great Family/Style editor of the Times (herself a Midwesterner), sent me out to Iowa to write about a boy, 18 or 19, who had just been elected mayor of a little town. (I cannot find the story in the electronic files.) It was such a nice visit, at this cold time of year, as I recall.
My second trip to Iowa was early in 1979 when Iowa was selected as one of the sites for the first American visit by Pope John Paul II, because of the huge farm preserve, judged a perfect site for the man from Cracow. After scouting out Des Moines, I had dinner with a couple who had met when he was posted to her town in the Altiplano of a South American country. We went to a Chinese restaurant, where they chatted with the staff in Spanish – a big Chinese contingent, emigrated via Latin America.
My third trip to Iowa was on a perfect autumn day in 1979 as the square-jawed Pope strode the plains, waving to a bunch of Lutherans. He was young and strong, looking like a former linebacker for the Iowa Hawkeyes. I edged closer to get a look – and got blind-sided by an American Secret Service guy.
When the Pope had moved on, I stood on the great plain and congratulated the nun who had facilitated the press visit. She was so happy that the day had turned out so beautifully that I could think of only one thing to do – I hugged the nun. That’s what I think about whenever I remember that day.
Oh, one other Iowa impression: Our daughter Laura decided to spend her junior year abroad and chose Iowa City. Every few weeks the phone would ring and a plaintive voice would say: "It's dark out here."
Now, every four years, the great journalists from my cable-network-of-choice wander all over that state and I thrill to every coffee klatsch and every barber shop. The journalists can explain “quid-pro-quo” and “impeachment” perfectly, but they cannot explain what those folks are doing on the first Monday in February.
(The aforementioned Laura watched caucus news from Iowa Monday night and texted us: "Nicolle and Rachel far better than Troy and Buck." Poor girl is having Super Bowl flashbacks.)
Maybe Meredith Willson could have explained the caucus, but he was more interested in the busy intersection of chicanery and romance, and bless his heart for that.
Back in the day, when sports columnists were a daily presence, my job description included having an opinion on the national college football championship.
Often, this entailed being in warm places on New Year’s Day, which is the best thing I can say about covering the loopy methods of judging teams with differing schedules playing in different bowl games. Bowl games got me to Pasadena or Miami. What can I say?
Now that I am retired, I pay no attention to any form of football. Instead, I am free to follow another highly imperfect ratings system, closer to my heart and ear – the annual vote for the best classical music, as conducted by the invaluable station emanating from my home town (and live on the Web) WQXR-FM, 105.9 on the dial.
The station has been conducting this poll since the mid-‘80s, asking listeners to rank their favorites. The results are played in the annual countdown in the last week of the year, generally reflecting the programming of the station – the old favorites, often presented one movement at a time.
During the countdown, the station also conducts a running blog (results not updated as quickly as listeners would like) including commentary from the faithful in distant states and foreign lands. Many of respondents are passionate about wanting" More variety! More medieval music! More Reich and Glass! More music by African-American composers! More music by women!
Plus, there is the rampant suspicion that some Gilbert & Sullivan supporters pack the ballot box, just like voters in some towns and states I could name.
And some listeners question whether Gilbert & Sullivan is actually classical music. I pass on that one.
My feeling is, the annual countdown reflects the tastes of people who support WQXR and live classical music in New York. More power to them.
Still: every year I make a small list of music I play at home, and I hope some of it will slip into the countdown. As my friend Vic Ziegel, who introduced me to the strange charm of the racetrack, used to say about the track announcer: “At least give my horse a call.”
In the past few couple of years, I have been trending toward chamber music at home because it is self-contained, providing a welcome alternative to the toxic earworms on the air waves.
--In an ugly time, I have become infatuated with Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” for its beauty and pace and dignity.
--I often choose “Butterworth/Parry/Bridge,” its three composers taking me back me to lazy summer days, visiting a friend in the Brecon Beacons of Wales.
-- I was rooting hard for something by Florence Price, the composer whose work is often championed by the wonderful Terrance McKnight on his evening gig, not just in Black History Month, either.
--Because we are blessed to have two good friends comprising half of the New Zealand String Quartet, we have their works by Bartok, among others.
-- But the work I was really hoping for was Sir William Walton’s Violin Concerto, performed by Kyung-Wha Chung. I still remember the first time I heard it: I was a news reporter in the late ‘70s, driving to meet some nuns in jeans and sweatshirts who did the Lord’s work in the South Bronx. But when this stunning piece appeared on my car radio, I sat and listened for the full half hour.
Alas, this beautiful piece is not easily found on vinyl or CD – and is not in the WQXR top 120, either. Not even, in racetrack parlance, a call.
The 2019 list does include many things I love, including a few pieces by Erik Satie, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and – No. 4 in the poll -- Dvorak’s “From the New World.” The older I get, the more I appreciate Dvorak, for his music and also for his love for two worlds, Bohemia and America.
I missed it live, but there on the list at No. 68 was a very modern already-classic, "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," by Karl Jenkins, first performed in 2000, which I heard for the first time in the past year.
However, the piece that really knocked me out was No. 109, Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat, Symphony of a Thousand,” by the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, with wonderful soloists and choruses. It made me stop what I was doing and just listen.
At the end, Beethoven placed six in the top 10. I have no quarrel with the selections because the voters care about “their” music. It’s up to us to seek out the music we love, and play it, and pay for it, early and often.
Happy New Year.
* * *
The current results:
Plus, check out the blog with informed and passionate comments by listeners: .
And for comparison, the two most recent results.
The first of December was covered with snow
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
---James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James”
Snowing again, this first of December.
This typist has little to say on this left-over Sunday. Over the holiday, I’ve been reading “Poems of New York,” selected by Elizabeth Schmidt, while my wife is reading “Underland,” by a philosopher-explorer, Robert MacFarland.
Thank goodness for writers.
Pete Hamill is writing a book from his home borough of Brooklyn. Pete is among the three great print troubadours of my home town – along with Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin. (Dan Barry would make a quartet, when he is in print.)
Hamill is not well, as documented by Alex Williams in the Sunday Times, but he is going to get his Brooklyn book done, he says.
Also gutting it out is the great film director, Michael Apted, who has just issued his latest documentary – and, he says, his last – in the seven-year cycle about English youths who grew older, the ones who were lucky.
I have a great debt to Michael Apted for putting Loretta Lynn’s story on the screen, after I helped her write her book, and Tom Rickman wrote a magnificent film script. I was afraid Hollywood would turn Loretta’s world into a segment of “Beverly Hillbillies,” but as Rickman told me about Hollywood: “Sometimes the good guys win.”
I got to thank Apted when the movie had its premiere in Nashville and then in Louisville. Invited along for the chartered bus ride up I-65, I asked Apted how he got the feel for Eastern Kentucky and he talked about his roots in England – not just London – and he said, “I am no stranger to the coal mines.”
Good luck with your new movie, sir.
Today belongs to talented people like James Taylor and Pete Hamill and Michael Apted. A friend recently gave me a couple of poetry books, one by Seamus Heaney, the other a collection about my home town.
I include a segment from Nikki Giovanni, about the sudden flashes of humanity you encounter just about anywhere in the city. This is about a blind woman, uptown.
You that Eyetalian poet ain’t you? I know yo voice.
I seen you on television
I peered closely into her eyes
You didn’t see me or you’d know I’m black.
Let me feel yo hair if you Black Hold down yo head
I did and she did
Got something for me, she laughed
You felt my hair that’s good luck
Good luck is money chile she said
Good luck is money.
-- From “The New Yorkers”
I’ll leave it there. Keep writing, Pete Hamill. I’m waiting on your Brooklyn book.
They changed their minds. A week ago, WNYC announced it was terminating its familiar "New Sounds" program with John Schaefer. On Monday, Goli Sheikholeslami, the new president and CEO of New York Public Radio, announced that "New Sounds" and Schaefer and the long-time producer, Caryn Havlik, will be remaining.
In a gracious statement, Sheikholeslami said, "A show like New Sounds can only be produced by public radio, and specifically at NYPR." She recently resigned from her arts job in Chicago to take the leadership of New York Public Radio.
Sheikholeslami's full statement on line can be read here:
The moral to the story is that sometimes new executives need to be reminded just what it is they are leading. Protesting is good, particularly in something as subjective as the arts. Donating (or not donating) also works. I am so happy for John Schaefer -- and for the eclectic audience of WNYC in the city that never sleeps.
Here is my original article last week:
I can’t remember where I was, but I definitely had the radio on, late one evening, listening to John Schaefer’s show, “New Sounds.”
You never know what you will get. Schaefer seemed to find music from cultures all over the world, and within the United States – odd instruments, string and reed and percussion, plus the human voice at all pitches, and he would bubble about them, with junior-high-school enthusiasm.
This night – he works best late in the evening – Schaefer introduced a trio performing the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim but with unique arrangements, a blend of classic and bossa nova, familiar songs, carefully crafted.
The album was “Casa,” performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto with his incisive, spare piano, and Jacques Morelenbaum, with his lush, sweeping cello, and vocalist Paula Morelenbaum, with her haunting Portuguese and charming almost lisping English. The songs were standards, from the basic Jobim playbook, but the interpretations were unique.
I think Schaefer informed us that the album was recorded on the piano of the late Tom Jobim – in Jobim’s lakeside house in Rio. From what I read, Sakamoto felt awe at his pilgrimage to the home of the master, and had to ease into touching the piano.
I was hooked, went out and bought the CD, which has become the most-played album on my iPod.
A classic. That’s what John Schaefer does. He finds new releases, some of them flirting with commercial, some of them delightfully obscure, destined for one-time hearing, but in the memory bank, somewhere.
A show like this would seem to have institutional permanence, particularly in polyglot multicultural New York. In fact, “New Sounds” lasted from 1982 until this week, when the new hatchet at WNYC announced that “New Sounds” is about to be disappeared. For what reason? They have a better replacement?
“Why would they do that?” Laurie Anderson asked Michael Cooper in the Times on Monday.
In the city that never sleeps, shouldn’t there remain a place for music you never heard before? Something that opens your mind and your ears?
“New Sounds?” What does the “NY” in WNYC stand for?
Thank you, John Schaefer, for the many years of “New Sounds” and please let your fans know about the next gig.
* * *
Bad news on the doorstep:
A review of "Casa" when it was new:
Johnny Cash and June Carter were making out on stage.
They were preparing for an awards show in Nashville, enduring the long waits that are part of any rehearsal. What better way to pass the time?
This was in the mid-‘70s, and they were already an old married couple, but they seemed like teen-agers falling in love.
My wife happened to catch the eye of Ann Murray, the great Canadian singer, who was sitting nearby in an empty row. They both raised their eyebrows – but affectionately -- as if to say, “Get a room.”
I was thinking of this Sunday night during the latest episode of “Country Music,” the ongoing series from Ken Burns. The documentary may be a bit pat about racial and class divides and too formulaic about the terrible stresses of the ‘60s, but Burns has captured some of the personal statements of hope and change.
Sunday’s two hours focused on the mid-‘60s, as a time of change, not only in country music but at lunch counters and marches in the South and campuses and towns all over America.
Country music’s changes included Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” banned for a while by some chicken radio stations, and Charlie Pride’s acceptance as a black star who sounded white. The series says that Loretta was the presenter for the top male award in country music, and was told to keep her distance if Pride were the winner. However, when they met on stage, she moved forward and gave him a hug and a kiss.
