Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Real Cutter, Ballantine, and MacChesney: Dad and my Faux Uncles


A guy sits down at a bar and says “Oh, I’m so tired from doing all those chores.”

 Next barstool says, “What chores?” First guy, “I’ll take a Ballantine, thanks.”

Did I mention it’s 1953? Even that detail wouldn’t have helped me get it entirely. This was a little joke my father once told me, and he had to explain it was a play on “What’s yours?” which is a way of saying “What’ll you have?” and that if you ask it in a bar, it means you’re buying the round (unless you’re the bartender.)

 [Let’s take a tangent here: Not that I doubted my father, but I had never heard this “What’s yours” in real life anywhere. Then in college I was reading Hemingway’s "The Killers" (written in 1927), and here are the opening lines: The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They say down at the counter. “What’s yours?” George asked them. So Hemingway and Dad were on the same page; that’s an English major’s dream. It was also one of those moments when you are reminded just how much more your parents really do know, especially when you are just 18.]

But back to our bar. This little joke was part of the jocular culture of a neighborhood bar in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the late forties and fifties. My father walked into The Shelton in Richmond Hill as a young man, and, in a sense, met his life when he met another Irish American habitue named John. They would enjoy a special, deep, lifelong friendship along with John’s own brother Luke. Their personal histories would become part of the larger picture of the forces that built post-war suburbia. It sounds clich√©, but it was all the real thing. They three drank together, laughed together, and dated together. Their love for each other reminds me of Ballantine, Cutter, and MacChesney in Gunga Din, a film they all knew and loved.

They were each true, devoted, smart baseball fans, with that special edge that comes from being New Yorkers, and they spent many, many happy hours arguing the merits of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Mets (my Dad) over the Yankees (Luke and John).

They married within months of one another, started out in small garden apartments in Brooklyn, then all made the big move to the house on Long Island, mostly fueled by the G.I. bill in one form or another. Soon the three families were growing. My memories of these two uncles along with the faux cousins are some of the happiest of my childhood. Particularly ringing in more than a decade of successive New Years with 2-day parties that rotated among the three houses. They faced the trials of life in the knowledge of several certainties, including God, country, and each other. I admired their rooted goodness and decency, and came to understand that their own flavors of quiet desperation were tempered by their commitment to family.

The last of the friends died this week. My father died first when just 57, which was terrible. One of my clearest memories of his wake was how visibly upset my Uncle Luke was. “How could this happen” he cried out with honest abandon in the funeral home. As the families of Ed, John, and Luke gathered yesterday for Uncle Luke’s funeral Mass, we each had the same visual thought: They are sitting on the great bar stools in the Shelton in the sky, arguing about the Yankees and Mets. It did not go unnoticed that the first of the day’s Subway matchups, while we were having lunch after the Mass, went to the Mets. What happened in the evening at Shea would be cause for recriminations and another round of celestial Ballantine.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us: Isoko and Betty

Yoko & Isoko Ono; Ellen & Betty O'Neill


Several years ago I stumbled upon Yoko Ono's Desert Island Disc, recorded Friday, June 15, 2007, when she was 73 years old. 

Yoko's story brought me an unexpected connection to the whole beautiful, shared notion of mothers & daughters, a choral connection across cultures and decades. Amazing.

It was for her selection of the song "When I Grow to Too Old Dream." Here is the story she tells of why she chose it.  Her distinctive, slight voice somehow made the story even more poignant and resonant:


Yoko:  "This is a very personal memory for me.

One day I just felt I wanted to call my mother.

The way she said "Oh Yoko" I thought there was something strange.

And then she said "I just fell in the kitchen," or something like that.

And I thought, this is serious and I thought I had to do something, but I was in New York and she was in Japan.

So I said, "Ok Mommy, let's sing that song, remember that song you used to sing."

and I started "When I grow too old to dream."

[And my mother started to sing back very weak and very haltingly.]


Ok. Let's start again, "When I grow too old to dream. . ." 

I kept repeating it and repeating it and she finally sang the whole line.

I was so choked up. And my assistant called to Tokyo, to the hospital and got the ambulance to go to my mother, and she was saved."

And that is how Yoko Ono kept her mother calm and alert while her assistant telephoned Japan and got her mother help.


"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1934. (Yoko Ono was born in 1933). It is one of those extremely special tunes, like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, that strikes a chord deep within many, many people.

The terrible scenario of an elderly loved one who has fallen is one that every family has known.  Keeping her mother calm and alert was absolutely the thing to do, very quick thinking on Yoko's part. And of ALL the songs in ALL the world she could use, what pops into her head in that desperate moment is a song in English that her mother sang to her as a child.  Isoko of course  also sang songs to Yoko in Japanese, but "When I Grow" has a tune that can connect soul to soul very deeply. Perhaps that is why it popped into her head in that stressful moment.

I hadn't thought of the song in years, but my mother, who was born the same year as Yoko, sang it to me too when I was a child. 

What makes my mom's rendition so special is that she cannot "carry a tune."  My mother can hear distinctive notes in a song, and can recognize songs, but she struggles to re-create differing pitches of any kind. Her notes often come out as a monotone. And yet, her love of songs and desire to share was so strong that I did hear "tunes" come through that monotone. And this song in particular, which I have known practically since birth.

When I grow too old to dream
I'll have you to remember
When I grow too old to dream
Your love will live in my heart
So, kiss me my sweet
And so let us part
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart


The song was used in the 1935 film The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and sung by English light opera actress Evelyn Layne.

Leonard Maltin is not fan of the film: "Novarro, wretchedly miscast and mugging mercilessly, brings his 10-year MGM career to a pitiful end playing a Viennese archduke who spurns his royal fiancee for a fling with ballerina Laye. Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg score, including "When I Grow Too Old to Dream,'' is an insufficient saving grace."

Gracie Fields and Nelson Edy had early hits with it, followed by Nat King Cole and Doris Day. Yoko used the Gracie version for her Desert Island Disc. That is not my favorite, because it's too operatic for such a gentle tune (although it does have the nice intro verse).  Here is Linda Ronstadt in a lovely duet with Kermit & Muppet chorus, also with the intro verse.




Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday!




Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.



In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Photos from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.



The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].



Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.




This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday: Saint Peter's Worst Day


Thanks to Gwen Toth, the amazing director of music at Immanuel Lutheran Church and founder/director of the early music group ARTEK, I learned an astonishing piece by the great Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus.

It's Lagrime di San Pietro, The Tears of Saint Peter, a setting of a twenty-verse poem by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (published in 1560), to which Lassus added a final motet.

The music is rich and soaring and dense and transparent all at the same time, like all the masterworks of Renaissance polyphony.

But it is the text that is such a discovery for me. The poet Tansillo imagines the grief beyond grief that Peter feels after he has actively denied Christ three times before the cock crows. It's a rich, relevant thought for contemplation that speaks across the ages.

At the Last Supper Jesus told Peter that he would disown him three times before the cock crowed.

Peter replied: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth."

OF course that's not what happens. From Gospel of Luke, the third denial:

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.



When Eyes Met

Tansillo's verse focuses on that image of Jesus turning and looking straight at Peter, imagining what it must have been like for their eyes to meet and for Peter to comprehend the magnitude of what he had done.

The entire poem is worth reading, because it tells such moving story, but these excerpts give you an idea. Peter projects his fear and shame onto Christ, that Christ is angry at him for the denial. But Christ has no such anger or hatred of Peter, and when Peter realizes this, he can barely stand it.


When noble Peter, who had sworn
that midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
realized that, overcome by cowardice,
his faith had failed him in his great moment of need,
the shame, sorrow and pity
for his own failure and for Christ's suffering
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.

But the bows which hurled
the sharpest and most deadly arrows
into his breast were the Lord's eyes, as they looked at him;

It looked as if his Lord, surrounded by many
enemies and abandoned by his peers, wanted to say:
"What I foretold him has now come to pass,
disloyal friend, proud disciple"

"More cruel", He seemed to say, "are your eyes
than the godless hands that will put me on the cross;
nor have I felt a blow that struck me as hard,
among the many that did strike me,
as the one that came out of your mouth.

I found no one faithful, nor kind,
among the many that I deemed worthy to be called mine:
but you, for whom my love was so intense,
are more deceitful and ungrateful above all the others.
Each of them offended me only by leaving me:
but you denied me"

The words full of anger and love
that Peter seemed to see written
on the serene, holy eyes of Christ,
would shatter whoever who heard them.

Like a snowbank which, having lain frozen
and hidden in the depth of the valley all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
falls apart and melts into streams,
such was the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter's heart and made him repress the truth;
when Christ turned His eyes on him,
it melted and was changed into tears.

And his crying was not a small spring
or mountain stream, which dries in the warm seasons;
for although the king of Heaven forgave him
immediately for his disgraceful deception,
not a single night in his remaining life passed
without the cock's crow waking him up
and reminding him how shamefully he behaved,
and inciting new tears for the ancient betrayal.

Realizing that he felt much different
than before, and unable to bear to remain
in the presence of the scorned Lord,
who loved him so, he didn't wait to see
if the harsh tribunal would hand down
a severe or clement sentence, but,
leaving the despicable place where he was,
bitterly crying, he returned outside.

By denying my Lord, I denied
life itself from which every spirit springs:
a tranquil life that neither fears nor desires,
whose course flows on without end:
because then I denied the one true life,
there is no reason, none at all, to continue this false life.
Go then, vain life, quickly leave me:
since I denied true life, 1 do not want its shadow.”

So Peter is in despair, almost it seems to the point of suicide. But we know he rallies, and is the rock upon whom the Church is built. The stone rejected by the builders is now the cornerstone.

And yet, that moment of looking Jesus in the eyes after he denied himself 3 times when it really counted was a cross for life.

The end of the Lassus piece is an older, Latin motet re-set. Its words are also pretty incredible: Christ on the cross telling us that as horrific and painful are the nails and spears, they are nothing to the pain of ingratitude. Imagine that.


Behold, mankind, what I suffer for you,
To you I cry, I who am dying for you;
behold the pains with which I am afflicted;
behold the nails with which I am pierced.
There is no pain like that of the cross;
and great though my body’s suffering might be,
the pain of ingratitude, however, is worse,
such ingratitude as I have experienced from you.



Images
Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610
 Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter