Birdland

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There are birds nesting all over my front porch. They seem to like the ledges under the porch roof for building their homes of twigs and other plant matter. And while I complain that the nests themselves are unsightly, it’s so much fun to peek out the window and see baby robins lifting their little heads up looking for mama bird.

Today my world is a bevy of bird activity. I hear bird calls of all kinds, some sweet and lilting like a song from Snow White, others like miniature drills rat-a-tatting away. And there is a group of brown birds with soft red heads flitting back and forth from the rooftop to one of the nests on the porch. It looks as though the young ones are having flying lessons.

Birds seem like nervous creatures, always jerking their heads here and there, looking out for predators, no doubt, such as the giant hawk that soared over the house earlier today. Yet they themselves are predators, hopping across lawns searching for worms and grubs to feed themselves and their hungry young.

In the quiet of the morning, it’s peaceful to hear the birdsong and think of the busy avian life going on in our trees and on our front porch. I’ve always wondered what the nightingale sounds like, trilling away in the dark while other wildlife sleeps. On the famous Beatles’ song “Blackbird,” you can hear the melodic lilt of a real blackbird  singing.

In years to come when I have more time on my hands, I plan to take up bird watching. I’ll buy binoculars and maybe even one of those jaunty hats to wear out in the forest. Perhaps I’ll join a birding club so that I can learn more about the fascinating world of birds.

All in good time. First I need to have an empty nest of my own.

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Fab Four

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I was just a little girl when the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-Sixties, but I quickly caught Beatle fever. The four English lads with dark mops of hair had an infectious sound and personality that made toes tap and girls swoon. I spent many an hour clad in white vinyl go-go boots dancing in the family basement rec room to Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, and Beatles 65.

This past weekend, I was able to reminisce about the Fab Four by listening to a weekend-long show on Sirius XM Radio’s Beatles channel. Hosted by music producer Peter Asher, the “All Together Now” show featured the top 100 Beatles songs as voted on by listeners. Although I might have quibbled with some of the listeners’ choices, I enjoyed the musical tour through Beatles history, punctuated by arcana from the knowledgable Asher.

Having not only been a music producer during the Beatles’ rise to fame but also a close personal friend, Peter Asher is well qualified to discuss the intricacies of their music and to share the personal stories behind many Beatles songs. In fact, Paul McCartney lived with Asher’s family for two years and wrote many of his beautiful songs in the Asher family home.

An interesting tidbit I learned was that the hit “Hey Jude” was originally titled “Hey Jules.” This makes sense since, as I once learned, Paul wrote the song to cheer up John Lennon’s son Julian when the Lennons were in the process of getting a divorce. John, for his part, wrote one of my favorite songs about his mother, Julia. McCartney also used many of his personal experiences to form parts of songs. For instance, the lyrics of “Let It Be” came from a dream Paul had of his mother. “Martha, My Dear” referred to Paul’s pet dog, and “Penny Lane” was based upon a street in his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool.

One of the most interesting details I learned was that Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a song about civil rights. In Paul’s words, “This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” Indeed, as the Beatles evolved, their songs became deeper and richer in many ways. They also got in trouble with conservatives for some of their comments and lyrics. I still remember my father’s outrage when John Lennon declared that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. And the John Birch Society objected to the upbeat “Back in the USSR,” which I interpret to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

To this day, I have a special fondness for the Beatles’ early music. It was so upbeat, sweet, and danceable. It’s just not possible to be in a bad mood while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Help!,” or “Happy Just to Dance With You.” I’m not such a fan of the psychedelic phase the Beatles had, in which all the lyrics sounded as if they were written under the influence of mushrooms or LSD. But much of their later music only improves with age. Soulful ballads such as “Let It Be,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reveal a maturing foursome, ironically as the band started splintering.

There will never be another band like the Beatles. As I listened to song after song in the top 100, I realized that not only had I heard almost every single one many times, I knew most of the lyrics. The Beatles were a formative part of our lives in the 1960s and 70s. Hearing so many of their masterpieces this weekend, I realized that Beatles music will never get old.

The Beatles’ gift to music and culture is immeasurable. And I hope for each of them the lines of “The End” have held true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Celebrities: They’re NOT Just Like Us!

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-2018-academy-awards.jpgThe magazine US Weekly has a feature titled, “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us.” These pages feature photographs of famous people doing ordinary things, such as walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and picking up dry cleaning. And while the photos show a decidedly less glamorous glimpse of these celebrities, it should be obvious to all of us that celebrities are not “just like us.” Otherwise, paparazzi would not find the need to snap pictures of them strolling down the street with their giant Starbucks drinks.

Last night the glitterati of Hollywood were out in full force to attend the most prestigious – and at 90, the oldest – entertainment awards ceremony in the country: the Academy Awards. As the decked out and bejeweled A-listers sauntered down the Red Carpet, onlookers in the stands cheered wildly for their favorite actors, singers and the like. Unlike the somber black that women donned for the Golden Globes as a #MeToo statement, last night’s nominees and presenters were adorned in bright reds, pinks, golds, and other happy colors.

Female and minority empowerment were definitely the theme of the evening, and at times Jimmy Kimmel got perhaps a bit too earnest about the industry’s attempts at fairness and inclusivity. Still, there were some refreshingly wonderful moments, such as Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s somewhat kooky acceptance speech and her insistence that all female nominees stand up with her to show the world how far women have come in Hollywood.

As always, the musical numbers were overwrought and showcased the usual mediocrity of the Best Song category. My sister was apoplectic that The Greatest Showman‘s “This Is Me” lost out to the lame “Remember Me” from the Disney animated movie Coco.

I liked the fact that there were no sweeps by one movie this year, and I was fairly amused by the return of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to have a do-over of the calamitous Best Picture announcement from last year. I guess even celebrities are human, as are the suits at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Human, yes. But I can attest to the fact that they are somehow a little different from us. For years I lived in Los Angeles and saw many famous people in those nine years, including Michael Jackson, Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen, Jack Lemmon, and on and on. In L.A., it’s not cool to go crazy over a celebrity sighting or approach a famous person for his or her autograph. We act as if they are just another ordinary person, but inside we are like, “OMG, OMG, it’s George Clooney!”

Celebrities are different, not just because of their wealth or the fact that they can’t walk down the street without being recognized. They are different because their roles create larger than life personas through their music or their acting performances. That is why the big movie studios used to guard the public image of their stars with ruthless tenacity.

And that is why we turn out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of these luminaries as they walk the Red Carpet. It’s why we tune into an overlong but magical spectacle called the Oscars. And it’s why, detractors notwithstanding, the Academy Awards will endure to celebrate their 100th anniversary and beyond.

Music or Lyrics?

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tdy_klg_terms_151113.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMy kids thought it was hilarious one day when they heard me singing the pop song “I Can’t Feel My Face.” My son informed me, “You know that song is about taking drugs, don’t you, Mom?” Honestly, I didn’t. To me it was just an upbeat, bouncy tune that I liked. Now it’s tainted by my knowledge that it’s about cocaine-induced numbness.

So many popular songs today have dubious subject matter and language. Rap is an obvious example. But what about more light-hearted sounding tunes? Back in the Sixties, much was made of the “hidden” drug references in such songs as “Along Comes Mary,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “White Rabbit,” and yes, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Songs were routinely censored, and the Rolling Stones were forced to amend the lyrics “Let’s spend the night together” in order to perform the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.

With the advent of rap in the 1990s, Tipper Gore led the charge against profanity and violence in song lyrics and was successful in getting record producers to put warning labels on albums deemed offensive. When I hear some of today’s pop songs, my old favorite “Please Go All the Way” sounds positively tame by comparison.

The question is, which is more important, the music or the lyrics? I tend to go by the standard of the old pop music TV show American Bandstand: whether it has a good beat and I can dance to it. If so, it’s good enough for me. I’m reminded of a funny Chris Rock stand-up bit in which he describes young women gyrating happily to sexist and offensive hip hop songs. For the purposes of dancing or even getting from point A to point B in my car, the lyrics to a song are beside the point.

Yet meaningful lyrics can also bring so much depth to a song. Sometimes I take to a song with a monotonous tune because I love the meaning behind the song. A good example for me is “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Another is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, let’s face it, is something of a dirge. But what lifts these songs for me are the words and meanings behind them. In fact, as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed using popular song lyrics as poetry in my classes.

In any event, musical taste is an individual thing, and I will continue to enjoy my bouncy pop or rowdy rock music, whether I like the lyrics or not. Just don’t tell me what “Cake By the Ocean” refers to. I don’t want to know; I just want to enjoy it.

 

The Worst Noel

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A one-hour listen to the all day Christmas music on my local radio station has taught me something. There are a lot of lame Christmas songs out there. Aside from the fact that the station runs through the same 50 songs on a loop 24/7, many of them are just unbearably cheesy or even offensive.

