Monday, December 31, 2018

Pictures of the Month

Old Orchard, Skokie, December 22

Berwyn Red Line Stop, December 17

Loop, December 11

Loop, December 10

Rogers Park, December 8

Red Line Subway, December 7


In human terms a fifty year anniversary is a huge milestone and in this space I spent much of the past year recalling some of the events of that most tumultouous year fifty years ago, 1968. Back then, even as a nine-going-on ten-year-old, I can remember thinking to myself as the year was drawing to a close: "Gosh that was a terrible year."

Here are links to some of my posts about the year that was, fifty year s ago:

  • No fewer than three posts were inspired by what in my mind was the most devastating event of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King. On April 4th, the fiftieth anniversary of that terrible day, I asked the question (as I did five years before on the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK) how our world would have been different had Dr. King lived. 
  • With only two months to live, Robert F. Kennedy delivered the news of the murder of Dr. King at was supposed to be a campaign rally in Indianapolis. It ended up being perhaps his finest moment.
  • Later in April I observed how death has made two icons of the American Civil Rights movemennt, Dr. King and Jackie Robinson, convenient cultural heroes to people who would have certainly despised them when they were alive.
  • Here is a link to the piece I posted on the anniversary of RFK's assassination.
  • What began as a year of tremendous hope in my father's fatherland, ended up in the summer to be the news event of 1968 that touched me the closest, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August.
  • I what I consider to be my best post of this year, I wrote about the student protests against gun violence that took place in schools across the country last March. I connected those protests with the actions of young people that helped change the world back in 1968.

The years that followed 1968 saw more of the same. In light of Dr. King's death, his pleas for non-violence began to seem futile even to his closest followers. The riots that immediately followed his murder, further divided aleady divided American cities along the lines of race. In late 1969 on the west side of Chicago, the police raided an aparment where a number of members of the Black Panther party resided. Gunfire ensued and when the smoke cleared, Panther leader Fred Hampton and Mark Clark who was on security detail for the group were dead. The initial police inquiry into the raid claimed that the police and Black Panthers exchanged gunfire and the deaths of the two men were ruled justifiable homicde. Subsequent investigations however showed that all of the shots fired in that apartment with the exception of one, came from the police.

Earlier that year a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called the Weathermen, staged several demonstrations in Chicago, some of them violent. "The Days of Rage" as the actions were called by their instigators, were just a small piece of the reaction to  the continuing escalation of the Vietnam War and the tremendous division in this country over it that defined the next several years.

Here are two poplular songs released in 1969, both from artists I admire, that illustrate the opposite sides of the divide:

This from Merle Haggard:

And this obvious one from John Lennon:

Knowing what we know about the VietnamWar, it's easy today to view Lennon's song as noble and Haggard's, reactionary. Pandering to a segment of society more than happy to eat it up, (as the audience reaction proves), Haggard's lyrics to that song sound today just as they did in 1969, as the slogan "America, Love It or Leave It" was the 1969 equivalent of "Make America Great Again".

But nearly fifty years later, with a little insight and perfect 20/20 hidsight, we can see there is more to "Fightn' Side" than pure jingoism. By the time the song was released, the Vietnam War was already extrmely unpopular in America and around the world, While to the best of my knowlege, reports of veterans returning from Vietnam being spat upon are either greatly exaggerated or flat out untrue, the men and women who served in that war, several of whom were not there by choice, were definitely looked upon with disdain by many of their fellow countrymen and women. It goes without saying that grunts throughout history who risk life, limb, and sanity by being sent off to war aren't the people responsible, just the ones who pay much of the price for any war, and the reception American veterans received when they returned home from Vietnam was an injustice. It took a long period of healing after that war for most Americans to recognize and thank the Vietnam Veterans for their service and sacrifice, which was no different from the service and sacrifice of the veterans of more "popular" wars. Merle Haggard, who made a career out of celebrating the common man, even the common criminal, (something he understood first hand), came to that realization I believe, earlier than most.

In 1982 we were still divided when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC. Its design was roundly criticized because in addition to honoring US servicemembers  killed during the war, it also in no uncertain terms refused to glorify war in fact, just the opposite. In 1986, Chicago and other cities across the country held "welcome home" parades for surviving Vietnam Veterans, and finally by that time Americans for the most part, came to terms with that bitter part of our history. 

As far as civil rights went, some of us felt that struggle had been resolved when we elected an African American man to be our president in 2008. The election of the subsequent president proved that theory wrong in no uncertain terms.

I point that out as a reminder that old wounds can heal, even though the scars from those wounds may last a lifetime, and can re-open at a moment's notice. My memories are vivid about how deeply this country was divided fifty years ago. We faced what seemed to be unsurmountable problems that we as a nation had never faced before, or at least so we thought. Today we also face problems that we have never faced before, except of course, the division.

