Archive for the ‘John Writes’ Category

CREEQUE ALLEY AND THE ROOTS OF FOLK-ROCK

Thursday, July 14th, 2005

It is an article of faith (or at least urban legend) that Folk Music passed the baton to Rock on that tempestuous day in July, 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar and shocked (thrilled?) the audience of the Newport Folk Festival. It is said that folk paterfamilias Pete Seeger was so mortified by the desecration of the acoustic shrine that was Newport that he literally wanted to pull the plug on Dylans’s sacrilege.

Cooler heads prevailed, and the once successor to Woody Guthrie’s legacy went on to sing three “electric” numbers beginning with “Maggie’s Farm.” The rest, as they say, was history. Host Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, about whom more will follow), invited Dylan back for a couple of acoustic numbers, including “It’s all over now, Baby Blue,” which has since been viewed as his farewell to the world of folk music.2 The truth, while not quite as dramatic, was equally interesting. Not only had Roger McGuinn’s group “The Byrds” already recorded no fewer than four Dylan songs with electric accompaniment 3, but Dylan himself had charted (at 39) with “Subterraneum Homesick Blues,” in April of ’65 and had recorded the half-electric breakthrough album, “Bringing it all Back Home” earlier that year. Dylan had apparently been bitten by the electric bug even earlier. When he first heard the Beatles’s “I want to Hold your Hand,” he is reported to have said, “Did you hear that? Fuck! Man, that was fuckin’ great. Oh man, fuck.”4 I guess Bob must have liked them, as did we all.

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A Selective Sinatra Retrospective

Thursday, September 25th, 2003

Part 1: “Only the Lonely” – Frank Sinatra and the Concept Album
It is hard to believe that Frank Sinatra has been dead for five years. Just like many long-time fans, I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by his voice and still feel the creative void caused by his absence.

Think about it-Sinatra’s work made its imprint on the musical scene in the late 30’s, when All or Nothing at All was first heard with the Harry James Band, and continued through the surprise hits of his two “Duets” albums in the early 90’s. Imagine some other singer (before or after) having newly recorded songs on the charts in seven different decades. Most popular musicians would consider five years in the limelight a goal worth achieving, and five decades an impossibility. Paul Simon correctly observed that, “Every generation drops a hero off the pop charts.” Not so with Sinatra.

Both before and since his passing, there has been much written about Sinatra the man and Sinatra the singer.1 He, of course, was a man who inspired strong reactions among friend and foe alike. I’m not going to dwell on his having had four wives (not to mention countless paramours), his “Rat-Pack” exploits, the political odyssey from F.D.R. liberal to Reagan conservative, his non-musical achievements as a movie star, let alone his notorious Jekyll and Hyde personality. Suffice it to say, his was a larger than life existence. But I’d much prefer to focus on his major contribution to the world: his music.

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Gemini

Wednesday, September 12th, 2001

SILVER BEACONS OF COMMERCE AND HOPE,
THE TWINS STOOD TALL, SYMBOLS OF WHAT COULD.
APPROACHING THEIR REFLECTED LIGHT I STRODE
AS ALWAYS
CARELESSLY, INNOCENTLY.
AND THEN THE SOUND, A HEAVY LOW THUD FROM ON HIGH.
WINDOWS IMPLODE, GLASS DOMINOS
A DIRTY BLACK PLUME OF SMOKE
THE WHIRLWIND FIREBALL
ITS GHASTLY PROJECTILES

I GAPE IN HORRIFIC DISBELIEF

AS THE SCREEN DISASTERS WE SO EMBRACE

BECOME REALITY WHEN THE MIXED BLESSING OF OPEN BORDERS

COLLIDES WITH A CLOSED SOCIETY

 

A SKYLINE EXTINGUISHED

BUT WITH IT NOT THE DREAM,

THE IDEA THAT IS AMERICA.

 

ENDURE WITH ME THE ALTERED FUTURE

FULL OF DREAD AND HOPE

AND RESOLVE.

OUR FLAG IS STILL THERE

Justice Delayed

Wednesday, June 7th, 2000

Gary Silver is a federal appeals court judge, who is literally awakened from a recurring nightmare one morning by a telephone call from the President of the United States.  The call, to offer him a position on a suddenly vacated seat on the Supreme Court, will reshape the balance of the court for years to come.  The time is the indefinite present; the issue, definitely timely.Silver is both surprised and overwhelmed by the offer, but gratefully accepts.  The president puts him in touch with Sid Miller, a former senator, whose job is to manage the nomination process through a conservative dominated Judiciary Committee.

He has all the credentials for a model justice.  An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, Silver was a nationally recognized professor at Columbia Law School, until he was tapped by the president eight years earlier to be a federal judge.  Since that time, he has served with distinction, amassing a record as a thoughtful and careful jurist.  To the extent his judicial philosophy could be categorized, he is a progressive moderate.

In addition, Silver’s history is linked with one of the signal events of the post-war period.  He was among the band of young activists who went down south in the summer of 1964 to help break down the fortified walls of segregation.  While undergoing training for the Mississippi Summer Project, Silver met and fell in love with a young African-American Vassar student named Eleanor Williams.  Eleanor, however, was torn between her feelings for Silver, a white man, and Derrick Rogers, the charismatic black militant leading the project.  When Rogers is kidnapped by a band of southern vigilantes, Eleanor begs Gary to try to rescue him.  The circumstances under which he fails to save Rogers’s life is the source of the nightmares that have since plagued him.  In the hearings, they come back to haunt his entire family as well.

After barely escaping with his own life, Silver and Williams are whisked out of the area by the FBI.  In order to protect a confidential informant, the case is never brought to light (although the confirmation process will ultimately revive the investigation at great risk to all involved). When, a few weeks later, Eleanor announced her pregnancy, Gary (though unsure as to whether he or Rogers was the father), is quick to propose.  Despite both parents’ warnings of the perils of intermarriage, Gary marries Eleanor and raises the boy as his own. In addition to the son they have named after their slain civil rights colleague, the couple has a daughter.  While the attractive and successful young woman easily adjusts to her bi-racial status, their son struggles with his racial identity to the point of assuming the parentage of his namesake and aiding Gary’s enemies.  The family’s years together involve issues of infidelity, abortion, child rearing, and love, as two strong-willed people work to survive a crisis and heal the wounds between themselves and their children.

Although initially lauded as a civil rights hero, the truth behind Silver’s Mississippi experience and the death of their martyred colleague proves more ambiguous.  In addition, a short but intense love affair with a  Marxist student of his some thirty years before comes back to haunt him, as both issues infect the volatile confirmation process, involving the media, the FBI, the senate leadership, and the president. The book’s primary theme is the increasingly politicized process of judicial confirmation hearings.  Here, the stakes are so high, and the secrets so damaging, that even murder becomes an option. In the end, two sets of fathers and sons learn the cost of “Justice Delayed.”

Journey’s End – 1999

Tuesday, April 6th, 1999

Preposterous as it sounds, last night, at 10:35 p.m. (New York time), marked “opening day” for the World Champion New York Yankees. The only thing missing-for the first time since 1936-was Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, who had wanted to throw out the season’s first ball, had- just several weeks before- finally succumbed to complications arising from his bouts with pneumonia and lung cancer.

In my piece entitled “A Half-Century’s Preoccupation,” I spoke of how I wanted to attend “Joe DiMaggio Day” last year to thank him for all he meant to me as a fan. When he became gravely ill during the post-season, I realized what was implicit in my attending that game was a realization that I was, in all likelihood, saying my last good-bye. That I was able to do so on the final day of the season–a “day” game, no less– was a fitting way to tie together the great years Joe spent as a Yankee with the Yankee’s record- breaking year of 1998.

Whenever a living legend dies, the old cliché “suddenly I feel older,” seems particularly apt. This was particularly true for the man who represented the best of my early Yankee memories. Joe embodied the American dream as have few others. Think of it, the son of an immigrant fisherman becomes one of the greatest baseball players of all time and marries a movie star who just happens to be the national sex symbol. (Name another couple who have each been celebrated in popular song. Remember, Bogey & Bacall will always have “Key Largo,” if not Paris, but not their own separate songs. ) This quiet, private man had done it all. Joe had a sense of dignity that he never abandoned, not even when he served as the pitchman for “Mr. Coffee.” We last saw that dignity demonstrated during his final illness when he called off the “deathwatch” and died quietly, on his own terms.

While it is highly unlikely that anyone (with more than 300 career home runs) will ever again have more homers than strikeouts, play on more world championship teams, or hit in as many consecutive games than DiMaggio, it is technically possible. Records of course, as Mark McGwire so recently reminded us, are made to be broken. But let’s not kid ourselves, there will no more be another Joe DiMaggio than there will be another Frank Sinatra. I’m glad I saw him play; I’m glad my kids have his personalized autograph; and I’m glad I got the chance to meet him on two occasions (albeit 33 years apart) and tell him how much he meant to me.

I’m also glad I got to say good-bye. Joe may not initially have understood what Paul Simon meant when he asked “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” but the rest of us did. At the time, DiMaggio was hurt and puzzled by that line. “I haven’t gone anywhere,” he told Simon. Simon told him that America had a need for heroes that was going unfulfilled, and DiMaggio was symbolic of that need. Well, as the song says, “Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” He has, indeed, and a nation turns its lonely eyes heavenward and mourns.

But another song, however, reminds us “to everything there is a season.” Play ball!