Melting Pots and Swamps

President Obama sits down for beer with Harvard scholar Gates, police Sergeant Crowley and Vice President Biden in Rose Garden

A few weeks ago, I was bouncing around WordPress, which is my social medium of choice these days…my internet coffee klatch. I plopped “old movies” into the search box. I like old movies, even the black-and-white ones that have newspaper headlines spinning toward you, and where women are “dames” and the actors use cigarettes as fashion accessories.

Several article titles came up, and one in particular caught my eye: reviews of the 1937 and 1954 film versions of the acclaimed A Star is Born (also filmed in 1976, and again this year).

“Cool! Gotta read this,” I thought.

I’d seen the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason. It’s about a young singer-actress whose star is rising, and whose actor-husband is descending into alcoholism, career suicide, and eventual real suicide. It’s a wrenching story, as well as an awesome musical.

And the WordPress article was also great. This reviewer didn’t just fling around the adjectives “awesome” and “great” …like I did above. She had a robust vocabulary, which is saying something in these days of tweets, texts, emails, and emoticons. She also went into revealing detail about infrequently discussed film topics, like the importance of supporting actors and the use of Technicolor.

She also stated that the 1954 film used “blackface.” Blackface is a popular topic now, ever since the firing of TV personality Megyn Kelly. For younger readers, or those who might live in Indiana, blackface was the practice of white entertainers painting their faces black and pretending to be African-American. The 1920s Jazz Age entertainer Al Jolson was the most well-known practitioner. By the latter 20th century, the practice had fallen out of favor, and is today considered insensitive, with many calling it racist.

jolson

Al Jolson

Anyway, the WordPress reviewer accused the film of having—and I quote verbatim—an “appalling display of racism.” Pretty severe accusation. I’d seen the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and I didn’t remember anything approaching racism. So, I clicked the hyperlink she conveniently provided, which took me to a YouTube clip of Dorothy (Judy Garland) dancing to and singing George Gershwin’s classic “Swanee,” which Jolson had made famous. Although Garland had a chorus of African-American dancers behind her, she was not wearing blackface. Neither was anyone else in the clip…at least, that my strained, macular-degenerative eyes could make out. I didn’t see anything that might remotely be construed as being racist.

I thought, How can a scene with a singer-actress (Garland), portraying a singer-actress (Vicki Lester), who performs a legendary 1950s rendition of a popular song, written in 1919, that was loosely based on a song from the 1850s, be considered an “appalling display of racism”? Is it because the song was once done by a white cat wearing blackface? Isn’t that a sociological and chronological leap? Would Rosa Parks have considered Garland’s innocent dance number racist?

garland

Judy Garland, singing and dancing in “A Star is Born”

Controversy is catnip. So, I submitted a reader comment at the bottom of the article. First, I praised the reviewer for her perceptive and well-written piece. Then, I politely took issue with her claim that inclusion of “Swanee” in the movie was racist, and that the movie included blackface. I went into some junk about Al Jolson, which was probably too much information. But I think I stayed close to topic, and was respectful. In other words, I wasn’t my usual arrogant prick.

I’m guessing that the writer, who looked fairly young, felt compelled to join the “shaming” chorus that inevitably accompanies our confused country’s frequent identity crises. Although, it’s possible I’m wrong on all this. Maybe I’m a throwback dance number myself, and displaying my own racial insensitivity. Could be I’m a flip-flopper. After all, I’m one who despises the football team nickname “Redskins” (at one time a derogatory term for Native Americans) and supports warehousing of certain inanimate Confederates. But I was anxious to at least hear her viewpoint.

However…she didn’t publish my comment. I was bummed.

Which brings me to this essay’s title. While there are a lot of negatives to instant communication and social media—silliness, egotism, stupidity, rudeness, hostility, encouragement of sloth, real “fake news,” fake “fake news,” bad English, five-letter words beginning with ‘T’—there are a few positives. One of them is strangers of different backgrounds—our vaunted “melting pot”—being able to share an ecosystem of different ideas, which is a characteristic of democracies. Diversity doesn’t just imply race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality, it also means diversity of thoughts and opinions. But if one party decides there will be lotsa give, but no take, then the melting pot becomes a putrid swamp. Nobody changes, nobody grows.

I’m used to this roaring silence from my elected representatives. But not from a real person.

I would have loved to hash it out with this writer…to participate in a sort of internet “beer summit,” and eventually arrive at a safe haven of consensus after running up the bar tab with ex-President Obama. Perhaps she’d have revealed to me my “whiteness” or “maleness.” Maybe she could have explained to this vintage man what she meant by her being an unapologetic “SJW.” (Does anyone know what an SJW is? I’m assuming it’s an acronym describing her marital status, race, and gender. Like I said, I’m a vintage man, and acronyms trouble me.)

Maybe I could have explained my liberal proclivities, to assure her that, despite our disagreement on this subject, I’m still not one of them. A few pejoratives directed at the hemorrhoid currently in the White House would surely have had us clinking our beer glasses (to Obama’s and sub-bartender Joe Biden’s delight).

Maybe I could have politely explained my theory of pulling back too far on the bowstring, which causes the archer to not only miss the bullseye, but overshoot the entire target. Which can create an ugly backlash like what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, or at the polls in November 2016.

Alas, I didn’t get the opportunity. No beer summit with Obama and Biden. So much for the free exchange of ideas I anticipated.

Speaking of free exchange of ideas, does anyone care to, um, add ripples to my putrid swamp with a comment? As tough-guy actor Robert Conrad used to say in those battery commercials: “C’mon. I dare ya.”

Beer_summit_cheers

Peace, brother.

Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

front cover2

Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

rapp photo

Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

Friends of Shoreham Fort

Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer