Saturday, November 24, 2007

Meet The Beatles!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Peggy did her usual masterful job of decorating the house and home yesterday, as she always does on the day after Thanksgiving Day. Then, after our traditional dinner of leftovers (even better the next day, if you ask me) we went to a book store called Daedalus to get a little chilly air and to stretch the old walking sticks. Daedalus, in Greek mythology, was the fellow who made sets of wax wings for himself and for his son Icarus, and he even warned Icarus not to soar too high, lest the sun melt his wings. Young Icarus did not heed the advice, and as he plummeted seaward, he became an object lesson in the importance of not trying to do too much with members of one's own family.

Daedalus ( is a wonderful store - they have all sorts of discounted books, CDs, DVDs and what-all else. It also happens to be located in a sure memory-jogger of a location: the old Hochschild-Kohn department store in Govans. It's across the street from the Senator movie theater ( which is the last of the old-school theaters around here, with a gigantic screen, marble lobby and hi-class movies to show you.

I was, as always, paying attention elsewhere when the word "repurposing" was coined to mean "doing something new with something old." So let me display my appreciation for today's cool lexicon and say, "The old department store has been repurposed into a book store." Nah, I hate that sort of talk. Calvin from the comics said it best: "Verbing weirds nouns."

But it is nice to go there. We bought some Christmas gifts, and found some bargains, one of which we popped into the DVD player when we got home. (It was a DVD! None of the books would fit!) It's a DVD that contains the full Ed Sullivan shows from the four times that The Beatles appeared: three from February 1964, and the last, from September 1965.

If you can define "Topo Gigio," you are hereby excused from reading the next paragraph. But if you aren't familiar with the Italian mouse puppet who delighted Ed's viewers with his winsome wit ("Edd-eee, kiss-a me good-a night!"), let me pause to allow younger readers to imagine an era where there were three television networks, no cable, and very little in the way of other things on tv beyond what CBS, ABC and NBC chose to beam to the antenna on your roof. On Sunday evenings, families would gather to watch Ed, a man whose wooden countenance and halting delivery gave rise to the careers of a thousand impersonators and morticians. He was a show-biz columnist for the New York Daily News who wound up hosting a network variety show, the motto of which was "Start big, keep it clean, and have something for the kids." Ed would introduce a weekly array of jugglers, singers of music from pop to opera, impersonators, comics, plate spinners, skit players, dancers, and practitioners of every form of show business. In between acts, Ed would call out the names of boxers, football stars, spelling bee champions and men who made wax wings for their children (ok, just kidding) and these people would acknowledge their moment in the sun by awkwardly rising from their seat (in what is now the theater where David Letterman does his thing when the writers aren't on strike) and nodding to the throng. Oh, and the commercials! Like last night, during one of the Beatles shows... we saw Dan Fraser, the man who later soared to fame as Kojak's boss, in a spot for Anacin. In the commercial, he can't sleep because he has a headache, body aches, nervous tension, and depression. After popping a couple of Anacin, he's tying his tie and combing his combover with a B-A grin, and we are told that Anacin is the sure cure for headache, body aches, nervous tension and depression. This miracle drug of our forefathers contained aspirin and caffeine. Nothing like a cup of coffee to beat those old insomnia blues!

Man oh man, do I ever get off the topic.

You must remember this: the 50's actually ended on November 22, 1963, that dark day in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was taken from us. Trust me if you weren't here yet: the nation was plunged into a torpor for several months. Our innocence gone, we contemplated a future without the Camelot that the Kennedys had shared with us for a thousand days, and then came four moptops from Liverpool, England, who took a blend of American rock'n'roll (they took their name in tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, bear in mind) and their innate English cheeky wit (Paul, introducing a song on the second Sullivan show appearance, says, "This one was first recorded by our favorite American group: Sophie Tucker* ") and created a whole new artform. To this day, the standard mix of lead guitar/rhythm guitar/bass guitar and drums is ubiquitous, yet before George, John, Paul and Ringo led the way, we normally saw our singers work solo, backed by largely uncredited musicians. The Beatles were an anodyne for an ailing America in many ways.

Journalist Bob Greene (not the BG who is credited as the diet and fitness guru to Oprah*, a job description similar to being Icarus's flight plan coordinator) kept a journal in 1964, and later fleshed that diary out into an autobiographical book entitled Be True To Your School. Young Greene got the chance, shortly after The Beatles appeared on the Sullivan show, to interview Peter, Paul and Mary. Peter, Paul and Mary were a folk group who made hit records about magic dragons, Stewball the race horse, and lemon trees (it really WAS Camelot, see?) and their career prospects, in the wake of the Beatles coming to America, were dropping faster than Daedalus's number-one son that spring. Still, to high-school reporter Greene's question about The Beatles, Peter Yarrow, while probably considering a career teaching guitar to other high-school kids who wanted to be Beatles, replies "The Beatles are like ice cream and balloons and summertime and Pepsi-Cola. They're new and they're fresh and they're fun, and you have to love them."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we love them, yes it is, it's true.

* a corpulent cornball cabaret performer.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Country Country

In my young and tender 20's, I was a country DJ on WISZ AM-FM ("Baltimore Country!"). I guess it was the natural contrariness in me that led me down this path. It certainly wasn't that I didn't love rock 'n' roll, and then there's my legendary fondness for the Vegas style of cornball entertainment as exemplified by Sammy Davis, Jr., Wayne Newton, and Bing Crosby. But I went to Towson High in the late 1960's, and I guarantee you that out of my entire baby-boomed senior class of 700+, I was the only one who had not only met Ernest Tubb but had gotten a close-up look at his diamond ring, which spelled out "E T" in glittering jewels.
(True fact: when I heard that there was a Spielberg movie coming out entitled "ET" I got all worked up, wondering who would play the Texas Troubadour, and do justice to the man who gave us "Walking The Floor Over You,""You Don't Have To Be a Baby to Cry," the original version of "Blue Christmas," and "Waltz Across Texas," among thousands of other records in a career that ranged from 1939 - 1984. When the movie came out, and it turned out to be about a little space invader, I felt somehow cheated.) I met ET at the Baltimore Civic Center and interviewed him for my high school newspaper, a story that never ran. Apparently the front page was torn out at the last minute to run an expose on irregularities in the salt-peter-intensive cafeteria menu or something. But, Tubb is also remembered for a couple of things he said, besides those things he sang. His advice to young entertainers was "Always dress a little better than your audience; they came to see something special. Just don't ever let yourself think you're better than they are." Could someone please offer that wisdom to today's entertainers?

And Ernest was fond of saying that people were always coming up to him in bars while his songs were spinning on the jukebox and saying "I can sing that song better than you!" He would shrug, "95 % of the time, they're right!"

You will note that I tend to digress when the talk turns to Tubb.

My point for today is that back in the 70's there was a country station out west whose slogan was "This is KLAC Country, and that's Country Country!" Country music in those days was the choice of very few music lovers, and we kind of enjoyed our parochial interest. "Parochial," as in 'limited in range or scope'. We did not need to wear special uniforms or anything. However, over the years, music tastes have changed, and if you'll turn your radio on and slide past the AM banter and the FM smooooooooooooooooth jazz you will find the country station in your town at or near the top of the ratings. You might say this is because country music makers successfully changed their range or scope, and now they are making the pop music of the day.

I was always planning to take a trip to Nashville to see the great stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and every time I turn around, another of my favorites is taking that Big Old Tour Bus in the Sky. Just within the past several weeks, we lost Porter Wagoner, the thin man from Missouri who gave us "I've Enjoyed as Much of This As I Can Stand," "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and "The Carroll County Accident," among many, many others.

And then Hank Thompson died. I saw his show with his great band The Brazos Valley Boys at the great old Painters Mill Music Fair, and what a tremendous run he had, with hits like "Rub-A-Dub Dub," "Whoa Sailor," "(My Tears Have Washed 'I Love You' From) the Blackboard of My Heart," "Too In Love," and the anthem of beer guzzlers everywhere, "A Six-Pack To Go." Hank had twin fiddles to go with his pedal steel, Hank was the first country star to record a live album, and Hank was almost certainly the only country star to have attended Princeton University.

Often lampooned and regarded as strictly lowbrow, classic country is so out of style now that there's not even a radio station that will play Ernest, Porter or Hank. I suppose you could get one of those new-fangled satellite radio things and listen to them on channel 257, right between Latvian folk ballads and Chilean sea shanties.

Or, you could ride with me in my pick-'em-up truck. I have enough home-burned CD's to last us all the way to Nashville and back. Gas money, please!