Category Archives: Obits

Philip Roth, the last of the literary lions of the ’60s

At least, I don’t think there are any left… Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, John Updike… who’s missing?

Anyway, Philip Roth’s gone now, too.Philip_Roth_-_1973

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. I had read and largely loved most of what Tom Wolfe had ever published, so he meant more to me.

I think all I ever read by Roth was “Goodbye Columbus.” That was pretty good, but not exactly something that set my mind on fire the way, say, Catch-22 did. I think I liked some of the other stories in that collection better, such as “The Conversion of the Jews.” So I appreciate that one writer eulogized him as being “forever the little boy on the roof threatening to jump, forcing the Rabbi into an apology.” Nicely said, especially since it’s an allusion I actually get.

But I never heard anything about Portnoy’s Complaint that made me want to read it. (Of course, I never heard much about it that rose above the level of a dirty joke.) Maybe I should. You know, to have a better grasp on the serious literature of my time, the way I made myself read a couple of Updike’s “Rabbit” books, to be better in touch with the alienation and discontent of my generation and yadda-yadda.

Or maybe not. I had a pretty happy childhood, and have only ever had a limited appetite for disaffected moral aridity. Thoughts?

Or anything else you’d like to say about Roth? I’m outta ammo…

Goodbye, Columbus: I not only read the book, but saw the film. I'll say this for it: If forced to watch an Ali McGraw movie, I'd rather see this than "Love Story."

Goodbye, Columbus: I not only read the book, but saw the film. I’ll say this for it: If forced to watch an Ali MacGraw movie, I’d rather see this than “Love Story.” That’s about as far as I can go with it. I liked Benjamin better in “Catch-22.”

Ranking the Bonds (a Roger Moore memorial post)

Accept no substitutes, unless you're forced to.

Accept no substitutes, unless you’re forced to.

In breaking the news about his death this morning, The Guardian called Roger Moore “the suavest James Bond.”

The way I think of Moore.

The way I think of Moore.

OK. Maybe. I’d say Pierce Brosnan comes close, though.

The thing is, personally, I never quite accepted Moore as Bond, even though he played the part in more films than anyone. I thought of him as “The Saint.” Part of the problem in accepting him as 007 is that he had the rotten luck of following Sean Connery, who of course defined the role.

All of this is to build up to a Top Five List, in this case ranking the Best Bonds. Yes, I know; it’s been done to death. But it’s the first way I could think of to mark the passing of Simon Templar.

So here goes:

  1. Sean Connery. Yes, I know: It’s like picking the Beatles as “best pop group.” Barry in “High Fidelity” would sneer at me for being so obvious. But it’s not even close. He was Bond when Bond was cool — in the Mad Men, Playboy magazine era when wearing the right tux, drinking the right martini and having as many beautiful women as possible was fashionable, even praiseworthy. He wore his hyper-masculine image with just the right bit of irony, at a time when we boomers weren’t old enough to realize what a joke it was. Austin Powers showed us that, much later. (If you go back and watch the Connery films now, you’ll see Mike Myers wasn’t changing or exaggerating the details at all; the films really were that ridiculous.)
  2. Daniel Craig, particularly in “Casino Royale,” essentially an “origin story.” He’s the roughest, least-suave Bond, to the point that you’re a bit surprised to find out (in “Skyfall”) that he was of the landed gentry. He’s what you might suppose a guy with a License to Kill would be in real life — an ex-SAS ruffian who, if he showed up in a John le Carre novel (which he probably wouldn’t), would be confined to Scalphunters down in Brixton (think of the marginal character Fawn in Tinker Tailor and The Honourable Schoolboy).
  3. Roger Moore. He played the part loyally and with good humor for all those years, and if nothing else kept the franchise warm while we waited for another Connery to come along (which did not, and likely will not, ever happen). His was always the likable Bond, with the obvious question arising: Do we want Bond to be likable?
  4. Timothy Dalton. OK, so his films aren’t that memorable, and he only played Bond in one more film than that dabbler George Lazenby. But I thought he had a decent presence for the part, even though it was insufficiently explored. He’s the Bond we hardly knew.
  5. Pierce Brosnan. I hesitate to include him, since he brought so little to the part that I’m having trouble remembering the titles of the ones he played in. But I have to have five. The main thing I remember about the Brosnan films was that a BMW Z3 starred in one of them.

That’s my list. Your thoughts?

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?

singin

I had this rough impression over the past day that, while the death of Debbie Reynolds got pretty good play in the news, it was mostly because she died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And while this may be an erroneous impression, it seemed that the play on Debbie was front-pagish, but the passing of Carrie got centerpiece treatment on the news sites I saw.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, but back in her day, it seems to me that Debbie Reynolds was by far the bigger star. Look at the starring roles she’s known for: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “How the West was Won,” “The Singing Nun,” to mention the most obvious. All pretty much boffo at the box office. And her performance of “Tammy” topped the pop charts in September of 1957.

Some of those things were a bit early for me. “Singin’ in the Rain” was released the year before I was born, and I thought of it as an oldie that occasionally appeared on TV. But I remember the later ones, and I grew up thinking of Debbie Reynolds as a big, established movie star, like, I don’t know… say, the woman who stole her husband away, Elizabeth Taylor. (And what did she have going for her, that a kid would have seen, besides “National Velvet?” She was better known for her tabloid lifestyle with Richard Burton, who stole her away from Debbie’s husband.)

Whereas Carrie is, let’s face it, Princess Leia. But to my kids, and people younger, that’s as big as it gets — maybe bigger than being Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” back in my parents’ day. It made her an icon. My elder son invited a girl from school over to play when he was about 6 purely in the hope that he might persuade her to do her long hair up in those braided side buns. She didn’t go for it, so that was a bust. The fascination never left him, or any of us, I suppose.

To me, “Star Wars” was wonderful — I actually reviewed the movie in The Jackson Sun when it came out, and the review was enthusiastic. I remember it grabbed me so that when I was driving home afterward in my orange Chevy Vega, I had to keep shaking off the feeling that I was flying an X-Wing, trying to get into position to blow up the Death Star.

And I was, more or less, a grownup. So I can see how irresistible the pull was for kids. And we all enjoyed seeing her back in “The Force Awakens.”

The accolades for her went on about how in later years she had become an accomplished author, etc. And feminists said things like how much more they liked her as the mature “General Morgana” rather than the enticingly nubile princess. But let’s face it, folks. We cared because she was Princess Leia, period. And I doubt that that’s just true of us boys.

Oh we enjoyed seeing her play a supporting role in “When Harry Met Sally,” and we emitted delighted cries of recognition at her cameos in “The Blues Brothers” and “Austin Powers.” But even then, John Belushi and Mike Myers totally stole those scenes.

As a movie star, as one who got leading roles, she was Princess Leia, period. And don’t get me wrong — I honor her for it.

And maybe that’s enough to overshadow her mother, even though to musical fans, “Singin’ in the Rain” is pretty iconic. Interesting that both of them made the films for which they’d most be remembered when they were 19…

Anyway, I found the comparison interesting, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from either of them. Rest in Peace, ladies…

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

John Glenn always gave his country 110 percent

astronaut_john_glenn_in_a_state_of_weightlessness_during_friendship_-_gpn-2002-000075

See how I didn’t use, “Godspeed, John Glenn?” I wanted to, but I figured everyone else would…

John Glenn was one of my heroes, but that says nothing special about me, except that I was a kid when the Mercury Seven — of which he was the most illustrious, the most conspicuous — were wowing the nation with their exploits. I remember being herded into the auditorium with the rest of my 3rd-grade class to watch him orbit the Earth, as it happened, on a medium-sized black-and-white TV that had been wheeled in for the occasion.800px-colonel_john_glenn_official_photo

Later, The Right Stuff made me admire him all the more, even though Wolfe made it clear how low the astronauts were on the Test Pilot Pyramid (“A monkey’s gonna make the first flight!”). When he ran for president in 1984, he was the guy I wanted to see take it all. I couldn’t believe he did no better than he did; I chalked it up to a decline in the national character.

An anecdote that illustrates Glenn as an exemplar of old-fashioned virtues: In the book, Tom Wolfe really played up Glenn’s status as the most gung-ho, straight-shooting, hard-working, unapologetic advocate of duty and clean living in the astronaut corps. One small example of how meticulously conscientious he was: Whenever he went on a goodwill tour of one of the factories that were building the components of the Mercury rockets and capsules, within days he would send hand-written thank-you notes to everybody he had met at the plant.

I never met Glenn myself, but early in 1984, his daughter made a visit to Jackson, Tenn., where I was the news editor of the local paper. She came by the paper and met with us, advocating for her dad, and before she left, I put on another hat and asked her whether there was any chance of getting John himself to come speak at the banquet of Leadership Jackson, of which I was the rising president.

In the mail a few days later, I received a card from her in which she went on at length about her efforts to follow up on my request.

So, in addition to being our foremost Single-Combat Warrior Challenging the Godless Commies for Dominance of the Heavens, he was a pretty-good Dad as well, passing on his own relentless habits of following through, of being dutiful even in small things.

OK, I’m going to say it: Godspeed, John Glenn

The death of Fidel Castro (and Ron Glass, too!)

fidel-castro-1959

By now, you’ve heard that Fidel Castro outlasted 10 U.S. presidents. I’ve read that several times. But I make it 11. Check my math:

  1. Eisenhower
  2. Kennedy
  3. Johnson
  4. Nixon
  5. Ford
  6. Carter
  7. Reagan
  8. Bush 41
  9. Clinton
  10. Bush 43
  11. Obama

Oh, I get it. They’re not counting Obama, since Fidel didn’t quite outlast him. Duh.

Whatever. Guy was in office a long time, longer than a lot of you have been alive.

And what’s he got to show for it? Almost six decades of oppression, and some beautifully preserved antique cars. I read over the weekend that since the thaw began, a huge part of the Cuban economy is American tourism and the officially tolerated sex trade, which takes us back to where he came in.

He’s been there so long, that it’s nice to do a recap to refresh your memory. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The big question now is, will things get better between the U.S. and Cuba now, or worse? I’m not overly optimistic, with you-know-who about to take over in Washington.

ron-glassAnd now, let’s pause a moment to remember Ron Glass, whom we all remember (if we’re old enough) from “Barney Miller,” but I recall more fondly as Shepherd Book from “Firefly.” As you may recall if you’re a Browncoat, one of the great unsolved mysteries from the short-lived series was just what sort of shady past the Shepherd had.

Now we’ll never know, even if there’s a revival of the series, which there should be.

Requiescat in pace, Ron… (Do they have Latin in the future ‘verse, or is it just English and Chinese?)

shepherd-book

Leon Russell!?! Why are all the coolest people dying off?

I’m not saying there’s a connection to Trump getting elected last week. I don’t think this is actually happening because the coolest people refuse to stay on such a planet. But it would be nice to have a little break from horrible news.

First, there was Leonard Cohen — whom I recognize as one of “the coolest people” even though I was never much of a fan. I loved “Hallelujah” (as practically everyone on the planet does), and I recognized one or two other songs, such as “Chelsea Hotel #2,” but that was about it. (I knew he was someone people who were way cooler than I listened to way back in the ’70s, but never got around to him until a few years back.)leon-top-hat

But yesterday the real blow came — the death of Leon Russell, The Master of Space and Time himself! The man who defined cool! The calm, imperturbable center of his very own “hippie commune, bonafide,” the Shelter People. The mysterious master who drew so many other famous musicians (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge, Elton John) to him, but was always apart — presiding imperiously at the keyboard with his bone-straight graying hair (who that we knew had gray hair in 1971?) falling around his shoulders, the regal beard, the top hat, the mirror shades.

Even though he had been a fixture on “Shindig!” years before (a previous incarnation, with a dark Elvis pompadour, no facial hair — but still the same Tulsa voice, the same piano magic), I never knew who he was before the “Shelter People” album in the summer of 1971. But then it seemed he was everywhere — doing the rockingest set of all at the Concert for Bangladesh!… having his own very trippy TV special with the Shelter People just hanging out in a studio — and had always been everywhere, though I hadn’t known it. (Listen to Elton John reel off a litany of people Leon had played with over the years — Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, before he even got to Delaney and Bonnie and all the others of my generation — on this clip.)

A year or two later, I saw him in what may be the best rock concert I ever saw in my life, or ever will see. I may have described it before, but let me just tell you how he made his entrance: It was in the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. The whole entourage was out there on the stage before him — maybe 20 people, from the usual long-haired guys with guitars to the women who sang backup standing on elevated platforms. At the center of the stage were two grand pianos, and sitting at one was this black dude (probably someone famous, but I don’t know who) banging away in this raucous gospel-rock style, and everybody else jamming along with him. But no Leon. They went on like this for maybe 10 minutes, and as it climbed toward a climactic crescendo, Leon made his appearance. He was in a snow-white suit with white top hat (or was it a cowboy hat? — either worked for him), and he was playing a matching white Stratocaster, and I’m like I didn’t even know he played guitar, but I realized that of course, Leon could play anything he wanted.leon-shades

He strolled out, so casually, so in command of the stage. Then he stepped up onto the second piano’s bench, still playing, then on up to the top of the piano, and stood there and kept playing for a moment, with everybody else rocking away like mad. Then he stepped down, ditched the guitar, sat at the piano, starting dueling with the other pianist, and that’s when the music really hit its peak.

I’ve never seen anyone else with that kind of presence on stage. I was as impressed as Huck Finn at the circus. Worth every penny of the probably $5 the ticket cost me, and then some. Later, I saw Elvis on the same stage, and I don’t think even The King topped Leon, although perhaps I should shy away from committing lèse-majesté — after all this was in E’s own hometown.

And now he’s gone…

I thought I’d share my very favorite Leon song, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” above. I chose that clip because it’s a live performance (a less polished one than I saw in Memphis, but you can feel the energy), so you can get a sense of his style, but I actually prefer the studio version, which you can hear here. I first heard this song when, at the suggestion of my uncle, I got the “Shelter People” album in mid-1971. It was within a year after I first read Heinlein’s novel — which has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song, but is all part of the sensibility of the time.

And to reinforce that Leon had always been with us, even when we didn’t realize it, I also include this clip from his “Shindig!” days…

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

Just thought I’d put this up to mark the passing of Leonard Cohen.

As y’all know, I love this song, so much that awhile back, I asked Phillip and other musical sages here on the blog to help me understand why it was so awesome…

Interestingly, the song almost never reached a wide audience, thanks to the myopia of a record executive.

It’s almost certainly his most covered song, which prompted him to say, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.” See one of the less conventional video versions below.

Anyway, thanks, Leonard, for spending five years writing it. And for all the rest….

To give you chills on a summer’s day: Ralph Stanley singing ‘O Death’

My old friend Richard Crowson, a bluegrass musician who is a master at picking anything with strings on it — would likely disown me for admitting this, but I pretty much knew nothing about Ralph Stanley before he died this week.

To give you who are similarly ignorant a little schooling, I share this:

He was a short, gaunt man in a white cowboy hat and gray suit, his features seemingly chipped from granite with a stony gaze to match. When he sang “O Death” at Wolf Trap in 2006 as part of the Great High Mountain Tour, Stanley’s scratchy high tenor made the Grim Reaper sound like an acquaintance of long standing. This traditional lament had revived his career when he sang it in the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” but Stanley’s ghostly vocal made clear that the song was older than that movie, older than the whole history of talking movies.

Even in the 21st century, there was an echo in his voice of 19th-century mining and lumbering (his father worked in an old-fashioned sawmill) and of the 17th-century songs that immigrants from the British Isles brought to the Appalachian Mountains. It was in the southwest corner of Virginia, in Dickerson County under the shadow of Clinch Mountain, that Ralph Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927. Together with his brother Carter, two years older, Ralph learned the eerie harmonies of a cappella Sacred Harp singing in church and the spry rhythms of old-time string-band music at dances.

“Three groups really shaped bluegrass music,” Ricky Skaggs told me in 1998. “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Everyone who came after them was just following in their footsteps. . . . Ralph’s still out there 150 dates a year; he’s the last of the giants still in action.”…

But he is in action no more. And this video sounded to me like a voice from Beyond when I listened to it over my coffee this morning.

What it does is profound. So I thought I’d share…

 

The shocking, tragic news about Fred Sheheen

A friend just brought this to my attention:

Fred SheheenFred Sheheen, former commissioner of the state Commission on Higher Education, and father of state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, died Monday in a car crash.

Kershaw County Coroner David West confirmed Sheheen’s death….

Sheheen was the older brother to Bob Sheheen, D-Kershaw, former speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives….

I’m just stunned to hear this.

I knew and respected Fred — and his brother Bob, the House Speaker when I first arrived in SC — long before I ever heard of Vincent.

As head of the CHE, Fred was the kind of public official that even Doug Ross would have appreciated. One of the stranger things about our fragmented system of government in South Carolina is our huge profusion of public colleges and universities, each governed by its separate, autonomous board of trustees. We have no board of regents or other central authority to decide how best to allocate higher education resources and to prevent duplication of effort.

The CHE had limited ability to say “no” to what the universities wanted to do, but where it did have that power, Fred exercised it to the utmost. He didn’t just say “no” when schools wanted to duplicate efforts or waste resources; he said “HELL no!”

Which didn’t make him the most popular guy in the state, but he certainly won my respect.

This is just terrible news, for the Sheheens and for South Carolina…

2016: Everyone dying, and not a single dragon in sight

In the last couple of days, two prominent columnists have reflected on what an annus horribilis 2016 is.

Alexandra Petri, as is her wont, addressed the mess with a lighter tone, although the proximate cause for her reflections was rather grim:

I think 2016 has jumped the shark.

All the plot arcs revolve around this weird, surreal election whose central character is Donald Trump, a real estate developer who speaks at a third-grade level and is obsessed with his hands. I don’t buy this at all. If I wanted to obsess over the travails of a flawed male antihero, I have the rest of TV.petri

But what really pushes this year over the edge are the gratuitous deaths. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Merle Haggard. Zaha Hadid. 2016 is slowly killing off everyone we were actually rooting for, the people who gladdened us with their songs or their performances or their architecture. Please, no, 2016. You’re not “Game of Thrones.” I don’t want to watch everyone I love die, but if I do, there had better at least be dragons. But I don’t see a single danged dragon.

And now Prince, too….

Peggy Noonan was more depressing, far less entertaining:

Have you had your 2016 Moment? I think you probably have, or will.

The Moment is that sliver of time in which you fully realize something epochal is happening in politics, that there has never been a presidential year like 2016, and suddenly you are aware of it in a new, true and personal way. It tends to involve a poignant sense of dislocation, a knowledge that our politics have changed and won’t be going back.renocol_PeggyNoonan

We’ve had a lot to absorb—the breaking of a party, the rise of an outlandish outsider; a lurch to the left in the other party, the popular rise of a socialist. Alongside that, the enduring power of a candidate even her most ardent supporters accept as corrupt. Add the lowering of standards, the feeling of no options, the coarsening, and all the new estrangements.

The Moment is when it got to you, or when it fully came through….

Corporate America leaps to associate itself with Prince

Cgm9HzXUkAEnV43

Donning my ADCO hat for a moment…

In the brave new world of social media, some pretty big brands — that in the past would have spent months deciding how to present themselves — sometimes make hasty decisions with their identities.

Sometimes their instincts are sound. Sometimes, not so much.

In any case, here’s how some brands positioned themselves upon the news of the passing of the artist formerly, and latterly, known as Prince:

Thank Mashable for calling our attention to these efforts.

Thoughts about the passing of Prince?

08.Prince.-.1999 from Mauricio Onate on Vimeo.

I was never a big fan, although I liked some of his songs from the ’80s. But it occurs to me that some of y’all may wish to say something upon his passing.

There was a guy on the radio today, an editor at some pop-music site (no, it wasn’t Ben Fong-Torres, so it wasn’t anyone I know about), talking about his vast repertoire, and I thought, I can only think of five songs, if that.

Here goes:

  1. Little Red Corvette
  2. 1999 (see above)
  3. Raspberry Beret
  4. When Doves Cry

… and that’s it. I can think of another song title — “Purple Rain” — but I can’t remember how it goes.

Oh, and I know he wrote that Sinead O’Connor song — his songwriting was probably the best thing about her.

I heard on the radio that he wrote the Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” and that was good.

After that, I’m stuck.

So y’all probably have a lot more to say than I do…

‘… You can lose your mind, when cousins are two of a kind!’

Her obit, of course, leads with her Oscar for “The Miracle Worker.”

But her name will always be associated with one of the silliest high-concept TV sitcoms ever, “The Patty Duke Show,” in which he played “identical cousins.” I think the idea must have come up when somebody was smoking something exotic while watching “The Parent Trap.”Patty_Duke_1975

That was one of many shows of questionable value that I consumed so voraciously when I came back from two-and-a-half years in Ecuador without television. I didn’t care how awful it was, I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

She will always be the identical cousins in my mind, just as Anne Bancroft will always be Mrs. Robinson. Coo-coo-ca-choo.

Coolest bit of trivia about Ms. Duke? She was once married to John Astin, the original Gomez Addams (Sean Astin, Samwise Gamgee, is her son, but not the biological son of John — it’s complicated). Now there was an awesome show. But at age 11, my tastes were sufficiently unformed that I preferred the Munsters…

Shocking news about Charlie Nutt of Free Times

Sorry not to post all day. I was in an all-morning meeting and have been rushing to catch up since then.

In the midst of it, I received a phone call with shocking news:

The 67-year-old owner and publisher of the Free Times alternative weekly newspaper in Columbia was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in an Augusta, Ga., hotel Wednesday afternoon.Charlie Nutt

Charles Nutt, of Elgin, was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen confirmed. Nutt was found in the bathroom of a hotel room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Augusta.

Richmond County sheriff’s deputies went to the hotel after the department received a call from Columbia police saying that Nutt had taken a gun from his residence and had suicidal thoughts, according to an incident report.

Nutt’s Resort Media company purchased Free Times, an alternative weekly, from Portico Media of Charlottesville, Va., in 2012…..

I just can’t believe it. You see that picture above? There’s something missing. Charlie usually had a modest, friendly smile when saw him.

I had coffee with Charlie Nutt at Drip on Main exactly two weeks ago.

He. Was. Fine.

I mean, as well as one man can tell about another.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Charlie Nutt. He was a fellow member of the Capital City Club, and we had breakfast there together once or twice. I’d see him around town, and I’d always ask him how his business was going.

The answer, always, was that it was going great. The paper was healthy, and developing a fine journalistic reputation extending beyond its traditional base of covering entertainment and nightlife. He had people coming up to him all the time and saying, “Now I get my news from Free Times,” rather than, you know, certain other papers.

He mentioned that when we met on March 3, and I told him I heard similar things. His folks were doing a good job.

And he was comparing himself to the competition. Every time we met, he’d share with me just how low The State‘s circulation figures had fallen — something I don’t really keep up with. He said it with a certain satisfaction, like a guy keeping score, but without any malice. Of course, his own paper is distributed free so it’s like apples to oranges, but it was being widely picked up and the return rate was gratifying.

He also had a growing number of specialty pubs adding to his bottom line — the kinds of things that might be distributed in hotels, about local places to eat and such.

Things were going well. As he expected.

Charlie was a thoroughgoing newspaper man. He started his career a little before me, but we were both part of that last generation before the crash — inspired by Woodward and Bernstein (their book came out when I was a copy boy at The Commercial Appeal), and enjoying the very last decades when owning a printing press was like a license to spend money.

He was editor at several papers, and then publisher of some others. He managed to sock away enough money to achieve his dream of buying his own paper. He didn’t leap into it carelessly. From his New Jersey base, he did his research, and he decided that Free Times would be just right.

So he bought it, and never looked back. He just really seemed like a guy who had it together and whose plan was working out.

As compared, you know, to me — a guy who had the job he’d always wanted until the day the job ceased to exist, and did not have the funds to go out and buy his own paper.

Charlie knew exactly what he was doing, and it was working out so well.

When a friend from The State called to tell me — he had run into Charlie and me having coffee at Drip, and thought I might like to know — my first reaction was to say they needed to do a deeper investigation. Charlie wouldn’t shoot himself.

My next reaction was to remember Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s musical adaptation. You never know, even with the guy you admire and respect, the guy who has all that you don’t, who you think has it all together.

All I can do now is ask God for mercy upon him, and upon his family and friends.

The best of Bowie, to mark his passing

As I’m fighting a cold, my sleep has been fitful anyway, so I didn’t need my phone to be making little noises on the bedside table through the wee hours. Eventually, I reached over to see what it was on about. Oh. David Bowie’s dead.

I had not known he was ill, although in truth, he never looked all that robust.

I was never a big fan, but perhaps some of you were, so I thought I’d provide this opportunity for you to comment.

The above video is my favorite song of his, although I could do without the visuals. I always found his theatricality a bit on the excessive side. As you know, I have a different notion of how musicians should look. I like the casual, look-at-my-music-not-at-me approach. I want them to look cool, not overwrought.

Oddly, possibly because I was not a fan and didn’t listen to his albums (back in the ultimate period of album-oriented rock), I was unaware of this one song until the last few years, when it formed such an inspirational part in the British TV series “Life on Mars.” Here’s what I said about it awhile back:

I could swear to you that this song did not exist before I first watched, on DVD, the British time-travel-cop show of the same name (sans question mark). I had zero memory of it. Of course, I wasn’t at all into Bowie in his initial iteration, but still — I had heard and enjoyed “A Space Oddity” and heard other songs of his in the background. But I had completely missed this. Even now, I’m not sure if it’s just that the song itself is so great (which it may be; a critic in The Telegraph listed it as the single greatest song of all time, with “Let it Be,” one of my personal favorites, in second place) or it’s just the way it shaped the wonderful opening scene in which the protagonist of the TV show is transported back to 1973 that imprinted it so favorably on my mind. (Wonderful touch — the song begins the scene playing on the character’s early iPod, which itself now looks dated, then ends up on an 8-track.) In any case, I listen to it a lot now. Oh, a word in your shell-like: Don’t bother putting the American series based on this into your Netflix queue (despite the presence of Harvey Keitel in the cast); just watch the original. (Best bit:37 seconds into this clip, as the character “wakes up” into 1973 and the music reaches its climax.)

Oh, and sorry, but that clip with the best bit is no longer available. The Beeb had it taken off YouTube.

In defense of “The Great Escape”

About a decade or so ago, I persuaded one of my daughters to sit and watch “The Great Escape” with me. My motivation was that I wanted to share something that had been, without a doubt, my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Early on — I think it might have been the scene in which Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, and his new Scottish friend Ives, are sent to the “cooler” for the first time — my daughter raised an objection: What’s with the light, sprightly music in the background? This is about men at war being held prisoner of the Nazis and risking their lives to escape. They’re being put in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment that can cause lasting psychological damage (and as we soon find out, has pushed Ives to the edge of cracking up). Why the cute music? Why does it seem the actors are playing it for laughs?

She knew that her grandfather had spent the rest of the war in such a camp after being captured in the Ardennes, and it was a sufficiently horrible experience that he never, ever wanted to visit Europe again.

I had never noticed that incongruity, because, well, I had first seen the film at the age of 10, and I thought it was awesome in every way, and had never questioned the out-of-place comical touches that, after all, made watching the film all that much more fun.

I tried to explain that films were different in the ’50s and ’60s — Hollywood tended to sugarcoat everything — and war films especially. The country had this hugely positive feeling about the Second World War, and over the past couple of decades had sanitized it to the point that, to kids of my generation, it looked at times like one great lark. I knew at least in theory of the cost of war — I used to look at those pictures of American bodies in the surf at Normandy and Saipan in the big Time-Life picture books about the war. Still, the fact that the war was something we all felt good about was something I didn’t question. For instance, I watched the film starring Audie Murphy in which he re-enacted the deeds that made him a hero, and nothing that I saw in the film prepared me for what I learned years later — that Murphy had a terrible time with PTSD after the war.

And I knew, by the time my daughter pointed out that problem, that the true story of The Great Escape had definitely received the Hollywood treatment. To begin with, Hilts was complete fiction, and although there were some Americans in the camp, their roles in this escape were fairly marginal. (I think. I’m finding some contradictory info about American David M. Jones.)

Still, even though I know all that, and even though the film doesn’t hold the exalted position that it did in my personal list of favorites, I got a little defensive this morning when I read about the death at 101 of the next-to-last survivor of the escape, Australian Paul Royle. This was the part that got me:

Paul Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hollywood interpretation of the story.

“The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes … and the Americans weren’t there,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to McQueen’s dramatic bid to outrun the Germans on a motorbike.

Gordon Royle said his father was angry that Hollywood would create an adventure out of soldiers doing their often tedious and dangerous duty of attempting to escape.

“He felt the movie was a glamorization of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality,” Gordon Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a motorbike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the reality, which was darkness and cold and terror,” he said….

First, Mr. Royle had a million times greater entitlement to an opinion on the film than I ever will have. That said, allow me to raise some objections to his criticism:

  • True, no Americans were involved in the escape, as they were moved to another part of the camp before the tunnel was ready. However, one author who wrote about the escape notes that earlier, “US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction.” Marginal, but participation nonetheless.
  • I accept service completely on the fact that Hilts was entirely a fabrication, from his cowboy insouciance to his baseball and glove. But I should point out that if you paid close attention to the film, you’d see that the three Americans depicted as being in the camp were not central to the escape effort, except for Hendley — and he had the fig leaf of technically being in the Canadian air force and therefore not officially an “American.” The fictional Hilts was a complete outsider, playing no part in the X organization. The essentially true story of the escape planned and executed by British officers with a few allied pilots thrown in was clearly told.
  • While the entire story was fictionalized, there was at least some verisimilitude between the central character, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and his real-life counterpart, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Their stories are a fairly close match. Bushell had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo after a previous escape, and had developed an intense hatred of the Nazis by the time he became Big X in Stalag Luft III.
  • The central facts of the plan — the simultaneous digging of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, and the discovery of Tom by the Germans — are accurately depicted.
  • The grimness of the experience was there, despite the veneer of jazzed-up adventure. There was Danny’s terror in the tunnel, Ives’ eventually suicidal despair, and the central fact of the murder of the 50 — the men to whom the film is dedicated — by the Gestapo. No reasonable person watching this would conclude that being a POW was fun.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they'll get rid of the dirt.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they’ll get rid of the dirt.

  • The film showed only three men making it all the way to freedom, and that’s how many did — even though in the film one of them was Australian, like Mr. Royle, and that was not accurate. (Two were Norwegian and one was Dutch, although all three had flown for the RAF.)
  • The role that Mr. Royle played — distributing dirt from the tunnels by releasing it from bags within his trousers and mixing it into the compound dirt with his feet — was clearly depicted. Although in the film that is most closely associated with naval officer Ashley-Pitt, played by David McCallum (whom our generation would later know as Illya Kuryakin), you see that a large number of men participated in that part of the operation. (And frankly, that’s always been one of the most amazing aspects of the escape to me. It’s astounding that they got away with it. How did the guards not notice something on that scale?)
As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

In the end, it’s hard to defend the role Steve McQueen played in the film — except in this convoluted way: His jump over that fence at the Swiss border on that German motorcycle was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in a film to that point in my life, and the one thing that solidified it as my favorite. Yes, it was a complete lie. But it engaged my lifelong interest in the escape, and caused me to read books about the true story later in life.

So in that regard it served a purpose. Although I can easily see how a man who suffered through the actual experience would find it irritating in the extreme, and I’m sorry for that. He certainly has the facts, and all the moral weight, on his side. I just thought I’d speak up for something that meant a lot to me as a kid.

My favorite Leonard Nimoy tribute item

I really enjoyed learning about the Jewish roots of Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” gesture.

Nimoy was a guy who deserved to be known for more than that one rather cheesy (no, really, I’ve been watching it on Netflix) TV show. But at least he was loved for it, and I’m glad he became reconciled to that later in life….

Oh, and my second favorite Nimoy tribute was the one below, by Astronaut Terry Virts:

Remembering the late Marvin Chernoff

Photo from Charles Pulliam's Facebook page.

Photo from Charles Pulliam’s Facebook page.

I thought it was great to see the letter remembering Marvin Chernoff in The State today — and good initiative on Cindi and Warren’s parts, getting that in in spite of their new, earlier deadlines.

I especially liked that it was from Tim Kelly — one of a number of then-bloggers who encouraged me when I was first starting a blog myself in 2005, and the man who singlehandedly talked me into getting into social media in 2009, after which I promptly became a Twitter addict. But I like Tim anyway.

I had wanted to write something about Marvin myself yesterday, but didn’t feel like I had enough material at hand. Marvin had told me stories about himself, while he was working on his memoirs, but I had just enjoyed the stories without taking notes.

Tim’s letter encourages me to just plunge ahead…

I knew Marvin first as one of the people, along with his partner Rick Silver, Bud Ferillo and Bob McAlister, who would bring clients in to the editorial board to pitch their points of view (something I occasionally do now).

I remember him as the “idea man” — the gently mocking title Neil White gave him — who came up with “It’s Happening Now.” Which didn’t catch on the way “Famously Hot” has (shameless plug for ADCO, competitor of Chernoff Newman), although I actually thought it was better than most people did.

I even worked with Marvin, very briefly, right after leaving The State. He had just started his new virtual agency, MC2, and he had a client who needed help writing an op-ed piece. I got my first taste of the communications/PR side of life taking a lunch with him and the client, and listening to Marvin speak expansively about all the great things he could do for the client. So this was what it was like outside the editorial boardroom, I thought. Which for me at the time was a little like being under deep cover behind enemy lines…

Marvin was originally a political consultant, and he came to South Carolina to promote the legendary campaign of Pug Ravenel. After that campaign — the last really exciting one in SC, according to those who were there — crashed and burned on a technicality, Marvin stayed on, contributing to the community in many highly visible ways.

I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to hear those stories again, and write them down. The last couple of times I talked with Marvin, he was working on his memoir. According to The State, he completed it, although the book remains unpublished. I’d like to get ahold of a copy…

In memory of Jack Bruce of Cream

Upon the death of Jack Bruce, legendary bassist for Cream, my elder son posted the above video on my Facebook feed.

To which I responded, “That’s my favorite! And not only because I suspect it may have inspired ‘Stonehenge‘…”

Yeah, this is just the kind of over-important, mock-epic kind of rock song that Spinal Tap was making fun of, but I love it anyway. I’ve always seen it from the perspective of the adolescent boy I was, as an evocation of the way the seemingly (to an adolescent boy) supernatural allure of women can drive a young man mad (which is what the story of Ulysses and the sirens was about, after all), done through the lens of the gods of rock, which made it all that much more meaningful.

I like it musically as well. I love the shift back and forth from the hard-driving parts to the bits that go, “Tiny purple fishes…” with a thin line on Clapton’s guitar gently hovering and Ginger Baker using his cymbals to evoke the sound of waves kissing the shore and receding…

It’s interesting how the star of this video is Bruce. I guess the camera crew on the Smothers Brothers show figured since he was singing, he was the front man. They didn’t quite get who Clapton was yet. You hardly even get a glimpse of his face (he was in a mustache phase), or even of his guitar.

Rock and roll! Everyone hold up your lighters now…

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation