……………… The tuxedo-wearing Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s mugshot

Sometimes ghosts come at us over the airwaves, from almost a hundred years ago. Here’s how it happened for me this week:

  1. I was poking around on Roku yesterday morning [12/4/19] for some Charlie Chaplin material. I opted (completely randomly) to watch a free 1914 short, The Rounders, from Keystone Studios (now famed for the Keystone Kops). It was only 16 minutes long–although the crappy distributor app said it was 9:00 (one reason I chose it, being strapped for time), and maybe the poor-quality version I saw was missing some of the original material. It’s notable, however, that Chaplin is not in Tramp mode here, but playing richer.
  2. Besides Charlie, I recognized the portly but graceful other drunk here as the great silent movie comic Roscoe

    Cover of Keystone/Mutual 1914 short “The Rounders” (not to be confused with the Brian Koppelman/ David Levien-penned poker film “Rounders”, featuring Matt Damon and Edward Norton)

    “Fatty” Arbuckle. In the back of my mind I vaguely recalled some scandal Fatty was involved with back then. The Chaplin short itself was fine, though not among the best for either actor. I then moved on with my day, filing The Rounders away at the back of my mind’s junk drawer of cinema history.

  3. By noon yesterday, Fatty was back, literally haunting me. While listening to one of my favorite podcasts, actor/broadcaster Ralph Garman’s The Ralph Report, his “This Day In History” segment discussed the Arbuckle hung jury’s non-verdict on December 4, 1921, in the first of three manslaughter trials of Roscoe Arbuckle. These three “trumped up” trials were for the alleged killing of star-chaser, failed actress, frequent drunken exhibitionist, and likely prostitute Virginia Rappe… Talk about “fake news”! Since he was the highest-paid actor at the time ($3 mil –think Tom Cruise or Robert Downey, Jr. level fame and money– but in a world with only 10% as many stars), Fatty’s was the trial of all trials in the early days not just of Prohibition, but also of Hollywood’s “self-censorship” through the Hays Code. The Hays office, a government watchdog agency out to clean up the morals in movies, was established just four days after Fatty’s first verdict. It was partly a direct response to Fatty, as the public had been stirred up for years by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), and his three-inch headlines about such scandals. However, by the end of the Arbuckle trials, it was clear that
  4. no rape had occurred,
  5. the ruptured bladder that later killed Rappe several days later was already severely inflamed before she even met Arbuckle (Fatty had even tried to save her when she was vomiting in his bathroom), and
  6. the D.A.’s first “witness” Maude Delmont (who he didn’t even put on the stand, since she was so disreputable and easily refute-able) had sought to profit –by blackmail or fame– in accusing Fatty at all.

But by the end of this mess –and his eventual acquittal after just five minutes of jury deliberation at the third trial — it was already too late for Fatty. His rep was ruined, he was soon banned by Hays the government hack himself, and Fatty’s career never really recovered from the unjust accusations.

So there you have it. A haunting, to restore a smeared reputation. “Science fiction, or science fact?” (to quote Ralph, with the title of another of his frequent segments) . Here’s why I believe it’s fact :

Either I chose to watch The Rounders on the exact date of his first verdict entirely randomly, and then —also randomly— I chose to listen to that Ralph Report episode (of a program which I had been away from for weeks) on the same day,  …  or else…

THE GHOST OF FATTY ARBUCKLE IS HAUNTING ME!!!

Maybe in the swirl of the #metoo movement, Fatty wants all the powers that be to assign him a publicist, and begin restoring his badly tarnished reputation. So let me be the first to say it in the MeToo context: Fatty wuz framed!

Ralph Garman also mentioned that another departed great, Chris Farley, was on-record as intending to make a biopic on Fatty Arbuckle someday. So maybe the famed prankster Farley’s in on this week’s haunt, as well. (Hi Chris! Love ya! Mean it!) Either way, I’ll take the safe route, and do what the ghosts are asking here, lest these two formidable figures continue their haunting hijinks.

So before I move on to the larger topics of alleged rape, murder, and how media-makers and soap/car/magazine/website-associated opportunistic scandalmongers and Vultures [click for the John Mayer song on this subject] use these tragedies and spectacles for their own gain, let me give a couple last plugs for better factual information about the great Fatty Arbuckle:

a) For a true historian’s approach to the topic, what could be better than Smithsonian magazine?

b) For a 60-minute audio infotainment approach to the sad-but-true Fatty and Virginia story, you can find that at the always amazing cinema history podcast series You Must Remember This, produced by author and journalist Karina Longworth. She gets current big-name actors to voice some of the historical figures, her research is impeccable, and the writing and production are quite tasteful and entertaining as well.

… and by the way, leave it to Robert Downey Jr. to be in the middle of (or at least on the fringes of) yet another Hollywood controversy, having once played Charlie Chaplin (no stranger to scandal himself) in the underrated 1992 biopic Chaplin .

Speaking of controversy, tragic actress deaths, Downey and rape, followers of the  Marking Time blog here will perhaps recall that the rape –and to a lesser extent the death– of 1950s movie icon Natalie Wood has been one of the more popular subjects in this blog. Natalie, it turns out, once dated the real life nightclub owner, record mogul and Mafia front Morris Levy, a main character in my upcoming historical crime fiction novel, Murder in Birdland. Thus my interest (in my book) is more in the true SPECTACLE of her melodramatic life than her equally melodramatic death and/or murder.

My main interest here, on the other hand, is to discuss how entertainment “news” and/or gossip has been mostly a wart on the ass of most serious actors –and creators in other genres, especially popular music– where the studios, media conglomerates and pesky hangers-on usually have no vested interest in what an actual court-of-law calls “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. As a pack of lies from a pack of liars, such shoddy prosecutions to increase the profile of a top cop or D.A. –and the even more shoddy journalism that usually drives the machine– all this propaganda merely set the stage for screwing up every presidential election since Kennedy in 1960, not to mention the outright theft of the elections in both 2000 and 2016.

As many in showbiz are known to say: “There ain’t no bad publicity.” Or if you prefer, take the earlier version, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That one comes direct from the newspaper publishing realm which tried and convicted Arbuckle (and it’s probably originally a movie quote, too… though I don’t know where from… look it up yerself!).

As for what Downey has to do with it, he eventually worked with Natalie’s daughter, actress Natasha Gregson Warner in the film Two Girls and a Guy (1997). As the children of cinema figures from mid-century (Robert Sr. was a writer/director), they became friends from then onward. So it became a thing in 2018 when actor Kirk Douglas (receiving a Golden globe special honor that year, at age 101) was semi-anonymously accused of raping a fifteen-year-old Natalie. Certain parties (myself included) strongly suspected Downey to be the anonymous accuser (though not the first). Click the link within my earlier blog for the detective work behind this theory. All of this hubbub, of course, went down in the immediate aftermath of  Ronan Farrow’s groundbreaking story on Weinstein’s serial sexual predation in The New Yorker’s October 10, 2017 edition.

I’ve now blathered on for far too long, in a manner short on facts but rife with opinion, just as I’m accusing those “yellow journalists” of doing. For this, I’m insincerely sorry, dear Reader. But you’re smart. You can read between the lines.

Fatty wuz framed.

On Kirk Douglas, RJ Wagner, and Chris Walken, the jury may forever be “out”.

Weinstein, my fellow fatty, wuz not framed.

On Trump and Ukraine, the jury’s out again, even though the king has no clothes, …so Shakespeare turned out to be wrong (a rare thing) in The Merchant of Venice when he said about another amoral businessman and horrific act “The truth will out.”

God bless us all. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Scheider shoots shark Jaws-Garand-5 (Arbuckle & Trump)

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 2, 2019

He Was Born In the Cold (orig. Christmas song by Mark Nielsen)

Photo of Woodstock, IL by Laura Nielsen Mills

“He Was Born in the Cold”

V 1.

The lake is frozen over,

Days are getting shorter,

And the solar cell that powers my heart, 

it needs a charge.

I’m listening to sad songs

And I know it won’t be long

Till the Mack truck that tramples

the Amazon forest looms large.

[Chorus]

There’s crying in the laughter,

The hunger cry of a baby,

And it doesn’t matter when He was born,

It just matters He was born.

V 2.

Some say it was April, though–

In Bethlehem, no sign of snow,

And the stars all tread the red

carpet for His premiere.

The Milky Way, it was a choir,

Angels sang our spirits higher,

And cattle stopped lowing,

‘Cause finally there’s nothing to fear.

[2nd Chorus]

There’s crying in the laughter,

The first cry of a baby,

And it doesn’t matter when He was born,

It just matters He was born.

[Bridge]

The snowflakes on burning sand

A universe at His command

The coming of the promised one

No soldiers, just the only son

The bringer of deliverance

From enemies with no blood shed

Except His own, by His own choice

So all Creation could rejoice.

[1st Chorus]

There’s crying in the laughter,

The hunger cry of a baby,

And it doesn’t matter when He was born,

It just matters He was born.

V 3.

The lake still has thin ice,

And hot cider tastes so nice,

So let’s walk just once around, 

Then put away our skates.

My time with you, it is a gift.

We’ll walk home through snowdrifts,

And the setting of the sun reminds us 

[The hour is late. ?]

[or… “Each season must end.” ?]

[alt Chorus]

Because there’s crying in the laughter,

The cry of grief, or childbirth,

And every important beginning contains its end.

There’s crying in the laughter,

The first laugh of a baby,

And it doesn’t matter how He was born,

It just matters He was born.

[Repeat first chorus, or bridge, or both]

– –

…”He Was Born in the Cold”

an original carol by Mark Nielsen /song-of-the-day [12-2-19], inspired by Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong” [ https://open.spotify.com/track/4p8qhuurSA5UOuMAFiyRSj?si=GExt73rgQ-OUkHphPAGKlg ], the Liturgists Facebook group of gospel deconstructionists, and a creeping personal case of S.A.D.

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 20, 2019

Drunk Down to the Worm (The Lost Highwaymen Song)

The original Highwaymen: Jennings, Cash, Nelson & Kristofferson

Drunk Down to the Worm


…….By Mark Nielsen
(a proposed “lost” Highwaymen song, suggested by a Tanya Tucker interview anecdote, to Brandi Carlisle & Rick Rubin)

I was s’posed to write Johnny a song
But the words all come out wrong
And the tune sounded like a pebble in a hubcap, clangin’

So I drove out to Willie’s for help.
I didn’t want to put the whole thing on a shelf,
But we both got drunk, so now the whole song is left hangin’.

Chorus:
Willie was drunk down to the worm,
And here I am poolside, temper’s burning,
And there ain’t enough tequila around,
So I’ll hit the liquor store in town.
Cash’s song will just have to wait
Till me and Willie get our heads on straight.
I almost had me a second verse,
But then gettin’ sober made my head hurt worse.

I was trying to make sense of a dream
Where June was scared, and she started to scream,
Said the bank was gonna take the house, and she couldn’t calm down.

Then a flood came and there was ol’ Kris,
In a canoe, he’s gonna take a dip,
But I was scared we was all so drunk that one of us would drown.

Repeat Chorus

(Slow, almost spoken, Cash-style)
Then a bolt of lightning hit my head,
And I just knew as long as I wasn’t dead
That second verse plus the chorus and bridge were right around the bend.

Three days later, we was all on stage,
Singin’ my song. It sounded great.
And now next weekend we plan to do it all again.

Alternate Chorus:

And Willie’d be drunk down to the worm
And I’d be poolside, two joints burning
And there’d be plenty more tequila around
‘Cause Waylon brung a whole case from town
Cash’s song, it turned out just great.
Willie didn’t need to get himself straight.
I saw the light and got that second verse
That holy bolt of lightning broke the curse!

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 12, 2019

Cosmology & Theology for Dummies Like Me

Cosmology & Theology for Dummies Like Me

“Abstract threads”. Image: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

I’m passing along below –and discussing– a great summary article about surprising discoveries in astrophysics over the past decade. I think I’ll be mulling them over for awhile to come. 

The full astronomy article is at Vice, but it’s far higher quality than the usual clickbait. It can be found here, under the pedantic but useful title “There’s Growing Evidence That the Universe Is Connected by Giant Structures“.

The gist of it, for me, is that it’s sort of cocky–but also aspirational and cool–for each generation of scientists (or humans, for that matter) to imply certainty that we’ve figured out how the universe works. 

What’s all that got to do with God, or theology? Pretty simple, really. Some famous writer, maybe the poet Robert Browning, once said: “I could never believe in a God I can completely understand.”

I’ve taken that principle as one of my main mantras in life. And the more I see quantum physicists occasionally baffled on the micro level, and astrophysicists on the macro level (as in the article), the more that my above quote about knowing God (or Reality) holds true.

Here are a few random, illustrative quotes from the article, starting with its opening subtitle or summation:

Scientists are finding that galaxies can move with each other across huge distances, and against the predictions of basic cosmological models. The reason why could change everything we think we know about the universe.”

Maybe that’s enough all by itself, for non-scientists. But if not, the author Becky Ferreira offers plenty more for amateur scientists and philosophers to chew on:

These discoveries hint at the enigmatic influence of so-called ‘large-scale structures’ which, as the name suggests, are the biggest known objects in the universe. These dim structures are made of hydrogen gas and dark matter and take the form of filaments, sheets, and knots that link galaxies in a vast network called the cosmic web.”

Two takeaways: first, the apparent fact of synchronous behavior due to unseen causes, and contradicting prior models. They’ve just barely measured it, but it could be a game-changer. 

Second, a statement of what those filaments or causes are called, namely “large scale structures”. Yes, it’s very general, vague, even boring, as names go. Scientists aren’t known for their “branding” acumen. But the name gets the job done. It may even be better than older science-y names like the Bernoulli Principle, because at least these three words are clear and basically descriptive of what’s going on. We’re talking about the barely seen skeleton or muscular structure, of the largest thing we know of: the universe. Large scale structures exist alongside, but sometimes in opposition to, the other great causative force we understand better: gravity.

In a different, earlier study of quasars, and the proposed origins of the universe, we get a look at how these connections (the large scale structures) stretch across billions of light years, not just between certain neighboring galaxies:

The secret of these synchronized galaxies may pose a threat to the cosmological principle, one of the basic assumptions about the universe. This principle states that the universe is basically uniform and homogenous at extremely large scales. But the ‘existence of correlations in quasar axes over such extreme scales would constitute a serious anomaly for the cosmological principle,’ as Hutsemékers and his colleagues note in their study.”

Translation: “We thought we knew the system. Now we ain’t so sure.”

Which is fine by me. I’m more comfortable with Mystery than with certainty anyway. With Mystery (or mythos), there’s more room for God, and me with all my hang-ups, and music, and possible life in the seas of Jupiter’s moons, and chocolate, and all of that maybe being connected somehow.

Lastly, here’s a Vice article quote just for my own amusement:

Sometimes, one galaxy even eats another, an event known as galactic cannibalism.”

The image of galaxies “eating” each other was oddly poetic to me, like some cosmic joke. Plus I wanted to save it so I could build a punk rock or heavy metal band name around it: Galactic Cannibal.

As I sought to attribute the above possible Browning quote about understanding God, I came upon another which is relevant. It’s difficult, dense theology from Karl Barth. But we –-especially but not only Christians–will be rewarded for doing the work, if we understand him:

It is in full unity with Himself that He is also – and especially and above all – in Christ, that he becomes a creature, man, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human – far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea about God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to constitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or the basis of the judgement that in doing this He brings Himself into self-contradiction. By doing this God proves to us that He can do it, that to do it is within His nature. And He Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign than we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.” 