Part Cherokee, Loretta was not going to let people tell her what to do in matters of race and color (or anything.)
In her book, Loretta says it happened in 1972 when she won the Entertainer of the Year Award. “People warned me not to kiss Charley in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. I heard that one girl singer got canceled out Down South after giving a little peck to a black friend on television. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera. You know what? Nobody canceled on me. If they had, fine. I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.” – “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” by Loretta Lynn, with George Vecsey.
Other examples of ‘60s change were Dolly Parton, with her songs and her brains and her looks, willing herself up from East Tennessee poverty, and Merle Haggard, with his Warren Beatty looks and Bakersfield twang, overcoming his time in prison.
The most compelling figure in Sunday’s episode was Johnny Cash, with his childhood of deprivation from money and love, discovering his talent, and his feel for injustice. In the’60s, while males in Nashville were wearing Nudie’s of Hollywood peacock outfits, Cash wore only black, to show support for the underdogs, but the color was also an expression of his moods.
The series shows Cash blowing up his marriage for his passion for June Carter, but also getting deep into drugs. One live sequence shows him fidgeting at a recording session, twisting and turning, grimacing, removing his shoes, just out of his mind.
In one live performance, Mother Maybelle Carter, singing backup, watches him warily, knowing that at any moment she and her daughters might have to scrape him up off the floor. That segment ought to be an advertisement for just about any human on legal alcohol or illegal ”recreational” or or the pain-killers doctors and big pharma push on people.
Cash was zonked. Burns did not cite the song that Nick Lowe, Cash’s son-in-law at the time, wrote about Cash, who fine-tuned it into a standard: “The Beast in Me.”
….the beast in me
That everybody knows
They've seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it's New York or New Year
God help the beast in me…
When I was working on Barbara Mandrell’s book, she told how as a precocious teen-ager she traveled with the Cash entourage, and was treated respectfully, but she also recalled Cash in a diner, nervously picking the stuffing out of a Naugahyde booth, just a bundle of nerves.
The Sunday episode stressed personal revival, finishing in Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded his epic album, cracking jokes that the inmates got. He never had a better audience. There is a touching moment at the end where he performs a song written by one of the prisoners, and shakes his hand.
I will vouch for the feeling Cash gave of a transformed – saved -- man, after he sought help for his addictions. In 1973, I interviewed him and June Carter in New York, upon the opening of a movie they had made about the life and death of Christ. He was calm, reflective, and they were deeply in love.
Johnny Cash still wore black.
Having met him a few times, I am sure he would be wearing it today.
The back story to “The Beast in Me:”
My other memory of that rehearsal at the new theme park in the mid-‘70s, after the Opry had deserted its spiritual home, the Ryman Auditorium: Mooney Lynn (Loretta’s husband and my pal) and Roy Clark, the sweet-voiced troubadour, partaking of the upscale snacks, praising the hot and flaky hors d'oeuvre, which they lustily praised as “egg pie.” Quiche, that is. (They knew that. This is why I love country.)
Just in case you missed it, there is a marvelous series on PBS this week called “Country Music.”
I watched the first two-hour installment Sunday night instead of the Mets and Dodgers, which says a lot. (Okay, I peeked at the score periodically on my cellphone.)
The educator Jacques Barzun is remembered for writing, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball….”
I would add country music to that observation. It has been there, the rhythms and words of the complicated American heart – particularly by the expanded definition and parameters submitted by Ken Burns, the producer of the 16-hour series.
“Country Music” is lavishly arranged for the next full week on PBS (two hours, repeated the next two hours, at least on New York’s Channel 13.)
Burns and Dayton Duncan, the writer, have expanded the definition of country music way beyond the sequins-and-overalls very-white image to a more inclusive version that pays homage to black/gospel/race/soul music. Burns and Duncan consciously blur the lines, showing copious footage of black churches, black performers and black fans, sometimes mingling with whites far more openly than I would have imagined.
My time as Appalachian correspondent for the Times, later helping Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell write their books, gave me marvelous access from the wings of the Grand Ol’ Opry and on the buses and concerts and other good stuff. I did not see much of a black audience, but Burns and Duncan have the footage and sound tracks to include blacks – plus, Elvis Presley, bless his dead heart, always acknowledged his overt inspirations from southern soul music.
But country music is, ultimately, built on the strains and the sentiments straight from the British Isles (and the complicated heritages there.) I have always maintained that when the brilliant Dolly Parton opens her sensual mouth and lets the thoughts and the music flow, she is in touch with hardy people who emerged from the hills of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, who had the courage to get on a boat and sail across the ocean – often to escape back into the hills of that new world. Dolly, for all her glitz, is a medium.
The women – Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops – carry the first segment.
The series opens with Mattea (you should know her work) describing her arrival in Nashville from West Virginia, at 17, too young to perform, but able to work as a guide in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Lovingly, she points at the Thomas Hart Benton painting, “The Sources of Country Music,” as compelling the best museum docent you ever heard.
The first segment, and I can only assume the entire series, has the same high level. This is serious stuff about America, about us.
What did I learn? I had no idea Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was as widely popular as he was from 1927 to 1933, when he was cut down by equal parts hard living and tuberculosis. I thought he was more of a regional phenomenon.
Rodgers lived the music he sang, and sold tons of records (for Joe Biden’s record player, and the old Veep is not alone.) Rodgers made his last record in New York City, propped up by shots of whiskey between takes. There is a poignant photo of Rodgers on a lounge at Coney Island, enjoying the sun, a day or two before he died, at 35.
Then came the special train ride home, the old railroad hand heading back to Mississippi. The documentary should have ended with the Iris DeMent version of the Greg Brown song, “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” with DeMent’s voice a mournful train whistle cutting through the southern night. But that’s just me, an Iris groupie.
The first segment includes DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player, an early staple on the Opry, and Ralph Peer, who turned country music into a lucrative industry, and the Carter family (I got to see Mother Maybelle perform in her later years), plus commentary from Charlie Pride and Wynton Marsalis, as well as Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, both interviewed before their deaths, in the past few years.
The second installment, Monday night, will focus on the Depression, using the Stephen Foster dirge, “Hard Times,” for its title.
The Mets will be playing in Colorado, trying to hold on, but I will be watching “Country Music.”
That about says it.
I learned something very nice today.
We were listening to NPR and heard about a young woman who has chosen innovative treatment for sickle-cell anemia.
The hopeful procedure is about to take place in Nashville, America’s new hot destination town, in the Sarah Cannon Research Institute.
Long ago, several times, I met a wise and mannered lady of Nashville named Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon.
People on the Grand Ole Opry knew her as Minnie Pearl, who bustled onto the stage with a country dress and a straw hat with a price tag always hanging from the brim, and the familiar greeting of, “How-DEEEEEEE!”
She was a novelty act – a comedienne, not a singer, not a picker, not a looker in that outfit – but also a mainstay of the Opry. Others came and went but Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff were almost always there, with a presence that spoke of the establishment.
Many of her fans knew she had a degree (a rarity for women, in her youth) from Ward Belmont College (Now Belmont University) and was one of the grand ladies of Nashville. But on Saturday evening they wanted to see and hear her bumpkin persona, lamenting how she could never attract “a feller.”
One time I met her was in 1975, at the Nashville premiere of Robert Altman’s movie, “Nashville.” A lot of the in-crowd was bad-mouthing the movie as making fun of the Opry, but a few people seemed to see the vision and art of the movie.
Dotty West, redhead and singer, told me, “It's not a put-down. It's a fine picture, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again.” And Mrs. Cannon gave me a tactful quote: “very interesting—maybe I'm too close to Nashville—this is my home, my family—I can't make a judgment now.” I thought she was letting me know that she got it.
I knew Mrs. Cannon had passed but did not know the details until today, when I looked up her connection to the hospital. It turns out she had undergone a double mastectomy in the mid ‘80’s, and had a stroke in 1991, and died in a nursing home in 1996, at the age of 83. At some point her name was on the hospital, now part of a broader chain of hospitals, most in the border-state region.
Now, at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Music City, a young woman seeks relief from a crippling and murderous condition that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
Victoria Gray, 34, from Forest, Miss., is at the Sarah Cannon institute, having volunteered for the gene-editing CRISPR technique to treat a genetic disorder.
"It's a good time to get healed," Ms. Gray told NPR in an exclusive interview, noting that she cannot move her arms.
The interview did not identify Sarah Cannon as the grand old face of the Grand Ole Opry, but I recognized her name.
I want to add that I always loved being around the Opry, and that I am delighted, in a very ugly time (and that is all I am saying; you know what I mean), Mrs. Cannon’s life is being used to bring hope to people who suffer from this horrible condition.
As Ms. Gray is being treated in Music City, may she hear a word of earthly healing: “How-DEEEEEEE!”
Sarah Cannon Research Institute:
Bio of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon:
My article about Nashville’s reception for the Altman movie in 1975
I was poking around my iPod, listening to downloaded pop songs beginning with “M” – “Manha de Carnival” with Susannah McCorkle, “Manhata” with Caetano Veloso, The Dead’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried’– and up popped “The Man in Black,” by Johnny Cash.
I was immediately nostalgic for the man, and the mood, his all-black outfits, and the coal-black eyes piercing the soul of the audience.
Where are you, man?
This became his signature song, performed for the first time at a concert at Vanderbilt University in 1971 – a time of anti-war and pro-civil rights fervor. He addressed some students in the audience, saying that a conversation, few days earlier, had prompted him to write this song, explaining why he wore only black out in public.
I want to add that I met Johnny Cash a few times – once backstage at the Opry in the old and beloved Ryman Auditorium, just a bunch of people hanging around, a few feet away from the live performance. He was just one of the people backstage – old Ernest Tubb, young Dolly Parton, vibrant Skeeter Davis, people just hanging and chatting.
When he produced a Jesus movie in the mid ‘70s, I interviewed him and June Carter at C.W., Post College where the movie was being showcased. Again, he was the most approachable and democratic star, talking about his faith as a baby Christian, but (a gigantic “but”), not patronizing or dogmatic. They were the nicest couple.
My wife and I saw them again at a rehearsal for the country awards at the new (and sterile) Opryland in the early 80s. He and June were smooching during a break in the rehearsals; Anne Murray, sitting nearby, locked eyes with my wife, and they smiled warmly, as if to say, “Get a room.” Johnny Cash and June Carter were in love.
Not long afterward, catching a red-eye in California, I saw him coming down an empty corridor, a big man in black, his eyes a zillion miles away. I most definitely did not say hello.
Anyway, I think I can say, having been around Johnny Cash a few times, and having listened to his work (his time-growing-short album, “American Songs”), that he had a feel for his country, the poor, the imprisoned, the people trying to get clean, the marginal and the diverse.
I think I can say he hated bullies and pretenders. He came from rural Arkansas and he knew cities and campuses, could talk with students at Vanderbilt, could take their questions and make a song out of them.
I wish he were writing songs today, in the time of The Man in Orange.
* * *
(Just in case you are not into Johnny Cash’s voice, here are his lyrics.)
Man In Black
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
Songwriters: Johnny Cash
Man In Black lyrics © BMG Rights Management
In the final hours of an ugly year, I stuck with the tried and true.
