Showing posts with label Menschlichkeit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Menschlichkeit. Show all posts

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Centenary Ferlinghetti

Happy Birthday, Larry: An Anecdotal
City Of Paris Sign In The Conversation (1974)

Almost half my life ago, a friend took me to an event in support of saving the Eiffel Tower-shaped sign which had graced the roof of the old City of Paris department store on Union Square. CofP had been there for generations -- since the Gold Rush; before and after The 1906 Earthquake and fire -- but business setbacks forced it to close.

The property had been purchased by Neiman-Marcus; they intended to build what still looks like a featureless beige box around the old CofP's oval, central core, topped by a stained glass skylight (you can see the old City of Paris building, and its trademark sign, in Coppola's film, The Conversation).

Replacing CofP with Texas-based Neiman's struck many San Franciscans as a cultural loss (dear god; Texas???) . Trying to save a landmark sign from a landmark local business was a way of saying No. A meeting was held to raise funds to purchase the sign, before finding a suitable location for it: and there would be poetry! Gary Snyder would read. So would Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I went, I listened.  Snyder had been a particular lodestone favorite of mine for a long time; I'd only heard him read once before in Berkeley, and Ferlinghetti not in person at all.

When he did, he set "In Fascist America " in front of us like a dish well-cooked but spicy enough to be a challenge to eat, like reading The Fire Next Time all in one sitting -- dig in if you've got the spittle for it, baby. And he read it in the Beat cadence you can see, fortunately, in film and video clips.

The applause at the end was genuine. Everyone knew Ferlinghetti as a national treasure, a cultural icon, someone who had gravitas and knew it and used it. He was on the side of Right and it appeared in his work like a sword on fire. We applauded for all that as much as the reading.
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They never were able to buy the City of Paris sign. I went on to dinners over the years with friends and occasionally did (or was asked to do) my impression of Ferlinghetti, reading -- I'm gifted as a mimic; people laughed, which was the point (particularly about the repeating line in that poem, with a specific pause in his cadence when he would say, "In Fascist / America"). One person I knew in particular, who loved Ferlinghetti's poetry and had heard him read multiple times, always dissolved in laughter when she heard that.

Fast-forward a number of years: My acquaintance was taking lessons in a foreign language in the City through a cultural exchange group; Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the class. The last, penultimate assignment for each student was to take a short piece of literature or poetry, translate it into the Language Other Than English, then read it to the rest of the class. Ferlinghetti chose, "In Fascist America".

My acquaintance said later she was able to hold it in "almost until the end", before exploding with laughter. Apparently she slipped and fell trying to exit the room but made it outside, leaving Ferlinghetti and the rest of the class somewhat mystified.
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I lived in North Beach for over a decade. In (for me) the old days, before heading to Vesuvio's or Spec's or Tosca's -- the real Bermuda Triangle -- I might stop off in City Lights Books; occasionally, you might see Ferlinghetti on the ground floor, talking with someone at a table in one of the alcoves. More rarely at night, coming out of Pearl's jazz club across the street, you might catch a glimpse of him, working late, through a window in City Lights' second-floor offices.

Most long-time residents in North Beach knew his house; it was roughly a block from my flat, and we passed each other at least twice a week for years, he walking up Stockton street towards Columbus, me walking down: two guys who wore fedoras. We made eye contact; I smiled, and sometimes said hello (it would have been odd if, after years of occurrence, I hadn't) but it was only a short time before I left the neighborhood that he began responding back.

The last time I saw Ferlinghetti was during a sentimental walk back, over a decade after I left North Beach -- walking across the grass of Washington Square on a warm, sunny afternoon, and there he was, wearing one of the trademark hats, lying on the grass with his head propped up by a day pack, a faint smile on his face as he tilted it up toward the sun.

At some point today I'll walk over to the old neighborhood and past his house, and put a good thought out for him. A century is a long time for a person, but it's not even a blink in the universe. Very few of us get to impact the Geist of the culture, live in people's hearts, and so sail on into time. But he will.
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Friday, February 22, 2019

What We Leave Behind

Charlie

Charlie Chaplin, 1914

Some spiritual traditions believe in additional dimensions of existence; that the world most of us see as the only reality is one place where thought can be transformed into physicality.

Everywhere we look, there's an idea translated into concrete form, and associated with positive or negative energy -- speeches, laws and regulations; social agreements around money, sexuality, role and status; value. And most obviously, images, novels, poetry; music. Even the simplest transaction between strangers, a word or a look or a tone of voice, carries some form of energy.

Following that perspective, the world might be viewed as the collective energy in all ideas, actions and objects in it at any given moment. In that view, reality is defined by what we as individuals and as a species put into it.
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When a playlist of music you're listening to on Soundcloud runs out, an algorithm in the service continues providing a shuffle of tunes with similar themes or instrumentation. In that way, I found myself listening to a melody composed by Charlie Chaplin for his film, A King In New York (if you use Soundcloud, search on "Charlie Chaplin Filmmusic - Mandolin Serenade").

That brought up a stream of images of Chaplin that I carry around in long-term memory -- mostly, his iconic 'Little Tramp' character. His acting and films were so influential that for generations almost any adult, nearly anywhere in the world, might see a drawing of a figure with a postage-stamp moustache, wearing a bowler hat, and say, "Oh, that's Chaplin!" and smile.

Early Little Tramp: Mack Sennett's Caught In The Rain, 1914

Chaplin started as a 24-year-old immigrant from Britain, a contract actor for Mack Sennett's film company in 1914 (the photo at the top of the post; he looked like almost any Dude you might pass on the street today). His Little Tramp routine caught Sennett's eye -- initially a burlesque on an "affable drunkard", a bit loutish and inconsiderate and sloppily boozed. Chaplin's humor was physical, perfect for the trademark slapstick of Sennett's short films, and his comic timing was amazing.

Within four years, Chaplin had refined the Tramp into a more sober, sharper, plucky 'Everyman'. The Tramp became one of Sennett's most popular short-film characters -- and whenever a new Chaplin 'flick appeared in local movie-houses, people paid to see him. Lots of people: Chaplin 'packed them in'.


Kid Auto Races, Venice, California (1914); Chaplin's First Film Appearance
As The Tramp, Then Still The Affable Drunk

Like any artist, Chaplin was all about having as much creative control as possible; eventually, he convinced Sennett he could create better films (with the Tramp, of course) for Sennett's company. When a better financial and creative deal became available with another studio, Chaplin jumped at the chance -- and within four years of landing in America, by 1918, Chaplin was one of the most popular 'stars' in moving pictures, and possibly the most highly paid.

In the years immediately after the First World War, he became a founding partner of United Artists, a film company founded to allow film 'artists' more freedom to experiment with the medium, in contrast to what was becoming a Hollywood studio system. UA allowed Chaplin the control he wanted over his work, and in less than a decade he had created some of the best  American silent films (arguably, some of the best motion pictures) ever made: The Kid, "The Gold Rush"; "The Circus"; "A Dog's Life", and Pay Day, to name a few.

Arguing With The Boss: Pay Day (1922)

Sound motion pictures appeared in 1927. Four years later, Chaplin released City Lights, a film without dialog, only a music soundtrack he had composed, after Talkies had all but buried silent films. He continued in 1936 with another classic, Modern Times, again accompanied only by a soundtrack of Chaplin's music. As an art form, it wouldn't be used again for forty years, until Mel Brooks' Silent Movie.

The western press mocked Hitler in his early days as dictator by referring to him as "the politician with the Chaplin moustache". True to form, Charlie used the humor in that comparison to create a parody of Adolf and his Reich in The Great Dictator (released in 1940) not long after the Second World War began. After 1945, Chaplin made only four other films: "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947), Limelight (1952); "A King In New York" (1957), and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967).
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Chaplin's work showcased poor and working people in the early Twentieth century, easily shoved about by authority and manipulated by wealth. His films made clear he was no fan of unbridled capitalism, industrialism or the dehumanizing, assembly-line exploitation of labor. In 1947, when  anti-communist hysteria spawned House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Red influence in Hollywood, Chaplin was tailor-made to become a target. It didn't help that he had unwittingly made an enemy out of J.Edgar Hoover, whom Chaplin had met in the mid 1920's.

Gossip about Chaplin as a wealthy actor and director involved him and young women under the age of consent -- of his four wives, two were sixteen, and another eighteen, when they married. His Leftist, anti-authoritarian political views were clear. Hoover's Bureau collected gossip (and any information in an FBI file must be legitimate) on thousands of Americans, which Hoover was happy to use for personal and political ends during his 70-year reign.

To Hoover, Chaplin was just another foreign national -- and a Jew, Hoover believed -- with loose morals and radical political sympathies, forcing radical propaganda down the throats of innocent Americans through his films. His interest in Chaplin nearly amounted to obsession: the actor / director was a target of FBI surveillance from the mid-1920's until his death in 1977, and his FBI file may be the largest publicly known (over 2,000 pages) of any prominent public figure in the agency's archives.

As Chaplin left the U.S. in 1952 to attend the London premiere of his film, Limelight, the Justice Department revoked the re-entry permit on his resident alien visa. To be allowed to return, he would have to "submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behavior". Hoover was behind the move; he had asked England's own Bureau, MI-5, to provide confirmation of Chaplin's communist connections, and for proof that his real name was 'Israel Thornstein'. MI-5 found no proof that Chaplin was a Red, and didn't respond to Hoover's antisemitism.

The FBI's files on Chaplin, released under Freedom Of Information Act requests, show the U.S. government had no serious evidence to prevent his return to America if he had applied for re-entry. While Limelight received praise and success in Europe, Chaplin was smeared as a communist sympathizer in the U.S., and the film boycotted. Frightened and disgusted, after living and working in America for thirty years Chaplin decided not to go back.

... and he didn't, until in 1972 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which had done little to stand up to Hoover, McCarthy or the HUAC) tried to make amends by voting to award a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Chaplin "for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of [the 20th] century."

At 83, having had a series of small strokes and other health issues, unsure how he would be received in a country he believed had rejected and then forgotten him and his work, Chaplin came to Hollywood and was visibly moved when the attending crowd gave him a twelve-minute standing ovation -- the longest tribute of that kind by the Academy in its history.
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Easy Street, 1917

Chaplin's Tramp, and other main characters in his films, were ordinary 'folks' -- mostly poor, or at the mercy of Fate and Chance. The world of his films was familiar to the people who could find a nickel to see them, and populated by easily-recognizable archetypes: regular, working-class Joes and Janes; office workers; the bullies and bosses; streetwise kids, shopkeepers and beat cops.

The Tramp -- at the bottom of the social ladder -- had to make a tremendous effort to overcome his circumstances, just to achieve some happiness or justice. He hoped for something better than what he had. And, the stories in Chaplin's movies were transformational, where that Good Ending comes about by helping an Other -- the Girl; the Child; the Friend.

The Kid, 1921

In The Kid, the Tramp finds and raises a little orphaned boy -- whom he had initially wanted nothing to do with -- then rescues him from the clutches of a brutal County Orphan Commissioner, using the Tramp's poverty as the excuse to take the child away. You know when he embraces the boy that the Tramp loves him, will protect and care for the Kid as if he were his own. They're still dirt poor, but the little boy is safe -- and in a world where anything can happen, that's the point. It's everything.

City Lights (1931)

In City Lights, possibly Chaplin's best film (it was his favorite work), the Tramp is poor and homeless, ignored by most people, teased by a pair of wiseass newsboys -- but meets, becomes friends with (and almost immediately falls for) a beautiful blind girl, reduced to selling flowers on the street to help support herself and her grandmother. Whenever they meet, she gives him a small, white rose.

When he speaks, she mistakes his voice for that of a wealthy millionaire she's heard in the neighborhood where she sells her flowers, and (more out of embarrassment than some attempt to impress her) the Tramp allows her to believe it's true.

Later, when the Girl falls ill, the Tramp learns she might recover her sight -- but only through an expensive medical procedure. He works to save the money; after more plot twists, the operation is paid for and a success. Her vision restored, the Girl is able to open a flower shop with her grandma -- where she hopes the 'wealthy millionaire' who helped her will appear one day and sweep her off her feet.

Meanwhile, The Tramp, having been tossed in jail after the usual comic misunderstandings, is now even shabbier than when we first met him -- 1930-31 was the worst year of the Great Depression in the U.S. He shuffles along the street, mocked and teased by the same pair of newsboys.

Suddenly, the Tramp sees a small white rose in the gutter and picks it up -- the same flower the blind Girl used to give him. He turns, and is standing in front of the Girl's flower shop; she's sitting inside the front window, and has been watching the antics of the newsboys with this ... street person. She and her grandmother share a laugh; they think it's funny.

When he sees her, The Tramp is overjoyed; she's whole and healthy, but suddenly he's ashamed: she's now a respectable shop owner, and he's not.


The Last Scene Of City Lights; Critic James Agee Described It As
"The greatest piece of acting ever committed to celluloid"

The flower he'd picked up in the gutter is losing its petals; the Girl comes out of the shop to offer him a new rose, and a half-dollar. He carefully accepts the flower; she takes his hand to give him the coin -- and from the feel of his hand, the texture of his coat, all familiar to her when she was blind -- she suddenly realizes who he is. "You?" she asks; the Tramp nods. "You can see now?" he asks; she replies, "I can see now" -- meaning, it wasn't a wealthy man she had been waiting for, but the one with a heart, who helped her.

