Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Irish Sense of Timing: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day, which for many Irish Americans is a mixture of nostalgia and pride. This particular celebration for me is tinged with sadness, as it happens to be the 30th anniversary of the last Paddy's Day my Dad would know.

Even that sadness is very Irish in its nature, as Chesteron once noted:

For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

This post is one of the first I wrote for this blog, with some edits.

I have a bit of Irish blood in the veins, courtesy of my father. He was proud of his heritage and embodied its characteristic traits: gregarious; a talent for storytelling; a decent tenor voice exercised regularly in church; an acquaintance with barley, hops, and yeast; and a deep love of family, like all Brooklyn Irish. He married a lovely Lutheran woman of Swiss/German/Norwegian descent, but that's a story for another day.

When I was at university in Southampton, England, on a college exchange program, I became the first of the clan to visit the old country.

It was a backpacking tour with a fellow American. We had crossed from Fishguard, Wales to Rosslare, Wexford, which meant by the time we got up to Dublin, it was late and cold and dark and we were very tired. We were trying to get to our B&B by metro bus, and weren’t sure which direction to go. So we waited on one side of the street, and when the bus came, the driver said we needed to be across the street to go in the other direction.

So over we went. It was now even colder and darker, we were beyond exhausted and time was dragging horribly. So this is what purgatory feels like? After forty-five minutes of standing in the freezing Dublin air, we finally see the bus coming along. The door opens, and it’s the same bus, same driver—

Huh. Well . . . .what . . .why didn’t you let us on over there?

“Well, you’d been going in the wrong direction, now, wouldn’t you?”

There is some funny logic there (and some toying with the young Americans).

When I told my father that story he laughed and laughed. He had never been to Ireland, but it struck a deep chord with him, reminding him of some of the distinctly Irish quirkiness of his own father and uncles.

Of course I learned what it is to be Irish American from him. Some things just happened organically in daily life,  like the Irish Coffee ritual and the tip that it's the brown sugar that separates the real from the faux.  Other lessons were very deliberate: like the year he hand wrote the words to important Irish songs for me: The Wild Colonial Boy, MacNamara's Band, The Irish Soldier Boy, and the most important, The Wearing of the Green. An important history lesson in itself, as a teenager the last line "For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green," haunted me. It seems around the 1789 Irish Rebellion, the Brits so feared the nationalism of a color that wearing green was high treason, punishable by hanging. More about that here

"O Paddy dear, an' did ye hear the news that's goin' round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin the wearin' o' the Green.

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's dear old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,
For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green."

The Gift of a Trip to Ireland
After college I got a job as a copywriter for a travel company, writing the itineraries for the brochures of deluxe escorted tours. An idea popped into my head: I wanted to buy an escorted tour for my parents to see Ireland. Travel had never been part of their lives together. Money was usually tight, and 8 years of college bills was quite a strain. My father never talked about a desire to go to Ireland, but you knew it was there.

With help from my older brother, I found that we could buy my parents an escorted American Express trip. I became giddy at the idea. We would give it to them for Christmas, and the tour we picked was in May. Just perfect.

I bought a Fodor’s Guide to Ireland to wrap-up, and made a HUGE oak tag card. On the cover I put a big paper clock, with hands just before 12, and the words IT’S TIME . . . . (Inside): For you to go to Ireland ! surrounded by photos from the tour brochure. Everything was set.

On Christmas morning we gave the Fodor’s book to Mom to open, and the card to Dad. He seemed quite stunned. He became very quiet as it sunk in that his children had the means and the desire to give him this trip, a desire of a lifetime. Such moments are deeply vivid, and very rare.

And then . . .
And then, everything turned. My father was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in January, just after New Years. He died in April. The tour went on without him in May.

How cruel. How could God have denied him this trip ? How macabre and eerie my Christmas card: IT’S TIME. Yes, a phrase often associated with your time being up, but not here—-not on a happy Christmas morning, not about a great trip, not coming from me.

To make this all even more heart-wrenching, I had planned a trip myself to Ireland back in December, to go in March. I would be visiting a college friend who was doing post graduate work in Galway.

By March Dad was pretty ill, but it would have been too much of a shock to him if I canceled my trip, and so I went with the heaviest of hearts.  I remember spending a good part of one day crying in a church in Gort, the town nearest to Lady Gregory's Coole Park, where I had made a pilgrimage to visit Yeats's Wild Swans at Coole.

I got home on March 17, and we had the usual family gathering with my uncles/aunts/godparents. My dad was frail, but rallied to get dressed and join the gang. The photo above shows my Uncle John, his best friend of 30 years, at his side.

Dad died almost an exact month later, on April 16, which happened to be Easter Monday.  That was pretty cosmic.

It is only now, 20 years later, [now 30 years later!] that I can see what an Irish end my dad had. It was sad and tragic, yet imbued with that particular Irish sense of death we know from the great plays and poems of O’Casey and Synge, and Yeats: because life is so precious, death comes with irony, some irreverence, a tinge of comedy, and ultimately, hope.

I’ve been to Ireland several times since he died. I’ve got some new great stories to tell, the next time I see him.

The Irish Coffee ritual was not limited to St. Patrick's Day. And though Crosby sang about a "belt of Bushmills," it's from Northern Ireland & these were the days when that mattered. No money to the IRA. So Dublin Jameson it was.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

There'll Always Be an England: Snape, Crabbe, Grimes, & Britten Walk Into a Bar

This is one of those nestling dolls posts . . .

I'll be visiting—what is to an American's ear—the improbably named Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England at the end of the week.

Seems there is a small town named Snape, on the River Alde, near the east coastal town of Aldeburgh, which wiki says has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. And yes, JK Rawlings named Professor Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame for the town.  Now that's a great piece of trivia.

Even more amazing: you can connect Severus Snape to none other than Benjamin Britten, who was born in Suffolk. In 1937 he took money his mother left him to purchase the Old Mill in Snape, nearby to the Snape Maltings complex, and used it as a studio and home before moving to The Red House in Aldeburgh in 1957, which he shared with tenor Peter Pears until Britten's death in 1976.

The Maltings?  Yes, the town had been a center for malting barely for beer production starting in the 1880s when a Victorian entrepreneur named Newson Garrett built the facility.

In 1948 Britten and Pears, along with writer Eric Crozier,  founded an annual music festival, in Aldeburgh. In the 1960s the festival had outgrown its Aldeburgh Festival hall, AND the company that was producing the malt went out of business, and so . . .  Britten put the two things together. He negotiated to have the Maltings building converted into a 832-seat Concert Hall, which was officially opened in 1967 by HM Queen Elizabeth II and has been the prime venue for the festival since.

Snape Maltings is back in the news, because it is being sold to the charity that organizes the Aldeburgh Festival: From the BBC site on March 5:

 "A popular tourist destination on the Suffolk coast is to become a "creative campus" that aims to match the vision of renowned composer Benjamin Britten (pictured above).

Snape Maltings, a collection of retail units, galleries and residential flats, is being sold to Aldeburgh Music. The charity organises the annual Aldeburgh Festival and runs the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Mr Wright said Aldeburgh Music's plans for Snape Maltings would fulfil "Britten's vision for a creative campus with a new level of public engagements".

I got pulled into all of this because I'm attending a conference called Names Not Numbers that uses venues in Aldeburgh and Snape.

But there's more!

Peter Grimes: The Great Benjamin Britten Opera
Britten wrote one of his masterpieces--the opera Peter Grimes---in Snape!

From brittenpears.org: "In 1942, Britten, then living in America, came across an article by the novelist EM Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’ inspired Britten’s first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, the work that launched him internationally as the leading British composer of his generation and which almost single-handedly revived English opera."

George Crabbe—whom Hazlitt called “a misanthrope in verse” while Byron proclaimed him “Nature’s sternest painter, but the best”—was born in Aldeburgh in 1754, and the poems capture the lives of the villagers.

I saw Peter Grimes at the Met in 2008, and that sent me back to see what my mentor Paul Fussell had said about Crabbe in his go-to Eighteenth-Century Literature: "The Borough is twenty-four verse “letters” that describe a village, from the Church, to its doctors and lawyers, to the middle-class amusement of clubs, and then, halfway through, “turns to the dark underworld of the indigent, the frustrated, the criminal, and the insane.” (Yeah, that’s the part Peter Grimes is in.)

What Fussell liked in Crabbe was the anti-pastoral. While much of English poetry was imbued with happy, passionate shepherds mooning for love— “Come live with me and be my Love/And we will all the pleasures prove”—Crabbe wrote his character sketches of actual, rural agriculture life, and how hard and soul-crushing it really was.

I was surprised at how different the poem is from the opera, but like all creative endeavors, the original idea was transformed to something new.

The poem begins with Peter Grimes and his own mother and father and what we would now call elder abuse:

“How he had oft the good old Man revil’d
And never paid the Duty of a Child.

Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious Blow
On his bare Head, and laid his Parent low”

Poem Peter is set up as heinous from the beginning, with patricide as one of the gravest of mortal sins. He grows up to be an even darker and more twisted man:

"He wanted some obedient Boy to stand
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand
And hop’d to find in some propitious hour
A feeling Creature subject to his Power."

He finds such a victim, a young apprentice.

“Some few in Town observ’d in Peter’s Trap
A Boy, with Jacket blue and wollen Cap;
But non inquir’d how Peter us’d the Rope
Or what the Bruise, that made the Stripling stoop”

In Crabbe, the town is not a mob, but an indifferent witness to a child in trouble.

“The trembling Boy dropt down and strove to pray
Receiv’d a Blow, and trembling turn’d away
Or sobb’d and hid his piteous face;--while he,
The savage Master, grinn’d in horrible glee;
He’d now the power he ever loved to show,
A feeling Being subject to his Blow."

Poem Peter has already killed 2 boys, when he is at the inquest for another boy, which is where the opera starts its action, and the Mayor says, “Henceforth with thee shall never Boy abide; Hire thee a Freeman.”

Poem Peter is so hated, that no man will work with him. The ardor of fishing by himself turns into nervous exhaustion that decays to madness. In the end he is a writhing lunatic, and confesses to a priest: for months he has seen his father walking on water, with a murdered boy holding each of his hands. The trio will not let him rest.

“Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
‘Again they come,’ and mutter’d as he died."

Opera Peter is simply a harsh man whom Britten sees as a product of his society; he once described his work as “the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual."

I think Crabbe would have agreed in general with this idea, but his Peter was more of a Bad Seed and less a product of poverty.

The opera introduces the widow Ellen, who tries to reach out to Peter and bring him in from the cold. When she sees the bruise on the new apprentice, all hope for a new future for Peter is shattered. Then the boy falls to his death, and Peter sets out to sea to kill himself, to escape certain death from the townspeople who are now a mob.

I don’t see as much ambiguity in Opera Peter as others do. The beauty of some of Peter’s arias just makes his crime of violence against a child all the more severe—if he can imagine “kindlier homes,” then he should be able to stop torturing a boy. End of story.

Both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried in the parish cemetery of St. Peter and St. Paul's in Aldeburgh.  I hope to visit when I'm in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Once in a Blue Moon: It's 30 Years since Moonlighting First Lit Up Our Night Sky

In its debut,''Moonlighting'' managed to concoct an ending that had Dave and Maddie hanging, Harold Lloyd-style, from the hands of a large public clock several stories above street level. At the time, I thought the series was, at the very least, unusually promising. 

Now, with the better part of a season behind them, it is clear that ''Moonlighting,'' created by Glenn Gordon Caron, is indeed something special. For one thing, it has the courage of its offbeat goofiness. For another, it has the irresistible chemistry being generated by the two stars.

John J. O’Connor review in The New York Times, 1985

The two-hour Moonlighting pilot movie debuted on March 3 in 1985. Can it be 30 years since Al Jarreau told us, "We'll walk by night, We'll fly by day, Moonlighting strangers, Who just met on the way."

I, along with much of the TV viewing public, fell in love with the series and suffered the heartache of its decline and demise. I thought about the Blue Moon Detective Agency for the first time in decades last fall, when I was thinking of what to send the BFF for her birthday that would have some resonance to our long friendship. It popped into my head that she was living on Taiwan when "Atomic Shakespeare" first aired, which had completely swept me off my feet. So I bought her the DVD of season 3. Now that I had opened that door, I wanted to reconnect with my lost love Moonlighting, like wanting to read old love letters you have bundled up in a box under the bed, so I watched the series in a week-long marathon.

One thing I realized was how many episodes I had never seen, and yet my memory of loving and then leaving this show is so vivid. I had watched Remington Steele with my parents, and it was good, but there was no heat between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan.

Then Glen Gordon Caron took some of the essence of that show—he wrote and produced its first ten episodes— and brought us to the moon with David and Maddie, and it was indeed, something special.

The pilot seems very slow now to watch, but as John O’Connor—the now forgotten, once powerful TV critic for the New York Times— tells us, there was already something unusually promising.

You Made Me Love Yous

Why did the country fall in love with Maddie and David falling in love?

The premise was good and believable: super model learns her accountant embezzled all her money. She’s broke except for a tax write-off of a detective agency named for her Blue Moon shampoo sponsorship that comes with employees David Addison and Agnes Dipesto.

•Cybill Shepherd looked particularly stunning in the early episodes. (Then her look hardened and her hairstyle went crazy 80s.)

•Bruce Willis overflowed with a natural charm and the wit of youth. He was happy and he knew how to enjoy himself in a way many people envy. Limbo dancing just isn’t seen enough in office buildings.

The signature overlapping dialogue is built on Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s banter from His Girl Friday, but the specific cadences between our two detectives are exceptionally appealing, it is true sparkle, true élan, and the extent to which they used it was amazing.

•The Music!!! The show must have spent a fortune on licensing, because almost everything was original artist: Whistle while you work, Marni Nixon as Snow White; La Bamba, Richie Valens; Please Mr. Postman, the Shirelles; New York State of Mind/Big Man on Mulberry Street, Billy Joel; Nowhere to Run, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas; When a Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge. The list is priceless and endless.

•The Love of Film & Pop Culture The series echoed many beloved film and pop culture touchstones.  The episode titles themselves give an idea of the spirit that animated the series:

Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde? • The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice • Somewhere Under the Rainbow • Atlas Belched • 'Twas the Episode Before Christmas • North by North DiPesto • In God We Strongly Suspect • It's a Wonderful Job

•Their falling in love happened slowly, built on how well they worked together solving cases. In the DVD extras, Caron said he had to promise ABC execs that the characters would not become romantically involved “because no one would believe a woman like that would fall for a guy like that.” Remember this started filming just as Billy Joel (that kind of guy) and Christie Brinkley (that kind of woman) got married.

And when Bruce & Cybill were in the zone, you felt like you could not get enough of David & Maddie's magic.

The Decline: Blame It All on the Writers
The stories are legion: Cybill was hard to work with, then got pregnant with twins; Willis started as a guy glad to have a job, then became John McTiernan with a swelled head; Caron left; and the writers seriously lost their way.

It fascinates me when writers of TV shows seem to forget—-or just don’t understand—-the history of the characters they are writing (and have created).

For instance, when the writers finally maneuver Maddie and David into becoming lovers, she immediately has regrets about ‘this thing” and wants “a pact” that it won’t happen again.

When she asks for time together, a date, outside of the bedroom, David says okay, then doesn’t plan anything, and takes her to a Laundromat. That’s ridiculous. This is the man who in season 1 had the imagination to follow her down to Argentina! when she goes after the accountant who stole her money and talk his way into a seriously sophisticated hotel wearing a white dinner jacket. Now that he is with the object of his heart’s desire he’s a palooka that can’t make a dinner reservation? A writing failure.

And her. She drones on and on about how they have nothing in common. But she got out of a warm bed with Mark Harmon!! to find David on a stakeout and finish a case with him. That’s what they have in common: their business,  working together, and she knows she has fun with him. So why does she keep questioning why she’s with him? Another writing failure.

The fact that Shepherd’s pregnancy and Willis’s Die Hard filming meant there would be numerous episodes that kept them apart could have been handled creatively in so many ways that didn’t end in a RIDICULOUS wedding of Maddie to the Walter. A huge writing failure. (And yet I am one of the few people on the planet that think the miscarriage episode with Baby Willis in the womb—"A Womb with a View— is wonderfully creative. )

It fascinates me that as much as a writer has seemingly complete control over what characters say and do, there seems to be another force that’s part of the creative process that writers can’t always overpower. Some series are cosmically doomed and their characters go off the rails. Such was the fate of the Blue Moon detectives.

But before they ceased to exist in the last episode, "Lunar Eclipse," (which no one had any interest in by the time the series finale came around), they left 66 episodes that in hindsight (away from the emotion of feeling disappointed in our love for the duo) are all enjoyable, and some are . . . . DAZZLING.

Scenes from Season 2, Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde.

Maddie Does Gilda

Good Lovin’