Saturday, September 05, 2020

The Not So Pretty Finish-With Etta James’ “Please, No More” in Mind

The Not So Pretty Finish-With Etta James’ “Please, No More” in Mind

By Hank Jones

“No more, no more,” had become Shep Wilson’s new mantra once he got over his rage against his long-time companion, Sarah Long, after she had set him adrift, had as she said “moved on” to fine herself whatever that might have meant when she uttered the ugly words of separation one night and then the next day was gone, leaving no forwarding address and only the thin reed of a cellphone number and e-mail address to remember her by. It had not been like Shep had not known it was coming, or could see it coming since Sarah had been making noises about leaving, and under what conditions, for a couple of years prior to that sneaking out the next day door. And maybe she was right to make a clean break, although in his heart of hearts Shep knew he was only fooling himself, only acting out of his version of male alleged indifference which had been part of the problem between the pair for the past several years.

Shep kept trying to think through what he could have done differently, where he had fallen down bad enough to make her leave. And make him take up her chant of “no more” (not really put that way by her since she would have used more gentile language that fit her persona but that was the way that it rang through this latest fire in his head and that was the way he was trying to think the matter through). He knew that he shared the blame, shared in the debacle of their love, had lost that magic that held them together for so many years, and that the little saying that she had had in sunnier times about how they had been so much in love in those early years and though it would continue forever. And in the early days, hell, up until the last few years that love had been as genuine as any emotion that he held dear. Then a whole series of events, a whole personal deluge of troubles laid him low, and had made him a grumpy old man. The last month or so, maybe two months he had tried to take stock of himself (and of her role in their decline after all as she admitted she could have signaled him more concretely about what was ailing her, what make her say her own “no more”). Had tried to put, as he constantly told her against all odds, to put his best foot forward. Unfortunately it had been too late.     

After Shep thought about those early days when they were so in love, were so sympathetic to each other, fed off each other’s needs, faced the wicked old world as a pair of waifs, soul mate waifs was the way she put it one time early on, sipping on a little light wine to numb himself a bit against the emptiness in his heart, he tried to retrace where he had fallen down (her shortcomings were her business now and so he looked at the lonely world through his future path and  how he could become the “new” Shep, get rid of that mantra of “no more” into a better place). 

Shep had never been much for reflection, never much to think how his actions, or better his omissions, would affect Sarah, would make her withdraw, make her close her heart to him. Had dismissed at least in his on fire head much of what she would speak of when she was seriously trying to signal him that things had dramatically drifted downhill. Would not take the signals about getting help, psychiatric help foremost, that she first gently and then more insistently tried to get him to undertake. Saw that as her New Age Cambridge background thing that she was forever trying out (and to his mind without much success but he kept that to himself especially as she seemed more and more to withdraw into that world as she got more distraught about them and as well about her place in the sun, about who she was). 

Funny, Shep thought to himself, in the end, or rather toward the end, in one of those previous downhill moments he had agreed to go with her to couples counselling (they had tried that route about twenty years before but both had been dissatisfied with the counsellor who seemed to be more interested in what she had to say than what they had had to say). Funny as well that he, not she though, and if he had been wise enough to see what that meant he could have seen what was coming, he felt that the then current counselling, and the counsellor, was a worthwhile endeavor every week (Sarah, before they decided, or rather she decided, to discontinue the work, had told him that she thought the counsellor was “championing him” because, as a gregarious type in such situations he had the better of it against her more quiet and thoughtful responses which tended to be short, if to the point.)         

Shep’s troubles really had started with the advent of his medical troubles, with what he called “the poking and prodding” of the medicos, a few years before. Yeah, he knew growing older, getting to be an old grumpy man, meant that health issues would surface, would especially as he reached his seventh decade (he knew first-hand as well from his friends of similar ages that this was the “deal,” the real deal). Shep had prided himself on keeping a semblance of fitness, of keeping himself heathy as measured by very infrequent visits to the doctor’s office and of not feeling sick most of the time except for an occasional cold. Then the deluge, first trouble with breathing and eating necessitating an endoscopy which found some problems, and medications. After that bladder problems associated with his smoking many years before according to the urologist, more medications, and then more recently the final nail in the coffin (his expression as stated to Sarah many times and a silly foolish thing to say), the early discovery of bladder cancer after a scope should unusual inflammations. More procedures and more medications.       

One day Shep just erupted, started yelling at Sarah, started to approach her for which she would later say she stood in fear of physical danger he seemed so out of control (not at the time though as she thought that saying anything would only enflame him further). After a few minutes he settled down, because something of the old Shep, but the line had been crossed. Shep swore he would stop taking the medications since they seemed to be making him more aggressive, more sullen, and angrier. As it turned out one of the medications was reacting poorly with another one and had aided in Shep’s angry responses to the world-and to Sarah.   

If the medications, if the health issues were all that there were Sarah pointed told Shep before she departed she could have worked around that. What she could not work around was what Shep called one night the fire in his head (not helping that inability to “work around” were long-time, long-held issues around Sarah’s own worth, around who she was, around what was she to do in the world now that she too was retired, issues which had plagued her since childhood). In the end that “fire in his head,” that not being “at peace” with himself was the way she expressed her take on the situation was what made something snap in her psyche. Shep, as he would admit to himself in a moment of candor several weeks after she had gone, had reacted to his health issues and graceless aging rather than getting more rest and taking it easier in life had true Shep form driven himself even harder in order to leave what he told Sarah was his mark on the wicked old world. The snapping point for her was that he seemed indifferent to her needs, seemed to be in a world of his own, and had begun again to question every move that she made like he did not trust. In a final stab to his heart she had told him that her own increasing medical problems were being aggravated by his foul behavior(after being fearful of doing so since she still worried about his anger if she did tell him this hard truth).       