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics [bold added by me]

Our imagination, in concert with good science, can and must be expanded in any serious inquiry about either the nature of the universe, or the nature of God. And even then, our human mind will forever have its limits, far beyond which lies the comprehensive truth about Reality. That’s why I capitalize Reality. Its awesomeness, and my humility, must both cause me to treat it as holy.

Since we’re looking at Old Man Barth from about 1932, perhaps quoting from Wikipedia about Albert Einstein–one of the earliest and best combiners of modern physics and theology discussions–will also be helpful here:

Einstein used many labels to describe his religious views, including “agnostic”, “religious nonbeliever” and a “pantheistic” believer in “Spinoza’s God”. Einstein believed the problem of God was the “most difficult in the world”—a question that could not be answered “simply with yes or no.” He conceded that, “the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.

So I’ll try to let Albert have the last word, and leave it at that. 

Nevertheless, the point is: don’t let anyone–on either side–ever tell you that the practice of science and healthy talk of God are at odds with each other. They are not. Instead, they go hand-in-hand, and they always have. Usually it’s only a fearful, afraid of change, far too proud scientist (or a lazy pastor, or a religious person more concerned with tonight’s supper than with the “whole truth”) who would ever say otherwise.

And here, brothers and sisters, is why the astronomers and physicists must keep working, must, for example, keep revealing the beautiful relationship between light and Light:

Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”  –ROBERT BROWNING, The Inn Album

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 4, 2019

Jamming at The Loft (a Wilco tribute)

Jamming at the Loft 

(10-4-19, aka Wilco’s Ode to Joy release day)

     [a song lyric inspired by a pic of Jeff Tweedy and members of Low hanging out at the Wilco Loft, circa 2013, Chicago, as seen in the British music magazine Uncut]

an antique lamp 

a pic of John and June

 Sparrowhawk picks out 

an Irish fiddle tune

  on an unplugged Telecaster 

sitting on a couch 

  backed by a map

with Illinois clipped out

.

Jeff’s on the couch

Looking like a shaggy Dylan 

No Lows, all highs,

Three heroes, no villain

Mimi adding harmony

Leans forward, smiles

She’s the missing link at Big Pink

And adds a woman’s style

.

Chorus:

everything in black and white

is red, white and Blue

Old Timey mountain tunes

played just for you

.

Bridge:

Once it’s Time Out of Mind

Then you can’t get it back

It’s leaving for St. Paul

On the north track

Three hearts, one song,

A rhyme chasing rhythm

These moments don’t last

So take ’em when you get ’em.

. v 3

Bud’s on the table

Well within reach

It’s hard here to tell

Who learns, who will teach

A book on the couch

Between Hawk and Jeff

“Let’s squeeze some love

Out of the time we’ve got left”

Chorus x2, or repeat Bridge then Chorus

Photo by Zoran Orlic

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 3, 2019

Murder in Birdland (progress) -the Siren Song of Lady Day

Episode X, aka Billie Holiday’s Swan Song

“Harper and Row agreed to take on the book [on Billie Holiday] and for several years Linda Kuehl was busy with it. But it seems she could never get further than the first few chapters, *which she kept on writing and rewriting*. It was as if she was looking for the key that would open the door and make everything else follow and fall into place.” –Linda Blackburn, in With Billie.

*Today’s chilling reminder to ME not to get lost in the weeds on MY book, which is fiction, and in which Billie plays only a small part…  The book pictured (which relies heavily on the Kuehl archive) is great in itself, and the award-winning Blackburn, a Brit, has lots of style.

However– as with Miles Davis’ equally compelling autobiography, and Harry Belafonte’s, and James Ellroy’s brilliant Kennedy-adjacent crime novel American Tabloid— I must resist looking to any of them for MY “key”. That has to come from within myself, for better or worse.

As an even more chilling side note:

Kuehl –who worked on the book with two publishers from at least ’70 to ’79, committed suicide in ’79 after seeing a Count Basie concert. Maybe people with especially deep, tangled psychological wounds –Billie, her closest friend tenor giant Lester Young, Basie (a renowned gambling addict), Kuehl, and I daresay myself– tend to look outward to similar personalities for ways to order our disordered, messy lives. And addictions often accompany such “outward” searches for community/validation/relief/thrill, as I too have found in dancing around the edge of that volcano with booze now and then.

No excuses, …no condemnation either. Just awareness…

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 10, 2019

Bob Dylan’s Blue Eye -orig. poem by Mark Nielsen

Dylan & Ginsberg read Kerouac, from “Rolling Thunder Revue”, Martin Scorsese’s inspired documentary, available now on Netflix

Bob Dylan’s Blue Eye

-a poem inspired by rolling thunder resurrected from 1976, 9-10-19

Bob and Allen Ginsberg are at Kerouac’s grave in Lowell,

105 miles from the ocean at Plymouth Rock,

first stop for the carnival.

Together, even in unison,

they read some choruses

from Jack’s Mexico City Blues about death.

Life is to be celebrated,

precisely because death is out there, stalking.

Bob says he got the book in ’59 from a Minneapolis friend.

Mind permanently blown.

The asshole German’s camera

(invited along to bear witness,

to capture graveside incantations forever)

for once tells the same story–

–a truthful, wonder-full, unmasked, unfettered, dreamlike story–

same story

as the mike,

as the poem,

as the paper it’s printed on,

as the grass they stand upon,

as the rock of Jack’s gravestone,

as the perfect dust in the coffin,

dust which has now become air and Spirit

(precisely as the poem suggests),

Air which is the soul of Ti Jean,

listening in, laughing,

fluffing the feather in Bob’s Western cap.

Air enters and exits both men’s lungs, crossing their lips, forming words, resurrecting ideas,

forming words, resurrecting ideas,

cemetery whispers blowing around

like Autumn Leaves,

an old whispered melody

soon to be Howled from Bob’s carnival stage,

but for now,

it’s just two men blowing in the wind,

blowing upon a rapidly fading spark

in a Burning Bush of a book,

spark from the fire of a long ago friend,

with all three (and me)

trying to beat death at its own game

(“Time is an ocean / But it ends at the shore”

… sung defiantly by the carny sideshow barker.

Your move, death).

The spark leaps from the page to become

a glint in Bob’s blue eye,

and through his eyes, once and for all,

though only momentarily,

I see clearly not just what he sees, The Ineffable,

but how he sees.

My heaviness dissipates in the crisp, lively autumn air,

and a distant thunder signals that the storm has turned.

An inner flame ignites.

Grief is wrapped in Gratitude’s arms

and takes in the warmth

(which I shall soon emanate again).

I float upon that same Bicentennial air,

that 1959 air,

on Shakespeare’s and Jesus’ and Mount Denali’s

ancient, rarified on-fire air,

upon air filled with pollen but also mold,

filled with possibility,

but heavy with smoke

from dashed or defied expectations.

Its dust motes are lit with eternity’s Light, banging big like a kick drum,

though seen just barely, from my distant shore.

I am only the dot above Bob’s blue “i”,

in the word Wind.

I am the beautiful nearly-nothing, but I am something.

I am no more knowable than the answer in that wind

(yet I am fully known, nevertheless,

and because I pay attention,

forever I will know what I know).

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 21, 2019

Planes, Trains, Mountains & Lame-Brains

Planes, Trains, Mountains and Lame-Brains 

– By Mark Nielsen, July 2019 – 

 

This a road-trip story which has two heroes, unlike most stories, which have only one. One hero is a world famous African, the other is just an average kid from Iowa who stepped up when I was in a bind. And like the best Road Movies here in America– featuring famous comic figures like my heroes Steve Martin and John Candy  –my own Road Trip also involves planes, trains, and automobiles, plus a few bumbling, hilarious detours along the way.

That’s why I call this story Planes, Trains, Mountains and Lame-Brains

So first comes the plane, of course. My ex-wife Sue and I coordinated with her godmother Barbara, a native of Switzerland, to plan a visit with her in July of 2009. To her credit, Barbara helpfully covered most of our travel costs throughout several Swiss cities, all prepaid in advance, which is important for later. After Switzerland, we would then continue our travels on our own (and on our own dime) in Italy. The first three days of the trip were wonderful, and Barbara was a great hostess in Zurich, but there’s no comedy there, just family time and tourism. 

Not the train we took but our view was just as pretty…

Now comes the train. From Zurich, we boarded a train to St. Moritz, high up in the Alps, which is where the adventure, and the bumbling, begins.

Once we were up in St. Moritz, a classic Swiss ski town, we decided to go higher still, on a day trip. 

St. Moritz, Switzerland in the summer.

So to get up to the top of the famous Piz Nair mountain where this photo was taken, we took one of those 24-person cable cars. 

  The view from atop Piz Nair is truly stunning, the definition of peak experience: a 360 degree view of green valleys and distant mountains, and you can see for, like 100 miles. 

And standing atop that mountain, maybe I was feeling woozy from the altitude, or overwhelmed with the beautiful scenery, or maybe I just had another among the one million attention deficit disorder moments in my lifetime, but somehow I managed to drop my Mastercard –10,000 feet up!  

We didn’t discover this loss of the card until later that night, when we quickly called to arrange for a new card to be sent down three days later to our eventual destination in Umbria, in central Italy, since it was the weekend. I just assumed I could use my Discover card in the meantime for any credit card situations. 

Next morning, we were scheduled to board yet another train south to Lugano, in the Italian section of Switzerland. For those bad at geography, there are four distinct quadrants in Switzerland: French, German, hardcore Swiss, and Italian. So we got to the train station, headed for Lugano, but then my next bumble was forgetting one of my bags back at the hotel. I would have abandoned it, except that my passport was in that bag. As you’d expect, Sue and Barbara were flabbergasted at my stunning stupidity. So we went and retrieved my passport, but then we missed the train. As a last resort, we were able to transfer over to bus tickets later… Wait, what?! A bus too? Of course … since Steve Martin and John Candy had to get on a bus in the movie, how could we not follow suit?! So we just barely got out of St. Moritz, three hours later, and the two ladies barely looked at me the whole bus ride down. 

