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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Media usually works on us in subtle, gradual ways. We hear a jingle so many times that it gets stuck in our head, and over time we become convinced that Oscar Mayer wieners are a superior brand. We watch 100 episodes of "Friends" and, after a while, start to actually believe that our lives should also be that easy and frivolous. Ultimately,  the things we see and hear on TV can affect how we feel about ourselves, our goals, our lives -but it happens so slowly and imperceptibly that we usually don't recognize it.

But, there are also those media moments that transform us instantly. Many people around my age talk about this happening when they saw Star Wars for the first time, as young children. The world, after they left the theater, somehow looked different, more exciting and more alive, and full of more potential, than when they had walked in.

And in the movie, Almost Famous, there's a terrific scene near the beginning of the film, just after young William's sister leaves home. She tells him to check for something she's left him under the bed, and he finds a satchel full of her vinyl record albums. He sits, awed and open-mouthed, running his fingers over Led Zeppelin II, Wheels of Fire, and Axis Bold as Love as if they are holy relics. She also leaves him a note scribbled on a slip of notebook paper: "Listen to 'Tommy' with a candle burning and you'll see your entire future." And there's no question that young William's life will never be the same.

My "Almost Famous" moment happened in 1983, courtesy of MTV - back when MTV actually used to play music! Now, I had, of course, heard of Bruce Springsteen before. I'd heard "Born to Run" and "Hungry Heart" on the radio, but at the time I kind of lumped Bruce into the same category as other radio-friendly bands, like the Cars and REO Speedwagon (as embarrassing as that is to admit). Anyhow, one afternoon Martha Quinn introduced a "new" (actually recorded in 1978, on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour) Bruce Springsteen video. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. The music, the performance, the audience frenzy, the girls mobbing Bruce onstage, were so over the top, so thrilling, that I couldn't  keep my mind on anything else. For weeks, I'd camp next to the television, waiting for the next time they'd play Rosalita.

Not only is Rosalita a fantastic song, but this performance also captures, absolutely, everything that makes Springsteen great. Springsteen is unabashedly melodramatic, beyond the point of corniness, yet at the same time completely cool. The only way he pulls this off is by being 100% committed to his music, his performance, and the spirit that inspired it. And in indulging so completely himself, it gives the rest of us permission to lose ourselves in the music, as well.

As an awkward 9th grader struggling with my image, this video suddenly opened my eyes to my own potential possibilities. Bruce Springsteen was cool and I wasn't, but listening to (and vicariously living) his music made me instantly feel more worldly, more adult, more hip. My friends had regular names like Mike, Ted, and Cathy. Springsteen's characters were much more colorful: Jack the Rabbit, Weak-kneed Willy, and Big Bones Billy. Even the people in his real-life band were larger than life - the Professor, the Mighty Max, and of course, the Big Man. I longed for the boldness and wit to have sidekicks with such monikers.

More specifically, this video set in motion the chain of events that led me to start playing the guitar. Socially, I was too awkward to express myself in words. Rock music and the guitar gave me a way to do so with much more confidence and assurance, and helped me to find my real personality as an adult. Over the years, I've taken one very important cue from Rosalita - to put every ounce of energy into every performance, to get lost in the music and the message, and to forget about how I was perceived. That's a tough lesson to learn, but Rosalita was a great teacher.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Fonz's Ravioli (AKA "15 Great Things About "Lost" - Thing #2")

When I was in elementary school, Happy Days was my favorite prime-time show. With its then-unusual teaming of "nerdy" characters like Ralph and Potsie with the "all-American" Richie and the almighty Fonz (as corny as his character may seem in retrospect, he was very edgy and cool at the time), the show in its early years offered plenty potential for brilliant comedic situations. When you tuned into the show, you expected to laugh, and to be entertained in a very lighthearted, easy manner.

But there's one classic Christmas episode that stands out as one of the greatest Happy Days moments of all because it unexpectedly breaks from its established tonal pattern. The show begins with the Cunninghams celebrating Christmas Eve by decorating the tree in their living room. Mr. C grumbles that he just wants to have a quiet holiday at home with his family and no outsiders. But when the mechanical Santa on their front lawn goes on the fritz, Richie and his dad drive out to Fonz's garage, and see the "greaser" sitting alone in the dark, eating cold ravioli from a can. Contrasting with the show's dominant comedic tone and the Fonz's ultra-cool demeanor, this scene immediately establishes itself as a classic - touching, poignant, and real.

So, what does this all have to do with "Lost"? In my last post, I discussed the importance of ambiguity in the series, and in art in general. If ambiguity is an element that appeals to us intellectually; a story's ability to shift quickly and abruptly between moods and tones is its emotional analogue. Happy Days pulled off a remarkable moment with "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas," but "Lost" regularly navigates similar emotional extremes with shocking abruptness.

One of my personal favorite episodes is season 5's "Some Like it Hoth,"  which combines so many things I love: time travel, the 1970's, Star Wars. While driving around in the Dharma van, Hurley presses Miles about his relationship with his father; Miles insists that his dad was no good - he didn't care about him, and basically abandoned his family. Hurley, who is in the process of "pre-writing" "The Empire Strikes Back" (with a few improvements), lightens the mood by joking about how Miles should take advantage of time travel to "experience changing his own diaper." Suddenly, against this backdrop of light banter and camaraderie, the show drops one of its emotional bombs: while walking through Dharmaville to deliver a "package," Miles peers through the window of the house where he was born, and witnesses his father joyfully reading a storybook to his infant incarnation. I remember the first time I watched this episode: the moment was so touching, so unexpected, and contrasted so startlingly with the previously established mood, that I felt emotionally exposed. Damn "Lost," I thought - they got me again.

And that wouldn't be the last time that the show would surprise me. The funeral of the actual John Locke was a heartbreaking moment - some even saw it as evidence that Locke's faith had amounted to nothing - and Ben's surprisingly honest confession added to the poignancy of the scene. I'll admit that I got choked up at this point - and seconds later laughing out loud at Lapidus' "This is the weirdest damn funeral I've ever been to" comment. And the moment after that, I paused the DVD to take a moment and appreciate just what an incredible show "Lost" is because of these emotional mousetraps it springs on the audience.

One thing is for sure about "Lost" - you never knew what you would experience next. I'm still waiting for the deleted scene where Jim La Fleur watches the Fonz eating ravioli on his Dharmaville TV set...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

15 Great Things About "Lost" - Thing #1

Well, call me a "Lostie."* Two months ago I had never even heard the term, and had completely no idea what I had been missing.Quite honestly, I had always kind of thought that "Lost" was a dramatized version of "Survivor" - and those who know me well know how much I hate reality TV. What I didn't realize, until my work friends persuaded me through their all-consuming obsession with the show, was that "Lost" has almost nothing to do with surviving on an island. Well, I mean sure, it would appear that way at first. But once you scratch the surface of this fantastic phenomenon, you see that it's about so much more.

I started watching the series with Season 1, Episode 1 on August 17, 2010. It didn't take long to realize that "Lost" was the mass media equivalent of the potato chip;  for the next 40 days and 40 nights, I watched episode upon episode, sometimes as many as five or six in a day. When my wife and I weren't watching the show, we found ourselves constantly talking and thinking about the characters and conflicts, and wondering about the show's mysteries. Before I knew it, I was beginning to view life through "Lost"-colored lenses. As many fans will tell you, "Lost" is a life-changing experience.

Yet, I've also found that it's very difficult to explain the show's powerful allure to the uninitiated ("Others," I now call them). Friends and colleagues who haven't seen the show cast smirking glances at me and my Lostie friends as we frantically debate the exploits of the smoke monster, the details of the Dharma Initiative, and the significance of the sideways-flash. This series of posts, then, is an attempt to explain the unexplainable: to analyze and describe 15** things that make "Lost" a masterpiece - and hopefully convert some doubters in the process. Here, I focus on just one of the 15 - stay tuned for more!

Thing #1. Ambiguity - Way back in 1995, I was privileged to attend a lecture given by the great Kurt Vonnegut. That evening, he presented a concept that has informed my appreciation of great literature and media ever since: the key to a great story is ambiguity. In a truly great work, he claimed, you're never 100% sure what to think or how to feel. While you might get a kick out of a movie like "When in Rome," the plot is predictable, and it's pretty clear how you're "supposed to" feel at the film's conclusion; consequently, there's not much to think about or discuss afterward. By contrast, the book/movie, "Of Mice and Men" leaves you thinking. In a practical way, George is free of the burden of watching over Lennie, and he probably gave his friend the most merciful death possible. But he's also left friendless, and must live with the memory and consequences of the decision he made. When I first read the book as a teenager, the ending stayed with me for weeks.

On the ambiguity front, "Lost" delivers in spades.While watching the first season, I'm sure most viewers were pulling for the survivors to find a way back to their old lives. But as the series winds on, it becomes difficult to believe, with any certainty, that they'd be any better off.

At first, the "Others" seem strange, menacing, sinister. By season 4, you begin to wonder who the real "Others" are. Ben's people? The Castaways? The freighter people? Everyone and anyone from the outside world?

And what happened to Sayid? Dead? Dead inside? Zombified? Possessed? Or maybe just being manipulated? Such haziness is one of the show's hallmarks, and perhaps the greatest ambiguity of all is its title. Does "Lost" refer to being stranded on an island? Does it refer to the fact that all of the castaways are missing something significant in their "real lives"? Does it refer to the way the viewers feel as they attempt to pin down the details of the island's time/space location?

When the show's network run concluded back in May, 2010, a fair number of fans felt that the finale provided a satisfying conclusion to the epic. A similar number responded angrily, outraged that the show had failed to "answer all of the questions" that it had posed. For instance, Jacob's explanation of the island as a "cork" that is the "only thing keeping the darkness where it belongs" (where the Darkness actually belongs, I might add, is on the Edge of Town, but more about that in November...) apparently didn't sit well with scientific-minded viewers who wanted a more concrete explanation. But what possible explanation could the show's creators have provided that would possibly satisfied such a need? And wouldn't doing so have robbed the rest of us the chance to do what we love doing so much: searching for answers?

"Lost", I am certain, will continue to fascinate and thrill new and repeat viewers alike. I surely hope that, years down the line, I'll still be trying to figure out why the frozen donkey wheel deposits its manipulators on Tattoine (er... in Tunisia, I mean) and wondering how Jacob chose his candidates. But without the ambiguity, the show would end up much like the seasons of "24" that I've enjoyed - shows that provided short term excitement and intrigue, but that I have no need to watch, or even think about, again.

* Contrary to popular opinion, "Lostie" and "Loser" are not interchangeable terms.
** I thought 10 would be more manageable, until my friend Cindy reminded me that "10" is not one of "the Numbers." But hey - 15 will be no problem; that's how great of a show it is! Just don't be surprised if I end up writing 23, or even 42, installments.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Zefirelli vs. Luhrmann

Back in 1996, when the newer version "Romeo and Juliet" was in production, I was very excited about the concept of an updated version of the classic. I do believe that the story and characters are timeless, and felt that the play would work well in a modern setting. As an English teacher, I was also enthusiastic about having an interesting new interpretation to discuss with my students. 

I remember sitting in the theater watching the opening prologue. It was amazing - maybe one of the most "epic" things I've ever seen on screen. "Wow," I thought - this is going to be really intense, really incredible...

And then the gas station scene. After watching this scene the first time (and I've probably seen it 20 times since, which has only served to confirm my opinion) it became pretty clear that the director and actors had no idea what was really happening in the scene. The actors are screaming and yelling for no reason. There's a difference between passion and screaming, but this scene (and many other parts of the film) fail to make that distinction. It also attempts to be funny, but only manages to be goofy. The scene is colorful, but distractingly so - shooting arcade style effects, lightning-fast editing, and a very strange mix of silly sound effects and sight gags all take away from the severity and gravity of the Capulet/Montague conflict.

In watching the Zeffirelli (1969) version, you get the idea that this conflict affects everyone in Verona - the woman crossing the street with her baby, the merchants selling produce on the street, the combatants who lose their lives in the fight. In the newer version, a gas station blows up, and maybe causes a traffic jam. True, this is flashier, but doesn't have the large-scale societal impact of the fight scene in the original version.

And speaking of fight scenes - the 1969 version is more "violent", really - characters hurt, rather than scream at, each other. The fight begins in an understated way, with characters joking and taunting each other, and escalates in a much more believable fashion than the fever-pitched 1996 opener.

Ultimately, the 1996 version doesn't give the viewers - young people, in particular, very much credit. It seems to imply that all dialogue must be screamed for anyone to pay attention, and that flash and style can make up for real acting. At the very least, the actors could have taken the time to understand what is actually happening, and why their characters were saying what they were saying.

I really wanted to like the 1996 movie, I really did. Hopefully, a new version will come along sooner or later that can breath some new life into this classic in a truly meaningful way.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Joltin' Joe, Hammerin' Hank, and the History That Ruth Built

"Where have you gone, Joe Di Maggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you..." - Paul Simon

Lately, Paul Simon's words have begun to seem all too relevant. America is reeling economically, environmentally, and spiritually. Amidst massive oil spills, an ongoing war, widespread poverty and unemployment, and political polarization, mainstream news outlets continue to assault us with Kardashians, "Housewives," and the "Jersey Shore."

Back in the mid 1970's, America faced a similar state, as it dealt with the aftermath of Vietnam, a failing economy, the turmoil of Watergate, and a massive gasoline shortage. At least for a while, in the spring of 1974, baseball gave us a noble hero, whose honorable quest to break Babe Ruth's home run record gave us something to feel good about and distract us from our woes. This hero was Hank Aaron -- a quiet, humble, persistently skilled man who personified traditional American values and work ethic.

"There is something warming and elegant about Hank Aaron's long conservation of his powers, but lifetime records lack urgency. This was not a sudden prodigy, like batting over .400 or hitting sixty home runs in a single season. Babe Ruth was prodigious; Bad Henry is -- well, historic. " This excerpt from Roger Angell's "Landscape, With Figures,"* was written in 1974, shortly after Hammerin' Hank had etched his name into history as the greatest, and perhaps baseball's final, true home run king. Angell, in his usual elegant prose, hones in directly on the essence of the accomplishment - a lifetime of consistently outstanding performance. Note Angell's wording: "conservation of powers;" here, he isn't referring to power in the ESPN-era, in your face, highlights-only sense. By "powers", Angell likely alludes to health, consistency, and, ultimately, self-discipline.

Just look at a photo of Hank Aaron, and you'll see what appears to be a mere mortal - an ordinary man who has transformed himself into a hero through perseverance and dedication. It was not hulk-like biceps or self-aggrandizing pride that gave Aaron the power to lift American spirits; it was, conversely, his humanity that allowed the common citizen to identify with his struggle, and to find redemption in his success.

And that is exactly why, in the midst of our current national slump, it is impossible to find inspiration in baseball's latest "heroic" offering: Alex Rodriguez. Sure, A-Rod has hit 600 baseballs that exited various major league stadiums, and has occasionally delivered a timely hit in a big spot. But, at nearly every key juncture of his career, he has managed to distance himself from the ideals of the common man and the ethical standards that we expect of our heroes and role models. Whether slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's hand in the 2004 ALCS, distracting an opposing fielder by shouting like a sore-headed little-leaguer, or preening across Dallas Braden's pitching mound, Rodriguez has demonstrated little awareness or concern for the spirit and tradition of the game, and has shown himself to be a braggart, a cheat, and a coward. And this is before performance-enhancing substances even enter the conversation.

Of course, when you consider the impact of steroids upon the historical structure of the game, the recent A-Rod milestone reveals itself as not only a false accomplishment, but as a destructive threat to one of the great pleasures of baseball fandom. Roger Angell wrote that "the statistics of baseball form the critical dimensions of the game", and that "the ballplayers on the field are in competition not just with the pitchers and sluggers of the opposing team but with every pitcher or batter who ever played the game, including their past selves." Comparing and weighing the merits of one's favorite players against those of other eras and generations is a time-honored pastime which has filled countless hours in the off-season, and served as fodder for millions of barroom debates. Such discussion, though, relies upon the strong foundation of baseball's rules, and the reasonable assumption that, because the game is still played today the way it was in 1927, a player's performance and ability can be gauged in terms of the numbers. Once you introduce steroids into the argument, however, the sacred numbers no longer offer a firm basis for comparison, and a necessary ingredient for true appreciation of the game as a tradition is destroyed. For this, we can thank A-Rod, Mark McGwire, almost certainly Barry Bonds, and ESPN, which has helped to create the culture in which the me-first mentality trumps concern for ethics.

It's not too difficult to understand why Paul Simon appealed to Joe DiMaggio for salvation, and he certainly wasn't the first to do so. In Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," Santiago feels a kinship with DiMaggio, partly because of his background: "They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are, and would understand." The old man also continually affirms the greatness of Joltin' Joe, placing faith in his hero and ultimately using his example of  "playing through pain" to see him through his own ordeal at sea. A-Rod may have also transcended humble beginnings to find fame and fortune in the big leagues, but the similarities end there. While DiMaggio was known for dependability and cool under pressure, Rodriguez has, for the most part, left Yankee fans angry and frustrated at his failure in clutch playoff situations.

And that's why I find Yankee fans' reaction to the 600 homer hoopla so puzzling. Last week, when #600 occurred, several of my Yankee-loving colleagues joyfully whooped it up. The way I see it, though, a Yankee fan should be the last person to actually get behind Rodriguez, especially as he approaches the hallowed domain of a true Yankee legend, Babe Ruth.

If it's not already apparent, I'm not a Yankee fan. I am, however, a true enough fan of baseball to acknowledge the significance of the Yankees as a baseball institution. In many ways, the Yankees are baseball, and outside of the U.S., the Yankees are America.The pinstripes, the logo, the stadium, the monuments, the iconic players - all embody baseball's proudest and most accomplished franchise.

While I've often argued that being a Yankee fan is too easy, and that rooting for a team like the Mets or Red Sox is a better exercise in character-building, the Yankees and their fans do shoulder a different burden: the weight of historical reputation. Yankee fans are privileged to bear the pinstripes, and to see the best assemblage of players that money can buy, year after year. But they are also the guardians of baseball's greatest legacies - Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson, Guidry, Rivera, Jeter. Alex Rodriguez has no business being listed with these immortals, and true Yankee fans should recognize that doing so soils the fabric of Yankee tradition. A casual baseball observer might be excused for getting excited about the number "600," but a Yankee fan should know better. If you love baseball, and all that it means and has meant as an American tradition, you should reject A-Rod and all he represents.

Call me an idealist. Call me naive. Tell me that the game has changed, and that it's all about the numbers. I'll just keep listening to Paul Simon and hoping that a true hero will emerge to give baseball, and America, what it needs the most right now.

* Excerpted from "Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion" by Roger Angell. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1977. A must-read for fans of baseball and writing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mary, Queen of Rock

Rock music has a way of canonizing women's names. The Allman Brothers, for instance, have immortalized the wild beauty of Jessica, the haunting elusiveness of Melissa, and the romantic mystery of Elizabeth Reed. Fleetwood Mac have imparted Sarah with a tinge of occult mysticism. Just mention Roxanne and watch all of the thirty and forty-somethings falling over themselves to imitate Sting's wailing tribute.

No name, though, holds as sacred a place in rock music as Mary. Do a little bit of casual research and you'll find that no other name comes close to Mary in terms of the number of references in rock music.

But why the collective obsession with Mary? In a medium designed for the sole purpose of rebellion and the expression of rage, Mary is remarkably steady, pure, and establishment. Mary is the girl next door, not the exotic "Candy" whose room you can only visit in the mythical darkness on the edge of town. But maybe that's just the point. Invoking the name of a Mary in any song seems to lend it a sense of biblical reverence, of epic significance that exists outside the song itself. Even the Monkees, as trivial as their bubble-gum pop comes across, successfully capitalized on the power of Mary to create a song that remains powerfully singable today.

And, for the record, real-life Marys seem to hold up their end of the bargain. I've never met a Mary I didn't like; I've also never met a Mary who deviated all that far from the musical archetype. So, here's to Mary - a grand old name: the greatest "Mary references" in the history of rock.

 5. Jimi Hendrix - The Wind Cries Mary. Ok, so I have no idea whatsoever what he's talking about. But it sure sounds awesome, doesn't it? Try any other name in place of Mary - it just doesn't work.

4. Jim Croce - Salon and Saloon. I bet you don't know this one. And that's a shame, because it's quite a haunting, beautiful song, which isn't hurt by the Jim Croce mystique, either. (Croce died way before his time in a plane crash. As a result, his songs, which might have gone down as pleasant little ballads, now sound as if they are sung by a ghost with tons of unfinished business).

"Strange we should meet here
Seeing off our friends
It's hard to draw the line between
Beginnings and ends
Oh, Mary, Mary, must you go so soon?
We must be a sight to see
Salon and Saloon
I'll look you up soon
Maybe sing you a tune"

I love the contrast between Salon (the urbane Mary) and Saloon (the grizzled singer). She could be a Diane, but Mary makes her, and the song, much more accessible.

3. Steely Dan - Rose Darling. Of the dozens of bizarre inside references that characterized the Steely Dan's music, the mention of "Snake Mary" in Rose Darling is my favorite. It's so cool because it presents the listener an enigmatic puzzle - how to reconcile the the two opposing images. Bonus points for the Michael McDonald background vocal, too.

2. The Beatles - Let it Be. Who uttered the immortal "words of wisdom"? It wasn't Paul McCartney - it was Mother Mary, of course. To me, this song is just as spiritual as any church hymn, and has become part of the way I deal with life's setbacks. I'm sure others have similar feelings about it, and have taken comfort in the image and words of Mother Mary.

1. Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road. Could there be any real question about #1? I mean, at least in terms of the artist? It must be Bruce. Somewhere along the line, the Boss must have met a Mary who really got stuck in his consciousness. There's Mary's Place - the bar that pulses with the glorious sounds of gospel vocals and big band horns. There's Mary Queen of Arkansas. In "The River," Springsteen relates the story of how the protagonist and Mary met in high school, and how the economy took its toll on their relationship.

But it's the Mary of Thunder Road who best embodies the dreams and frustrations of everyday Americans. The Mary who, like the girl next door, can't truly suppress the fact that even she is Born to Run.

Can't believe I didn't include Proud Mary? Have other Mary songs you feel should be on the list? Share them in the comments!

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Voice Like Chocolate

I've always been intrigued by the interaction of the senses. For years, I've been visiting and revisiting sections of Diane Ackerman's "A Natural History of the Senses," and I'm consistently fascinated with her explanations and insights. I'm also taken with the concept of synesthesia - the idea that we can hear colors, or see sounds. I've always experienced music this way, especially in terms of colors. In my world, most jazz tunes are bright red or muted yellow; the music of Bruce Springsteen is blue and violet; the Saturday Night Fever era Bee Gees, a bright purple.

I was recently reading up on Joni Mitchell's beautiful 1974 hit, "Help Me," and I was struck by this quote from the "Page a Day 365 Tunes Calendar": "It simmers on the verses, an on the bridge --when Joni an her backing singers repeat 'Didn't it feel good?' -- it erupts into a convergence of guitars, woodwinds, and sax that hits your ear like Pop Rocks in your mouth, tangy bursts of tonal color fizzing around everywhere." It's an amazing  description that perfectly captures the essential experience of the song across multiple senses.

Some musical elements are best described in terms of sound. Tom Waits' voice is raspy, Sade's smooth and mellifluous. Trumpets blare, and a Les Paul through a Marshall amp sounds pretty much like a buzzsaw. Other sounds, though, defy description through auditory means alone.

Cat Stevens is a great example of this. I guess it would be fair to say that his voice is pretty, or emotional, passionate, and rich. But, at the most intense moments, it cracks and crackles imperfectly; I'd imagine that a voice teacher would attempt to iron these wrinkles out of Yusuf Islam's vocal quality. And, on "Father and Son," you can hear him struggling awkwardly, almost comically, at the upper end of his range. With all of its flaws and inconsistencies, though, Cat Stevens' voice can really reach beyond your ears and into your soul, triggering emotional longings you didn't even know you had. That's why I like think that Cat Stevens has a voice like chocolate - dark chocolate. Like dark chocolate, it's bitter, it's sweet, it's good for you, but if you consume too much of it, you'll feel the repercussions in the pit of your stomach.

Do you have any musical flavor comparisons? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When Celebrities Actually Had Talent

A few years ago, I rediscovered, on DVD, one of the great shows from my childhood: The Muppet Show. I purchased the DVD to show my son the full-scale magic of Jim Henson's creativity in its most extravagant form - the elaborate musical and comedy numbers that comprised the weekly "vaudeville-esque" series.

I wasn't disappointed. The color, excitement, humor and just pure fun of the experience were all still there. And the whole phenomenon translated very well to my son, who quickly became a huge fan, as well (ironically, his favorite season 1 episode is the one featuring Mummenschanz - the bizarre Swiss pantomime group that gave me nightmares as a third grader).

But there was something about the show that I had forgotten, something that really took me by surprise this time. Each episode was "hosted" by a guest celebrity, who would become the focal point of the various skits and musical productions. And each and every one of these guest stars, ranging from Sandy Duncan and Ethel Merman to Vincent Price and Ben Vereen, was multi-talented. They could sing, they could dance, they could tell a joke, or play the "straight man" to a blue-skinned, impossibly-beaked puppet with an ease and grace that could only come with the training provided by a life in "show-biz." It dawned on me that these people, who I'd actually taken for granted as a kid, were actually true entertainers. They worked at their craft with passion and precision, and possessed true skills and talents that made them extraordinary.

And this wasn't just true on highly produced programs like the Muppet Show. I used to enjoy watching the Mike Douglas show on CBS - it aired immediately after school. It was low-keyed, relaxing, and you really got to know the various show-biz stars who appeared. Sure, they'd sit there and shoot the breeze on the couch for awhile, but you also never knew what you were going to see. Maybe Telly Savalas would sing a song, or Tony Randall would challenge the host to a push-up contest. John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted for memorable week in 1972, and showed areally hokey, corny, and very human side of themselves that might have gone otherwise undiscovered. No matter what, though, you always had a sense that the people who were on the show were on the show because they had accomplished something, or were capable of doing something that most people couldn't.

I realize I risk painting a naively rosy picture of the 1970's and 80's in this blog. I don't mean to. In reality, the celebrities of the time were far from perfect. Like today's crop of famous-for-being famous celebrities, they also had drug problems, personality problems, and relationship problems, I'm sure. I'm also sure that many were "badly behaved." The difference, of course, is that their bad behavior wasn't their vehicle for achieving fame.