Monday, November 25, 2013

Jean Shepherd: Back after 14 years in the grave

Some of you first encountered humorist Jean Shepherd through "A Christmas Story," the movie (and later Broadway musical) based on his boyhood experiences in Hammond, Ind., during The Depression. Some of you may have read his stories in the immortal collection "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

I first heard him on a tiny transistor radio, smuggled into my bed so I could listen to his 11 p.m. broadcasts on WOR-AM out of New York. I was in high school at the time, roughly 1969-71, and I enjoyed his sardonic, faux-folksy commentaries on life's absurdities. He had a first-rate radio voice: relaxed, avuncular when he wanted it to be, ironic and occasionally moved by genuine emotions.

Here's a taste of Shep, reading one of his stories:

He died in 1999, long after he'd left radio behind. But I could hear that voice again as I read "Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles." The Opus book, which goes for $14.95 in paperback, has been billed as "the first volume of fresh Shepherd tales in 25 years." Eugene Bergmann, a Shep-o-phile for decades, has edited transcripts of some of Shepherd's radio monologues about his stint in the U.S. Army, mostly in the Signal Corps. He never saw action in World War II, but he makes inaction on the home front pretty entertaining. (They're not consistent in details, but he wasn't a historian. Impressions were what mattered to him.)

As Shep noted in one of his shows, this was the Army experience for countless guys who never went overseas: mosquito-filled swamps, obsessively carping officers, foul food, training on gear they'd never get to use, incompetence and laziness and tomfoolery at all levels. Funny stuff -- and pretty credible, even when exaggerated -- but Shep wasn't content only with laughter.

He talks about a timid loner whose barracks-mates bully him into a suicide attempt, an acrophobe who has a panic attack when ordered to climb a telephone pole, the fools who disregard the report of a German sub off the Florida coast and allow it to attack a freighter. These tales come out in a matter-of-fact, "c'est la vie" fashion that lets us draw our own unhappy conclusions. Reading them, I thought of a comment by British essayist Horace Walpole: The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

I see we're now about halfway between Veterans Day and the 72nd anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. I can't imagine a better time to pick up "Shep's Army."

Friday, November 22, 2013

The day the authors died

Today the world notes the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Yet November 22, 1963, was also the day when three internationally known, prize-winning authors all died within a few hours of each other.

One of them created a fantasy series that has been beloved by four generations of children and many adults. Another wrote one of the most famous novels of the 20th century and inspired the last orchestral work written by Igor Stravinsky. The third won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his volume of biography.

Do you know who they were?

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who died in that English city at the age of 64, created "The Chronicles of Narnia," the seven-volume series about children who pass through the back of a magical wardrobe and become kings and queens of a new world. He also wrote the most perceptive books about Christianity and the difficulties of daily living that I have read. (I recommend "The Problem of Pain" and "The Great Divorce" as places to start.)

Aldous Huxley, the novelist, poet and essayist who died at 69 in Los Angeles, remains best known for "Brave New World," the novel that showed us a future based on a rigidly intellectualized class system. It became a byword for dystopian societies, yet there was more to him. Among other things, he was a talented screenwriter, collaborating on the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" and the 1944 "Jane Eyre," still perhaps the best film adaptation of that story.

And the third? John Fitzgerald Kennedy himself. He was a first-term Senator from Massachusetts when he wrote "Profiles in Courage," which paid tribute to eight U.S. Senators who broke ranks with their party or constituents to do things they felt were morally right (if politically inexpedient). His speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, authored some of it -- reports vary as to how much -- but JFK's name stood alone on the cover and on the Pulitzer Prize.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The coolest video I have ever seen

YouTube phenom Vania Heymann has created a video to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" that allows you to switch across 16 channels. Folks from rappers to BBC weather analysts to the cast of "Pawn Stars" can be seen lip-synching to the lyrics -- REALLY lip-synching, not having their mouths rearranged by a computer trick -- while Dylan's scathing indictment of upperclass greed and indifference unfolds.

You toggle from channel to channel, using a switch to the left of the video (or the up-down keys on your keyboard), and no matter which place you land -- a kid's cartoon or a hipster's podcast -- the performers match the lyrics. (One of the channels shows Dylan doing the song live.)

I don't know whether this is the greatest rock song ever, as some have claimed. But this is the best video I've ever seen. The only place I've found it is here:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Authentic" history? You bet.

We always hear that history is written by winners, who slant stories their way. But sometimes history is told through popular culture of the period, which may not be 100 percent factual but certainly reveals what people believed (or were taught to believe by the media).

The upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination sent me to The Authentic History Center to look at some of the visual and aural memorabilia of the period. The site's a new one, and a lot of it remains under construction.

But when I clicked on The Kennedy Mystique, I saw a ticket from the inauguration, lots of photos of JFK and Jackie, even a complete story from Dell Comics Combat #4 in June 1962, relating the story of P.T. 109. (And don't tell me some voters didn't read it and pick up their heroic impression of Kennedy there.) There are audio clips, too, including one from "The First Family," Vaughn Meader's best-selling comedy album about life at the White House.

Sites like this can be addictive, so I started hopping around. Soon I was listening to Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address (depressingly full of common sense, in comparison to modern political bushwah) and all kinds of songs from the Depression: hobo ballads, tunes inspiring optimism and the immortal "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" I don't know a more moving tribute to World War I veterans who were out of work a dozen years later, though Rudy Vallee's version doesn't do it full justice.

The oldest entries come from the Revolutionary War; you can see posters against the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, political cartoons and a headstone in Granary Burying Ground paying tribute to victims of the Boston Massacre. You can even hear a 1913 broadcast of a man delivering Patrick Henry's incendiary speech, "Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!"

By the way, the site's emblem -- a bald, snaggle-toothed boy with an oversized nightshirt and a jaundiced look -- is The Yellow Kid, a character who appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World from 1895 to 1898 and then in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal.

He comes from Richard Outcault's strip "Hogan's Alley," one of the first (maybe even the first) color comics to run in Sunday supplements; he inspired the term "yellow journalism," because of the questionable nature of the reporting in those pages. So he's a piece of history himself. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Deep thoughts (not mine) about music

Let['s start with a masterpiece from the Great American Songbook, "Autumn in New York," with words and music by Vernon Duke and a warm rendition by Frank Sinatra:

I began there because an excerpt from Duke's out-of-print autobiography, "Passport to Paris," is one of the highlights in a magazine I read this week: the fall issue of Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (Go here to learn more.)

The forward by Gerald Early tells us the last and only issue of Daedalus ever devoted to music was "The Future of Opera" 27 years ago. This one encompasses everything from hip-hop to Johnny Cash, dance-floor politics in the 1940s to racial politics in a play about Louis Armstrong (Terry Teachout's "Satchmo at the Waldorf," excerpted in this issue).

Some of the scholasticism made me think of a saying of my dad's: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Many American 20th-century classical composers were homosexual or bisexual -- Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, Gian-Carlo Menotti -- but I don't think their music is more interesting or comprehensible if heard through that filter, and I don't believe homophobia led to Copland's downfall in the 1950s and '60s. (He incorporated serial techniques and wrote music most people didn't want to hear.)

But most of the academicians turn phrases well and make salient points. I especially enjoyed Ellie Hisama's retrospective on Ruth Crawford Seeger, the pioneering folklorist and classical composer (and Pete's stepmother), and John McWhorter's essay about "Early to Bed," the lost Fats Waller musical from 1943 that was the first one written by a black composer for a mostly white cast. (Waller died six months after the premiere, and no cast album was recorded.)

Most of the issue deals with music we listen to purely for pleasure. But we can get a different kind of pleasure when a thoughtful writer takes it apart and puts it together again for us.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Does anybody else miss Bobby Darin?

The 40th anniversary of his death, which will fall on Dec. 20, inspired me to listen recently to a bunch of Darin's music. I seldom hear it on oldies stations, and I don't know of any big commemorative reissues. But the guy born Walden Robert Cossotto, who died during a heart operation at 37, was one of the most talented performers of his generation.

He started as a teen-pop idol with the No. 1 hit "Splish Splash." He learned to swing, Sinatra-style, on big ballads ("Beyond the Sea"). He could deliver a Joe Williams-type jazz shout on uptempo numbers ("Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"). He could write memorable tunes ("Dream Lover"). He earned an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, playing a shell-shocked serviceman in the 1963 film "Captain Newman, M.D." Here's a taste of him singing "Mack the Knife" live in 1970; his earlier recording stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for nine weeks and won him a Grammy in 1960 for Record of the Year:

He's gotten plenty of official acclaim: induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2010. Kevin Spacey remains a huge fan: His biographical movie "Beyond the Sea" paid tribute to Darin in 2004, though Spacey was too old to play Darin throughout his adult life. (He was 44 when he shot the film, six years older than Darin when he died.) But he sang well and looked remarkably like Darin in his late years.

Darin probably always knew his career would be a short one: He had bouts of rheumatic fever as a boy and had artificial heart valves installed in his early 30s. Maybe that's why he got interested in politics and folk music as he matured into his 30s, trying to do work with more of a social conscience. (He was a big Robert F. Kennedy supporter and was present when RFK was assassinated in 1968.)

The world of music contains countless "what-if" stories about artists who died young, from Mozart and Mendelssohn to Elvis Presley. I'd guess Darin would have continued to expand his musical songbook -- he was dipping a toe into country music near the end -- and upped the stakes on his acting career. But we'll never know.