So this was Shep’s sad demise. Or could have been but one night a couple of months after Sarah left he woke up one night and said “no more.” No more acting like a crazed maniac, no more fruitless search for some netherworld place in the sun. He had read a book, a book on meditation that Sarah had left behind talking about the benefits of doing such a therapy, backed up by scientific evidence. (Shep was not sure that Sarah had not left the book behind on purpose since she, like in a lot of things around his well-being, had mentioned his doing meditation on numerous occasions in the past.) So Shep started practicing the art, had real trouble at the beginning in focusing away from his two million “pressing” forward that day issues and living in the moment. But as with many things when he gets “religion” Shep is still at it after a month. His mantra, his focus term, not surprisingly “no more.”    

[Shep would wind up meeting Sarah in a Whole Foods grocery store in Cambridge several months later and remarked after telling him she had spent the previous several months in California that he seemed calmer, seemed to have lost some of that fire in his head, and seemed more at peace with himself. Had said also that they should keep in touch now that  she was back in town and that he wasn’t such a maniac (her term for his previous late innings conduct). So who knows. All Shep knows is that he wanted “no more” to do with the old Shep). 

When Sun Records Blew The Lid Off Rock And Roll-With The Show “Million Dollar Quartet” In Mind

When Sun Records Blew The Lid Off Rock And Roll-With The Show “Million Dollar Quartet” In Mind  

By Sam Lowell

“You know they are right whoever said it sometimes a picture, a photograph, tells more than a thousand words, or you name the number of words,” Jack Callahan was telling his lady-friend, wife, and number one companion of forty-odd years, Chrissie (nee McNamara and so as Irish as her beau and husband), as they exited the side door of the Ogunquit Playhouse, the non-profit theater group up in the town of the same name up in Southern Maine which this fall (2016) had brought back by popular demand the hit show-The Million Dollar Quartet. Jack’s photograph reference was to the now famous one of the key creators and interpreters of rock and roll, ouch, now called the classic age of rock and roll Elvis (no last name needed at least for anybody who knew anything at all about rock and roll and maybe just about music), Carl Perkins (who actually had first dibs of right on a song, Blue Suede Shoes, that Elvis blew everybody out of the water with), Johnny Cash (a name known as much for country and gospel-oriented music later but a serious rocker out of the blocks when he was starting out who travelled  with the previously mentioned artists as they wowed the young things in the backwaters of the South), and, Jerry Lee Lewis, in the end the most long-lived and perhaps if he could have as Jack’s non-blushing Irish wit grandfather put it, “kept his pecker in his pants” the most prolific of the lot. Certainly the way he was highlighted in the show, the way the actor who portrayed him did his bit, stole the damn show in fact there was much to be said about that possibility. All four, who at various times had been under contract to legendary Sun Records owner Sam Phillips and that photograph taken in the end of 1956 represented the only time all four were under one roof singing together. Beautiful.

Chrissie had had to laugh when she thought about how they had come to be in Ogunquit in the late fall, a time when she normally did not even want to think about north, north of their home in Hingham a town on the coast south of Boston. The hard fact was that Jack and Chrissie had had another of their periodic falling-outs and Jack had, in the interest of preserving the marriage, taken one of those periodic “sabbaticals” from Chrissie that had helped in the past to salvage their marriage. So Jack had taken a small off-season cottage in Ogunquit, a town he, they knew well for almost as long as they had been together. While he had been in “exile” he would frequently pass the Playhouse and notice on the billboard how long the show was playing for. If Chrissie relented before the first week in November he was determined to take her to the show. As it turned out, as usual, but nothing negative should be made of the idea, Chrissie had gotten lonely for her Jack and suggested that she would head north (a real sign that she was missing her guy) and stay with Jack before the end of October. Hence the conversation on Friday night as they exited that side door to reach their automobile for the short ride to Jack’s cottage.

Of course “luring” Chrissie to the show was a no-brainer since they both had grown up, had come of age during the second wave of the rise of rock and roll coming to smite down their parents Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee et al. music that they had been previously enslaved to without recourse. Without recourse meaning the big “no” in the respective Callahan and McNamara family hearths when either had approached their parents about turning the radio dial away from WJDA 1940s stuff to WMEX the hot rock station of the time. They were more likely get “the lecture” on the devil’s music and advise to listen to their 1940s more attentively or worse, much worse, be threatened with the Irish National Hour as an alternative. (On this “second wave” thing their older brothers and sisters who passed on the torch after having given up the radio fight went outside their respective homes to find the music on local jukeboxes starting with early Elvis just as Jack and Chrissie would likewise find their outlet at those same jukeboxes a few years later when the British invasion took the nation by a storm.)

On any given Friday or Saturday night Jack Callahan, a legitimate high school football hero who would go on to be a good if not great college career, and his corner boys, everybody had corner boys in the old Acre neighborhood of North Adamsville, would hang around Tonio’s Pizza Parlor putting dimes and quarters into the jukebox to hear (and re-hear) the newest big rock hits. (Eventually, when Chrissie got under Jack’s skin and did something about it one Friday night, a story in itself worthy of telling but this is about rock and roll legends and not the hijinks of 1950s teenagers so we will move on she and Jack would spent those Friday and Saturday nights spinning tunes together -and other stuff too.)

Back to the show though. Jack and Chrissie had had dinner at a local restaurant and then headed to the Playhouse a little early since neither in all the years they had collectively been going to Maine set foot in the place. So they were thrilled when they saw the stage all festooned with the Sun record label in bright lights and with the stage set up to be like Sam Phillips’ wreck of a recording studio. To top that off in the background rock and roll music was being played over the loudspeakers- Jack laughed (and sang along) when he heard Warren Smith doing his classic Rock and Roll Ruby followed by Jerry Lee’s Mona Lisa. Jack admitted and Chrissie would too at intermission that they were amped up, expected to be thrilled to hear a lot of the songs they had grown up with and hadn’t heard for a while. And they were not disappointed, no way.

