Tag Archives: JFK

Songs Of America

Simon and Garfunkel’s 1969 television special, Songs Of America, was not quite what original sponsor Bell telephone hoped it would be. The scene where trains carrying the bodies of assassinated leaders JFK, RFK and MLK were a bit much for them; ditto the look at “real America” that Paul and Artie wanted to discuss. The conglomerate wanted a concert. The artists wanted a message.

Bell pulled out. Alberto Culver stepped in, and after some haggling CBS aired the program once. It was stomped in the ratings by a Peggy Fleming ice skating special and never re-broadcast. Go figure.

The recently re-issued Bridge Over Troubled Water package includes the original special, plus a new documentary about the making of the film, and they are both fascinating. The documentary (The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water) features Paul and Artie looking back at the times along with some of the critical participants in the film. I hadn’t even realized that comic actor Charles Grodin was the behind the project; he is interviewed along with musicians Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn and engineer Roy Halee, among others.

I mentioned that I have learned to appreciate well made documentaries, and this certainly qualifies. Beyond being an entertaining look at the making of one of the most seminal albums of its era, it’s also an opportunity for Paul and Art to re-evaluate their own history. Friends since childhood, their split seemed partially acrimonious, and perhaps it was. I couldn’t understand it at the time; it seemed like a terrible move for both. But one of Simon’s comments put it all into perspective. They were transitioning from the Everly Brothers – inseparable parts of a whole – into The Beatles, where each personality had its space. And like The Beatles, whatever rose no longer converged.

It was heartwarming to see Paul pay genuine tribute to Art’s majestic voice, while Art seems as ethereal and cosmic as ever. Seeing the members of The Wrecking Crew also reminded me that Simon followed that same path in his solo career when he surrounded himself with Steve Gadd, Richard Tee and other skilled New York session players; an East Coast equivalent of the old days.

Bridge Over Troubled Water remains as timeless and majestic as it was forty years ago. The reissue, combined with the films, is a must-own.

A steal at under fifteen bucks.

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30 Years Later, Still Imagining

When I was a child, JFK was assassinated and it seemed like the whole world stopped for a weekend. For years afterwards, time could be marked by how many years after the incident it was. Five years later seemed surreal, as did ten. And every anniversary after that seemed to center upon the realization that “I can’t believe it’s been so many years“.

I can still see myself at that school desk, two rows in, five rows down. I remember the teacher, Mr. Rotella, was wearing a grey suit. I even remember the student who burst into the classroom blurting out “President Kennedy’s dead!”. Poor Peter Sturm’s facial expression and tone of voice was unfortunately misinterpreted as an expression of excitement sans gravitas, and Mr. Rotella lit into him for treating the moment as anything but devastating emotional trauma. I would bet money that Peter’s shirt was blue.

I tell that story because there are moments in life where your soul takes a snapshot and it gets filed into that area of your brain that is the last to go. People of that generation can all likely remember where they were that day. And I will never forget where I was thirty years ago when John Lennon was killed.

I’ve never seen the life get sucked out of a room that fast; the sound of a bar full of friends enjoying a great band was brought to a screeching halt when the word filtered in. My roommate Dave (long the most credible DJ in the city) had the thankless task of making the announcement to a stunned crowd, some of whom had heard the rumor and others who were blindsided by the words. In a blur of cries and hugs and blank expressions it seemed that everyone knew that the best thing to do was to go home. Go seek out friends and talk it out and somehow try to get our heads around what had just happened. There was no Internet nor cell phones, we were reliant upon whatever radio and TV would tell us and whatever we could gather from others. Every broadcaster, every person we passed on the street, everyone was dumbstruck.

The house Dave and I shared was well-known for burning the midnight oil, and it wasn’t long before the phone started to ring; people who called said they dialed us because they knew we would be awake and receptive. Then more calls…then visitors as the door opened again, and again. I can’t remember a word I said that night, nor anything anyone else said either. I just remember the odd juxtaposition of feeling scraped out and hollow by the incident yet safe and comfortable because I wasn’t alone. I was sharing the experience with others…somehow we diffused each other’s pain. I know that’s what the people at the vigil that night and the days afterwards felt, too. Community of spirit, the essence of human communication, a bonding with all senses engaged.

I am so glad there was no such thing as Twitter in 1980.

I know John Lennon was not a hero in the strict sense of the word, and there certainly have been many people from all walks of life whose acts and deeds advanced human civilization more profoundly than any Beatle ever could. I didn’t know John personally and have no idea what he was like as a father or a husband or a friend. 

But Lennon was a man of peace, and in the intolerant times people my age grew up in, his words and music spoke to us and for us. To suffer a violent death is the worst kind of irony, but that shocking deed punctuated and drew perpetual attention to a mission that lives on through his legacy.

Peace.

