Category Archives: The Holy Bee Recommends

The Holy Bee Recommends, #20: “On Golden Pond”

 

Well, she’s dead now, and possibly doing a stint in purgatory for her cynical and oh-so-above it all skewering of On Golden Pond, a movie I took to my heart when I was eight years old. (Kael’s review can be found in her collection Taking It All In.)

Why would a sentimental dramedy about aging, fear of death, and family dysfunction with a pair of elderly leads become a favorite movie of an 8-year-old boy? Three letters: H…B…O. It drilled it into me

So this is the third or possibly the fourth time in this blog that I’ve thrown a warm, nostalgic shout-out to the Home Box Office cable channel, the place it occupied in my household of the early 1980s, and its profound influence on my burgeoning cultural tastes. HBO dabbled in original programming from the get-go (decades before totally revolutionizing television with The Sopranos), but back in the day its primary specialty was bringing major motion pictures to your TV screen, uninterrupted and uncut, within about twelve months or so of their theatrical release.

Jane Fonda had purchased the film rights to the source material, a 1979 play by Ernest showImageThompson, specifically to work with her father, Henry, on it. The story reflected their own difficult relationship. Location filming on Squam Lake in New Hampshire occurred through summer/fall of 1980, and On Golden Pond received its “award contender” limited release in December of 1981. It went wide the following February, and showed up as HBO’s main feature for December of 1982, gracing the cover of the channel’s monthly viewing guide. (So primitive was the era, the guide wasn’t even mailed to you. You had to pick it up at the local office of your cable provider.) According to the Guide Archive website, HBO showed On Golden Pond on December 12, 16, 20, 22, 25, 29, and 31, before putting it out to pasture to make room for January 1983’s viewing choices. Despite its summer setting, it felt like a Christmas movie due to the month in which I first saw it, and I’ll bet I caught each airing that December.

What kept me coming back? I fell in love with the constant stream of hilarious remarks from its main character. As a child, I saw it as more of a comedy (with a few heavy moments), and didn’t pick up on the deeper implications of the story or how the character used humor as a barrier. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the material’s comedic bones. The film’s director, Mark Rydell, has stated that the original play did have a lighter comic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects for the cinematic adaptation.

So On Golden Pond and I parted ways, and it had been well over thirty years since I’d watched it when it popped up as a streaming option on Netflix a couple of years ago (don’t bother to look, it’s gone now.) Fittingly, I re-watched it around the holidays (as I was taking down our Christmas tree), and every line was instantly familiar to me. The images I was glancing at on my laptop as I disentangled strands of tree lights had last passed before my eyes on our big cabinet TV in my childhood family room, in the glow of another, long-gone Christmas tree. Besides the nostalgia pangs, as an adult I felt the tension and melancholy in the story much more forcefully.

And yes, I now noticed some of the same flaws that Pauline Kael noticed, but they didn’t piss me off nearly as much as they did her.

The film begins with an elderly retired couple arriving for a season at their summer home on the titular lake somewhere in New England. The arrival/opening credits sequence is played out to the strains of Dave Grusin’s memorable score. On Golden Pond is as unthinkable without its score as Caddyshack is without its gopher. The music — led by a tinkling piano, countered with some gentle woodwinds and strings — can be cloying and even a little obtrusive, but it is indelibly part of the film’s fabric. We see various twilight shots of the gorgeous lake, the surrounding woods, and its population of loons (the aquatic birds, not crazy neighbors.) It does look a little like the beginning of a Hallmark Channel TV movie, but luckily, the direction becomes more grounded once the opening credits end.

The husband is Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda), a former college professor on the verge of his 80th birthday. It is revealed early on that Norman’s health is growing fragile. He is going somewhat deaf, suffers from increasing memory loss, and has heart problems. He is ill-tempered and snappish, but as indicated above, has a way with a funny remark and a clear affection for his wife. He is also obsessed with his own mortality, and masks his fear of approaching death with morbid jokes.

Norman’s wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is a typical Hepburn character — flighty, easily distracted, kind, and free-spirited. The type who dances alone in the woods while gathering wildflowers and singing her old summer camp song. The pair are definitely a contrasting couple, both in temperament and physically. Ethel is a decade or so younger than Norman, and still robust as he grows frail. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #19B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #19A: The Byrds (Mark I) Discography

My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.

I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.

The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…

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Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”

All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing,  and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things

Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.

Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.

David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.

McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.

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The Jet Set, 1964: Crosby, Clark, and McGuinn

The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.

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As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit. 

With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.

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They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)

Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)

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1st official photo session, January 1965. L. to r. Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, Michael Clarke, David Crosby. Hillman’s hair-straightening hadn’t quite taken yet.

Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.

Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.

The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #18: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

“It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python ninety minutes to screw it up.” — Original film poster tagline.

SPOILER ALERT: The meaning of life, according to Monty Python, will be revealed in this blog entry.

monty-python-the-meaning-of-life-posterHere at Holy Bee World Headquarters (i.e., the second-hand desk in my converted garage), I generally try to use my “Recommends” feature to champion something that may be existing in relative obscurity, but just as often I will use it to highlight something in popular culture that is definitely on the radar, but doesn’t get the respect it may deserve.

Britain’s Monty Python comedy team (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, the late Graham Chapman, and American animator Terry Gilliam) certainly isn’t obscure. But while every nerd over 35 in America can quote 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail at length, and the Brits have taken 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian to their collective bosom, The Meaning of Life, a collection of sketches (sort of) exploring the purpose of existence, is treated as something of an also-ran…even though a mention of any of its scenes will elicit a chuckle and a quote from any Python fan (“wah-fer thin mint” is a common favorite), just like all the other of the team’s productions. 

A few of the Pythons themselves are somewhat dismissive of the 1983 film that would prove the swan-song for the full six-member group. “We started work on it before any of us deep-down wanted to,” said John Cleese, who ended up the most frustrated with the project. “It wasn’t all bad, just aimless.” Even Terry Jones, the film’s champion, admitted the writing process was labored. “It was getting increasingly hard to get [the six of us] together, and it showed.”

So, what prompted the Holy Bee to take up the cause of everyone’s least favorite Python monty-python-dvdfilm?

While cleaning and organizing a musty bookcase in the aforementioned World Headquarters, I came across a forgotten DVD still in the shrink-wrap — Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go, which documented their July 2014 reunion stage show at London’s O2 arena. (The title is a reference to Graham Chapman’s 1989 death.) Reunion rumors had swirled around the group for three decades, but the reason that finally forced the five remaining members on to the stage one final time was pretty prosaic — they needed the money. (Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater successfully sued the group for almost a million pounds in royalties on Spamalot, Idle’s Broadway musical based on the film.) I cracked open the DVD and found myself enjoying the reunion show quite a bit — several “greatest hits” sketches that everyone knows, and a few deep cuts for hardcore fanatics, performed with all the energy a group of men in their seventies could muster (at least one of them with an artificial hip). The whole thing was presented as a gala stage extrvaganza, with massive production numbers backed by a full team of dancers and an orchestra. The team swapped some roles around and divided up Chapman’s parts among themselves (all six very rarely appeared in sketches at the same time anyway), and pulled off an overlong and slightly overbaked semi-reunion that was still a lot of fun.

Then…it struck me that it was now, for all intents and purposes, two down, four to go. The O2 shows were Terry Jones’ final performances. All throughout the rehearsals and the series of ten performances, Jones struggled with remembering his lines, even in material he had performed hundreds of times. (The others, with their usual sensitivity, referred to anyone forgetting their lines as “pulling a Terry.”) The following year, he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. Unlike Alzheimer’s, PPA does not affect orientation or cognition, but it has a devastating effect on the ability to communicate. As of this writing, Jones, 76, is still living comfortably, but cannot write and cannot speak beyond a few garbled words. [EDIT: Jones passed away Jan. 2020.]

Watching their reunion show, and thinking sadly of Terry Jones’ illness and retirement, I decided to binge watch the three original Python films — all of them directed by Jones. (Holy Grail was co-directed with Gilliam.) 

(Their “official” filmography consists of five movies but their first, 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different, consists of re-filmed sketches from their late 60s – early 70s BBC-TV series and shouldn’t really count. And Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a videotaped record of their 1980 live show, was intended to be shown on HBO or Showtime. It was instead transferred to film and placed in very limited theatrical release — against the team’s wishes — in 1982.)

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Grail and Brian came off as the unimpeachable classics they are, but I was struck this time by how well-done The Meaning of Life was. It looks great. Jones’ directorial eye has a good sense of color, the overall production design really pops, and he stages the musical sequences as well as any traditional musical director. The humor of Life has a reputation for being patchy, but here’s the claim on which I’m basing this entire blog entry — I’d put the first half (45 minutes or so) of The Meaning of Life up against anything they ever produced and it would come out equal — in terms of wicked satire, plain belly laughs, and the aforementioned visual sophistication, which Python realized was important for a feature film, even if it was just a collection of rather silly sketches. 

In the group’s eyes, the film’s nagging flaw was that it never found an organizing theme until the very end of the scripting process, denying it the opportunity for a final polish. They had just been writing random sketches, hoping to eventually concoct a framework on which to hang them. Grail and Brian had been narrative films, with a story that consistently followed the main character(s) from beginning to end. After those experiences, Jones in particular wanted to try a sketch film, mostly for the challenge. “[Cleese] had this theory that you can’t make a sketch film over fifty minutes,” Jones stated. “I always said ‘I’m sure we can do a sketch film and make it work,’ just to show we can.” By the time they came up with the “meaning of life” concept, they were up against deadlines. “I think it would have been perfect if had we given it one extra draft,” said Eric Idle. “We just sort of stuck in references to the meaning of life wherever we could.”  Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #17: Thomas Berger’s “Neighbors”

To a lot of people, the title Neighbors conjures up fairly recent memories of the raucous Seth Rogen/Zac Efron frat boy comedy. To an older generation, it may trigger a dim recollection of the identically-titled flop starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. To colossal shut-in nerd like the Holy Bee, the go-to is the Thomas Berger novel on which the Belushi/Aykroyd film is based.

Berger (1924-2014) wrote about two dozen novels, but he’s probably best known for SUB-BERGER-obit-master180the picaresque quasi-Western Little Big Man. He also wrote one of my favorite Arthurian novels, Arthur Rex. But it’s this seemingly low-stakes, dark comedy tale published in 1980, set in sleepy suburbia, that I keep coming back to. I’ve re-read it many times since I was about fifteen, and it doesn’t seem to get old.

Earl Keese, 49, and his wife Enid live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a semi-rural area near an unnamed “village” where everything closes by six, and within commuting distance of a large unnamed East Coast city.  Keese works at an office in the city, but beyond that, we never learn anything about his occupation. Enid is a housewife. They have a single child, daughter Elaine, who is away at college. He arrives home one Friday evening to the news from his wife that there’s only leftover succotash for dinner — and that the vacant house that they share the end of the cul-de-sac with is now occupied by a younger couple.

220px-NeighborsWithin minutes, Keese is dealing with the female half of the couple, Ramona, who shows up on his doorstep, seeming to want nothing but to make him uncomfortable. She helps herself to Keese’s wineglass he had left on the coffee table, stares fixedly at his crotch for long enough that he believes his fly must be down, and remarks — after knowing him all of three minutes — that “you’re not so old, but you are too fat.” With old-fashioned politeness, Keese invites the couple to dinner, then goes into the kitchen to discuss non-succotash dinner options with his wife. He raises the possibility of going out to a nice restaurant. Enid is totally passive and doesn’t want to do anything (a recurring theme for her.)  When Keese returns, he finds Ramona has vanished, and her partner, Harry, has let himself in without knocking, and — after knowing him all of two minutes — slaps Keese affectionately on the ass.

From that awkward but sort of harmless beginning, things degenerate. At first it’s just that everything Harry and Ramona do is completely foreign to anything in Keese’s experience, and that they do not observe the social cues and forced inane niceties of late-middle aged suburban life. This culture clash spirals downward quickly. Over the course of the next 24 hours, there is psychological warfare, sexual gamesmanship, property damage, physical violence, and not a wink of sleep. What’s worse is that the more Keese tries to expose Harry and Ramona as sociopaths, the more these efforts backfire. When he attempts to verify some of Harry’s seemingly bold-faced lies, they almost — almost — check out. Sometimes Keese actually gets the better of them, but usually he is the one humiliated. The ultimate humiliation is that Enid and Elaine (who has arrived home unexpectedly) repeatedly come to their defense, implying that Keese is close-minded and paranoid. The more harried he becomes, the more calm and dismissive they become.

If it were merely a back-and-forth of retaliatory hijinks, it would be more of a kind with the shallow-but-entertaining Seth Rogen movie. Berger goes darker and deeper. The twist here is that even though the book is not written in the first-person, everything in the story is filtered through Keese’s perception — and that perception is not to be trusted. If the novel were in first-person, Keese would be an “unreliable narrator.” It is revealed in the first few pages that his eyes and mind often play tricks on him, causing him to see things that aren’t really there, or rather, to twist things that are there into bizarre hallucinations. When he first sees Harry and Ramona’s dog, a large wolfhound, he mistakes it for a naked human being on all fours. That sort of thing. How much of this affliction affects Keese’s perception of his neighbors is for the reader to decide. There are moments when Harry and Ramona aren’t around that his wife and daughter admit the new neighbors are indeed creepy people and that they are just trying to placate them. But there are also moments when they are not there that Enid and Elaine continue to defend them, or at least shrug off Keese’s concerns. What is to be believed? What the hell is going on? Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #16: The Rolling Stones’ Post-Exile Trilogy

There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.

And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.

The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.

The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.

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Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue  — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.

And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).

NPG P851; Mick Jagger by Laurie LewisFor better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)

Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.

Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa. 

Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.

The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.

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Goats Head Soup, 1973

The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.

This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.

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Nicky Hopkins

“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.

“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.

As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.

One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
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The Holy Bee Recommends, #15: “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner

In these virtual pages, we’ve already discussed why 1966 was a revolutionary year in 41tfo6prkll-_sy344_bo1204203200_general. Now, to continue our celebration of this landmark year’s 50th anniversary, we’ll get specific. What did 1966 mean to the Beatles? According to Steve Turner’s excellent new book, Beatles ‘66: The Revolutionary Year, it was the crux of their existence as a working band — building on past triumphs, peaking with their most remarkable work, and even sowing the seeds of their eventual demise. Turner considers the events of 1966 too important to be condensed and shoehorned into a typical Beatles bio, and the year deserves its own book.

It was first and foremost a transformative year for them. In the space of just a few months, they went from their matching suits and famous pudding-bowl haircuts, bashing out “She’s A Woman” into a wall of deafening screams, to being draped in beads and velvet, sporting moustaches and soul patches, and beginning the recording process for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In between, they made the momentous (and unprecedented for a 60s “pop group”) decision to quit touring, produced what many feel is their greatest album, Revolver, and its accompanying single, “Paperback Writer/Rain,” and embarked on individual journeys of personal growth and self-education that fundamentally altered their relationship with each other and how they approached their art.

The catalyst for all of this was the fact that the first part of 1966 was the least active period of their professional lives. It wasn’t always going to be that way. 1966 was supposed to follow the pattern of 1964 and ‘65: film a movie in the first few months of the year, a world tour in early summer, a U.S. tour in late summer, a U.K. tour in the autumn — and writing and recording three hit singles and two hit albums in the midst of all that.

The pattern was broken when a suitable film idea could not be found. Initial talk about adapting Richard Condon’s 1961 Western novel A Talent For Loving came to naught. The film was eventually made in 1969, with Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, and Topol in the older character parts, and two attractive young cowboys in competition for the favors of the sexy heroine. Boggles the mind how anyone thought a very-adult Old West sex farce would be a suitable vehicle for four English musicians, but stranger things have happened. One presumes it would have been expanded to include four attractive young (English) cowboys competing for the heroine.

So after a soul-punishingly brutal schedule since the onset of Beatlemania, with no movie 8d389a137df76159148ff5091cba9ba1shoot happening, the Beatles had over three months off. The only thing on their work calendar for January was doing some overdubs for the film of their famous Shea Stadium concert from the previous summer. Once that was done, John and Ringo skipped town to vacation in Trinidad, where Ringo celebrated being out of the public eye by growing a full beard a year before they “officially” debuted their facial hair look. George married his girlfriend of almost two years, Patti Boyd, and also headed for the Caribbean for a honeymoon. Paul remained in London, and plunged into intellectual pursuits.

John often gets credit for being the “experimental” Beatle, but the trend was started by Paul around this time, who began being associated with places like the Indica Art Gallery and people like art dealer Robert Fraser, artists Peter Blake and John Dunbar, and writer Barry Miles. He assisted with the launch of the famous “underground” newspaper International Times, attended lectures and concerts by modernist composers, and basically gorged himself on every scrap of intellectual stimuli he could get his hands on. He was the first Beatle to really experiment with the possibilities of home recording, creating sound-saturated tape loops by removing the eraser head of his Brennell Mark V reel-to-reel recorder.

A lot of this may have been instigated by living for almost three years with the family of his long-time girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. The influence of the unconventional and sophisticated Ashers was bound to rub off on Paul. Jane’s father, Dr. Richard Asher, was a brilliant endocrinologist, mother Margaret was a music instructor at the Guildhall School (specializing in oboe — she taught Beatles producer George Martin in his formative years), and brother Peter was half of the music duo Peter and Gordon. The press at the time reported Paul’s unusual living arrangement (millionaire pop star living in girlfriend’s parents’ attic) as being quite chaste — like another sibling. But given how open-minded the Ashers were, one would have to assume nocturnal navigations between the two bedrooms were undertaken. Even so, after a couple of years, Paul realized he needed a place of his own. He bought a large townhouse on Cavendish Avenue, just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios, in 1965. By the time it was ready for him to move in it was early 1966, and Paul had begun his cultural crash-course. By staying in London, he was staying close to the action.

John realized he had miscalculated by opting for the mansion way out in the countryside, and frequently expressed his envy of Paul’s being at the heart of things. He did what he could from his more isolated environs, mostly reading — and experimenting with another new development of 1966: LSD. More on that below.

George, although he did not eschew the acid experience at this stage, was choosing to expand his consciousness via more spiritual means. His interest in Indian religion and philosophy was growing by leaps and bounds, and now he found the time to devote himself to studying it — and struggle with learning the difficult-to-master sitar.

Their desire to improve their minds in this fashion was typical of intelligent people who had missed large portions of traditional education. “Having gone from the classroom to the Cavern, they leapfrogged the university experience,” said journalist Tony Barrow.

During this time, the individual Beatles sat for lengthy interviews with radio and print journalists such as Alan Freeman, Ray Coleman, and Maureen Cleave, who took them seriously and asked sophisticated, grown-up questions — a welcome change from their inane group press conferences when on tour. Although the philosophical underpinnings of these interviews would come back to haunt John in the coming months.

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March 1966 — back to work

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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, #12: “Smokey And The Bandit”

I’ve already written a few pieces on life in my college apartment awhile back, and every once in awhile, something comes along that takes me right back to those days. The other night, I came across a certain flick while channel-flipping…

Every college apartment has those one or two movies that are almost nightly viewing…the Big Lebowskis, the Monty Python & The Holy Grails…where the dialogue, gestures, even facial expressions become a treasure trove of inside jokes and the secret language of roommates. For me and my college roommates, it was 1977’s Smokey And The Bandit. We had a VHS copy with warbly sound and a discolored rainbow effect down one side of the screen, but it did its duty, night after night. Individual lines of dialogue that made no sense outside of the immediate context of the film came out of our mouths to the exclusion of actual conversation:

“Lemme have a Diablo sammich and a Dr. Pepper and make it fast I’m in a goddamn hurry!”

“Hold up on that car wash, gentlemen.”

“What we gonna do, kidnap the pope or somethin’?” (Proper response: “How’d ya guess?”)

“If they’d-a cremated that sumbitch, I’d be kicking that Mr. Bandit’s ass around the moon by now…”

“What-I-owe?” (while pointing at someone with both the index finger and pinkie extended.)

“I’m gonna barbecue yo’ ass in MOLASSES!!”

“Honey hush.”

“Thank you, nice lady.”

Each of those lines, and many, many others, meant something to us in Apartment-speak. (Respectively, “I’m hungry,” “stop what you’re doing,” “what’s your plan/idea?” “this traffic jam sucks,” “how much do I owe you?” “I’m very upset with you,” “oh my goodness,” and, uh, “thank you, nice lady.”) Again, there were many others. I almost considered compiling a glossary for this piece.

The film’s story is a simple premise — for reasons that don’t seem to extendSmokeyBanditposter beyond their own twisted amusement and taste for sub-par beer, millionaire Texans Big Enos Burdette and his adult-but-diminutive son Little Enos Burdette travel through the South offering truck drivers (“gearjammers”) exorbitant amounts of cash to haul Coors beer outside of its legal distribution zone. In the 1970s, Coors was available only west of the Mississippi, and people who couldn’t get it became obsessed with it, despite the fact it is very, very shitty beer. (I’d like to see a movie where someone has to haul a truckload of White Castle sliders to California.) They make the offer to “truck-driving legend” Bo “Bandit” Darville. (“Looks like a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot alike, Daddy” Little Enos observes.) According to the terms of the wager, Bandit must travel to Texarkana, Texas, acquire his cargo, and return to Atlanta in 28 hours. He eagerly accepts, enlisting his pal Cledus “Snowman” Snow to actually drive the truck, while he speeds around in a flashy Pontiac Trans-Am as a “blocker,” drawing the attention of any law enforcement in the vicinity away from the truck and its illicit load. Along the way, he picks up Carrie, a runaway bride. Add to this mix a dogged, vengeful Texas sheriff who fanatically tails him far beyond his jurisdiction. Revving engines, squealing tires, high-speed chases, and crashed police cars ensue as the characters exchange witticisms via CB radio.

Veteran stunt coordinator & driver Hal Needham made his directorial debut with this film, and he never bettered it (not even with his 1986 BMX epic Rad). The project was originally meant to be a low-budget B-movie targeted to rural drive-ins, capitalizing on the CB radio fad and truck-driver worship sweeping the country in the mid-1970s. (You can start singing “Convoy” to yourself now. And the term “smokey” was CB slang for a state policeman, due to their Smokey the Bear-style park ranger hats.) It would feature country singer and part-time actor Jerry Reed as the titular Bandit…until Reed’s friend, Gator co-star, and bona fide celebrity Burt Reynolds expressed an interest in starring. Universal Studios thought that was a great idea. The budget was duly inflated, Reed got bumped to the sidekick role, and it was released as a main feature in theaters across the country, to critical indifference and massive popular success. The only film to make more money that year was Star Wars. Continue reading

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