Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

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

Good News! A Trump-oscopy For Everyone   Leave a comment

Bend Over. President Trump Has Plans For You

June 1, 2016

I like the idea that I’m allowed to write just about whatever I wish in my monthly column, which is why it ranges through thoughts on music, the arts, life on the California coast, and occasionally politics. Of late I have been a bit reticent to write about politics in general, and Trump-mania in particular. While I’m not (yet) ready to apply for refugee status in Canada, I must admit I am a little concerned about the disproportionate fandom following Mr. Trump. And that’s just the journalists and the media.

At first I thought it was simply the TV thing. The vision of Trump walking through the State Department, the Pentagon, or the White House kitchen pointing his orange-ish red finger at every third person and arbitrarily shouting “Your Fired” seemed unlikely. Then came the adulation of an unbridled press, following him around and waiting on his every word. Like Gollum, reporters seem to be constantly waiting for the appearance of The Precious. I actually wish I could say that as the primaries went on and on, his rhetoric became more and more distasteful. But that isn’t true. His opening salvo in 2015 from the Vatican-like fortress known as Trump Tower signaled immediately that this person isn’t just provocative. He is genuinely dangerous. His admiration for Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un knows no bounds. CNN’s Carol Costello pressed Trump’s seemingly idiotic press spokesperson Healy Baumgardner on the point. She reminded Ms. Baumgardner of the horrific deeds of Kim, and asked “. . . what [Mr. Trump] meant when he praised the dictator in January as ‘amazing’ for killing his own family members.” Baumgardner’s programmed response was that Trump “wants to keep an open dialogue and repair relations with world leaders.” Spoken like a true automaton.

Let me be clear. Aside from the possibility that Trump will initiate a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, or use nuclear weapons in Europe, essentially provoking World War III, I don’t see Trump as an immediate danger to me. I am, as the saying goes, a man of a certain age. Nuclear holocausts aside (for the moment) there are few things that a megalomaniac like Trump can impose on me in one or two terms in the Oval Office that are going to destroy my life. If he wants to get rid of Social Security or Medicare, he’ll be sleazy enough to propose that it doesn’t go away tomorrow. Instead he’ll help engineer its dissolution over time, say a couple of decades or so, at the end of which I’ll be below the grass instead of walking on it. But my daughter and generations older and younger than she should take note. If you believe getting healthcare was difficult (or impossible) in the past, wait until Trump is in charge. That’s when we’ll learn what ‘death panels’ are really about.

And the GOP will sit by and let him do all of this. Let’s not forget that the sixteen now defeated GOP candidates were uniform in their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and replace it with something better. However, since “Obamacare” was passed and signed into law six years ago, no bill has been put forward by the GOP to replace the legislation. All of their energies have been focused on repealing the act. Forget the millions who have insurance today who were previously denied coverage by for-profit insurance companies for daring to show up with “Pre-existing Conditions”.

Trump’s unique perspective is born of never having to say please, thank you, or I’m sorry. Born (or hatched) into a millionaire’s family, he is the antithesis of Oliver Twist. As a child—assuming he actually was once a child (although there remain rumors about his roots being extra-terrestrial)— when young Trump was hungry and asked for more, I’m certain that he—unlike Oliver—always received more food rather than a smack on the head with a ladle.

Trump brings nothing to the job that will actually help average Americans. Conversely, what he can do is destroy a unique world economy by reshaping it in his own image. A suitable playground for millionaires to pay low or no taxes, have plenty of servants to do all of life’s menial labor, and of course maintain those things that society has decided we cannot do without: A personal jet, and personal helicopters, servants, limousines, replacement spousal units, multiple homes in multiple states or countries. Did I mention servants? That is, after all, what we will all be in the new and great America. He’ll turn this country into a new theme park known as TrumpWorld. It will be like WallyWorld but without the rides. Or the fun. Or even Wally the Moose.

Trump’s ability to have his hair coiffed perfectly in that beautiful Tang-esque shade of orange, should be your first clue that reality is not the strong-suit of this reality TV star. What’s in store in January if Trump is elected? A lack of affordable healthcare, women going to prison for abortion, a giant wall from the Rio Grande to Tijuana, a miraculous military, deportation of all undocumented workers, an exit from NATO, a foreign policy that is anti-British and anti-Europe, and simultaneously pro-Putin and pro North Korea, a default on America’s debt triggering economic problems (or PROBLEMS), plus a new version of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: for Muslims now, and later you can assume, anyone identifying as LGBT, abortion doctors, and the chronically ill. All these (and more) will need to leave in an effort to make America great. You get the picture.

Trump is dangerous. To you and me, to our friends and allies, to anyone that isn’t wealthy. Sometime in January the increasingly inane Healy Baumgardner will announce that, “Top Line, Mr. Trump wants to provide America with a colonoscopy to identify and eliminate undesirables.” A Trump-oscopy.

In closing, don’t worry. Trump is planning to combine the Center for Disease Control with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department, and stick a probe up America’s ass. In the end, America will be clean again, great again; and presumably very white. As Karl the greens-keeper in Caddyshack might say, “you got dat goin’ for you, and dat’s kinda nice.”

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

Longing For The Cold War   Leave a comment

Who’d a thought?

March 1, 2016

For some of us, perhaps many of us, the Cold War years had clarity. Believe it or not while there weren’t rules, the Cold War gave us lines and boundaries. There was fear and yet our government sought to soothe our worried minds. Of course both sides—East and West—had people on the extremes but, to borrow a football metaphor, the ‘cold warriors’ generally played between the 20 yard lines. Not much scoring but no nuclear missile strikes either.

During the half century after WWII, America had a more unified and purposeful society, not to mention better friends, better enemies, better politicians, and better music. The 220px-Nagasakibombunification of spirit felt during that political “ice age” was likely the end result of our collective fear of being destroyed, in spite of assurances from those in authority that we could ‘survive a nuclear attack’. What senior citizen does not recall being lovingly informed by a kindergarten teacher that if we wanted to get home safely toniP.S._58_-_Carroll_&_Smith_Sts._Bklyn._hold_a_take_cover_drill_01489vght, we’d better know how to duck and cover, as in duck under your desk when you hear the warning or see the flash of the A-Bomb, and then cover your head. Right. Even the older children were fed the idea that they could ‘survive an atom bomb’. No discussion of those pesky radiation burns or ingesting some residual particle of U-235. Instead, “OK kids, the bright light is gone, the mushroom cloud is pretty, the city’s destroyed, but we’re just fine. Get home safe! And don’t forget to read Silas Marner for tomorrow.”

This is not an attempt to trivialize the Truman-to-Reagan era, (or for that matter Stalin-to-Gorbachev.) We felt the tension, witnessed occasional provocations, and were sometimes heartened by moments of detente. Khrushchev visited America, and then that silly U2 spy plane thing happened. There were years of atmospheric nuclear tests with regular forays into unilateral brinksmanship. The proxy war with China, also known as the Korean “Police Action”, morphed into an uneasy and often violated truce along the 38th Parallel. The militarization of western Europe through NATO was a reflection of the occupation of eastern Europe under the guise of the Warsaw Pact. We lived through the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everywhere the raison detre was expressed as defeating the “Decadent Capitalism” of the West, or the “Godless Communism” of the East.

Providing additional boundaries for our lives were some lighter cultural influences. Like Mad Magazine (“What-Me Worry?”) and its offbeat humor. Its satire was sometimes dark, and like other cultural touchstones it had double-entendres Mad30for intergenerational readers, i.e. the oddball humor of Spy vs. Spy. On television there was Rocky & Bullwinkle providing viewers with A-Bomb comic-relief featuring Boris & Natasha; a bit like the Addams Family with nukes. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gave us the organizations UNCLE and THRUSH squaring off as “good” and “evil”. There was even a credit at the end of each episode thanking the United Network Command For Law Enforcement for its assistance in the production. (No such organization existed but suggesting it was a real agency was a little like the childish joke ending with “. . . made you look”.) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was mirrored with humor in Get Smart with its agents of “Control” and “Kaos”.