Of course the core of the show was about the fabulous four (not to be confused with the other fabulous four, the Beatles, who worshipped at the shrine of these older rockers over in Britain when the American teen audience was gravitating toward bubble-gum music). But there also was a sub-story line dealing with the hardships of a small record company promoting talent, promoting rock and roll talent, and in those days most of them were small and would be out of business without some kind of hit to keep them afloat. So the story line was as much about the trials and tribulations of Sam Phillips trying to keep his operation afloat-including the unfortunate selling of Elvis’ contract to big dog RCA for what in the end was chump change in order to keep above water-to keep his dream of creating rock legends alive.

The other tension was between the various performers and their desires to make the big time which at times did not coincide with what Sam was trying to. At the edge of the Phillips story though is what to do after Elvis got away, and Johnny and Carl wanted to sign with a bigger record company. And that is where grooming Jerry Lee came in, the next big thing that Phillips seemed to be able to draw to his little two-bit operation. Like Jack’s grandfather said if Jerry Lee could have just kept it in his pants once maybe he could have ruled the whole rock and roll universe. That was the way the story played here. 

Story-line or no story line (including an additional female singer, a girlfriend of Elvis’ who represented the seriously under told story of female singers in the early days of rock and roll) the show was about the songs that Jack and Chrissie came of age to from Elvis’ classics including those hips moving frantically to Carl’s great rockabilly guitar (he dubbed the “king of rockabilly” back then) to Johnny deep baritone. And the topping-the actor doing Jerry Lee’s role doing things with a piano (including blind-folded) that would seem impossible. Let’s put it this way after that night Chrissie was seriously thinking about taking Jack back-again. Enough said.               

Friday, September 04, 2020

When The Tin Can Bended…. In The Time Of The Late Folk-Singer Dave Van Ronk’s Time

When The Tin Can Bended…. In The Time Of The Late Folk-Singer Dave Van Ronk’s Time

From The Pen Of Bart Webber

Sometimes Sam Lowell and his “friend” Laura Perkins (really “sweetie,” long time sweetie, paramour, significant other, consort or whatever passes for the socially acceptable or Census Bureau bureaucratic “speak” way to name somebody who is one’s soul-mate, his preferred term) whose relationship to Sam was just described in parenthesis, and righteously so, liked to go to Crane’s Beach in Ipswich to either cool off in the late summer heat or in the fall before the New England weather lowers its hammer and the place gets a bit inaccessible. That later summer heat escape valve is a result of the hard fact that July, when they really would like to go there to catch a few fresh sea breezes, is not a time to show up at the bleach white sands beach due to nasty blood-sucking green flies swarming and dive-bombing like some berserk renegade Air Force squadron lost on a spree who breed in the nearby swaying mephitic marshes.

The only “safe haven” then is to drive up the hill to the nearby robber-baron days etched Crane Castle to get away from the buggers, although on a stagnant wind day you might have a few vagrant followers, as the well-to-do have been doing since there were well-to-do and had the where-with-all to escape the summer heat and bugs at higher altitudes. By the way I assume that “castle” is capitalized when it part of a huge estate, the big ass estate of Crane, now a trust monument to the first Gilded Age, not today’s neo-Gilded Age, architectural proclivities of the rich, the guy whose company did, does all the plumbing fixture stuff on half the bathrooms in America including the various incantations of the mansion. 

Along the way, along the hour way to get to Ipswich from Cambridge Sam and Laura had developed a habit of making the time more easy passing by listening to various CDs, inevitably not listened to for a long time folk CDs, not listened to for so long that the plastic containers needed to be dusted off before being brought along, on the car CD player. And is their wont while listening to some CD to comment on this or that thing that some song brought to mind, or the significance of some song in their youth.  One of the things that had brought them together early on several years back was their mutual interest in the old 1960s folk minute which Sam, a little older and having grown up within thirty miles of Harvard Square, one the big folk centers of that period along with the Village and North Beach out in Frisco town, had imbibed deeply. Laura, growing up “in the sticks,” in farm country in upstate New York had gotten the breeze at second-hand through records, records bought at Cheapo Records and the eternal Sandy's on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and a little the fading Cambridge folk scene when she had moved to Boston in the early 1970s to go to graduate school.     

One hot late August day they got into one such discussion about how they first developed an interest in folk music when Sam had said “sure everybody, everybody over the age of say fifty to be on the safe side, knows about Bob Dylan, maybe some a little younger too if some hip kids have browsed through their parents’ old vinyl record collections now safely ensconced in the attic although there are stirrings of retro-vinyl revival of late according a report he had heard on NPR. Some of that over 50 crowd and their young acolytes would also know about how Dylan, after serving something like an apprenticeship under the influence of Woody Guthrie in the late 1950s singing Woody’s songs imitating Woody's style something fellow Woody acolytes like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot never quite got over moved on, got all hung up on high symbolism and obscure references. Funny guys like Jack actually made a nice workman-like career out of Woody covers, so their complaints seen rather hollow now. That over 50s crowd would also know Dylan became if not the voice of the Generation of ’68, their generation, which he probably did not seriously aspire in the final analysis, then the master troubadour of the age.

Sam continued along that line after Laura had said she was not sure about the connection and he said he meant, “troubadour in the medieval sense of bringing news to the people and entertaining them by song and poetry as well if not decked in some officially approved garb like back in those olden days where they worked under a king’s license if lucky, by their wit otherwise but the 'new wave' post-beatnik flannel shirt, work boots, and dungarees which connected you with the roots, the American folk roots down in the Piedmont, down in Appalachia, down in Mister James Crow’s Delta. So, yes, that story has been pretty well covered.”  

Laura said she knew all of that about the desperate search for roots although not that Ramblin’ Jack had been an acolyte of Woody’s but she wondered about others, some other folk performers who she listened to on WUMB on Saturday morning when some weeping willow DJ put forth about fifty old time rock and folk things a lot of which she had never heard of back in Mechanicsville outside of Albany where she grew up. Sam then started in again, “Of course that is hardly the end of the story since Dylan did not create that now hallowed folk minute of the early 1960s. He had been washed by it when he came to the East from Hibbing, Minnesota for God’s sake (via Dink’s at the University), came into the Village where there was a cauldron of talent trying to make folk the next big thing, the next big cultural thing for the young and restless of the post-World War II generations. For us. But also those in little oases like the Village where the disaffected could put up on stuff they couldn’t get in places like Mechanicsville or Carver where I grew up. People who I guess, since even I was too young to know about that red scare stuff except you had to follow your teacher’s orders to put your head under your desk and hand over your head if the nuclear holocaust was coming, were frankly fed up with the cultural straightjacket of the red scare Cold War times and began seriously looking as hard at roots in all its manifestations as our parents, definitely mine, yours were just weird about stuff like that, right, were burying those same roots under a vanilla existential Americanization. How do you like that for pop sociology 101.”

“One of the talents who was already there when hick Dylan came a calling, lived there, came from around there was the late Dave Van Ronk who as you know we had heard several times in person, although unfortunately when his health and well-being were declining not when he was a young politico and hell-raising folk aspirant. You know he also, deservedly, fancied himself a folk historian as well as musician.”    

“Here’s the funny thing, Laura, that former role is important because we all know that behind the “king” is the “fixer man,” the guy who knows what is what, the guy who tells one and all what the roots of the matter were like some mighty mystic (although in those days when he fancied himself a socialist that mystic part was played down). Dave Van Ronk was serious about that part, serious about imparting that knowledge about the little influences that had accumulated during the middle to late 1950s especially around New York which set up that folk minute. New York like I said, Frisco, maybe in small enclaves in L.A. and in precious few other places during those frozen times a haven for the misfits, the outlaws, the outcast, the politically “unreliable,” and the just curious. People like the mistreated Weavers, you know, Pete Seeger and that crowd found refuge there when the hammer came down around their heads from the red-baiters and others like advertisers who ran for cover to “protect” their precious soap, toothpaste, beer, deodorant or whatever they were mass producing to sell to a hungry pent-ip market.  

Boston and Cambridge by comparison until late in the 1950s when the Club 47 and other little places started up and the guys and gals who could sing, could write songs, could recite poetry even had a place to show their stuff instead of to the winos, rummies, grifters and conmen who hung out at the Hayes-Bickford or out on the streets could have been any of the thousands of towns who bought into the freeze.”     

“Sweetie, I remember one time but I don’t remember where, maybe the Café Nana when that was still around after it had been part of the Club 47 folk circuit for new talent to play and before Harry Reid, who ran the place, died and it closed down, I know it was before we met, so it had to be before the late 1980s Von Ronk told a funny story, actually two funny stories, about the folk scene and his part in that scene as it developed a head of steam in the mid-1950s which will give you an idea about his place in the pantheon. During the late 1950s after the publication of Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking road wanderlust adventure novel that got young blood stirring, not mine until later since I was clueless on all that stuff except rock and roll, On The Road which I didn’t read until high school, the jazz scene, the cool be-bop jazz scene and poetry reading, poems reflecting off of “beat” giant Allen Ginsberg’s Howl the clubs and coffeehouse of the Village were ablaze with readings and cool jazz, people waiting in line to get in to hear the next big poetic wisdom guy if you can believe that these days when poetry is generally some esoteric endeavor by small clots of devotees just like folk music. The crush of the lines meant that there were several shows per evening. But how to get rid of one audience to bring in another in those small quarters was a challenge.

Presto, if you wanted to clear the house just bring in some desperate “from hunger” snarly nasally folk singer for a couple, maybe three songs, and if that did not clear the high art be-bop poetry house then that folk singer was a goner. A goner until the folk minute of the 1960s who probably in that very same club then played for the 'basket.' You know the 'passed hat' which even on a cheap date, and a folk music coffeehouse date was a cheap one in those days like I told you before and you laughed at cheapie me and the 'Dutch treat' thing, you felt obliged to throw a few bucks into to show solidarity or something.  And so the roots of New York City folk according to the 'father.'

Laura interrupted to ask if that “basket” was like the buskers put in front them these days and Sam said yes. And asked Sam about a few of the dates he took to the coffeehouses in those days, just out of curiosity she said, meaning if she had been around would he have taken her there then. He answered that question but since it is an eternally complicated and internal one I have skipped it to let him go on with the other Von Ronk story. He continued with the other funny story like this-“The second story involved his [Von Ronk's] authoritative role as a folk historian who after the folk minute had passed became the subject matter for, well, for doctoral dissertations of course just like today maybe people are getting doctorates in hip-hop or some such subject. Eager young students, having basked in the folk moment in the abstract and with an academic bent, breaking new ground in folk history who would come to him for the 'skinny.' Now Van Ronk had a peculiar if not savage sense of humor and a wicked snarly cynic’s laugh but also could not abide academia and its’ barren insider language so when those eager young students came a calling he would give them some gibberish which they would duly note and footnote. Here is the funny part. That gibberish once published in the dissertation would then be cited by some other younger and even more eager students complete with the appropriate footnotes. Nice touch, nice touch indeed on that one, right.”
Laura did not answer but laughed, laughed harder as she thought about it having come from that unformed academic background and having read plenty of sterile themes turned inside out.       

