Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Irving Berlin has nothing to do with you or me.

So this ran in SPIN back in the day, as an Editor's Note. As if it weren't odd enough to get paid to write about Irving Berlin. In an issue with Belinda Carlisle on the cover (hilarious depressing tales behind that one) and full of features about Poison and Tracy Chapman, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Michael Hurley, Big Pig, and a ton more, with Johnny Cash, LL Cool J, Megadeth, and Soul Asylum all co-starring in the Special Summer Swimsuit Special. With accompanying guide to summer vacations in the US that guided you to The World's Largest Tire, and Einstein's Brain; plus, there was a map to Europe that declared where all the Taco Bells and Elvis Presley museums were. Which is to say, I keep realizing, that as much as SPIN drove all of us all crazy all the time, we were trying to get everything in there. Including, swear to God, Irving Berlin.

Irving Berlin has nothing to do with you or me, nothing at all. Just an old, old man from a time too far gone to bear the slightest resemblance to our own, Irving Berlin was last month's brief cultural news item, worthy of a USA Today cover sketch, deserving of 100th birthday wishes and a warm wink from the hostette of Entertainment Tonight, recipient of all manner of mass media graciousness, despite his pointed lack of participation, despite his unwillingness to create the most minimal of photo opportunities. The achievement under question wasn't the music but the extraordinary length of the man's life.  The length of his life is exactly what Irving Berlin lived to regret.

Irving Berlin and his music are so far away from us, so remote from our own dull and thrilling end of the century. Years and years before the birth of the Beatles, or of Nike footwear, Berlin quashed all requests to use his tunes to pimp products, a curious stance for a man who'd begun as the brassiest of Tin Pan Alley song pluggers, desperate to devise new ways of getting a song sung on a stage — any stage — in hope of a hit. Hits sold sheet music in those days, not CDs, and the difference is huge, undeniable, impossible to bridge.

His first hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band." It was the work of a white man, a Jew, imitating a black style a good number of years after the black style's early innovations, at a time when white audiences were still less than receptive to the black practitioners of the style. The music bore no resemblance whatsoever to, say, the Beastie Boys.

Unlike most songwriters of our own era, Irving Berlin never learned to read music and was forced to rely on the crutch of technology in order to create. He could only play the piano in the key of F sharp, but with a special transposing piano, a mechanical device allowed him to switch keys. A pitchbending synthesizer with built-in rhythm settings and sampling capabilities is light-years away from so crude a contraption, and guitarists who rely on capos are invariably much closer to being true aesthetes than the uncouth likes of Irving Berlin.

The streets of his youth were cluttered by petty criminals and ruled by organized crime. The world of his lifetime was dominated by war and rumors of war, swept by an unfailing tide of fear and hope, and powerful joy. He was virtually the Anti-Morrissey, the veritable Jonathan Richman of his time, a relentless optimist through decade after decade of depression and despair. Born at the onset of modernism, contemporary to the greatest tragedies of history, he failed to understand that mankind was doomed to suffer, to wallow in gloom, to wear the most existentially profound of black wardrobes and stare glumly into cold cafe au lait. Instead, when he suffered profoundly after the shocking death of his new wife, he addressed his wounds frankly, he made light of his life, and he moved on. He wrote "Blue Skies." He had nothing to do with our time.

He began insinuating himself — a white man, a Jew, a Russian, an immigrant, a near-illiterate — into Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville, into a culture that was aping the culture of the black people it feared. As only the greatest of bluesmen ever do, he found a voice that was his own, a distinctly American voice that sang through the mouth of others, of millions of others. As vaudeville was destroyed by the movies and as movies found a voice and began to sing, he stayed in style. As Broadway grew ambitious and artful, as the world lurched from war to war, as show business died and moved to Las Vegas, Irving Berlin stayed in style. Through not just one generation but a half dozen, he remained in vogue. And then he lived a little too long, and all of us grew wiser than he was. Maybe living past your time is worse than a sin. Maybe we'll all get lucky and it'll never happen to any of us.

(Addendum: for a few years in a row, every few weeks or so, I'd been calling the offices of Irving Berlin Music and speaking to Mr. Berlin's longtime secretary, Hilda Schneider, continuing to ask for an opportunity to to speak with the man himself. She was pleasant but firm; I'd try to chat her up.   She'd seen, apparently, the likes of me before. No dice, damn it. But let it be said; I was getting paid to do this — well, and a few other things, like ignore the phone calls from all the West Coast publicists for record labels who were trying to beat their East Coast counterparts at getting their label's own Latest & Greatest on the cover and wedging ol' Belinda Carlisle off of it. I don't know that I was ever smart enough to suggest that if Irving Berlin would give us an exclusive interview, we'd put Hilda Schneider on the cover . . . but the thing to be said about SPIN is that we might have. )

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Irene Kuo's "The Key to Chinese Cooking" considered yet again

I've been thinking yet again of  The Key To Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo. I've quoted from it before, and God willing, insh'Allah, I'll quote from it again. But this quote is not from the book — it's from the book's jacket. I like it tremendously. And I'm betting that it's the work of Judith Jones, the estimable Alfred A. Knopf editor who commissioned Madame Kuo's book, and who was the editor of Julia Childs' The Art of French Cooking.

"It is impossible to do more than suggest the richness and clarity of this book. Everything is here — every piece of information you need about planning, buying, preparing, cooking, timing, serving, menu suggestions, etc.  Irene Kuo is at your side. Open to any page and you will immediately recognize the true and unmistakable voice of someone who knows how, and knows how to make you know how. "

And then, immediately below, the only photo of Irene Kuo I've ever seen, cleaver in classic chopping hold — as opposed to cutting or mincing or shredding or smashing holds, all of which her mighty book describes, counsels, and prescribes according to need. She's right-handed, and because the photo is black & white, I'm only guessing that her nails are lacquered red to match the book's original dust cover, red for joy, red for good fortune, red for fire, red for luck.  

Queen Of The New Frontier

Maybe the Civil Rights Movement, just like Davy Crockett, was born on a mountain-top in Tennessee. Maybe Mona Lisa's smile is over-rated.

In December, 1955, when Mrs. Rosa Parks was escorted off a Montgomery, Alabama bus, a radio, if there was a radio on the police station desk,  would have played, smack dab in and amongst all the Christmas carols, that year's massive hits: "The Yellow Rose Of Texas," "Sixteen Tons," and, yes, "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett." A 42-year-old Alabama seamstress, another day older and deeper in debt,and like that fabled Yella Rose, a light-skinned black woman, Mrs. Parks chose to go against her husband's best advice. She turned Montgomery and then America — the real and actual America, not any of the many Americana versions, and certainly not Frontierland— into a truly wild new frontier. Five years later , John F. Kennedy would trail behind her, and behind Disney's Davy Crockett as well, in declaring the whole country, all of the United States, "A New Frontier."

The Marshal of Tombstone (from the Washington Post (excerpt)

The marshal of Tombstone reaches down to his gun belt, runs his hand over the black leather loops that hold the cartridges in an orderly row. His dry fingers push bullets up against the loop, six of them, one after another. One after another, he pushes six bullets down.  
The squad cars are parked with their bumpers backed up to the gate of the OK Corral, ready to roll. The southern Arizona sun is rising but the morning is still cool and quiet — maybe too quiet.

from the Washington Post, August 31, 1897 (oops, 1987)

Jimmy Stewart — The Real Thing

by Bart Bull
published in Vogue (excerpt)

On the wall nearby is a precisely rendered watercolor of a red-brown horse, a little swaybacked with age, standing alone outside a weathered stable. He gets up, stands to gaze at Henry Fonda’s painting of Pie, the horse Stewart rode in movie after movie. “This is when he was — he had to be, had to be twenty-eight years old. Half quarter-horse, half Arabian. I rode him for twenty years. Hank Fonda did this on his days off, and I didn’t know anything about it. That was Pie.” They were making Cheyenne Social Club,  and the air was too thin for the old horse, the altitude too high. “He couldn’t make it. He couldn’t make it.”

Staring at a friend’s portrait of another friend, he can’t help but admire it once more. Fonda and Stewart were practically the last of their generation, and now there’s just one of them left. But there’s more to it than that. “This friendship with Fonda over the years was tremendous. I valued it so much. Tremendous friendship, tremendous admiration for him. He was good at his job if anybody was ever good at his job. It was a terrible thing to lose him. Which happens so much, you know. I think about it every once in a while — I try not to think about it. I’ve lost so many — I’ve lost so many people. You think of somebody and then you think, ‘When did she die?’”

The rims of his eyes go moist, nearly wet, not quite. Not quite. He won’t cry, not here, to be observed and written about in a magazine. Instead, he speaks, quickly now, to distract himself. “But Fonda was a wonderful, close friend.”   The eyes contain.

Now he’s the last one left, the last star of his era. He doesn’t know why it’s worked out that way, and clearly it bothers him, confuses him just a little. When he was headed off to England during the war, his father slipped the Ninety-first Psalm into his hand — “For He shall give His angels charge over thee. . .” and maybe that helps explain it some, but it’s hard not to wonder. His last movie was made half a decade ago, but even as the unseen voice on the current Campbell’s soup ads, he moves miles past the typical too-sweet lemonade commercial grandfather, lulling us with that querulous voice and then always adding more edge than we could expect. If he were sent the right script, something he could sink his teeth into, would he be ready to do another picture?

“Sure,” he answers. Not a moment’s hesitation, none of his legendary pauses. “Sure.” No stammer, no stutter. “Sure. Sure.”

He considers a moment. “Can’t play cowboys anymore.”

Black Desire — A Love Story, At Home, With Family

The French can rock.  Just ask them: they'll blast Noir Désir. Then, over the crashing, clashing, clanging guitars, the bludgeoned butcher-block beats, the squawling, the howling, amidst and across all that cigarette smoke, they'll tell how the singer beat his movie-star girlfriend to death.

Before Bertrand Cantat came along, France longed desperately for a Jim Morrison of its very own. Cantat more than fit the role: pop culture poet, pure, political, primitive, pissed off, pug-nosed, pretty. 
En plus, he's also a convicted killer, the kind who beats his girlfriend into a coma, the kind of coma where she dies. And Marie Trintignant did just that, on August 1, 2003, four days after she took her beating. She was 41, an exceptionally accomplished actress, and yet a bit of a rebel, in that hushed, privileged, bourgeois-French kind of way. Her father, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is a famous actor as well; Nadine Trintignant, her mother, a famous director. Marie was classically pretty but she was also sexy, sensual, sultry,  perhaps a wee bit insane. Watching her on screen you were wary and slightly afraid, even a little excited to see what she might do next. What she did next, on location in Lithuania, playing the part of Colette in one of her mother's films, was get savagely beaten to death in her own hotel room by France's own rock 'n' roll Rimbaud. 

She'd fallen on the radiator, he said. It was one of his least poetic lines.

Cantat served four years of an eight-year sentence — if they don’t exactly get off scot-free in France, poet-geniuses are at least cut some signicant slack . . . and who could deny that making the French language rock is anything short of genius? In January of this year, a little over three years after he got out, Bertrand was at the home of a former girlfriend, mother of his two kids, the one he'd left for Marie. The two talked, visited, went to bed. Sometime in the night, while he was sleeping, Cantat’s lover committed suicide – it was one of the children who found her the next morning in the kitchen, hanging from a cord.

Since the night when Bertrand Cantat beat Marie Trintignant’s face so hard that her entire body eventually succumbed, there has been almost no news from France’s biggest rock band. Back when Cantat was still in jail, rumors ran rife that he was writing songs in his cell, that he was being let out on day passes to join the rest of Noir Désir in the studio. There were those two free downloads the band issued not long after Cantat’s release, but aside from that, nothing much, not much at all. There was a deal, though —in the music business, there are always deals. After he'd cut a deal with authorities — his newly-adjusted parole includes the right to travel, and the right to speak freely of Trintignant — Cantat and the rest of his crew cut another deal, this time with their record label. Three albums. To be delivered before even the French quit purchasing CDs.

Bertrand Cantat’s first stage appearance 
apres prison took place the first weekend of October at an idyllic festival in his home district of Bordeaux. He was performing not with his own band — they've remained deathly silent — but with the ultra-predictably-named Eiffel. Announced at the last minute, all France was alerted. His first words? "Ah, ca fait plaisir, en plus a la maison et en famille." "It's a pleasure to be at home, and with family."  Then he went on to encore with  "I'm the world's forgotten boy.....the one who's searching to destroy..." from Iggy and the Stooges.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Burg(h)ers of France

Back in 1997, Burger King abandoned France but the French, no matter their reputation, never retreated from le Whopper.

Numerous petitions claiming not less than 30,000 signatures demanding Burger King's return.  Louis the XVII would have settled for less, for such popular support for a monarchy.

Does it help or does it hurt to know that the second most prominent burger chain in France, McDonald's is massive, and that the non-burger-vending KFC — still known as "Kentucky" —  is pretty mega-major too?  Does it confound or confuse or confabulate to know that the biggest burger chain in all of France, Quick (prounced Quee-eeek, mon ami) is actually owned by the French government?   (It concerns anyone sensible, French or otherwise, that every time Quick cross-promotes with the latest Spiderman movie, the ads always pronounce it "Speeder-Man," thus forever damaging fresh new French generations.)

Meanwhile, burgers here, as purchased raw and pre-formed at le Supermarche, arrive oval-shaped.  Don't ask me why — and also especially  don't ask me, s'il vous plait, why once you cook 'em, they shrink proportionately, or disproportionately, until they're miraculously round. It's kind of amazing, and kind of concerning and kind of disconcertingly magical all in the same instant.  I can offer you no answer as to what's up with that, much less what the hell it means.  In any case, an ambitious young Parisian created what must inevitably be called a Hip-Hopera,  perhaps even a Whoppera, an all-singing, all-dancing rejoicing en la rue that explores the devastating departure of Burger King, and then, in the happy tradition of musicals everywhere, serves up as a last-act the triumphant romantic return of the Whopper.

And, in the tribal dancing tradition of such power-of-positive-thinkers as the Cargo Cultists of Melenesia and of Donald Trump, it worked!  Burger King established a beachhead not at Normandy but at Marseilles, plotting a return invasion that would once again liberate France, would relieve le Resistance, would restore its monarchy.  As of yet, however, there is no Burger King at Versailles.