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City by the Bay (San Francisco)

Was in San Francisco this past week, one of my favorite cities. Along with Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong it has the most beautiful natural setting of any city in the world, in my opinion. And the light is unlike any city. I don’t know if it’s an effect caused by being so close to, or hemmed in by, the sea, or if it’s some other combination of factors. But it’s distinctive. San Francisco.JPGThe city also possesses a certain grace. The mix of mission style, beaux-arts, and modernist architecture is generally pleasing. The hills, the bridges, the history, the sourdough bread, all combine to make something unique. Every time I leave, I wish I could stay.

My first images of San Francisco came from the film “Bullitt” which I saw on television as a kid. Steve McQueen’s (Detective Frank Bullitt’s) city was cool, period. The Mustang that he drove, of course, was as much of a star as the actor. I remember  my father telling me how he saw the film debut in London, and the management announcing to the audience in advance that it would be halting the film approximately at its mid point for applause. No one understood what they were talking about. Then they watched the car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco and in the hills outside the city. No one had ever seen anything like it before, because no one had ever filmed anything like it before. In my ten-year-old mind it placed Steve McQueen up in the rarefied air inhabited by only Bruce Lee and Sean Connery. The fact that he only was behind the wheel for part of the chase sequence hasn’t diminished the King of Cool’s place there.

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McQueen as “Detective Frank Bullitt” (notice the parked Mustang over his right shoulder)

Later, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s disturbing film “Vertigo” with its depiction of San Francisco in the Fifties. I think no film has ever captured the elegance and chic of the city as beautifully as Hitchcock’s did:  Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio & the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mark, and Lombard Street. The film’s slow, frankly creepy, pace builds to a romantic and psychologically devastating climax and San Francisco and its environs are as much a character in the film as those played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I’ll never forget it.

When I visited San Francisco in 2001, I had my brother practically trace the route of “Vertigo’s” scene sequence. He was patient with me. This time he saved a special treat:  the site overlooking the old Sutro Baths with the Pacific, in all its vastness, beyond. What a view! I recommend the coffee at Louis’, which has the best view.

This morning I had the radio on, and Steve Perry was wearing his heart on his sleeve belting out “Lights” with his band Journey. The song, recorded in 1978, is perhaps the most heartfelt paen to San Francisco ever written. If not as famous as Tony Bennett’s rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or the Summer of Love’s anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by John Phillips, the song Perry and bandmate Neal Schon wrote, to me, says “San Francisco” on a deeper, more emotional level. Though they never refer to it explicitly, the “City by the Bay” is unmistakable in their lyrics.

 

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The Gambino

I was saddened to hear the news today that Oscar Gamble died. My first love in sports was baseball. And my first love in baseball was Bill Veeck’s 1977 “Southside Hitmen” White Sox. Oscar Gamble had a career year that season in Chicago, garnering the nickname the “Gambino” from the local press. The GambinoAlong with fellow slugger Richie Zisk, Gamble helped turn a team that had won a league-worst 64 games the prior season, into a legitimate contender. In fact, in late July, 1977, the White Sox held a 7 and a half game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the American League West. Alas, it didn’t last, but it was a remarkable season nonetheless. They won 90 games and hit 192 homeruns. The latter – in an era before steroids and during the cavernous multi-use sports stadium craze – is particularly impressive. Gamble led the way with 31 homeruns. His distinctive afro and skinny, whiplash swing from the left side of the plate, lent the team style in the age of disco. Bill Veeck, with hardly two nickels to rub together, knew he couldn’t re-sign both Zisk & Gamble after the season. But he hoped he could conjure enough financial magic to at least convince the “Gambino” to stay – convinced that Gamble played better for him than he would for any other owner. But it didn’t happen. the two sluggers cashed in elsewhere on their success. When they left, and when much of the rest of the team left or were traded during the next year, I lost my spark for the White Sox. I embraced the “hometown” Red Sox of the Maine of my youth, instead. But no team ever would seize my imagination like those oddly uniformed White Sox (a cross between the 19th century and the Jetsons) did. And the Gambino uncoiling like a viper to strike fear into the hearts of pitchers across the American League in the golden summer of 1977.

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César Franck

I had the pleasure of attending a matinee concert by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center on Saturday. And it really was a pleasure. I had never been before. I was familiar with some of the music and composers on the program (Ravel, Debussy). It was wonderful hearing Debussy’s Sarabande et Danse (particularly the Sarabande) performed by such accomplished musicians. I was transported, for a moment, somewhere… However, the piece that will always make me think of this concert was by a composer I had never previously heard of, César Franck. Arriving late, the first part of the program had begun:  Franck’s piano quintet. It was strangely moving. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the piece beautifully. He has great talent.

I wondered, reading through the program notes later, how I had never heard of this composer before. But then I recognized that I knew the answer – just because one is a talented painter or writer or composer doesn’t mean that one’s work will reach a wide audience. So much depends on publishers and publicists, gallery owners and agents. Not to mention an often fickle public. And there’s always luck, or lack of it. I think time tends to winnow out those artists whose work, though fashionable or popular in their own times, is mediocre. But what of those who never had the audience their work deserved? Are they all eventually “discovered” by curators with taste? I think not. I wonder sometimes what we’ve missed…

Franck wasn’t obscure – either in his own time, nor ours – but his music is not easily recognizable either. I’m so glad I was there to listen to it.

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trailer for documentary film on Lafayette Escadrille

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Tom Jones in Chicago

A few weeks ago I watched a recording of Tom Jones performing in Chicago on PBS. The concert took place nearly two years ago, on February 12th, 2016. I was blown away. Jones performed a mix of his more recent recordings, and other numbers from his career spanning over fifty years:  Gospel, blues, ballads, and pop. The “pride of Wales” is now in his mid seventies, but his voice is as strong and has as great a range as it did when he was in his twenties. It’s remarkable.

My first exposure to Tom Jones was through my mother. She had a record that she would play when I was a child. I think my father was a little jealous. Jones’s voice and on stage demeanor generated a large female following for his music. The themes of many of his early hits were often romantic, and tragic. “Green, Green Grass of Home” speaks to a universal yearning for an idealized past, and one’s loved ones. But it’s a yearning expressed in the face of an early and violent death. “Delilah” is the lament of a murderer crazed with jealousy begging forgiveness from his dead lover. Jones went in and out of fashion several times over the years, but he has survived and is now thriving in the winter of his years. His 2012 album “Spirit in the Room” was a critical success and presaged the work he’s doing now. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is, perhaps, his most powerful recording since “Green, Green Grass of Home”. His set for Soundstage in the film, begins with “Tower of Song” and then segues into a rollicking gospel number that Jones learned from Elvis Presley. Thoughtful, playful, dark, full of swagger, the variety of songs allow for a full expression of Jones’s talents. Alison Krauss also joins Jones on stage for three duets. She’s a great talent in her own right. The energy on stage is electric. Jones’s backing band is full of accomplished musicians such as Tom West, Neal Pawley, and lead guitarist, Doug Lancio.

It is on the new arrangement of “Delilah” and Jones’s cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” that Lancio’s guitar adds a powerful, almost sinister, edge. This is a liberated Tom Jones. Even his old standard “It’s Not Unusual” has a fresh new sound. The trombone is still there, but its accompanied by an accordion, and quasi-Caribbean percussion from Marco Giovino. As a Jones fan, I can say with absolute conviction that these new versions are superior to the originals. But Tom Jones is still Tom Jones. I admire him taking chances as an artist in his seventies.

