‘Thank you, Citizen’: Adam West and Barack Obama

Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.

I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”

What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.

But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”

The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.

“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”

Alicia Keys a lonely voice of reason in a typically vapid VMA show

Look. I’m 64. I shouldn’t even be watching the MTV Video Music Awards (it being way past my bedtime), let alone writing about it. No they don’t need me and they sure as hell don’t feed me.

In fact, the last VMAs show that meant anything to me, where I knew the music and the artists, was probably the first one, 32 years ago at Radio City, when I was there and writing extensively about music videos and MTV. In all honesty, I write about them now just to hang on and kid myself into thinking I’m still relevant.

That said, even the commercials last night were lame. I mean, the Taco Bell Foundation? Who knew? And the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children spot got me going until diluting itself with “featuring a new song by Florence + the Machine.”

The show itself can be summed up by the Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj workout on “Side to Side,” as it hardly got anyone worked up. Or speed-swimmer Michael Phelps, who introduced Future after crediting his “Stick Talk” for inspiring him at the Olympics, with Future responding by slowing the proceedings down to a standstill with his single “Commas.” Or Kanye—of course—whose excruciating ramble was matched only by his video premiere for the at least appropriately named “Fade.”

I must qualify my criticism for tweeters Key & Peele and their seeming rip of In Living Color’s “Men on Films,” since while I’ve heard of them, I’ve never seen them and didn’t get the gag until googling them midway. But I’ll stick with my own tweets, i.e.:

Separated at birth: #KanyeWest and Sata

Did I miss it or was there a melody in the #NickJonas song?

#KimKardashian speaks like a Shakespearean scholar

[After Britney’s bit] Gee, that was worth the wait

#Beyonce get to the hook already!

#Beyonce: The performance that never ended

They could have fit in at least five more performers in the time wasted by #Beyonce and #KanyeWest

Wait! #Beyonce sampled Andy Williams “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” on her song! If only he were still alive!

That last one reminds me of the time when I ran into Andy Williams at the Grammys, but I digress. Admittedly, I was happy DNCE won for “Cake by the Ocean” since it’s such a great tune. But then The Chainsmokers could only remind me how much I liked Parliament, The Winstons and even Sopwith Camel. Like I also tweeted: I must be the oldest living person watching this shite. And, after the first five minutes, My God this is awful.

So why do I love Rihanna so much? I thank Naomi Campbell for nailing it: the islands, meaning, she never gave up her Caribbean roots, which makes perfect sense in that I’ve always felt her voice has so much character, flavor, and adaptability to whatever a song needs from it. She was great, her speech was fine, and she even made Drake good.

But really, the true star last night was Alicia Keys, out of place as she was in physical appearance–but naturally stunning nevertheless with her committed no-makeup look (which I didn’t know anything about until reading up on it after the show)–not to mention political stance in noting the 53rd anniversary that day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. And suddenly I didn’t feel so old as arguably the most talented singer-songwriter of her MTV generation recited an antiwar poem harking back to my g-g-generation’s “Make love, not war” slogan.

The poem became a brief a cappella song, also about breaking walls, instead of building them–as the one presidential candidate so desperately wants. With such a pivotal election just weeks away now, Keys provided the one glimpse of reality through the typically overblown VMA glitz, in time-honored topical music fashion.

serling

8/14/2013 Anne Serling writes about legendary father and finally finds peace

Anne Serling, again, was listening to someone gush over her father.

“I hear it all the time—the impact my father had on people,” she said. “But no one would be more surprised than he.”

Maybe because Rod Serling, whom Anne Serling so lovingly depicts in her new book As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling, humbly considered his writing “momentarily adequate” at best, she noted, and not able “to stand the test of time.”

But Anne pointed out that her father, among other landmark achievements, wrote 92 of his historic Twilight Zone series’ 156 episodes.

“His writing dealt with the human condition, and social and moral issues that are still relevant today,” she said. “I think that’s why they’ve endured.”

Although she was just a child in the Twilight Zone’s heyday (in her book she recalls her dad bringing home Willy, the frightful ventriloquist dummy form the famous “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, to amuse her), like everyone else, she has her favorites.

“I was watching ‘Walking Distance’ some time ago,” she said, speaking of the celebrated episode where an advertising executive returns to his hometown to find it hasn’t changed—at all—since he was a boy.

“That’s one of the episodes that’s still relevant today: It gives you that punch, and maybe deals with a theme that our our age is in tune with: of going back in time and back to your hometown.
Same with ‘A Stop At Willoughby’ [likewise about a stressed-out New York media buyer who via the Twilight Zone, finds refuge in small-town New York, 1888].”

She also cited “In Praise Of Pip,” in which Jack Klugman famously played a bookie who learns of his soldier son’s serious wounds in Vietnam, and is filled with remorse for not having spent more time with him as a child. Not at all that her dad didn’t spend time with her; rather, a bit of “Pip”’s dialog was taken from an affectionate father-daughter routine.

But Serling surmises that the fact that The Twilight Zone was in black-and-white helped.

“I heard a quote last night, something about how black-and-white leaves an impression on you that color takes away,” she said. “I’m paraphrasing, but black-and-white gives you back that raw emotion.”

Much of that emotion, of course, came from Rod Serling. His Twilight Zone intros and recaps, delivered in his signature gritted-teeth intensity, were full of foreboding, though he still somehow came off as comforting, too.

“Any trepidation my friends had in meeting him that was connected to The Twilight Zone immediately dissolved within just a few minutes,” Serling related, echoing her warm descriptions of him in As I Knew Him. “He was so down-to-earth and welcoming and fun—and brilliantly funny. My friends adored him.”

Still, Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50, had heard him described as quite the opposite.

“I felt it was time to set the record straight,” she said. “He wasn’t a dark, tortured soul.”

But he was deeply concerned with the world around him, and often used The Twilight Zone to express his hatred of prejudice, injustice and war. Besides revisiting those classic episodes, Serling researched his letters and speeches in fleshing out the public and private man that she as a child knew most closely as a loving father—not as a man who suffered for his work.

“That was one of the toughest things,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t know how my dad had to battle the censors—I wasn’t cognizant then. And one of the most difficult things for him was writing letters to and receiving them from his parents during the war: My own son was 18 when I was writing the chapters that includes them, and I was reading his letters from training camp and it drove home how young these guys are that we send to war, and the letters broke my heart. My dad enlisted in the Army the day after he graduated high school, and his scars never healed. He was going to major in physical education, but was so traumatized he pursued writing to get it all off his chest.”

Anne Serling seems to have come to her own career as a writer out of personal pain.

“My dad always said to me, ‘If only you knew your grandfather’—and I never dreamed I’d say the same thing to my children,” she said. “But I guess you do arrive at some peace [even though] every day I miss my dad. I started another book eight years after he died, but I wasn’t even beginning to work through my grief–even after almost a decade. I had to set it aside and finally write this one, which I started six or seven years ago.”

Unable to “be that open with my grief” in an early draft, she “opened up more because it was so essential” after being encouraged by her editor.

“It ended up not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said, adding, “a lot of people really connected with me and their own grief—which was humbling and gratifying.”

As for her father’s continuing impact, what with regular Twilight Zone Marathons over 50 years after the shows first aired, she reiterated: “His writing dealt with the human condition, and that doesn’t change. There are elementary school classrooms that study The Twilight Zone to learn about prejudice and scapegoating, and it’s really fascinating how kids get these messages from the show. I believe that would have been my dad’s greatest accolade.”

She cited the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, about a small town’s aliens-induced paranoia: “The teacher showed it and asked the class who the real monster was, and the entire class stood up! Who would have thought that after all these decades kids would really get this.”

The Twilight Zone, Anne Serling concluded, was “an extraordinary program with a gifted teacher.”

That teacher, of course, was her father, Rod Serling.

8/9/2013 Anne Serling’s loving book tribute to her dad Rod Serling

Writing As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel Press) was clearly a cathartic experience for Anne Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50.

Yet her beautifully written book somehow becomes cathartic, too, for the reader. True, Rod Serling was her father, this kindly but intense gentleman of stern yet comforting voice and ever-present cigarette. As he described himself, he looked tall, dark, and close to omniscient on screen, issuing “jeopardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth.” But in person he was five-feet-five, had a broken nose, and looked altogether “about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”

Such self-deprecation extended to Serling’s self-criticism. Of an early attempt at writing a western, he said, “I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.” But with The Twilight Zone, short as he may have been in height, Rod Serling, with “that wide, captivating smile and those dark eyes that I know so well,” in his daughter’s warm description, became a towering cultural figure, indeed, even a father figure as he guided the new baby boom generation through the twilight terrors he conceived.

Most of us, of course, know him mainly through The Twilight Zone. But Anne Serling, who required years of therapy to deal with his loss, shows just what a special man he was beyond it, both as innovative talent and devout humanitarian. And while she was forced to withstand the pain of his absence, his life, as she relates, was likewise full of doubt, but above all else, the internal stress brought on by empathy, conscience and commitment.

And censorship. Serling recounts her father’s various struggles with network higher-ups, like when he couldn’t show a scene with New York’s Chrysler building due to Ford sponsorship. Worse, he had to change a story inspired by the infamous 1955 murder in Mississippi of the young African-American Emmett Till to a northern setting—and an elderly Jew character.

His script for the TV movie Carol For Another Christmas—based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—brought forth huge protests that he was furthering the Communist conspiracy, and promoting the United Nations as a means of establishing a single world government superseding that of the U.S. As he would tell an audience in the Library of Congress auditorium, “From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”

Inevitably, Rod Serling became TV’s Angry Young Man—and with reason: Because of sponsors’ fears of upsetting southern customers, they chopped up his script, he wrote, “like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Eventually he found that “a Martian can say things that a Republican or a Democrat can’t,” that is, via The Twilight Zone.

For The Twilight Zone gave him license to intone, at the end of the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, how “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own—for the children and the children yet unborn.”

His own nightmares (his daughter would hear him awaken screaming in the night) from his service in World War II also surfaced throughout the series, in episodes like “A Quality Of Mercy,” which takes place in the Philippines, where he served, and “The Purple Testament,” in which a lieutenant, again in the Philippines, sees a strange light showing on the faces of soldiers who are about to die.

Not surprisingly, death itself—along with justice and hope–are central themes in Anne Serling’s account.

A student at Antioch College who later taught writing there, Rod Serling absorbed its first president Horace Mann’s words, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” inserting them into the script of The Twilight Zone’s “The Changing of the Guard” episode about an old professor wrongly convinced that his life has no meaning left.

In a letter to The Los Angeles Times in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, he wrote: “We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.”

Prophetically pointed as well as extraordinarily eloquent, he said, in a 1970 commencement address at the University of Southern California, that if we don’t respond to the screams of those suffering from poverty, hunger, racial tension and pollution, “we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us—or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

Like his daughter, Rod Serling was forever haunted by the death of his father, at 52, from a heart attack, before he could return home from the war. The letters to and from his father—and to and from his daughter—are deeply moving; there’s also a tender introductory letter from him to a Korean foster child (“We are tremendously interested in your welfare, and to that end we’ll do all we can on your behalf”)—one of two he supported (the other being Filipino).

These letters and speeches fully flesh out this most remarkable man, still so much a part of our lives “35 years after my father’s death, four decades after The Twilight Zone went off the air,” writes Anne Serling, adding, “its parables are still relevant today”—even though he felt, according to her quote, “I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”

Tell that today to the legions of fans, old and new, who tune in to those holiday Twilight Zone marathons that Syfy sure enough butchers as if it were a steer. Those legions of fans who discover, in his daughter’s loving reminiscences, this slight giant who is everything anyone could want in a father, a storyteller who in only 25 years of professional writing, wrote the definitive book on decency, courage, integrity, brilliance and pioneering creativity.

10/17/2011 Classic ‘Twilight Zone’ action figures get William Shatner’s approval

Keeping time with the release of William Shatner’s latest album Seeking Major Tom and book Shatner Rules: Your Guide To Understanding The Shatnerverse And The World At Large, pop culture toy/collectibles supplier Entertainment Earth introduced an exclusive, “officially approved by William Shatner” addition to its Bif Bang Pow! Line of Twilight Zone merchandise at last weekend’s New York Comic Con show at the Javits Center.

The novel Bob Wilson/Don Carter Deluxe Action Figure is a fully articulated eight-inch figure of Shatner (featuring a Shatner-sanctioned all-new head sculpt), along with clothing and accessories to recreate Shatner’s image from two legendary Twilight Zone episodes: “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (which originally aired in October, 1963) and “Nick Of Time” (November, 1960).

In “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” Shatner famously played former mental patient Bob Wilson, who is terrified by his vision of a hairy gremlin on the wing of the airplane he and his wife are passengers on. In “Nick Of Time” he was Don Carter, a man obsessed with a “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine on the table of a café he and his wife visit when their car breaks down.

“It’s very well done,” says Shatner of the figure. “The reality is that these three young guys who run Entertainment Earth came up with it, and I thought it was cute and fun and went with them.”
The future Star Trek hero, who says he’s signed a couple of the figures, is flabbergasted by the continuing fascination with The Twilight Zone–and his two big episodes in particular.

“The fact that a half-hour show has remained in the public consciousness–and that these two episodes are among the most popular–why me? I don’t know!” says Shatner. “I stand with my mouth agape!”
He recalls the shows’ production.

“My goodness! It’s a half-hour show,” he notes. “You fly in and do it in three or four days and fly out. I think I was living on the East Coast then and had worked with those [Twilight Zone] guys in live television, and they liked me and I liked them and just did them. I figured they’d be broadcast once or twice and ‘goodbye!'”

Acknowledging that “Nightmare At 20,000” remains so memorably terrifying, Shatner still wonders why “a furry little monster on a wing doesn’t bring gales of laughter and derision!” When he himself gets on a plane, he’s more concerned that “the thing flies today and doesn’t crash into a swamp, than this furry little guy!”

Incidentally, Entertainment Earth was at Toy Fair earlier this year, when it introduced a companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin that were designed to be used as bookends. The company also brought out a full-sized, functioning replica of the Mystic Seer counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show.

A miniature replica of the Mystic Seer is packaged as an accessory in the Wilson/Carter figure, along with Carter’s watch, Wilson’s handgun and newspaper, and both characters’ clothing. A small Mystic Seer is also available separately in black-and-white and color non-functioning versions.

2/24/2011 New “Twilight Zone” figures unveiled at Toy Fair

Fans of The Twilight Zone will be thrilled to learn that cult audience-targeted action figure, toys and collectibles supplier Bif Bang Pow! (BBP) has plenty of new Twilight Zone figures and merchandise on the way.

The North Hollywood-based company, which has been licensing Twilight Zone bobble heads the last couple years has a new Willie And Jerry bobble head, from the famous 1962 ventriloquism episode “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, and a new companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin, from the equally unforgettable 1963 “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet!” installment starring William Shatner, that are designed to be used as bookends.

Forthcoming on the Twilight Zone action figure side are two-figure sets featuring Doctor Bernardi (“Eye of the Beholder,” 1960) and Henry Bemis (“Time Enough at Last,” 1959) and the Venusian (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” 1961) and Invader (“The Invaders,” 1961).

More than 20 Twilight Zone figures and bobble heads are now available from BBP, which has expanded the line with license plate frames, lunch boxes, journals, magnets and coasters.
“We have a big master license, excepting apparel,” says BBP co-owner/executive VP Jason Labowitz, who displayed all the Twilight Zone merchandise, along with other popular licensed product from properties including The Big Lebowski and Dexter, at last week’s Toy Fair.

Most of the Twilight Zone collectibles are easily affordable. But two forthcoming pieces are understandably high-priced.

From the 1960 episode “Nick Of Time” (also starring Shatner) comes a full-sized, functioning replica of the “Mystic Seer” fortune-telling counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show. Available in July, the 13 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 6-in. unit is priced at $250 and unlike most Twilight Zone figures, is in full color–red box with a grey “seer” devil head.

“It’s a working replica that people might set out on display,” explains Labowitz. “The series was in black-and-white, and there are no color-reference shots available, so none of the merchandise has ever been seen before in color. And black-and-white is what fans remember: We’ve attempted some figures in color in limited edition runs to gauge the response, but people like black-and-white versions more than color.”

The Mystic Seer, which is already available in small $13 black-and-white and $15 color non-functioning versions, was a hit at Toy Fair, says Labowitz, who also showed an 18-inch black-and-white Talky Tina doll replica, from the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll” (starring Telly Savalas). Also available in July, the $140 piece features vinyl head and limbs, soft fabric body and clothing, rooted hair, eyelids that open and close and a talking mechanism. The doll also comes in a replica box, and like its $18 Talky Tina talking bobble head counterpart, it speaks five phrases.

Labowitz notes, though, that the doll is black-and-white. He explains: “I wasn’t going to make a color doll that might end up in a child’s room, and have it say, ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!'”

Labowitz helps his Twilight Zone “superfan” BBP partner design the product after a “selection process” in which characters are culled from their favorite episodes. But not every character translates well to a figure, Labowitz says.

“One that doesn’t is a manikin, because that’s just a doll–and nothing special,” he says. “So we look for unique faces: aliens like the three-eyed Venusian or robots, or someone with a unique outfit.”

The Mystic Seer and Invader figures are the most popular, says Labowitz.

“Everybody has their favorite episodes,” he notes. “We don’t expect anyone to get the whole collection, just one that really resonates.”

The ‘iconic’ Caitlyn Jenner

The New York Post, of course, splashed the Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner on the front page, but really, a day later, this is old news. In fact, it’s been old news, really, for months.

Yes, I’m happy, too, that after all these years Jenner has now shown courage in asserting her true self. But let’s not forget the courage of Richard Raskind, the ophthalmologist and tennis pro who transitioned back in 1975 to Renée Richards and then had to fight tooth-and-nail for acceptance as a female tennis player–and who was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Or even Ellen DeGeneres, who came out in 1997 with a “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, though like with Jenner, that was so heavily teased in advance it was no big surprise.

What’s different this time, really, is that big cash Kardashian cow. Indeed, Jenner hasn’t been an “iconic” American sports hero–as some in the media now make him out to be–in the 40 years since Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. “Sports hero,” yes, but only “iconic” as a minor TV personality, Keeping Up with the Kardashians notwithstanding. Perhaps he’s been a person of value to society besides celebrity, but not to my knowledge, unlike say, Beau Biden, whose tragic death Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover inevitably minimalized.

But Caitlyn Jenner now has the chance to become truly iconic on her own terms, depending, that is, if she has anything more to offer her reality and ours than the trashy reality shows that has made her an icon. Her hugely promoted transition, while momentous, is just a moment in a fast-moving mass media story, not to mention a fast evolving-society in which she is now primed to play an important leadership role, should that now be her choice.

Tales of Bessman: Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara

The older you get the more friends you lose—and at a faster pace.

Bruce Lundvall died last week (May 19), a few days after Ren Grevatt (May 16), whom I knew better and wrote about here shortly after. Then Saturday Anne Meara died.

Ren and Bruce were old school music business guys, Ren in PR and Bruce in record label operations, mostly at prestigious jazz labels. I won’t say I knew him well, but we were very friendly and I knew he would always take my call, even when he was a record company president. But I only really spent quality time with him once, shortly after I came to New York and landed a job at Cash Box.

I’m pretty sure it was ’84, when he created the Manhattan adult-contemporary label and revived the historic Blue Note jazz label for EMI, but it could have been before that, after he launched the Elektra Musician imprint for Eletkra Records in 1982, after leaving CBS Records, which he had headed and signed the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Wllie Nelson. He would go on to work closely with other varied artists including Richard Marx, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, Rubén Blades, Wynton Marsalis and of course, Norah Jones.

In other words, Bruce was a big deal when I met him, and remained one long after. But he never acted like one, especially that day when I went to his office to interview him.

It was probably a general what-are-your-plans type story, and we were well into it when he was buzzed and decided to take the call. He started talking to the caller, and it became clear that it was an artist he was wooing. Feeling awkward, I waved at him and whispered that I could leave if he wanted to conduct business in private.

Bruce just waved me off. I just sat there, enrapt, listening to him tell the potential signee what he could do as the head of a small, independent label, who cared about his artists and could give them full and individual attention–unlike a huge, major label like CBS, from where he came. Sure enough, his entire career was marked by that kind of hands-on, personal commitment in support of his artists.

Anne Meara wasn’t a friend, but she made me feel like one the first and only time I met her.

I think it was around the same time as I met Bruce, or a little later, at a Broadway show opening party at a Midtown hotel. I recognized her immediately, having been a big fan from seeing Stiller & Meara on Ed Sullivan so many times.

She was effervescent, to use a word maybe for the first time. Starstruck, I introduced myself as an editor for the music business trade magazine Cash Box.

“Oh, Jerry couldn’t be here tonight!” she responded, almost apologetically—as if I’d been close pals of Stiller & Meara forever.

That was pretty much it, but when I saw from Howard Kaylan’s tweet that she had died, I felt like I had lost someone I knew that long and that closely.

“I can’t picture a world without her,” tweeted Howard. “Stiller and Meara/the Sullivan Show RIP sorry B”—“B” being Ben Stiller.

Ben Stiller, my co-star in While We’re Young—though the scene we were in, at the same coffee shop that I’m in with Naomi Watts and Adam Driver, but immediately after, was cut. Sorry B.

But I did see Anne one other time, at Mary Travers memorial in November, 2009. She recited “Conscientious Objector,” by Travers’ favorite poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem refuses to assist Death in taking other lives by violence (“I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death”).

The memorial ended with everyone–also including then Sen. John Kerry, George McGovern, Max Cleland, Pete Seeger, Whoopi Goldberg–singing along on “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It was an evening of unabashed liberalism, a throwback to when the word “liberal” was a badge worn proudly and sung loudly.

And I sang along with Anne Meara.

Click the link for my examiner.com appreciations of Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara.

Tales of Bessman: Hands off David Letterman!

Over the years I became big friends with Paul, Will and Felicia—not to mention the wonderful warm-up comic Eddie Brill. But meeting Dave was never going to be in the cards, which was fine. But I did have one unforgettable encounter, as much as I’ve tried to forget it.

Being friends with any number of guests, I was at the show many times, though it wasn’t until the last time I went, to see Valerie Simpson perform, that I actually sat in the house. Except for then, I was always in the dressing room with the artist and then in the green room during the show. That’s’ where I was when David consented to come in after the show—an extreme rarity, I believe—to make a picture with John Fogerty.

I tried to get out, since the room was packed and it was a big production for Dave to come in and do the picture. His handlers were everywhere and I got stuck against a wall. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make myself small enough.

Dave entered, and as bad luck would have it, he brushed against me. He turned around and said, “You grabbed my ass!” I nearly threw up all the chocolate chip cookies and Diet Cokes I’d gobbled up and swilled there during the show. If I said anything, it was a garbled stammer.

Maybe it’s just as well. If I had been able to speak clearly, I could only have said, “I did NOT grab your ass!”

Some things, for sure, are better left unsaid. This most certainly was one.

Carla the Cat, ‘Blackfish’ and tweeting like a buzzard

I like Bobby’s cat Carla, but I can’t say how she feels about me.

I’d like to say she was crazy, but what do I know about cat psychology.

She comes around while I sit at the table typing away on my laptop and walks back and forth—thankfully not on the keyboard. I hold out my hand for her to mark, which she does repeatedly. I’ll carefully pet her on the head, but it’s always at risk. Sometimes she lets me, sometimes she snarls and bites.

There’s no way of knowing what she’ll do. She never purrs.

Bobby always says, “Carla, you’re a good kitty cat. Yes you are!” He means it, and Carla seems to appreciate it. I could say it and mean it, too, but no guarantee it would be likewise accepted.

I’ve tried watching Blackfish on CNN a number of times. It’s just too awful. The subject, that is. The movie is incredible. I just can’t watch it.

The whole thing, that is. I did watch bits and pieces, if I can put it that way, the documentary being about what happens when killer whales—orcas, which are captured and trained for entertainment value in businesses like SeaWorld—live up to their name.

I did catch a few interview segments with former trainers who have come to understand the role they played, inadvertently and unintentionally, in multi-leveled tragedy, in particular, the 2010 death of a SeaWorld Florida veteran trainer who was mauled by her charge—the biggest captive male orca in the world.

“Maybe it’s just our naivete,” one trainer stated somberly, “or whatever.”

Being an inveterate tweeter with a soft spot for most higher cognitive animals, I put up the comment in quote marks, attributing it to an orca trainer in the movie and adding my own three-character commentary, “Duh!”

Almost as soon as I hit the “Enter” key, I felt apprehensive, that my 140 characters or less, in this case, might leave an incomplete impression. So I followed it quickly with, “Actually, I can’t watch Blackfish more than a few minutes. Makes me feel like a co-conspirator.”

It wasn’t long before my fears were proven true.

“Not sure what u mean,” was the first tweet response, from Cheryl, obviously in reference to my initial tweet. “These trainers loved these animals but now know captivity is wrong.”

“Yes, exactly, due to their now-realized naivete, maybe,” I said, again not particularly clear unless you followed closely—and appreciated my too subtle use of the word “maybe.”

Cheryl came back with, “I believe the trainers over the money hungry #seaworld any day! Plz learn the truth #Blackfish.”

Hmmm. I could see we weren’t exactly in synch. But here things got really amazing, if not way out of hand. Cheryl had been hashtagging @johnjhargrove, who now jumped into what started to look like a fray.

John was grateful for Cheryl (her Twitter name, by the way, is Crazyforlions). “thank you! Especially since we spoke from the heart and did not financially profit.”

Wait! Could this be one of the trainers? Remember, I hadn’t seen the whole Blackfish, just enough to be made so uncomfortable I’d switch channels. Looking at John’s Twitter profile, I found out that sure enough, he’d been one of SeaWorld’s elite killer whale trainers for nearly 20 years before blowing the whistle.

Cheryl quickly favorited John’s first tweet. He followed it with, “and I was never naive, I was always fully aware of what these whales are capable of.”

Man! I didn’t mean to suggest anything different! Here began a frantic flurry of tweets and retweets, me now feeling terrible for making John and his fellow trainers, naïve then but now heroic, feel bad.

“Didn’t at all mean to suggest anything else. The trainers did everyone a huge service,” I tweeted, but that wasn’t enough.

“Must clarify earlier ‘Blackfish’ tweet by saying how much respect and appreciation I have for the former trainers who spoke out.”

If not for them, I was hoping to convey, there would be no movie, let alone this intense ethical debate.

“The danger is when we convince ourselves that confining wild animals for our enjoyment is a good thing and something they’re good with.” This one, I was happy to see, got favorited by eight people. I was on a Twitter roll.

“Who doesn’t love going to zoos and seeing the variety and beauty of nature, that is, except the animals who are confined there?”

Or as  @johnjhargrove said in an interview about Blackfish, regarding an orca he was especially close to, “She’s stuck. She has no choice. She has to stay in that pool.”

I tried to close with “Thank you @johnjhargrove and all who speak out on behalf of compassion to fellow creatures,” then kind of blew it with “Sorry for the misunderstanding! If I could talk to the animals…” I figured by throwing in a little Dr. Dolittle I could get out by playing it cute, even if half the people in the thread missed the point.

Cheryl seemed to get it: “exactly! Twitter can easily lead to misunderstandings.” Both John and someone named “Orca friend” retweeted.

Yes. I know that you have to leave a lot out when you’re limited to 140 characters. That’s why I often string two or three together. But I don’t want this to disintegrate further into what an idiot I am.

“Usually my tweets fall on deaf ears, but not ‘Blackfish.’ Thanks to all thoughtful respondents,” I said as a final sign-off.

John proved my point: “haha. Thanks Jim. I understand where you’re coming from but as have learned too, twitter is tricky.”

Cheryl was nice: “great! Thought u were saying something negative against the trainers. Apologies.”

Wish it had ended there.

“A guy thought I was mad at him all day before I had time to respond but I wasn’t at all,” John tweeted, then included me in a tweet to Cheryl: “thanks for being our watchdog- poor Jim, lol.”

Poor, poor pitiful me. Oh, well, at least everyone’s making good points. LOL.

“Ha ha,” tweeted Cheryl. “Having to say all ur thoughts in only a few words is most of the problem. Fb is easier ;-).”

I send all my tweets to Facebook and should probably reconsider.

Someone named Jean had the penultimate word: “And, it’s hard to get your point across in 140 characters! But Twitter is awesome!”

I guess.

The problem, of course, is, you can’t talk to the animals. You can maybe get them to wag their tales and jump through hoops, but you can’t make them understand that it’s good for them to be cooped up in the house or the pool for our pleasure.

No matter how smart they are, no matter what feelings they have, you can only anthropomorphize them so far. See Grizzly Man.

Or maybe you’ve heard that wonderful story of the fisherman in Australia who freed the big female Great White that got caught up in his nets, and she followed him around lovingly for the next two years, even letting him pet her.

Yeah, I fell for that one, too. Turns out it’s a French magazine’s April Fool’s joke from 2006.

It really just the old joke of us projecting ourselves onto others, like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, you know, the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the stream, the frog seeks assurance he won’t get stung, the scorpion says he won’t becasue if he does, they’ll both drown, then stings the frog midstream anyway. “Why?” says the frog in its dying breath. “It’s my nature,” says the also doomed scorpion.

I’ve lived in New York over 30 years and still haven’t been to the Bronx Zoo. I used to go to the Milwaukee County Zoo when I was a kid all the time. I still remember standing mouth agape in front of the bazooka-proof glass separating us from Samson, the giant silverback gorilla, who glared back at us from 1950 to 1981.

God, I loved Sampson. It was front page news when he died, from a massive heart attack (it had to be massive, since he weighted 652 pounds, and all he did for 31 years was sit alone in a glassed in cage and sometimes play with a swinging tractor tire while people stared at him and hoped he’d sit on a giant scale). His skeleton’s on display in the Milwaukee County Museum, and they have an annual Samson Stomp & Romp! race in honor of him, to raise money to support the Zoo’s living animal collection.

I loved Monkey Island, too. Milwaukee had the first Monkey Island, so far as I know. I used to love watching them fight and frolic. They’re so much like us. I remember the King of Monkey Island, Joe, who ruled for an incredible 17 years, I think, before they had to take him out and seclude him. He was so old his teeth had fallen out and the ascendants to the thrown would have torn him apart limb from limb. He’s buried there.

I have a friend who goes diving all over the world and has some great shark stories—not like the Australian fisherman’s! I went diving once, in Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Not scuba but snuba–breathing through a 20-foot air line tethered to a floating raft with the air supply. Only needed an hour training in the hotel pool.

I went down for half an hour or so, 20 feet. Swear to God, I was three feet from a shark!

Okay, it was a nurse shark, not much more than three-feet long itself, probably, more afraid of me than vice-versa, darting away quickly. But I’ll say this: It was a shark. I couldn’t identify another fish besides maybe a goldfish, but a shark is a shark. It’s unmistakable.

And only one thing went through my head at that moment of being three feet from a shark 20 feet down. Don’t matter if it’s a nurse shark, a flight attendant shark or a cocktail waitress shark, a shark is a shark is a shark. And a shark is supposed to be there in the water, and you ain’t.

My final tweet was “Thanks to ‘Blackfish,’ maybe we’ll start thinking about how we treat the other creatures with whom we share this fragile planet.”

Some twitterer named The Bloody Nerve retweeted and favorited it.

My admittedly simplistic take on the ‘Dexter’ finale

Everything I read over the last few weeks as Dexter neared its end—tweets, blogs, professional TV reviewers on news sites—was pretty much negative about the entire final season, if not the last two or three or four.

But not me.

I’ve been hooked on the entire run, fully suspending disbelief since first stumbling on it well into the first season, when I channel-surfed into the one with a scene of Debra and her boyfriend–who soon proved to be the Icetruck Killer and Dexter’s brother—together with Dex and Rita, and was so blown away by Jennifer Carpenter’s acting that I finally paid attention to Howard Kaylan—who tried to sell me on the show a couple months earlier at at a Turtles show.

I’d been fine with these last few seasons, and all of this one (loved Charlotte Rampling and the return of Yvonne Strahovski)—once I caught up after missing the month of August due to the Time Warner Cable/CBS blackout. I’ll admit to feeling kinda stupid reading the kind of in-depth, scholarly analysis that I never understood back in high school and ever after, and I forgot a lot of stuff that happened in the eight years of Dexter, but I never felt a wrong move—within the context of the show’s fanciful if not ridiculous concept.

Until the last episode, that is. With the last two seasons focusing on his emotional growth, Dexter somehow found true love—with another killer, true, but one who likewise managed to defeat her own demons. This, perhaps, was the problem for the show’s creators and detractors: How to reconcile a serial killer, albeit an ethical one, with living happily ever after?

Except, why not? The whole thing with Dexter, thanks to the wonderful characters of Dex and Deb—and especially the incredible acting by Carpenter and Michael C. Hall—was that you cared about both of them, very much so, and in Dexter’s case, you were allowed to because of The Code: As far as I remember, he never deliberately killed anyone who didn’t have it coming—even if he conveniently got saved by others who finished off the two big threats to his secret, Doakes and LaGuerta, thereby continuing to allow us ethically to stay loyal to him.

This isn’t to discount the dilemmas posed by those two killings—and Dexter’s framing of Doakes and readiness to do in LaGuerta. And turning Deb into a killer was problematic, to say the least, but not out of the context of her fucked-up character, particularly in its relation to her fucked-up brother.

That said, Dexter’s ending did a disservice to that relationship under the guise of honoring it, especially as Deb had absolved him of all responsibility and blame, essentially releasing him to in fact go off with Hannah and live happily ever after. She was right in doing so, and he was wrong in not accepting it—let alone not accepting himself as the good person she rightly believed her protective big brother to be, not to mention the finally complete, healthy and adjusted person that the whole arc of the last two seasons had built up to and climaxed with in Dexter’s penultimate dispatching of Harry and embracing of Hannah and fatherhood.

What appears to have happened is that the producers, writers, and maybe even the cast second-guessed itself somewhere along the line, maybe fearful of potential criticism that letting Dexter off the hook in the end would be morally wrong and too fairy tale. As an aside, I’ll admit that the first time I met John Lithgow, long before Dexter, I practically dropped to my knees in confessing how much I loved him in Harry And The Hendersons, to which he looked down at me and with a Trinity Killer smile replied, “Oh, you’re just an old softy.”

Yes, Trinity, I’m an old softy. But I bet I’m not alone in feeling cheated of the happy ending that Dexter deserved, and by his own irresponsibly selfish self-sacrifice at the cost of his son’s growing up without a father, at the very least.

If none of Dexter could be believed, the quick turnaround, in one episode, to Dexter’s emotional death after finding life and love after a lifetime of suffering, could not be believed even more.

Except I always believed Dexter. Just as years earlier, I believed in another TV hero, Thomas Magnum. Sadly, Dexter now follows Magnum, P.I. with an ending that goes against the nature of the main character: In Magnum’s case, he rejoined the Navy, after spending his own eight years as a free-spirited, anti-authoritarian, non-conforming man of action, whose actions, like Dexter’s, were taken in the spirit of helping those in trouble.

The genius of Hank Williams, Jr.–who didn’t go to Harvard

I’m not sure anyone could have followed Hank Williams, Jr. after his unceremonious dumping by ESPN (or as he claims, his quitting) after his now infamous Obama-Hitler analogy, but I’m sure Barry Sanders wasn’t the guy, gal or group I was going to give up Lawrence O’Donnell Monday night to watch.

But just because I’m an MSNBC fan doesn’t mean I’m not a Hank, Jr. fan. I’ve said it before–many times–and I’ll say it again: I’ll take Hank, Jr. over Sr. any day–and I ain’t alone, and it ain’t just rednecks and good ole boys who will stand with me on this one, and trust me: I could name names, but I don’t have all day.

This doesn’t mean I agree with Bocephus politically, or won’t call him out for gross insensitivity, at the very least. But if agreeing with people’s politics was a prerequisite for appreciating their art, well, I’d be listening all day to Woody Guthrie–instead of just a good chunk of the day.

So I’ll take Junior at his word, as expressed Tuesday on The View. When Joy Behar suggested that maybe Hitler wasn’t the best analogy for him to use in relation to Obama, that Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would have brought Hank little condemnation, he played it dumb: “I didn’t go to Harvard, I’m not smart enough to know the difference. It was the first word [Hitler] that came out.”

He’s a genius songwriter, but true, he didn’t go to Harvard. Not smart enough? But he then trotted out a Harry Truman quote (“Never kick a cow turd on a hot day”), then a Spanish-American War reference–though neither really made a whole lot of sense other than the Spanish-American War being “history,” he said, an analogy, and here an appropriate one, for his termination and/or resignation from ESPN and Monday Night Football.

But Hank’s real failing–and it’s one he shares with just about everyone who gets into this kind of public relations mess–is that he just couldn’t leave it at that. Asked by Elisabeth Hasselbeck if he’d wished he’d used a different name than Hitler “at this point,” he paused, then answered “at this point, I really don’t”–though Behar coaxed him into agreeing he should have served up “Stalin.” Whoopi Goldberg finally went all the way and directly asked if he was comparing Obama to Hitler–to which he emphatically said no. But he still fell back on his rant on Fox News about that golf foursome (Obama, Biden, Boehner and Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich) and their “inappropriate [and] absurd…juking and jiving and high-fiving” as an excuse, before once and for all conceding that using Hitler as an analogy was a bad idea.

“I just grabbed it,” he admitted, uncharacteristically sheepishly.

So the View gals got a begrudging admission out of him–to their credit and his. That Hank, who famously supported Sarah Palin during the last election (and whose catalog includes, as Jon Stewart noted in defending Hank, the Southern culture-promoting “If The South Woulda Won”), would appear on the left-leaning kaffeeklatsch was even more remarkable, except that Goldberg and Behar, both unabashed liberals, had his back from the beginning.

“Hank is a musician, and he’s always been provocative,” Goldberg said on the show, echoing Stewart. “He could have chosen his words more wisely, but as someone who steps in it quite often, we all do it. Those among us who are without sin, cast the first stone.” [Here she also echoed, unknowingly, no doubt, the line in Hank’s great duet hit with Waylon Jennings, “Leave Them Boys Alone”: “If you don’t like the way they sing, who’s gonna cast the first stone?”]

“Whoopi and Joy understood what I was saying,” Hank responded on his website.  “After watching the clip of their show, I knew I needed to talk to them first.  Who knows Whoopi may run for president and I’ll be her vice president…now that will really stir it up!”

It will indeed, considering that Goldberg’s a lot closer in politics to Obama than Palin, or Cain–whom Hank’s expressed support for. Then again, everything’s topsy-turvy with Hank all of a sudden: His hastily written new single “Keep The Change” garnered 150,000 free downloads in just over one day.

“The Williams’s can write songs, and it didn’t take long for me,” Hank told The View. More shocking than his songwriting speed, though, is how he went after Fox as well as ESPN in the lyrics:

So Fox & Friends
Wanna put me down
Ask for my opinion
Then twist it all around
Supposed to be talkin’ about my father’s new CD
Well two can play that “Gotcha Game” just wait and see
Don’t tread on me.

Palling around with liberals and putting down the bastion of anti-liberalism/intellectualism would hardly seem to be Hank’s way. Then again, at least on the intelligence side, he’s a brilliant lyricist–if not always correct politically. Again, from “Keep The Change”:

This country’s sure as hell been goin’ down the drain
Yes, we all agree on that.
We know what we need
Yeah, but I’m not sure we agree on it.
We know who to blame
You blame me. I blame you.
United Socialist States of America
Don’t ya just love that name?

Say what?

“Bocephus thinks we are headed for socialism? If only!” wrote one Facebook friend who used to work with Bo during his Warner Bros. Records days.

If it were my song I’d call it the United Fascist States of America–except then I’d be straddling that same line Bocephus crossed with the Hitler analogy.

No, I’ll stick with Hank’s inclusionary classic “Young Country,” where “Old Waylon” peacefully and respectfully co-exists with “Van Halen.” Or better yet, “I’m For Love.”

But I’m for love and I’m for happiness
And I’m for “if you don’t like it can’t you just let it pass.”

Now if only I could get Hank on O’Donnell….

 

[You might also like “Hank Williams, Jr. and the Obama-Hitler analogy” at  http://www.examiner.com/local-music-in-new-york/hank-williams-jr-and-the-obama-hitler-analogy]

Tiger’s Nike commercial and Jay Leno’s stupid question

The dumbest question ever asked of a celebrity is also, for some dumb reason, the most celebrated.

“What were you thinking?” Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant when he appeared on the Tonight Show following his 1995 bust for a publicly lewd act with a prostitute. Leno was probably the only man in America who didn’t know what Grant was thinking when it occurred to him that not only did he want a blow job at that specific moment, but that he had the money on hand to pay for one.

And now Tiger Woods is asked, by way of his long dead father, “Did you learn anything?”–which along with the rest of Tiger’s ghastly, ghostly new Nike commercial, is right up there in stupidity.

The question is prefaced by Old Man Woods, speaking offscreen in the austere tone of a psychologist, stating the objectives of his inquiry, most significantly, “I want to find out what your thinking was….”

Again, obvious. The well-media coached Boy Tiger said it himself, in his mid-February speech: “I thought only about myself…I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”

And what do I think?

The commercial shows that Woods and Nike will stop at nothing, exploiting the dead to prolong the commercial life of a terminally discredited brand. And note how Tiger never changes his blank, cadaverous expression, offering no answer, not even a facial tick of response to the billion-dollar endorsement question, Did you learn anything?

“I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it,” was the way Grant answered Len–and it was a dumb answer to a dumb question.

But at least he said something.