In the words of Mark Twain:
It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
Keeping that in mind, somehow someway, the problems and divisions that we are experiencing today will be if not resolved, then narrowed. In the meantime, like the years after 1968, things will probably get worse before they get better, but they will get better, they always do. Then they get worse again! That in a nutshell is the human condition. Oh well, as the melancholy Christmas song song tells us, we'll have to muddle through somehow. We always do.

In this the last day of 2018, may your joy be bountiful and your muddlings be few. 
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Fifty Years Ago

My most memorable Christmas was fifty years ago today, the first Christmas in our new home in Oak Park, Illinois. That was the day our furnace decided to give up the ghost, leaving our house cold and virtually unihablitable. We normally would have gone to my aunt and uncle's home to celebrate the holiday, but had to remain put while the furnace repairmen, no doubt earning triple time, installed the new furnace. So my parents turned on the stove and we huddled in the kitchen for the entire day.

Now it just so happened that the previous day, December 24, 1968, human beings orbited the moon for the first time ever. That distinction for the crew of  Apollo 8, Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders, was only one of many firsts. They were the first human beings to be sent into space atop a Saturn V rocket, the first to leave earth's orbit, obviously the first to see the moon's surface up close, the first to lay eyes upon the side of the moon that never faces the earth, and the first to set eyes upon the earth from outer space.

The latter distinction I believe was the most significant first as the photographs Bill Anders took of our planet represented the first time human beings back home saw images revealing our home planet in its entirety, cast adrift in a sea of nothingness. Those images had a remarkable impact. For the first time we saw photographic evidence that our planet and its ample resources are finite. I don't think it's a coincidence that the environmental movement gained tremendous influence after those photographs were published. Jim Lovell would later say "That (the earth) is our spaceship and we must protect it."

I vividly remember sitting in that cozy kitchen with my parents and grandparents watching TV as the three astronauts broadcast live from their space capsule, 50,000 feet above the surface of the moon. It turns out my memory is a little fuzzy however about one aspect of those telecasts. Looking at a timeline of the Apollo 8 mission, it turns out that the astronauts read  the story of Creation from Genesis from their spacecraft, on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day as I recall. Which means I was either watching a recording of that event in our kitchen, or am mistaken and saw it live in our still warm house the night before.

I was reminded of that mission twice this year. The first time was when I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my children this summer and showed them the Apollo 8 capsule that has taken up permanent residence there. I recounted to them the incredible excitment I felt at that moment, standing in front of the very machine whose adventures I folllowed so closely all those years ago. The second time was quite accidental, catching on the car radio a remarkable David Kestenbaum This American Life interview with the mission's commander Frank Borman on his feelings about the mission and space travel.

You can hear the interview here.

It turns out that fifty years later, Borman, is quite blasé about the whole thing. Perhaps it's because he spent much of his time in space and during recovery in the Pacific Ocean, sick as a dog. Or it could be that life has soured for a ninety year old man who just recently lost his wife, the love of his life. Whatever the reason, you would never expect a person who has done one of the coolest things imaginable to essentially say, ah, it wasn't such big deal.

Kestenbaum at one point in the interview said to Borman " I don't know if you're the best person to ask about space travel or the worst" to which Borman promptly replied "oh I'm probably the worst." That brought up the notion that there probably should have been a poet on board to which Borman replied "that's the last thing I would have wanted on my crew, a poet!"

Perhaps because he was so indifferent about the experience, one thing Borman said stood out from the rest and could not have been more profound, or I'm sure much to his chagrin, poetic.

It was when Frank Borman spoke about seeing earthrise from the moon for the first time. He describes the moon as a place of utter desolation, no color at all except varying shades of gray. Then all of a sudden the astronauts spotted the earth rising up from the horizon as their spacecraft orbited the moon. It was like a gorgeous blue marble that you could cover up with your thumb he said, the only thing with color that was visible. Borman then got emotional saying "everything that was dear to me, my wife, my children my parents were there."

This is how it looked.

Earthrise from the moon. Photograph by Bill Anders,  December 24, 1968

Nothing would ever be the same after 1968, it was a terrible year in so many respects: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assasination of Martin Luther King and the riots in cities across the country that ensued, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the general feeling of malaise in this country and all over the world, the feeling that everything was spinning out of control and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

After the crew of Apollo 8 returned to earth, they received a letter from someone who thanked them "for saving 1968."

They also saved a child's Christmas in Oak Park for which I am most grateful.

Here is a link to a Today show segment from earlier this year featuring all three Apollo 8 crew members.

The Apollo 8 capsule on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
The bottom photograph shows Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell's seat in the center of the spacecraft

It was quite a moment in history and I am grateful to have been around to experience it.

Here I'll give Frank Borman, as of today the oldest living astronaut, the final word with which he signed off the crew's Christmas Eve, 1968 broadcast, which echo my sentiments exactly at the moment:

And, from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The White Album Revisited

Fifty years ago last month I celebrated my tenth birthday. To celebrate that momentous occasion my parents gave me a record player. In case you don't know what that is, ask your grandparents.