As Laura laugh settled Sam continued “As for Van Ronk’s music, his musicianship which he cultivated throughout his life, I think the best way to describe that for me is that one Sunday night in the early 1960s I was listening to the local folk program on WBZ hosted by Dick Summer, who was influential in boosting local folk musician Tom Rush’s career and who was featured on that  Tom Rush documentary No Regrets we got for being members of WUMB, when this gravelly-voice guy, sounding like some old mountain pioneer, sang the Kentucky hills classic Fair and Tender Ladies. It turned out to be Von Ronk's version which you know I still play up in the third floor attic. After that I was hooked on that voice and that depth of feeling that he brought to every song even those of his own creation which tended to be spoofs on some issue of the day.”
Laura laughed at Sam and the intensity with which his expressed his mentioning of the fact that he liked gravelly-voiced guys for some reason. Here is her answer, “You should became when you go up to the third floor to do your “third floor folk- singer” thing and you sing Fair and Tender Ladies I hear this gravelly-voiced guy, sounding like some old mountain pioneer, some Old Testament Jehovah prophet come to pass judgment come that end day time.”

They both laughed. 

Laura then mentioned the various times that they had seen Dave Von Ronk before he passed away, not having seen him in his prime, when that voice did sound like some old time prophet, a title he would have probably secretly enjoyed for publicly he was an adamant atheist. Sam went on, “ I saw him perform many times over the years, sometimes in high form and sometimes when drinking too much high-shelf whiskey, Chavis Regal, or something like that not so good. Remember we had expected to see him perform as part of Rosalie Sorrels’ farewell concert at Saunders Theater at Harvard in 2002 I think. He had died a few weeks before.  Remember though before that when we had seen him for what turned out to be our last time and I told you he did not look well and had been, as always, drinking heavily and we agreed his performance was subpar. But that was at the end. For a long time he sang well, sang us well with his own troubadour style, and gave us plenty of real information about the history of American folk music. Yeah like he always used to say-'when the tin can bended …..and the story ended.'

As they came to the admission booth at the entrance to Crane’s Beach Sam with Carolyn Hester’s song version of Walt Whitman’s On Captain, My Captain on the CD player said “I was on my soap box long enough on the way out here. You’re turn with Carolyn Hester on the way back who you know a lot about and I know zero, okay.” Laura retorted, “Yeah you were definitely on your soap-box but yes we can talk Carolyn Hester because I am going to cover one of her songs at my next “open mic.” And so it goes.               

In Search Of Heroes Of The Great American Hispanic Night-Mi Hombre Senor Zorro-The ‘Z’ Man Of My Youthful Dreams-Antonio Banderas’s “The Mask Of Zorro” (1998)-A Film Review

In Search Of Heroes Of The Great American Hispanic Night-Mi Hombre Senor Zorro-The ‘Z’ Man Of My Youthful Dreams-Antonio Banderas’s “The Mask Of Zorro” (1998)-A Film Review

DVD Review
By Si Lannon
The Mask Of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins and assorted sleaze-ball Spanish dons and their senoras and senoritas, 1998
I have made no secret here or in private conversations that in my youth, my childhood really, I was crazy to watch the Zorro half hour on 1950s black and white television. For a reason that only a few people knew then, mostly family, and excluding my corner boys, some of who work for this publication, and whom I grew up with in the heavily working- class Irish and some Italian neighborhood of the Acre in North Adamsville a suburb south of Boston. I suppose every family has its family secrets, its skeletons in the closet like some looney grand aunty up on the batty attic, a brother, a hermano in home speak, who has spent more time in jail for various armed felonies than on the outside, that some cousin was in the vernacular of the day in our family at least was “different” meaning then a “fairy, fag” you know what I mean and today proudly LGBTQ, a young female relative who also in the code words of the day had to travel to “Aunt Emmy” for a while, meaning that she was pregnant out of wedlock and had to leave town to avoid family disgrace and dagger neighborhood dowager grandmother eyes probably never to come back.
In my family the deep dark secret which also reveals in passing why I loved Zorro as my youthful hero was that my mother was a Latina, Hispanic, you know from Mexico whose last name was Juarez, Bonita Juarez. No big deal right, now anyway although in the age of the long knives, in the age of Trump and all the animosities he has helped stir up, bring to the ugly surface of American life, that may no longer be true. But back then, back in 1950s growing up Irish-Italian Acre that was a no-no. The way around it devised by my parents was that sweet Bonita was “passed off” as Italian. An entirely respectable ethic designation in a town that drew Italians back around the turn off the 20th century to work the granite quarries that dominated the topography of the landscape (that work died out with the exhaustion of the quarries to be replaced by a booming shipbuilding industries which by the 1950s has in their turn faded this time by off-shore outsourcing and eventual departure which explained a lot about the wanting habits of we corner boys in the 1950s while other working class towns were observing something of a golden age-also mainly gone now with globalization). While there were names, derogatory names, for Italians in some Irish working-class homes in the neighborhood there was enough intermixing to level things off.
Almost universally though since there were absolutely no Hispanic families in the whole town the normal terms of abuse applies-spics, wetbacks, braceros, and the like. My father could not stand for that and even his relatives in the neighborhood believed my mother was from Italy. She had come up to California from Mexico during World War II with her family to work the grape and melon fields and my father stationed at Fort Ord at the time met her at a USO dance and wooed her after that. Since Bonita’s English was halting she was forbidden to speak Spanish when others were around. The only way any corner boys knew that she was Spanish was in high school when in ninth grade my best friend Jack Callahan had been taking Spanish and had come to the house unannounced and heard her speaking that language and not Italian. Naturally asking what gives and I told him and from there to the rest of the guys who hung around Tonio’s Pizza Parlor. [In the interest of today’s seemingly compulsory transparency statement Jack Callahan has not only occasionally written in this publication but has been a substantial financial backer-Greg Green]
The corner boys when they found out since we were “brothers” today hermanos were pretty cool about the whole thing since she was my mother and that counted a lot even when we were at civil war with them, con madres. In general though it was not until many years later after Bonita passed away that people became aware of her nationality in a time when such things were more openly okay-even in the Acre.                    
Secrets aside I loved Zorro the same way my corner boys loved say white gringo good guys, avenging angels like Wyatt Earp or the Maverick boys from the television our main source outside of the movies from having characters we could identify with. Swashbuckling Zorro taking on all-comers, bad ass gringos especially but also batos locos paid soldiers and other scumbags and of course the oppressor hombres-the mainly Spanish dons who had the huge land grants from the Spanish kings when California was part of the fading Spanish Empire and later after formal independence and creation of a Mexican state who gouged the peasantry into the ground to maintain their freaking luxurious lifestyles. I would have to keep my devotion something of a secret although in general Zorro was a positive figure among the television-watching corner boys.
I was therefore very interested in doing this review of The Mask of Zorro when site manager Greg Green decided that enough was enough as Mexican Nationals, immigrants, citizens, hard-working peoples were being bashed for no good purpose by the Trump unleashed dark alt-right-Nazi-fascist-white nationalist cabal and had to be defended on all fronts including popular culture-including films. And in a very definitive way-beyond the obvious romance between Zorro, played by a youthful Antonio Banderas and his lovely senorita and soon to be marida and madre of his child, Elena, played by drop-dead beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones-this film shows a heroic and honorable side of the Mexican saga-of cultural super-heroes among the oppressed peoples of the world. 
Here is the way the thing worked on this one although one can take the production to task for not have more Hispanics, Latinos, etc. in key roles like Elena, who could have worthily been played by Penelope Lopez, and certainly Zorro, the elder, played by venerable and ubiquitous high-toned Brit actor Anthony Hopkins could have had a better casting. The elder Zorro has a running battle in the Mexican independence struggle with the soon to be departed Spanish viceroy, a real bastard whose name is legend so no need to give him some human surname over the way the peasantry and others were treated by him. More importantly over the elder Zorro’s wife and daughter since that msl hombre viceroy was smitten by her. Eventually the bastard was the cause of the mother’s death and the elder Zorro’s imprisonment leaving the field clear for him to raise that daughter, Elena, when going back to Spain in comfort and culture.    
Then fast forward twenty year later and the bastard returned with Elena and with the idea of turning via those well-off land grant Dons California into an independent republic by stealth and cold hard cash to the Mexican leader Santa Ana, known as a villain in U.S. history via the Alamo and Jimmy Polk’s Mexican War adventure. The one guys like young Abe Lincoln and Henry avid Thoreau couldn’t stomach. Enter a rejuvenated elder Zorro who nevertheless is too old to go mano a mano with the bastard and his hired thugs. Through serious trial and error he trains a new generation Zorro, played by Banderas, to lead the struggle against the returned kingpin oppressor and let the peasantry live off the their lands in some peace. Once our new Zorro finishes his basic training he is off and running to woo the lovely Elena, tweak the bastard, fight a million sword fights, woo the lovely Elena, fight a few million more sword fights, and well you know the “and” part by now. A most satisfying film which only rekindled my love of the sacred youthful character-thanks young and old Zorro.         

Far From The Outlaw Minute-Willie Nelson’s Outlaws And Angels (2004 )-A Musical Film Review

Far From The Outlaw Minute-Willie Nelson’s Outlaws And Angels (2004 )-A Musical Film Review   

DVD Review

By Film Editor Sandy Salmon

Willie Nelson: Outlaws and Angels, starring Willie Nelson and a cast of outlaws like Merle Haggard and angels like Lucinda Williams and everything in between including a retired outlaw like Jerry Lee Lewis, 2004     

I freely admit that as a tough mean city streets New Jersey-bred guy I did not have anything like an “outlaw country music minute” back in early 1980s when traditional country music, Nashville-driven music by the likes of George Jones and say Loretta Lynn ran out of steam. Or out of ideas beyond whiskey nights, faded love, fast cars, fast women and good old boy foolishness. The time when guys like the central figure in this music video Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt and gals like Emmylou Harris and Rachel Farling stepped off that reservation and gave a new definition to the parameters of country music. Brought an updated beat, an update ethos and some quirky twists to the genre. In some cases as well living the real outlaw life, by approximating the free spirit life.        

My admission has a purpose since under normal circumstances I would not review a country music video having neither expertise nor interest in the genre. The only reason I have done so is as a favor to my old friend and fellow film critic from the American Film Gazette Sam Lowell who is my immediate predecessor at this site who actually did have a “outlaw country music minute.” Since he is in retirement and only wishes to review material periodically when something like say the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, 1967 sparks his interest. At least that was the story line he spun when he practically begged me to do this review. (I really think that he just wanted to see the expression “outlaw country music minute” used in a review here like he used to hammer endlessly on the “folk minute” of the early 1969s in a lot of his reviews).

That short flirtation was driven by the musical stalemate of those early 1980s when classic rock and roll had had one of its periodic fallow periods like it had in the late 1950s and Sam was looking for something interesting musically to listen to and maybe drive to wider critical notice. According to Sam he was snagged into the moment not by Willie Nelson but by Townes Van Zandt one night at Jackie Speed’s in of all places Harvard Square in Cambridge. Hardly a known Mecca for country music although well know back in the “folk minute” days of Sam’s blessed memory. He had appreciated Willie as outside the Nashville club (although Nelson had started in traditional 1950s Nashville fashion with Crazy made a big of by the premier woman traditional country singer of the time Patty Cline, who still has the best version of that classic). But something about the painful Van Zandt lyrics and rough-hewn sense of humor appealed to his strictly urban upbringing like there might be a bridge somehow.           

But on to the music DVD. This is the third in a series of Willie Nelson driven DVDs with various themes and various guest singers and hangers-on. This one took place in Los Angeles under the guise of outlaws and angels. The line-up was certainly filled with guys with outlaw reputations like Bob Dylan (who “mailed in” his duet with Willie on the Hank Williams classic “You Win Again” reportedly via YouTube being drunk on stage in the days when he used to drink), legendary Merle Haggard (who passed away in 2016), Kid Rock and Keith Richards among others. And gals like Lucinda William and Ricki Lee Jones who can make the real angels weep for their inadequacies. Overall though other than showing that Willie has a great command of the American (maybe world) songbook most of the performances were unremarkable. Except, and this is a big exception, when the ancient rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis whose prime before that fallow time in the late 1950s previously mentioned who “stole” the show with his two songs. Leave it to a rocker to bail things out. You would grab this one for that performance.          

For The Late Rosalie Sorrels-A Working Class Anthem For Labor Day- " Solidarity Forever"

For The Late Rosalie Sorrels-A Working Class Anthem For Labor Day- " Solidarity Forever"

A YouTube's film clip of Pete Seeger, appropriately enough, performing old Wobblie songwriter Ralph Chaplin's labor anthem, Solidarity Forever. A good song to hear on our real labor holiday, the holiday of the international working class movement, May Day, but even today on this country's consciously competing holiday.

If I Could Be The Rain I Would Be Rosalie Sorrels-The Legendary Folksinger-Songwriter Has Her Last Go-Round At 83

By Music Critic Bart Webber

Back the day, back in the emerging folk minute of the 1960s that guys like Sam Lowell, Si Lannon, Josh Breslin, the late Peter Paul Markin and others were deeply immersed in all roads seemed to lead to Harvard Square with the big names, some small too which one time I made the subject of a series, or rather two series entitled respectively Not Bob Dylan and Not Joan Baez about those who for whatever reason did not make the show over the long haul, passing through the Club 47 Mecca and later the Café Nana and Club Blue, the Village down in NYC, North Beach out in San Francisco, and maybe Old Town in Chicago. Those are the places where names like Baez, Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Collins and a whole crew of younger folksingers, some who made it like Tom Rush and Joni Mitchell and others like Eric Saint Jean and Minnie Murphy who didn’t, like  who all sat at the feet of guys like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger got their first taste of the fresh breeze of the folk minute, that expression courtesy of the late Markin, who was among the first around to sample the breeze.

(I should tell you here in parentheses so you will keep it to yourselves that the former three mentioned above never got over that folk minute since they will still tell a tale or two about the times, about how Dave Van Ronk came in all drunk one night at the Café Nana and still blew everybody away, about catching Paxton changing out of his Army uniform when he was stationed down at Fort Dix  right before a performance at the Gaslight, about walking down the street Cambridge with Tom Rush just after he put out No Regrets/Rockport Sunday, and about affairs with certain up and coming female folkies like the previously mentioned Minnie Murphy at the Club Nana when that was the spot of spots. Strictly aficionado stuff if you dare go anywhere within ten miles of the subject with any of them -I will take my chances here because this notice, this passing of legendary Rosalie Sorrels a decade after her dear friend Utah Phillips is important.)

Those urban locales were certainly the high white note spots but there was another important strand that hovered around Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, up around Skidmore and some of the other upstate colleges. That was Caffe Lena’s, run by the late Lena Spenser, a true folk legend and a folkie character in her own right, where some of those names played previously mentioned but also where some upstarts from the West got a chance to play the small crowds who gathered at that famed (and still existing) coffeehouse. Upstarts like the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips (although he could call several places home Utah was key to what he would sing about and rounded out his personality). And out of Idaho one Rosalie Sorrels who just joined her long-time friend Utah in that last go-round at the age of 83.

Yeah, came barreling like seven demons out there in the West, not the West Coast west that is a different proposition. The West I am talking about is where what the novelist Thomas Wolfe called the place where the states were square and you had better be as well if you didn’t want to starve or be found in some empty arroyo un-mourned and unloved. A tough life when the original pioneers drifted westward from Eastern nowhere looking for that pot of gold or at least some fresh air and a new start away from crowded cities and sweet breathe vices. A tough life worthy of song and homage. Tough going too for guys like Joe Hill who tried to organize the working people against the sweated robber barons of his day (they are still with us as we are all now very painfully and maybe more vicious than their in your face forbear). Struggles, fierce down at the bone struggles also worthy of song and homage. Tough too when your people landed in rugged beautiful two-hearted river Idaho, tried to make a go of it in Boise, maybe stopped short in Helena but you get the drift. A different place and a different type of subject matter for your themes than lost loves and longings.  

Rosalie Sorrels could write those songs as well, as well as anybody but she was as interested in the social struggles of her time (one of the links that united her with Utah) and gave no quarter when she turned the screw on a lyric. The last time I saw Rosalie perform in person was back in 2002 when she performed at the majestic Saunders Theater at Harvard University out in Cambridge America at what was billed as her last go-round, her hanging up her shoes from the dusty travel road. (That theater complex contained within the Memorial Hall dedicated to the memory of the gallants from the college who laid down their heads in that great civil war that sundered the country. The Harvards did themselves proud at collectively laying down their heads at seemingly every key battle that I am aware of when I look up at the names and places. A deep pride runs through me at those moments)

Rosalie Sorrels as one would expect on such an occasion was on fire that night except the then recent death of another folk legend, Dave Von Ronk, who was supposed to be on the bill (and who was replaced by David Bromberg who did a great job banging out the blues unto the heavens) cast a pall over the proceedings. I will always remember the crystal clarity and irony of her cover of her classic Old Devil Time that night -yeah, give me one more chance, one more breathe. But I will always think of If I Could Be The Rain and thoughts of washing herself down to the sea whenever I hear her name. RIP Rosalie Sorrels 

Solidarity Forever
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
For the union makes us strong

When the union's inspiration
through the workers' blood shall run,
There can be no power greater
anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker
than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.

They have taken untold millions
that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power;
gain our freedom when we learn
That the Union makes us strong.

In our hands is placed a power
greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies,
magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
from the ashes of the old
For the Union makes us strong.

This labor anthem was written in 1915 by IWW songwriter and union organizer Ralph Chaplin using the music of Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic. These song lyrics are those sung by Joe Glazer, Educational Director of the United Rubber Workers, from the recording Songs of Work and Freedom, (Washington Records WR460)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Crossing The Color Line-When It Counted-Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Story-Chadwick Boseman’s “42”-(2013)-A Film Review

Crossing The Color Line-When It Counted-Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Story-Chadwick Boseman’s “42”-(2013)-A Film Review

DVD Review
By Laura Perkins
42, starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, 2013
Although the number of female sports reporters, including anchors and such, has grown exponentially since my pre-Title X in college days I admit I have never been a sports fan, never really followed, seriously followed in any case, the subject of the film under review, 42, baseball. Except to vicariously root for the New York Yankees whenever they raised their heads come World Serious times since I grew up around Albany in New York (that “World Serious” expression courtesy of Ring Larner via his You Know Me, Al  stories via Sam Lowell who was, is a baseball nut). That rooting for the Yankees a not unimportant factor in the lives of both Sam and I since we have been long time companions and Sam growing up in North Adamsville south of Boston a rabid Red Sox fan which has led to many an “armed truce” come rivalry time. (I was experienced in “armed truces” well before meeting Sam many years ago since Albany is a “divided” city, or at least my clan was, is between loyalty to Yankees and Sox).   
Since I am not a baseball fan, as defined by Sam and many others-meaning knowing all kinds of arcane information about every aspect of the game how do I wind up getting this assignment. Well let’s get back to Sam, that well-know long time companion who as film editor here back a few years before he retired would routinely do the sport films as they came up like the film adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural starring Robert Redford. Sam and I wound up watching this film not under the baseball hook but under my long-time “crush” on Harrison Ford every since early Star Wars and my interest in seeing Chadwick Bozeman who plays Number 42, Jackie Robinson in something other that comic book super-hero Black Panther.  
After watching the film, as is our wont, Sam’s old-time expression, we discussed the merits of the film. That is where I made my “fatal” mistake. I told Sam who was awash in the glory of seeing the first black man in major league baseball (not capitalizes as now) when major league baseball really was the king of the American pastime day-and later night when the lights came. Robinson helped integrate the sport AND help win the National League pennant for Brooklyn in 1947 AND win Rookie of the Year although the film was not really about baseball. Sure that was the tag line but the real deal was how for blacks since slavery times every step forward was something like a world-historic ordeal, was fought for with blood and guts by a few and then carried on by many. Since Sam had been assigned the film by site manager Greg Green (as he would have been even under recently sacked previous site manager Allan Jackson who was a boyhood friend of Sam’s and fellow baseball nut-Red Sox version) since he told me and Greg that he would have concentrated on the sports angle and somewhat downplayed the racial angle to have me to the review in order to say what I have just said above.
Greg hemmed and hawed for a while since he also is a member in good-standing of the baseball nut fraternity and wanted to highlight the incredible athletic ability and dedication that Jackie Robinson had which he believed added greatly to his ability to withstand the racial taunts and “assorted bullshit” his term, which Robinson had to withstand that first and later seasons for those “crackers,” my term who saw the game as another white preserve. A white preserve just as later, as today for that matter, blacks and others of color have had to break the white preserve on riding buses, voting, housing, employment, education you name it. All things that whites have taken for granted and not given it another thought. I include myself in that category as well.
I will now get off my soapbox since I have said what I wanted to say about my angle on the film and give you as Sam eternally said “the skinny” on the film some of which I have already telegraphed. Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford old time good old boy talking out of the side of his mouth, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, later to be the Los Angeles Dodgers which some of the diehards in Brooklyn have never forgotten or forgiven, for a whole series of reasons personal, professional and business-wise which get a work out in various scenes in the film decided baseball, or at least his team needed to be integrated to be successful and to cater to the fair number of blacks who attended Dodger games. As in the case of Rosa Parks later and others Rickey did not want to get just any black but one that represented the better aspects of the black race. Up steps Jackie Robinson who was playing excellent no money baseball in Negro League dungeons in the South and who would have continued to do so if Rickey hadn’t given him a call. That decision for good or evil would drive the rest of the film except for the off-hand romance interspersed between baseball scenes between Robinson and the woman who would become his wife and mainstay Rachel.            
Obviously, Rickey, and Robinson, knew that what they were facing was a daunting task from confronting those white preserve crowds to fellow baseball players, teammates and opponents, who heated the idea to fellow baseball owners to the Jim Crow conditions which precluded blacks in the South, and in the North too but less publicly blatant from white only facilities. The centerfold on this was Robinson’s grit on and off the field and Rickey’s drive to do the right thing. All of that gets thoroughly vetted throughout the film. Of course the great plays and the marching toward the pennant get worked in as well. Despite Sam’s thrill a minute at the baseball plays this one is a good close look at American sport in a day when football which has replaced baseball as the American pastime is knee-deep in controversy around black players and their allies “taking a knee” and putting a bright spotlight on the role of the police in the black community. What else is new.