I can’t believe it’s been thirty years.

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Tunes of Freedom

On this particular day I guess I could use the theme of racing or fast food or even the Beach Boys for TGIF since Richard Petty, Dave (Wendy’s) Thomas and Murry Wilson were all born on July 2nd.

But on July 2nd, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That pretty much trumps everything else in my book. It’s astounding to realize that event was only forty-six years ago and not forty-six hundred; it’s also frightening to realize that despite those proclamations, we still live in a world of inequality and civil unrest in 2010.

Read about the legislation here…interesting to note that even in 1964 the Senators and Representatives from the Southern states were almost unanimously opposed to it. Think what you want to about LBJ, but he took it upon himself to honor the promise that had been initiated by John F Kennedy and get it done, even though that meant standing up against the coalition of his fellow Southerners.

For example, Senator (and former Ku Klux Klan member!) Robert Byrd, who ironically passed away this week, filibustered against the bill with a speech that lasted over 14 hours. You would think that would have killed him, but he was still representing West Virginia until his death last week. (Maybe he still is; they’re not the most progressive state in the Union).

But within the scope of today’s theme, I will wish Brock Peters a Happy Birthday. Among other roles, Peters is probably most famous for playing Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird, a film I first watched in high school (after we read the Harper Lee novel, of course). It’s one of the most beloved American films in history and features Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as lawyer and über father-figure Atticus Finch. I saw the film for probably the twentieth time a couple of weeks ago; I’m certain more viewings lie ahead.

And in the spirit of this I give you ten tunes about  freedom and independence and equality…enjoy your July 4th weekend!

Peace...

(01) “This Land Is Your Land” (Pete Seeger with Bruce Springsteen)

(02) “People Got To Be Free” (The Rascals)

(03) “The Revolution Starts Now” (Steve Earle)

(04) “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye)

(05) “Rednecks” (Randy Newman)

(06) “Imagine” (John Lennon)

(07) “People Get Ready” (Curtis Mayfield)

(08) “Get Together” (The Youngbloods)

(09) “Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire)

(10) “Abraham, Martin and John” (Dion)

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R.I.P. Ellie, Larry, Ted, Dominick…

I never intended R.I.P. to be a regular feature. Damned if life isn’t forcing my hand.

I’m not one who obsesses over calendars; I don’t have a list of who was born when and who died on any day, but I do have a couple of websites that are easily checked on occasion. The idea about the feature – and in fact the focus of some of the first columns – was to reminisce about artists who impacted my life greatly, like Rory Gallagher, Ronnie Lane and Frank Zappa. Being of a certain age, I sometimes take for granted that everyone is as familiar with these artists as I am, or at least has had the opportunity presented to them to be. Apparently nothing could be further from the truth.

And I guess because I did grow up following these artists and collecting their work, I shouldn’t be surprised that some of them are now leaving this mortal coil. Sure, we still lose too many too soon, but no one can say that Les Paul didn’t have a blue ticket ride on this Earth. But from my vantage point, late 60s is far from old age, and that’s when Larry Knechtel and Ellie Greenwich got the call.

Words plus music equals magic

Words plus music equals magic

Ellie Greenwich – where does one even start? As part of the Brill Building sound she – along with husband Jeff Barry –  gave us some of the greatest rock’n’roll songs ever written. Frankly, some of the bands you revere might not have been in your windshield without her. Hell, Brian Wilson admits that his entire being is merely a byproduct of “Be My Baby” (arguably the greatest pop song ever…and certainly in the upper echelon of anyone’s list). It’s sad that she doesn’t have the public recognition that some of the artists she helped make famous have. From The Ronnettes to The Ramones, from “Chapel Of Love” to “It’s My Party” to “I Can Hear Music”…Ellie Greenwich was rock royalty.

Larry Knechtel might not be a household name, but I’ll bet his handiwork is in your house. Own any albums by Simon & GarfunkelThe Beach Boys, The Doors or The Mamas & Papas? How about Elvis Presley’s famous ’68 special? Fan of Duane Eddy? You’ve at least heard of Bread, yes? Well, that’s musician extraordinaire Larry Knechtel on bass and/or keyboards; an intregal part of Phil Spector sessions that we now know as the Wall Of Sound as a member of the famous Wrecking Crew. Like Ellie, almost 70.

Of course I was saddened to hear about the passing of Ted Kennedy, although this is a date I thought I saw coming many times before. I don’t politicize in the Prescription, and certainly there are a thousand in-depth articles that you will be able to read about the man, so I won’t expound on his faults or his gifts. But for someone who grew up in the Kennedy Era, who cringed and wept and feared for our country when Jack, and later Bobby, were assassinated, this is truly the end of a political dynasty, at least at Camelot levels. Yes, children and grandchildren remain, and we may yet see another Kennedy aspire to the upper ranks of politics, but that will be a sequel, not another chapter.

In a related passing, Dominick Dunne was also familiar with loss – his daughter’s murder resulted in a career pivot that saw this social observer become a watchdog for justice, albeit from a sideline seat. Perhaps his wealth and celebrity standing gave him a pulpit others would never have gotten, but in a society where Nancy Grace is taken seriously I prefer to think of his endeavors as an attempt to hold the famous accountable for their actions. At least his motivation was not as blatantly myopic as that of the former prosecutor.

I Can Hear Music...and thanks to these musicians, I want to.

I Can Hear Music...and thanks to these musicians, I want to.

I should mention that although I was aware of Knetchel’s passing the day it occured, I did not want to make it the headline of the day. I figured I’d drop a relevant post-script into another piece during the week as a way of paying my respects. However, when the number of famous names passing in but a few short days skyrocketed and I decided to air another obituary, I certainly did not want to omit him. Please know he is not an afterthought; I have great respect for his work.

But keeping up with the bad news has been daunting. We’re not quite two-thirds of the way through 2009 and already the losses have been staggering. Many of us have suffered our own personal losses as well.

If nothing else, this week is another reminder that life is short and unpredictable. No grudge is worth keeping. No warm feelings toward someone are worth hiding. No card or letter or email or call is worth putting off. Don’t procrastinate. Because you can’t take your love and warmth and appreciation with you…you must share it.

Peace.

Ellie Greenwich website.

Larry Knechtel website

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Re-Opening Channel D

The Last of the Magnificent Seven

The Last of the Magnificent Seven

When I was young, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a smash hit. Boys wanted to be like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin; suave and cool secret agents who could dazzle the ladies and get the best of the bad guys (or was that the  other way around?) Girls just wanted Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the handsome actors who portrayed those gadget-touting hipsters. It was one of many important lessons I’d learn over the years about women and how they think. But it was also an opportunity to discover Robert Vaughn, who has led a fascinating life far beyond his accomplishments as a television and film star.

Vaughn’s book A Fortunate Life is more of a memoir than an autobiography; he does not dwell on his childhood and adolescence for chapters on end nor does he make his hit television show the focus of his book. In fact, Vaughn takes us through a series of events and relationships as a confidante where the focus is seeing through his eyes rather than looking at him. It’s a subtle but clever move that makes for a vastly entertaining read (I devoured it in one sitting) aided by the fact that Vaughn is one of the most intelligent and erudite actors on the planet. Being witty as hell doesn’t hurt, either.

The book came out late last year and I finally made time to get a copy this weekend; for some reason I felt compelled to do so immediately. As a child of the times, I admit I enjoyed reading anecdotes about his contemporaries like James Coburn and Steve McQueen, but I was spellbound by his recollections of the political climate. Vaughn was the first actor to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War, and was an activist who ran the gamut from stumping for candidates to debating William F Buckley on hostile ground (no small feat, Buckley regularly ate opponents for breakfast). 

His close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy and the subsequent tragedy brought back vivid memories for me, having lived through the times.  After JFK and Martin Luther King were felled by assassins, many felt RFK was the last hope for America, and his Presidential campaign radiated even more fervor, optimism and hope that Obama brought to the 2008 election. When he was gunned down after the California primary, the youth of America was numb. Vaughn has very strong opinions about what really happened that night.

I mentioned that Vaughn is whip-smart. Few know that his Doctoral thesis was written about Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare era in Hollywood, and later published under the title Only Victims. I read the book last year while reseaching the Hollywood Blacklist, as it’s considered one of the definitive works on the subject and is a staple at many law schools. Vaughn is thorough but never condescending, a trait echoed in his new book as well.

Vaughn has always been a “working actor”, which loosely translated means he’s got a few stinkers on his resume over the years. Television was exploding when he was breaking into the business, and like many actors of his generation he cut his teeth playing guest roles on dozens of shows. He has a short-lived series prior to UNCLE called The Lieutenant and most recently has come full circle playing a con artist in the British series Hustle. But he’s also etched several landmark film performances into history, from The Magnificent Seven to Bullitt to The Bridge at Remagen. I just grabbed the DVD of The Young Philadelphians so I can watch it tonight; a young Vaughn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Hugh Griffith from Ben Hur) playing opposite Paul Newman.

I’ve read a few interviews with Robert Vaughn over the years and he seems like a charming, witty and intelligent man. That’s what you’ll think, too, when you read this book. Enjoy!

Still the coolest dude in the room at 76 years young

Still the coolest dude in the room at 76 years young

A recent BBC interview to promote the book.

Robert Vaughn’s filmography at IMDB.com

Get your Man From U.N.C.L.E. fix with the complete DVD set and a book about the series.

Also check out Hustle The Avengers meets Oceans 11

man from uncle

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