When we got to Lugano and checked in at the hotel, Barbara mentioned that there was what she called a “little music festival” in town that weekend. It was in fact the Estival Jazz Lugano 2009– not little at all, but in reality a major European event being broadcast nationally. Now I had been a jazz deejay on college radio, plus a fairly serious jazz fan ever since . So I was thrilled to “accidentally” be there at the right time for this free, big-name festival. Better still, my favorite American alto saxophone player David Sanborn was on the bill. 

And after him, South African trumpeter, storyteller and human rights activist Hugh Masekela would follow Sanborn onstage.

South African trumpeter, folk singer and activist Hugh Masekela, at the Estival Jazz Lugano, 2009.

Meanwhile Barbara and Sue were tired from traveling, or perhaps tired of me, so they stayed back at the hotel, and I made a solo excursion by simply walking eight blocks to the lovely town square. Ideal, right?

The ideal soundtrack to this tale would be Hugh Masekela’s #1 U.S. radio hit from 1968, the soul / jazz classic “Grazing In the Grass”.

I first learned about Hugh Masekela as a college student and a protester against South African apartheid in the 1980s. I knew South Africa had exiled Masekela as an agitator for decades until the white Afrikaner government finally stepped down peacefully around 1994. But even after that, from the early Sixties until now in 2009, Hugh had been a loud voice of protest and peacemaking. For almost 50 years, Masekela refused to be silenced about the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, plus other economic injustices, violent conflicts and refugee crises worldwide.

As you would expect, the musicians’ performances that night on the square were amazing, and when they told stories it was all in English, and the 73-degree outdoor setting was perfect, and I was in heaven… I went back to the hotel exhausted but ecstatic. Then I got a good rest in preparation for our goodbye breakfast with Barbara, and a train trip to Milan, Italy. 

Miraculously, Sue and I got to the train station on time the following morning, with no mishaps. And as a reward for my improved mindfulness, who did we encounter on that train platform? 

None other than Hugh Masekela himself. He was with his band, on the way to their next festival appearance somewhere in Germany. It seemed that several other people on the platform also knew who he was, but most were apparently polite Swiss citizens of good taste and restraint, instead of a brazen, loud, celebrity-obsessed American like me. So I had to at least try shaking the hand of one of my all-time heroes, both creatively and politically. Thus, with little hesitation, Sue and I went to meet the great man and say thank you. 

Not surprisingly, he was gracious and funny, and very down-to-earth. I commented that for him to be out on tour at his age (he was 68 at the time), and doing it by train, was quite impressive. He replied, “If we don’t tour, we don’t eat, maaaan. These European festivals are our bread-and-butter.” I told him I had protested U.S. investments in South African businesses before apartheid fell, including those of my own university. At this, he nodded, giving me a generous pat on the shoulder.

Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, in the early 1960s.

I also told him that in the 1990s I had seen a concert by his ex-wife, the incomparable singer Miriam Makeba, performing with the great Dizzy Gillespie, who I knew was a hero to both of us. In their heyday, and for a long time afterward, Hugh and Miriam had been like the Louis Armstong and Aretha Franklin of pan-African music. His tribute to her the previous night from the Lugano stage was moving –since she had just passed away in 2008– and I thanked him for this as well. Even though I never wanted this moment to end, still I didn’t overstay my welcome, and I didn’t trouble him for a photograph. But the encounter was quite powerful, even so. Then he got on his train and headed north, we got onto ours , headed south, and we arrived in Milan a few hours later.  

Duomo Cathedral, Milan, which took almost 500 years to be completed.

And thus beginneth the automobile portion of our Road Trip tale. Or should I call it the “can’t get an automobile” portion, since the rental place in Milan would not accept our Discover card as a guarantee, to rent the vehicle we had reserved. 

Attention all U.S. travelers: Discover is useless in Europe!

We were flummoxed, and returned to our hotel to consider our options. And to pray, which I don’t recall Steve Martin ever doing. While we were in the lobby, we began a conversation with a young Army sergeant from Iowa. He was not in uniform, but was traveling briefly while on leave from a base in Germany. I must have seen something on his luggage or somehow intuited that he was American. I think his name was Andrew, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten by now. 

Feeling a bit desperate and foolish– and once again kind of audacious, as I had on the train platform meeting Hugh– I explained to Andrew that if we could pay him a fee, in Euros or in dollars with a check, for him to put down a Visa or Mastercard at the rental agency, then we could rent a car. I promised we weren’t trying to scam him, and we were willing to give him all of our stateside contact information. In return, he was trusting us enough to let us drive off in a car he was renting on our behalf, and hopefully not steal it, thus leaving him holding the bag. So then —in a heroic act of trust and citizenship and goodness, and to make a few bucks [cowbell] …for his trouble — Sgt. Andrew helped us get that rental done. We exchanged money and information with Andrew, and finally I drove –for the first time in over a week!– back to the hotel and rested …after creatively solving the third major travel mishap in three days

It was like we’d been through a real-life, self-inflicted episode of that show The Amazing Race: Moron Edition. Have you seen that one? But that kid Andrew, he was as much a hero on that day, to this moron, as he ever could have been anywhere that the Army planned to send him next.

We had a pretty good time in Milan that night, and also the next day. But when the second morning arrived, cue the squealing tires, we high-tailed it as fast as possible out of yet another city that  I had almost stranded us in. 

La Casella resort and equestrian center, Umbria, Italy

With a little help from GPS, we eventually found our pre-booked and secluded equestrian resort in Umbria, Italy. It would be my first real rest in about five days. We explained to the hosts about our package coming via DHL, with our replacement Mastercards in it. When it arrived the following morning, … BIG sigh of relief. One more bullet dodged. We finished out the week by seeing some of Tuscany, and lovely Umbria –including Asissi where my ancient hero St. Francis came from– and finally a few days in Rome, …and I didn’t get lost or screw anything else up the whole rest of the week! I promise it’s true. 

So I took a plane to make a date with history, took a train to meet one of my biggest heroes, and finally I rented an automobile with the help of a heroic American soldier who never even had to pick up a gun to rescue one of his countrymen. It was the best, but weirdest, Road Trip ever! 

The only thing that will ever top it is if I get a chance to shake Steve Martin’s hand, maybe on a cruise where thru some mishap we have to share a room, …or perhaps we’ll share our creative goals and deepest fears while up in the Goodyear blimp. What do you think? Do I have a shot? 

Me and Steve. “Hey, will you write a short blurb for the back of my first book, Steve? I promise you’ll like it!”

DEDICATED TO Hugh Ramapolo Masekela (4 April 1939 – 23 January 2018) .

THE NEXT TO NORMAL STORIES, STREAMING (compliments of WGLT public radio, Normal, IL) :

https://www.wglt.org/programs/next-normal-story-slam#stream/1

– Lugano Jazz Fest 2009, Masekela’s full set, on Swiss TV:

…. ~28:00 -he dedicates and begins  “Stimela (The Coal Train)” a story-song, about economic refugee miners and their poor working conditions in South Africa, which was also a big inspiration for my own effort in performing the above story, complete with using the hand percussion techniques Hugh used in his concert performances.

…… ~54:30 on the Lugano broadcast = “Grazing in the Grass”

 

 

MaB-Sinatra, Monroe, Lawford, (Rudin)- WaPo story on the FBI checks on Sinatra-Mob-JFK connects

This “swamp” gets weirder, and deeper, the more I work it.

I started out looking into a goofy 2003 Australian movie, All the Way, in which Dennis Hopper plays Sinatra (both Hopper and Sinatra are briefly featured in my work-in-progress historical novel Murder in Birdland, set in the years 1959-63, and thus running parallel to the JFK era).

Then I discovered this quietly essential “character” Mickey Rudin, Frank’s long-time attorney who was also Marilyn Monroe’s main attorney, and worked the phones furiously in the hours after her overdose death in 1962. And ultimately, I end up at the doorstep of  the 49th Ismaili Imām, Prince (Shah) Karim al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV (b. 1936)… another client of Mickey Rudin.

Of course. Why wouldn’t an Afghan/Pakistani prince and religious leader be in bed with the same people as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn’s shrink (who also happened to be Mickey’s brother-in-law), John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan?

(Side note: I also just discovered claims that The Ronald’s wife Nancy reportedly had an affair with Sinatra, though whether that was before or during her time with Ron, I’m not yet sure… I’ve got bigger fish to fry today.)

So now I’m wondering if Mickey Rudin was some master puppeteer, working alongside other Mafia-connected backstage players –super agents and former studio heads and union bosses like Sidney Korshak, Lew Wasserman and Jimmy Hoffa (who has a forthcoming movie on the way soon himself, The Irishman, about his assassination, by the Scorsese/DeNiro/Pacino dream team).

Watch this space.

It may be old news, about people long dead. But it’s still the story of America, especially its love/hate relationship with celebrities, criminals and religionists. We love ’em, until they get caught saying or doing something immoral or “Un-American”. Then we love wringing our hands and pointing fingers and denying we ever liked them. Once that line is crossed, what we really love is the lynch mob mentality that wants to tear them down and create conspiracy theories, all to persist in our denial that we idolized the wrong people in the first place.

On the other hand, if I were being scrutinized by the press and the FBI as much as Marilyn, JFK, and Sinatra were –and let’s face it, Donald Trump IS the new J. Edgar Hoover (paranoid, obsessive, far outside the mainstream sexually, power-hungry) — then I’d want a bulldog attorney like Mickey Rudin on MY team, as well.

Side note 2: If you’re at all interested in Hopper, there’s a unique and newish documentary called Uneasy Rider out on Amazon Prime that you may want to check out. Not unlike Mickey Rudin and Sinatra, Dennis was always one degree of separation from important artists, politicians, and probably more than a few criminals, for over 50 years. For movie buffs who know about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, his Bacon Number is One. As in, somewhat secretly, Hopper was at The Center of the Hollywood Universe, linkable to more stars and IMDB figures than any other actor ever. He knew everyone, from James Dean to Jack Nicholson to David Crosby to Bob Dylan, from painter Robert Rauschenberg to arty German or American filmmakers like Wim Wenders and David Lynch, from Taos, NM biker gangs to art gallery giants (Hopper was a painter, photographer, and important art collector), from state governors and drug kingpins (probably) to whomever took over for Hoover at the FBI. If he wasn’t dead now (he passed in 2010), I’m sure The Donald would still be calling Hopper– one of the most famously radical liberals ever– a “good buddy”, just to try and bask in a bit of the glow that Hopper gave off. Until Dennis called him out as a fraud.