As he looks back at The Girl, the Tramp smiles. In his expression is every person who ever hoped for good luck in a hard world, a chance to care deeply about someone and have them care about you -- and barely able to believe, after everything, that it's come true. The screen fades to black.
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We can't know the sum of the actions of Chaplin, the man. We do know more about the effect of his artistic output on the world -- and it's much greater than "making motion pictures the art form of the [Twentieth] century".

From the perspective of the world being the sum of what is put into it -- even though they drew on earlier forms of storytelling, Chaplin's movies helped define what the motion picture medium could be. His films were moral, in the same way as Dickens' serialized novels: they showcased human folly and the absurd nature of life; they reminded us how we ought to treat each other. How our societies should reflect that, not just to serve as vehicles for commerce and acquisition, avarice, and domination.

Chaplin's films weren't meant to portray a perfect world, no matter that some of their plot resolutions might seem like fairy-tale-magic. They presented hopes human beings have for how life might be, how things might turn out if the Fates were kind -- and that on occasion, our hopes can be made concrete and real, in this world. His movies affected people, first; he made us laugh. He still does.

In These Times, it might seem that Chaplin's work is outdated, less recognizable, but something tells me that's not the case: Chaplin is still iconic. And if we have an opportunity to add to the world even a fraction of what he left behind in his art, we'll have done something important -- if only because we need so much more of that now.
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MEHR, Mit einer offensichtlichen Sache, die ich vermisst habe:  I was adding this 'Mehr', when something happened, and the entire post was deleted. No hope of recovery. Just - gone. It was like hiking for miles to get to the truck to take you home, and it just pulls away; you're eating dust, screaming at the top of your lungs, and know nothing can help. 

JEDOCH, Es Ist So: The post was open in the browser on my smarter-than-me phone -- and if I wanted to Man Up and transcribe retype it, from scratch, it would be remade.  

UND So Wurde Es Gemacht War: But Dear Fucking God Jesus and the Yeti, I never want to go through that again.

UND SO WEITER: The Girl Who Refused To Be Mrs Mongo said, "You write about Chaplin and his politics, and you miss the final speech from The Great Dictator? Shame!"


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Monday, December 10, 2018

Reprint Heaven Forever: Still Missed

Thirty-Eight Years

I am reminded to remember, remember, the 8th of December.

Something About Him Was Always A Kick-Out-The-Jambs Liverpudlian Rebel
Speak, Memory: One of the two arrests we made that day hadn't gone well. After putting the car in the basement garage at the Federal Building, I'd walked up the underground ramp to the street, intending to buy my second pack of Marlboros of the day from the liquor store up the next block. Stepping inside, I looked down at a stack of the early edition of a paper which isn't even around any longer, lying on the counter below the cash register with a banner headline in 48-point type: JOHN LENNON SLAIN.  Fuck; I thought, and then said it out loud.  

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

An Illusion In Our Simulated Lives

Presence And Absence


Triumph Of The Shill:  Yesterday morning's news, that Rex Tillerson had been fired as Secretary of Oil State by The Bloated Raving Skunk OUR LEADER, to be replaced by Mikey Pompeo.

Rexi had been tipped off by Whitey Haus Chief O' Staff, General John Kelley, to cut short a State Department trip to Africa. Rexi was flying home when informed of a new Tweet from THE LEADER: "Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! ... Congratulations to all!"

But, Rex is really rich, so it's all good. Yay!

And the world yawns. The daily disintegration of the Murrikan government, such as it is, surprises no one any more. We're suffering from Outrage Burn Out, and it's only been fourteen-plus months. Classical Rome must have been like this -- another day, another advisor banished from the Glory That Is THE LEADER -- or resigning, like Gary Cohn, who last year was described as "the most important man in Washington".

Gary effectively gave up the opportunity to replace Lil' Lloyd Blankfein as Chief Squid at Goldman, to serve THE LEADER. Someone else looks set to seize that role, now, and poor Gary probably bitterly regrets this, now, given that the Bloated, Raving Skunk person he chose to follow was lovin' him some white supremacists and nazis in Charlottesville. But Gary's rich -- so, s'all good. Yay!!

Gary will be replaced by an old teevee personality who once briefly served in the Whitey Haus of Saint Ronald The Dim. And he's supposed to be rich, too. Yay!!! USA! USA!
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(Modified Image - Original Photo: Maranie Staab / Reuters)

A Democratic candidate won, by the narrowest of margins, an off-cycle race in a Congressional district which voted overwhelmingly for THE LEADER in 2016. The Democrat was running against a very vocal supporter of  THE LEADER. Pundits everywhere strive to make the claim that they know what these results mean.

At work, I have an encounter with My Very Own Hilliaryite Colleague, who deigns to speak with me now, to discuss this.
MVOHC:  It's proof of a resurgence of the power of the Democratic party.
DOG:  If you say so.
MVOHC: Oh, come on. Put it together with Alabama and Virginia. We're coming back, and the mid-terms are going to be a huge upset.
DOG:  This race wasn't as cut-and-dried as you think. You think it was about a rejection of Trump, or Republicans, or conservative values? Lamb was a Center-Right Democrat; he wasn't an #Occupy organizer or a marcher for A Woman's Right To Choose. Look at his positions.
MVOHC:  Fuck you.
DOG:  I'm just saying: The politics of any Congressional elections are very local. They're not necessarily a bellwether for the mid-terms. The Democratic Party hasn't figured out what it is. It hasn't said what it's for. Until it can do that, it's a sham.
MVOHC: You are completely fucking delusional.

28 Trumps Later
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Stephen Hawking died yesterday. For a moment, that news was a surprise -- until I realized with a leavening shock that every person of significance in my world is aging. As I am. That, and the illusion of the permanence of their presence (like the illusion of my own) are things I take for granted. Man; the things we do to create a sense of continuity.

Out for dinner with The Girl Who Refused To Be Mrs Mongo, we toasted Hawking. We made the stock observations about him -- that he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, and died on Einstein's 139th birthday; that, even with the physical suffering and limitations of ALS, he became one of the great Cosmologists and scientific minds in human history, and seemed to keep a sense of humor about himself.


 Another Mensch leaves us: Now he knows what we do not.  The Girl  sipped her wine at dinner and observed, "[Hawking], we needed. Why couldn't it have been [THE LEADER]?"
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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reprint Heaven Forever (1934 - 2016)

Closing Time


Over at The Soul Of America, a reminder that today is Cohen's birthday. Originally posted last Armistice Veteran's Day in 2016, when he went off to the Bardo, or wherever the hell we go, if anywhere (and in that spirit, I'll add a link to this).

November 11 is one Day I use to consciously remember specific people, from a specific time, whom I miss. It was right after the election, and everyone still numb; the fat, raving Parasite-Elect had barely begun to push his tiny manhood into America's collective face, and everyone I knew were looking around for anyone wearing the same uniform. Cohen's bowing out just then (to take the metaphor a little further), seemed like one more Loss in the Unit. We were going single file; I turned around, and he wasn't back there there any more: Ah, fuck; aber natürlich, it would have to be now.
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Goddamn it. Knew the news was coming, but wasn't ready for it just now.

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
And the cider's laced with acid
And the holy spirit's crying, where's the beef?
And the moon is swimming naked
And the summer night is fragrant
With a mighty expectation of relief


So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time
Closing time
Closing time
Closing time 

 Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.

His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres. In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen...

‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. ... This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.
I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all. There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening. He’s very much a descendant of Irving Berlin... [whose] songs did the same thing. Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere.
And, like Leonard, he probably had no classical music training, either. Both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for. Berlin’s lyrics also fell into place and consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals, using simple elongated words. Both Leonard and Berlin are incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think.
-- Bob Dylan 
I loved you for your beauty
But that doesn't make a fool of me
You were in it for your beauty too
And I loved you for your body
There's a voice that sounds like god to me
Declaring, (declaring) declaring, declaring that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
And I love you now there's nothing left
But sorrow and a sense of overtime

I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to cooperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.

What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol (divine voice). You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it... At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.

-- Leonard Cohen / September, 2016
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows
And I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
Looks like freedom but it feels like death
It's something in between, I guess
It's closing time
closing time
closing time
closing time


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MEHR, Several Hours Later:  The last thing I wanted to do was write a post about this man that had even a hint of self-reference, but remembered a thirty-year-old conversation. 

A long time ago: someone said in a discussion of Sufis and 'The Work' that "There are a lot of people around who say they're looking for answers, want self-enlightenment, and they present a posture -- removed, serious, aesthetic. Like a parody of the Holy Man. Another is the smartass, the 'Mister Natural' who just enjoys fucking with people. And my feeling is, neither of them are 'authentic'. 

"The Sufis I've met have been raw and real, man; There's grit in their voices -- they're like Blues singers. Tom Waits, minus the alcohol. They've been around the fucking block, they've done some things, and they know what really matters. They're not saints -- 'rogue sage'; you know? -- but about the Big Things, you can trust them."

Cohen loved the Blues. He sang them, no matter what style his songs were.  He spoke simply, straight from the heart, about The Big Questions.  His music, the way he lived his life, was grappling with those questions and his human condition, and ours, unashamedly. He was no saint, but an honest and sincere seeker of Truth -- and his music was a commentary on that stumbling around in the dark. His work was illuminated by a long Rabbinical tradition; he was born with a Heart On Fire.

His songs were in the language of missed chances, relationships spoiled by ego or greed or a simple misunderstanding; ecstatic revelry and bone-crushing disappointment. When he sang politics, it was about choice and betrayal from the level of someone in the street. He told you: This is what happened to me. I don't know what all this is. I don't know what I'm doing, either; you're not alone out here. It was like the end of Moby Dick: A thing happened; buoyed up by a coffin, I came back to tell thee.

And what he sang about was a reminder that everything in this world was part of something else  -- The Big Questions, maybe. And he sang about that all the way to the end -- "You Want It Darker", his album released in October.

People sense how much truth they're being told by others, moment to moment, moving through the world. The number of people who speak in an authentic voice that we recognize, instinctively, as being true are very few. Poets can do this; Cohen was a poet, first, which is how I met him (only discovered later that the guy had albums of music, too, which made sense). From his work, he was recognizable as being as egotistical, confused, scheming, greedy; fucked up; kind, generous; lonely and longing -- as human, as I am. He had the energy and talent to share his particular vision, and it resonated with a wide audience.

When someone like that leaves the room, I grieve, because they're so few. And I'm pretty damned sad (The Best Friend texted back "Goddamned shit storm November" when I told them Cohen had died). I understand: never knew the man personally; it's the connections on so many levels to memory and hope and experience that add to the emotions. And there was Fucking Tuesday; and, today.  We're all going to have to leave the room -- if I can bow out in the same frame of mind, with the same intent as he was reported to have, that would be an act of grace.

Another Mensch leaves us. Now he knows what we do not -- but he was frankly curious, without much fear, as to whatever that is.
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Also, remembering the day, and Absent Friends. "We Have Done So Much With So Little For So Long That We Could Do Everything With Nothing Forever" (1969 - 1971)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Funny

Dick Gregory (1932 - 2017)
Jerry Lewis (1929 - 2017)

Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis, 1960's

A long time ago, I found myself at a screening of a 16mm film, "Dog Of Nazareth", which portrayed the life of The Jesus and his faithful canine companion. The trailer to the film was actually more interesting -- because whichever moment in His life was being portrayed, the camera was always focused on the Dog. It was hilarious (in that long-ago time before Life Of Brian), and there was much sacrilegious laughter withal.

A notable alternative comics artist was in attendance. We ended up smoking out on the street, talking about the film we'd just watched, and mused about what was humor, anyway? And the fellow said: Humor was a juxtaposition, a collision of opposites which for a split second forced an observer to temporarily abandon their routine assumptions about reality. "Some find that threatening," he went on, "and they respond by getting angry -- but for the other ninety-nine out of a hundred people, they're going to laugh."
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This is late in getting posted, but, still: Dick Gregory passed away last week; Jerry Lewis died Sunday. Both were fixtures in my 1950's, Sixties, and early Seventies, for different reasons, and both were Funny Men from completely different perspectives.

Gregory was funny because his juxtaposition of opposites was in his very presence on a New York stage -- a black man, reminding white audiences about race and class, who was allowed to do what, and where; on what basis, and why.
Wearing a white shirt and three-button Brooks Brothers suit, he balanced himself on a stool and talked in rolling sentences, punctuating his routine with long pauses as he slowly dragged on his cigarette.

“He would find a white waiter and say, ‘Bring me a Scotch and water,’ and there would be this palpable gasp from the crowd,” said Robert Lipsyte, a former New York Times reporter who helped write Mr. Gregory’s 1964 autobiography...

“They’d watch as the waiter brought him the drink. He’d take a sip and then say, ‘Governor Faubus should see me now’ ” — a reference to the Arkansas governor who in 1957 opposed the integration of the Little Rock schools. “He won over the whole audience. They were suddenly liberal again."
It can be argued that Gregory was acting as a band-aid, something to soothe the guilt of his audiences so that they could convince themselves that they weren't really racist, weren't really supporting and perpetuating a class structure that (also) excluded people of color. But Gregory did something revolutionary, in a soft way. At a time when it really was stepping over the color line to do so, he delivered -- a measured voice, slow, even in tone -- reminders of how things actually were.

His voice was like taking your chin, not unkindly, and turning your head to see something that was bound to make you uncomfortable. What you did with it after that was your business -- but for some people it would be one more step up, out of ignorance.

He juxtaposed sardonic observations of life against the privileged assumptions of middle-class, white America ("... a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, 'We don’t serve colored people here,' to which Mr. Gregory replied, 'That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.' ”), and made humor. His audiences laughed, but on some level understood the joke came at a cost. And, he made it possible for other black comics and entertainers to make their way to the stage.

I recall (as old Dogs do) his running for President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968 -- the same year that saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and RFK gunned down; that saw Hubert Humphrey the Democratic Party's candidate against Richard Nixon, The One. And a little more than a year later, in Southeast Asia, I found a good number of my black room- and team-mates knew exactly who Dick Gregory was.

A monologist, a comic, a teacher; Gregory didn't quit. He saw comedy as a vehicle for instruction, for consciousness-raising, and even as he passed away was still involved doing what he did best. Losing his voice, now, seems one more cruelty of fate, time, and tides.
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By comparison, Jerry Lewis was someone who didn't ruffle many feathers.  He was as mainstream a comedian as any in postwar America, and while his humor wasn't as socially-focused as Gregory's, his family had been among the waves of Jewish immigrants coming to America -- each of whom could be part of a community, but who had to navigate a world run by Gentiles and the anti-Semitism which, like racism and sexism and homophobia, persists.

Jerome Levitch had parents who were small-time entertainers, "his father [Danny] a song-and-dance man, his mother [Rae,] a pianist — who used the name Lewis when they appeared in ... vaudeville and at Catskills resort hotels. The Levitches were frequently on the road and often left Joey, as he was called, in the care of Rae’s mother and her sisters. The experience of being passed from home to home left Mr. Lewis with an enduring sense of insecurity and, as he observed, a desperate need for attention and affection."

Lewis followed his parents into performing as a comedy 'sketch artist'. His idea of humor was personal, idiosyncratic, a nebbish with slapstick. The story of his paring with the lounge-singer-smooth Dean Martin was one of those near-magic, serendipitous connections: In mid-1946, Lewis was doing a routine at the Havana-Madrid club in Manhattan, lip-syncing popular songs while performing some of what would become his signature slapstick; Martin was singing.

One night, they started riffing off each other in impromptu comedy sessions after the last show. Their antics were noticed by a Billboard magazine, reviewer, who wrote, “Martin and Lewis [have] all the makings of a sock act,” meaning a successful show.  And they were -- very successful, personally and financially.

When they parted, it wasn't pretty. Dean went on as part of the Rat Pack. Jerry learned filmmaking and began directing his own movies, which showed him as a talented comedian -- and became an almost perennial fixture with his annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy foundation.

I remember bits and pieces of them as schmaltzy, almost embarrassing (my parents would let the show run as teevee background noise) -- but I also remember having the sense that 'Jerry's Kids', in wheelchairs, or with braces and crutches, were not objects of pity. I didn't learn compassion from a Jerry Lewis telethon, but prosaic as it sounds, it wouldn't be far wrong to say it helped move me towards an understanding.

The comedian Jerry Lewis stayed out of politics, but Lewis the man was a conservative (per Wikipedia, he remarked that Donald Trump "would make a good president because he was a good 'showman' ") -- his obituary in Variety effectively claimed him to be racist, homophobic, a hack who had long outlived any usefulness as a cultural reference.

It's undeniable: his movies didn't question the established order; his characters were full of inventive slapstick and terrific comic timing -- but they weren't like Chaplin's Tramp. They were inoffensive, wacky, fumbling, based around shtick that began seventy years earlier in Vaudeville; they didn't reference the world of Selma and Saigon, JFK and Johnson, Goldwater and the Cold War. They were mainstream, part of American entertainment's cultural noise. Even so, it's also undeniable: Lewis did raise a great deal of money, ostensibly to benefit young humans just starting life, having been dealt a different hand than the rest of us.  

Lewis was a 'showman' -- for him, comedy was a craft, an art form, more than a method of showing some deeper truth about ourselves or the present. It was part skill, part competition, and he was a success -- not only by the yardstick of the entertainment industry. And, he did make people laugh. That's worth something, just on it's own.
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Now they know what we do not. Two more Mensches leave us. I'm sure they had their moments of egoism and assholery, of weakness and excess, like the rest of us. But, they made us laugh -- reminded us to laugh, for different reasons, even if our laughter was in spite of And for that alone, I'll miss their being fixtures in the cultural landscape.  And, we live in a world with a limited supply of Mensches.

Gregory, 2009;  Lewis In 2016
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Haruo Nakajima, 1929 - 2017

Suited By His Career

Per the Paper Of Record, Haruo Nakajima, the Japanese actor who played Godzilla in over a dozen films, and whose work in a 200-pound rubber suit became cinematic history, passed away yesterday in Japan at age 88. 

Eiji Tsuburaya, Special Effects Director At Toho Studios Who 'Invented' Godzilla,
Confers With Nakajima On Set, 1960's

The Big Guy, as the two people and Superintelligent Parakeet who read BeforeNine know, is nearly this blog's totem avatar creature.  We hold him in high esteem, and wish him all good things. It's good to have a 350-foot giant bipedal lizard on your team.

 Nakajima Rehydrating On A Minature Beach At Toho Studios, 1954
Mr. Nakajima was a 25-year-old stunt actor with just four movies to his credit when he was cast in what are perhaps Japan’s two most famous films of that era: Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai,” in which he had a bit part, and “Godzilla,” both released in 1954.

In “Godzilla” he played the titular character: a gigantic, irradiated lizard whose mutated form and destructive power wreaks havoc on Tokyo. The first movie in the “Godzilla” franchise, it was released nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a not-so-thinly veiled fable about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

The success of Godzilla kicked off Japan’s golden age of tokusatsu, or “special-filming” movies, in which rubber-costumed actors portraying colossal, terrifying creatures typically destroyed scale-model sets, creating illusions of reality that would would one day be generated even more spectacularly by computers...

Mr. Nakajima was born on Jan. 1, 1929, in Yamagata, Japan. He was 16 when Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. His first credited acting role was in “Sword for Hire,” in 1952, when he was 23.  As a contract actor for ... Toho [studio], Mr. Nakajima starred in dozens of other monster movies...

Mr. Nakajima was the first iteration of Godzilla but not the last. Toho produced 27 more Godzilla films after Mr. Nakajima hung up his rubber suit in 1972. Since then, Hollywood has produced three “Godzilla” movies. The next in the franchise will star Ken Watanabe and is scheduled for release in 2019.
We already live in a world where Heir Theyre Be Monsters. You may recall in the 2015 version of 'The Big Guy Comes To San Francisco', he defeated the Bad Aliens, and seemed to die -- but was only dead-tired. Picking himself up, he lumbered back to the Sea and swam home, without unnecessarily damaging more of the City. Like the end of the initial Jurassic Park (and again at the end of the last film in that franchise), a Big Lizard saved the day.

The next time you watch any of the Gorjira films made between 1954 and 1972, you're watching Nakajima at work. There may be less onerous ways of earning a living, but being a part of film history is not a bad tagline to a career. Remember: in Japan, Seven Samurai and the original Godzilla are considered the two cornerstones of their national cinema, and Nakajima was an actor in both.

Arooo.
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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Reprint Heaven: Floating, or, May We All Be Rescued

Birthday of Big Marine Mammal Avatar Creators
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.
-- Herman Melville / Moby-Dick, or, The Whale
Over at the Soul Of America, we are reminded that it's Herman Melville's 198th 189th birthday.

... There is no Whale before He who populates a goodly portion of that book ... That Big Marine Mammal is archetypal, now.

And His (or, Her) echoes in the culture are manifest:  We get Futurama's We're Whalers On The Moon / We Carry A Harpoon; or Robert Graves' "Good-Bye To All That" (where -- and I paraphrase -- the President of his College at post-Great War Oxford tells the assembled, 'Gentlemen, the menu indicates that tonight we are dining on "Whale and Pigeon Pie." You will find the ratio of the ingredients to be precisely one whale to one pigeon');  or, Robertson Davies' What's Bred In The Bone, where the main character has a dinner of Moby meat with his flagrantly unfaithful wife, in a dingy London restaurant during WWII (" '...Catch Me!' She said through a mouthful of whale' ").

Of course, when something appears in Family Guy, it's now hard-wired into our DNA.

 Herman Left Out The Part Where Whales Like 'Total'
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UND NOCH IMMER MEHR:  Once I saw this, I could not un-see it. It is an actual book.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-HzYH1qVAn2s/VLuVF_f9DWI/AAAAAAAABbI/SC32BIgWys4/s1600/Ships.jpg 
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Right Action

Adolfo Kaminsky, Forger

Courtesy of The Paper Of Record (please god never let the Ruperts 'acquire' it, as they lust to do): An amazing story, told principally in silhouette animations; almost like Javanese shadow-puppets -- which if you think about it isn't a bad analogy for whatever this is that we inhabit. Some people I know will understand why this story resonates.

A  small meditation on our ability, with a single act, to change the direction of the lives of others whom we will never see. Never let anyone say that art has no power.  Enjoy.


(If for any reason you can't see the embedded video, go here.)

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen ( 1934 - 2016 )

Closing Time


Goddamn it. Knew the news was coming, but wasn't ready for it just now.

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
And the cider's laced with acid
And the holy spirit's crying, where's the beef?
And the moon is swimming naked
And the summer night is fragrant
With a mighty expectation of relief


So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time
Closing time
Closing time
Closing time 

 Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.

His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres. In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen...

‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. ... This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.
I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all. There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening. He’s very much a descendant of Irving Berlin... [whose] songs did the same thing. Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere.
And, like Leonard, he probably had no classical music training, either. Both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for. Berlin’s lyrics also fell into place and consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals, using simple elongated words. Both Leonard and Berlin are incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think.
-- Bob Dylan 
I loved you for your beauty
But that doesn't make a fool of me
You were in it for your beauty too
And I loved you for your body
There's a voice that sounds like god to me
Declaring, (declaring) declaring, declaring that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
And I love you now there's nothing left
But sorrow and a sense of overtime

I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to cooperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.

What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol (divine voice). You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it... At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.

-- Leonard Cohen / September, 2016
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows
And I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
Looks like freedom but it feels like death
It's something in between, I guess
It's closing time
closing time
closing time
closing time


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MEHR, Several Hours Later:  The last thing I wanted to do was write a post about this man that had even a hint of self-reference, but remembered a thirty-year-old conversation. 

A long time ago: someone said in a discussion of Sufis and 'The Work' that "There are a lot of people around who say they're looking for answers, want self-enlightenment, and they present a posture -- removed, serious, aesthetic. Like a parody of the Holy Man. And the feeling I get is, they're not authentic. The Sufis I've met have been raw and real, man; There's grit in their voices -- they're like Blues singers. They've been around the fucking block, they've done some things, and they know what really matters. They're not saints -- 'rogue sage'; you know? -- but about the Big Things, you can trust them."

Cohen loved the Blues. He sang them, no matter what style his songs were.  He spoke simply, straight from the heart, about The Big Questions.  His music, the way he lived his life, was grappling with those questions and his human condition, and ours, unashamedly. He was no saint, but an honest and sincere seeker of Truth -- and his music was a commentary on that stumbling around in the dark. His work was illuminated by a long family Rabbinical tradition; he was born with a Heart On Fire.

His songs were in the language of missed chances, relationships spoiled by ego or greed or a simple misunderstanding; ecstatic revelry and bone-crushing disappointment. When he sang politics, it was about choice and betrayal from the level of someone in the street. He told you: This is what happened to me. I don't know what all this is. I don't know what I'm doing, either; you're not alone out here. It was like the end of Moby Dick: A thing happened; buoyed up by a coffin, I came back to tell thee.

And what he sang about was a reminder that everything in this world was part of something else  -- The Big Questions, maybe. And he sang about that all the way to the end -- "You Want It Darker", his album released in October.

People sense how much truth they're being told by others, moment to moment, moving through the world. The number of people who speak in an authentic voice that we recognize, instinctively, as being true are very few. Poets can do this; Cohen was a poet, first, which is how I met him (only discovered later that the guy had albums of music, too, which made sense). From his work, he was recognizable as being as egotistical, confused, scheming, greedy; fucked up; kind, generous; lonely and longing -- as human, as I am. He had the energy and talent to share his particular vision, and it resonated with a wide audience.

When someone like that leaves the room, I grieve, because they're so few. And I'm pretty damned sad (The Best Friend texted back "Goddamned shit storm November" when I told them Cohen had died). I understand: never knew the man personally; it's the connections on so many levels to memory and hope and experience that add to the emotions. And there was Fucking Tuesday; and, today.  We're all going to have to leave the room -- if I can bow out in the same frame of mind, with the same intent as he was reported to have, that would be an act of grace.

Another Mensch leaves us. Now he knows what we do not -- but he was frankly curious, without much fear, as to whatever that is.
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Also, remembering the day, and Absent Friends. "We Have Done So Much With So Little For So Long That We Could Do Everything With Nothing Forever" (1969 - 1971)

Friday, November 4, 2016

Reprint Heaven: Good Night, Uncle Walter

And That's The Way It Is
(The Googlegerät reminds: Today is Uncle Walter's birthday. This, from 2009)


Walter Cronkite 1916 - 2009 (CBS News)

I know that the memories and worldview of Boomers are things of derision for more 'relevant' generations; who the hell cares what we remember. However, for most of my childhood and early adulthood, there wasn't a single major event that didn't have the voice of Walter Cronkite narrating it.

The Cuban Missile Crisis; The arrival of The Beatles; John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963; the war in Vietnam (1962-1975); Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy's assassinations in 1968; Chicago during that years' Democratic Convention; the first landing of human beings on Earth's Moon on July 20, 1969; the Watergate hearings in 1973; the collapse of Richard Nixon's presidency and resignation in 1974...

...and it wasn't only the signal events between 1962 and 1981 which Cronkite narrated which made him an icon. It wasn't even the thousands of mundane items that he introduced or reported on for over twenty years. It was the sound of Cronkite's voice. Even if you only had the CBS evening news on in the background, that voice added to what made up the continuity of our times.

Cronkite represented a connection to news reporting that reflects the Reality of what was occurring (he wouldn't have made it as a Fox Entertainment 'journalist'). He was also willing to court physical risk to discover what that Reality was, and translate the essence, the Truth of it, as best he could. Beyond all that, being a reporter was his job; he wanted to do it as best he could.

As a 25-year-old AP reporter, Cronkite covered America's war in the Mediterranean and Europe at its beginning. From Operation Torch in North Africa in November of 1942, he went to England -- where he gained a reputation for going on more 8th Air Force daylight bombing raids over Germany than any other reporter. On D-Day in 1944, Cronkite was one of the first correspondents ashore; later that year, he was landing by glider behind German lines with the 101st Airborne in Operation Market Garden. He was in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. And he covered the Nuremberg trials of the twenty-one major nazi war criminals.

In 1962, CBS created the 30-minute news-program format. News on the radio had been commonplace for forty years, but it had never been presented on television. The program would go out live in New York, but taped for delayed broadcast in Central and Pacific time, to be received in millions of American homes at 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday. It was an innovation -- and some thought, risky: Would people accept the idea of a news program broadcast when most people were eating dinner? More important -- would they watch the commercials? And CBS' choice to be the lead commentator, the "anchor" for a lineup of filmed segments filed by other reporters, was Walter Cronkite.

CBS' decision was based on the fact that he appeared so completely mainstream, so inoffensive. His baritone voice sounded authoritative, like the radio news broadcasters most people were familiar with -- H.V. Kaltenborn, or Edward R. Murrow, who had moved on to television. Cronkite was a solid, thorough reporter who had paid his dues; he had a reputation for "Iron Pants" -- sitting still through the most boring assignments, never sounding or appearing anything but interested, never losing his temper or melting down on the air.

And unlike Murrow, Walter had no apparent interest in using the television soapbox he was about to be handed to express any... uncomfortable opinions. He didn't like to throw controversial questions in an interview, and was known to toss "Softballs" to subjects like Eisenhower, Nixon or Kennedy. When Murrow had taken on Joseph McCarthy and the endless 'Red Scare' hearings of his Senate committee, CBS lost advertising revenue. That fact was not lost on CBS' Chairman, the redoubtable William S. Paley, who had to approve the choice of Cronkite for this new venture.

The format was a hit. Apparently, people did watch television news while they ate their evening meals, and liked it. The Neilsen ratings agency said so, and the advertising revenue began to roll in. The other major networks copied CBS, a sure sign of a winning trend. CBS affiliate stations (like the main network, dependant on advertising dollars) loved Walter because he was making them money.

People at home, watching their RCA or GE or Magnavox Teevees from the dinner table, instead of each other, thought Cronkite was so... trustworthy. People had liked Edward R. Murrow -- but when he broadcast, Ed sounded like some critical relative, lecturing you about a choice of meat for dinner, or scolding your children for running with scissors. You knew he was smart, but America doesn't like smart that much; it's not neighborly. Nobody really likes someone better than you.

But -- if you had "accidentally" borrowed money from the 4-H petty cash and couldn't pay it back; or couldn't decide whether Polaroid at $3.50/share was a good deal; or your girlfriend had missed her period... for 1962 America, Cronkite looked like the Dad or Uncle you could confide in. He'd never lecture you like that prissy Murrow, or sound like that undertaker, Chet Huntley; or that Mr. Peepers-type with the glasses, John Chancellor, on NBC.

You could see just by looking at him that Uncle Walter had been around; he knew what was what, but somehow, it hadn't changed him. He didn't believe he was better than you. He'd give you straight advice. And even if you'd utterly and irredeemably fucked up, and his advice was to face the music and dance... you'd know he was right and still go away feeling good about yourself.

Cronkite had come up as a reporter when radio was king, and the best-known broadcast commentators all had signature 'hooks' -- Murrow's opening was the famous, "This -- is London", during the Blitz in 1940; Walter Winchell's was, "Good Evening, America, and all the ships at sea". Lowell Thomas' closing line was, "So long, until tomorrow!" So, early in the CBS Nightly News, Cronkite adopted his own famous signature close, which he would repeat for the next nineteen years: "And that's the way it is: Friday, July Seventeenth, Nineteen Sixty-Four; this is Walter Cronkite. For CBS News -- goodnight." It stayed in our heads as well.

And when JFK (initially concerned that Cronkite was a Republican, and so might skew his reportage -- he wasn't; he was a registered Independent) was murdered, it was Uncle Walter who broke the bad news, first, to the nation -- and who sat up with the country for hour after hour over the next days, through the pomp and circumstance and unbelief. More than Chet Huntley or David Brinkley's voices on NBC, or Eric Sevaried's on ABC, it was Walter Cronkite's voice that bridged that period between the end of Camelot, and whatever was to come next.

All this gave him the necessary credentials when, five years later, Cronkite publicly questioned the wisdom of America's involvement in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers would reveal that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident (pretext for the next eight years of escalating war in South Vietnam) had been a sham. Cronkite, who had excellent sources, might have suspected the war had been engineered, but never questioned it on those grounds. Like many of his viewers, he had supported America's mission in Vietnam -- but only until it was plain that we were mired in a conflict that could not be won under post-WW2 rules of engagement: It wasn't the kind of classic, "Good War" between Light and Darkness which he had seen first-hand.

After a series of journeys to Vietnam and long interviews with everyone from Diplomats and Generals to Grunts, Cronkite came to the firm conclusion that we couldn't win. He wasn't interested in the details, so much as the broader questions -- In a world with nuclear weapons, can we win this war? And, is it worth it? He believed another solution was possible, and necessary; and it would include pulling our troops back from Southeast Asia.

It was 1968, with Martin and Bobby already both assassinated. It was an election year defined by the war; by three years of race riots, National Guard soldiers in the streets. It was a year defined by the Counterculture, and by an antidraft, antiwar movement. Cronkite decided to do what CBS' executives never though he would -- to tell America that uncomfortable truth from behind the Anchor's desk on the CBS Nightly News. In a closing commentary reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow, Uncle Walter said "In this reporter's opinion", that the Vietnam war simply wasn't winnable; "that perhaps we should say, 'We did the best we could'," and bring our boys home.

President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, knew it was a watershed moment: If Walter Cronkite had said America should pull out of Vietnam, Johnson told an aide when the broadcast was over, "then I've lost the war". Little more than a week later, LBJ went on national television to say he "would not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."


Cronkite and his CBS team in Vietnam, 1967 (Public Domain)

Cronkite broke the code of silence that made up so much of life in post-World War Two America; he was calling things by their right names, reality with a Capital R. I remember watching Cronkite deliver that message in 1968. It was the sort of moment I hoped some other American broadcast journalist would come to during the "Lil' Boots" Bush years. Finally, Keith Olbermann did, a little late in the day, and not entirely because he had come to a heartfelt conclusion about the disaster of Lil' Boots' presidency... but also because it meant good ratings for MSNBC, something Cronkite would have barely considered.

Our leaving Vietnam would take another four years, and cost additional thousands of American lives. Richard Nixon was elected claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the war. That turned out to be more escalation, CIA assassination squads; J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO; the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and a heavy crackdown on antiwar demonstrations; The Plumbers and black-bag jobs and 'Enemies Lists', and cozy relations between the GOP and the Mob-run Teamsters' Union. After the killing of four students at Kent State in Ohio, Cronkite lashed out at Nixon's policies, and his stand gave other reporters and networks the courage to voice their own opinions in closing segments.

In response, Nixon put heavy pressure on William Paley to muzzle Cronkite's criticism; then, Vice-President Spiro Agnew went after America's media in a series of speeches, essentially accusing national news outlets, and figures like Cronkite, of treason.

Nixon's pressure and threats had a chilling affect. In 1970, after a broadcast criticizing the government's attempt to threaten journalists into silence, ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds was forced to resign. The war went on; bombings of North Vietnam escalated; the whole period was a reminder of the blacklisting and censorship of the McCarthy period -- which Cronkite's CBS colleague, Edward R. Murrow, had famously stood up to.

For network television news anchors, Murrow's courage in criticizing the bullying atmosphere of fear which Tail Gunner Joe created set the bar for future television journalists to defend their ability to inform Americans what is happening in, and to, their country. Cronkite maintained that tradition, not backing down despite the obvious threats made by The President -- and Cronkite knew Nixon was famous for using the power of his office to take revenge. It helped that CBS' executives stood behind him (Something they didn't do for Dan Rather, thirty years later -- but, in these days, truth is highly overrated in the news entertainment industry).

Even backstopped by CBS, Walter had professionally put his ass on the line. He knew it didn't matter what his reputation was, whether he was considered a presence on television. Cronkite knew the other side of Murrow's defiance of McCarthy; Murrow had been a legend, too -- and came within a hairsbreadth of being fired (rent Good Night and Good Luck, again) by the same Bill Paley whom Nixon was calling to express his wattle-jowled displeasure.

At the same time, Cronkite had been as close to actual combat situations as a noncombatant can; something like Nixon or Agnew coming at him only made him angry. He must've had a moment of satisfaction, watching Agnew forced to resign under indictment for talking over $300,000 in bribes when Governor of Maryland; and later, watching a paranoid, self-destructive and self-pitying Nixon, pinned down by Watergate, resign himself. And, as with JFK's assassination almost eleven years before, the voice of Uncle Walter took us from the "long national nightmare" to whatever would come next.

People who didn't grow up with him as a fixture won't understand the context within which he was important, or how he's missed. It isn't nostalgia for a simpler time -- it's that in 2009, television news is simply another form of corporate entertainment. It's always been an Establishment mouthpiece in one way or another -- except for people like Cronkite, who believed that facts didn't need to be presented like movie trailers, or with political spin. Cronkite intensely disliked the media style of Limbaugh, Wiener and O'Reilly because for him, it distorted the Truth, the Facts: Fox and other networks' use of this kind of format wasn't about news, but personalities, and a political agenda.

Few people have the opportunity to reach so many other human beings, a fixture in our cultural memory, without being corrupted somehow in the process. After nineteen years as CBS' anchor, Cronkite retired -- like any working person, putting in their twenty and then calling it quits -- and didn't look back.

Cronkite never used status for personal gain or to create another career. He always reminded me of another man from Missouri, Mark Twain -- though without the bite of wit, or his obvious humor; but still an honest and quintessentially American observer. He never ran for office; never appeared in films (in 1984, approached to appear as himself in the film version of The Right Stuff, even with his interest in America's space program, Cronkite said no; they had to use Eric Sevareid instead).

He declined, gracefully, to capitalize on his image in a way that would be accepted as normal today (and I shudder to think what that says about contemporary culture). David Halberstam, another legend as a reporter and writer, once observed about Cronkite that "He liked, indeed loved, being 'Walter Cronkite', being around all those celebrities -- but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself."



Cronkite participated in developing the Illusion Factory television has become, but I think the reason he never took his status seriously was that he never confused Walter Cronkite, the image and voice on millions of television screens, with Walter Cronkite, a guy doing a job. It may seem incredible, especially with the cynical take many of us have on the age we live in, but I swear it's probably just that simple.

He was as ambitious as the next person; when some lucky breaks arrived in his job, he took them. But when he saw something he believed was wrong, he judged his chances and then stood up and spoke out -- even at the risk of losing that job. He worked for a living, tried to meet his bosses' expectations, and (because he was very much aware of his own status) live up to the standards of his profession as he saw them; doing a 'good job' mattered. At night, he went home to his wife and children.

Regarding himself, he never said, Hey, what's all the fuss about?; he knew. He was, after all, like the Uncle Walter we believed he was, the guy who had been around -- but for all that had been unchanged. Unlike media personalities in 2009, Cronkite was a reporter who never believed in his own press.

And that's the way it is.
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