Young@Heart

A few days ago I went to see an advance screening of a movie I’d seen a trailer for a month or two ago, and, quite honestly, I would never have gone to see this movie unless a friend had said how much a friend of hers had loved it at an L.A. film festival last year. The movie is called Young@Heart, a British-made documentary about a Massachusetts chorus made up of elderly men and women who cover songs by a lot of surprising bands (The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, The Clash, The Bee Gees, David Bowie, etc.). Sounded quirkily tedious, but I decided to give it a shot.

And I’m so glad I did, because it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. I love this film so much that I feel a little embarrassed that I want absolutely everyone I know to go see it.

It’s very, very funny, and it’s very, very sad, and it’s very, very moving, and it’s better paced and more emotionally satisfying than most movies ever seem to be.

There are hilarious scenes with the men and women (average age about 80) attempting to learn Allen Toussaint’s Yes, We Can Can (in which the narrator tells us the word “can” shows up 71 times and is an almost impossible-to-learn tongue-twister for them). Tension mounts as Bob, the hip young chorus director, wonders if they’ll master it in time for their show and worldwide tour. It’s also amusing to watch them as they hear the songs they’ll be working on for the first time — there are many pained expressions as the group first hears Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia. But it’s also suprising how easily they take to certain songs — there’s a wonderful moment when they completely nail Life During Wartime.

Rehearsing James Brown’s I Feel Good.

The sad moments inevitably come when the group talks about and is faced with mortality and the need to carry on, regardless of roadblocks along the way.

There are two scenes so moving that I wonder if Hollywood writers could come up with anything more powerful. In one scene, the group has learned of some bad news on the way to a performance they are to do at a local prison, but they insist on doing their show, despite the news. The reaction of the mostly young prisoners to this group of elderly men and women singing for them is incredible. There’s no way any person could watch this and not tear up. (There was a teenage boy sitting next to me with his girlfriend, and he was sniffling throughout the entire scene.)

Performing at the prison.

But the moment of moments comes at the end, when Fred Knittle (who is the funniest person in the movie) sings a song I’d never heard before but which, I assume, must be an anthemic super-hit from Coldplay (a band I’ve managed to avoid thus far) — Fix You. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who might go see it (and EVERYONE should go see it), but listening to this man sing this song (which, in the context of this documentary, has a whole different meaning than Chris Martin probably intended), accompanied by the sound of his oxygen tank … it is powerful and sweet and staggering and life-affirming and just absolutely perfect.

Fred Knittle singing Fix You.

Go see this film.


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Subliminal Oprah

Flipping around the channels this afternoon, I came across a commercial for Lime A-way that caught my attention. A nice housewife in a red top is telling us how wonderful Lime A-way is for all her bathroom cleaning needs when suddenly we see a rubber-gloved hand holding a bottle of Lime A-way pointed at a bathroom wall. As the bottle sprays the product onto the tile, it quite clearly spells out OPRAH. It’s weird that I saw it — I rarely pay much attention to commercials, and it flashed by pretty quickly. But I jumped back with the DVR, and several times I watched the Lime A-way spray spell out OPRAH. This can’t be a coincidence (a Jesus on a tortilla “miracle”). What it IS, though, is absolutely brilliant subliminal advertising. My guess is that the ad wizards figure Oprah is the holy grail of celebrity endorsers and a targeted icon of the Lime A-way buying public. If they can’t get Oprah herself, they can at least use her name spelled out in bathroom cleanser. It’s so classy! (Somehow I’m thinking Harpo Productions hasn’t given its blessing to this.)

“Lime A-way? No, I haven’t tried it yet, but I think I heard somewhere that Oprah LOVES it! Thanks for reminding me — I’m gonna get some NOW!”

I wish I had a screen shot of that plain-as-day OPRAH spelled out on that bathroom wall.

Brilliant.

Has anyone else even noticed this? Google says no.

Edit: Thanks to reader “Shenanigans” we now have a short clip of the infamous commercial here:

Lime A-way Subliminal

Here’s a screenshot I made from the video (not the highest quality, I admit, but you get the idea):

What do you think?


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The Mike Wallace Interview (1957-1958)

The Mike Wallace Interview

There’s an interesting new page on the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas) site: a collection of full episodes of The Mike Wallace Interview show. You can watch something like sixty interviews Wallace conducted in 1957 and 1958. The interviewees are various newsmakers including Gloria Swanson, Aldous Huxley, Salvadore Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Sanger, Jean Seberg, Erich Fromm, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anthony Perkins, Henry Kissinger, and stripper Lili St. Cyr (“Lili St. Cyr, America’s leading strip teaser, talks to Wallace about her attitude towards the men who come see her perform, her attitude towards her profession, show business, and flying saucers”).

I watched two today. The first one was publisher/panel show quipster Bennett Cerf. Ever since I saw copies of his humor books lying around my father’s bookstore when I was a child, I’ve always had a sort of fascination with Cerf. He should be remembered as the president and driving force of Random House and an important and powerful voice against censorship, but he is probably best known to the public as the erudite but corny panelist on What’s My Line.

 

Bennett Cerf

 

This was, I believe, Mike Wallace’s first regular gig on national television, and, I have to say … he comes off as kind of a sensationalistic bully who repeatedly baits his guests and is relentlessly abrasive. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has grown up watching him on 60 Minutes, but the attack-dog persona wasn’t a comfortable fit yet — it’s a bit forced. Here is the intro to the Cerf interview:

WALLACE: Good evening, my guest tonight lives a double life. He’s a well-known figure in two controversial fields, television and book publishing. His name is Bennett Cerf. Bennett, in a moment I shall ask you what you think is wrong with television. And I shall confront you with a charge that book publishers are wantonly exposing young readers to obscene trash. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Philip Morris.

(As you can tell from that last line, Philip Morris cigarettes might as well be the third person on that black set. Wallace continuously shills for the cigarette-maker throughout the show, and at times it’s difficult to see the person being interviewed through the cloud of smoke.) (By the way, I’m not sure which is more destructive to Youth and to Society: “obscene trash” like Peyton Place or a 2-pack a day cigarette habit.)

Sometimes he just asks stupid questions:

WALLACE: Well now, tell me this: You talk about the American urge toward independent thought; can you tell me one single independent thought expressed on ‘What’s My Line’ in the past seven years?

CERF: Good Lord! That’s not the kind of show it is. Er… it’s a pleasant show. I think it owes its success to the fact that we have a pleasant group. I think John Daly does a superb job as moderator….

(And, later, of course, Wallace lets his bully shield down and plays good cop, telling him how much he and his family enjoy watching the show — presumably whilst filling up ashtray after ashtray in the living room of the Wallace homestead.)

The second show I watched was an interview with a Texas oilman I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about, other than his name (and that, only vaguely): Glenn McCarthy. He grew up relatively poor, but by the time he was 26 he was a millionaire wildcatter. In 1949 he was worth over 200 million dollars, but by 1952 he was 52 million dollars in debt. (He bounced back.) It is widely believed that the character of Jett Rink in Giant was based on him.

 

Texas Oil Wildcatter - Gene McCarthy

 

The oil industry is full of interesting and eccentric people, and Glenn McCarthy seems to have been one himself. Wallace leeringly asks the dark glasses-wearing, slow-talking, almost somber McCarthy to regale the audience with tales of his fighting and gambling. McCarthy insists that he doesn’t like to fight, but nevertheless tells about a fight (with a bottle of lye) that might (or might not have) blinded and scarred a man. Wallace brings the whole Texas millionaire oilman stereotype full-circle when he actually asks McCarthy how much money he has RIGHT NOW in his wallet (this is Mike Wallace, mind you, not Joan Rivers). (For the completists, McCarthy had about $1200 or $1300.)

My favorite over-the-top moment in this show was Wallace paraphrasing the Bible:

WALLACE: I quote from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and I’ve condensed the passage somewhat. Christ says, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, for where your treasure is there will your heart be also. No man can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and Man.” [pause] Do you think Christ was wrong?

“Do you think Christ was wrong?”

I’m not really sure why Mike Wallace is considered such a great interviewer.

Still, I’m interested in this period, and it’s nice to see these people being interviewed. It’s wonderful that the HRC has posted these shows online, but dear GOD, Harry Ransom Center … find people who can actually TRANSCRIBE! Just in the two shows I watched (which are, unfortunately, saddled with subtitles) I saw an embarrassing number of typos and misspellings and just crazy “transcriptions” (“H.L. Hunt” was transcribed as “Joe Hunt” and the phrase “book publishers are wantonly exposing young readers…” from the Cerf program was transcibed as “book publishers are waterily exposing young readers…” — just because you don’t know what the word is doesn’t mean you can just MAKE ONE UP! – “waterily”?!). I don’t know who is responsible for these transcriptions, but they need a stern talking-to.

Hey, Ransom Center — you seem to be in dire need of a proofreader … I’m available!

Next up: Elsa Maxwell (“syndicated gossip columnist and professional party hostess, talks to Wallace about Elvis Presley, Nikita Kruschev, Jane [sic] Mansfield, alcohol, society, immorality, The Duchess of Windsor, Cleveland Amory, and Greta Garbo”) — I’ve seen several clips of her on, I think, Jack Paar, and she was amusing. Also, I’m curious to see Mary Margaret McBride (who I don’t know much about other than her name, but I feel I need to learn more about the “First Lady of Radio” who “pioneered radio journalism with more than 30,000 interviews over more than 20 years”).

Anyway … check them out.


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508 Park Avenue: Robert Johnson Sang Here

Robert Johnson When I got back to Dallas from my day in Corsicana Monday, I was trapped in rush-hour traffic and missed my exit. I had to backtrack through downtown. As I passed the downtown library I remembered I’d never been back to see the boarded-up and all-but-condemned historic building known as 508 Park Avenue. I think Park Avenue is only one (seedy) block long, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever go down it. There was a group of homeless men sitting on the corner, probably surprised a car had turned onto the street.

508 Park Avenue has been vacant and boarded-up for years. It’s been vandalized, and there’s little prospect of it being spiffed up enough to be officially recognized as a historic building. And why is it historic? 508 Park Avenue is where Robert Johnson recorded many of his songs, including Hellhound on My Trail. Eric Clapton was filmed inside the building a few years ago, performing some of Johnson’s songs.

The building started life as a film storage warehouse for Warner Brothers Pictures and later became the Brunswick Records Building. Johnson recorded there in June of 1937, probably in a sweltering makeshift studio. Others said to have recorded there were Charlie Parker and Bob Wills. So … kind of important. But Dallas has never really appreciated its musical heritage. I would guess that less than a hundred people who live in this city know about Robert Johnson recording here (he recorded only two sessions — one in Dallas and one in San Antonio — that’s IT!). As is lamented in this story from the Dallas Observer, Dallas will bulldoze historic places at the drop of a hat. What a shame.

So, anyway, here’s the building. This first picture is what the place looked like in its heyday.

508 Park Avenue - historic photo

 

These last pictures show what it looks like today. Even though it still retains a certain elegance (if you squint really hard…), it’s also completely at home down the block from a group of half a dozen homeless guys sprawled out on the sidewalk drinking from paper bags.

 

508 Park Avenue - door

 

508 Park Avenue - side view

 

508 Park Avenue - medallion

 


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Corsicana: Lefty, a Hoodlum Wagon, & Wolf Brand Chili

Lefty Because it was Lefty Frizzell’s birthday Monday (he would have been 80), and because I’m such a huge Lefty fan, I decided to head down to his birthplace, Corsicana, to pay my respects. The skies looked a little ominous. There were all sorts of forecasts of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes and plagues of locusts, but I set out anyway, wilting in the humidity and wishing it were at least thirty degrees cooler.

Corsicana is about an hour south of Dallas, and the drive is fairly dull. There’s that really strange “Jesus is so groovy I’ve built this bizarre white memorial city to The Guy fashioned out of white PVC pipe” right outside of Palmer. (I don’t remember seeing all those gullies filled with water before.) Then there was the billboard that read “Please Stop the Porn and Be Re-Born — John 3:3.” I made note of this because I thought this was some sort of loosey-goosey Living Bible interpretation of a Bible verse, so I wanted to check it out, and, sadly, there’s no “porn” anywhere in there (“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” — perhaps, but at least he’s got porn).

Corsicana is a nice, small-ish town, and it’s pretty easy to find Beauford Jester Park where Lefty’s statue is. Near the statue is something called Pioneer Village, a collection of little buildings that serves as a museum village, housing artefacts dating back to the early 1800s when the area was sparsely populated with pioneer families and Indian trading posts. One of the little houses is the Lefty Frizzell Country Museum, and it’s supposed to be an example of the kind of shotgun house that oilfield workers and their families lived in at the time Lefty was born (his father worked in a nearby oilfield).

I stepped inside the office and paid the couple of dollars to wander around. The woman asked how I had happened by, and I told her I had driven down from Dallas because it was Lefty’s 80th birthday. I think she thought that was weird. She told me that they used to play Lefty’s music in the museum, but they had received cease and desist letters from, one assumes, ASCAP or BMI who ordered them to stop playing music unless they forked over big bucks. (Kind of a shakedown — they used to play a cd on a little boombox — to thronging masses that can’t be more than a tiny handful of people who visit this place over the course of a week.) As I left the office to head over to the Lefty house, the woman stared intently at the radio as it was alerting local counties of a tornado watch.

Walking up to the Lefty museum I noticed that some minor repair work needs to be attended to:

 

Lefty Frizzell Museum Corsicana

 

I walked in and a motion sensor turned the lights on. It’s a small two-room house (not, strictly speaking, a shotgun house) with Lefty stuff in the front room and various other country music stuff in the back. I’ve been there several times before so it’s all pretty familiar. I’m happy that someone has collected all this memorabilia together, but it’s definitely in need of a more professional touch — it looks like it was put together by an aging historical society member with minimal word processing skills. Still, it’s cool to see Lefty’s suits, his boots, his guitar. Before I left I signed the guestbook. I’m pretty sure I was there in 1998, but pages scanning that period were mysteriously missing. I found my sign-in from 2003 (“Happy 75th Birthday, Lefty! I love you! – Paula”). I was sad to see that the last person who had signed the guestbook had visited two days before. I was the only one who had visited all day. And it was his birthday! (Yes, I realize I’m dangerously close to becoming some sort of unstable Harry Houdini/Edgar Allan Poe Woman in Black/Red Rose anniversary stalker.)

I decided to wander around the little village — all those times I’d been there previously I’d never looked around. One of my favorite things was “Harmon’s Hoodlum Wagon” — a cage that served as a mobile jail cell during the boomtown days of the 1920s. The cage was transported around on the back of a truck — kind of like an open-air paddy wagon, roving around the oilfields, ever-vigilant, on the look-out for trouble.

 

Corsicana Harmon’s Hoodlum Wagon

 

Sad to say, most of the exhibits were kind of dull, but I really loved the General Store. It had a little post office inside and the place was crammed full of all sorts of interesting stuff. There were several Wolf Brand Chili items throughout (Wolf Brand Chili is, like Lefty Frizzell, a proud product of Corsicana). All very cool.

 

Corsicana Wolf Brand Chili cans

 

Corsicana Wolf Brand Chili model truck

 

(I actually read a history of Wolf Brand Chili — and it was very entertaining. As I recall, in order to promote the chili early on, the makers fashioned a truck to look like a can of chili and had a cage on the back for their mascot — a German Shepherd that looked kind of like a wolf.) (Also, early on they had some problems with people assuming the chili was made with wolf meat — that’s why you’ll always hear the chili referred to as “Wolf Brand” — and a fine chili it is.)

 

Corsicana face powder

 

Corsicana sundries

 

(I’m a big fan of the eerie-looking blue Bee Brand quinine bottles.)

I walked to Lefty’s statue, over in the park, and paid my respects. (Okay, I was wearing black, but I didn’t leave a mysterious rose.)

As I drove away I noticed that the skies were starting to look particularly threatening — probably a good time to head back to Dallas. But first I had to get gas (a full fifteen cents a gallon cheaper than in Dallas), and as I pumped gas I heard a train whistle and realized how long it had been since I last heard a train whistle. (When I was a child, I used to hear them every night while I was lying in bed. Where did all the trains go? I bet an unpleasant, unromantic community activist passed some sort of anti-train whistle zoning law.) I popped into the Collin Street Bakery for a treat for the road. I’m not really a fan of this famous bakery, but I took a chance on something called Cheese Crisps which looked like cookies and were sort of like unsweetened sand tarts, but less dense. I’m don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that they might well be flavored with the powdered “cheese” that comes in the envelopes in boxes of macaroni and cheese. And they were FANTASTIC! Forget those damned fruitcakes, go for the cheese crisps! Seriously — those things were great!

Driving home, munching on the cheese crisps, I listened to the Frankie Miller Bear Family set I got for my birthday. A song came on called She’s An Antibiotic (In White) (“I take her morning, noon and night”). It was so stupid it made the heavy dark clouds seem less menacing and the energy-sapping humidity seem less oppressive.

A nice relaxing day to celebrate Lefty Frizzell’s birthday.


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Happy 80th Birthday, Lefty!

LeftyI celebrated what would have been Lefty Frizzell’s 80th birthday today with a trip to Coriscana, his birthplace, about an hour south of Dallas. Lefty is my favorite singer, and I’ve driven down to Corsicana several times to … I don’t know … commune with Lefty’s spirit.

There’s a statue in a park (a statue … of Lefty Frizzell!!) that I make a pilgrimage to every few years to, you know, pay my respects. The statue was made possible by the help of Merle Haggard. Here’s a picture I took of a photograph hanging in the Lefty Frizzell museum in Corsicana — Merle standing next to the statue on its unveiling about fifteen years ago:

 

Merle at Lefty statue Corsicana

 

And here’s a photo from today, under cloudy skies with threats of tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, of that same statue:

 

Lefty statue Corsicana head

 

And this is my favorite part of the statue, Lefty’s foot keeping time:

 

Lefty statue Corsicana boot

 

Imagine if he had lived past his 40s. He could still be performing. HE SHOULD still be performing!

Happy Birthday, Lefty!


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The Merry Cemetery, Howard Finster, and Mexican Ex-Votos

Howard Finster self-portraitA couple of weeks ago I saw an Anthony Bourdain show in which he went to Romania. The most interesting place he visited was the Merry Cemetery, a sort of folk art tourist attraction that reminded me of Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens (…but with dead people).

The Merry Cemetery, in a little village called Sapanta, is an actual cemetery, but it looks more like an outdoor art installation. Each gravemarker is hand-carved and hand-painted and, in some cases, is accompanied by a short pithy poem about the deceased. Also (and I think this is extremely helpful…) each marker depicts the Dearly Departed with an image showing how they died or what they did before they died.

 

merry cemetery romania

 

merry cemetery child auto merry cemeter woodsman

 

merry cemetery patras marker

This is the elaborate marker for Stan Ioan Patras, the man who began carving the colorful markers in 1930.

My favorite marker above (and more are shown here) is the one with the unfortunate child and the automobile. It reminds me so much of Mexican ex-votos (or retablos) (except that if the image had appeared in an ex-voto, the child probably would have survived).

The best art I’ve ever seen in a restaurant (and, let me tell you, most original art in restaurants and coffee houses is painfully awful) is the collection of (probably commissioned) Mexican ex-votos at Chuy’s here in Dallas. Ex-votos are usually painted on tin or scrap metal by someone who managed to triumph over imminent death or some other terrible misfortune, courtesy of a Saint (frequently the Virgin of Guadalupe). The ex-voto chronicles the event in words and pictures, and finishes with thanks to the Saint who saved them and answered their prayers. I love these and I have several. The best ones at Chuy’s are the most extreme: a guy getting struck by a jagged bolt of lightning (my absolute favorite), a drunk lying in a gutter, a child falling into a river, a boy being chased by a bull toward a precipice, and one I’ve never understood which seems to depict a man who seems to have fallen under the spell of the demon Coca-Cola.

Here are a few randomly selected examples from the internet:

 

ex-voto chickens

Chicken illness averted! Thank you, St. Francis!

 

ex-voto operation

Delicate operation a success!

 

ex-voto-firingsquad

I can’t read the writing on this, but maybe someone survived a firing squad, although that seems pretty unlikely. (I checked again after noticing there was no saint saintly floating in either corner. The title of this is Martyrdom of Five Cristeros, October 8, 1927. So not an ex-voto, I guess, but if one of those guys HAD survived the sure death of a firing squad … it would have looked like this. With a saint hovering serenely nearby.)

 

ex-voto alien

Not absolutely sure about this one, but it seems to involve either an extraterrestrial and a spaceship, or an extraterrestrial and a giant flying sombrero — and a man unable to talk. (To bring back Howard Finster for a second, the esteemed Reverend Finster believed that Jesus Christ and Santa Claus came to Earth from … elsewhere … via a ride in a flying saucer.)

There’s a whole industry that has cropped up in mass-produced retablos made to look authentic — friends of mine, for instance, picked up one featuring Mexican wrestlers at the Rose Bowl flea market, copies of which surely adorn walls of hundreds of people just like me. I’m guessing that UFO one is probably not authentic. Doesn’t mean it isn’t great.


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