 

 

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Twelve Years a Slave: the book

Four years ago I sat alone in a darkened theater in New Jersey watching the film, “Twelve Years a Slave”. It was the late show, but there was still a good crowd. The silence that that film imposed on the audience is fixed in my memory. Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor) had taken a story that had been all but forgotten, and dramatized it in the most uncompromising manner possible. Nothing I had ever read or seen drove home the evils of slavery with such clarity. I knew that the film was based on the memoir of Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped in 1841 in Washington DC and sold into slavery in New Orleans. But I assumed that McQueen had likely taken some artistic license to emphasize certain aspects of his story. It turns out I was mistaken.

Earlier this month I decided to read Northup’s memoir. Published in 1853 soon after his miraculous deliverance from a plantation on Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, the book is remarkably free of vindictiveness. Twelve Years a SlaveHis account is both deeply personal and objective at the same time. Northup recognizes nuance in the civilization of the ante bellum south. There are good people who are essentially trapped in a wicked system, who otherwise are moral beings. And there are bad people made worse by the brutalizing nature of the institution. His remarks on the character development of the young son of his final master, Edwin Epps, is the best analysis I have ever read of how bigotry and violence are learned behaviors. He expresses sympathy for the boy, a talented and bright child; while recognizing the brutalizing effect the lash (whether on the back or in the hand) will have. It’s inevitable. They’re all lost souls.

I give a lot of credit to Steve McQueen for staying true to Northup’s words. If anything, it lends even more power to his dramatization of the story. I think all students should be required to watch the film (albeit with the caveat that they be at least seventeen, or possibly sixteen, years of age ). It is impossible to trivialize slavery and this period in American history after being exposed to Northup’s story. Reading his book only reinforces this.

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On Patriotism

An American flag has been flying from the front porch of our home all day long. I put it up three days each year:  Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and today (Veterans Day). I’ve always felt that it means a little more if it’s only there three days out of the year. Three-hundred and sixty two days out of the year, passersby just see the front porch, unadorned. But on those three days, there it is. I realize a flag is just a piece of cloth or nylon with various symbols on it. I also know that it’s held great significance for people operating in the most trying and desperate of circumstances (the Marines on Mount Suribachi in 1945 come immediately to mind). I honor veterans. I’ll never be a soldier, but I’ve researched and written enough about them to never take their calling lightly. My maternal grandfather, John Elco, served in France in World War I; and my father, the artist David Hanna, served in Laos during the period of the Vietnam War. The former (my grandfather) was a life-long Republican and ardent Reaganite, and my father was, as near as I could tell, a life-long political agnostic (though I do recall him speaking highly of John F. Kennedy). Neither used their military service to further a political agenda. To them, it was something they did, it was important, and it was very personal. Were they patriots? I think each in his own way would fit the definition. But in today’s America, it seems that a more superficial patriotism has gained ascendance.

The controversy over professional football players taking a knee in silent protest against what they perceive as a national sickness of racial injustice, seems to drive many to distraction, if not outright hysterics. My purpose in writing this post is not to evaluate the merits of the protesters’ position. Rather, I am interested in the genuine feeling of patriotism as opposed to its external display, or gestures. Those protesting are exercising their right of free speech, or, in a larger sense, their liberty of conscience. The First Amendment is pretty explicit on the point:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I think in a larger, more abstract, sense, this is what my grandfather and father were fighting for. If those players want to take a knee, let them. It’s literally their right. Furthermore, what sort of demonstration of patriotism would it be if they’re forced to stand? I know for myself I would rather, if in a room of twenty people, stand with just three others that genuinely share my solidarity with a country or a cause etc. than stand with 19 others who do it as unthinking routine, or worse yet, who are bullied and shamed into doing so. That sort of patriotism isn’t genuine. It’s nothing but a forced show of false unity. You’ve got to believe. No one can make you believe.

Do I believe? I must admit, my patriotism has taken a bit of a beating since last year’s presidential campaign and election, and in the months since. I think to a certain degree this has been a healthy thing for me personally. I’m an American. But that’s more than a government.

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