Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Power of "White Christmas" (from Jody Rosen's book on the subject)

I recently checked out Judy Rosen's loving tribute to Irving Berlin's perennial classic so that I could write a proper blog post on this massively popular classic before Christmas. But here it is, one week before the big day and to make matters worse, I haven't so far gotten past the long paragraph on page eight that beautifully distills the power of this song. Perhaps I'll get around to reading the entire book before Saturday but until then, here is something to tide you over:

"The song's power transcends it's sales figures [31 million "copies"] and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War ["Holiday Inn," the song's first vehicle, premiered late summer, 1942]. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal idea;: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keely felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."

From White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen, page 8.

When I'm Sixty-Four (ninth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The ninth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music. On the face of it, this just seems like Paul trying to capture the feel of British dance hall music, the British equivalent of America’s Tin Pan Alley.  He does a good job of it.  I know, because my parents liked it, and adults sang it on TV variety shows in the Sixties.  And Paul himself says (if reference to this song) that his earliest visions of being a songwriter had him writing stuff for Frank Sinatra, not writing rock and roll songs.

But even back in the Sixties people were pointing out that this song wasn’t what it seemed.  Although it begins as if it is an older man talking to his wife of so many years, thinking about the future and planning for retirement, the last verse lets the cat out of the bag:

Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer fill in a form, mine for evermore.
Will you still need me will still feed me, when I’m sixty-four.

In other words, the whole thing was a lonely-hearts advertisement.  What is a lonely hearts club, anyway?  It is the pre-internet pre-computer version of something like E-Harmony, or an internet portal dating page.  People who through normal channels were not succeeding in connecting with a life’s partner would join a club—or advertise in certain kinds of magazines—that promised to increase their chances of connecting with that certain someone.  And by the very nature of this, the participants in these clubs tended to be somewhat older than the usual dating crowd.

So the voice here is of a gentleman providing the details for his dating profile—his tastes, his habits, even the names of his grandchildren.  He seems a widower or divorcĂ© in his mid fifties: he is a grandfather, but doesn’t anticipate losing his hair until “many years from now”.  And in the same quaint, slightly-coded fashion, he is asking any potential respondents (who will “be older, too”) to reply with similar information.  It is enormously clever, and all tongue in cheek, but imbued with a kind of sadness, if nothing else just because it is so chipper. 

The dance-hall gimmick actually hid the truth pretty well, because at the beginning the singer is saying things that we would have thought our oldsters would have said.  And when compared to old, old standards like “Silver Threads Among the Gold”, with the sense that growing old together was the height of romantic expectation, the ruse probably even took in our parents.

What is fascinating is that it seems to have taken in even the Beatles themselves, including Paul, who both wrote this and came up with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band idea.  This song is noted as the earliest of the Sgt. Pepper songs recorded (December, 1966).  It even predates "Penny Lane" (though not “Strawberry Fields”). If, as they say, they had a concept in mind at the beginning, but later abandoned it, it stretches credulity to think they didn’t see a connection.

But none of them has ever admitted such a connection.  This song is always explained as just a simple ditty of Paul’s that he had been playing around with for some time.  I guess we must conclude one should never underestimate the power of the subconscious mind, both to carry on ideas as well as block awareness of them to the conscious mind.

Next: "Lovely Rita" 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Within You Without You (eighth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The eighth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

The second side doesn’t begin with a strong note or downbeat.  The music eases in, creating an ambience, until finally the tabla drums start, and then comes the tune.  It is not unlike the first side, which began with ambient sounds, then a rhythmic, pounding intro and finally a melody.  In both cases, it has the effect of getting you in the mood for what is coming, of getting you absorbed in the setting.  But this side takes about 10 seconds longer to do it.   

The album so far has been like going down a long hall in an ornate building, opening one door after another taking in what you see in the rooms, and maybe being blown out.  But when you opened this one, it was different.  It is more peaceful, and the voice that eventually begins to sing is almost like a genie or prophet floating in the room, who welcomes you and bids you be at ease.  He speaks in a voice that is plain and direct, not in figures, not in ‘negative narration’, completely easy to understand.  And he begins to explain to you what you have been seeing and experiencing: 

“We were talking, about the space between us all,
and the people, who hide themselves behind a wall
of illusion, never glimpse the truth, …” 

In my youth, when rock and roll was everything, I suppose we all put up with George’s Indian thing—the sitar and all that—as well as we could.  Maybe we congratulated ourselves that we were being open minded and exploring new musical ideas, etc.  But it reminds me of Christmas Eve church services we attended as kids.  We were OK with giving Jesus and God their portion of the celebration, but deep down inside we couldn’t wait to get home and get at the presents.

You will surmise that I do not at all feel that way now, and it is not because I have converted to George’s religious persuasion, nor because I have a hankering to return to hippiedom.  Things change, as they say.  Now I am not at all anxious to leave.  I want to remain in this room and try with all my heart to see if he really knows the answer, and to see if I can gain from it.  Plus, now that I am actually listening, I realize this is arguably the greatest composition George Harrison ever did, and I feel it does not get near the credit that it deserves. 

But back to the story.  You had seen some disturbing—though brilliant—things in the previous rooms.  Your mind is troubled, and you don’t know what to make of it, but George explains it all to you in measured, peaceful tones.  He speaks of space, and illusions, of truth and love, and saving the world, and losing your soul.  And he artfully stages an egregious ‘conversation’ between the sitar and violins, and entertains you to the utmost.  And finally he leaves you with these parting words:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself than you may find peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come when you see we’re all one and life flows on within you and without you. 

You quickly wake up from the trance in which he has held you, and though you know you understood what he said, you don’t retain it.  Maybe it is too easy, maybe it is something you don’t want to deal with right now, but whatever it is, you take his parting words, stuff them in your pocket and go back out in the hall to explore the remaining doors.  But as you leave, for the briefest moment you think you hear the sounds of people happy in a social context, and it stirs an unconscious hope that there is, somewhere, a world of happy relationships. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (seventh in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The seventh in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

I always thought was one of John’s best songs: it was inventive, unusual, and fun to listen to.  I always took as the musical equivalent of a man’s business card.  It is at least advertising copy, written in a day when the English language was still being used, as Henry Higgins would say.  But it always seemed to me that John meant it as social comment, given the way he executed the “in this way Mr. K will challenge the world” at the end of the first verse.  He gives a kind of shimmering emphasis to the last word. 

Of course, at the time, we didn’t all have internet access to a copy of the poster that was his inspiration for this.  I thought maybe he added that line, but it is clearly on the original poster, though in a different sense.  On the poster, the challenge is in relation to “this branch of the profession.”  But I believed at the time—and still feel—that John meant it in an absolute sense.  At a time in life where I was figuring out what I wanted to do, this song moved me to hope that I could hand out a card that said I did something more meaningful than jump “over men and horses hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire.”

Over the years I have reacted to “Messrs. K and H” in different ways.  There was a long time when I viewed them with a kind of pity.  The whole picture being presented had a very “much ado about nothing” feel to it.  Sometimes I would think of them as being puffed up and self-important over basically doing nothing more than a bunch of somersaults.  But on other occasions I would think of them more charitably, as people trying to carve out a little something for themselves as best they could with the skills they had.  I wonder which way John meant it?

But from any angle it seems we are looking at the spectacle of a couple of blokes whose jobs have swallowed their personalities whole, and what they are now is the litany of the various acrobatic stunts they are able to perform.  A splendid time may be guaranteed for all, but how about for them?  Is this a life?  Someone familiar with the circus acts of this era can comment on whether such work was degrading, or not, etc., But it would seem there is a more universal question in all this, about whether we are able to maintain a perspective in which “what we do” is only a subset of  “who we are”.   

This song concluded the first side of the original LP, and I would point out an interesting part of the experience of the Sgt. Pepper LP that those of you who only ever heard it on CD or tapes may have never experienced. 

Back in the day, you had to get up and turn the record over after “Mr. Kite”.  There really was no way for it to happen automatically.  There were record changers, to be sure.   You could stack up to about 5 LP’s on the spindle, and after one side finished, it would drop the next one onto the turntable and start it.  But unless you had two copies of the LP and arranged them just so on the spindle, the record would stop and you had to walk over and turn the record.  (Most discriminating buyers avoided those devices by the late 60’s: they could damage your precious records).      

And the break in the action brought about by this allowed you time to reflect.  The first side of the album had proceeded at a relentless pace.  Sgt. Pepper didn’t have the usual long breaks between tracks that were typical on albums of this era—the tracks flowed together as one.  I don’t mean it was hasty, but it was just gripping, compelling, and it barely gave you time to digest it all.  By the time you got to the end of the first side, with the heady trailing off and final echo of the calliope, you became aware of two things.  First, you were breathless or speechless (or both), and secondly, there was the first silence you had experienced in about 20 minutes.  Now all the thoughts, questions, and images of the characters, kept at bay during march of the music, had an opportunity to flood back into your mind as you walked over, lifted the cover and turned the record.

Next: "Within You Without You."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

She's Leaving Home (sixth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The sixth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This is the hardest one to write about, not because it is a stretch to fit it in my proposed theme, but because I have mixed feelings about who is really to blame in this story.  Paul McCartney probably meant in this that the parents were uptight and selfish, and as a teenager/college student, I felt, as I am sure many did, that “she” was justified in leaving.  Yet now as a parent of teenagers, I wouldn’t say I have done a 180 in my thinking, but I can probably take the side of either one of them, depending on the mood I am in.

A minister once pointed out to me that the process referred to as “leaving the nest” can often be a stormy one.  Many things transpire over the 18-odd years of raising a child, and by the time it is all over, the departure can be rancorous.  And there is often blame on both sides.  I have seen a lot of this in different ways over time, a bit in my own circles as well as in many others.  One develops a deep respect for families where the kids find what they want to do in life, and though it may or may not coincide with what the parents thought or wanted, it transpires with a degree of peace, support and respect on all sides.

The parent’s perspective is voiced by John in the backup vocal parts.

We gave her most of our lives, Sacrificed most of our lives,
We gave her everything money could buy.

We never thought of ourselves, Never a thought for ourselves
We struggled hard all our lives to get buy.

The first time through, the couple sounds like the classic materially-obsessed, over-protective parents. But the second time through, they sound like children of the Depression, as if they were living it all over again.  But, of course they really weren’t, because the mid to late Sixties were times of tremendous growth and prosperity.  But even if they weren’t, that the parents carry on so about their struggle is embarrassing.  Life is a struggle, and there is that old “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” comment that is rightfully directed at the parent who doth protest too much on this point.   

On the other hand, the attitude of the daughter seems kind of lightweight.  We are given one very clear statement of what the problem was to her: “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.”  Something in me pictures an emcee pointing a microphone back at the daughter and asking, “Are you sure you really want to go with that answer?”  Can Fun really be the significant “something inside that was always denied” that justifies leaving one’s parents as if they were total creeps?

As a parent, I realize I can answer to the law if I don’t provide proper food, clothing, shelter, upbringing and education to my children.  My World War II generation parents could barely even expect that from their parents, given the Depression, and for the last decade or so here in America there are many families for whom it is a challenge.  I suppose it is only the Boomers and the Xers who expect “Entertainment Coordination” to be on the list of parental essentials.

But that all being said, I still can’t quite acquit the parents in this.  Were they truly avaricious people, smothering their child with materialistic expectations, or were they basically well meaning parents whose past experience was working against them?  Jane Austen notes in Pride and Prejudice that it is hard to determine "where discretion ends and avarice begins".  Similarly, it is hard to classify these parents.  But in either case, "discretion" was overplayed, and in their preoccupation with making ends meet they deprived the daughter of something important for life, leaving their “baby” to live alone in their suffocating world. In fact, the mother’s use of that term suggests she never saw her daughter as someone whom she was charged with helping to become a woman who could think for herself.  

We are not told if there had been any discussions of the situation—her leaving comes as a surprise.  One assumes there probably were, but that neither side ever succeeded in successfully conveying to the other how they saw things.  So the situation built up over “many years” to the point where both sides developed their own interpretation of matters.  Since the parents are supposed to be the older and wiser players—we do speak of parents as ‘raising’ children—we should expect them to be more insightful, more cognizant of the need for good communication and thus the ones who could have intervened to prevent all this.

John’s voice poses a very pertinent question the last time through:

What did we do that was wrong?  We didn’t know it was wrong.

Our culture depends heavily on the family for healthy social formation.  How homes are formed, how children are raised and how they cross over into adulthood are extremely serious issues in terms of their effects on society.  And yet, it seems we go at this in England and America as if it were as perfunctory as buying paper towels.  The lack of training and understanding afforded to new parents is better now, but it was terrible in the 50’s and 60’s.  One wonders how our culture has survived as long as it has, or how some parents were able to do as good a job as they did.

And this chronicle of where this thoughtless approach to family development can lead is done in a musical package that is movingly ironic.  The strings were arranged by Mike Leander, who had worked with Marianne Faithful (and orchestrated a lush version of Yesterday, oddly enough), and his arrangement gave this song an exquisite elegance.  Thus you have a family breakdown set forth with a delicate, classy arrangement and a beautiful soaring melody.  A family should get elegance, class and a beautiful theme, but, sadly, not for a matter like this.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Fixing a Hole" (fifth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The fifth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This is another favorite song from the guitarist point of view.  What George does with the lead work on this always intrigued me.  I wondered how he got the tone he got, how he came up with the idea for the descending chords, and that solo in the middle is just perfection. 

The words on this one didn’t bother me too much at the time, I suppose.  It seemed a song about needing to get away from people, which is something we all have to do from time to time.  There certainly are times when other people’s egregious exertions toward us can bend us around ourselves, and we need time to unwind. 

But listening to it now, I realize this isn’t just about someone taking a retreat.  The singer is building a fortress against other human contact, both physically and mentally. 

The verses themselves are not quite clear on this. The holes are being fixed and the cracks are being filled because “the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go.”  But the middle section makes it plain what is going on.
And it really doesn’t matter, if I’m wrong I’m right,
Where I belong I’m right, where I belong.
See the people standing there who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don’t get in my door.

The second time around, they are called ‘Silly People’.  Paul was quoted as saying this expressed his reaction to carried-away fans who hung around outside his house.  I do not fault him for his feeling on this point, since it is evident that well meaning but terribly foolish fans caused them all a lot of personal grief.  But without knowing that background, it strikes one that here is a fellow with the means to establish life on his own terms.  He need never subject his opinions to open discussion and can shut out everyone else who won’t see it his way. 

In other words, this is the song of the hermit or the social recluse.  And as it is presented in the form of a dreamy reverie, the unreality of such an approach to life is reinforced.   It is something we all have probably thought about from time to time, and maybe would do, if we didn’t have to go to work, didn’t have to work together with a spouse, didn’t have to deal with people in order to accomplish necessary things for living. 

Is this what Paul was intending this song to say and represent?  Probably not. While the song would have resonated well with someone like Howard Hughes, it doesn’t seem to fit what I know of the life of Paul McCartney.  So in a sense, it probably represents more a secret wish or passing fancy than it does an actual determination to do something.  And certainly Paul is not the only person to have entertained this idea.

However, one senses that it is possible to act out this idea more in concept than in actual construction projects.  So the “space between us all” can get larger not so much in a physical and geographical sense, but in a psychological and conceptual one.  It is regrettable that our often thoughtless actions to one another can create the tendency to respond in this fashion.  And maybe we don’t always realize that we are constructing such retreats in our head.  But perhaps a song like this—another example of unconscious negative narration—can help us to appreciate that, tempting as either a physical or psychological hermitage might be, in the end all it amounts to is a self-imposed form of loneliness.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Early Galvanizing American Songs of WWII

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States joined the Allies, American songwriters began their attempt to produce the song that would be the rallying cry, the “Over There,” for the current world war.  Although no single song achieved this, there were many martial songs that did become intensely popular during this time.  One was “We Did It Before and We Will Do It Again,” written by Charles Tobias and Cliff Friend and ostensibly performed by Eddy Cantor (Tobias’s brother-in-law) on December 10, three days after Pearl Harbor. That’s some quick performing and even quicker composing.  Dinah Shore sang it on her show exactly one week after Pearl Harbor and Cantor interpolated it into his musical – “Banjo Eyes” – that opened on December 25th.

Enormous amounts of radio airplay and sheet music sales followed but record sales didn’t.  In his book, The Songs That Fought the War, John Bush Jones explains this by saying “We Did It Before” was the type of song people wanted to sing, not listen to.  And although it was most likely the song’s length that kept it from becoming the “Over There” of WWII, it was certainly one of the big ones and Bush explains why:

What makes “We Did It Before” stand out among over one hundred professionally written militant war songs is its direct yet clear lyric set to a catchy, singable tune in march tempo; it avoids the usual clichĂ©s of expression in such songs while retaining the message that with the United States in the war, the Allies will quickly defeat the Axis.

Another militant song that achieved immense popularity was based – loosely, as it turns out -- on an event which occurred on December 7th, 1941.  Pearl Harbor Fleet Navy Chaplain, William Maguire, was helping transport ammunition during the Japanese attack when he was reported to have made the comment, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”  Apparently, Maguire wasn’t so sure he’d said it.  He explained later, “If I said it, nobody could have heard me in the din of battle.”  But he admitted the phrase accurately expressed what he was feeling at the moment.

Lyricist Frank Loesser saw Maguire’s supposed statement in a newspaper clipping and wrote some lyrics in which "the sky pilot" -- the chaplain -- lays aside his Bible to man the anti-aircraft gun of a dead gunner.  He set his fictitious lyrics to a dummy melody, fully intending to hand over the job of tunesmithing to a professional.  But his friends urged him to retain his own melody and the song went on to sell millions via sheet music and recordings (and Loesser went on to great success as a composer).

As the song’s popularity soared, so did its controversy.  While some clergymen incorporated the song into their services, others balked at its linking of a man of the cloth with ammunition (and Maguire was apparently not pleased either). This controversy only increased the song’s popularity which caused it to hit the radio like a tidal wave which in turn caused the song’s publisher, Famous Music (and to a slightly lesser extent, the civilian branch of the Office of War Information), to request the stations to play it only once every four hours.  Both of these institutions had a personal stake in keeping the song popular for as long as possible and wanted to insure against listener burnout.

Why was the song so popular?  Time and place obviously had everything to do with it but for the specifics, I’ll let Jones have the final word:

The tune is robust, muscular, and just repetitive enough that it’s easy to remember and hard to forget, and the lyrics are just as touch and energetic, yet filled with a playfulness that keeps the song entertaining, not just belligerent.


All the Years of American Popular Music, by David Ewen, 1977.

The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945, by John Bush Jones, 2006.

Quotes taken from The Songs That Fought the War, pages 125, 155, and 157.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Getting Better" (fourth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The fourth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This to me was always the high point of the album. I loved the driving guitar part coupled with Paul’s octave jumps on the bass. I could never get enough of it, and frankly still cannot. Every time this comes on, I stop what I am doing just to listen. But, I am a guitar player; and this is a great example of how the Beatles were not only good songwriters, but a great guitar band.

The words, however, are something else entirely. Originally, I took this to be a guy in the process of improving himself, or begin improved. He admits from the get go that in the past he was something of a malcontent, and angry, etc. But he claims he sees that now and is moving on, and that is due to his relationship with the person to whom the song is addressed. And if that was all there was to be said, this would still fit in with the theme I am proposing.

But there is another element that creeps in on the last verse. I occasionally like to sing along with records, and as I truly enjoyed the music on this, I would often find myself joining in. But even when I saw this as an upbeat, positive song, I would kind of drop off when it came to “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” It felt weird on the tongue, if you know what I mean. And the music at that point is different—it is set off from the rest of the song in a way.

Later in life I went through the experience of helping a female acquaintance get free of an abusive relationship, and I learned some things that shed more light on this—and changed my thinking. One key idea is that abusers go through a cycle of violence, then regret, then apology and reconciliation. It happens almost like clockwork, and those who work in the field have learned to treat such protestations of repentance with a great degree of caution.

In this song, who is the speaker talking to? He is taking to another woman. As the chorus repeats “I have to admit it’s getting better, It’s getting better, since you’ve been mine.” (And to the American ear it sounds like “since you’ll be mine”—I had to double check it with the word sheet.) While this could be just a statement of turning over a new leaf, the odds are in favor of the idea that it is a guy who has destroyed one relationship and is attempting to woo (or keep?) a different woman into a serious commitment. In hearing this again, something inside of me wanted to pull this new woman aside and say, “Run, don’t walk, away from this relationship as fast as you can. Don’t wait for him to change, nor believe you will be his salvation. For him to have any hope of getting better, he has to do it on his own first. His improvement cannot be tied to his relationship with you.”

The singer is clueless as to the nature of his true condition, as is often the case with men of this type. And they often find excuses for their problems in others and in their circumstances:
“I used to get mad at my school, the teachers who taught me weren’t cool.
You’re holding me down, turning me round, Filling me up with your rules.”

No argument that teachers and schools sometimes do more damage than good, but does anyone else think it might be a good idea to at least let the teachers tell their side of the story in this case? And who is the ‘you’ referring to? Are these quotes from prior conversations with teachers, or is this evidence that this tendency is already bleeding over into this new relationship? Has she maybe questioned his drinking habits, or the way he handles certain matters, etc.?

Again, it seems a chilling scenario. And the singer’s positive take on things has the power to convince many people. But that would fit the scenario to a tee. Most men are in a blind about the factors involved in abuse. Many are too easily persuaded that the guy must have his reasons, nor do they conceive what a hellish situation the woman finds herself in, so would not find such expressions a sign of danger. But as an example of the delusional, almost psychopathic, outlook of the abuser, it is a brilliant bit of writing and performance.

Next: "Fixing a Hole"

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (third in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The third in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group.  He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

The record really switches gears in the next track.  Beginning with the opening organ-sounding-like-a-harpsichord line, and the strange way that John’s voice is mixed, you feel like you have been ushered into something completely different, as Monty Python would say.  Now you are making your way through a fantasy land, or in George Martin’s words, “a weird world of strange people”. 

And at the time, it was entrancing.  I recall that all the interest in poetry I ever developed stemmed from hearing this song.  The music augments the effect, but John essentially with words alone paints a world that is fascinating, shimmering, colorful and hypnotic. 

But that is just it, it isn’t any kind of real world that a person can inhabit.  And the protagonist of this world walks through it without connecting to a soul.  There is no interaction with Lucy; she just appears, doing nothing but manifesting her “kaleidoscope eyes”.  And the plasticene porters, the rocking horse people and everyone who is smiling have no more humanity than the boat, the river, the newspaper taxies, the bridge, the fountain or the turnstiles. 

Much has been written about whether or not this song is about drugs.  On the one hand, everyone admits the idea came from a childhood drawing by Julian Lennon, and the fact that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds spells out LSD is nothing but a coincidence.  Yet Paul did state in one interview that the drug connection was obvious, and anyone who ever inhaled or swallowed will tell you that the song has a tremendous empathy for the druggy state of mind.  But whether it is or isn’t is not really the point here.

Whatever may be its inspiration, what is being put forward here is a dreamscape, a world devised out of our own imagination.  But as to that, I am reminded of what CS Lewis pointed out in the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Voyage of the Dawntreader, that we don’t think of our dreams properly. 

In his story, the ship begins approaching a menacing island hidden in a fog of darkness, and as they do, each member of the expedition begins to find that their imaginations are running wild.  They rescue a sailor who has been marooned there for years, and though they are bent on exploring the island, he begs them to leave, telling them it is “the island where dreams come true.”  The crew is at first exited about the prospects of this until the man wakes them up with:

            Do you hear what I say?  This is where dreams—dreams, do you understand—come to life, come real.  Not daydreams: dreams.
It takes about half a minute for the import of this to sink in, and then the entire crew rushes to the oars to get out of there as fast as they can.

Ever thought about the content of your dreams?  I don’t mean the nightmares, that is obvious, but how about your more normal ones?  Is it a place you would want to inhabit? 

It was one thing as a teenager or even 20-something college student to listen to this and think it was charming.  As my Dad always reminded me, “nice for you to say, you don’t have to pay any bills or answer to any responsibilities.”  As an older person, upon more serious thought, what is being described here, though beauteous, is empty.  The protagonist in the story is very alone—almost stranded—in what amounts to nothing more than a beautiful, sterile painting.  The world we conjure from our own fancy may have bad guys but it seldom allows for equals with independent thought.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"With a Little Help From My Friends" (second in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The second in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group.  He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This song, along with Title and Reprise of the Title, is the only song the Beatles admit that was part of the original concept.  So we don’t have to look too far to find the connection, and indeed it is not great stretch to see from my friends relating to lonely hearts. 

This song with its positive energy, unbelievably cool bass guitar lines and interesting, crisp guitar fills was what grabbed many people and drew them to the album.  The sincere and plaintive voice of Ringo expresses the “what should be” of human existence.  Beginning with a notion of uncomfortable insecurity (“what would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?”), and admitting life as a challenge through which one must obtain help, Ringo asserts a confidence in his friends.  It is through them that he will prevail, it is through their help that challenge and uncertainly will be turned into pleasure. 

We all know there is a kind of dependence on other people that is not healthy, a sense where a person needs others because they have no identity of their own.  But the singer here is not that.  He answers questions—tricky ones, in fact—with certitude.  Some have tried to suggest some kind of weird or lewd sense to his answer “I can’t tell you, but I know its mine” (to the question, “what do you see when you turn out the light?”, I think it is just a rephrasing of Descartes “I think, therefore, I am.”  In the dark, one sees nothing, but one does have a sense that it is me that is not seeing anything.  So though there is no sight, there is at least something happening, and it involves me, of that I am sure.  “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine” is thus a statement of personhood, sensory confusion notwithstanding.

Thus, this song states what any person desiring social maturity would want: a defined sense of self, the ability to form one’s own opinions, but at the same time, a necessary dependence upon and interaction with others.  He even has a healthy distinction between loves and friendship; he has both, and the two can coexist comfortably.  

But this song doesn’t get away with just being a simple statement of a truth.  It is interesting that Ringo sings this, not John or Paul, or even George.  And he does it in the guise of Billy Shears, the singer of the lonely hearts club band.  So is this a voice to take at face value, or is there something else going on?

I think the reason why the theme of the album has been so confusing over the years is because we were all expecting, in the vein of 60’s protest songs, that the values would be stated in direct terms, kind of like a sermon, by a ‘narrator voice’.  But try flipping it around.  Instead, for the bulk of the album, the narrator voice is not advocating the theme, but various versions of the opposite.  Misunderstanding on this point, I think, is what made the theme hard to see, and gave rise to many complaints that the Beatles were promoting drug use, leaving home, or other counter-culture values expressed in some form of code.  So someone suggested a ‘meter maid’ might be a hooker and who knows what Mr. Kite is all about. 

That primary, converse narration is provided by John and Paul, whether alone or together.   And they actually do have a role in this song, in the questions that are asked, and as such, it seems to me that they maintain the narrator perspective, offsetting what Ringo is saying.   As a result, rather than being a statement, the sentiment of this song is being set up as something to be examined, a hypothesis to be tested.  I don't mean that they are mocking his statement, but rather that they are displaying it for observation and evaluation. It could just as well be in the voice of a museum display: “here is 20th Century man expressing his belief in a healthy social environment..” 

At any rate, the song ends on a great high note with marvelous vocal backing, and neither Ringo or this point of view are heard from for the rest of the album.

Next: "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mark Twain's Music Box

I suppose there are two kinds of music, -- one kind which one feels, just as an oyster might, and another sort which requires a higher faculty, a faculty which must be assisted and developed by teaching. Yet if base music gives certain of us wings, why should we want any other? But we do. We want it because the higher and better like it. But we want it without giving it the necessary time and trouble; so we climb into that upper tier, that dress circle, by a lie: we pretend we like it. I know several of that sort of people, -- and I propose to be one of them myself when I get home with my fine European education.
--Mark Twain, from "A Tramp Abroad"

Mark Twain was an amateur musician who was extremely sensitive to music.  He once told his wife that "songs are good remembrancers.  Almost every one I hear instantly summons a face when I hear it." 

During their European travels in 1878, while Twain was gathering material for the book that would become "A Tramp Abroad," his wife Olivia presented him with an enormous and outrageously expensive music box.  The phonograph was still in its patent phase so this item represented modern technology (I like to think of it as a very expensive eight-track tape player, in this particular case, something no one could afford and that was soon replaced with something that worked much better).  But more importantly, the music box represented Old World sophistication, a vehicle whereby Twain might remedy his cultural insecurities.

For although he had by this time made a fortune writing of his backwoods upbringing, this background and its implicit lack of refinement occasionally caused him insecurity as he sought to live among Hartford's society people.  This music box played ten tunes to be chosen by the purchaser.  If he chose correctly, he could impress his society guests but only if the list did not represent his own musical tastes; he wanted to show Hartford that the author of Tom Sawyer was also a man knowledgeable in the realm of high (i.e., European) culture.

In her essay, "Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," Kerry Driscoll mentions the preliminary list of 16 tunes that cost Twain heavily in angst and time, so much time, in fact, that he was no longer in Europe when he finally whittled the list down to the necessary ten.

Only five of the music box's final ten are known but the entire preliminary list survived.

The Final Playlist for Music Box: (five known out of 10)
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser
The Lorelie from Das Rheingold
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
The Russian National Anthem

Preliminary List of Proposed Melodies: (16)
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
Overture from Rossini’s William Tell
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Lorelei from Das Rheingold

“Hymn” (Driscoll assumes this might be the theme from Mendelssohn’s Symphony #2 – Hymn of Praise)
Last Rose of Summer
Bonnie Doon
Auld Lang Syne
Lament of the Irish Immigrant
Way Down in Tennessee
Long, Long Ago
Day After Day (Drifting From Home)
Overture from Boieldieu’s The Caliph of Baghdad
Russian National Hymn
Der Fremersberg

A few decades later, Twain included the following in a sketch he called "The Villagers of 1840-3," which was a grouping of situations, characters, and items from Hannibal.  He titled the following list "Songs that tended to regrets for bygone days and vanished joys."

Oft in the Stilly Night
The Last Rose of Summer
The Last Link is Broken
Old Dog Tray (he mentions that this is "one of the d----dest, oldest, vilest songs")
For the Lady I Love Will Soon be a Bride
Gaily the Troubadour
Bright Alfarata
“Negro Melodies”
My Old Kentucky Home (in the “Villagers” sketch, he recites the line, “The day goes by like a shadow on the wall, with sorrow where all was delight”)
Swanee River, Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground  (all his "negro melodies" are actually Stephen Foster tunes).

Although the preliminary music box list is heavily laden with a nod to classical, European music, Twain did manage to sneak in a few tunes that he probably had known and loved as a boy.  And in his autobiography, he also mentions specific tunes -- Nelly Bly, Old Dan Tucker, Buffalo Gals, and Camptown Races -- that the minstrel show musicians played when they traveled through Hannibal, giving the future humorist his first encounter with professional humor and the life-long music lover some tunes he would never forget.

Here are some tunes that Mark Twain no doubt enjoyed, three from the music box list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon, Der Fremersberg -- the third an orchestral piece that he encountered in Baden-Baden and absolutely adored), two from the Villager's Sketch list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon) and one mentioned in the autobiography in conjuction with his boyhood recollection of minstrel shows (Old Dan Tucker).


"Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," by Kerry Driscoll. From Cosmopolitan Twain: Mark Twain and His Circle, edited by Ryan and McCullough, University of Missouri Press, 2008.

"Villagers Sketch, 1840-3" from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories by Mark Twain, ed. by Walter Blair, University of California Press, 2011.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band": The Concept Album that never was. Or was it?

The first in a series by guest blogger, John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He’s had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four and the following post contains his initial musings on the Sgt. Pepper album.

Although Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has long been considered the original concept album, the first vinyl song collection unified by a central theme, the Beatles asserted decades later that it was not such an item. If it began as one, the idea was allegedly discarded long before Sgt. Pepper hit the record bins. So the flamboyant packaging --  the neon military suits and the collage of famous faces -- plus the Salvation Army Band idea inherent in the album's title were apparently created more for a visual unity than anything else.  Otherwise, said John, Paul, George and Ringo, it was like any other album they'd done, just a miscellaneous collection of tracks.

However, the notion of the Concept lingers on for a couple of good reasons. As someone who was seriously listening to such music at the time, I can attest that it was generally assumed there was some central point to Sgt. Pepper though we seemed to all intuit the Beatles weren’t about to spill it. The belief at the time was that Music should speak without the assistance of footnotes, and it was incumbent upon the listener to derive such value as they could from it by honing their own listening skills.

Secondly, there was the fact that the Beatles followed Sgt. Pepper with an unequivocal, though essentially unsuccessful, concept album/TV film called Magical Mystery Tour. This, in conjunction with the fact that the press at the time was everywhere talking about the Beatles “growing up” suggested they were searching for new and more serious ways of taking Rock music to a new level.

Indeed, there was a distinct sense in the late 60’s that we were “rolling up” for the Mystery Tour, or the Magic Bus, or Jefferson’s Airplane (or numerous other modes of transportation), to discover where Music could go. And Rock music did go on to develop numerous ideas, some silly, some temporarily significant and others that had more lasting value.

Personally, all of this led me to explore other forms of music as well, such as classical music,  Works like Sgt. Pepper, Tommy, several Moody Blues albums and others helped me to see that composers wrote symphonies or concertos (not to mention operas) with a view to developing a musical idea far more substantial than just a simple tune.  And although I’d listened to Sgt. Pepper and pondered it literally hundreds of times, it eventually went by the wayside, as things often do in life. 

But a few years ago -- after the Beatles Anthology came out, and the special about the making of the album—something told me that it was time to give Sgt. Pepper another listen-to, so I went and bought the CD.  And as I came back to it afresh, the question about whether it had a theme wormed in and out of my consciousness.  Now a bit older, a bit more experienced, as I thought on it, it hit me that in fact there was a theme, hiding, as it were in plain sight. It was like one of those trick pictures where your initial stares will allow you to see one thing, but when your eyeballs -- or perspectives -- shift, a whole new picture emerges.

In saying this I’ve no interest in contradicting the Beatles own words.  In repeated interviews that I have seen with each of them, there is a ring of truth in their denials of any purposeful intent with the project. It is clear though that they enjoyed playing with words and with notions, whether or not they seriously felt these ideas or sought to promote them.  Perhaps the theme I see came out of a kind of collective subconscious at work, or maybe it is just pure accident, but I wish to show that it is there, that it is a profoundly moving idea, and that in conjunction with incredible songs and musicianship, it is a magnificent work of art. 

Of course, if there is a theme to the whole work, which none of them were aware of at the time, and which none of them ever perceived, I suppose there is a question of whether or not art can be considered great art if the point of it is not even understood by the artist at the time of creating it. That is a question for someone else to address.  Personally, I think the end result would have been very hard to have contrived, so the idea actually ‘works’ better being unperceived. 

And what is this theme? It is too simple: “Lonely Hearts”. Or maybe it is better phrased the way George put it: “the space between us all.” The entire record is a catalogue of people who fail to connect with the social world around them, or of people whose social world is either unhealthy, fractured or just plain non-existent.  Plus, they are in the main clueless about what they are doing: “they don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”  Let’s go through the various tracks of the record and I will show you what I mean.

Next: "A Little Help From My Friends"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What exactly did Bo Diddley unleash after being introduced by a confused Ed Sullivan on November 20, 1955? (From Jake Austen's "TV a-go-go")

"Ladies and gentlemen," the gargoyle of an emcee anounced to his rapt studio and vast TV audiences, "As everybody knows, whenever any new musical trend has evinced itself in the popular field, the first area to find out about it in advance is Harlem." His audiences had to wait a bit longer to learn the name of the Next Big Thing as the host's tongue got tangled in a string of his signature malapropisms. "Roll . . . rhythm and, uh . . . rhythm and roll . . . rhythm and color. . . ." Finally, he mannaged to locate his desired phraise: "Rhythm and blues!"

The appellation Ed Sullivan stumbled upon with such difficulty that night -- Sunday, November 20, 1955 -- was incorrect. When that "wonderful folk-blues singer" Bo Diddley kicked off Sullivan's presentation of Dr. Jive's Apollo Theater-based musical revue, what he was playing was not R&B. Instead, Diddley was introducing rock 'n' roll to America's living Rooms.

At its best, rock 'n' roll boils down to the cultural miscegenation of American music to its most potent concentration. This perfectly describes the hypnotizing, pounding, rhythm-driven music that guitarist Diddley -- along with drummer Clifton James, tuba-player-turned-maracas-genius Jerome Green, and second guitarist Bobby Parker -- unleashed that night. During the 1950s many R&B artists had met the musical criteria for rock 'n' roll, but only a few grasped the intangible elements that marked its cross-pollination of R&B, hillbilly, blues, country, jazz, Irish music, boogie-woogie, and other folk sounds. Saturated with super-coool attitude, doing a sly, funky dance across the TV screen, and singing "Bo Diddley" -- a theme song that balanced nursery rhyme innocdnce with dirty-joke naughtiness -- Diddley on Sullivan made these intagibles downright tangible.

(From Jake Austen's "TV a-go-go" page 1-2.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Johnny Mercer!

Born in 1909, Johnny Mercer may not be a household name for anyone younger than 60, but he's written the lyrics to some national treasures. Here are some videos of my favorites. Happy Birthday, Johnny, and thanks for the beautiful words!

And here's one of my all-time favorite songs, an absolute perfect combo of lyrics and melody line. Thanks, Johnny.

Wilifred Sheed on Irving Berlin

Scroll down, if you must, to the final two sentences: incredibly well-stated!

"By 1911, Irving earned his MBA in music by acquiring a publisher-cum-partner to facilitate the flow, and with that he exploded onto a new level. The triggering device was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a song that he himself didn't appreciate immediately, but which caught on so thoroughly wherever it was played that it seemed like a standard before its time. It is called a rag because the title says it is, but it is in fact a hybrid with a syncopated verse and a marching chorus. With that in the bank, he then set out to write some regular rags. Suddenly, one hit seemed to run into another, just as they did on Henry Ford's assembly line. In his erudite book on Berlin's first songs, Charles Hamm shows how thoroughly the young man had absorbed all the pop formulas. It was like someone learning to dance with a booklet in his hand telling him where to put his feet. But this is where the miracle kicks in, for the novice suddenly begins to dance like Fred Astaire . . ."

From Wilifred Sheed's "The House that George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Silver Threads Among the Gold," mega hit of 1873 and 1907

When I began researching our “Greatest Hits of the 20th Century” program a few years ago, I came across an old song called “Silver Threads among the Gold” that was apparently a mega hit during the late 19th century and was revived to nearly-similar success in the early 20th.

While performing this song to groups of seniors, we’ve discovered that “Silver Threads” must have had an extremely long shelf life: most of the audience members -- the eldest of them having been born no earlier than 1920 and so having coming into musical congnizance no earlier than 1930 – all sing the song with us from memory.

In other words, this is one of those songs that, in the form of sheet music, must have graced every piano in every parlor in every home in America at one point in our nation’s cultural history. Even at the initial selling price of 3 ½ cents per sheet music, this song made someone a lot of money but that someone was neither the lyricist nor the composer.

Eben E. Rexford published the poem in a Wisconsin farm journal where it was seen by composer Hart Pease Danks who purchased it – with several other Rexford poems – from its grateful author for three dollars. Danks set it to music in 1872 and in turn sold it for a few dollars more to a publisher who made much more than a few dollars on it, money that he didn’t share with Danks who died in abject poverty a few decades later. “Silver Threads” sold two million copies of sheet music – the 19th century measure for a song’s popularity -- beginning in 1873 and then one million more when it was revived in 1907.

When encountering songs from the past, one can nearly get inside the collective soul of a culture, accessing its values and yearnings. I believe this particular song caught on when it did because this particular culture obviously wasn't youth obsessed (why else would a song that holds forth poetically on white hair and dull cheeks become a mega-hit?) and because 19th century marriages didn't end as much from divorce as from disease, making the notion of growing old together a particularly romantic one.


“All the Years of American Popular Music” by David Ewen

“The Book of World Famous Music” by James J. Fuld

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Julie Andrews in Her Own Words: At a 2006 book event Q&A where she graciously answered questions she's been answering for decades

This is a continuation from the previous post wherein I describe my impressions of the great Julie Andrews who made a personal appearance in suburban Chicago in 2006. The following is my record of the Q&A session.

What is your favorite song?
“Whether it’s a book or a song, it’s all about the words.”

Advice for singers?
"Good luck will come your way – things float past your nose – so be ready and do your homework. Audition, etc. But don’t ever forget that what you do is for others. Always think of what you can do for them.

Favorite leading man?
(Asked by a pre-teen) Laughter. “She’s to be watched”
"They were all delicious, weren’t they? I think I would have to say that my favorite one is the one I live with every day (the now-late director, Blake Edwards). When he’s directing her in a love scene and he says “you can do better than that” she’s glad he doesn’t say the opposite.

Favorite of her films?
She wouldn’t actually say; she liked this one for the setting, this one for the character she played, this one for something else. “Of course, the Sound of Music, of course, Victor Victoria, of course Mary Poppins, but . . .”

Why is Julie Andrews so famous? (a very small child asked this)
“Beats me!” More laughter. "I’ve been very lucky in my life."

A deaf (I believe) teenaged boy held up a sign that said “Dear Julie: Can I give you a high-five? My hands are clean.”
She responded in the affirmative, first wiping her hands exaggeratedly on her jacket (as if to imply that her hands weren't), then gave him a high-five followed by a big hug.

Did you really slide down on a mattress (in Princess Diaries II)?
"Yes! Don’t you try it!"

Did you like being a queen in PD I&II?
"I did. I liked wearing all those beautiful gowns and jewelry."

How did you like doing “the walk” in PD (“the slump”) and would you do it for us now?
She did it to a roar of audience laughter.

Are they any roles that you didn’t do that you wished you had?
"I’m just glad to have done what I did."

How old were you when you started writing books?
Laughter. “Let’s just say I started 35 years ago.”

At this point in time, she was two-thirds of the way through writing her memoir and told us that she was inspired to do so after reading Moss Hart’s; there were things in there that she had no idea of although they'd had a close working relationship.

She explained that her author name is her married name (Julie Andrews Edwards) because her husband, Blake Edwards is the person who most encouraged her to begin writing. “How many of us here really think we can do something?” she asked. "We all need encouragement. But autographing books goes on forever because of it" (i.e., writing out both surnames in each book).

What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?
"The most recent one" (Admittedly her usual answer no matter what book she’s been writing).

How do you find the time to write books?
"You know the saying, if you want something done, ask a busy person."

What do you do when you’re not writing books?
She said something about taking walks, working in her garden. Then she said she had five children and seven grandchildren who she enjoyed.

How did “Mandy” (her first book) come about?
She was on vacation with all her step-kids and they were not being very tidy. Although they had plenty of people keeping house, Julie just wanted them to keep their rooms tidy and pick up after themselves, but they were failing to cooperate. So she set up this deal that if they wouldn’t cooperate, they would have a forfeiture. Then they said to her, what about you? She said, well, what am I doing wrong? They said “cussing.” (The whole audience cracked up). Then, on the stage, she mimed nearly tripping over something and exclaiming “Oh my goodness.” Her forfeiture, should they catch her cussing, was to write them a story. She was the first to loose. She initially thought she would just write out a 3-page fable but then saw it as an opportunity to bond with her new step-daughter and so she took some time with it. Two years later, “Mandy,” her first book, was published.

I can’t recall what the context was, but she said that she hadn’t had much education and she remarked this only in passing.

In response to something asked about her writing:
"It doesn’t seem like you can do it, but then you write a page and another and another."

I had difficulty at the time visualizing the great Julie Andrews sitting at a desk with a growing stack of lined pages as she attacked each word.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Seeing the Great Julie Andrews in Person at a Book Event in 2006

I arrived twenty minutes previous to the event's beginning which was miraculous considering the sludge of Chicago’s western suburbs during rush hour. There was already a huge, snaking line outside, filled with mostly middle-aged women, but there were quite a few teenagers and pre-teen girls as well. The few men who were there appeared to be very willing escorts. I struck up a conversation with the 16-year-old standing next to me, who after initially viewing “The Sound of Music” had become a die-hard Julie Andrews fan, implementing her adulation by renting or buying every TV special or film in which Ms. Andrews had appeared.

When I was handed my autographed book and entered the already-packed auditorium, I quickly changed my original seat after I noticed where the podium was situated. I sat down, ten rows back and directly in line with the podium. It was obvious that everyone in the room was as buzzed as I was but we were going to have to wait a bit. First came the sad news to many disappointed camera-holders, who had already been practicing their shots, that we were not to take pictures. Then the store owner came on stage to introduce a video highlighting Julie’s life. It began with the familiar opening shots of the Swiss Alps from the Sound of Music. Then her face from other movie roles kept popping on to the screen and you could hear the buzz of excited whispers that sounded almost like hissing: Mary Poppins! Victor Victoria!, Camelot! My Fair Lady!, Cinderella! Two images from the video impressed me. One was Julie as a twelve-year-old in 1948 standing in the luminescence of a spotlight singing the British national anthem at a “Command Performance” with an entire orchestra and a choir backing her. It was definitely Julie Andrews’ voice, but it had such an ethereal, unearthly quality that I found it quite startling. Her facial expression was one of complete earnestness as she sang “God Save the King.”

The other was a grown-up, glizty and scantily dressed Julie as “Victoria” from the VV film, dancing and singing on a stage in a film while a mesmerized James Garner is watching her from the audience. For the song’s finale, she begins on a low note and glissandos higher and higher, seeming to go through her perfectly controlled entire four-octave vocal range before finishing somewhere in the clouds. Other singers might be able to sing those notes, but would they sound as perfect on each? I doubt it.

Then . . . drum roll please . . . the real Julie Andrews walked out onto the stage amidst a thundering standing ovation. She was dressed in pants, blouse and blazer, an outfit not unlike something her “Queen Clarisse” character from the “Princess Diaries” films might have worn on a casual Friday at the palace. I can’t exactly remember how she did it, but with a few subtle-yet-polite gestures, she made it clear that enough was enough and that we should all sit down. I wish I could remember her exact first words, but I believe it was thanking the bookstore owner, thanking us for coming, or something. She also said she very much enjoyed hearing us laughing during the crazy Carol Burnett sequence wherein she and Carol have a prim but enormously messy food fight. When she then said that Carol is a good friend and a great lady, we all clapped. Of course, most people in the room probably loved Carol Burnett, but anything Julie said was going to receive thunderous applause.

She proceeded to tell us about her new book, ostensibly the reason we were all there: The Great American Mousical. Since my husband and I include Broadway history in our historical music programs, he thought that hearing a Broadway icon speak on the history of the American Musical would be very appropriate. It wasn’t until I had already paid for the ticket that I realized the Great Julie was probably going to be promoting a new kid’s book, not discussing the impact of Cohan, Gershwin, or Porter on Herald Square. “Oh, I thought the info about the kid’s book was just a typo,” he said. He later told me, typo or no, that he thought that I shouldn’t miss a chance to see the great Ms. Andrews. He knew what she had meant to me.

Now, I’m not a Julie Andrews aficionado in a filmic sense like my teenager friend; I have not seen all, or even most, of her films (although I did see that creepy Alfred Hitchcock one she stars in with Paul Newman and kept wondering through the entire film what the point of her character was). But I did see The Sound of Music. Saw it when it first came to the theaters, actually. According to Charmian Carr’s autiobiography, Forever Liesl, the film was in the theaters for five solid years, and during that time, “somewhere in my youth or childhood,” I went to see it. I remember that there was an intermission. I remember my mom laughing when the captain told the baroness that his tree-climbing children were “just some local urchins” and I remember asking her what an urchin was. I also recall her saying “I like this part” when the captain declares his love for Maria in the garden scene. It was obviously a repeated viewing for her!

We also owned the record album from the film; like most people during the time when dinosaurs existed and DVD players didn’t, one would go out to the store and purchase something called an LP. I listened to that soundtrack over and over, trying to recall the characters from the film by staring at the cover. I remember my brother and I once marching around the house while the majestic music from the wedding was being played. I don’t know if he had agreed to “marry” me or if he was a bridesmaid, but he was a good sport and we both loved that music.

Once, in a goofy mood, I pretended to be Liesl over our house intercom system and my dad thought it was the record. Guess I was a good mimic. Embarrassed, I refused his pleas to “sing it again,” even though he offered an entire quarter for a repeat performance (looking back on his paltry bribe, I guess he was either still in his Depression-era mentality or else it hadn’t been that stellar of a performance).

Since the film wasn’t played on television for quite a few years, I was thrilled when the summer, one-film-for-a-dollar neighborhood film festival was going to show the film. I was now in high school, but had never tired of listening to the album, and had even attempted to sing the theme song in public on several occasions to as rave a review as a teenager with a fairly good singing voice is likely to get. I went into the room where others were gathered to see the film. I was thrilled but was soon to be disappointed. These were not Sound of Music fans. How dare they laugh at the nuns' rendition of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” while Maria was walking down the isle at her wedding. Blasphemy! What was I doing here with these cultural Philistines? I wanted to walk out. I stayed. It never occurred to me that including that song in that sequence was silly. Although it may have been more than slightly embarrassing for the character of Maria, I always thought it was so cool how the majestic march coalesced in perfect counterpoint with the song bemoaning Maria’s faults.

Maria may have had some faults but in the auditorium where I was now sitting, Julie Andrews seemed flawless. We were all so thrilled to be in her presence that if had said the world was flat, she probably would have received thunderous applause. We weren’t clapping for what she said necessarily; we were clapping because we wanted to touch her in some way.

One audience member got to do just that. I think he might have had a disability of some kind because when he was given a turn to ask a question, he held up a sign that said “Dear Julie: Can I give you a high five? My hands are clean.” She agreed, walking towards him exaggeratedly wiping her own hand on her jacket as if to imply that hers might not be, and after high-fiving him, gave him a big hug. The luckiest person in the audience!

The event revealed a woman of approachable regality, an artist modestly conscious of her own accomplishments yet not drowning in narcissism.

God save the queen.

(Quotes from the Q&A in the following post).