Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Passing The Baton   Leave a comment

January 1, 2019

The start of a new year is always a demarcation line. It’s the most obvious moment—aside from our birthdays—where each of us knows another year has passed. Carl Reiner was quoted as saying “Each morning when I wake up I check the obituaries. If I don’t see my name I already feel better.” Yes we’re all a little older, but that’s how things work.

I looked at the list of all the “notables” who’ve passed and wonder how each of these famous—or infamous—people have affected, touched, or otherwise changed my life. It’s always surprising to me that I can find a personal connection to many of them. So here are my thoughts on those we lost in 2018.

What did you think about when you heard the name—nothing else, just the name—Stephen Hiillenburg? It didn’t mean anything to me. It turns out he was important to me for the simple(?) fact that he created the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. My daughter Caitie and I—Caitie was about 10 years old at the time—were driving to Indiana (from Connecticut) to visit family. After a long day on the interstates we were entertaining ourselves by watching TV in our motel room, and that was the moment SpongeBob came into our lives. We laughed for a couple of hours and both became huge fans of the underwater hero. Thanks Stephen.

Robin Leach died last year. In some ways he too was a character worth remembering. In the end, almost all of the overstuffed, vacuous, self-important wealthy people he interviewed became laughable, at least to me.

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     On the musical side we lost some greats, both household names and lesser-knowns. Before getting into the music business I had heard South African musician Hugh Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass”. Little more than a year later I was promoting the Friends of Distinction, an RCA act who did a vocal cover of Masekela’s hit, creating a hit of their own. Years later I met Hugh when he recorded an album with my former boss Herb Alpert. Small world indeed.

Another music icon I had the pleasure of meeting was Charles Neville. I was in New Orleans and at Tipitina’s for a performance by the Neville Brothers. It was 1988 or ’89 and that band of brothers were amazing.

Lorraine Gordon died. She kept the flame of New York’s Village Vanguard alive after the death of her husband Max. I made many stops at the club to see some of the greatest live music acts in a somewhat intimate setting.

Joe Jackson, father of, yes, those Jacksons died in June. I recall meeting Joe in the late 1980s as A&M Records had increasingly amazing success with Janet Jackson. In business meetings or casual settings Joe had the ability to smile and scare the hell out of you simultaneously. Clearly a dysfunctional family at times, but they changed the music business.

Aretha Franklin died. I could only smile when I saw the photographs and video of the line of pink Cadillacs lining up to pay tribute at her funeral in Detroit.

Bluesman Otis Rush, founding member of Jefferson Airplane Marty Balin, jazz great Sonny Fortune all died. As did Morgana King, and Nancy Wilson. I first heard Wilson’s 1964 recording of “How Glad I Am” while in high school. It’s a great record a half-century later.

And ABC’s Keith Jackson died. His voice was one of the most comfortable ways of listening to a sporting event. I noticed the passing of disc jockey Dan Ingram. He was one of those Top-40 radio voices that transcended the music. Ingram was, like Casey Kasem, Larry Lujack, the Real Don Steele, and others who came to us as if from the ether. Cousin Brucie is still with us (on Sirius XM) thank goodness.

     Hollywood gave up some significant names in 2018. Penny Marshall became a successful film director but I will always remember her as Laverne DeFazio on television’s “Laverne & Shirley”. Lyricist Norman Gimbel died. He wrote the lyrics to the “Happy Days” TV show theme music. It’s more likely he’d like us to remember another set of lyrics he wrote: “The Girl from Ipanema”.

 

     Burt Reynolds died. His epitaph should read something like “He did it his way”. Clint Walker died. A classic ‘bigger than life’ actor in many westerns, I remember him a little more for two small things he did. First, he starred in a made-for-TV movie titled “Yuma”. A small screen film but he helped make it memorable. The other thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”.

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg Yes, Clint Walker sang, and I had the single on my jukebox to prove it. Margot Kidder died. I attended a John Anderson for President fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1980, and ran into a friend who was dating Margot. In typical fashion I didn’t realize who she was.
Steven Bochco gave us “Hill Street Blues”, “LA Law” and more. Taylor 5bc24ef9708ec.image.jpg

Jim Taylor died. He was one of the most formidable running backs in the NFL during the Lombardi years with the Green Bay Packers.

Stan Lee. He single-handedly changed the comic book industry. Carl Kasell died. He spent years at NPR doing the news with absolute professionalism. Then, semi-retired, he became the perfect comedic companion to Peter Sagal on radio’s news quiz “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. And Tom Wolfe died. He wrote “The Right Stuff”. That’s all I need to know.

Stephen Hawking died. He outlived and outlasted many others not so severely afflicted as he. And as Penny said to Leonard on “Big Bang Theory”, “He’s that really smart guy, right?” Right!.

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     My Friend Russ Solomon died. He only created Tower Records. I wrote a column a few years ago decrying the fact that Russ was not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He reinvented music retailing. And others followed.

There were, obviously, many more famous and near-famous deaths in 2018. To those I met, worked with, never met, and worshipped from afar, you touched my life and so many others. Let’s all raise a glass to them.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

Photos from top to bottom: Nancy Wilson; Clint Walker; Jim Taylor; Russ Solomon.

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The Legacy of Richard Monsour   Leave a comment

April 1, 2019

There are few better days than the one when parents give their 12-year-old son his first guitar. It didn’t matter the brand, or whether acoustic or electric. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if it was used. That was the Christmas I remember. I received a 6-string Harmony electric guitar. That’s the “instrument” that began my journey. In the decades that followed I acquired an Eko electric 12-string, a Martin D12-35, a Fender Precision Bass, a Louden 6-string guitar, and my dream guitar: a Fender Telecaster. I purchased the Tele’ some 35 years after that Harmony guitar, and it’s my go-to instrument when I feel like making noise today.

Like most boys my age I learned to play listening to records and figuring out just what those players were doing. Over the next 8 years I formed or was a part of 8 different bands in Milwaukee. We performed regularly, made a little money, and attained a modicum of respect. We even did a little recording in the basement. By the time I was in college my days of performing faded and playing was a hobby. No matter. I would always have the memories; and my Tele’.
The guitarists that captured my attention are names that many people today aren’t familiar with. Of course there was Chuck Berry who “taught” every kid how to play “Johnny B. Goode” just by listening to those Chess 45s. But what about the others?

There was Duane Eddy. Born in 1938, Eddy crafted a sound that we still refer to as “twang”. He performed most of his lead guitar work using just the two bass strings on his six-string guitar. Songs like “Rebel Rouser”, “Cannonball”, and “Forty Miles of Bad Road” might have suggested to our parents that every Eddy record was the same. But, of course, they weren’t as more melodic outings like “The Lonely One”, and “Because They’re Young” softened the edge a bit. With help from Lee Hazlewood—yes that Lee Hazlewood—Eddy put together a string of hits that solidified his career, and we could sit next to our record player and ‘twang along with Duane’.

Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins was one of the young artists that Sam Phillips signed to Sun Records in Memphis. The roster was amazing. In a short time, Phillips could take credit for signing, recording, and releasing Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Perkins recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” and his finger-picking style made him a hero in England before the Beatles invaded America.

Bo Diddley had a style that was blues, R&B, and African rhythm all rolled into one superb player. His style differed from some of his contemporaries with his use of the tremolo option on his amp. Forget anyone who paints Bo Diddley as a one-trick pony. The man made all of us sit around a circle and try and figure out just how the hell he did that.

I noticed the sound coming from Ricky Nelson’s lead guitarist during his regular television appearances. It was so ‘simple’ you just knew you couldn’t easily replicate James Burton’s sound. How were we to know that Burton replaced his standard electric guitar strings with four banjo strings. By the time Burton was playing lead guitar for Elvis I knew he was a guitarist with a sound so clean and simple I’d have to quit my day job just to have the time to figure it out.

I met Les Paul and saw him perform in New York in 1993. I knew of Paul from his legendary recordings with wife Mary Ford as they were favorites of my mother. Paul is known in the music industry as much for his recording innovations as for his playing; but that sound, those licks, were pure Les Paul.

Carl Wilson was a solid guitarist and with brother Brian, the two were clearly the standout musicians in the Wilson family. The Beach Boys might have eventually figured out just how to create their surf sound, but it’s doubtful it would have happened as quickly without the help of Richard Monsour. In turn, Monsour might not have had his greatest success without the influence of his Lebanese father. It was from that influence that Monsour learned to play the ukulele and the guitar. He would take the stage-name Dick Dale, find alliteration useful in naming his band The Del-Tones, and lead the creation of the soon-to-be-defined “surf sound”. The New York Times described Dale’s legacy as having defined “the sound of surf guitar as a musical expression of the elemental surge of the ocean, with its savage waves, its volatile crosscurrents and its tidal undertow. He played melodies that crisscrossed the beat with the determination of a surfer riding through choppy waves, forging a triumphant path above deep turbulence.” An elegant way of confirming Dale’s musical style.

Dick DaleFew could have predicted that this Boston-born transplant to southern California would be the person to create an entire sound based on the thunder of the waves. And just as unlikely, the song that drove his ‘creation’ was, in fact, a recreation of an Arabic song from the early twentieth century (or even earlier). “Misirlou” was that song. Perhaps no one really understood the song’s Middle-eastern origins, particularly since most of the earliest live performances faded from memory, although three recorded versions seem to have had some success between 1941 and 1953. “Misirlou” was recorded by The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Bobby Fuller Four and played by every local band looking to imitate the young California sound while playing in Cleveland, or Denver, or, say, Milwaukee. With the success of “Misirlou”, Dick Dale was anointed the King of the Surf Guitar. And why not.

Thirty years after Dale’s original recording, “Misirlou” once again caught our ears as a significant theme in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” It brought renewed fame and adulation from fans, and a renewed opportunity to tour.
Last month (March 16), Dale died in Loma Linda, California at age 81.
Learning the guitar is one thing. Learning how to play is another. And carving out a new genre of music, well, that’s something else again. Dale was a realist-philosopher. In the December 13, 2015 issue of California Rocker, Dale had a little wisdom for all of us:

“Don’t worry about yesterday and don’t worry about tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t worry about yesterday because it’s used. It’s either good or it leaves you feeling bad. And don’t waste time or energy worrying about tomorrow. I could have a stroke and be dead. That’s why they call it the present. It’s a present.”

Thanks to all of them—Chuck, Bo, Carl, James, Duane, Les, and everyone else from whom we learned by stealing licks. Tonight I’ll plug my Tele’ into my Fender amp, and play a few licks. Believe me, it won’t sound anything like them but my heart is with these (and other) guitar legends. In fact, let’s all pick up our guitars, crank our amps up to 11 and give Dick Dale and all the others a lick or two. They’ve earned it.

Who Knew?   Leave a comment

February 1, 2019

Who knew? In early summer 1974 I stepped onto a westbound Continental Airlines flight to Los Angeles. This wasn’t a holiday, but a journey to a meeting of A&M Records staff members of which I was one. These meetings were a mix of solid discussion and an immersion into new music. Did I mention that we also found time to have some fun.

amrecordsThat visit to California would include great memories, but none more vivid than an evening at the Roxy Theatre. This venue was a partnership of 5 or 6 Hollywood movers, including Lou Adler. Although I had met Adler in Chicago at a Carole King concert at McCormick Place we clearly did not run in the same circles. Adler was a talented music industry person who helped create a long list of great music, including the legendary Tapestry album by King.

I learned quickly that one of the perks of working for a record label was to be treated to new music. Sometimes in the studio, occasionally in someone’s office, often at a performance. Some of the smaller club performances stay with me to this day. As it turned out, part of that A&M meeting included a special performance at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. Most members of the audience were A&M staffers, along with some wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and roxy program frontfriends of the label. When the lights dimmed and the music started to play, characters—which we assumed were the band—started to move from the stage into the audience. At the same time, another character came from behind us, walking toward the stage using the armrests on the seats to carefully get to the stage. This was our introduction to the Rocky Horror Show.

Lou Adler had purchased the North American rights to produce The Rocky Horror Show—the stage version, to begin. And the show we witnessed wasn’t a sample but a full production staged in the somewhat limited space inside the Roxy. Needless to say it was an unforgettable evening. For anyone unfamiliar with the storyline, The Rocky Horror Show was a campy sendup of 1930s and 1940s horror (and, to be fair, science fiction) films, not the least influenced by Frankenstein.

Written by Richard O’Brien, the history of contributors to its success is rather full, and can be found easily for those interested. The important factor was Adler getting a show built on Hollywood film imagery from London to Hollywood. The Rocky Horror Show Rocky RHPS-FrankOnThroneplayed for nine months in California, followed by a short stint (45 performances) in New York. While the show established the Roxy as a viable performance space, the real success was to come with a film adaption. A little more than a year after that late-spring 1974 performance I witnessed at the Roxy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived in movie theaters—in London in August 1975, and in the States in September. Once again the box office was somewhat weak, and the reviews clearly didn’t help. One reviewer wrote the production off as “”tasteless, plotless and pointless”. But the decision by one theater to begin showing the film on Friday night at midnight changed the fortunes and the history. Having worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, one couldn’t help but notice that Rocky Horror Picture Show seemed to be screening somewhere in America all the time. Audiences often dressed the part of their favorite characters. Sometimes theaters would give prizes to the best costumes, or free admission, or free Cokes and popcorn. Each little perk offered by the theater helped sustain the audiences as people flocked to each screening to see the Curry e4820620cb17d40bea3e89e9562458ced2661b63people as much as to see the film.

As for the music, I look back on the Roxy show and the film and concluded that the individual songs were perfect for the production, but individually few would be listened to outside of the show or the film. Of course there are at least two exceptions: “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite”. These days, whenever I hear “Sweet Transvestite” as a memory recording, it is always in the voice of Tim Curry. I met Curry a few years later while promoting and marketing his 1979 Fearless album (and the singles “Paradise Garage” and “I Do The Rock”.) I still enjoy hearing those tracks. And I’ve seen him on the screen in other films, including The Hunt For Red October. But I will always remember seeing him at the Roxy. And I will always appreciate having been an early visitor to the launch of Adler’s Roxy club, the character Frank N. Furter, and the Rocky Horror Show. It’s easy to log on to Netflicks and watch almost any film we can think of. But if and when I see The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, it will have to be at midnight, at a local theater. With all of us dressed for the event. Mmmmm. Which character will I be? Wait. I know! I’ll be . . . .

Adrenaline and Then Some   Leave a comment

May 1, 2018

     There’s something to be said for adrenaline. With good reason, it absolutely gets our attention although I can’t honestly say I remember the first time I felt that rush. It might have been when I was two years old, being wheeled into surgery to have my tonsils removed; I can still smell the ether but I have no memory of a rush. Our “adrenaline memory” is very often associated with “the first time” of any number of things. Falling out of a tree. Riding a roller coaster, or water skiing, or a first commercial airline flight. The second, or third time you’ve been on Space Mountain, a thrill may still exist but it’s unlikely adrenaline will be coursing through your system. Whatever your first, latest, or worst memory of the trigger that sent adrenaline charging through your body, we can all relate.

The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, get us ready almost instantaneously for what’s about to happen. Under stress, we experience increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism. It’s the body’s way of preparing our muscles for exertion or, from a medical and scientific view, the rush helps us cope with the likelihood that we’re about to have the ever-living shit scared out of us. That’s my analysis, anyway. Aside from a recent driving experience—coming around a curve on Iverson Road in Mendocino County and finding a deer in my lane—my adrenaline rushes these days are more likely to be associated with films and, on occasion, television.

I was sitting here thinking about horror and science fiction films that have done more than simply provide me with solid entertainment. That thought-process took me back to Psycho Knifemy childhood, and memories of films that provided me with what I assume today was an adrenaline rush. Take Psycho, for example. If there was an age restriction it must have been 11, since I walked into a theater and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the ‘big screen’ at age 12. The surprises were many, and almost all of them quite “memorable”—the knife, the shower scene, Norman Bates’ mother—all designed to take your breath away; and there was plenty of blood to cover more than the shower floor, even in glorious black and white.

Before Psycho, and in the many years since, there have been other films that pushed the adrenaline through my system. Numerous science fiction films I saw as a child convinced me that Martians and other invaders were Invaders-from-Marscoming to take over planet Earth. Invaders from Mars (1953) had Martians controlling us by implanting a crystal in the necks of we puny little humans. For months the film made me wonder about that field behind our house. Shot in color (and with decent special effects for the day), the aliens’ costumes looked suspiciously like there was a very earthly common zipper up the back. Nevertheless, in the days after seeing the film I found myself (on more than one occasion) checking my father’s neck to see if he’d been implanted with one of the aliens’ controlling crystals. Truth be told, my father had plenty of issues, but a Martian implant was not one of them.

This Island Earth (1955) offered more interplanetary adventure, with human-like aliens sporting large foreheads, and the prospect that the inhabitants of their dying home planet—Metaluna—would be relocating to Milwaukee in the near future. The film TIE 9544962772_73f9343569_b CRoffered a balanced plot line with both creepy and sympathetic characters providing needed tension and relief.

Whereas Invaders from Mars gave us a clue to the intentions of  the Martians, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) made us worry about those living among us who were becoming increasingly nice, passive, and worrisome, offering no obvious clues to our fate. The more pleasant people were, the more likely their bodies had already been snatched.

The last film I’ll mention from the 1950s Sci-fi era was The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Michael Rennie had it all over Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but the character that brought chills to this child was Gort, Gort Day-the-Earth-Stood-Still-2-1the 8-10 foot tall robot. You knew when his visor went up some thing or someone was about to be toast. Robert Wise crafted a film that was so good that when I first saw the movie, it was on our small (10-12″) screen television, and still, Gort scared the hell out of me.

There have been plenty of other films that have given me a bit of an adrenaline rush, like The Exorcist (1973). From the early scene of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) at the Middle-Eastern dig site, to the exorcism itself, this Protestant was happy there was a Catholic priest between me and Satan. With Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien we grasped the cold reality that “in space no one can hear you scream”. Whether it was the face-huggers, the emergence of a creature exploding out of Kane’s (Jon Hurt’s) stomach, or the fully developed alien, this film had moments to trip anyone’s anxiety trigger. There was Jaws (1975) letting us know that we were all “going to need a bigger boat”; and more scares, surprises, and terror from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frankenstein (1931), The Birds (1963), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982).  Remakes almost never achieve what the original (and usually much lower budget) films achieved since adrenaline, to whatever degree, needs one or more elements of surprise.

In 2004 I was teaching at a college in the Twin Cities and I clearly remember our first Halloween in that house in St. Paul. We not only decorated the house, but the small Spongebob SB61-SQY006-B105 CRgarden near the entrance where trick or treaters would line up to get their goodies. It was a sufficiently pleasant October evening that I decided to spend time sitting on a chair in the middle of the garden, wearing a trench coat and hat with my face covered, appearing to be some phony stuffed “corpse”. My chair was about 15 feet from the walkway. Some time during the evening a dad brought his 5 or 6 year old son trick or treating; even from a distance I could easily see the young boy was sporting a SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirt as they walked up to the house for a treat. When I saw the boy looking toward me I lifted my head slightly, and from across the garden said (in my best creepy voice) “Oh SpongeBob . . . Oh SpongeBob”. The little boy looked around, saw my ghostly-like presence, immediately turned around and ran crying down the path. For a split second I felt bad. Then I saw his father apparently getting a good laugh over the moment. Eventually little SpongeBob came back with his dad to get his candy, but I’d like to believe that, to this day, he remembers that very special Halloween. If only for the adrenaline rush.

Hail, Farewell   Leave a comment

January 1, 2018

    I’ve been writing for the Lighthouse Peddler for years now, yet each month I wonder what idea, event, or emotion will surface as the stimulus for an essay. Without fail my mind’s journey almost always touches on the arts in general, or some specific musician or filmmaker or event. Most months I’m as surprised as anyone by the topic that becomes central to my column. And then, like a gift from the mysterious muse, the keys of my MacBook begin to make noise and a few hours later I read what I’ve written.

     In January we may be pleased that the old year is over (this year’s old year in particular) and we’re ready to focus on the year ahead. However, whatever we thought of the year just ended, we invariably find ourselves looking in the rear view mirror. Satchel Paige became almost as famous for one of his quotes as for his baseball career. He cautioned, “Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.”

     Ignoring Paige’s advice, we’re once again publishing a list of 60 notable people who died in 2017 and are worth remembering. Our list could easily have been 200, and paring the names was no easy task. (The ’60′ are on page 4 of this issue.) What follows are thoughts on some of those who made our short list.

     Writer Frank Deford is gone. I loved Deford. He hit my radar when he created the short-lived National Sports Daily. After the Daily folded a year and a half later, Deford continued as a commentator for NPR, and became a prolific writer, including 18 books. About 15 years ago, a dear friend in Connecticut (where we all then lived) arranged for a meeting where she graciously introduced me to her friend Frank; I was like a teenager meeting his favorite rock star backstage. Composure regained, we talked a bit about his writing style, his books, and the state of sports in America. It’s a wonderful memory. Others from the literary world we lost in 2017 include William Peter Blatty, who introduced us to the fictional MacNeil family in The Exorcist. Daughter Regan became possessed by Satan and Blatty later, along with director William Friedkin, scared the living daylights out of us with the film.

   And then there was Jimmy Breslin, the poster-child for writers in New York’s newspaper world. In his obit, the New York Times said “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers.”

     Actor John Hurt left us, and I thought about his career and the wide range of characters he portrayed. He was supremely impactful in his central role as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; and he was also credible in the film Contact, in a semi-cameo role as the billionaire S. R. Hadden, the character who articulated the obvious (and painfully true) first rule in government spending: “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”.    Mary Tyler Moore got her TV start as wife Laura Petrie Mary 7659660192_56085e863f_zon the Dick Van Dyke Show. However, she became everyone’s best friend, or the friend everyone wished they had, as Mary Richards, her character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Set in the Twin Cities, the show was so successful that today there’s a statue of Moore in downtown Minneapolis.    And we lost Sam Shepard, whose rugged good looks and believability on screen made him credible whether he was in front of the camera, behind the camera, or delivering a newly-authored play. Shepard’s brief on-screen appearance early in the film The Pelican Brief is a testimonial to his ability to imbue his character into the moment, and then stay with us through the balance of the film.

     Comedians we lost in 2017 include Bill Dana, whose alter-ego was the highly politically incorrect ‘astronaut’ Jose Jimenez. Pointing to his space helmet, Milton Berle once asked Dana (in character as Jimenez) “What is this called, a crash helmet?” Jimenez replied in his unusual accent, “Oh, I hope not”.

     We also lost the  World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey. To understand his authority, one really should look for a YouTube video clip. Shelley Berman died this year. He was often referred to as a bit of a tortured soul. He probably was but he was brilliant. We’ll not see his equal anytime soon. Don Rickles was the delightfully savage comedian whose mission was to regularly insult almost anyone and everyone. And yet unlike some who casually brandish insults today, almost no one was offended by Rickles.

      John Anderson was my congressman when we lived outside Chicago. Although a member of the GOP, Anderson was refreshing, interesting, and intelligent. He ran for president in 1980 first as a republican, and then as an independent. It was the latter candidacy that led me to support him. When we had a chance conversation at a campaign event in Los Angeles that year, it reaffirmed my belief that Anderson was a good choice. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, including mine.    And let’s say goodbye to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who became an accidental mayor by virtue of the seat left open by the departing Gavin Newsome. No one really disliked Lee. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), in the City of San Francisco, he was the first Asian-American to hold that office.

     Musicians who’ve left us include the great singer Al Jarreau, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, southern icon Gregg Allman, jazz drummer Grady Tate, diva Roberta Peters, Jon Hendricks of the famed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and Americana legend Rosalie Sorrels. Tate, for the record, was one of those unusual drummers who put his instrument aside, to become a vocalist. His baritone was a genuine gift to the genre. He even delivered on the theme song from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.  In addition Glen Campbell died after a long career that found him starting as a studio side-musician (guitarist for hire), before rising to stardom (including television) with the songs of John Hartford (“Gentle On My Mind”) and Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). chuck-berry-duck-walking-7 CR (1)And the icon of Rock ’n’ Roll, Chuck Berry finally proved he was mortal in 2017, although his music will continue for decades and generations to come. My older brother bought a copy of “School Day” in 1957 and I’m sure it’s somewhere in my collection to this day. I saw Berry twice. First in 1972, when he was in Chicago for a concert date built on the success of a quirky #1 hit titled “My Ding-A-Ling”. The second time was a Connecticut casino show in the late 1990s. He was already showing his age but he could still take a moment to play his guitar while doing his patented ‘duckwalk. Don’t know what that is? YouTube it.

     I trust I’m not alone in suggesting that we’ll miss these people. We may not hold them all in the same regard, but I’ll guarantee that someone on this list was a favorite of yours too. To all of them I can only quote from Chuck Berry: “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Credible News. Seems Simple, But. . . .   Leave a comment

Challenging The False Narrative From #45

June 1, 2017

I’ve always been an early-riser. As a child my mother found that my body clock was set for 5:00am. She dealt with this reality as would any mother wishing to keep her sanity. Since she worked 3rd shift as a registered nurse (and didn’t return home until 7:30am,) I accepted her guidance. My mother taught me how to make my own breakfast, and provided me with an understanding of why I would live longer if I didn’t wake everyone else in the house at 5:00am. It was no surprise that years later when I delivered papers in Milwaukee, I worked for the morning paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel.

To my own surprise (based on my early years in school) I find that I read a lot these days. It’s a habit I developed in the 1970s while living in Chicago, where I became a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times. That choice—Sun-Times vs. Chicago Tribune—was based on two simple ideas: first, the story selection and the writing style of the Sun-Times connected with me; second, I preferred the physical size and shape of the the Sun-Times tabloid format vs. the Chicago Tribune’s broadsheet. It didn’t matter that the Tribune was larger (in number of pages and readers) and far more powerful than the Sun-Times. We all have our preferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times always seemed grittier to me, more blue-collar than white collar; more Main Street than Wall Street. Looking back to those days in Chicago my memory paints a picture of a Sun-Times that was something of a real-life version of The Sun in Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper, or The Day in Richard Brooks’ 1952 film Deadline U.S.A. In fact, as I recall the Sun-Times was the backdrop for the 1981 film Continental Divide Belushicd02starring John Belushi as a gritty reporter. Moving to Los Angeles in 1977 didn’t change my habits; just the names of the papers. As a resident I looked to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and The Los Angeles Times. Both were pale versions of the Chicago papers but for more than a decade I followed the world through the lens of the Los Angeles papers. And as I began working nationally and internationally, I also expanded my reading list to include the New York Times, which I continue to read today, along with the Washington Post and occasionally the Press Democrat here on the coast.

There’s a scene in the 1977 film Futureworld, where the film’s two lead characters—a TV reporter played by Blythe Danner and a print reporter played by Peter Fonda—talk about which is more important and more popular for getting news and information. After a brief exchange (and the question remaining unresolved) they turn to a stranger. The Fonda character asks the man if he gets his news from television or newspapers? His response went something like this: “Me? I’m a tube freak, man”.  The film may be 40 years old but looking at the media landscape today, it seems that the ‘tube freak’ was on to something. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, “. . . TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.” The analysis goes on to confirm that “the greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to (17%).”

How we get news is less important, in my opinion, than the credibility of the news we get. There’s no question that our current president, number 45, likes to talk about ‘fake news’ as a way to explain his “stolen popular vote”, or the smaller crowds at his inaugural, or the popular resistance to his gutting of the social safety net and his denial of climate change. I don’t care if #45 believes Martians or Mexicans voted illegally to keep him from winning the popular vote. I just wish he’d either start governing or pack up his marbles and go home. Either is preferable to the continuing mistrust he sows in our society.

A couple of weeks ago I started watching 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in part perhaps, to help me believe that our government might start governing. Alas, I didn’t watch the entire movie because I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that there is even one strong and honorable “Jefferson Smith” residing in today’s U.S. Senate. I’d even settle for the film’s Senator “Joseph Paine” to come to mr_smith_goes_to_washington_61073-1920x1200our rescue, and tell him to keep some of the graft for his effort. Governing isn’t a lost cause, but fake news is pushing us in that direction.

Jacob Soll wrote in Politico last December that “fake news’ dates back almost 600 years, essentially since Gutenberg in 1439. As an example Soll offers this nugget: “To whip up revolutionary fervor, Ben Franklin himself concocted propaganda stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with the British King George III.” With the consolidation of news outlets, local beat reporters are an endangered species, and regional and national reporters are at the very least a group under threat. Soll concludes that “Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide.”

I’ll keep looking for real news and pass along what I find. I hope you’ll do the same.

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The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

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