Category Archives: Books

The Holy Bee Recommends, #14: “Andy & Don” by Daniel de Vise

r960-e3e07f80eaa2dd7cdb9cc4355d2faeb4I had seen this book, published last November, kicking around the shelves for a few months before I gave it a chance. I had never been much of an Andy Griffith Show fan. Syndicated reruns of it ran through my childhood, usually packaged with what I considered the superior show, The Dick Van Dyke Show. I much preferred the snappy pace and rapid-fire witticisms of Van Dyke over the pokey, measured plodding of Griffith. I remember the reruns always airing at noon, so it was a summer vacation show for me. My older sister liked it, so I had to get through it in order to get to Dick Van Dyke at 12:30. But from a more adult perspective, I realize that what I saw as the show’s weaknesses were actually its virtues.

The dual biography Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show by Daniel de Vise recounts the history of the long-time friendship between two slightly damaged men from rural Appalachian backgrounds. De Vise writes in a relaxed, informal voice, and makes lots of references and comparisons to things in modern pop culture, intending to strike a chord with Gen X readers or younger, few of whom were born during the show’s original run.

Andy Griffith and Don Knotts met in 1955 during the 796-performance Broadway run of the service comedy No Time For Sergeants, which starred Griffith and featured Knotts in a small supporting role. They hit it off right away. At the core of their relationship is the bond of having been two bumpkins from nowhere, scaling the ladder on raw talent, and proving to the big-city sophisticates that show business was not their exclusive domain.

“When we talked about our relatives, they all seemed to be the same. Our sense of humor clicked,” said Don.

“One thing we’ve talked about a lot is the way a comedian is born,” Andy recalled. “Don says a comedian is born out of either unhappiness or embarrassment…and you start to learn to protect yourself. When you’re laughed at, you turn it to your advantage.”

“Men very rarely are as intimate as they were together,” observed Don’s first wife, Kay Knotts. Don called Andy “Ange,” and Andy called Don “Jess” (a poke at his never-used real first name.)

8e5f2ee2f36dc9c4a22b55e2bfd5d144They both had embarrassment and unhappiness to spare in their formative years. Andy Griffith was born in 1926 and grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was not well-off and posh enough to be accepted as a peer by Mount Airy’s wealthier society on the north side of town, and not poor enough to be accepted by the hardscrabble, working class families (who often had ten or more children) on the south side. Andy, an only child, was stuck in the middle and friendless. It didn’t help that he was too gawky and uncoordinated for sports, and even when he discovered he had a talent for singing, his big ears and oversized pompadour hairstyle tended to provoke laughter whenever he performed as a youngster.

He got out of Mount Airy as soon as he could, and achieved success in the drama and music departments of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Before, during, and after college, he was intermittently part of the cast of the “longest-running symphonic outdoor drama” in stage history, The Lost Colony, a regional NorthWhat_It_Was,_Was_Football_cover Carolina phenomenon still running to this day. He met his wife, Barbara, among the The Lost Colony’s rep company, and the pair became professional party entertainers, hirable for your neighborhood barbeque or Shriners’ banquet. She sang (beautifully, it was said), and he told folksy, Southern monologues. When one of these monologues, What It Was, Was Football was released as a 45-rpm single in late 1953, it was a monster seller, and Broadway came calling…

Although he used the internalized memories of his hometown when creating the The Andy Griffith Show, Andy never really forgave Mount Airy for all of its snubs. When the town began capitalizing on it reputation as “the real Mayberry” by selling merchandise, hosting cast reunions and “Andy Griffith Days” festivals, Andy himself always kept his distance.

Jesse Donald Knotts, Jr. was born in 1924, deep in West Virginia coal-mining country in the town of Montgomery. The Knottses were dirt-poor (little Don slept on the kitchen floor next to the stove, the warmest part of the house), and their troubles were compounded by the presence of Don’s father, who was not only a raging alcoholic, but also an increasingly paranoid schizophrenic, who frequently threatened family members’ lives. (Don remembered him holding a knife to his throat.) No wonder Don’s early comic character was known as “Nervous Man.”

images12Underfed and undersized, Don knew his tense expressions and flailing mannerisms gave him a comical appearance, and gravitated toward performing as a protective barrier. He taught himself ventriloquism, and made a few dollars with his dummy, “Danny,” here and there. After high school, he attempted to break into show business by traveling to New York. He spent most of his time loitering in talent agencies’ waiting rooms. Broke and chagrined, he returned to West Virginia and enlisted in the Army, where he (and Danny the Dummy) were assigned to “Detachment X,” an entertainment corps that served right on the front lines of World War II (it was sometimes referred to as “the USO with helmets.”) After a few months, Don began to view ventriloquism as limiting and small-time. Danny the Dummy was pitched overboard from a troop transport into the South Pacific, and Don joined the ranks of the comedians.

The first chapter of Andy & Don is quite rightfully called “Don’s Demons.” Memories of his monstrous father, dead since Don was 13 and bedridden long before that, still haunted him constantly. He always felt like a bad Christian because he never felt the passion he saw in the fire-and-brimstone services at the Pentecostal church of his youth. He developed intense hypochondria and insomnia, and frequently had panic attacks and psychosomatic sickness before  performances.

Intense psychotherapy finally allowed him to let go of his religious hang-ups and become agnostic. Andy was always religious — he seriously considered entering the ministry at one point (the Football recording was credited to “Deacon Andy Griffith”) — and became even more so in his last years, when he privately fretted about Don’s soul.

But for all of their deep talks over a half-century, they never really discussed religion.

The downside of psychoanalysis was that Don’s therapist was pretty free and easy with the sleeping pill prescriptions, and Don was hooked for much of his adult life.

After the Army and a bachelor’s degree on the G.I. Bill from the University of West Virginia, Don began to make inroads into radio and the earliest era of television, appearing in small but memorable parts on everything from soap operas to children’s shows. On a whim, he auditioned for an upcoming Broadway play called No Time For Sergeants, starring the overnight sensation Andy Griffith, who had done that funny football record… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #13: “Sinatra: The Chairman” (and to a lesser extent, “Frank: The Voice”) by James Kaplan

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once. I was jumped by a bunch of guys in a parking lot. They were beating me with blackjacks. Sinatra said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s enough…'”                                                                                  –Shecky Greene

I have never been a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, but I certainly can’t deny he was one of the foremost musical artists of the 20th century. (I’m not a fan of ballet or musical theater either, but would never deny the skill and talent required to do them well.) I’ve tried to get into Sinatra, but for all the praise heaped on him for his “phenomenal phrasing” and his way of “living the emotion of a lyric,” my rock-raised ears can’t get around the fact that everything he’s done now sounds dated and hokey. It’s grandfather music. Or nowadays, great-grandfather music. It’s polite. Which makes it all the more wonder that it comes from perhaps one of the most impolite human beings that ever existed. Sinatra may have hated rock — and he did, with all the passion his passionate nature could muster — but in personality and demeanor, he was first rock star, maybe even the first punk (although to someone of Sinatra’s generation, “punk” was a grievous insult.)

The post-1954 Frank Sinatra as depicted by James Kaplan (and many others) is, more often than not, a generally unpleasant person. Thoughtless, hyper-sensitive, and supremely self-centered at the best of times, he often melted down into rages that were literally toddler-like: screaming, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people — because he didn’t get his way on some minor matter. When asked why those close to him tolerated it, they usually said something about his formidable charm and bottomless generosity when his mood was lighter…and of course that talent, and “that voice.” But for a reader like myself who isn’t a particular fan of “that voice,” his behavior is inexcusable. His story, however, is fascinating…

Sinatra: The Chairman is the just-published second of a two-volume biography by Kaplan, but the first, Frank: The Voice (2010), feels like nothing more than an extended prologue, chronicling the singer’s early years in Hoboken (as an indulged only child of a lower-middle class family, not the tough street gangster he claimed to be), his rise to fame as a skinny, bow-tied “crooner” singing with the big bands in the 1940s, and finally his temporary plunge into semi-obscurity. (Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography has the opposite issue; the first volume, Last Train To Memphis, is riveting, and the second, Careless Love, feels like a perfunctory denouement.)

Kaplan’s first volume lingers for its entire final third on those wilderness years of 1950-53 — dumped by Columbia Records and MGM, Sinatra limped through hosting a short-lived, low-rated variety show on CBS, sang to half-filled halls, and clung to fame primarily through his rocky marriage to rising star Ava Gardner. Frank: The Voice ends in early 1954 on a note of triumph — it’s Oscar night and Sinatra has just won Best Supporting Actor for From Here To Eternity (he had begged for the role when no one wanted to hire him.) The ink has just dried on his contract with Capitol Records, where his newly-matured voice and partnership with a number of gifted arrangers (Nelson Riddle foremost among them) put him at the forefront of American popular music.

This is where Sinatra: The Chairman begins, and rewards the reader for making the slog through Frank: The Voice. This is where we get the Sinatra we want to hear about — the Mafia ties, the brawls, the womanizing, the Rat Pack, the iconic Capitol albums, the dabbling in Kennedy-era politics…Kaplan does not disappoint. When I call the first volume a slog, that’s not a knock on Kaplan’s writing. In both books it’s wonderful, almost novelistic prose. What I mean is Sinatra’s early years, personally and professionally, are his least interesting. 1954 and beyond is where the real meat is.