For instance, just yesterday I was listening to the Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which was written and performed as a fundraiser to stamp out world hunger. There’s one verse, though, that has always bugged me. After describing the terrible plight of many people in the world, the song admonishes us, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” What kind of Christmas message is that?

For years women have been complaining about the veiled date rape message of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: “Say, what’s in this drink?” To be sure, that and many songs that find their way into the all day Christmas song marathons were written in a pre feminist era. Still, it’s cringeworthy in this day and age to hear a man plying a woman with drinks and pressuring her to stay overnight. (I must confess, though, that I like the rendition of “Baby” sung by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in Elf.)

There are some incredibly tacky and inane holiday songs out there, such as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and the annoyingly lisped old charmer “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” And then there’s the plain schmaltz: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the interminable “Feliz Navidad,” the song that really put Jose Feliciano on the map. Feliciano, who had been booed and catcalled for his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at a World Series game (Atlantic, Dec. 16, 2015), reasoned that if he inserted the English language line “I Wanna Wish You a Merry Christmas” into his song, the radio stations would have to play it. Unfortunately, he was right.

I know some people love these songs. Some of it, I suspect, is nostalgia. How else to explain why anyone would listen to Jimmy Durante rasp out “Frosty, the Snowman”? And it’s easier to do a remake of a popular song from the 40s or 50s than to come up with new music and lyrics. Hence, the 80 millionth version of such gems as “Santa Baby” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

My objection to these radio station playlists is that they miss so much classic and great holiday music. All the beautiful carols I learned as a child: “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and on and on. These kinds of songs get little playing time. There are some hauntingly lovely songs such as “The Coventry Carol” and “Breath of Heaven” that speak to the dark beauty of the Christmas story. And even more contemporary Christmas songs, such as Amy Grant’s nostalgic, “Tennessee Christmas,” never seem to make their way onto the air.

If stations playing holiday music 24/7 during the season really put their minds to it, they could play a list of songs with virtually no repeats all day long. Maybe then I’d enjoy some of the fun but currently overplayed hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Still, there are some holiday classics that, for me, never get old. Nat King Cole’s silky smooth “A Christmas Song” comes to mind. I guess I’ll spend the Christmas season listening to my own holiday song collection in the comfort of my home.

What are your favorite songs of the season?

 

 

The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

Hamilton

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I’ve finally seen it. After months and months of hearing and reading all the hype about the theater sensation of the new millennium, I finally went to see Hamilton.

My husband had surprised me on Mother’s Day with tickets to the play at Chicago’s Private Bank Theater. Our seats were fantastic – dead center and so close I could see the actors spit. My hubby took a photo of me with the stage as a backdrop and sent it to our kids with the quip: “Mom in the third row center for Hamilton: What a waste!”

See, I had been somewhat indifferent to the frenzy that had surrounded the opening of Hamilton. For one thing, the subject matter did not really interest me. A play about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of our less vaunted Founding Fathers? Yawn. I also was not sure about the rap and hip hop infused nature of the music. I love all the traditional old musicals, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc. So I didn’t think I would enjoy a more modern twist.

Furthermore, people’s insistence that I just had to see the play, that it was the greatest thing ever, made me stubborn about not wanting to join the bandwagon. With so much hype, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying it to the level at which everyone seemed to regard it. Indeed, as the play opened, the audience roared with expectation, and I wondered whether they were just responding to the hype or had already spent thousands of dollars on repeat viewings of the pricey play.

I really enjoyed the play. I found the music and lyrics creative and fun, at turns funny and plaintive. The choreography and the characters, the costumes, the comic appearances of a snarky King George: all were well done. And I loved that the closing number was an emotional and subdued one rather than the bombastic, glittery finales of most Broadway musicals.

Yet I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the best musical I have ever seen. While I got the gist of the theme as being about an improbable hero, I found the story less than compelling. I realize that the author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was working within the limits of real history. And I did appreciate the underlying messages of inclusion and of fighting for one’s ideals – particularly in the current political climate that exists in the U.S.

I think my enjoyment was hampered in part by all the hype. The way the audience reacted to certain characters appearing on the stage was over the top. It was as if they were all in on a joke to which I wasn’t privy. I felt more like I was at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than at a Broadway musical. And the underlying insistence from everyone I knew that I just had to love it put me off a bit.

Still, I’m glad I was able to see the musical sensation of a generation. I have no doubt that in many ways, Lin-Manuel has opened the genre of the Broadway musical to further invention and creativity. Perhaps he will also be responsible for keeping the genre alive for the millennials coming of age in the next decades.

Have you seen Hamilton? I’d love to know what you think.