As friends of Harvey Pekar and his wife and frequent writing partner Joyce Brabner, my wife and I have been gratified to see the attention Harvey’s death has received in the printed press and all over the web. But in addition to being gratified, we’ve been surprised. The attention is deserved. But she and I agree that Harvey would have been stunned by the amount of it. Make no mistake, Harvey was no shrinking violet; he wasn’t one of those writers who was “only about the work,” to the exclusion of caring how his work was received and by how many. He derived pleasure from the attention his work brought him; he thrived on the crowds that showed up for his lectures, readings and book signings; he enjoyed that the movie American Splendor opened up new audiences to him. But I don’t think he dreamt that as many people cared about him as actually did, or that his impact on the culture was as large as the sheer number of obituaries and other commentaries about his passing testify to.
When Harvey appeared on David Letterman’s show several times twenty-some years ago, he and Joyce would ask us to call them in their New York hotel room that night to give them the view from out there in televisionland. I confess that on the night he confronted Letterman with the war-making sins of General Electric (parent of NBC, Letterman’s network at the time), I cringed. I knew he had burned his bridges, and that most of the viewing audience along with the studio audience and Letterman had turned on him. I suppose I said something fairly anodyne to him that night, along the lines of “wow, that was gutsy,” but I thought Harvey hadn’t been wise. Now, watching the video of that appearance on YouTube in the light of Harvey’s passing, I see it differently. I see it as an amazing act of courage. The fact that that sort of thing still doesn’t happen on television only makes it more heroic in retrospect. It stands out as a singular moment of bravery in broadcast history.
The New York Times has a good obituary on Harvey. It’s sort of ironic, because he was always trying to get pieces into that paper. He succeeded once or twice, but I remember lots of conversations with him telling me how they were jerking him around, delaying publication on something of his or canceling it altogether, not paying him on time, not returning his phone calls, etc. I don’t think he would find any particular revenge-gratification in how they’re honoring him now, I think he would simply be pleased. “Hey man, The New York Times. Not bad, huh?,” I can hear him say. He knew he was somewhat famous, he knew he had fans, but I don’t think he knew just how much he meant to people and to the culture. I would like to believe that wherever he is, he knows it now.
People used to say Ringo Starr was a bad drummer. I could never see this. Technically, maybe he didn’t have all the refinement of Buddy Rich, but that simple, foursquare yet swinging beat of his made The Beatles sound the way they did. With any other drummer, they wouldn’t have been The Beatles. And, since the Beatles’ sound was perfect, it follows that Ringo was perfect.
When Mad Men first began, January Jones struck me as an actress of limited technique. I always liked her, but she seemed stiff in a way that I equated with a lack of range or dynamics. But as the show progressed, I began to see that since the show was perfect, January Jones must be playing Betty Draper exactly right. Mad Men would never have been Mad Men with anyone else.
This especially hit home during the big confrontation scene in Sunday night’s episode, in which Betty forces Don to talk to her about his secret past. While watching this, I had the thought, “If January Jones has limited technique, how come this scene is so incredibly powerful?!? What the hell is she doing that is making me buy this scene so completely?” I still don’t know.
My provisional conclusion is that January Jones is a fantastic actress. Just one whose fantasticness doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen before, so we’re not accustomed to it, and can’t fit it into a mold of what we think “good acting” is supposed to look and sound like.
One of the great radio broadcasters of all time is back on the air. Well, “air,” if podcasts count. Steve Dahl. I’ve listened to the first podcast (which was Tuesday — he does a new hour from his home basement studio every weekday) and he sounds to me in great form after a forced hiatus from FM. (CBS is paying him to sit out his contract for another couple of years — nice work if you can get it.)
There is no one to whom I could listen do nothing but sit and talk at me on the radio for an hour but Steve Dahl. There once was someone else — his name was Jean Shepherd, and he had a nightly radio show on New York AM station WOR in the late sixties and early seventies that I used to pull in from Philadelphia when I was in college. You’ve probably seen the movie of Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. Shepherd was a brilliant monologist, and so is Dahl. True, Dahl bounces off a couple of studio lackeys that he keeps around for the purpose, while Shepherd gave the impression of being in the studio alone, but I don’t take points off for that.
He talks about issues in his personal life that are bugging him, what he finds funny, the absurdity of the day’s news, his own considerable flaws, whatever. Sure, he’s witty, and there’s little enough of that on the airwaves, but it’s how wit is combined with realness that sets Dahl apart. You never feel he’s pulling punches, but you never feel he’s saying anything for effect, either. When you listen to Dahl, you hear a person, and you feel you may know him better than his own family does. The honesty is so vivid, it puts all else on the radio into relief; you realize that everyone else is faking it.
If art exists to imitate life — if all the arts, on some level, are about creating a recognizable analog of life — then Dahl is a rare artist whose medium is the extemporaneously spoken word. Over time, using only the sound of his voice, he has created a fully-formed realization of a man called Steve Dahl, who lives with you in your car, sits beside you in your office, or hangs out with you in your kitchen. He does have one disciple, a 10-to-midnight weekend guy on WGN-AM named Nick Digilio, who is the best younger hope for radio. When Dahl is ready to hang it up, Digilio (whose intelligence any Dahl fan will immediately recognize) will assume the mantle. Other than Digilio, there’s no one else. I hope Dahl takes care of himself, and lives healthy, because I don’t want him to die before I do.
He’s not a “shock jock,” because he knows that shocking people is easy, and he’s set his sights higher than that. It must be that being yourself on the radio is the hardest thing to do, judging from how few have done it.
You can find the podcast on iTunes, or at Dahl.com.
What causes someone to start a blog? Good question. Here’s an even better one: What causes someone to abandon a blog after making exactly one post? This is the question examined by the blog One Post Wonder, which harvests the work of bloggers who, apparently, were able to say it all, all at once.
It’s an optical illusion! Just one of many cool ones to be found here.
We all stuff our faces on Thanksgiving, but not like this. Enjoy this new facepainting o’ the season from our friend, mad genius/artist James Kuhn. Happy Turkey Day, everyone!
For the last year or so, our friend, artist James Kuhn, who lives in Three Oaks, Michigan, has been painting his face. Every single day. And doing it differently each day. As you can see, his face paintings are remarkable — in some cases his face is hard to see under the painting, but it’s there, all right. Sometimes he uses one of his own facial features (an eye, an ear, whatever) to represent an analogous feature in the artwork. Sometimes he completely obscures his own features. It’s trompe-l’oeil brought home — as close to home as you can get, taking the part of the body that most individuates us as humans and utterly transforming it (not just decorating it) through art.
You can see all of James’ facework at his Flickr site.
Madman or genius? I think I’ll go with mad genius. I hope he won’t think that’s two-faced of me.
In New York about a week ago, we toured the Borough of Queens (led by our intrepid guides, and friends, Neill and Donna), and a highlight was our visit to Louis Armstrong’s house. A modest single-family home in a neighborhood of such, it has been available to tour since 2003. You’ll find it in the section called Corona (where Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz musicians, also lived), at 34-56 107th Street. Armstrong lived there with his wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971.
I have toured the homes of the great and the near-great (including the Hyde Park residences of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, separately, Eleanor Roosevelt), but never before have I been in a house in which one could feel the presence of the former occupant as vividly as one can feel Armstrong’s in this one.
One reason is that Armstrong was fascinated with the tape recorder, and took many opportunities to record mundane and not-so-mundane events in his house. These recordings have been archived, and when you go through the house, you get to hear recordings that were made in the very rooms you’re in. Stand in the dining room, and the young neighborhood lad leading the tour flicks a switch, and you are hearing Louis and Lucille have a dinnertime conversation of no particular consequence. Ah, but stand in Louis’ study, and the flick of the switch plays for you an a cappella vocal recording he made in that very study, singing “Blueberry Hill.” It is a wonderful performance—and one that only those who tour the house will ever get to hear. His having made that private recording in the very room in which you stand makes you feel his spirit.
Why did he make that recording? It certainly wasn’t a rehearsal. He’d had a hit record with the song already. I guess he was just playing with his new toy, the tape recorder. But it is a fine, fully-committed performance of “Blueberry Hill,” maybe the finest you will ever hear, ending with the trademark-Satchmo scatting.
Correction: Scott Merrell of the Songbirds List points out that the Louis Armstrong House is not the only place to hear the a cappella “Blueberry Hill” recording Louis made on the Tandberg tape recorder built into the wall of his study. (As a tangent, I noticed, for you hi-fi buffs out there, that there are two Tandberg tape decks built into that wall, side by side, but one is a playback-only deck.) The following press release came out this year from Queens College, City University of New York:
CORONA, NY, July 31, 2008—Never-before-released recordings of the renowned Louis Armstrong, including legendary radio broadcasts and excerpts from Armstrong’s home-recorded tapes, are now available on a two-CD set from Jazz Heritage Society.
Disc One features the finest performances from a historic series of radio broadcasts. From April to May 1937, Louis Armstrong was the guest host of Rudy Vallee’s Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour, one of the most popular shows on radio. Armstrong was the first African-American to host a national network variety show—one of his many “firsts.”
In 1987, four years after Lucille Armstrong’s passing, David Gold, Executor of the Armstrong Estate and President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, selected Queens College to be the repository of Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s vast collection of memorabilia. Discovered in the archives were 18 fragile acetate discs of the legendary 1937 Fleishmann’s Yeast broadcasts. The recordings have now been meticulously remastered by Doug Pomeroy, a notable audio engineer who specializes in historic jazz recordings.
Disc Two provides insight into Louis Armstrong’s private moments. Carefully stored by Lucille Armstrong in Satchmo’s den were 650 reels of home-recorded tape. One of Louis Armstrong’s favorite hobbies was recording into his Tandberg tape deck—he would simply push the “record” button, visiting with fans and friends, at home or backstage, or while practicing his trumpet. Excerpts from Louis Armstrong home-recorded tapes on the CD include Pops singing and playing “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Blueberry Hill” a cappella.
Louis also reminisces about Bix Beiderbecke and Big Sid Catlett. Louis describes in great detail the early decades of his career and—of immense delight for jazz enthusiasts—plays trumpet along with a 78 RPM recording of “Tears” (a disc he made in 1923 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band).
The two-CD set—conceived of and authorized by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation—comprises more than one hour of Armstrong’s performance with his big band, more than one hour of excerpts from Armstrong’s home-recorded tapes, illuminating notes by Dan Morgenstern (an NEA Jazz Master who has received seven Grammy Awards for liner notes and two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for best writing on jazz), and rare photos from the collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
This set, released by Jazz Heritage Society, is currently available on CD exclusively via retail at www.JazzStore.com, and via membership in the Jazz Heritage Society at www.jazzheritage.org . Visitors to the Louis Armstrong House Museum can purchase the CD at the Museum’s shop.
On August 12, this unique recording will be available digitally at iTunes, and on August 19 all digital downloading sites worldwide will be authorized to sell this title. (Note: many international sites will determine their own release date.)
For review copies, please contact Greg Barbero at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a preview of this release, visit: www.jazzstore.com/stash/louis-armstrong/index.php
Incidentally, for those who want to reach the Louis Armstrong House by train from Manhattan, satchmo.net provides these directions:
Take the 7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza. Walk north on 103rd Street. After two blocks, turn right onto 37th Avenue. Walk four short blocks, and then turn left onto 107th Street. The Louis Armstrong House is on the left, 1/2 block north of 37th Avenue. The exact address is 34-56 107th Street.
Olive Riley, the world’s oldest blogger, passed away on July 12.
You can read her 74 blog posts here.
Olive’s passing probably doesn’t make me the official titleholder of World’s Oldest Blogger now. Hey, let’s face it, she had fifty years on me. I’m kind of young, in those terms! I might have fifty years of blogging still ahead of me, and, doing the math, I might be at most middle-aged!
But I’ve moved up one.
It is impossible to be in London, looking at Westminster Abbey and the tower Big Ben,
and not have Roger Miller’s catchy ditty wrap itself around your brain with the tenacity of a boa constrictor crossed with Hillary Clinton.
And the little children really do have rosey-red cheeks! As incontrovertibly proved by this artist’s rendering.