Our local classical station, WQXR-FM, was playing the top 100, as chosen by listeners. It was reassuring to hear music that stirred people and soothed people in other dark times, with other crackpots and despots flailing around, and the music survived.
Then again, we have seen votes go wacko in a democracy. When the Gilbert and Sullivan spectacle, “Pirates of Penzance,” popped up in 10th place, my reaction was, “Wait, WTF, how did that get in there?”
The WQXR–FM web site had the same reaction:
Was it was the work of Gilbert and Sullivan superfan sleeper agents? Or is everyone just really excited about the end-of-year New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of Pirates at the Kaye Playhouse. (It turns out that it very well might be both, as the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players staged a campaign to launch the opera into the countdown — and it clearly worked.
Trolls. Bots. Hacking. Malware. Whatever they are. Sounds like a job for Super-Mueller, but Our Civic Protector is said to be otherwise occupied with his investigation into more serious shenanigans.
Other than the jolt of Gilbert and Sullivan coming in 10th in any classical music ranking, it was a joy to hear oldies soothe the dark days and nights as 2018 slunk off into history.
Beethoven had four symphonies in the top 10, including his Ninth, with the rousing “Ode to Joy,” now becoming a staple ‘round midnight on Dec. 31.
Some of the most familiar music can be considered chestnuts, but I was happy to hear them, knowing that new and adventuresome and inventive music will be presented by John Schaefer on “New Sounds” and by Terrance McKnight on his weeknight show.
Plus, as 2018 ebbed, I heard some of my favorites, Dvorak and Copland and Vaughn Williams and Smetana and Bartok and Barber and Ravel and Satie and Lenny Himself, conducting his “West Side Story: Symphonic Dances,” which always makes me feel 16 again, walking the streets of my home town, feeling, “could be, who knows?”
In the symphonic version, I could hear the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:
Could it be? Yes, it could
Something's coming, something good
If I can wait
Something's coming, I don't know what it is
But it is gonna be great.
Happy New Year.
Outside, the storms – political and meteorological – were raging. Inside there was a winter concert, by students and, later, enthusiastic alums.
How sweet it was, to find shelter from all storms, to hear young people play and sing, with considerable skill.
Our youngest grandchild was in one of the ensembles, but honestly the quality of the music and the spirit of the young people would have been an attraction by itself.
This was Thursday evening at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, Long Island, which, as much as it changes, retains its home-town feel, on a peninsula, with a train line terminating there, and a real downtown -- 45 minutes by rail from Penn Station.
The superb arts department produced one concert Wednesday and another on Thursday – an orchestra, a band, a choir, and then an ensemble for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
A young woman gave a haunting flute solo; a young man led one section with a strong first violin; a young man played a specialty instrument that evoked the swirling of the sea.
I was particularly captivated by the choir, having had the privilege of singing in Mrs. Gollobin’s chorus at Jamaica High School in the mid-‘50’s and admiring the choir members.
I watched the faces of these young people as they put their hearts into “Rock of Ages,” and, I will confess, I remembered our chorus harmony from 1954-56, and I softly hummed to myself.
I thought of the choir stars from Jamaica High – an alto who taught music at a university in Texas for many decades, and our two lead sopranos who came back for reunions, still beautiful and active well into their 70s.
And then there was Eddie Lewin, star soccer halfback and lead in our musicals. (Lotte Lenya came to our performance of her late husband Kurt Weill’s operetta, “Down in the Valley,” with Lewin playing the lead role.) In later years, Eddie took a pause in his medical career to fulfill his dream of touring with “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I thought about our choir and chorus while watching the young people of Port Washington as they performed so brilliantly in their own time.
At the end, the leaders honored the tradition by calling all alumni of the music department to join them in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Dozens of recent graduates filled up the sides of the auditorium.
They were asked to call out their graduation classes – 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 – and somebody said, “1976!” That was Jonathan Pickow, a well-known musician from our town, the son of Jean Ritchie, one of the great traditional folk singers and historians from her native Eastern Kentucky. (Ritchie
Jean and her husband George Pickow – now both passed – lived high on a hillside in our town. First time I heard Ritchie was at Ballard High in Louisville, when we lived there, around 1971-2. She reassured Kentuckians that the steep hill on glacial Long Island made her feel she was still in Viper, Perry County.
Jon has toured with Harry Belafonte, the Norman Luboff Choir and other choirs, has performed with Oscar Brand, Judy Collins, Theo Bikel, Odetta, Josh White, Jr., Tovah Feldsuh and my pal, Christine Lavin.
And there he was, amidst musicians more than 40 years younger than him, talking respectfully of having been part of music programs at Schreiber High in Port Washington, back in the day. Music is classical; it provides shelter in all storms.
* * *
PS: Jean Ritchie wrote the classic protest song, "Black Waters," about strip-mining, which obviously the tone-deaf Mitch McConnell from Louisville has never heard.
World Series Is Over: Redemption; Regional Sweets; Chavez Ravine; Third-Game Marathon. Now What Do I Do?
Monday Morning: My wife asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?”
La guerre est finie.
Well, I said, family, friends, chores, read a book, get to sleep earlier.
The better team won, of course. That is what experts seemed to be saying about the Red Sox weeks ago, and it was obvious throughout.
Who doesn’t like redemption? I’ve witnessed two great Dodger pitchers, Don Newcombe and Bob Welch, both of whom I got to know, not win a World Series game, and that is no fun.
It wasn’t fun trying to pick between Clayton Kershaw and David Price, two left-handers in search of redemption, but I have never met Kershaw and I did encounter Price during the 2008 post-season when he was a thoughtful kid out of Vanderbilt, coming on for the Rays. So, in a way, I was rooting. His redemption was magnificent, on the tube, Sunday night.
So was post-season baseball because it allowed me to purge more of the Mets out of my tormented system. Better baseball. One play exemplifies: In the third desperate game, the Dodgers’ versatile Cody Bellinger, son of a former Yankee, wearing my good friend Bob Welch’s old No. 35, and wearing it well, was in center field, trying to avert what would be a devastating run.
Fly ball to medium center field. Bellinger backed up with those long legs of his and took a running start inward toward the descending ball, caught it and heaved it on a fly near home, just in time to cut off a runner trying to score from third.
Just the way the game ought to be taught. But after watching the Mets (except when the brittle Juan Lagares could play center) I forgot how people like Bradley, Jr., and Betts and Bellinger and Hernández and all the rest could play center field.
So a dose of much better baseball sends us off to the winter.
Early Monday morning, I had time and brain width to read two stirring obituaries, one on the playwright Ntozake Shange and one on the contemplative monk, the Rev. Thomas Keating, both exquisitely written. (My Appalachian pal, Randolph, now occasionally commenting on this little therapy web site, had sent me the link with a comment:
“I feel a sadness. He was such a good man. He really understood that religion was secondary and he tried to bridge the gap between Christianity, Buddhism and all religions: we are all humans....” Randy
The two obits: what a start to the off-season.
And don’t forget to vote next week.
EARLIER WORLD SERIES ARTICLES:
Date shake -- or Necco wafers?
This was the cryptic note from my older daughter, a recovering newspaper columnist, just like her dad.
Knowing that she is also a poet (a good one), I knew this was a simile or allegory or symbol, one of those things.
I got it. Southern California vs. Boston. The World Series matchup. Sweet tooth and clashing baseball instincts.
This was before the first two games in chilly, quivering Fenway Park.
On a clean slate, this Met fan pondered the two delicacies -- the sweet, freeze-your-brain specialty of Southern California or the traditional New England circular treat that fits right on your tongue. (The chocolate one!)
I flashed upon the great post-season games that Laura Vecsey and I covered.
Laura would place a fresh Necco package on my press-box table -- straight from the New England factory. (The company has since gone down, but an Ohio company seems to have rescued it.)
But then I thought about being a young baseball reporter in the mid-60s, night games in Anaheim, mornings driving out to Laguna Beach, swimming with the seals, (ruining my skin for decades later) and then searching the coastal highway for a utilitarian shack producing that thick substance laced with bits of chewy dates.
The Beach Boys on the car radio.
A date shake in my hand.
No brainer. I vote for date shakes.
The World Series is a different flavor altogether. The Mets are a distant horrible memory. I watch the three Boston outfielders and the Dodger center fielders, changing by the inning, all running down shots into the alleys. Good baseball, so rich, so filling, making the masochistic Mets fillings in my teeth ache.
I have to choose? Normally, I'd be partial to the team of my childhood, Brooklyn Dodgers, and even in the 80s I was doing a book with Bob Welch and became friendly with Al Campanis and renewed my admiration for Don Newcombe, still with them.
But it's a different age. I don't like rent-a-star Manny Machado, even with that magnificent arm and all the other skills. As a guy with a formerly red beard, now trimmed tight, I think Justin Turner's beard is, well, over the top. All I'm saying is, not my team.
I have never rooted for the Red Sox (well, maybe when they played the Yankees in the 70s), and I still do not, but I love Fenway Park and I love Boston, deeply love visiting there. And David Price was such a nice young guy in 2008 with Tampa Bay, not long from Vanderbilt, smart, open. I have been happy that he finally won a post-season game and now has won a World Series game.
That isn't rooting. It's just appreciation. None of this fits my Mets, need-to-suffer, pathology.
Plus, my agent is a fervent Red Sox fan. I always want her to be happy.
But in the scenario posted by my older daughter, I would choose a date shake -- Beach Boys on the radio -- coastal highway -- anytime.
Enjoy the rest of the series.
THEN THERE'S THIS:
It took a health walk on Friday with my head-set – listening to one of my all-time top-ten CDs, Ry Cooder’s epic “Chavez Ravine” -- to make me question my knee-jerk feelings about this World Series.
The album is a highly pointed look at the “acquisition” of the land for the Dodgers’ home park since 1962. As a Brooklyn fan, I hated the Dodgers’ move (and Walter O’Malley.) But the first time I saw the transplanted Dodgers in their pastel playpen, 1964, on a gorgeous spring evening, I shook my head and thought, “Hmmm.”
As a Queens-Brooklyn guy, I could understand, if not forgive.
Ry Cooder’s masterpiece talks about the people who lived in the ravine, and the establishment’s “UFO” that warned them to evacuate their homes. He wrote songs about the campesinos who lived there, but also the truck drivers and urban planners and red-scare politicians who were part of it.
And after all the disruption, Cooder presents a sweet song about the ghosts who inhabit the ball park:
2nd base, right over there. I see grandma in her rocking chair
Watching linens flapping in the breeze,
And all the fellows choosing up their teams….
The man parks cars outside the ball park and he concludes, “Yes, I’m a baseball man myself.”
I love that album. Play it all the time. (check out the beautiful Costa Rican poem, “Soy Luz y Sombra” at the end.)
So my question for the day, after my health walk: is, isn’t that beautiful and enduring place, even with its brutal beginnings, a worthy bookend to Boston and Fenway?
Friday Night's Marathon: Yes, I Went the Distance
Well, with a brief excursion to watch Burt Reynolds flirt with a blonde and out-drive Ned Beatty in "White Lightning." It had to be done. These post-season games, with their commercial breaks, make me crave a moonshiner in a car chase. Action.
Plus, I find the network broadcast to be hopelessly saccharine after a season of Gary, Ron, Keith, Howie and Josh on Mets broadcasts. I'm sorry. I am reminded of Mario Cuomo's description of Walter Mondale's candidacy in 1984: "Polenta." (Look it up.) Mario laid the observation off on his mom. Nice going.
The Fox crew deserves credit for stamina, as does the umpiring crew.
The game got better and better as the hours went on, and any fan had to wonder when position players would start pitching. All the front-office-driven analytics mandating pitching changes (and locked-in power arc swings) run through entire pitching staffs in extra innings.
Then Nate Eovaldi performed one of the great World Series relief performances -- 6 innings, 3 hits, 5 strikeouts, one game-ending home run by Max Muncy. His work should be a wakeup call to managers and general managers and analytics geeks everywhere that pitchers can still go multiple innings, getting into a routine, learning as much about the hitters as the hitters are learning about them.
The game lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes, took 18 innings, and became an instant classic.
I am wondering if some of our friends in far-flung time zones like Israel, Italy, Rio, Japan, etc. were watching or following on the web.
That game will blend right into Saturday's game, with the depletion of pitching staffs -- and stresses and strains on players' bodies -- having a major impact.
Rest up, you all.
We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
It was mid-August of 2008. Charlie Competello had just taken his morning run in the toxic mass that passes for air in Beijing.
Now he was clean and dressed for business at the Olympic media center where The New York Times had rented an office for 20 people.
The first thing he spotted was a forlorn-looking writer.
“My laptop died,” the sad sack began.
That was me.
Charlie’s job was to provide technical services at big events like the Olympics and visit the bureaus all over the world, or wander around the newsroom, available to the people who write and edit the stories. He was one of us. The paper did not get done if Charlie couldn’t fix the machines and the software.
This how it was when I was working. Charlie had colleagues like Walt Baranger and Pedro Rosado and Craig Hunter, who knew our jobs better than we did.
(One night in Salt Lake City, after getting bad advice from on high, I was told to write something, at midnight, after the Russians fixed a figure-skating final, if you can imagine such a thing. After I stopped throwing furniture and Queens language around the room, I saw Craig standing next to me. He handed me printouts of wire stories, with all the information that would let me play catch-up ball with a midnight column. “I think this will help,” he said.)
The Times had our back, with technicians who were journalists. They would find bugs in our software or frayed connections in our laptops – even schmutz clogging the keyboards. Full service.
I worked with Charlie a lot -- a lean, alert guy from my home borough of Queens, who reffed basketball games in the winter, for the fun of it. We learned to rely on him the way the old Yankees would rely on Yogi Berra’s untouchable presence on a storm-tossed charter flight.
Charlie was never more indispensable than in Beijing in 2008, the first Summer Games to be fully covered 24x7 on the great emerging NYT web site. We were exactly halfway around the world, which meant Michael Phelps was swimming for medals in mid-morning in Beijing but evening in New York. Any given hour, somebody needed Charlie.
On that morning in Beijing, Charlie went to the basement where Lenovo had a store, and he purchased a new ThinkPad and then downloaded stuff from my busted laptop, a few hours of work while meeting all the other needs. After his run, I bet Charlie could have used a more quiet morning, but the way that job worked, there was no such thing.
The Times had gone into the computer age in the mid-70’s with Howard Angione, who introduced us to the massive Harris terminals in the office. Sometimes the damn things would eat up an entire story, even if you had saved it, and we (I) would pitch a massive fit. Howard’s motto was, “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” And he could.
For nearly four decades, I learned to rely on the Times’ techies, whatever their title was. Then I retired after 2011, and now Charlie is retiring, wisely, much younger than I was, which gives him time to relax and then find some other pursuit, or not. He’s a ref. He always makes the right call.
I’m out of it now. I just hope the paper still has the backs of the people who go to wars and conventions and Olympics, fixing machines that break down at the worst possible time.
* * *
Speaking of valued colleagues, did you see the beautiful photo of Aretha Franklin on the front page of Friday’s paper? Her dignity and soulfulness and even her sound came through. That photo was taken by Tyrone Dukes, back in the day.
Tyrone was a friend, a young brother who had served in Vietnam and was now a photographer. He could snap Aretha up close at the Apollo in 1971 and he could follow a looting rampage during the blackout of 1977. He died in 1983, at the age of 37.
When I saw the credit on the photo, my eyes misted over– not for Aretha but for Tyrone. My thanks to Charlie and Tyrone and all the others, who were part of us.
One of the most heinous things about living around New York City is crossing the George Washington Bridge onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Abandon all hope, as Dante warned.
It’s even bad when Chris Christie’s little pals are not monkeying with the traffic lanes.
On Saturday evening, we encountered a cloudburst and a breakdown in the center lane, right around Webster Ave. in the Bronx. Thousands of assassins and cut-throats were doing evil things at the wheel, hacking their way toward Long Island or New England.
But I did get by.
My wife worked the FM tuner and somehow found a Grateful Dead hour on wonderful WFUV from Fordham University.
In short order, David Gans played one of the most ethereal of all Dead songs, “Attics of My Mind,” sung not by Jerry and company but by children from the Barton Hills Choir of Austin, Tex.
Apparently, the children perform Dead songs as well as other familiar pop tunes Their harmonies are amazing. They enunciated the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter lyrics so sweetly. They mellowed me right out to where I could withstand the assassins and cut-throats of the Cross-Bronx.
When I got home I downloaded the video of the Barton Hills Choir (above.)
I don’t know much about them or their repertoire but their faces and voices are so sweet.
Can’t see them covering “Mexicali Blues” or “Pride of Cucamonga” or “Me and My Uncle.”
But late Saturday night, in a cloudburst, with a middle-lane breakdown, surrounded by thousands of cut-throats and assassins right out of a Dead classic, these children got us through. We did survive. .
Nothing is sillier than naming a state bird or a state tree – unless it is naming a state sport.
The legislators of California --bless their hearts -- are currently debating the proper official state sport for the fifth largest economy in the world.
The favorite in the polling makes me happy, makes me warm, makes me want to sing harmony.
I could say they should nominate all the sports Jackie Robinson played for UCLA – that is to say, all four of them. (Have you ever seen a video of Jackie Robinson sweeping around the end? He was Bo Jackson and Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, wrapped into one. Baseball was his fourth best sport, everybody agreed.)
However, California legislators are leaning toward surfing. I heard this on NPR the other night, and they included just a bar or two by the Beach Boys, which made me realize that surfing is exactly right as the state sport.
All those land sports are wonderful, but surfing is the sport, the recreation, the life style, that made California the state that makes me wonder why everybody, I mean everybody, didn’t just move there.
(To be sure, in the old days, thousands of frozen Americans would begin packing for the Golden State on Jan. 2, after watching the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day.)
Nobody had to go in the water, dig their toes into a surfboard. I have never touched a surfboard, even on land, butI have watched men and women, a different breed, agile and lithe sea creatures, performing acrobatics off the beaches from San Diego to the Bay Area (where they wisely wear wet suits.)
Surfing is what you could do -- or watch -- if you reached the western fringe of mainland America. It was waiting out there. I came of age, well, with the election of John F. Kennedy and hopes for the New York Mets, and on the radio there were the Beach Boys, with those high harmonies, singing about the beach and first love and Little Deuce Coupes.
On my first business trip to LA in 1962, I went to Chavez Ravine to cover baseball, but I saw cars bearing surfboards, heading west. The Beach Boys were on the car radio. California was being invented or discovered.
Later, on mornings before night games in LA or Anaheim, I went body-surfing (with seals) at Laguna Beach, stopped for date shakes on the Pacific Highway, and one time watched a fellow sportswriter frolic in the cold surf off Dana Point.
And one night in Chicago in 1966, I went with another colleague to see the classic, very un-Chicago documentary, “The Endless Summer” by Bruce Brown.
Surfing was the culture of California, even with all kinds of good and bad and momentous things happening in People’s Park in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Watts in LA, with Sandy Koufax and Kareem and Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and Landon Donovan and all the rest, playing those ball sports. Surfing was the backdrop for the promised land.
(Some people are proposing skateboarding as the state sport; my rebuttal is, no, skateboarding is merely surfing on hard surfaces.)
Surfing still echoes on the beaches and strangled freeways and hills and valleys. Brian Wilson, who somehow survived, brought the sound of the Beach Boys and the sport of surfing forward by half a century with his 2008 album, the symphony/poem called “That Lucky Old Sun.”
At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind
(From “Going Home,” By Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett, from the album, That Lucky Old Sun)
With all due respect to Jackie Robinson, the legislators ought to vote for surfing -- and get on with the business of the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Passover/Easter weekend ended well, or at least entertainingly.
I enjoyed the latest version of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” live on NBC, even with all the commercials.
The music took me back nearly five decades and the production was modern and energetic, with great, careful harmonies from the large cast – performing on the move in an armory in Brooklyn.
John Legend played the title role, transported at the end into the heavens, or at least the rafters, and to my relief he emerged in one piece for the curtain call.
To my hearing in the year 2018, this version emphasized the doubts of Judas Priest – or maybe I was sensitized by Jon Meacham’s thoughtful take on Easter in Sunday’s NYT Book Review.
Mainly, this version of “Superstar” was entertainment – and I was entertained. Legend was, in a way, out-rocked by Brandon Victor Dixon (best known for his friendly little salutation to Vice President Pence after a performance of “Hamilton.”)
Bouncing his way cynically and energetically through the melee of Jerusalem, Dixon owned the stage.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene? Let me just say that I am a few decades past it for pop music (most of it sounds like calisthenics)-- but that strong, lush voice and gorgeous Levantine nose on Sara Bareilles? Where has she been all my life?
Then there was the mincing presence of Alice Cooper, performing the song he was born to sing -- that Vegas-English-music-hall mixture, “King Herod’s Song.” He said he was channeling Elvis; I thought of the late, great Tiny Tim on speed.
(I read in the Times that Alice Cooper got religion when he sobered up. So we had a born-againer playing a mad king. That’s show biz.)
The performance came after news that, on Easter morning, the great white hope of the Evangelicals could not even fake “the spirit of Holy Week,” as Laura Ingraham said in perhaps her final days as a creature of the cable. (It has come to my attention that Ingraham and Ann Coulter are actually two different people. How long has this been going on?)
Last week Ingraham trashed one of the young people who survived automatic weapon fire in Florida and then, watching her sponsors vanish, she cited religious impulses to take it all back, sort of.)
From his tropical Berchtesgarten, Trump tweeted out that he was going to enact new horrible penalties on Mexico and Mexicans. When questioned outside the church, Trump brayed affirmations of his intent on a weekend when Jews and Christians were honoring survival, celebrating outsiders, the others, in our world.
The Four Questions had been asked at Seders, the extra place set for Elijah; the agony of the “carpenter king” noted in sacred and profane ways in church and on the stage of the armory in Brooklyn.
And at my wife’s lovely Easter dinner, somebody at the table recalled a recent holiday when most stores were closed -- but a Latino bodega in our town was selling coffee and pasteles and more.
The outsiders are now part of us. God bless them. And the President wants to expel them.
That bad actor is still performing a role for which he never rehearsed -- not channeling Elvis or Alice Cooper but something more camp, and at the same time more vile, more ominous.
* * *
(A friend sent this in the Jesuit magazine, America:)
(In case you missed Alice Cooper: )
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023