Kaplan weaves Sinatra’s story in and out of a larger cultural picture. Like the first volume, a generous portion of Sinatra: The Chairman focuses on a few key years, in this case, 1960 to 1963, when Sinatra parked himself at an exciting and somewhat dangerous intersection of entertainment, organized crime (he was friends with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana), and politics (he lobbied hard for JFK in the 1960 presidential campaign, and even partied with the Massachusetts senator several times early on, before Kennedy wisely began distancing himself.) Kaplan explains and intercuts all of these meticulously-researched threads without ever losing momentum, with a keen eye for the details he knows we want, and never becoming salacious or losing his academic tone. As we move through the 1960s, Kaplan also begins intercutting Sinatra’s story with the rise of the Beatles (by implication declaring them the other great musical phenomenon of the 20th century), and the rapidly-changing face of popular music in that decade. The sands once again shift beneath Sinatra’s feet as he ages out of any real relevance everywhere but Vegas showrooms and the cocktail parties of old Palm Springs millionaires. (Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that the marquees in Vegas would simply say “HE’S HERE” with no further information needed.)

Biographies sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between telling the story of a life, and examining the work that life produced. They often either dwell on their subject’s psyche, or read like a chronological resume of projects. Kaplan does an excellent job interspersing Sinatra’s films and recordings into the overall picture, giving a good impression of what clicked and what didn’t, both with the artist himself (Sinatra did not care much for “Strangers In The Night,” and absolutely hated “My Way”), and with the public that paid for the results. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #11: Tom Doyle’s “Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s”

It is said that no journalist gets close to Paul McCartney. His naturalman on the run guardedness and evasiveness have been compounded by fifty years of constantly dealing with prying, insensitive, and often clueless “reporters” trying to get a story out of one of the most well-known, wealthiest, and at times, oddest, musicians in the world.

He still gives tons of interviews. But, as Rolling Stone reporter Chet Flippo wrote in an old McCartney bio, when the reporter leaves the glow of being in the presence of a Beatle and actually reviews their tapes or notes, there is a cold realization that they have come away with nothing of any substance.

Does Tom Doyle break through that wall? For the most part, as even he admits, no. But he feels he has been lucky enough to get glimpses of the unguarded McCartney, mostly by virtue of being Scottish (a quality that McCartney seems to love), and the fact he is a long-time writer and editor for the classic rock-worshipping music mag Q, and not some Fleet Street hack looking for an angle on his messy divorce or re-hashing the same Beatles questions for the 10,000th time.

Perhaps to avoid over-familiar territory, Doyle has chosen to focus on the wings19721970s. Under the multi-platinum surface of Wings was a schizophrenic and frenetic decade for McCartney. Less resonant than the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles and the ballyhooed 1960s, but perhaps more interesting to someone who has had their fill of Beatles/60s mythologizing.

Doyle bookends his text with a Prologue and Epilogue from his numerous McCartney interviews of the 2010s. He notes that McCartney’s hair now seems professionally colored, rather than what he suspects were appalling home dye-jobs in the 1990s. (It’s this type of detail written in a clear, informal prose style that makes this book a particular pleasure.) Another reason I really like Doyle: He actually asks about Paul’s goofy, cheery, thumbs-up “Macca” persona of the last quarter century that has led to countless bad Dana Carvey-style impressions and a degradation of his standing among those who fancy themselves “serious” rock fans.

McCartney sighs, and says, “Have you seen me do it [the thumbs-up] in the last ten years?”

Doyle admits he hasn’t.

“I have been chastised by world opinion on that.”

The unguarded McCartney’s speaking voice, according to Doyle, is earthier and more “lovingly profane” than the cartoon Liverpudlian he puts on for most of the public. (Is this a thing? I’ve also heard from many sources that Michael Jackson’s spacey, high whisper was a total put-on, and he had a perfectly normal speaking voice in private.) The world’s third most-famous pot smoker (after Bob Marley and Willie Nelson) also admits he quit the stuff several years ago, citing age as a factor. He noted that friends told him recently “‘Wow, your choice of words has really gone up.’ Before, I’d go ‘It’s like…y’know…it’s like…y’know…good.” Continue reading

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Books of the Holy Bee, 2013 — Part 2

Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

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For such an historic event, I can’t seem to find any books about Hurricane Katrina that detail the events in a straightforward way. Some get all science-y, describing the meteorological features of the storm itself, the engineering of the levees, and other things way over the head of a dumb bunny like myself. Many (many) more get all sociopolitical-y, describing in long-winded detail the economic gulf between class and race in New Orleans, and the government’s response (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the disaster. Very few give a general narrative, or overview of exactly what happened to the city over those few days in August 2005. The human moments and survival, or non-survival, stories that make for the most gripping reading are sprinkled through these books, but never take center stage.

Five Days At Memorial has all the elements I’m looking for, but focused in on a single location. It’s the story of Hurricane Katrina told through its impact on one building and its occupants — Memorial Medical Center in downtown New Orleans. Within hours of the storm’s landfall, the building had no power, no plumbing, and no ground access to anywhere due to the massive floods that turned streets into rivers.

We are a wired society, folks, no two ways about it. Lose electrical power for a few hours, and everyone goes into Little House on the Prairie mode, lighting candles and playing board games and having a fine old time. Lose it for more than a day, and it’s Road Warrior — society shits it collective pants in a shuddering seizure, grinding to a halt as people loot, rape and riot. Power loss is particularly catastrophic in a hospital. Respirators, monitors, climate control, and almost every piece of life-preserving equipment all plug into an outlet. Which is why hospitals always have back-up generators. Now why a city that’s below sea level and has suffered catastrophic floods in the past would choose to place a major hospital’s emergency generators in the basement is something of a head-scratcher. Generators under several feet of water do not operate at peak efficiency. In fact, they do not operate at all.

So Memorial became a hot, humid prison awash in human sewage, and forced the hardy souls who were stuck there to wait for days in hope of rescue. Helicopters and boats were limited in number and capacity, needed by thousands all over the city, and poorly coordinated to begin with. Not only did Memorial have to contend with harrowing physical circumstances, some of their none-too-spry patients left them with ethical dilemmas as well. Who gets priority rescue — those in the worst shape and closest to death, or those with a better chance for a longer life? What do you do with hospice patients who would be gone in a matter of days, hurricane or not, and now have no respirators or pain-killers to ease their way out? Do you force them to linger painfully, or put them out of their misery? If the latter, at what point in the ordeal is it acceptable, and which ones? Who decides? And who actually does the deed?

The Memorial staff had to answer all of these questions, act upon their decisions under extreme duress, and live with the consequences. Fink does a great job at telling their stories without editorializing or moralizing, and makes me grateful for my fully-functional, above-sea-level electrical grid.

(Whatever happened to “fink” as an insult, anyway? You don’t hear it much anymore.) Continue reading

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Books of the Holy Bee, 2013 — Part 1

Since I’ve retired from compiling a best-of-the-year music list, I only have one area of cultural ephemera left to quantify, and that’s books. And I’m doing a pretty lousy job at that, to be honest. I was so embarrassed by the garbage I read in 2012 (both of Michael Caine’s autobiographies? Really?), I didn’t bother to post a list.

2013 was a little better. I finally warmed up to the concept of the Kindle, after eyeing it suspiciously from across the room for several months. I’m no Luddite technophobe, but not turning paper pages felt like I was somehow betraying the bibliophile oath. The feeling died as I realized my shoulder bag did not have to make me list to the side like a tugboat taking on seawater due to the weight of several books anymore if I just used the Kindle. (My vaguely tugboat-ish shape is another issue entirely). Speeding that feeling to its grave was the acquisition of an iPad this past fall, which makes Kindle reading feel a little more book-like due to its larger size. Now I’m riding the narcotic rush of clicking one button on Amazon and having a new book materialize instantly. It doesn’t even feel like I’m spending money…

My cripplingly expensive clicking has at least resulted in a Books of the Year list that consists entirely of books published this year, without being padded out by books that came out earlier (often years earlier) and only recently stumbled upon.

Let’s begin…

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburncash

What struck me most forcefully about the new Cash biography is that it exposed the terrific Walk The Line film as almost complete fiction. Of course, it is naive to believe that biopics are a straight re-telling of facts, but Cash’s story related on film has only a nodding acquaintance with the reality as detailed by Hilburn. The circumstances surrounding Cash’s discovery by Sam Phillips, his meeting June Carter, their courtship, and his much-ballyhooed 1968 “clean-up” were not only fictionalized, but just a biscuit away from pure fantasy.

Almost no great artist can stand the biographer’s scrutiny with their halo intact. People who create at high levels tend to be addiction-prone, incredibly selfish, lacking impulse-control skills, and make life difficult if not downright hellish for those around them. The Cash myth is that he went through his pill-popping “wild years,” then cleaned up and became the avuncular St. Johnny, pals with Billy Graham, and ingester of nothing stronger than black coffee. The reality is that he remained incorrigible and unpredictable, and his continued substance abuse led to the health problems that plagued his final decade and hastened his demise at the not-too-old age of 71.

Johnny Cash: The Life is no hatchet job or expose. It is a scholarly examination of a very complex individual. The negative aspects of a personality are magnified when there is no self-awareness (in other words, assholes who don’t know they’re assholes are the worst kind). Cash was painfully aware of his shortcomings, and I feel that his positive inclinations won out by the end of his story, as we hope they do for all of us. This victory was made possible, in his view, by his religion and treating his life as a spiritual journey. As cloying and hokey as that sounds (I cringed writing it), there’s no other way to put it, and there’s no separating the man from his faith. To his eternal credit, he practiced religion the way it should be practiced — without judging others (he knew better than that), with a sense of humor, humility, and a fierce intelligence. Most importantly, he subjected his faith to constant, rigorous questioning and probing. (He even wrote a work of religious scholarship — a fictionalized biography of the apostle Paul titled Man In White.)

Oh, and he did some pretty good songs, too. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 6: Eric Idle

1305-ericidle.gl_0058-WEB-679x1024Although  ERIC IDLE was actually the second-youngest Python (Palin has the distinction of being the youngest by only a few weeks), of all the Pythons he’s the one who projected an aura of youthful rebellion. Cleese, only four years older by the calendar but light-years away in demeanor, might as well have been his father. He had rock-idol hair past his shoulders during the Python years, and even though it was mostly kept pinned under the wigs of his characters onscreen, the viewer sensed a certain anti-authority wickedness in his eyes.

Idle had none of the fuzzy, free-spirited anarchism of Jones & Gilliam, nor the warmth of Palin. You got the sense you didn’t want to piss him off. His writing and performances were more sharp-edged, and he quickly garnered the title “The Sixth Nicest Python.” With the Cleese/Chapman and Jones/Palin writing partnerships established early within the group (and Gilliam off doing his animations), Idle wrote solo. He didn’t mind, he said, but it did make it twice as hard to get his stuff in the show because he didn’t have a partner acting as a sympathetic laugh-track during group read-throughs. idle younger  

As the group branched into other media, Idle began building a niche as the “musical” Python — he was a decent guitarist and had a knack for catchy, witty lyrics. Many of the more memorable Python songs came from him, including Life of Brian’s mighty “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” which has practically replaced “God Save the Queen” as the British national anthem. (Idle’s collaborator on some of the melodies was composer and arranger John DuPrez, who scored Brian and The Meaning of Life, and provided the music for Idle’s Spamalot, see below.)

Idle, like Cleese, has raised some eyebrows (my own included) for seeming to be non-discriminating with many of the projects he’s chosen over the last 25 years or so, leading to accusations of money-grubbing. Idle himself has sometimes played on this, naming his two concert tours the “Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python Tour” and the “Greedy Bastard Tour.”

However, on his highly interesting website (well, highly interesting to me — it’s mostly his “reading diary”), he points out that the majority of his recent projects have been taken on with no expectation of profit, and if you really break down his choices, a lot of his more dubious stuff was something that may have seemed genuinely interesting at the time, or was done as a favor to a friend. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

cash dvdBEST PROJECT: The Rutles — All You Need Is Cash

TV movie, first broadcast on NBC, March 22, 1978.

Rutland Weekend Television was part of the first wave of Python solo projects, coming to BBC screens in 1975, around the same time as Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and the pilot episode of Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Written by and starring Idle, and co-starring Neil Innes (another performer steeped in music and comedy — he was a member of the quirky British cult act Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), it was a sketch show based around the premise of being “Britain’s smallest television network” (a premise familiar to fans of Canada’s SCTV which began a year or so later). Under-staffed and low budget, the show came and went in two abbreviated seasons and hasn’t been seen much since. Idle himself owns the rights to the show, and has indicated he has no intention of re-issuing them in any form. So what is Rutland Weekend Television’s lasting legacy? The greatest Beatles parody/homage of all time, The Rutles.

The Rutles started life as a brief sketch on RWT, featuring Idle and Innes performing an original, note-perfect recreation of the circa-1964 Lennon-McCartney songwriting style called “I Must Be In Love.” It might have gone no further, but when Idle was the guest host of Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1976, he shared some clips from RWT. The Rutles caught the attention of SNL producer (and Beatles super-fan) Lorne Michaels.

There was always a mutual admiration between Python and SNL, despite their different approaches to sketch comedy. The Python shows were meticulously written over a period of months, rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, then filmed and edited tightly, weeks ahead of airtime. An average SNL episode was written on the fly in a night or two, rehearsed once (twice if there was time), and thrown at the public, ready or not, live every Saturday night. The story goes that Chevy Chase met Lorne Michaels while both were in line to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The younger SNL camp  idolized the Pythons, and the Pythons respected the fearlessness of SNL (they said it reminded them of their early days doing nerve-wracking live revue at their universities). Idle and Michael Palin guest-hosted several times each in the show’s first five seasons. 22RUTLES1_SPAN-articleLarge Lorne Michaels believed there was a lot of potential in The Rutles, and produced a TV movie built around them — All You Need Is Cash. Presented as a fake documentary, Cash fleshed out the Rutles “story” from inception to break-up. From the grainy black-and-white of postwar Britain, through the colorful Pop Art and psychedelic eras, and finally the dawn of the cold, gray ’70s, Cash captured the feel of a “rockumentary” perfectly. (Just as RWT foreshadowed the more well-known SCTV, Cash beat This Is Spinal Tap to the punch by several years.) Each era got a few Innes songs that sounded so much like Beatles songs they circulated as Beatles “outtakes” on a few bootlegs. Creating style pastiches of early Beatles stuff is relatively straightforward — songs like “Hold My Hand,” “Ouch!” and “Number One” faithfully matched the energy and innocence of the early days. The band’s later, weirder era was probably more of a challenge, but the challenge was met. “Penny Lane” is recast as “Doubleback Alley,” “All You Need Is Love” is echoed by “Love Life,” and the psychedelic epic “I Am The Walrus” meets its doppelganger in “Piggy In The Middle.” And there are several others, each of them charming and matching the sound and feel of a different Beatles song…without ever becoming an outright Weird Al-style parody or stealing any of the original melodies (Innes had to go to court to prove it.) Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 5: Michael Palin

2011-02-11-MichaelPalinserious3Out of all the comedy legends the up-and-coming John Cleese rubbed shoulders with in the late 1960s, there was none he found funnier than the far less well-known MICHAEL PALIN. In fact, Cleese’s desire to work with Palin was the core of what became Monty Python.

The youngest Python has remained eternally-youthful looking. He played most of the meek and mild characters on the Flying Cirucs — the shopkeepers, the accountants, the milkmen. Ones that were particularly hilarious when playing against Cleese’s towering monstrosities and other more grotesque characters, though he could also do a bit of grotesque himself (see Ken Shabby). He excelled at smarmy game-show hosts and sunny young optimists, like Reg Pither, the cheerful bicyclist of the only Python episode that told a single story all the way through, season three’s “Cycling Tour.” His overall aura of amiability has earned him, out of all six Pythons, the title of “The Nice One.”

And therein lies a problem. How am I going to rip one of the “nicest men in Britain” a new one over his crappy projects? I’m not, of course. Like his Python writing partner Terry Jones, Palin is not responsible for anything that can be considered truly wretched. He has maintained a high standard, so even his “Worst Project” below will merely receive a gentle “it wasn’t for me.”

He’s done a lot of stuff for British TV (documentaries on railroads and art history, and the teleplay for an autobiographical TV movie called East of Ipswich) that has received glowing reviews across the pond, but didn’t get much play stateside. In fact, one of his early projects with Jones, a six-episode mini-series called The Complete and Utter History of Britain (London Weekend Television, 1969), is almost entirely lost, as it was common practice among British TV networks to erase shows already broadcast in order to re-use the videotape. Very thrifty, but tons of classic stuff exists only in the memories of those who saw them the first time. Re-runs did not exist. By a stroke of cosmic luck, this policy ended at the BBC just a few weeks before Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into production. I shudder to imagine what almost happened.

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None of the Pythons came to Flying Circus in mid-1969 as a TV rookie. Even at the tender age of 26, Palin had already hosted a pop music show (Now!, only broadcast in Wales — his first post-college gig), written for the esteemed Daily Show of his era (The Frost Report) and several other comedy/variety shows, co-created, co-wrote, and starred in a cutting-edge children’s show (Do Not Adjust Your Set) that adults loved as well (especially Cleese and Chapman), and was given free reign with kindred spirit and Chaucer expert T. Jones to write The Complete and Utter History…

The Complete and Utter History of Britain put Palin’s Oxford history degree and already-solid TV resume to good use by wondering what it would look like if television were around to cover all of British history. (Just reading about it in one of my Python books as a high-schooler inspired me to create a similar video project for history class — what if CNN covered World War One? The result shamelessly ripped off Python but also, I’m proud to say, had some original bits of anarchic comedy and also lots of factual info about WWI. Like The Complete and Utter History…its current status is “mostly lost.”) The Complete and Utter History… was a watershed moment for Jones and Palin, who chafed in small supporting parts and were dismayed to see their writing botched by actors and a director who just didn’t “get it.” Maintaining creative control by writing and performing became one of the underlying philosophies of Monty Python. The less-than-stellar result also led directly to the formation of the Python team. When the credits of last episode rolled, John Cleese, who had an open offer from the BBC to do a series, called up Palin and said bluntly, “I just saw Complete and Utter History. Since you obviously won’t be doing any more of those…let’s do something together.” The rest is history… Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 3: Terry Jones

Terry_JonesI had originally intended to move through the solo Pythons in strict alphabetical order, just as they are listed in the credits of their TV episodes and movies (always reading “Monty Python’s [Insert Project Title] was conceived, written, and performed by…”), but I was bursting with so many things to say about TERRY JONES, I leap-frogged right to him.

A great ensemble means that no one member is more or less important than any other, but I really do feel that it’s Jones who makes Python Python. He was an early champion of the idea of moving the TV episodes along through a “stream of consciousness,” not allowing conventional sketch-show structure to dictate how the thirty minutes of TV comedy unfolded. This concept was greatly aided by the animations of Terry Gilliam (we’ll be getting to him next), and Jones and Gilliam can be credited with contributing the most to Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s unique look.

The look…that’s actually what first hooked me when I saw my first episode as a middle-schooler on “late night” PBS. Like absolutely nothing on American TV at the time…A surreal visual appeal that augmented and fed into all the absurdity. Much of it was due to how BBC programs shot things in those days — everything in the studio was done on videotape, and everything outside the studio was done on film.

And “outside the studio” could be anywhere. It was sometimes simply the residential west London streets just outside BBC Television Centre, but they frequently trotted off to the coolest-looking spots in the British Isles — windswept highlands and rugged coasts — to get 5313917369_600full_terry_jones_answer_5_xlargetheir filmed segments. Jones more than anyone favored and pushed for this policy. (It became a running inside joke among the Pythons that all of the sketches Jones wrote opened with “Slow pan across Yorkshire moor…mist swirls, music plays…a lone figure emerges…”) Filming these parts of each episode outside the confines of the studio was where Jones first began making his mark. He admitted to constantly pestering the credited director, Ian MacNaughton. “I was always saying, ‘Shouldn’t we put the camera over there, Ian?’” He also cops to backseat driver-ing the editing process, succeeding in getting the editors to put in a full workday on an episode, rather than the couple of hours they were used to. Getting a clock-watching BBC technical crew to listen to his dictates proves his reputation for being willful and tenacious (he credits it to his Welsh blood) was well-earned, and it’s why Python’s TV show looked far better than anyone else’s at the time.

Jones wrote most of his Python material in collaboration with Michael Palin, and their stuff tended to be longer, more conceptual, and more visual than the Cleese/Chapman sketches, which were more traditional and verbal. (It was the blend, of course, that made Python great.) In many ways, the raw, earthy Jones existed at the opposite end of the comedy spectrum from the coolly cerebral Cleese, which led to many spirited “discussions” at Python writing meetings. “I only threw a chair at John once,” Jones has said.

From a performance standpoint, Jones was the utility player. He was a great straight man when the situation called for it (“Nudge, Nudge”), and was often the put-upon Everyman, the straight-laced “city gent,” or his true specialty — the screeching, middle-aged ratbag housewife the Pythons called a “Pepperpot.” All of the Pythons played Pepperpots at one point or another, but Jones perfected them.

When the Pythons branched into film, it was only natural that the two “visual” Pythons, Jones and Gilliam, co-direct Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam found that trying to direct five mouthy, prickly, opinionated teammates full of their own ideas was more than his patience could bear, and the two subsequent Python films, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life were directed — quite happily — by Jones solo. And either through his own inclinations, or because the rest of the Pythons just thought it was funny, Jones managed to be nude on-camera a lot more than the others (including his iconic Nude Organist, which opened every third-season episode).

In all areas, Jones was absolutely essential to Monty Python as we know it. He was the glue, the heart. Yet he remains less well-known than all of the others, especially here in the U.S. (Sharing a name with a batshit-crazy fundamentalist preacher who made the news a few years back probably doesn’t help.) It all seemed so unfair that it caused me to create the very first Terry Jones fan website in 1996, on good ol’ GeoCities.

Film director. Historian. Children’s author. Opera librettist. Political journalist, even. Terry Jones, left to his own devices, covers a lot of ground. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 1: Graham Chapman

My website stats have proven conclusively that the most popular segment of this little blog has been “The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles.” In the true spirit of sequels, I will now take the same basic premise and turn it into something that will likely prove somewhat less popular. Why not take on the solo careers of “The Beatles of Comedy”?

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Many collectives of funny folk have been referred to as “The Beatles of Comedy” — from the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players of Saturday Night Live to the cast of Seinfeld. But the group that has truly earned the title is the one that earned it from the Beatles themselves — Monty Python. They were shooting their very first episodes for the BBC in August of 1969, just as the last notes of Abbey Road were being committed to tape and the hassled, harried Apple board meetings were growing particularly hostile. George Harrison has said many times that he believes the impish Spirit of Genius vacated the dying rock band at this moment, and infused itself into the comedy troupe just being born.

As a group, Monty Python produced 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for the BBC, three original feature films, a compilation film of re-shot sketches from their TV show, two extended original episodes produced for German television, several books and record albums crammed full of material unavailable in any other format, and toured as a live act (resulting in a concert film, for a total of five movies). No other comedy team can top that output. They hung up their Gumby boots in 1983, but well before that, the six members had begun concurrent solo careers which continue to this day (well, except for one — see below.) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin have produced some very creative and funny works of art — and some dreck.

Here’s the format for our little examinations: Only projects that the individual Pythons had a direct hand in creating will be considered. This means writing or co-writing, directing, producing, or any combination thereof. If we expanded our project to include instances where they simply took an acting job for a paycheck, the “worst” portion would be impossible to sort through, especially concerning John Cleese and Eric Idle. (Every non-superstar actor has to take roles to pay the bills from time to time, but it pains me to say that Idle and Cleese have been particularly non-discriminating and mercenary in this regard, popping up in some of the most notorious turkeys of the last twenty years.)

And unlike the solo Beatles, we are not limiting ourselves to one medium. The solo Pythons have written and/or directed feature films, created TV series, written children’s books, self-help books, novels, and scholarly history books, and produced Broadway musicals, to name just a few endeavors.

There will be Best Project and Worst Project, followed by Should Probably Avoid, and to end on a positive note, a Worth Checking Out. This format will be adhered to strictly, except for the times when it’s not. Continue reading

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Books of the Holy Bee, 2011

I’ve always known my reading tends to skew toward biography and memoir. What I didn’t realize is how completely it’s taken over my reading list. Of the 31 non-fiction books I got through this year, 24 of them were someone’s life story. But what’s not to like? You learn not only about an interesting person, but also about the era they lived in and its cultural context. I’ve considered trying to break away and broaden my palette, but why bother? Bios have it all. I hereby declare 2011 the Year of the Biography.

Here’s some highlights from my 2011 reading list (I’ve included a few pics of the Holy Bee’s personal library so you can see what I’ve chosen to surround myself with rather than actual people):

BOOK OF THE YEAR:

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks & Rob Tannenbaum

I don’t know if he invented it, but writer Studs Terkel certainly perfected the concept of an “oral history.” He would go out and interview a wide variety of people who created or influenced an aspect of American culture, and piece together a book on that topic out of their own words. In (relatively) recent years, two landmark works of oral history have been published — 1995’s Please Kill Me told the story of the rise and fall of punk rock in America and Britain in the words of the scene’s (surviving) participants, and 2002’s Live From New York dealt with the seemingly unkillable NBC late night comedy show Saturday Night Live. Marks and Tannenbaum acknowledge the influence of these two books in the introduction to their own (yes, I read the introductions to books), which gathers recollections from hundreds of artists, directors, executives, and on-air personalities (“VJs”) to explore the glory years (1981-92) of the revolutionary cable network Music Television.

MTV was a huge part of growing up for me, both through childhood and adolescence. In its early years (1981-85), my older sister and her friends would sit and stare at it for hours. It was a time for them to socialize, yes, but often they just watched, sometimes offering a little pre-Beavis & Butthead commentary. Occasionally, grade-school Holy Bee would join them as a welcome guest. Other times I had to sneak down after dark and hide behind the couch, half-listening as they talked about incomprehensible high school things, and watching images of Van Halen, Madonna, Lionel Richie, The Thompson Twins, The Eurythmics, and many others unspooling before my eyes as I peeked out through the crack between the couch and the wall. (Looking back, I’m pretty sure they knew I was there, but ignored me.)

Then, when my sister went off to college and my family moved to a rural area with no cable — no more MTV. As a result, there’s a noticeable gap in my knowledge of music and pop culture from 1986 through the first half of 1989. When people bring up the likes of Rick Astley or Frankie Goes To Hollywood (as they often do), I go a little blank. I wasn’t missing much, though. Evidently, ’86 to ’89 was hair metal’s time to shine, and the two biggest VJs were the absolutely odious Downtown Julie Brown and the pompous blowhard Adam Curry. (Want a quote from Curry straight from the book? “I called MTV ‘The Big M…’ I thought that was genius of me.” He’s serious. It’s on page 375.)

Starting high school and a return to a cable-friendly area coincided perfectly for me in the summer of ’89. I was back on the grid, literally and figuratively. These were “my” MTV years — ’89 to ’94. I didn’t know the behind-the-scenes issues that were slowly and imperceptibly changing the network even back then, I only knew it was on my bedroom TV from the time I got home from school at 3:30 to the time I nodded off shortly after midnight, and it was on in the background of every social occasion I attended.

It’s been a long-lamented fact that MTV no longer shows music videos. The way people my age and a little older (the original “MTV generation”) wail about this has become tiresome. I’m sure there were scroll enthusiasts who pitched a fit when moveable type was invented. Some things just can’t be viably saved, no matter how much they remind us of our rapidly-fading youth. The book makes it clear that just showing videos was ultimately a dead-end. Fewer people were tuning in to watch them. As video games became more sophisticated and popular, they became the after-school activity of choice for slack-jawed teenagers. And music genres were becoming increasingly separated — rap fans wouldn’t watch rock videos, and vice versa. The big, happy melting pot of the 80’s was long gone — as dictated by the viewers themselves.

The cold, hard numbers showed that the channel was slowly dying by the early 1990s, and original programming like The Real World saved it, at least as far as its ad revenues were concerned (which is the only reason any show is on any network, ever.) Kids who would no longer watch music videos would watch six over-entitled shitheads squabble in kooky-looking house. We can rail against the lack of “M” in “MTV” all we want, but its (d)evolution was absolutely inevitable. Why is still called “MTV” if there’s no “M”? Same reason it’s still “AT&T” (the second “T” being “telegraph.”) It’s just a name now. Or, in the words of Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes: “Now it stands for Money.”

Still, it was fun while it lasted. I’ll leave you with a quote from late-period VJ Dave Holmes: “I don’t think kids twenty-five years from now will be talking about a specific episode of My Super Sweet 16 the way we remember things about videos.”

People are getting stupider, though. They probably will, Dave. They probably will. Continue reading

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