Two big screen offerings in 1964 were Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the drama of the former, Henry Fonda portrayed “The President”, attempting to be a rational voice with his Russian counterpart. In the end, the wayward American nukes destroyed Moscow, and Fonda’s president prevented a full out Soviet nuclear response by dropping an American nuke on New York City. (Ted Cruz probably liked that part of the film). Strangelove’s black comedy was center stage with Peter Sellers in three roles: as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (suggesting Britain’s WWII Field Marshal Montgomery), American President Merkin Muffley, telling the members of his cabinet that even when discussing global thermonuclear war, decorum is required: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” And finally there was Dr. Strangelove himself, an obvious preview of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s role in the Nixon White House. Ironically Kissinger helped open American relations with “Red” China by organizing a meeting between conservative Nixon, and Mao and Chou en Lai. (Twenty years later, the cultural relevance of that meeting was not lost on fans of Star Trek, when Spock tells Kirk the old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China.”) You Only Live Twice, the 1967 Bond film was contrasted with The President’s Analyst. Deadly suave vs. deadly humor. Exposed to both fiction and fact, by the 1970s we continued to see the lines.

In the 1980s the acronym MAD emerged providing a shortcut to imagining the end result of unleashing weapons of war in the Atomic Age: Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD reinforced a simple premise: nuclear war was insane. We ALSO accepted another new phrase: Nuclear Winter. It took “MAD” and further defined the outcome of a nuclear war in two words. So instead of launching a global thermonuclear war, over the decades the East and West engaged in proxy states and proxy wars, as in Vietnam, Angola, Korea, Syria, Israel, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Cuba. But the world began to believe that there were actual lines, and launching a nuclear war was a line not to be crossed.

Through all those years, music was an important ingredient in American culture. There was always someone, somewhere, inspired and willing to write and record a song about the times in which we lived. Something to give us a tweak on the nose, a slap to the back of the head. Today we sometimes feel as if there is no relevant music, or we’re less inspired by music, or music is no longer enough. (Name me two widely recognized songs that we all came to know as the anthems of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. . . . time’s up.) In keeping with the current state of technology, protests have become less frequent, but more visual; like standing up at a Trump rally asking for tolerance and being thrown out of the room, often with disregard for personal safety. Highly visible buy hardly new. Trump has (as ha16moore_CA0-popups the GOP) become the new “Bull” Conner. Half a century ago Conner—the Commissioner for Public Safety—enforced racial segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens in Birmingham, Alabama by using attack dogs, firehoses, and worse. (See the Charles Moore photograph). The difference then, the abuse was a wakeup call to anyone on the sidelines. Today’s boorish and thug-like behavior seems to embolden the supporters, while those in opposition can complain for one news cycle; and like the introduction of another shiny object, the noise dies down as the media loses interest. Until it happens again.

It’s my belief that we are not sufficiently confronting today’s bigots, warmongers, and racists in our midst. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the others say anything and the greatest casualty is the truth. We can only hope that at some point they will each be called to account. Whether by a citizen in the streets, a famous newscaster, a war veteran, or a musician on stage. Presidential wannabes are calling for “carpet-bombing” the Middle East, deporting 12 million people, building a wall along our border, excluding members of one or more religions from entering the U.S. solely on the basis of their religion, and declaring that we need waterboarding and [actually] it should go further. A counter-message to these dismantlers of the Constitution must emerge, and soon.

As I prepared to write this column, I reviewed a list of recordings. I kept searching for a contemporary narrative to protest the warmongers, to counter the nativists, and to refute those with a flawed history of the founding of the Republic. The more I thought about it, the less important a long list of recordings became. Beyond David Rovics, who is constantly writing, recording, touring—his website declares “Music is no spectator sport, [we should] become a co-conspirator and organize a gig, translate my songs into other languages or join the Better Anarchist™ Club and help me get to the next protest”—we need music to transcend the moment. We need today’s Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody (or Arlo) Guthrie, Nanci Griffith, or Shona Laing to raise their voices. But we must recognize that the lines are no longer as clearly drawn as they were during the Cold War.

Racists are getting away with being racist. Warmongers are wrapping themselves in the flag to justify bombing indiscriminately. Bigots are openly expressing their abhorrent bigotry. Don’t ask where the “anti-ISIS” songs are. Instead, understand that hatred is obvious within America today. Everyone has a duty to protest the borderline insanity of these modern day John Birchers. As New Zealander Shona Laing asked thirty years ago in her song “Soviet Snow”, are we keeping “One eye on the winter? Are we wide awake? Is the world aware?” While I’d like to believe that we are awake and aware, it seems, maybe, not so much.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

 

Note: An edited version of this was published in the March 2016 issue of the monthly Lighthouse Peddler.

 

Return of the Pharisees   Leave a comment

Many of the Wealthy Seem Bent on Giving for Name Only

December 31, 2015

The concept of giving is wonderful, confusing, rewarding, necessary. And that’s just for starters. From my earliest days in Lutheran elementary school, I learned about the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. “Alms for the poor” (or a variation), a phrase we were assured was found throughout the Bible, was drilled into our heads. What Sunday School 8-year old could not feel some degree of empathy? There are the numerous lessons on giving offered by the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity (including Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, etc), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and among them we learn what alms are, who they are for, why we should give, and so on.

We’d like to believe that charitable giving is only or primarily altruistic. But, of course, it is not. To be fair much of the giving to charity by Americans is personal, like money dropped in the collection plate during mass, or in the poor box inside the narthex of the church, or in the Salvation Army collection pot. Yes, someone may observe the act of giving but not necessarily the amount given. The idea is to be less than obvious. And to be clear, there exists no societal norm for how much is enough. Some elect to follow an historical or epistemological practice. Tithing, for example: giving 10%. Others may have a familial ‘norm’ based on nothing more than “I always give $5.00”. And still others follow the “spare change” model. I was in a conversation with a priest who told me of a parishioner who asked “if one wishes to practice tithing, is it gross or net?” Somewhat predictably the priest responded, “well, if you have to ask. . . .”

The number of people who choose to give anonymously is infinitely larger than the “look at me” crowd, those who make very public contributions. My analysis is based soley on the far greater number of people in the so-called 99%, versus the smaller group—the 1%, those who hold the greatest amount of accumulated wealth within this or any society. It is possible that some within the latter “one percenters” give for one or more sincere reasons, but I would wager that most of the wealthy believe that public giving works beyond helping others; it improves their standing in the community, society, or the world. They are also likely to be well versed in the tax code, as in a list of deductions to offset income and reduce taxes.

Charity, from ancient times to today, has been used by some as a billboard, a neon sign, offered publicly to impress others. Like the pharisees of old, the wealthy and particularly the über-wealthy seem to relish making public donations, affixing their family name to a fund, trust, or charitable organization so everyone knows it was they who made the donation. These days when I see the credits at the beginning of a documentary film or a public television program (or video) I find I’m spending more time scrutinizing the donors than the stars, producers, or writers. The latter have an agenda, to be sure, but the former—the donors to one of these projects—have an agenda as well. The size of the on-screen font suggests that some (or many) of these donors are 21st-century pharisees who, like their namesakes two thousand years ago, believe in their inherent lofty place in society, and wish to reinforce an equally pretentious “knowledge” of their superior sanctity. They want the world to accept their premise.

The wonderful and long-running PBS series Nova is just one example where the good vibe and hopeful anticipation of what is to come quickly crashes through the floor when you see one of the named contributors to the funding: The David H. Koch Fund For Science. You understand that IMG_1558this is no quiet, unobtrusive thank you credit to the billionaire. That on-screen credit, the fund’s logo, takes up about 25% of the screen. About as subtle as a freight-train. The Koch brothers, more than any single American family—at least during the past twenty years—have used their wealth to reshape the American political landscape. Their agenda is simple: spend hundreds of millions (billions really by some estimates) to place very conservative, anti-government, low-tax (for the wealthy) candidates in state legislatures, governorships, in the U.S. congress, the senate, and on the supreme court. And they receive tax deductions for their efforts.

As one of his contributions to the generations who followed, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides left the world his take on giving, on charity, with a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient. Counting down, and in an abbreviated form, here are Maimonides’ levels, the “Great Eight”:

Eight: Giving grudgingly. If the option is to give grudgingly or not at all, Maimonides prefers that you give grudgingly. Better to help someone in need, albeit with a bad attitude, than to ignore them.

Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly. If you or your accountant suggest you can afford to give $1,000 and you decide to give $250 and you do so with a pleasant demeanor, the positive nature of your expression of caring helps offset—to some degree—the decision to do less than you can afford.

Six: If you give generously, but must first be asked, you land at level six. Take heart. You gave, even though the person in need had to calmly ask or grovel in your presence.

Five: You gave before anyone asked. This requires you to pay attention, to look where you may not wish to look. No crying, begging, or pleading required. In essence, you reached out before the needy reached out to you.

Four: The person on the receiving end knows that the gift came from you, but you don’t know who received the gift. Perhaps the donor feels like they’ve accomplished something of more value because of the anonymity. Of course, those on the receiving end still know they are indebted to the donor. The superiority of the giver is maintained.

Three: This is the reverse of level four: The donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who donated the money. I disagree with Maimonides here, as this seems like it should change places with level four (above). After all, this type of giving enables the donor to maintain a feeling of superiority over the recipient. In any case, Maimonides placed this at level three.

Two: A completely anonymous gift. The donor does not know where the money went, or who received the money, and the recipient has no idea whom to thank. This is a near-perfect level, since the receiver can take the gift with the knowledge that there is no one to whom they need to feel indebted, and the giver can never know if the recipient was someone on the other side of the world or down the block.

One: Helping someone reach self-sufficency. If you recall the saying that “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they can feed themselves”, then Level One is the idea that you can actually help someone become self-sufficient. Better to have a job than to be unemployed. Better to feel you are contributing to society than to take from society (although many on the far right speak only of the “takers”). Along with income, food, and shelter, there is the preservation of one’s dignity.

Many followers of western religions believe that doing good things on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Karma, from Hinduism and Buddhism, represents the sum of one’s actions in this and previous states of existence, and those actions are viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. This year let’s resolve to do more, and perhaps we should consider doing it silently. Our karma may depend on it.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2015

 

Of Music’s Gods, Background Singers, and Unsung Heros: Review   1 comment

The Beat Goes On, Sort Of….

October 1, 2015

I spent most of my adult life working in the music industry, but my appreciation for the value of music is not unique. Three documentaries (two films and an audio series) have been released during the past few years and for fans of music or those interested in the music business, all three are worth exploring in a theater, on television, DVD, or streaming, and in one case on radio or audio stream.

The Wrecking Crew, a recently released film, is from a nickname drummer Hal Blaine gave to a group of very talented studio musicians. These recording session “hired guns” were so talented and worked so well together, they became an institution within the Southern California music community. The New York Times review offered this: “For a stretch in the 1960s, those faces beaming from album covers were lying to you: The music inside was often played by others. Those others were usually members of the Wrecking Crew, a loose cabal of versatile Los Angeles session musicians fluent in rock, soul, country and getting out of the way.”  In a way, this was the Milli Vanilli business model, only thirty years earlier.

In a warm and friendly way, this film documents the glory days of the “crew’s” studio work, and although most of the members are still unknown to the general public, The Wrecking Crew gives us a glimpse at the key players. WreckingCrewLogoFor example, bassist Carol Kaye’s clear mastery of her instrument comes through as she tells the story of playing on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” session. What we learn is Kaye’s not insignificant creation of a simple bass-line, a riff for “The Beat Goes On” which was destined to become as iconic in pop music as Keith Richards’ opening riff for the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. And she’s emblematic of what these unsung musicians contributed to many of our favorite songs, including hits by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, The Crystals, Jan & Dean, Mamas & Papas, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, The Righteous Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.

Director Denny Tedesco’s 2015* film drifts from straight storytelling to an homage to his father—guitarist and Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco. His devotion is touching but unnecessary in the final cut of the film. Nevertheless, the strength shown by Kaye, Blaine, Tedesco and the other musicians—James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jim Keltner, Barney Kessel, Larry Knechtel, Jack Nitzsche, Earl Palmer, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Julius Wechter, and so many more—becomes obvious. Their stories come through loud and clear in The Wrecking Crew, and always in the proper key.

Another recent production is 20 Feet From Stardom, a 2013 release from director Morgan Neville. The obvious story of these vocalists is about the anonymity of their recording life, but it also touches on some of the classic racism and sexism within the American recording industry of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look underneath the successes made possible, in tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_500part, by these singers. What we are witness to is the heartfelt story of a group of performers, who under other circumstances, would be living a bit more comfortably today, yet there remains a joyful tone as each knows just who they are. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott described it this way:

“20 Feet From Stardom is a chronicle of exploitation and appropriation — in other words, the music business — and also a series of tales of professional commitment and artistic triumph. The picture it paints is gratifyingly complicated.”

Performers like Darlene Love (nee Darlene Wright) and Merry Clayton give us a glimpse into the agony and the ecstasy of the work. Love recorded as a member of the Crystals and the Blossoms, and also under her own name. She reinvented her career years later in part by legally and morally challenging the producers and record labels for unpaid royalties, and then reentered the spotlight of concerts and recording. Clayton lived through much of the same oblivion, but without a late-career spotlight to enjoy. Her background performance (actually as foreground as a background singer can get) on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 recording “Gimme Shelter” was more than memorable. It was a classic. Don Snowden wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Merry Clayton’s spine-chilling vocal on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the most famed in ’60s rock.” Her own 1970 album Gimme Shelter offered a new all-Clayton version of the song that remains solidly on my list of all-time favorites.

I highly recommend 20 Feet From Stardom as a tour-de-force in the lives of these and other little known, unknown, and/or forgotten talents. They deserved better, and this small tribute is something of a rich first step. Besides, the music is memorable, the conversations are personal and introspective, and their gifts may be gifts from God, but also—and as importantly—they are gifts to us.**

Finally, I want to mention an audio project you may never hear. Robert Harris produced a five-part series titled Twilight of the Gods. Created for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Twilight of the Gods was launched in 2012, and was recently rebroadcast on the CBC-1’s Sirius/XM Satellite feed where I had the pleasure of hearing it once more. As an introduction (or perhaps a warning), Harris offered this:

“It’s hard to imagine how rich, decadent and some would say corrupt, the record business was in the 80s. Then again, ‘Morning in America’, the slogan that got Ronald Reagan [re]elected President in 1984 might have been ‘Party Night in America.’ This was the era of Wall Street gazillionaires, cocaine, Madonna and hair metal bands. And the record business symbolized it all, with its immense profits, private jets, trashed hotel rooms, and overall scandalous behaviour. At its height, the business was selling a hundred million dollars worth of product, worldwide – every day. There was no end to the ride. Until there was.”

Harris gives us a highly entertaining look at the recording industry, with a North American perspective and a slight Canadian flavor. If you are at all interested in the history of the music business, his series is worth your time. One problem. Twilight of the Gods is unavailable for streaming or by way of podcast in the United States. When you go to the link on the CBC site, you’re presented with a message that reads: “This Content is Licensed for Canadian Audiences Only.” Until things change you can [a] drive to Canada and download the podcast, [b] listen to the CBC online and pray for a replay, or [c] contact a friend in Canada and ask your friend to podcast the series and send it to you on a thumb drive marked “The Great Speeches of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper”. It will be ignored by customs officials on both sides of the border. And only you will be the wiser.

David Steffen

* Released in 2015, the film was reportedly completed in 2008 but getting all of the necessary legal clearances took additional years to complete.

** My long time friend, the late Gil Friesen, was the producer of 20 Feet From Stardom and drove this project from idea to completion. He died just before the film was awarded an Oscar© for Best Documentary, Features at the Academy Awards in 2014.

Note: an edited version of this essay appears at www.lighthousepeddler.net.

© 2015 David Steffen

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