And trust me, Dennis played everybody for fools, went toe-to-toe with giants, and self-resurrected several times in his life. He has a lot more in common with Trump than one would think.

Donald, Melania, and Hop… doesn’t anyone know how to smile around here? Not Photoshopped, a real photo from an Apprentice event… photo by Peter McCallum (cropped).

 

 

Blues & Abstract Truth -Cover

When they say “cool jazz”, this is what they mean.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth (on Impulse! Records, a subsidiary of ABC)

.      Recorded – February 23, 1961 – Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Oliver Nelson – alto saxophone, tenor saxophone

Eric Dolphy – flute, alto saxophone…. George Barrow – baritone saxophone…. Freddie Hubbard – trumpet…. Bill Evans – piano…. Paul Chambers – bass…. Roy Haynes – drums…. ……………………….

Link To the YouTube Full album

……………………….

“Stolen Moments” – 8:46

“Hoe-Down” – 4:43

“Cascades” – 5:32

“Yearnin'” – 6:24

“Butch and Butch” – 4:35

“Teenie’s Blues” – 6:33

……………………….

A lot has been said over the years about this disc already, though usually only by nerds like me. But as you’d expect, that never stopped me before from saying still more, and it won’t stop me today either.

It’s definitely one of my Desert Island Discs (the handful of essential music I’d want with me if I was going to go “full Brando” –in other words buy an island near Tahiti, which Marlon Brando actually did around this time in history, though it was lush, not at all a desert, and yet he did get lonely… yep, I’d set up housekeeping, drink exotic booze, listen to strange squawking bird sounds, put this on my turntable, and tell all of y’all to go jump for a few years… which trust me, is very tempting given how ridiculous American life has become under The Rapist President, …tempting even though I don’t have the money to even fly to Tahiti, let alone buy an island, or even rent a comfortable one-room shack there for a week… do they have Air B&B in Tahiti?).

But back to the blues. I first discovered Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth when I was a radio deejay on WNUR, once a week, on the 1984-87 jazz staff as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. (A station where, on the rock music side, Steve Albini was just getting his start. Albini was the future founder of the punk band Big Black, and a producer of Nirvana and many other essential punk and modern rock bands, both then and now… sort of the Jack White of my youth.)

Being in front of that mic was a quietly thrilling little chair to sit in, on occasion. Yeah, it was just “college radio”, but we had enough signal strength to reach out to the suburbs (even my hometown, though friends and family rarely tuned in), and certainly south into the heart of one of the great jazz cities. I think the final two years of college, I had a 4am-8am slot on a weekday. Drive time. Sort of.

Yes, maybe in retrospect it was not that big a deal. As usual, I’m a legend in my own mind. Nevertheless, to me, it was a unique privilege, whether I had ten thousand listeners (which I doubt, given the limited appeal of jazz, or of a slightly amateurish 20-year-old trying to find his voice and develop his ear, in public), or even just a hundred listeners (I’m sure I had more than that, at least after 6am). The best part was to have access to rack upon rack of LPs– and a few CDs, which were just then coming into common use in the late 80s– representing the absolute cream of the crop from the prior 60+ years of what some call the only truly American cultural innovation: jazz music.

I most likely picked this one up because I was already becoming a fan of the pianist on the session, Bill Evans. Along with the bassist here, Paul Chambers, by 1961 Evans had already played on one of the most important jazz records of all time, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, released in August 1959. To date, it’s still the biggest-selling jazz record, and even ranks at #12 in the 2003 Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time . 

Nelson’s record has been called essential “post bop”, and is cited as much for Nelson’s compositions and arrangements as it is for the usual rabid attention many jazz fans pay to great solos and soloists. However, the album does have some great soloing, especially from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. In my opinion, the flute work from Eric Dolphy is the other distinct feature that sets this record apart. As does the excellent engineering and production by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, one of the giants in the industry for decades. (He worked on albums including John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Miles Davis’s Walkin’, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus, and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father.[1] He is regarded as one of the most influential engineers in jazz.)

TBATAT also feels like about half of the movie soundtracks for any movie that came out in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s. Especially film noir and crime dramas, which tended to lean heavily on the tension that is evoked by many great jazz compositions, in every era. The album is equal parts planned and improvised, joyful and sad, mainstream and weird. The opening cut, Stolen Moments, is the best known. But for my money, the most interesting cut is the final one, Teenie’s Blues, precisely because it goes for the “weird” in a big way, without becoming cacophonous like the newly emerging free jazz that was on the rise at the start of the 1960s. TBATAT is, by comparison, more restrained, dignified, and yes, emotionally accessible than most jazz tends to be. It takes me places, without forcefully jerking me in any direction I wouldn’t already wish to go.

Put it on in the background while you work on a project sometime. I’d be willing to bet it will subtly take your imagination into some wonderful places.

The blues are concrete. The truth is abstract. Great art consists in weaving the two together, and Nelson and his band did that in 1961 as well as any group of artists ever accomplished.

Older Posts »

Categories

%d bloggers like this: