Monday, November 30, 2015

Gong – "Pot Head Pixies" (1973)

I am
You are
We are

Flying Teapot, a 1973 album by the Franco-British art-rock band Gong, takes its name from something philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them.  This is, of course, a mistake.  If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.  But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. 

Russell’s point was that A’s inability to disprove B’s belief is not proof that B’s belief is true – specifically, Russell was arguing that the inability of atheists to disprove the existence of God doesn’t prove that God exists.   

Bertrand Russell
I can’t disprove the elaborate, bizarre, and perhaps drug-induced mythology set forth in of Gong’s Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You albums – which are often referred to as the “Radio Gnome Trilogy.”  But I’m with Bertrand Russell on this one.

The Gong mythology was supposedly inspired by a vision that Daevid Allen, the man who formed the group, had in 1966.

Here’s how the Gong website describes Allen’s vision: 

[Allen] gains the impression that he is an experiment being supervised by intelligences far beyond his normal level of awareness, that he is later to call “the octave doctors,” seeing himself on stage in front of a large rock festival audience and experiencing a connection with them that had the quality of intense LOVE, while at the same time being surrounded by a enormous cone of etheric light . . .  simultaneously drawing astral shadows from deep below us and dissolving them in the downpouring radiance focused at its peak.

Daevid Allen
Allen had been one of the founding members of the legendary progressive-rock bands, the Soft Machine, but visa problems prevented him from re-entering the UK after the band toured France in 1967.  According to the Gong website, he “spent the next couple of months in Paris experimenting with his electric guitar and a boxful of nineteenth century gynecological instruments processed through an echo box and other effects.” 

Allen took part in the 1968 Paris student riots.  (Gong’s Wikipedia page says he “handed out teddy bears to the police and recited poetry in pidgin French.”)  To avoid being arrested, Allen and his partner – Gilli Smyth, who taught at the Sorbonne – skedaddled to the island of Majorca, where they met flautist/saxophonist Didier Malherbe (who was living in a goatherder’s cave on the estate of poet Robert Graves) and recorded the first Gong album, Magick Brother.

Gilli Smyth
The Gong website contains a glossary that will come in handy if you want to understand the “Radio Gnome Trilogy.”  Here are just a few entries from that glossary (which Gong says listeners shouldn’t gloss over “unless total incomprehension is preferable.”):

PLANET GONG: A transparent greenish planet unknown to astronomers and situated in the seventh sky or seventh heaven, it operates according to the laws of the music of the spheres.

RADIO GNOME INVISIBLE: A telepathic pirate radio network operating brain to brain by a crystal machine transmitter direct from Planet Gong.

POT HEAD PIXIES: These small green gents who populate the Planet Gong have pointed heads with propellors which serve as receivers for Radio Gnome Invisible.  Noted for their joyful capers, they can become invisible at will and when nearby, one's pot pouch is never empty. 

FLYING TEAPOTS: Distantly related to flying saucers, they are the chief means of transport for the pointy-headed and well-propellored population of the green planet [e.g., the Pot Head Pixies].

OCTAVE DOCTORS: Gong gurus and benevolent, all-wise, and loving advisors of the Pot Head Pixies and protectors of the planet. they appear as a giant radiant eye which hovers inside an upturned cone which is set inside a luminous egg-shaped aura called the Angel’s Egg.

ANGEL'S EGG: This is the Octave Doctors' impenetrable protective force field from which the unisexual Pot Head Pixies are born and back into which they are recycled at the end of their time. 

(Got all that?)

Would you like to meet a few of the characters from Flying Teapot?  Your wish is my command:

MISTA T BEING: A pig-farming Egyptologist and possibly the first air-breathing human to tune into Radio Gnome, this bushy being was the famed inventor of the walkie-talkie for porkers and distinguished himself as the bravest of the mummy runners to the British Museum.  He subsequently invented the white lens or clairvoyant telescope with which one can see the Planet Gong . . . .

BANANA ANANDA is the great beer yogi whose noble cry “Have a lager!” greets his disciples as they enter his primitive cave high up in the hymnalayas [sic] of Tibet.  His motto is "Banana Nirvana Mañana,” a phrase worthy of many days of deep contemplation on the many-sided meanings inherent in its profundity.  [He is] an upright hindoo sage of great magnetism, especially for the ladies.

ZERO THE HERO is, in fact, our real hero in this epic Gongography.   A floating dropout with a strange predilection for making heroes out of people and a fancy for wearing prophetic robes of sackcloth, he [had] a vision in the Charing Cross Road and went wandering off to look for heroes. . . .

CAPTAIN CAPRICORN: Respected captain of the good ship “Earthling,” ol’ Captain Cap don't believe in anything but facts he can prove scientifically. All this jazz about little green men and flyin' teapots is just so much balderdash to him.  He is animated by a profound distaste for religion of any kind – due to an early childhood christian brainwash – and is perpetually setting off in the good ship with a load of stoned cronies in his well-stocked saloon to try to prove that God don't exist. . . . He is always very helpful if you have a problem and knows the train timetables by heart.

I could continue cutting and pasting from the Gong website all day, but a little of this stuff goes a long way, n’est-ce pas?

Gong in 2012
In 1975, Daevid Allen left Gong after going off his rocker during a gig in Cheltenham: 

I couldn't actually get on stage.  It was as though there was a an invisible curtain of force that was stopping me from going through the door.  I threw myself at the open door and bounced back, off nothing.  And this blew my mind so thoroughly that I just ran out of the theatre into the rain and started hitchhiking on the road with all my clothes, my stage clothes, my costume and face painted with fluorescent colors.  And then a woman looked at me so strangely that I started thinking I was a murderer and I was hiding in the bushes.  Finally I got picked up by somebody who had left the concert, was taken home, and then I had to realize that I had to leave Gong, so that's the way it all ended. 

But Allen returned to the fold Gong fifteen years later, and remained an active member of the Gong family on bands (which included Paragong, Planet Gong, Mother Gong, New York Gong, and Gongmaison, just to name a few) until he died of cancer earlier this year at age 77. 

Here’s “Pot Head Pixies”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Depeche Mode – "Everything Counts" (1983)

The turning point 
Of a career
A career of
Being insincere

I really hate it when a novelist inserts a description of a dream one of his or her characters had in a novel.  The dream is always opaque, which annoys me – it’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the point of the dream is.

So why is this 2 or 3 lines about a dream I had this morning?  My blog, my rules – how many times do I have to say it?  

Alan Siegel, Ph. D., the author of the book Dream Wisdom: Uncovering Life’s Answers in Your Dreams, believes that there are 20 universal dream themes.  

According to Siegel, one of those universal themes is “failing or forgetting to study for an exam in high school or college, or forgetting your lines for a presentation, speech or play.”  

I have a lot of dreams that fall into that category, including the one I had this morning.

In that dream, I was supposed to deliver a sermon at my church.  (Why a layperson like me would be giving the sermon at my church is beyond me.  Why a layperson whose church attendance is just a tad irregular would be chosen to give a sermon is further beyond me.)  After the service started, I realized that I had failed to bring a printed copy of the sermon with me to church.

There was no time to go back home.  But I was pretty sure I had e-mailed a copy of the sermon to myself.  So all I had to do was use my Blackberry to retrieve that e-mail, open the attachment containing the sermon, and then read it.  (It would be somewhat inconvenient to have to read the sermon from my Blackberry’s little screen, but beggars can’t be choosers.)

There was only one problem: I couldn’t find my Blackberry.  I hurriedly searched throughout the church (which looked nothing like my church – the beautiful and historic St. John’s/Lafayette Square in Washington, DC — or like any other church I’ve ever seen).  I found several smartphones that had been left on tables or desks in the church, but none of them was mine.

Just in the nick of time, I found my Blackberry.  But before I could pull up the copy of the sermon I had e-mailed to myself, I dropped the phone, which broke apart into about a dozen components.

My Blackberry Classic
Of course, I had no clue how to reassemble my Blackberry.  I fumbled around with the parts, occasionally figuring out how a couple of the parts fit together – but I was a long way from putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It was at this point that Cameron Diaz showed up.  What Cameron Diaz was doing in my dream, I’ll never understand.  (The same goes for the elephant I shot in my pajamas.)

You see, I’m not a particular fan of Cameron Diaz.  I don’t have anything against her, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one of her movies.  I also can’t remember the last time she made a movie worth seeing.

Actually, Bad Teacher was pretty good:

Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher"
If Claire Danes had popped up in my dream, it would have made sense.  (Or Katie Aselton . . .)  But the presence of Cameron Diaz was a real head-scratcher.

Suddenly, I realized that Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts” was playing over the church’s public-address system.  My new gal pal asked me how old the song was, and I vividly remember telling her that I thought it was released in 1990.  

Claire Danes in "Homeland"
“Everything Counts” was originally released in 1983, but it was re-released in 1989 – so I deserve partial credit, don’t you think?

I woke up at this point, leaving three big questions unanswered:

1.  If the dream had continued, would I have been able to reassemble my Blackberry and retrieve my sermon?  (Probably not.)

2.  If not, would I have been able to improvise and come up with a passable off-the-cuff sermon?  (Highly unlikely.)

3.  Most importantly, would Cameron Diaz and I have done the mystery dance?  (I’m not optimistic.)

As soon as I woke up, I rushed downstairs to my trusty computer and immediately wrote myself an e-mail with all the details of the dream that I could remember.  

I wasn’t sure what the title of the song in the dream was at first.  But the line “It’s a competitive world” was going through my head, and when I did a Google search for that lyric, I quickly ascertained that it  was “Everything Counts.”   

Here’s “Everything Counts,” which has terrific lyrics:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Oliver! (Film Soundtrack) – "Food, Glorious Food" (1968)

Food, glorious food!
What is there more handsome?

You may think that politicians are too partisan today.  But at least both parties agree on when to celebrate Thanksgiving.  In 1939, there were two different Thanksgiving Days in 1939 – one for Republicans, and one for Democrats.

I wasn’t going to do a Thanksgiving-related post this year until I saw the latest installment of the “Drinks with Dead People” blog.

I’ve been familiar with “Drinks with Dead People” for a couple of years, but I just found out that its author is a young lawyer who I used to talk with when she worked in-house for a client of mine.

Betsy Golden Kellem
Betsy Golden Kellem, the brains behind “Drinks with Dead People,” has led an interesting life:

I spent years in big legal practice, representing suitably big clients . . . . But you can also ask me about being a stand-up comedian, university professor, cub reporter, museum worker, oncology researcher, musician and college marching band drum major.  I’ve shown and sold my artwork, taught myself to play the drums and once dressed as 1968 Comeback Elvis for Halloween.  I’ll talk your ear off about history, and I can juggle flaming torches. (Really.)  

(She had told me about being a marching band drum major — at Yale, no less – but the other stuff was news to me.)

Betsy offers this one-line description of herself:

I combine delightful absurdity with a category-crushing knowledge of all things weird and helpful.

(You know, that’s not a bad description of yours truly – you’d need to add something like “and a breathtaking degree of narcissism” at the end, of course.)

Betsy’s latest post is titled “The Thanksgiving Turkey,” and it’s worth a read.  

The best part of it is a 1909 poem for children titled “The Martyrdom of St. Turkey” that Betsy discovered in an old educational journal. 

Here’s an excerpt from that poem, which compares the fate of Thanksgiving turkeys to that of martyred Christian saints:

They fed him to behead him,
And to take away his breath.
As they stuffed him, living,
So they stuffed him, dead.

Betsy’s discussion of the history of Thanksgiving inspired me to do a little historical research of my own.  (That is to say, I entered “Thanksgiving” and “Wikipedia” into Google.)

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621 – everyone knows that, right?  (The feast likely took place at the end of September, not in November.)  

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the final Thursday of November would be a national Thanksgiving Day.  The impetus for Lincoln’s action was a series of editorials by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, an influential magazine editor and writer.  (Her most famous work is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

FDR carving a turkey
Subsequent presidents followed Lincoln’s lead until 1939.  That year, there were five Thursdays in November.  The president of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s, Inc.) urged Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week in order to extend the Christmas shopping season.  

FDR agreed – the country was mired in the Great Depression, and he wanted to help out retailers – but his decision was controversial.  Many Republicans thought the change was disrespectful to Lincoln’s memory.  

More importantly, many colleges and high schools closed out their football seasons by squaring off against their traditional rivals on Thanksgiving Day, and it wasn’t possible to change the dates of all those games at the last minute.  

About half the states followed Roosevelt’s lead in 1939 and celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November (which fell on November 23 that year), but the other half of the states stuck with the last Thursday (which fell on November 30).

In 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring that Thanksgiving would henceforth be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.  But some states resisted.  Texas, for example, continued to observe Thanksgiving on the fifth Thursday of November when there was a fifth Thursday until 1956.

“Food, Glorious Food” is the first musical number in the British musical, Oliver!, which is based on the famous Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.

Oliver! opened in London in 1960, was brought to Broadway in 1963, and was made into a movie in 1968.  The movie won six Academy Awards, including the “Best Picture” award.

A new film version of Oliver! is expected to be released in late 2016.

Here’s “Food, Glorious Food,” from the 1968 movie.  I hope you and yours eat better today than these poor boys did.

Click below to buy the entire movie soundtrack from Amazon:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Vivian Blaine and Isabel Bigley – "Marry the Man Today" (1951)

Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow!

Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway on this date in 1950.  

The original production won five 1951 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and ran for 1200 performances.

It was awarded the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the trustees of Columbia University overruled the prize jury’s selection because Abe Burrows, who co-wrote the Guys and Dolls book, had a run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Abe Burrows
On the surface, the two principal female characters of Guys and Dolls couldn’t be more different.  Miss Adelaide is a singer and dancer at the stylish Hot Box Club, while Miss Sarah is a pious young woman who works for the Save-A-Soul Mission.  But both dream of getting married to “Mr. Right” and settling down in a proverbial white-picket-fenced cottage.

Miss Adelaide has been engaged for 14 years to Nathan Detroit, who runs “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.”  Her brassy, sexy exterior conceals the heart of an conventional, stay-at-home housewife – Adelaide’s letters to her distant mother claim that she and Nathan have been married for years, that they have six children, and that Nathan is the assistant manager of the local A&P – but she can’t get Nathan to give up gambling and live the straight life.

Sister Sarah and the globetrotting high-roller Sky Masterson are textbook examples of the “opposites attract” dictum.  Right off the bat, they’ve got chemistry that just won’t quit.  

But Sarah resists her love-at-first-sight attraction to Sky – her homme idéal is a pipe-smoking, Brooks Brothers-clad “Scarsdale Galahad” with a “calm, steady voice” and “strong moral fiber,” and Sky is nothing like that.

When the two women meet near the end of the play, young Sarah asks the worldly-wise Adelaide if a man like Sky is capable of change.  

Adelaide is skeptical.  “For fourteen years I've tried to change Nathan,” she says.  “I’ve always thought how wonderful he would be, if he was different.”

Miss Adelaide and the
Hot Box Club dancers
Adelaide’s reply reminded me of a quote that is usually attributed to Albert Einstein:

Men marry women with the hope they will never change.  Women marry men with the hope they will change.  Invariably they are both disappointed.

That doesn’t sound much like something Einstein would say, does it?  But there are dozens of websites that attribute the quote to him, and very few that attribute it to anyone else.

Einstein (or whoever) may be right when he predicts that women who marry men hoping to change them will usually be disappointed in real life.  But we’re talking about a Broadway musical, boys and girls . . . and in Broadway musicals, the thorniest problems are no match for a song.

And so our two heroines suss out a solution to their mutual dilemma in “Marry the Man Today”:

Marry the man today
Rather than sigh in sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow . . .

Marry the man today
Handle it meek and gently
Marry the man today 
And train him subsequently . . .

Marry the man today
Give him the girlish laughter
Give him your hand today
And save the fist for after!

The play’s final scene shows Adelaide and Nathan – who has given up his crap game and opened a newsstand – heading off to get married to Adelaide at the Save-A-Soul Mission.  Sarah has already gotten hitched to Sky, who has sworn off gambling and is now playing the bass drum in the mission band.  

The training of the two men will no doubt continue subsequently.  Well played, ladies!

Frank Sinatra (Nathan Detroit) with
 Vivian Blaine (Miss Adelaide) in
the 1955 "Guys and Dolls" movie
I find it interesting that “Marry the Man Today” was deleted from the 1955 movie version of Guys and Dolls, which starred Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson.  Maybe the producers took that song out because they thought audiences wouldn’t want to see Sinatra and Brando being wrapped around the little fingers of their dolls like a couple of pantywaists.

Broadway musicals are not known for presenting hard truths to their audiences.  But in this case, the play was more honest than the movie.

Here’s “Marry the Man Today” as sung by Vivian Blaine and Isabel Bigley, who portrayed Miss Adelaide and Sister Sarah in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls.  (Miss Blaine also appeared in the movie.)

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Beatles – "Paperback Writer" (1966)

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few
I'll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style

The subject of last 2 or 3 lines was John McPhee, the greatest living American nonfiction writer.  Click here if you missed it. 

In the last few years, McPhee (who is 84) has written a number of pieces about writing in the New Yorker, the most recent of which is titled “Omission.”  (You can click here to read that article, and I strongly recommend that you do.)

John McPhee
The subhead of that article is “Choosing what to leave out.”  McPhee is a big believer in the importance of leaving things out when you write – in particular, yourself:

Let the reader have the experience.  Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.  When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.  If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.  Give elbow room to the creative reader.  In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.  

McPhee’s advice is hard for me to swallow.  I often give very little elbow room to my readers.  I think  I’m afraid that they won’t get my point unless I hit them over the head with it.  

In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said that

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

This is a very Zen approach to writing.  A writer like Hemingway may have been able to pull this off, but I’m no Hemingway – I can only leave so much out and still have anything to say.

Leaving things out can take a lot of time and effort.  President Woodrow Wilson understood that.

Here’s what Wilson said when he was asked how long it took him to write a speech:

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President.  “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all.  I am ready now.”

There’s an old saying that expresses Wilson’s sentiment more succinctly: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

That sounds like something Yogi Berra might have said.  It was actually written – in French, of course – by the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. 

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” is no joke – it’s a simple statement of fact that any experienced writer or editor appreciates.  

John McPhee's high-school yearbook photo
John McPhee learned how to decide what to leave out early in his writing career, when he worked for Time magazine.  (As McPhee’s article makes clear, when he talks about a writer leaving things out, he is really talking about taking things out after you put them in.)

After completing an assignment and getting a thumbs up from his editor, a Time writer would receive a preliminary printed version of his or her article (a “galley proof”) to proofread and edit.

The proof would usually have “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such note written on it.  “Green 5” meant that the writer needed to take a green pencil and shorten the piece by five lines so that it would fit into its allotted space in the magazine.

Groan as much as you liked, you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself – studying your completed and approved product, your “finished” piece, to see what could be left out. . . . Greening has stayed with me, though, because for four decades I have inflicted it on my college writing students, handing them nine or ten swatches of photocopied prose, each marked “Green 3” or “Green 4” or whatever.

Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them.  The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.  Easier with some writers than with others.  

McPhee gives examples of passages by Joseph Conrad, Philip Roth, and other great writers that he told his students to green.  “Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint,” he instructed them.

He seems to have taken particular pleasure in giving his students the Gettysburg Address – which is only 25 lines long – with a note to “Green 3.”  Try that sometime.  (McPhee’s favored solution is to delete the latter part of the ninth sentence and the first part of the tenth sentence, and combine the two fragments.  That eliminates 24 of the Gettysburg Address’s 272 words.)

When he was at Time, McPhee worked with Calvin Trillin, who may be my second-favorite New Yorker writer.  Here’s what Trillin wrote about the pleasures of greening:

I don’t have any interest in word games – I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble – but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story – a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact – was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it.  The greening I did [while at Time] convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.”  And one of these days I’m going to begin doing just that.

Actions speak louder than words, so I decided to demonstrate that I am a true disciple of McPhee by greening this 2 or 3 lines post. 

Here are the parts I decided to leave out:

In 1871, Mark Twain wrote a letter to a friend that included the following lines: “You’ll have to excuse my lengthiness – the reason I dread writing letters is because I am so apt to get to slinging wisdom & forget to let up.  Thus much precious time is lost.”  

Like Twain, 2 or 3 lines is also apt to forget to let up once he gets to slinging wisdom, which leads to the loss of much precious time. 

* * * * *

Last year, the Reuters news agency sent out a memo instructing its writers to limit their stories to 300 to 500 words.  “Most readers tend to give up well before the 500-word mark,” the memo said. 

"If editors were serious about shorter copy, which often takes more effort than longer stuff, they'd give their reporters more time," Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote in response to that memo.  

If you do much writing, you know that Shafer is correct: it often takes more time and effort to write a short piece than a longer one.

* * * * *

The old saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” has been misattributed to a lot of different people, including Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Bill Clinton.  

* * * * *

But perhaps his cruelest assignment was to tell each student to pick what he or she thought was the best paper he or she had written for McPhee's course and green ten per cent of it.

I’m going to go back through the parts of this post I decided to leave in and do a little more greening before I hit the “publish” button.  Once the finished product appears, I invite you to green it yourself.  I have a smart bunch of readers – some of you are (or were) professional writers and editors – and I’d love to see what you come up with.

“Paperback Writer” – the Beatles' eleventh U.S. single – was released in 1966.  The Beatles had been given a preview of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album earlier that year, and they emulated the Beach Boys’ harmonies in “Paperback Writer.”

Beatles - Paperback Writer by hushhush112

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Talking Heads – "The Book I Read" (1977)

I'm writing 'bout the
Book I read
I have to sing about the
Book I read

In 1999, New York University's Department of Journalism assembled a group of prominent journalists and journalism professors and asked them to come up with the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.

Like other "top 100” lists – the top 100 movies, or the top 100 English-language novels, or the top 100 rock albums – this one is a mix of choices that make you say "Of course!" and choices that make you say "What the hell!”

Here's a link to the list if you'd like to see it for yourself.

Michael Kinsley (a law school classmate of mine) trashed the list in a piece he wrote shortly after the list was announced.

Michael Kinsley
I have no problem with the thesis of Kinsley's article, which is that "best of" lists are pseudoscientific and hopelessly subjective.  But I take exception to a gratuitous shot he took at The John McPhee Reader, which was ranked #54 by the NYU judges.  

Kinsley wondered how could anyone think that the "pointless pointillism" of John McPhee belonged on the list.

"Pointless pointillism"?  (I bet Kinsley was so proud of that little bon mot.)  Really?  That's how you describe the work of the best English-language nonfiction writer of the last 50 years?

It's not clear what Kinsley's problem with McPhee is.  Kinsley thinks that the New Yorker of the William Shawn era – Shawn was that magazine's editor from 1952 until 1987 – was greatly overrated, and most (if not all) of the writing in The John McPhee Reader appeared in Shawn's New Yorker.  So that's one strike against McPhee.

I also suspect that Kinsley is dismissive of McPhee because he isn't a muckraker with a political agenda, and his books aren't exposés of political corruption or corporate wrongdoing.  The NYU list includes many examples of investigative or advocacy journalism – Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage, Seymour Hersh's investigation of the My Lai massacre, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, to name just a few.  By contrast, McPhee’s writing is more timeless than timely.

The John McPhee Reader, which contains excerpts from his first dozen books (which date from 1965 to 1975), demonstrates the diversity of McPhee’s subject matter.

His first book – A Sense of Where You Are – profiles Bill Bradley during his senior year at Princeton.  (McPhee’s choice of Bradley as his subject was prescient.  After leading his Princeton team to the NCAA “Final Four” in 1965, Bradley attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, played ten years in the NBA, and was elected to three terms in the United States Senate.)  It is perhaps the best book about basketball ever written.

Bill Bradley in the 1965 NCAA tournament
The topics of his subsequent books include the Florida orange industry (Oranges), the region of New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens (The Pine Barrens), a 1968 U.S. Open tennis match (Levels of the Game), a tiny Scottish island (The Crofter and the Laird), an experimental lighter-than-air aircraft (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), and birch-bark canoes (The Survival of the Bark Canoe). 

I’ve read all of those books at one time or another, and they are all wonderful.  I’m confident that I would find them just as wonderful if I re-read them today – despite the fact that they were published between 40 and 50 years ago.

McPhee is 84 years old, and he is still writing.  In the last few years, he has written several short New Yorker pieces about his methodology of writing.  

One of those pieces (“Progression,” which appeared in the November 14, 2011 New Yorker) explains why McPhee chose the topics that he chose:

[A] general question about any choice of subject is, Why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities?  Why does someone whose interest is to write about real people and real places choose certain people, certain places?  For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere.  They just go by in a ceaseless stream.  Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice?  

I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college.  I checked off more than ninety per cent. 

John McPhee
The most recent of those pieces (“Omission,” which appeared in the September 14, 2015 New Yorker) discussed how McPhee turned an idea into an article or a book:

Writing is selection.  Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language.  Now keep going.  What is your next word?  Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? . . . 

You select what goes in and you decide what stays out.  At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in – if not, it stays out.  That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.  Forget market research.  Never market-research your writing.  Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material – that much and no more. . . . In the nineteen-seventies, observing the trials of an experimental aircraft, I intended at first to tell the story in a thousand words, but the tests and trials increased in number, changed, went on for years; a rich stream of characters happened through the scene; and the unfolding story had a natural structure analogous to a dramatic plot.  The ultimate piece ran at fifty-five thousand words in three consecutive issues of the magazine. 

My guess is that McPhee will eventually publish a book that includes all these New Yorker pieces.  If he does, I am confident that it will be the best book about how to write books ever written – and also that it will be a delight to read.

“The Book I Read” was released in 1977 on the Talking Heads’ debut album, which was titled Talking Heads: 77.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Animals – "Don't Bring Me Down" (1966)

One thing I need is your respect
One thing I can't take is your neglect

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who became superstars on the strength of their original songs.  

But the biggest hits of the fifth great “British Invasion” band — the Animals – were covers.  

The Animals
“The House of the Rising Sun” was a traditional folk song.  “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was originally written for Nina Simone.  And “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life,” and today’s featured song, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” were written by Brill Building songwriting duos.  

I think that great songwriters get a lot more respect from the critics than great performers.  That’s why the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and Who are on the Mt. Rushmore of sixties rock groups, and the Animals aren’t.

The Animals also fall short when it comes to longevity.  The original Animals were together only from 1964 until 1966, while the Mt. Rushmore groups stayed together much longer and produced much more music.

But I think the Animals singles listed above are superior as a group to the best singles released by their British Invasion brethren during that same time period.

What makes those Animals singles so good?  Eric Burdon was the quintessential blue-eyed soul singer, and the instrumentalists were all solid.  I assume that Mickie Most (who produced the first four of those near-perfect singles) and Tom Wilson (who produced “Don’t Bring Me Down”) deserve a lot of credit as well.

“Don’t Bring Me Down” is on the soundtrack of Black Mass, a movie about Boston mobster "Whitey" Bulger.  I saw Black Mass a couple of months ago, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when “Don’t Bring Me Down” started playing – that moment was the highlight of the film for me.

Black Mass is a good movie.  It may not be a great movie – I wouldn’t put it up there with The Godfather, or Goodfellas, or The Departed – but it was very satisfying.

Until a few years ago, I would have never compared the quality of television shows to that of movies.  

But I think that has changed.  I’ve been watching a lot of TV series on DVD recently – The Wire, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Justified, and The Missing (just to name a few) – and I find series like those to be more compelling than most current movies.

I think a good 800-page novel is better than a good 200-page novel.  You can utterly lose yourself in a long novel – when you’re reading a good one, you never want it to end.  The same is true of a TV series compared to a movie.

As Stuart Heritage wrote in The Guardian

When applied correctly, the elongated storytelling opportunities afforded by television trump cinema's frayed reliance on the drudgery of 90-minute three-act plots.  “Breaking Bad” showed a character transforming over two years of his life in a way that could never be achieved in film.  “The Killing” dedicated 20 hours to a single murder case.

As I watched Black Mass, I couldn’t help but think how great it would have been if it had been a 12-hour-long TV series.  I wanted to know more about Bulger – especially what he was up to between 1994 (when he skedaddled out of Boston one step ahead of the police) and 2011 (when he was arrested in Santa Monica, CA).  The movie essentially ended when he went on the lam, although it did have a brief epilogue reporting on the ultimate fate of Bulger and the other major characters.

The young "Whitey" Bulger
Generally speaking, I believe that you can’t have too much of a good thing.  Of course, there are exceptions to that rule.

“Don’t Bring Me Down” is only three minutes and 13 seconds long.  If it was longer, that would be too much of a good thing – sometimes, less is more.

If I could, I would change one small detail.  At about 1:43, there’s a brief piano break that just doesn’t fit.  (It’s a little too honky-tonky for the rest of the record.)

Otherwise, “Don’t Bring Me Down” is flawless.  The tempo is just right, the arrangement is perfect – the organ, lead guitar, and bass complement one another beautifully – and Eric Burdon’s singing is (as always) what one critic described as “brutally soulful.”

Gerry Goffin and Carole King
It’s hard to believe that “Don’t Bring Me Down” was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  Goffin and King may have been one of the great pop songwriting teams of all time, but their best-known compositions – like “Will Love You Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Go Away, Little Girl” and “Up On the Roof” – don’t have the power and depth the Animals bring to “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

Here’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”:

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