I bring it up because right around that same time, November 22, 1968 to be exact, either one of the greatest, or one of the most over-rated albums in the history of popular music depending upon your point of view, was released. Its official title was simply "The Beatles", but given the sparse design of the cover, pure white both front and back, broken up only by name of the album and its eponymous band embossed on the front, the album since its inception has been popularly referred to as The White Album

I was completely oblivious to its release. Like many Americans, my first encounter with The Beatles (the band) was leading up to February 9, 1964, when they appeared live on the Ed Sullivan show during their first trip to America. I remember the buildup for that show and all the hubbub surrounding the group and their premier American performance, but was less than impressed. My mother it turned out quite liked the Fab Four but I took my father's side on the subject as I usually did in those days. There were no older siblings around to influence my musical taste, so my father for better or worse filled that role. Interestingly enough, most of my friends at the time also did not have older bothers and sisters so they too listened to the same music as their parents. Consequently my personal soundtrack of the sixties, the music I actually listed to during that seminal period in the history of popular music, was middle of the road to say the least. To give you an example, the albums I received with that record player included recordings by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, and hands down my favorite band at the time, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

We moved to the suburbs shortly before my tenth birthday and I soon came in contact with a new group of friends who actually listened to music that kids listed to. That was when I discovered Top 40, and began buying 45rpm singles (again ask your grandparents), featuring recordings of the most popular songs of that particular week. Thumbing through a list of the 100 most popular songs of the year 1970, I can pick out a number of songs that I owned as singles:

War, by Edwin Starr
Band of Gold, by Freda Payne
Hitchin' a Ride, by Vanity Fair
The Love You Save, by the Jackson Five
Cracklin' Rosie, by Neil Diamond
Ball of Confusion, by the Temptations
Patches, by Clarence Carter
My Baby Loves Lovin', by the White Plains
and I kid you not:
Gimme Dat Ding! - by The Pipkins

You may have noticed, still no Beatles, even though they made a number of appearances in the top of the pops that year. It was in 1970 that I made the aquaintance of the person who to this day I still consider my best friend, a person who has influenced my life in more ways that I can name. He was years ahead of me in all things including music, and I would love to give him credit for my ongoing passion for the Beatles, but I cannot. Credit for that has to go to my mother.

I'm guessing it was the summer of 1970 when she bought a stereo console for our house, a piece of fancy furniture that doubled as a record player and radio. They were all the rage in those days. Anyway, along with that purchase she also bought several albums. Two that I remember were Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon and Garfunkel, and Blood Seat & Tears, by the band of the same name. I liked both of those well enough but the two albums she bought that changed my life forever in that pivotal year were Meet the Beatles and Abbey Road. Unbeknownst to her at the time, those two particular albums represented the alpha and the omega of the Beatles' Capitol years *, covering the time shortly before their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, until the band officially broke up, also in 1970.

There were several songs on both albums I instantly recognized, by then the ancient I Want To Hold Your Hand,  I Saw Her Standing There, and All My Loving from the first album, and the recent hits Come Together and Something from the last. What struck me was how different those two albums were. From the music to the appearance of the Fabs, it was hard to believe the two albums were made by the same group only five and one half years apart. Of course, those were eventful years.

The songs on Meet The Beatles were all about girls, dating, dancing, falling in love, and other yucky stuff that I was just beginning to appreciate as an eleven year old boy. That's no doubt the real reason I had no interest in the band as a five year old. By contrast, Abbey Road begins with John Lennon's gibberish filled, drug inspired, slowed down tribute to Chuck Berry with the oh so cool groove, Come Together. George Harrison came next with his sublime mature love song, Something, a Beatles song even my father could love.  Paul McCartney's first tune on the album is an upbeat ditty about a mischievous boy with homicidal tendencies named Maxwell. After Paul pulls out all the vocal stops with Oh Darling, we get a rare original Ringo Starr composition, this one waxing poetic about of all things, a cephalopod's lair, Octopus’s Garden. John finishes off side one with an ironic love song, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) featuring primal screams and an outro  comprised of a series of not altogether mellifluous guitar arpeggios that repeat seemingly forever, until they just stop mid-phrase. Side two is a veritable smorgasboard of songs that run together, some with no discernable beginning or end.  In a song appropriately titled The End, after Ringo's only bona-fide drum solo during his enitre time with the Beatles, comes a three way guitar solo with the remaining three members of the band trading off two bars in the lead before John's highly distorted triplet strumming brings the instrumental break to its sudden conclusion, leading into Paul singing what could be the words of the bands' epitaph:
And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.
Clearly Abbey Road was a long way from the Beatles' lovable moptop, yeah yeah yeahing, twisting and shouting, hand holding days. I was instantly hooked and my mission for the next four years or so, was to connect the dots between Meet The Beatles and Abbey Road, collecting every Capitol release, even the hard-to-find two record narrative of the band's history up until 1964, called The Beatles' Story. It's not an exaggeration to say that during those years I listened to nothing else. Despite being late to the table, I became an unrepentant Beatlemaniac. To this day I still know way more about the group and its members than I care to admit. 

Yet my knowledge pales in comparison to truly rabid Beatlemaniacs as I discovered while revisiting The White Album just after its fiftieth anniversary. In commemoration of that anniversary, a new "Super Deluxe" version has been released containing preliminary sketches for the songs, alternate takes, out-takes, as well as remastered versions of the original thirty songs that comprised The Beatles (the album). Weighing in at six CDs and a hefty price tag to go along with it, "The Beatles Super Deluxe Edition" is a must for Beatle "completists" with 150 bucks or so burning a hole in their pocket. In case you're wondering, in the words of one of the multitude of reviews I read about the set, a Beatles completist:
is a collector with deep pockets and unlimited willingness to max out any variety of credit cards for the best sound and every available version of a limited amount of tracks, no matter how negligible.
Well you know that you can count me out on that distinction.

One of many issues that listeners with a critical ear have expressed over the past fifty years is their complaint that the double-disc White Album was too long. That argument was expressed by no less an authority than the late George Martin who produced the lion's share of Beatle music over their career:
I thought we should probably have made a very, very good single album rather than a double. But they insisted. I think it could have been made fantastically good if it had been compressed a bit and condensed. 
If you google as I did, "Is The White Album too long?" you will come across a number of sites where folks who answer that question in the affirmative, offer up their opinions on what should stay and what should go. Looking at these lists however, it turns out that it's all a matter of personal taste. With one notable exception, which should be obvious to anyone who knows the album, there is little consensus on what should get the boot.

Some folks believe that all of Paul's upbeat, happy, and frivolous songs like Ob La Di, Ob La Da, Martha My Dear, Honey Pie, I Will and Rocky Racoon don't hold a candle to his more rocking numbers such as Back in the USSR, Birthday, and Why Don't We Do It in the Road, all three of which of which also received goodbye votes (obviously from different folks). Same with John's lighter fare such as Dear Prudence, Bungalow Bill and Cry Baby Cry.  There were lots of votes to jettison Ringo's clunky Don't Pass Me By and all of George's tunes with the exception of While My Guitar Gently Weeps which is one of the few songs on The White Album to receive nearly unanimous praise.

I was a little surprised that John's Revolution 1 has its share of detractors. It may be the most familiar tune on the album as the more energetic, rocked-out, three minute version of the song was released on a single as the B side of Hey Jude. and became a monster hit in its own right months before the release of The White Album. The laid-back original concept for the song which opens side four of The White Album to me anyway, better suits the true spirit of the lyrics which rather than being a shout out for changing the world at any cost as some folks assume it is, is a  word of caution about being careful what you wish for. After the release of the single, Lennon was excoriated by the Left who called the song reactionary and its writer a traitor to the cause. John was always ambivalent about the song and clearly moved by the criticism. In response, before The White Album was released he tweaked the recording, dubbing the word "in" right after the word "out" at the end of the line that goes:
...but when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out, (in).  
I was also surprised that several of John's hard rocking, cynical and abstruse songs like Happiness is a Warm Gun, Yer Blues, and Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey, also made many hit lists.

However I was not the least bit surprised that John's most challenging contribution to The White AlbumRevolution 9, is nearly universally panned. The experimental sound piece that comes near the end of the album consists of over eight minutes of bits and pieces of disparate recordings, both archival and original, tape loops, sound effects and the like. played forwards and backwards, ranging from bits of classical music to street sounds, to random bits of dialog uttered by John, George Harrison, Yoko Ono and others, all spliced together in a seemingly random fashion. Lennon commented that he was "painting a picture of revolution using sound." The effect is controlled chaos and while the piece was certainly a huge departure from the rest of the album, it is not particularly ground-breaking nor original, but part of a long tradition of avant guarde music and art, of which Yoko Ono was a vital cotributor. The track is dissed by rock fans as being too long, too tedious, and much too pretentious, and by serious music people as not quite measuring up to those pretensions.

I bought The White Album during the height of my love of the Beatles, c. 1972, at our local Sears after school one day with my afore-mentioned best friend. He may have been a little beyond them at the time, but still wholeheartedly supported my passion. I have fond memories of opening up the package with him on the way home and discovering a folded up poster inside featuring on one side a collage of random snapshots of the Beatles made over the years, and on the other, the lyrics to all the songs on the album. But as they say in the infomercials, that's not all. Also included were four full color 8 x10 glossies of iconic headshots of each member of the band looking much different than the people who graced the cover of Meet the Beatles. Those photographs still hung on the wall of my parent's basement the day John Lennon died in 1980. They would remain there until my parents moved out of that house in 1986.

I have a vague recollection of the two of us, my friend and I, ending up back at my house where we listened to the album front to back. That was most likely the one and only time I ever listened to my vinyl copy of White Album in its entirety. Unlike CDs, vinyl recordings have two sides meaning you have to physically flip the record over to listen to the other side. To ease that terrible inconvenience, automatic record changers were built into most record players enabling you to play a number of albums without have to get up to flip over the record to hear more music when it reached the end of a side. Instead you would stack your records one on top of the other on a spindle, and when one record finished playing, the needle arm would automatically lift and move out of the way so the next album in the stack could drop down onto the previous album on the turntable in position to be played. This process repeated until all of the records in the stack had finished playing. Then you would typically flip over the entire stack and repeat the process. Record changers reeked havoc on the lifespan of the delicate LPs and audiophiles would never think of using them. But they sure were convenient. I used mine with reckless abandon back then which is why the sound resulting from the inevitable scratches on the surface of the discs became for me as much a memory of those songs as the songs themselves.

The upshot of the changers is that you would not typically listen to two sides of a record in succession, rather you'd listen to one side of an album followed by one side of another album, and so on, for however many albums you had in the stack.

The sequence of songs on most recordings back then was designed with that in mind, consequently each side of an album had its own distinct character. The White Album was no exception. If I had to characterize The White Album by each side I would say that in a nutshell, side one is irreverent, side two is playful, side three is disturbing, and side four is, well, revolutionary.

There are exceptions to that of course, and part of the magic of The White Album is that it is filled with surprises, as there is always an extreme stylistic and mood change from one song to the next. 

I'm probably not the best person to write a critical analysis of The White Album nor any work by the Beatles. I know their music far too well as it was truly the soundtrack of my formative years. To this day it carries the baggage of all the collected memories of my life that go along with listening to the music over and over and over again. But like my friend, I did manage in time to move beyond the Beatles, and in roughly forty years of developing a very eclectic musical taste, I believe I'm able to put their music into context, well, sort of. The truth be told, I'm still biased.

My vinyl copy of The White Album is long gone but we do have a CD copy at home which in preparation for this post I listened to for the first time in about a dozen years, yes front to back. As a matter of fact, I'm listening to it right now.  YOU SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY....

Anyway, here are some thoughts, forty six years after first hearing The White Album for the first time. Keeping in mind what I just said about biases, you can take these thoughts with a grain of salt.

Much like the editing of a film, a lot of thought goes into the sequencing of songs on great albums. This is especially true of the Beatles, where their albums are not merely a collection of songs, but like the band itself, the whole of them is greater than the sum of their parts. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band, the album that preceded The White Album **  is particularly known for the care that went into the sequencing of the songs which in some cases dissolved (to use a cinematic term) into the next song on the album. If you know SPLHCB, think of the transition between the title track which opens the record, and With a Little Help from My Friends.

The White Album takes these transitions even farther, where almost every song either dissolves into the next one, or has some intermediate transition to bridge the two, sometimes for a chilling effect. The WA in my opinion, opens with the best one-two punch of all the Beatle albums. The first thing we hear on side one is not of an instrument or a voice, but the recorded sound of a jet engine which opens up Paul's sendup of Chuck Berry via the Beach Boys, Back in the USSR. That up-tempo rocker concludes with the shrill jet engine again, dissolving into John's gentle Travis-pattern guitar picking on the opening of his beautiful Dear Prudence.

Like I said, the transition from virtually every song on The White Album to the next one is by design, a contrast often to the extreme. After Dear Prudence's dreamlike outro gently fades into a very brief silence, that calm is abruptly broken by two loud snare drum beats followed by staccato guitar chords that open John's self-referential Glass Onion. 

Another White Album track that is almost universally despised is Wild Honey Pie, a multi-tracked Paul-only song (some may be hard pressed to even call it a song). McCartney described it as improvised and experimental, two components that don't necessarily add up to a pleasant listening experience. This track which could be described as the musical equivalent of The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Freddy Krueger, is without question the most boldly unpleasant track on the album. One might argue that McCartney came up with WHP just to prove wrong the criticism that he could only write pretty songs. Yet there are a number  McCartney contributions to the album that do just that. My guess is that WHP is the perfect antidote for the (to some ears) sickly sweet Ob-La_Di Ob-La-Da which proceeds it, a cleansing of the palette if you will. Alan Pollack, a musicologist who painstakingly wrote a detailed analysis of every song the Beatles ever released called WHP a diversion...
...while the stage hands change sets, as it were, during the entr'acte separating Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da  from ... Bungalow Bill. The gesture represents a theatrical exploitation of the LP album qua "medium" that is not to be under-estimated.
As if WHP isn't enough of a diversion, it ends with a clip of a flamenco guitar cadenza, (uncredited and most likely not performed by any of the Beatles), followed again by something completely different, John's cheeky knock on macho values, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. That song ends with my favorite transition of all. A little outro featuring a bassoon playing the melody of the tune backed up by the applause of a handful of people slowly fades out, then you hear a voice, sounds to me like John's exclaiming something unintelligible, which leads immediately into the opening notes of George's While My Guitar Gently Weeps, curiously played on a piano.

Now up to this point, the album consists of five solid, well crafted songs, all tied together brilliantly including the Wild Honey Pie part which I consider an interlude rather than a bona-fide song. So far so good, the album is off to a rousing start but nothing about it yet is particularly earth shattering.

That's about to change dramatically.

George Harrison was a brilliant songwriter who was overshadowed by his two bandmates, Lennon and McCartney. He was usually relegated to one or two songs per Beatle disc which clearly irritated him. But truth be told, George simply was not the hit producing machine that John and Paul were. That became apparent during his solo career where many of the songs he released are unlistenable. But when he was on, he was really on and by and large his released material in the Beatles catalog, especially after 1964 is of the highest quality. While My Guitar Gently Weeps goes beyond that. It is a deeply moving song that delves into the human condition and its composer's disappointment with humanity's failure to live up to its full potential which he describes as "the love that lays sleeping.". The song also expressed Harrison's disillusion over what was going on with the Beatles at the time, who seemed to be going on thier separate paths after their trip at Harrison's urging, to study Transcendental Meditation (TM) in India. The song originally was underappreciated by his bnadmates, perhaps because some of the original lyrics they correctly saw as digs against them, such as these:
I look from the wings at the play you are staging
The problems you sow are the troubles you're reaping
But Harrison pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He invited in his friend Eric Clapton to lay down some guitar tracks, which gave the song instant credibility with his bandmates.

As with many of the songs on The White Album, While My Guitar Gently Weeps went through many iterations before it was completed. The final version featuring Clapton's uncredited lead guitar became an instant classic and time has proven it to be hands down, the most enduring song on The White Album. But the release years later of one of George's early acoustic versions of the song on the Beatles Anthology 3, prove once and for all that Harrison's song holds up on its own with or without the intervention of Clapton. For the record, I actually prefer the acoustic version.

Side one would have been classic had it ended right there but the band wasn't finished. Capping it off is what I consider to be one of the best songs on the record, John's Happiness is a Warm Gun. As with so much on The White Album, HIAWG is experimental, a clean break from conventional pop music song writing. The song is broken up into four, maybe even five distinct parts, lyrically as well as stylistically, stream of consciousness style. In that sense the song is a paradigm for the entire album. The payoff comes in the last section,  a camp version of a fifties style doo-wop number, where John elaborates on the song's title which was lifted directly from the cover of a gun magazine, which itself was a twisted appropriation of a phrase made popular by Charles Schultz in his beloved Peanuts comic strip: "Happiness is a warm puppy." The chilling power and irony of that song which was always there, only intensified twelve years later after Lennon himself became a victim of gun violence. 
OK so do I think that The White Album is too long? Absolutely not, but this post is certainly going on much too long. There's so much more left to talk about, the effect of the trip to India and the incredible creativity and hostility it inspired, especially Sexy Sadie, John's repudiation the founder of TM, (simply replace the song's title with "Maharishi" and you get the picture), the death of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, the beginning of the end of the band as evidenced by The White Album sessions, the most underrated song on the album, George's Long Long Long, and of course Helter Skelter. But I'm going to quit here and perhaps save all that and the remaining three sides for another day, or perhaps not.

The White Album as I said is a work unto itself, not merely a collection of songs. On Facebook the other day I posted a link to this piece from the New Yorker and made the comment that there wasn't much to argue about, The White Album was indeed the Beatles', magnum opus. Some friends took exception saying they preferred listening to this or that album much more than The White Album. To that I replied that more often than not I would probably choose to listen to any number of Beethoven sonatas over the great Hammerklavier sonata. Yet there is nothing as mind blowing in the entire piano repertoire as the Fuga, nor as sublime as the slow movement, which alone depending on the performer can be twenty minutes or longer.

As a testament to their talent, the variety, depth, breadth and mastery of disparate musical styles in the work of the Beatles has always been staggering, even in the early years, but especially in The White Album. It's kind of mind blowing that the same person,  Paul, is responsible for the tender love song I Will, as well as the demonic mother of all heavy metal, Helter Skelter, or that John, most famous for his acerbic wit, cynicism and capacity for being a fly in the ointment, could be responsible for some of the most beautiful and poignant songs on the album such as Julia and Cry Baby Cry. It's true that not every track on The White Album is equally meaningful or powerful, but that's really the point; it's not a greatest hits album, which in themselves are usually uninspiring by comparison. Another school of thought has it that judging by all the material from The White Album sessions that did not make the album, songs such as Hey Jude, Across the Universe and several other great songs that found their way onto other albums, one could say that The White Album could have been expanded to three discs.

In my humble opinion, Revolution 9 and Wild Honey Pie notwithstanding, The White Album is perfect just as it is. It may of may not be the most important album of all time, but it is without a doubt the most important album in my life.

Here I'll give Paul the closing word. In the film that accompanied the release of The Beatles Anthology set, at the conclusion of his comments on The White Album, he said exactly what needed to be said:
I'm not one to say, 
maybe it had too much of this or that, 
it's great, it sold, it's the bloody Beatles White Album, 
shut up.

*Capitol Records, a subsidiary of the Bristish company EMI, was the American distributor of Beatles recorded music for the bulk of the band's existance, however Meet the Beatles was not the first American issue of a Beatles record. That distinction goes to Introducing the Beatles, released by Chicago's own Vee Jay Records. The Abbey Road sessions were the last recordings the group made together as the Beatles, however Let It Be, recorded earlier in 1969, has the distinction of being the last album of original Beatles music to be released.

**Magical Mystery Tour was a Capitol Records, US issued LP released in 1967 between Sgt. Pepper and The White Album. However it was not recorded to be a stand-alone album, rather it came about as a compellation of songs from the sountrack of a BBC television program of the same name, (side one) and other songs that were released as singles that year (side two). That said, some of the Beatles' greatest songs can be found on that album such as I Am The Walrus, Penny LaneStrawberry Fields Forever and All You Need Is Love.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why We Can't Have Nice Things...

It's the holiday season again, the most controversial time of the year. I've blathered in this space endlessly about my preference for using the greeting "Merry Christmas" rather than the insipid "Happy Holidays", but have had a change of heart. Much of that is thanks to a president who turned "Merry Christmas" into a political slogan, vowing to bring back the greeting (not that it ever went anywhere), as one of his many absurd campaign promises. But fear not, this is not a rant against the current POTUS, heck it's Christmas, er I mean holiday season after all.

The tradition of a winter holiday goes back oh, about a million years or so as people rejoiced when they noticed around the day of the year we now call December 25th, that the sun began reversing its inexorable path lower and lower in the sky that started in late June. Long before Copernicus explained exactly why this happened, there was no reason to believe that even though this cycle repeated without fail every year, one December 25th, some capricious god might just make the sun keep disappearing below the horizon earlier and earlier each day until eventaully it would not reappear again the next morning, plunging the world into complete darkness.

Naturally this yearly "rebirth" of the sun was cause for great relief, joy and merrymaking, a very ancient tradition that goes on to this day. It never occurred to early Christians to celebreate the birth of the founder of their religion, as accounts of his birth are scant in their sacred texts. We owe the observation of Christmas to a Roman Emperor, converted to that new fangled religion, who decided the meaning of that ancient celebreation would change. 1,682 years ago at this writing, Emperor Constantine decreed that the Winter Holiday instead of being devoted to the rebirth of the sun, would be devoted to the birth of the Son, and a new tradition was born.

Truth be told, only the meaning of the holiday changed, not the spirit or practice of it. You name it, almsgiving, evergreen trees, the exchanging of presents, a general feeling of good will and merriment, tidings of comfort and joy, in other words virtually everything that we associate with the celebration of Christmas, with the exception of the particulars relating to the birth of Christ and perhaps Elf on a Shelf, existed long before Mary and Joseph supposedly made that harrowing journey to Bethlehem. So in a sense, replacing the greeting  Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays is nothing more than replacing an old tradition with an even older one.

This year we have a new holiday controversy. Every year at this time, we are bombarded with holiday themed music. There are the traditional Christmas carols, those beauiful sacred songs that deal specifically with the birth of Jesus such as  Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, (Silent Night)Joy to the World and Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful). To be honest, there isn't one of these that doesn't move me to tears when played in the right context. For the record my current favorite of these is Es Ist ein Rose Entsprungen (Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming), written by the German Renaissance composer Michael Praetoris. These songs make no bones about what they are about and for the most part, out of respect for believers and non-believers alike, tend to be kept at an arm's length from popular culture where the former may see them as being profaned, while the latter may see them as innappropriate in a society that supposedly has no official religion. I think most of us are cool with that.

The songs we do hear over and over again are the purely secular traditioinal carols that center around the celebration of the holiday, rather than the sacred aspects, such as Carol of the BellsDeck the Halls and Jingle Bells. These too when played in the right context evoke in me a sense of joy and merriment as they were intended. Unfortuantely much of those intended emotions have been siphoned off for those songs having been appropriated by commercials and overplayed in shopping malls during the three months before Christmas in this country.

Then there are the pop music holiday songs.  Certainly one of the most famous of these is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which unlike your typical holiday fare, deals with emotions that can make this time of year particularly difficult for those of us who are suffering. The poignance of that song was magnified by the fact that it reached the height of its popularity during the Second World War where its themes of separation and loss rang true for everyone who listened to the song. Unfortauntely much of those honest sentiments have been lost through the years by the changing of the original lyrics to more upbeat ones (for example the line: "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was changed at the behest of Frank Sinatra to make the song less depressing, to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bow"). The song has also suffered greatly from over-playing, I challenge you to walk into a grocery or big box store this time of year and not hear at least two different  renditions of it. This incessant playing of HYAMLC makes me think to myself: "I might have a friggin merry christmas if only you'd stop playing that goshdarn song!", not the intended response I'd imagine from its creator.

Pop music Christmas songs may or may not have anything to do with the holiday itself, sometimes merely referring to winter is enough to qualify it as a holiday song. To the best of my knowlege, Frosty the Snowman doesn't mention Christmas, Hannukah, New Years Day, Winter Solstice, or any other seasonal holiday at all.

Neither does the least Christmasy Chrsitmas song of them all, Baby It's Cold Outside. The song was written on a whim by the famed Broadway comper Frank Loesser in 1944 to be performed as a duet between the songwriter and his wife Lynn Garland for a party in New York City. The couple sang it late in the evening indicating to the visitors that it was time to leave. According to the Wikipedia article on the song:
Garland wrote that after the first performance, "We become instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of 'Baby.' It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act." In 1948, after years of performing the song, Loesser sold it to MGM for the 1949 romantic comedy "Neptune's Daughter". Garland was furious, and wrote, "I felt as betrayed as if I'd caught him in bed with another woman."
BICO won the Oscar that year for best original song. Since then it has gone on to become a popular music standard, having been recorded by hundreds of diverse performers from Red Skelton to Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga.

If by chance you don't know the song, it's a call and response between two people, for the sake of argument let's refer to them as the persuader and the persuadee. The couple are at the home of the persuader after a date. The role of the persuadee, usually but not always sung by a woman, begins the song indicating it's time to go home, to which the persuader, ususally but not always sung by a man. responds that the current outdoor climatic conditions seem to indicate that it would be more prudent for the persuadee to remain. What we can deduce from the lyrics is that the persuader has an alterior motive other than his partner's health or general wellbeing, for convincing the persuadee to stay. It is probably fair to assume that the persuadee is on to the persuader's real intentions. The song continues with the persuadee listing a litany of reasons why it would be beneficial to leave. Those arguments are inevitably met with the persuader's arguments to the contrary.

There is no definitive conclusion to the story other than the last line, where the couple sings in unison the words to the song's title, implying that the persuader was ultimately successful.

To the song's defenders, it is a clever, well written, integral contribution to the classic American Songbook, a cute, harmless, old fashioned novelty song that describes a very natural part of the human condition, something that virtaully all of us have experienced in one role or the other, or both, at some time in our lifetimes.

To its detrators, BICO is a song that promotes date rape.

Much to you the reader's consternation I'm sure, I'm going to equivocate here, as I so often do, and say both sides have a point.

One could easily listen to the song and be perplexed as to what all the fuss is about. After all, practically every intimate relationship begins with one partner being the persuer and the other the persued. Had every encounter like this one in the history of the world ended after the first line of the song when the persuadee says "I really can't stay", there would indeed be very few of us around today to talk about it.

On the other hand, in light of recent events in the news regarding public figures who have been outed as criminal sexual predators, and the attention that has brought to the issue, there are indeed a few cringe-worthy lines in this song.

Date rape is a complcated matter. Many would argue that as far as sex goes, there is a fine line between the fine art of persuasion, and rape. But that's not really true, there is a very definitive line, the word "no".

In BICO, the persuadee says no twice to the persuader:
I ought to say no no no sir (But baby it's cold outside)
follwed immediately by:
 At least I'm gonna say that I tried.
Here one could say the persuadee is doing everything possible to remain "respectable" by rejecting the persuader's advances, but in reality those attempts are disingenuous.

The second time, the persuadee is more definitive:
I simply must go (But, baby, it's cold outside) 
The answer is no
It doesn't get any more definitive than that, but yet there is more equivocation in very the next line:
The welcome has been (How lucky that you dropped in) 
So nice and warm (Look out the window at the storm)

To today's ears, the cringiest line comes in the third verse:
The neighbors might think (Baby, it's bad out there) 
Say what's in this drink
Clearly we have Bill Cosby and his horrrific crimes to thank for us now until kingdom come, equating that somewhat comical line with date rape drugs.

It would be easy to say lighten up on the song, it was written over seventy years ago when attitudes about sex and dating were much different than they are today.

On the other hand, culture and ideas of propriety may change but basic human nature does not. Date rape and drugs that facilitate it are nothing new, they just weren't talked about openly seventy years ago. That is not to say that back in the day, it was considered acceptable for a man to take advantage of a woman who is chemically incapacitated. Watch old time Hollwood movies and you will often find references to that theme; one that comes immedaitely to mind  is this wonderful scene from The Philadelphia Story:

So is Baby It's Cold Outside a shout out to date rape? Well if I were a juror on a trial and presented with the evidence of the lyrics to the song and its history, I'd have to rule that no, it is not.

Yet many people today are offended by the lyrics and who am I to say they don't have that right?. Some radio stations in the US and Canada have decided not to play the song out of respect for listeners who have called and written to complain about it. Again, that is their right. Does this amount to censorship or trying to whitewash history? Absolutely not. Despite not being able to hear it on certain radio stations, good or bad, BICO is not going away anytime soon, nor will it ever.

Here is my favorite verion of the song:

In the end I have to say that like the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, let's live and let live. If you're offended by the song, don't listen  to it. If you like it, be willing to defend it logically while accepting the fact that people are going to disagree with you.

That's a pretty simple soltion isn't it? Culture wars be damned, let's simply agree to disagree.

In conclusion I have one thing more to say:

Happy Holidays!