Sunday, October 5, 2014

‘Gilmore Girls’

The dramedy Gilmore Girls (2000-07), which debuted on the late W.B. Television Network 14 years ago today, was a favorite show of mine.  I watched it loyally from its second season (I got hooked by its lead-in to Smallville) until its series finale five years later.  Ten years ago, I even bought the first three seasons on DVD, but I ended up not watching them as often as I thought I would.  I knew that Gilmore Girls developed a devoted following, but I was unprepared for the Internet’s explosion of excitement when the series was made available for streaming on Netflix at the beginning of this month. 

Thanks to this welcome cyberspace hullabaloo, I was inspired to watch my Gilmore Girls DVDs for the first time in a long while.  And I was pleasantly reminded of why I like the show so much: its cozy ambience, its superb cast, its witty rapid-fire dialogue, its fully realized characters.  I’m now happy to be reacquainted with the series.  It feels a bit like catching up with a good friend after a long absence. 

Lauren Graham as Lorelai (left)
and Alexis Bledel as Rory
For those who don’t know, Gilmore Girls follows the day-to-day travails and triumphs of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), an inn manager in the (fictional) town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut.  Lorelai’s wealthy mother and father, Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann), live very well in Hartford’s high society.  Years ago, they groomed Lorelai to be a part of that world, but she was too much of a free spirit to belong in such a conformist, repressive environment.  When she was 16, Lorelai became pregnant, and after the birth of her daughter — also named Lorelai but who goes by the nickname Rory — she ran away from home to get away from her controlling parents.  As the series begins, Rory (Alexis Bledel) is now 16 herself (making Lorelai a very youthful 32) and an excellent student accepted to the prestigious (and very expensive) Chilton private preparatory school.  Unable to afford Chilton on her own, Lorelai goes cap in hand to her parents.  To get their estranged daughter and grandchild back into their lives, they loan Lorelai the money on the condition that she and Rory have dinner with them every Friday.  These dinners become the locus of most of the story-driving tensions from episode to episode. 

Lorelai’s life in the quirky town of Stars Hollow includes her managing job at the Independence Inn and her occasional romantic relationships, especially her will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with hunky local diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson).  Meanwhile, the episodes also chronicle Rory’s days in the equally repressive and controlling environment of Chilton (and after she graduates, Yale University), particularly her ambivalent association with her frenemy Paris Geller (Liza Weil).  Another story line concerns Rory’s on-again/off-again relationships with town good boy Dean Forrester (Jared Padalecki) and city bad boy Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia). Gilmore Girls’s hook is the wisecracking, pop-culture-referencing rapport between the whimsical Lorelai and the more down-to-earth Rory, a relationship more like sisters than mother-daughter.  When selling the series, creator Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched a show where a mother and her daughter were best friends.

Because Gilmore Girls is decidedly woman-centered (a number of commentaries credit it for passing the Bechdel test with flying colors), I’m not surprised that — as in the days of the show’s first airings — its following is mostly female.  In the years when the show was on the tube, I would surf the Web for Gilmore Girls discussion groups.  In all cases, the cyber communities were overwhelmingly populated by fans with XX chromosomes.  This was fine, but their on-line discussions tended to be limited to the romantic relationships on the show (the favorites among the fans were Lorelai-Luke and Rory-Jess), which didn’t leave much room for discussion of the show’s other merits.  If I had first heard of Gilmore Girls through these discussion boards, I would have thought that the series in question was nothing more than a soap opera.  Also, popular culture at the time (e.g., Saturday Night Live sketches) seemed to harbor the idea that male viewers of Gilmore Girls were mostly gay and equally fixated on Lorelai’s and Rory’s love lives. 

I thought that Gilmore Girls’s reputation as a show with an almost exclusively female and gay-male audience was a huge disservice to such a well-crafted and searingly insightful show.  Despite Gilmore Girls being undeniably estrogen-powered, there was no reason, I thought, why my fellow heterosexual men couldn’t be equally spellbound by the series and rid it of its undeserved reputation as a “mere” chick show, as a show primarily about romantic relationships, tugging heavily and blatantly on the heartstrings.  With its fully fleshed-out characters and its keen, nuanced glimpses into the machinations of social hierarchy, among other elements, Gilmore Girls was so much more than that.  (Obviously, it’s a statistical probability that the series must have had many other straight male viewers, but we seemed to be M.I.A. whenever the show was discussed by the media.)  So, on one of the Gilmore Girls discussion boards, I posted a satirical piece about straight men being excessively stigmatized for liking the show.  I titled what I wrote (drawing upon Gore Vidal’s neologism for heterosexuals) “Grims for Gilmore Girls,” which I’d love to repost, but the discussion board has vanished from the Internet, and I can’t find a copy of the piece anywhere nearby. 

The third Gilmore girl:
Kelly Bishop as Emily
Anyway, one of Gilmore Girls’s most perceptive elements was how it portrayed upper-middle class life as downright Machiavellian: the rich (i.e., the world of Richard and Emily Gilmore) were always manipulating someone in order to acquire or preserve whatever piece of turf was at stake.  One episode that emphasized this was “Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom!,” in which the otherwise amiable Richard cold-bloodedly screws over his business partner in order to save himself from bankruptcy. In fact, the premise of the entire series (a recalcitrant Lorelai compelled to have weekly dinners with her frosty parents) was an effort by the elder Gilmores to manipulate their estranged daughter back into their lives.  I wanted to write something on this aspect of the show, but someone beat me to it, and did a very nice job.  In New York magazine, Lilly Loofbourow has written an article titled “What Gilmore Girls Gets Right About Money and Love,” in which she insightfully details the characters’ intertwining of economics and affection: “Money is rarely [only] about money in Gilmore Girls; it’s about coercion, its about power, but it’s also about creating financial channels for love where other methods have failed.”  The piece is a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Internet odes about how Lorelai and Luke should get married, or about how dreamy bad-boy Jess is, and I enthusiastically recommend it. 

Michael Winters as Taylor Doose
Thinking of the show also reminded me of the number of times during its production that I bumped into cast member Michael Winters, who played Stars Hollow busybody Taylor Doose, at my local diner and made small talk with him.  The weekend after the first broadcast of the episode “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?,” I ran into him at a local restaurant and we had a brief conversation about the episode.  He spoke highly of its director, Kenny Ortega

At the same diner on another day, I also ended up sitting at a table next to Alexis Bledel.  She munched on a salad and never took her eyes off her laptop, which she viewed with an increasingly consternated look on her face.  She appeared as though she were reading bad news on the display.  Had she looked more relaxed, I might have gone up to her and told her how much I enjoyed Gilmore Girls.  But since she didn’t look happy, I gave her space. 

Bledel and Graham reunited in 2010 for an ‘Entertainment Weekly’ photo shoot

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls.  It’s been too long.  And I’m glad to see that a TV show with crackling dialogue and such well-drawn female characters is still so fondly remembered and can generate such enthusiasm and excitement. 

Gilmore Girls, Interrupted:  Since so many viewers were disappointed by the show’s seventh, and last, season (the only season without Sherman-Palladino), especially its awkwardly retrofitted series finale, the aether has swarmed with rumors of a Gilmore Girls feature film that would conclude the saga of Lorelai and Rory in a more polished manner, closer to the way envisioned by its creator.  After luxuriating in all of the buzz about Gilmore Girls’s new availability for streaming on Netflix, I hope the Powers That Be in Hollywood copper-boom and such a movie soon sees the light of day. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Left Turn on Green Arrow

I was just in time to be too late.

That’s what it felt like, anyway.  I had just started buying a fascinating superhero comic-book title, only to discover that the first issue I bought was also the last issue: the title, as the magazine itself announced, was being discontinued.  This bit of information aggravated me no end because it was, to me, the best comic book I had ever read up to that time — and it remains one of the best today.

The year was 1972, and I was 12-years old.  Before then, I had bought comic books sporadically, but I never really collected them in any serious fashion.  I grew up with superhero comics and never remember them not being around me.  I guess any kid would be intrigued by the idea of a superhero: we were learning how to get along in a world that we barely had any control over, while these costumed crime fighters could bend that world to their own demands (via their super powers) and were often praised for it in the end. 

I was also drawn to comics because I drew myself — drew pictures on paper, that is.  In these three-color ink-and-paper stories, I saw the kind of rendering of the world that I wanted to achieve in my own drawings.  In fact, my first ambition as a kid was to become a professional comic-book artist.  So, by the time I turned 12, I had decided to collect comics in earnest — I decided to collect comics with an eye towards studying them as a means of eventually entering the profession myself.  (Like today, the two major companies in superhero comics back then were Marvel and D.C.)  And one of the first comics I bought with this new purpose in mind was the D.C. publication Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89. 

The cover of ‘Green Lantern’ #9 (1961)
I was already familiar with the superhero Green Lantern.  An intergalactic green-masked, leotard-clad do-gooder, Green Lantern fought science-fiction nemeses who endangered the Earth, and he did so with a “power ring” that could … well … that could do anything.  One reason why Green Lantern was never my favorite title before then was because, with only a few paltry exceptions, there wasn’t anything that his ring couldn’t do.  The usual Green Lantern adventure had the hero fighting some equally super-powered foe, and it was only a matter of time (i.e., by the end of the story) before G.L. would have his power ring shoot a green beam of light that could take absolutely any form and use it as a way to defeat his adversary.  The stories didn’t contain much suspense because the all-powerful abilities of the power ring could, in the end, do whatever was needed to vanquish the super-powered foe. 
‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89 (1972)
But Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was different.  This was the twelfth issue that D.C. had paired G.L. with Green Arrow, a mortal superhero whose only “power” was his skill as an archer shooting scientifically equipped arrows (in other words, Green Arrow was Batman with a quiver full of gadgety shafts instead of a utility belt).  So, the idea of teaming the near-omnipotent Green Lantern with a partner sans superpowers appealed to me: Green Arrow’s governance by the known physical laws of the universe leavened the contrivance of Green Lantern’s power ring. 

With a story titled “…And Through Him Save a World,” this comic book was unlike any other I had ever read up to that time.  The featured heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, were both costumed crime fighters, but they didn’t fight some similarly powerful super villain.  Instead, the antagonist of the story was a human vandal with a radical environmental agenda, an injudicious but well-meaning activist whose anti-industrial mischief angered the blue-collar workers whose jobs he imperiled.  The story evoked the pressing real-life issue of environmental pollution, making the flawed activist/vandal a sympathetic character.  To put it mildly, this wasn’t your average superhero adventure.  Woven into this story was an obvious but intriguing allegory of the biblical crucifixion story, comparing the vandal’s tribulations with the passion of Jesus Christ — and equating the need to save ourselves by reversing our pollution of the environment to the Christian idea of “saving” ourselves via the forgiveness of sin. 

The concluding pages of ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #89
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #89 was an eye-opener, a compelling sample of a comic-book title definitely worth collecting.  However, it was also, it turned out, the last issue of the title to be published for some time.   The adventures of Green Lantern and Green Arrow were to continue as a back feature in the comic The Flash, a back feature that ended up running for only three issues. 

In other words, I had just missed out on an incredible string of superhero stories.  For the previous eleven issues (#76-87, not counting a reprint), Green Lantern/Green Arrow, starting in 1970, had taken Green Lantern, a costumed hero known for his otherworldly exploits, and immersed him in the dilemmas of this world.  And the stories would usually raise some current social problem seldom encountered in superhero stories.  For the first time in superhero comic books, a title made a sustained effort to be relevant regarding current events of the day, to evoke social dilemmas faced by us non-superheroes in the here and now. 

Denny O’Neil in a recent photo
The writer who authored the twelve social-problem Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues was Denny O’Neil, who was given the task to revamp Green Lantern’s image in the face of slumping sales.  He hit upon the idea of using serious social issues in the comics by drawing on his past as a journalist.  As O’Neil put it, referring to the team it would take to produce the new Green Lantern comic:

We would dramatize [contemporary social] issues.  We would not resolve them.  We were not in the polemic business.  I was smart enough to know enormously complex problems couldn’t be dissected within the limitations of a 25-page comic book and humble enough to know that I didn’t have solutions anyway.  Still, I cherished the notion that the stories might be socially useful: I could hope they might awaken youngsters, eight- or nine-year-olds, to the world’s dilemmas and these children, given such an early start, might be able to find solutions in their maturity.  My generation, and my father’s, had grown up ignorant; my son’s didn’t have to.  Maybe I could help, a little. 

Green Arrow in ‘More Fun
Comics’ #91 (1943)
One way O’Neil dramatized the issues was to give Green Lantern someone to argue its other side.  O’Neil chose to pair G.L. with Green Arrow in the stories that he wrote.  The writer chose the green-costumed archer (his outfit a nod to Robin Hood) because, in the D.C. pantheon of superheroes, Green Arrow (who first appeared in More Fun Comics #73 back in 1941) was only a second-tier figure who never really gained a following of his own, the way Superman and Batman did.  Usually appearing in the back pages of other heroes’ comic books or as just another member of the Justice League of America, Green Arrow had never really developed his own personality; he was something of a non-entity.  O’Neil decided to change his characterization to, in the writer’s words, “a lusty, hot-tempered anarchist to contrast with the cerebral, sedate model citizen who was Green Lantern.  They would form the halves of a dialogue on the issues we chose to dramatize.”  Where the magazine had previously been titled Green Lantern, O’Neil made the virescent-clad archer a co-star and changed the title (at least on the cover) to Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

Neal Adams
Another reason why the G.L./G.A. series grabbed my attention was because it was illustrated by my favorite comic-book artist, Neal Adams.  I had become interested Adams’ art ever since his late-1960s work on the D.C. character Deadman and the title The Brave and the Bold (which teamed Batman with a different superhero every month).  I was impressed by the hyper-realistic (for comic books of the era) look of the characters he drew: where drawings by other comic-book artists maintained a highly stylized or somewhat simplistic rendition of their characters, Adams’ lifelike illustrations made an effort to reproduce proportions, facial features, and gestures like those seen in the real world.  “If superheroes existed,” Adams is reported to have said, “they’d have to look the way I draw them.”  No argument here.  But Adams also viewed his characters on the page from cinema-like angles, unusual for comic books at the time: extreme high angles, extreme low angles, extreme close-ups, and everything in-between.  Every so often, he would even play with the sequencing of panels, sometimes having a drawing beginning on one page and continuing over onto the next.  All of these are familiar conventions in comics these days, but they were quite unusual at the time.  Adams’ involvement in the G.L./G.A. series is one more reason for my continuing interest in it. 
From ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ #76 (1970)
The first G.L./G.A. story (issue #76) observed the law-enforcer Green Lantern coming to the defense of a portly middle-aged man being roughed up by another man on the street.  G.L. intervenes on the middle-aged man’s behalf, sending his assailant to jail.  But shortly afterwards, the brash, excitable Green Arrow — clearly on the side of the underdog — informs his by-the-book colleague that the man he rescued was a slumlord, and the man he sent to jail a soon-to-be-evicted tenant.  After viewing the miserable conditions of the tenement, G.L. realizes that upholding the law doesn’t necessarily serve justice.  In the end, the slumlord is arrested for his underworld connections and for trying to have G.A. murdered.  The final pages conclude with the archer making a speech strange to see in a comic book at that time: after evoking the assassinated Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, G.A. says, “Something is wrong!  Something is killing us all!  Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!”

As a social-problem story, Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 isn’t exactly compelling.  For one thing, the narrative’s motivating problem — the slumlord evicting his impoverished tenants — is never really addressed: the slumlord is delivered to justice because of his underworld connections, not because he is a slumlord; and the tale leaves the fate of his hapless tenants unresolved.  Also, the 20-plus-page comic book doesn’t have the room to develop the characters in a truly satisfying way, so they still come across as stock figures.  But for a mainstream superhero comic book of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this was startling stuff.  Confronting a super-powered hero, one used to battling villains from outer space, with very real terrestrial problems brought an unusual social consciousness into an art form usually noted, at the time, for its lack of worldliness.  This made Green Lantern/Green Arrow seem a bit surreal.

But, alas, the relevance and realism — and awards — that O’Neil and Adams brought to the title didn’t rescue its sales figures, and it was discontinued after two years.  After I bought my first issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow (the last one to be published), I did what I could to get my hands on #76 and those other eleven previous issues, not an easy thing to do back in those days before comic collecting became the relatively high-profile activity it is today.  It took a few years, but I eventually acquired all eleven by the time I was in college.  By then, I had given up collecting comic books as a hobby, and I aspired to achievements other than drawing them.  But the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series of the early 1970s continues to fascinate me because of O’Neil’s infusion of social problems into superhero stories and because of Adams’ excellent artwork.  Fortunately, their twelve issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow have been critically praised in many quarters as the greatest run of superhero stories in comic-book history, and they have been reprinted numerous times over the intervening years.
A ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow’ reprint edition from 1983
Furthermore, Denny O’Neil’s transformation of the character of Green Arrow from a non-entity to a cantankerous liberal firebrand has made him one of the more popular and dynamic superheroes in the D.C. Universe.  In 1976, the comic title Green Lantern/Green Arrow was resurrected but without the socially conscious themes.  When the title switched to solo Green Lantern adventures, Green Arrow moved to his own solo stories, one of the most notable being the adult-oriented limited series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters in 1987.  Today, Green Arrow can be seen as the main character in the popular CW series Arrow. 

Of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow was published back in the days when comic books weren’t as varied as they are today.  Back then, all comics (at least as far as I could tell) had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and thus had to contain family-friendly content (otherwise, they would need to switch to another format, like Mad and Creepy).  With the burgeoning of a post-adolescent readership over the decades, comics began to include more adult content and edgier material, with some titles eschewing CCA approval altogether.  And after the early 1970s, the proliferation of shops specializing in the sale of comics and graphic novels has created different book formats and a different marketing environment than when the 7x10 three-color newsprint magazines were relegated to one corner of the drug store or the 7-11.  With today’s wide variety of “funny books” and graphic novels, a title like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, among comic-book aficionados, would have a harder time standing out from the overabundance of choices.  But I’d like to think that the current environment of comic books as a serious medium for adult readers was shaped in part by Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s startling juxtaposition of otherworldly superheroes confronted by urgent real-world problems — even if we former youngsters haven’t, as Denny O’Neil hoped, grown up to solve them.  

Trailer for the CW series ‘Arrow,’ based on the Green Arrow

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I’ll Tell You How Many More

When the people who “demand a plan” start showing up at the polls and voting with greater motivation than those concerned about government agents taking them away to a FEMA concentration camp, we’ll see some sensible gun laws. But as long as the latter vote with great intensity while the former are ho-hum about voting (remember the Colorado recall election of 2013?), we might as well get ready to make that next list ... and the one after that ... and the one after that ...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Blonde vs. Brunette

On this for-all-intents-and-purposes last day of summer in the U.S., I wanted to write about something fun.  One of my most clicked-on blogposts (although I don’t know how many clickers actually stick around to read it) is my one kvetching about Rachel McAdams dying her naturally brown hair blonde.  (And I haven’t seen her wearing blonde hair recently, so — who knows? — my article may have had some effect!)  Since brown hair versus blonde seems to be a popular topic, I thought that I would write another post on that theme.  (Disclaimer: I don’t intend to imply that women are reducible to their appearance; this blogpost is not meant as a celebration of objectification.  I hope that covers my tukhus.)

Recently, I stumbled upon this two-year-old article that backs up my predilection for women with brunette hair over women with blonde hair, an article waggishly titled, “Science Don’t Lie: Dudes Dig Brunettes over Blondes.”  Its author (a fellow male) goes on to list some female celebrities that he reckons better as blondes or brunettes.  I’m happy to say that the writer, considering 17 female celebrities, finds their brunette manifestations preferable to their blonde ones a clear majority of the time.

Jessica Alba in ‘Dark Angel’ (left)
and ‘Into the Blue’ (right)
I agree with most of the author’s choices, but as I said in my McAdams post, I do have my exceptions.  I honestly think that Cameron Diaz and RenĂ©e Zellwegger look better as blondes.  I think that Jennifer Lawrence looks good either way.  And I wish that the article had included Jessica Alba, who clearly looks better as a natural brunette than as an ersatz blonde (Dark Angel beats Into the Blue every time!) and for many of the same reasons as Rachel McAdams.

Emma Stone: not a natural redhead,
but she ought to be
While the article includes Emma Stone, it only considers her as blonde contra brunette, and it finds her more becoming with brown hair.  I think that Ms. Stone looks infinitely better as a redhead.  In fact, that hue of hair suits her cuteness and coloring so well that I was a little crestfallen to learn that red isn’t her natural hair color.  According to the Huffington Post, she was born blonde and only started wearing her hair a more carmine color when producer Judd Apatow wanted her to alter her locks for her part in Superbad (2007).  Anyone who appreciates female beauty is left to wonder why Apatow made a better call for what color Emma Stone’s hair ought to be than Mother Nature did.

XiXi Yang: before (beautiful) and after (not so much)
And while we’re on the subject of all things crinal, Chinese American television presenter XiXi Yang has recently begun dyeing her naturally black hair a light brown.  I don’t think this hair shade is in the least bit flattering.  It might be because the color is a tad too close to her somewhat apricot skin tone, so that the hues of her look all slather into each other.  Her appearance is enormously enhanced by the contrast of her black hair’s delightful darkness juxtaposed with her much lighter complexion.  I look forward to the day that she ditches the dye and goes back to black.

A beautifully buff and brunette Brooke Burke
bids so long to summer!  (She’s not mentioned
in the blogpost.  This is just an excuse to post
a picture of her.)

Oh, well, so ends my last post of summer 2014 on a note of frivolity.  I hope that everyone in the States (and in the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter) betakes themselves outside and enjoys the waning days of warm weather.  And have a good Labor Day!

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sloop John B. Goes Home

For decades, I only thought of “Sloop John B.” as a Beach Boys song.  The 1966 Beach Boys track was the earliest one that I knew about, and I also knew that the song was on their acclaimed album Pet Sounds.  So, I thought that “Sloop John B.” was written by Brian Wilson.  Only recently did I discover that the tune — which is known by a variety of titles — is a traditional song from the Bahamas and was first committed to record more than 30 years before the Pet Sounds track.  My new knowledge of the song’s older identity made me want to look into some its older versions, some of which have lyrics in the Bahamian patois. 

According to Wikipedia, the song — known alternately as “Sloop John B.,” “John B. Sails,” “The Wreck of the John B.,” or “I Want to Go Home” — was first published under the title “The John B. Sails” as a transcription by Richard Le Gallienne in the December 1916 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.  It was later included in Carl Sandburg’s folk-song collection The American Songbag (1927).  The tune was first recorded as “John B. Sail” by the American blues guitarist Arthur “Blind” Blake in 1930.  Here are a few other recordings:

In 1935, American field collector Alan Lomax recorded the Bahamas’ Cleveland Simmons Group singing the song under the title “Histe Up the John B.’s Sails”:

The version that first spread awareness of the song to a wide American audience was the Weavers’ “Wreck of the John B.” (1950):

Bahamian calypso artist Blake Alphonso Higgs sings “John B. Sails” (1952):

The tune’s most popular iteration up to that time was the Kingston Trio’s “Sloop John B.” (1958):

This was followed by Johnny Cash’s “I Want to Go Home” (1959):

Pop singer Jimmie Rodgers made arguably the first rock & roll adaptation with “Wreck of the John B.” (1960):

Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck of the John B.)” (1961):

As Wikipedia says, Beach Boys member Al Jardine, a folk music fan, was impressed with the version sung by the Kingston Trio and persuaded Brian Wilson to adapt the song for the group.  After some chord modifying and lyric changes, the Beach Boys came up with the song’s best-known rendition, “Sloop John B.” (1966):

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sister, Sister

I’m perfecting my Rip Van Winkling.  So much happens in the world — interesting things that you think I’d keep my ear to the ground about — but I don’t find out about it till much later.  Why didn’t I know about some of these things?  How come I didn’t learn about them when they were new?  Where was my mind at the time?  I might as well have been sleeping for 20 years after drinking and playing nine-pins with Henry Hudson’s ghost.

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)
One thought that’s lightly crossed my mind a few times over the past few years is what a collaboration between Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones would sound like.  I’m guessing that anyone reading this blogpost already knows that both of them are daughters of the late Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, probably the world’s most famous avatar of his instrument.  Anoushka Shankar, a sitarist herself, is the daughter of the Indian woman that the sitar maestro eventually married, while Norah Jones is the progeny of his relationship with the American concert promoter Sue Jones.  

Growing up, the London-born Anoushka divided her time between the British capital and India but went to secondary school in California, studying the sitar with her father the whole time and eventually establishing a career as a sitarist.  Norah Jones was born in New York and raised in Texas, where she was immersed in jazz and the blues.  All of this (as you likely already know) lead in time to Jones’s multi-platinum pop-jazz album Come Away with Me (2002) and a huge career in the music industry.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones grew up knowing of Anouska, but Shankar fille was in her teens before learning the existence of her half-sister.   The two didn’t meet each other until 1997, when Anoushka was 16 and Norah was 18.  Given the seemingly complicated history between Ravi Shankar’s families, this set the stage for a lot of potential discord between them, potential discord that apparently never came to pass.  I’m relieved that Anoushka and Norah seem to get along so well.

Given the women’s common paternity but widely divergent lives and musical specialties, I sometimes wondered over the years what they would sound like if they ever worked together.  Well, I know now — a full year after the release of their first single from Anoushka Shankar’s album Traces of You, which features three collaborative songs.  I have embedded the video for the title track at the top of the post.  (Why I didn’t know about the album when it was released is a question that flummoxes me.)  Sadly, Ravi Shankar died while Anoushka was working on Traces of You.  One track from the album, “Unsaid,” is in their father’s memory.  “Unsaid” has lyrics by Anoushka Shankar and music by Norah Jones, their only co-authored song on the CD, a felicitous instance of a family’s grief healed by a family’s unity.  

So, after all these years of wondering what Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar would sound like together, their three songs in collaboration on Traces of You finally answer my question — but for some strange reason, I didn’t learn of the album’s existence until a year after it came out.  Now, with that query satisfied, I can go back to sleep for 20 years.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Last Folk Music Record

Photo by David Gahr

I should like to consider the folk song and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.  Tom Lehrer (1959)

Remember the great folk music scare of the ’60s?  That was close!  That garbage almost caught on.  —Martin Mull (1977)

Whatever happened to folk music?  You know, the individual singer or group of singers facing a microphone and playing one or more acoustic guitars, chanting songs with easily heard, meaningful lyrics and with simple, minimalist accompaniment.  When it broke onto the commercial scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the stripped-down musical presentation avoided the showiness and ostentation of heavily orchestrated mainstream pop, compelling the listener to focus on the lyrics.  To ardent fans, folk music was a music of honesty and, to some, a music of social commitment. 

So, what happened to folk music?  Okay, one answer to that question is that all music is folk music because music is always made by folks.  But leaving that idea aside, back in the 1970s, I used to believe that something called “folk music” survived as a commercially successful enterprise up to that time.  

The usual music histories say that American “folk music” — rural music performed for urban audiences — acquired its commercial impetus with the emergence of the Weavers’ big orchestrally polished hits for Decca Records, “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” in 1950, but a few years later, the group members’ (especially Pete Seeger’s) past as left-wing activists made them a casualty of the McCarthy-era Red Scare.  Folk music wouldn’t come back into commercial prominence until the Kingston Trio’s 1958 all-acoustic chart-topper “Tom Dooley.”  After that, apparently due to the simplicity of needing only a voice and something strummable in order to put an act together, the college coffeehouses and the musical marketplaces were inundated with groups or individuals singing vintage songs accompanied by acoustic guitars. 

The acts seemed to fall into two categories: the clean-cut bearers of sweet harmonies obviously striving for mainstream marketability (the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, etc.) and the rough-around-the-edges troubadours — in effect, the devotees of bohemian balladeer Woody Guthrie — who approached their music with a passion, conviction, and sometimes political perspective that seemed to place popular appeal on the back burner (such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and especially Bob Dylan), with Peter, Paul, and Mary occupying a sort of middle ground (both polished and politically conscious).  But, the history books say, folk music as a popular commercial enterprise began dying off after the Byrds introduced folk-rock with their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan himself went electric at the acoustic Newport Folk Festival, both occurring in 1965 and both occurring as a reaction to the very influential British rock & roll “invasion” of the year before.  

Also important was Dylan’s inverse influence on rock’s biggest act, the Beatles, prompting greater lyrical richness and more acoustic arrangements in the band’s songs (such as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” [1965]), further blurring any distinctions between rock and folk. (Of course, folk music and rock & roll, both in the United Sates and in the United Kingdom, were never very far apart to begin with: in the U.S., both musical genres were influenced by country blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and U.K. rock grew out of the folk-based skiffle movement.)  Afterwards, the well-known American performers who first gained fame as folk singers, the story goes, were gradually absorbed into rock & roll or country & western.

But growing up in the 1970s, I thought that folk music held on as a high-profile phenomenon for a little while longer.  A large part of that might have been because my older brother played the guitar and hung around other guitar players.  So, I was used to being around acoustic guitar players strumming a well-known folk song or an unplugged take on a familiar rock record. 

Also, the largest, most popular section of my local record store (back in the LP days) was labeled “Rock & Folk,” which instantly put folk music on the same level as the ultra-hip rock music that dominated the radio airwaves.  Included in this section of the store were not only established folk-music figures like Baez, Judy Collins, and Gordon Lightfoot, but also more recently established artists like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Janis Ian: artists who sang their own compositions to acoustic-centered arrangements with unobtrusive electric and percussion accompaniment.  To me, this was also folk music.  Backing up my impression was the fact that perhaps the biggest act of the mid-’70s, John Denver, described the kind of music that he wrote and played as folk.  Even acoustically grounded “soft” rock bands like America struck me as playing more in a folk idiom than a rock idiom.  “Folk” became not only a traditional type of song, but a kind of acoustic-guitar-based performance style for recently written material as well. 

But by the end of the 1980s, performers who identified themselves as “folk musicians” tended to be lesser-known, non-mainstream artists who recorded for small labels and for a niche market: Stan Rogers, Kate Wolf, Eric Bogle, and so on.  The more famous acts, such as Taylor or Denver or Paul Simon were now filed together with the rock artists or the country artists — or even, in some cases, with “easy listening.”  Today, iTunes classifies the artists I mentioned above under “singer/songwriter,” a category that includes such obviously non-folk performers as Billy Joel and Van Morrison.  A category called “folk” seems to be assiduously avoided. 

From what I can tell, popular culture seems to think of folk music in its clean-cut, coffee-house manifestation, after the rise of the Kingston Trio and before the rise of the Beatles: as something square and irrelevant, something to be mocked — from the Martin Mull quote at the top of this blogpost to the risible acoustic guitarists portrayed in such movies as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and A Mighty Wind (2003).  The Coen Brothers’ sympathetic warts-and-all look at an early-’6os Greenwich Village troubadour in their film Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) is a refreshing change. 

But the American folk music movement of the 1960s was more than merely a commercial flash in the pan, as represented by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Folk music offered a lyrical depth and relevance that was uncommon in both rock & roll and the adult-oriented Tin Pan Alley pop of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  It’s difficult to imagine issue-driven rock songs of the 1960s like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965) and the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (1967) without the infusion of folk’s lyric-centered spirit.  Before then, rock was a kind of music where the beat was often more important than what the singer said (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” anyone?).  While the lyrics were sometimes significant in early rock & roll songs, they became consistently so after Dylan went electric and recorded such songs as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), where the music and the beat clearly took a back seat to the song’s caustic poetry. 
So, I have to wonder: Would 1960s rock music have been such a fertile ground for lyric-driven discontent surrounding the Vietnam War if it hadn’t been for the prosodic edge that Dylan and other folk performers brought to it?  The answer, my friend, is… 

Oh, never mind.