Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

Day in 1973

The day that Doris Day died, I did something irrational. Instead of driving straight home from work, I went out of my way and visited her childhood home.

Maybe I was half-expecting a small crowd of mourners. Elderly men and women in overcoats on a damp, overcast evening, sharing their grief over the passing of another icon from their youth.

Of course, no one was there but me. The red-brick house appeared shuttered, as did the entire neighborhood. I wondered, Do the current residents know they are living in Doris Day’s house? It’s a much different neighborhood now than in 1922, when she was born. An interstate highway rips through the center of Evanston, Ohio, now part of downtown Cincinnati. You can see the semi trucks from her front yard. Most of the residents are African-American, not German-American.

Perhaps I was the only visitor all day. But I like to think that my sentimental journey provided a smile for the girl christened Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff, wherever she might be right now while tossing pastel pillows back and forth with Rock Hudson.

Doris Day birthplace

The former Kappelhoff home, Cincinnati, Ohio

I was only a year old in 1959 when the movie Pillow Talk was released. As the 1960s progressed, I knew little about what was happening in the world. I received news of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, and the Watts riots via “trickle down” effect. The Cold War, for me, was Boris and Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. I’m not really a child of the Sixties. Much as I often hate to admit, I’m a child of the Silent Majority.

Doris Day was a Silent Majority cultural icon. She was conservative 1950s who spilled into the 1960s before they became “The Sixties.” She was middle-class, nuclear-family, Caucasian America; traditional, familial, uncomplicated, and safe. With her ever-present smile, twinkling eyes, golden-blonde bob haircut and California tan, she was sunshine and, in my imagination, is always clothed in canary yellow. The ending of her film Move Over, Darling says everything: she jumps in the backyard swimming pool—fully clothed—to join her husband (James Garner) and two kids. Their laughter and splashing, after finally being reunited, are as good an antidote to late 20th and early 21st century anxiety and cynicism as you’re likely to find.

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The nuclear family in Move Over, Darling (1963)

Day’s close friends called her “Clara Bixby.” Rock Hudson, her romantic co-star in three of her most well-known films, called her “Eunice.” To her parents she was Doris Kappelhoff, and to everyone else, Doris Day. Names that are simple, non-glitz, and (though she hated the term) girl-next-door. And despite her great beauty, difficult personal life, and professed dislike of her chaste image, that’s how she presented herself in her movies.  It’s telling that she turned down the juicy role of “Mrs. Robinson” in Mike Nichols’  The Graduate because she found the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Doris’s father was a philanderer who walked out on the family when she was young. (One night, in her bedroom, little Doris was a traumatized earwitness to her father’s sexual relations with a party guest in the next room.) She was married four times. Her first husband, a jazz trombonist, tried to force her to abort their unborn child, then beat her when she was eight months pregnant. She divorced her second husband, a saxophonist, because he was jealous of her success. She was married to her third husband, Martin Melcher, for 17 years. But despite producing some of her best films, his blind faith in a fraudulent attorney left her bankrupt when he died. (She fought for years to finally obtain a $6 million decision.) Her fourth husband divorced her because he was jealous of her “animal friends.”

There was the tragedy of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS. They were good friends offscreen, and his last public appearance was in 1985 when, looking extremely frail and telling her he had no appetite, he visited “Eunice” at her home and was filmed for the short-lived cable show, Doris Day’s Best Friends.

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Dramatic turn in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Her biggest sorrow was the death of her only child, Terry Melcher, from melanoma in 2004. They were only 20 years apart and like brother and sister. Melcher was a talented music producer, working with the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, assisting with music for his mother’s movies, and producing the 1968-73 sitcom The Doris Day Show. He came close to producing songs by Charles Manson, but backed out after visiting The Family at their ranch. The house Melcher had earlier shared with actress Candice Bergen was the site of the 1969 Tate murders (although Manson denied he was targeting Melcher).

By the mid-1970s, Day had had her fill of Hollywood. She moved up the California coast to Carmel Valley, taking in stray pets and establishing the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She was also part-owner of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn. In the last few decades, she politely but steadfastly refused requests for appearances, even after receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

That’s the private Day. Doris Day the entertainer took her alliterative stage name in 1939 after a song, “Day After Day.”

Doris Day Posing with Hand on Chin

“Clara,” in 1949 (Bettman Archive/Getty Images)

She became a popular ballad singer with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, scoring a huge hit with the WWII homecoming theme, “Sentimental Journey.” She had a confident and clean singing style, modeling herself after Ella Fitzgerald. She was a natural. In a rare audio interview with Turner Classic Movies, she said she never experienced stage fright, either while singing or acting.

As great a recording artist as she was, though, it is her 1950s musicals and 1960s romantic comedies that she is remembered for, especially the latter. They’re G-rated, but sophisticated; light and fluffy confections, with upbeat music, colorful clothing, and animated opening graphics, maybe a little Day singing, and lots of playful romance. (Called “sex comedies” when they were filmed, the word “sex” referred more to gender than physical lovemaking.) The plots generally revolve around a trite and temporary misunderstanding between Day and her partner.

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Classic Day expression from Lover Come Back (1961)

These innocent predicaments allow Day to skillfully shift emotions between domestic contentedness and exasperation or outrage. The humor comes because you know what will transpire before Day’s character does. Then, when the revelation hits, you get to see her puff her cheeks, swivel her head sideways, plant her hands on her hips, and stomp away briskly, her back stiff as a board.

While Day is the undisputed focal point in these movies, a key humorous element is her leading men. As a foil for her, they had to be handsome, but in a warm, non-threatening way. Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers), James Garner (The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling), and Rod Taylor (Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat) all fit the bill, because they have a puckish playfulness, especially Hudson, who was extremely adept at light comedy.

But it is Doris Day who carries these films. The great Steve Allen called her “one of the very best comedy actresses of all time” but one who “hasn’t gotten the critical appreciation to which she is entitled.” Steve, you are correct on both counts.  And longitudes predicts she will ultimately get this recognition.

Since her recent death at age 97, some male writers have grappled with just how sexy was this “World’s Oldest Virgin,” as she was mockingly labeled (though she actually advocated living together before marriage…four marriages might have something to do with that). Sex and sexuality are an obsession in our post-sexual revolution age, when mere pillow “talk” is considered boring. I won’t dwell on this topic, other than to assure the aforesaid writers that—while I never knew Day before she was a virgin—in my testosterone-soaked eyes she was hot, in both looks and personality, and she got hotter as she got older. Anne Bancroft is talented and beautiful, but it’s a shame adolescent males couldn’t enjoy Clara as “Mrs. Robinson.” And if you writers don’t agree, you can click this.

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One of Day’s most fun flicks, The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

***

As with The Lawrence Welk Show and Petticoat Junction, which I’ve also profiled on longitudes, Doris Day’s films are a safe harbor for me. They carry me back to a time of innocence, to family and fireside. It’s not because I’m a “male animal” who pines for the days when women were merely Pollyannaish partners to the “stronger sex.” (My career-minded wife and liberated daughter also love her films and introduced me to several. My macho son, on the other hand, is a different story.) It’s more because they are uncomplicated, wholesome, funny, and fun. They are a shelter from the storm, and we all need shelter, especially in these turbulent, less rational times.

While I’m thankful for the “The Sixties” and the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Grateful Dead, détente, civil rights, equal rights, gay rights, copyrights, etc., I’m also thankful for animal rights and Doris Kappelhoff of Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston, Ohio for the safe harbor she’s given us.

Que será, será!

***

After retiring from the spotlight in the 1970s, Doris Day devoted herself to the cause of animal welfare. I gave a small donation. If you’d also like to help, here’s the link: Doris Day Animal Foundation.

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(Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty)

Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

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Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganonomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.

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An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court

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Last year, our daughter moved from Nashville, Tennessee to a sleepy village in Scotland called Milngavie. It’s located seven miles northwest of Glasgow. (The move was precipitated by our son-in-law’s job transfer). While my wife and I have always encouraged our kids to travel, Nashville to Milngavie seems quite a cultural shift. But Holly is comfortable over there. She’s more Vauxhall Corsa than Dodge 4×4, anyway.

Last month, I finally got to visit them and our two granddaughters. The only thing I missed, aside from The Lawrence Welk Show, was American sunshine.

One of my familial lines leads to Scotland, so it was a sort of coming home. My middle name is Scott, a family clan name traced to ancestor William Scott, who ran a deer park and salmon fishery in Scotland in the 1700s. Bill fled Scotland for County Derry, Ireland (something about papists). His grandson, James, then ratcheted up the rebel thing and sailed to the state of William Penn. Jimmy Scott then joined the Pennsylvania Line to battle British Redcoats during the American Revolution.

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1822 painting of writer-historian Sir Walter Scott

Coincidentally, my plane landed on July 4, which is America’s Independence Day (also my birthday). In England, some call this “Treason Day.”  Really, everything is a circle.

But I discovered both the English and Scottish were exceptionally friendly, bending over backwards to help a stupid Yank with train and bus info, directions, money confusions, etc. They all noticed my hayseed accent and were curious where I was from. To avoid apologies and embarrassments due to recent events, I just said “North America.” Fortunately, they didn’t push for details.

The highlight of my trip was spending time with my granddaughters, Avi (22 months) and Rory (4 months). But I did manage to sightsee some. Here’s a wee bit of my travels in the land of clans and kilts.  And I promise, there will be no photos of kilts or bagpipes here.

MILNGAVIE (pronounced “Mull-guy” per the original Gaelic): the Scottish love their dogs, and I saw more dogs here than anywhere I’ve ever been, and they’re all very well trained. Hikers also flock to Milngavie, because the 96-mile West Highland Way, one of the UK’s most popular distance trails, begins here. I met hikers from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, California, Seattle, and elsewhere. Early one morning I met a local man named Chris, who was doing a one-man protest to save an old English phone booth (“phone box”) from being removed. He explained that, in Scotland (or maybe just Milngavie), authorities won’t remove or destroy anything if at least one person shows up each day to protest. (Does that include living things like trees?) Anyway, I think that’s a great law.

Chris in Milngavie

Chris, rescuing red phone boxes in downtown Milngavie

The center of Milngavie, like many towns across Europe, is a brick walkway for pedestrians. Lots of quaint shops and cafés, including Fantoosh Nook, where Holly and I ate lunch one day. My friend Neil…Yeah, Another Blogger…visited Edinburgh recently and mentioned Cullen skink, which I sampled while at the Nook. It’s a smoked haddock and potato soup that has a bacon flavor. I loved it…a far cry from Campbell’s New England clam chowder. Thanks for the tip, Neil, you blogger you.

Along the West Highland Way, just north of Milngavie, I visited Mugdock Park. The park is named after Mugdock Castle, which dates back to at least 1376, and was in use until the mid-1600s. It was the stronghold of a clan named Graham. Parts of the remains of the castle were rebuilt over the centuries, but the main tower is original. When I visited Jamestown, Virginia a few years ago, my mind was boggled to think that, just under my feet, there rested relics and bones dating to 1607. But 1376?? That’s beyond boggling.

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Mugdock Castle in Milngavie

GLASGOW: along with Edinburgh, Glasgow is one of Scotland’s two major cities. Both have their merits. Edinburgh is definitely more scenic, with its storybook architecture. But it’s also rampant with tourists. (Tourists spend quid, which help local populations, but we also taint exactly what we’re drawn to.) Glasgow, on the other hand, is more of a working city, and the Scaw-ish brogue is more evident here. It’s said that Edinburgh is where you want to visit, but Glasgow is where you should live. Not sure this is 100 percent accurate, but it might come close.

I spent a half day with Holly and Avi in Glasgow. We visited Kelvingrove Park and University of Glasgow. Both were impressive, but I have to be honest and say that the main delight was pushing Avi on the swing, and holding her hand while strolling across the university grounds. That grandparent thing is for real. Next time, maybe Avi won’t be along to absorb my attention, and I can soak up more of this vibrant city.

Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

Avi and Holly at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

EDINBURGH: one day I took the train from Milngavie to Glasgow to Edinburgh and enjoyed a rare hot and sunny day in this historic city. I exited Waverley Station in Old Town, and the first thing I saw was a massive blackened spire piercing the blue sky, towering hundreds of feet above Princes Street. With Ohio Yankee naivety, I initially thought the spire might be part of a castle. Then I got closer and discovered it was a monument to my “cousin,” Sir Walter Scott. It’s the second tallest monument to a writer in the world.

Speaking of Mark Twain, the bard of the Mississippi River used to, if I recall, ridicule Scott’s penchant for high romanticism. And maybe that’s why I never read him (Scott, that is). Does he really deserve such an impressive monument, even if we are related? Alfred-e-newmanMaybe one day I should put down Mad Magazine and read Ivanhoe.

Then, across a valley, I spied Edinburgh Castle, the centerpiece of the city. It sits on a rocky promontory overlooking much of old Edinburgh. It’s exact date of construction is unknown, but it may go back to the 12th century, and human habitation on Castle Rock dates to the 2nd century AD. It was the site of numerous military sieges from the Middle Ages until the 1745 Jacobite rising. Kings and queens, royal intrigue, crown jewels…you name it. I refer you to Wikipedia for a full history.

I walked all around the perimeter of the castle, and up to the front entrance, but the heat and locusts (tourists) made things too claustrophobic, so I declined joining a tour.

Edinburgh Castle_Weller concert

Paul Weller and others: appearing soon at a castle moat near you!

Instead, I was drawn toward a threatening looking man standing in a café doorway, just down from a makeshift stadium in the castle esplanade. He had a shaved head, was clothed entirely in black, and had muscles on top of tattoos on top of muscles. I walked up to him and joked that he must be the Castle bouncer. But he said (in thick Cockney) that he was security for a concert later that evening. I asked who was playing.

“Paul Wella.”
Paul Weller? Yeah, I love him! The Jam and Style Council!”
“Ass roit, mate. Stoyle Cancel.”

I couldn’t believe an ex-punk rocker was performing in a collapsible stadium sandwiched between a former church (now ticket office) and the Edinburgh Castle gates. But I guess that’s life in the 21st century. I later asked about tickets. There were only six left, priced at 60 pounds apiece. It was time to move on.

I left the locust swarm in Old Town and strolled downhill, away from Castle Rock, across several blocks to 136 Lothian Road. The premises are now occupied by a pastry shop, but in the early Sixties it was The Howff, one of the top folk clubs in Great Britain. Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, and Archie Fisher played here, and Bert Jansch had a regular residency.

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The Howff (with inset of Bert Jansch)

Jansch is an acoustic guitar legend, a Scotsman, and one of my musical heroes—he directly influenced Neil Young, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Nick Drake, Al Stewart, Donovan, and many others—so it was cool to see the place where he first earned a reputation. My side trip here might strike some as strange, but little musical connections like this always get my juices flowing. (Wait till I discuss my trip to Liverpool.) Besides, I got to see a quieter side of Edinburgh that most tourists never see.

My search for an oasis in the locust swarm took me to St. Cuthbert’s Church, at the foot of Castle Rock. This quiet cathedral may date to 850 A.D., which makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. The burial ground here is filled with noteworthy Scotsmen and women, and, since real estate is at a premium here, some are buried under more “important” people’s tombs (monuments).  Hey, just like life!

I climbed back onto Princes Street, then crossed George Street to a tunnel-like lane called Young Street. Here, far from the madding crowd, a cool breeze pulled me along, past discreet shops and businesses that one would overlook if not for a modest plaque mounted next to a narrow doorway. I expected any second to see a Scottish version of Scrooge, Marley, or Cratchit emerging.

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The modest “Oxford” Bar, on modest Young Street

I was half-tempted to wet my whistle in the scrunched The “Oxford” Bar (the quote marks are part of the name). It’s a pub established in 1811, made famous in Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series of novels…which I also haven’t read. It’s also a hangout for Edinburgh policemen—and secret agents, since Sean Connery supposedly quaffs here (although I wonder how many Scottish pubs make this same claim). But I had a mild headache from the whiskey and Brewdog Punk IPA that I’d earlier tipped on High Street in Old Town, so I kept “strolling down the highway.”

In my next installment, I’ll get into hiking, and conclude the rest of my Edinburgh visit, discussing High Street, aka The Royal Mile, and the World’s End…which is Close.

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Monolithic Edinburgh Castle, from foot of volcanic Castle Rock

Movie Review: “First Men in the Moon”

50 years

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Just returned from a pleasant hiatus in Scotland.  Scotland isn’t the Moon, but the hobbits and elves made it exotic nonetheless, and I’ll be writing about Middle Earth soon. But I want to at least offer a nod to Apollo 11. I feel a kinship with moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin.

Armstrong lived only nine miles from our place here in Ohio, and I briefly attended college with his son, Rick, who hosted a campus radio show. (He played a lot of…what else?…progressive rock.) And Aldrin was born in the same town as me: Glen Ridge, New Jersey. In fact, we were born in the same hospital, 28 years apart. I’ve been called “Buzz” myself, though probably for reasons other than Aldrin.

Others know more about space exploration than me, so I’ll stick with what I know and offer a short review of a favorite Moon-related movie. I saw it with my dad when I was six years old, the first flick I ever saw at the theatre…not long before Mary Poppins. It’s a cinema version of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic, First Men in the Moon.

Year of release: 1964
Country: United Kingdom
Director: Nathan Juran
Starring: Lionel Jeffries, Edward Judd, Martha Hyer
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen

Partial Plot: an international crew lands on the Moon and discovers a tattered Union Jack flag. A handwritten note with the flag says the Moon was claimed for Queen Victoria in 1899 in honor of Katherine Callender (Martha Hyer). The world press rushes to England to locate Callender. Although dead, her husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) lives in a nursing home. The staff at the home say that Bedford is crazy, since for years he’s been raving about being on the Moon. He then relates to the press his actual experience traveling to the Moon 65 years earlier with Katherine and an eccentric inventor named Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). This reminiscence provides a flashback for the bulk of the movie (which I won’t give away).

Aside from being my first theatre movie, this flick is special for many reasons:

  1. The storyline is adapted from Wells’ 1901 novel, so the source material is impeccable
  2. Features Oscar-winner Harryhausen’s stop-motion “DynaMation” effects for the Moon monsters. Harryhausen had recently become famous for his work in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts
  3. Enhanced by gorgeous Technicolor and imaginative set designs for the Victorian cottage scenes
  4. Lionel Jeffries, a well-regarded English comic actor, is hilarious as the frenetic, absent-minded Prof. Cavor
  5. American actress Martha Hyer is gorgeous in a somewhat offbeat role for her
  6. Released during the Gemini program and just after President Kennedy’s vow to get to the Moon by the end of the 1960s
  7. Peter Finch makes an uncredited cameo appearance as a bailiff. He was visiting the  set, and the original actor had failed to show up
  8. There are some great lines, such as the conversation about war between Cavor and the Selenite ruler, and Cavor’s remark to Callender, after she brings a rifle onboard the ship: “Madam, the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote.” And the last line of the movie is a gem.

This film was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies to honor the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, so it may be awhile before it returns. But if you have NetFlix or other, check out this under-appreciated film, enjoyable for both children and adults.

***

Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Translation: “That’s one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind.”  Did the Selenites understand his verbal gaffe?

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The True Story of How The Lone Ranger Became African American

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Standing in a co-worker’s office recently, the following conversation took place:

Co-worker: “I’ve noticed that photo of Martin Luther King that you use as your Skype identifier. I’m assuming you admire him?”

Me: “I do.”

Co-worker: “Ever hear of the black lawman Bass Reeves? I read about him in my NRA magazine.”

(I’m not sure how Bass Reeves relates to Martin Luther King, Jr., other than both men were black. I’m also not sure why he specified his NRA magazine, other than he knows I despise that gun organization. But I immediately thought “There’s some psychology going on here.” Regardless…)

Me: “No, never heard of him.”

Co-worker: “He was a former slave who became a lawman in Oklahoma. Arrested his own son. He’s also the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.”

Me: “Really! Well, hi-yo Silver.”

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TV version of The Lone Ranger, with masked man, Tonto, and Silver

My co-worker then pulled up a Wikipedia bio of Reeves and read aloud from it. I returned to my cubicle. Work being non-existent, I did my own research on Bass Reeves (1838-1910). It took me all of ten minutes of internet clicking to get the lowdown.

In 2006, a professor and historian named Art T. Burton published a biography of Reeves entitled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (Race and Ethnicity in the American West) (University of Nebraska Press). In his book, Burton cited a 1997 book by John W. Ravage that asks the question “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?” Burton wrote that, although Ravage’s claim cannot be “conclusively” proven, Reeves “is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” (Burton, p. 14).

Burton made five “suggestions” in his book’s first chapter to back up his claim that Reeves is “the closest real person”:

  1. The Lone Ranger wore a mask. Burton claims Reeves sometimes used disguise to track fugitives. (No source provided.)
  2. The Lone Ranger had Tonto as his partner. Burton says that when in unknown territory, Reeves often hired an Indian as a guide.
  3. The Lone Ranger always left a silver bullet as a calling card. Burton says that while tracking the Dalton Gang, Reeves paid for a meal, and tracking help, with two silver dollars. (Source: family lore.)
  4. The Lone Ranger rode a white horse (“Silver”). Burton says that Reeves—at one time—rode a grey horse, which “can look anywhere from near black to near white” (Burton, p. 13).
  5. The Lone Ranger story began on Detroit radio in 1933. Burton says that many of the fugitives captured by Reeves were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections.
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Recent film version of The Lone Ranger

Since his book came out, some people have taken Burton to task for questionable research and nuanced writing. The nuance arises from the fact that Burton doesn’t outright say Reeves is the prototype, just that the two strongly resemble each other; but his implication is apparent, especially when taken in conjunction with his use of the Ravage quote. One who delved into this implication is an award-winning radio and television historian named Martin Grams, Jr., who did his own research for a 2018 publication, “Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth.”

Regarding the first two of Burton’s suggestions—and assuming they’re true—Grams notes that Reeves would not have been unusual among frontier lawmen in concealing his identity while hunting fugitives. Nor was he unusual in employing Indian scouts; both lawmen and the U.S. Army did this. And one doesn’t have to be Judge Judy to see how tenuous Burton’s last three suggestions of resemblance are.

But the most damning argument against Burton’s implication are typewritten letters Grams uncovered from 1932-33 by Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting Corporation, the company that created The Lone Ranger for radio. These letters specifically mention fictional character Zorro and cowboy movie star Tom Mix as sources for The Lone Ranger.

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Early Western actor Tom Mix

There is no mention of Bass Reeves in these letters. Would radio writers and executives have even known about Reeves, considering that in the 1930s most black cowboys and lawmen were barely footnotes?

Here’s the real problem, though: if Burton’s book had sold copies like my blubber book had, his cavalier conjectures would have been lost in the ether. But unlike my book and Ravage’s pre-internet book, Burton’s was read and discussed by a lot of people. Soon, like a prairie brush fire, a myth spread that The Lone Ranger was modeled on an African American, exploding on blogs, consumer book reviews, reference sites like Wikipedia, and magazines…including certain publications by certain lobbyist groups (see above). Burton even managed to sell his implication to the highly regarded Old West magazine True West.

Compounding the problem of an unsubstantiated rumor “going viral,” many readers of Burton’s (carefully chosen and suggestive) words lack the discernment to separate conjecture from fact. Still others, anxious to further a cause, set aside any doubts and enthusiastically embraced a kernal of wild speculation, turning a fiction into their own fact and proceeding to sound the trumpets.dime novel

For many years when I was younger, there was a myth that television character Wally Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) was played by glam rock star Alice Cooper. That myth was silly, but fun (except perhaps to actor Tony Dow, who actually played Wally Cleaver). This myth is more sinister, because it pushes American history closer to dime novel territory.

As Grams writes, “Historians are expected to present only the facts to avoid spawning rumors, misconceptions and myths that ultimately take decades to debunk.” Mr. Burton violated his responsibility as a historian by deviating from fact and making a reckless speculation. In many people’s minds, now, The Lone Ranger was modeled on a black man. A probable fiction.

***

This story interests me because it not only deals with U.S. history, but also ties together many disturbing social trends: the prevalence of fake news, political (in)correctness, racial emotionalism, historical revisionism, the power of social media in fueling myth, and an increasing lack of critical analysis by readers, listeners, and viewers. My co-worker seems like a smart guy, despite being an NRA member, so he should have been more careful.dime novel2

Most historians and academics are trained to use reliable and objective sources that can be verified. Their peers expect this and will go to great lengths to verify truth is being disseminated (or as close to truth as is possible). I would have never been able to sell my blubber book to an academic press had I not done the nitty-gritty and been conscientious of reliable bibliography and footnotes. And a good editor would have bled red over any conjectural passages.

It’s an unfortunate fact that American history has been horribly skewed (to put it mildly) against ethnic minorities: blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and—without a doubt—native Americans, who not only had to deal with U.S. government-sponsored ethnic cleansing, but John Wayne movies as well. But if we don’t adhere to truth, we’re a boat without a rudder, careening from one rocky shore to the next.

Bass Reeves is a fascinating historical figure; a black law officer in the American West who defied stereotype, and who deserves to be known by more people. His story is interesting enough without being embellished by a well-meaning but overzealous historian with socio-political concerns.

***

Postscript: later in the day, I presented this information to my co-worker. With a straight face he said “Well, if they based The Lone Ranger on Tom Mix, and since Tom Mix lived out west while Reeves was still alive, Mix may have known Reeves, and he might have told those radio guys about Reeves, who then created The Lone Ranger partly based on Reeves.”

I returned to my cubicle.

Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

lone star

longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Newsboys on the Loose!

newsboy

Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

bike

Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

station wagon

1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

ohio express

“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

barney

Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

newspapers

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

gish

Cast of Characters:

Actress Lillian Gish
Producer/Director D.W. Griffith
Bowling Green State University administrator (“Mr. Gobsmack”)
Black Lives Matter (BLM) representative
Black Student Union (BSU) representative
Two anonymous soldiers

ACT 1
February 8, 1915: The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Lillian Gish: “I don’t know, Mr. Griffith, this moving picture could cause trouble.”

D.W. Griffith: “Oh, come now, Miss Lillian. Just because it depicts the Ku Klux Klan as saviors? This is 1915 and no one cares. Who in Robert E. Lee’s name is this ‘Jim Crow’ fellow anyway? Besides, it’s not my fault…it’s the guy who wrote the book.”

Lillian Gish: “Well, despite the unusual interpretation of history, it is an awe-inspiring achievement. Critics are already calling it a motion picture landmark. It’s a shame sound hasn’t been invented yet, so people would be able to hear my voice.”

D.W. Griffith: “And Lil, you’ve done so well in Birth, I would like you to appear in my next epic project.”

Lillian Gish: “Mr. Griffith! Thank you! My friends back in Ohio will be so thrilled! What is the title?”

D.W. Griffith: “I’m calling it Intolerance.”

griffith

ACT 2
June 11, 1976: The GISH FILM THEATRE is dedicated at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

Bowling Green administrator: “…And in this glorious two-hundredth year since our nation’s birth, we humbly dedicate this new theatre to two of Ohio’s own, legendary actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, for their combined 136 years on stage and screen!”

(loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Thank you, Mr. Gobsmack. I accept this elegant honor in honor of my late sister and myself. Dorothy was a better actress than I, and I only wish she, and mother, could be here to bask in this lovely moment.”

Bowling Green administrator: “And tomorrow we will be presenting you with the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts!”

(more loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Dear me, you are all so very kind. I have never been a doctor before. By the way, can everyone out there hear my voice?”

ACT 3
February 2019: Black Lives Matter approaches Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University

BLM representative: “Put your smartphone down, brother. We gotta remove another intimidating and hostile name. We’ve been spendin’ time researchin’. Do you know who Lillian Gish is?”

BSU representative: “Uh…doesn’t she have a cooking show?”

BLM representative: “No! She was a white actress from Ohio! Did a bunch of silent films! She was in that film Birth of a Nation!”

BSU representative: “Huh? You mean that racist Civil War movie with Cary Grant?”

BLM representative: “No! You’re thinking Gone With the Wind, and the actor was Clark Gable! (But don’t worry, that movie is next on our agenda.) No, I’m talkin’ ’bout a 1915 film dealing with Reconstruction where the KKK is a hero!”kkk

BSU representative: “Damn! And she acted in that shit?! Yeah, we need to wipe out another name, like Wisconsin did last year with Fredric March. I’m now intimidated by that hostility!”

BLM representative: “Good, glad you agree. Get with those university trustees and tell them to wipe that intimidating and hostile Gish name offa that theatre.”

BSU representative: “Got it covered. And I guarantee it’ll be a 7-0 vote in favor of wiping.  No American college official these days wants to risk being labelled racist. We can’t tolerate our university having a performing arts theatre named after a legendary actress from Ohio who had the intolerance to appear in a racist film 104 years ago. We will wipe!”

BLM representative: “Cool. Her sister Dorothy wasn’t in any racist films that our people can determine—yet—but she doesn’t have a voice in this. This is 2019 and no one cares that her name will also be…uh…whitewashed. Anyway, she was friends with that Griffith guy!”

ACT 4 (Epilogue)
July 3, 2063: Somewhere on a field strikingly similar to Cemetery Ridge near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

First soldier: “I think this battle could be the turning point in the war.”

Second soldier: “You could be right. Finally, the end of political correctness.”

First soldier: “Yep. You don’t need to correct anything when there’s nothing left to correct.”

(fade out)

pickett's charge

Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, 1955-2019

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“The typical trajectory for a rock artist goes like this: Start out raw, risk-taking, totally true to yourself, then gradually get ground down by the industry into making ever more spirit-sapped and radio-ingratiating records. Far less common is the reverse: a career whose public story commences at the showbiz heart of mainstream pop, then torpedoes fame and fortune by embarking on a series of increasingly weird adventures in sound.” —National Public Radio, in an obituary for Mark Hollis on February 28, 2019

NPR is right. There are not many rock artists who deliberately sabotage a successful career to pursue a strange and less commercial musical path. It would be like ditching a six-figure salary as an attorney to sell homegrown produce from a roadside stand.

Scott Walker (Walker Brothers), who died in March, is one such musician. Syd Barrett was never exactly “showbiz,” but his two post-Pink Floyd solo records have people scratching their heads to this day.

Mark Hollis, lead singer of the 1980s English synth-pop band Talk Talk, is another who stepped off the carousel. Although details are sketchy, Hollis died February 25 at age 64.

***

My music era is the mid-1960s to the mid-70s. I can count on four fingers the punk rock bands I like, and I generally dismiss the entire synthesizer-sapped and overproduced 1980s. A few names stand out: XTC, Prefab Sprout, China Crisis…and Talk Talk, led by singer Mark Hollis. I liked this band’s bouncy New Romantic sound and songs written by Hollis and non-performing member Tim Friese-Greene. The rhythm section of Paul Webb (bass) and Lee Harris (drums) defines the word “punchy” and is sorely underrated. And I especially liked Hollis’s odd singing style. His voice sounded like Bryan Ferry’s, only with a frog stuck in his throat.

talk talk

Early Talk Talk. L to R: Hollis, Harris, Webb (Photo: Picture Alliance/Photoshot)

Talk Talk made five albums between 1982 and 1991. The first two, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984) produced seven singles and established Talk Talk as a sort of thinking man’s Duran Duran, with whom they recorded on EMI and toured (and shared similar redundant name). The single “It’s My Life” hit number 31 on the American charts, and “Such a Shame” became a hit in continental Europe.

The first clue that EMI might have a “difficult” artist on its hands was the promo video for “It’s My Life.” (Remember, this is the visual image-obsessed 1980s when everyone needed MTV and VH1 to listen to music…or record companies believed they did.) In the original version of this song video, Hollis refused to move his lips to the vocalized words, then winked at the end. EMI fumed when they saw it. They forced him to do it over.  The second time, he practically jumped through the camera, spitting out the lyric.

Then, the 1986 album The Colour of Spring presented a more reflective and sedate Talk Talk, slightly at odds with its earlier pop leanings. Ironically, this record went to number 8 in the UK charts, the group’s highest position. It was propelled by the powerful singles “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living in Another World.”

Examining the titles for these two songs, alongside “It’s My Life,” provides further clues that Hollis might have some misgivings about his pop stardom.it's my life

A scintillating 1986 concert from Montreux, Switzerland shows the band had by then closeted the stock designer costumes that New Wavers wore, and Hollis is bedecked in jeans, rumpled shirt…and sandals. He also hides behind sunglasses, clutches the mic stand, and keeps his head bowed for almost the entire show.

By the fourth record, Spirit of Eden (1988), Talk Talk was practically another band.

Today, Spirit of Eden and its follow-up Laughing Stock (1991) are regarded by some critics as shining examples of ambient or minimal music. The singing is sparse, as is the instrumentation. Tone and mood are emphasized over rhythm and structure. It’s an approach that probably dates back to avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, and was explored later by Brian Eno. Lately, it’s been interpreted again and renamed “post-rock.”

While I find this music relaxing, and I’ve dabbled at the edges of ambient music with certain jazz and prog rock records, I don’t usually find it engaging. But in writing this essay, I’ve listened to Spirit of Eden several times, and we’re now engaged. Whether most critics who praise Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock do so more for Hollis’s artistic courage than the music itself, I can’t say. But I have no doubt Hollis was serious about capturing some magic with sound, and not merely trying to cultivate a legacy as an “enigmatic artiste.”

But while the usual adjectives and nouns for this music are “sparse,” “atmospheric,” “mood,” and “ambient,” the word that counted for EMI was non-commercial. After Spirit of Eden, the band and the company “parted ways,” as they say, not long after battling in court. Talk Talk signed with the smaller Polydor-Verve label for Laughing Stock. Then the band broke up. In 1998, Hollis released a self-titled solo LP, furthering Talk Talk’s minimalist approach. All three records are highly praised but, of course, they only assisted Hollis with his disappearing act.eden

Hollis gave few interviews, but in one of them he said something quite simple (minimalist) but also quite profound: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” Hollis was talking about music, but he could have been talking about life.

After his solo album, Hollis, who’d been crouching at the edge of the carousel platform for over a decade, took the leap. Beyond minimalism, the only place to go was total silence. He left music to be a full-time husband and father in rural England, later moving his family to Wimbledon, London. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

For the next 21 years, Hollis guarded his privacy. He made some minor contributions to other peoples’ music, but he insisted his name not be used.

R.I.P. Mark Hollis.

(Thanks to WordPress blogger moulty58 for alerting me to Hollis’s death, and to Wikipedia for quotes and information.)

(For further reading about Mark Hollis, Talk Talk, and in particular the making of “Laughing Stock” and how art intersects with commerce, I highly recommend reading an article in “The Quietus,” located here.)

hollis singing

An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

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Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)