Acclaimed second season of Australia’s ‘Mystery Road’ TV series premieres in the U.S. Monday

Mystery Road Season 2 trailer

They haven’t had much exposure in the U.S., but Australia’s celebrated Mystery Road neo-western crime movies and television series have formed a franchise of enormous power, thanks to their desolate “Outback noir” settings, stunning cinematography, amazing cast, and above all, gripping storylines marked by unbearable tension largely caused by cultural clash.

The creation of Indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, the series began with the 2013 release of Mystery Road, which established the template of the Indigenous loner police detective Jay Swan. Magnificently played throughout the series by Indigenous actor Aaron Pedersen, the intensely somber Swan is charged with investigating the drug-related murder of an Indigenous teen girl whose body was dumped inside a roadside drainage culvert.

Goldstone followed in 2016 and found Swan in a small mining tone, searching for a missing Asian tourist. The format was then expanded in 2018 with the first of two six-episode TV seasons: Centering on the disappearance of an Indigenous football hero and a white backpacker, it paired Pedersen with a local police sergeant played by the great Judy Davis, and was made available in the U.S. via the Acorn TV subscription video streaming service.

Acorn is now bringing to the U.S. the second Mystery Road season, which aired in Australia earlier this year, starting Monday (Oct. 12). The new season finds Swan in the coastal town of Gideon, taking on another grisly case after a headless body is discovered in a mangrove swamp. As in the preceding plots, the stark differences between the white and Indigenous Australian communities and cultures are brought to the fore, with Swan stuck in a middle where neither side trusts him.

All of the Mystery Road incarnations have been heavily decorated with awards and nominations. According to Greer Simpkin, producer and head of television for Sen’s Bunya Productions company (she produced both Mystery Road TV seasons as well as Goldstone), the latest Australian ratings for the second Mystery Road series, which aired there in April and May on ABC, shows that it remains the year’s top show for the network—or any other Down Under.

“Audiences love it in Australia,” says Simpkin, on the phone in New Zealand and crediting Sen’s “original premise of using the western movie genre in bringing audiences in–where they end up staying because Sen also has so much to say.”

But it’s also because of how Sen says it–via the words of a character that evokes the western film archetype embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, or Gary Cooper’s stoic Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, but who, because of his locale and cultural roots, is entirely original.

“Ivan created this incredible character in Jay Swan—whom so much hinges on,” continues Simpkin, also citing Pedersen’s portrayal. “He’s compelling, brooding, complicated—and doesn’t say much.”

She further credits the participation of Indigenous script writers in both TV seasons, and the remote Outback location—a character unto itself.

“It’s an enormous span of desert that takes a couple days to travel,” says Simpkin. “So there’s that, and this brilliant mixture of Black and white writers in a room, then bringing in Indigenous directors for the first series [Rachel Perkins] and second  [Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair]—and that’s the key to its success: It’s very genuinely derived from that authenticity.”

Another noteworthy aspect of the series is its soundtrack, which features music by Australian musicians, many of them Indigenous and from its northwestern Kimberly location.

“We go very remote,” Simpkin says. “Very few TV series go as remote as we do: We’re up there five, six months. It’s coastal, with majestic mountains in the first series, and now coastal terrain and blue-green sea that’s spectacular. And we always involve the Indigenous community where we fit the series, using it for lots of extras.”

Regarding that community, Simpkin lauds the support from the federal government agency Screen Australia, which has an Indigenous department and facilitates a broad talent pool of Indigenous creators, actors and crew. And she stresses that the second TV series, like the first, can be enjoyed whether or not previous entries in the franchise have been seen—though viewers of the complete Mystery Road saga will appreciate elements running through the installments.

One of them, Simpkin notes, concerns firearms. The Mystery Road movie has an unbearably suspenseful shootout using rifles at long distance, which is echoed in the second film and final episode of both TV seasons.

Most fascinating, though, and intentionally educational, is that the Mystery Road series deals with past and present Indigenous injustices.

“For instance, Warwick wanted to see [lawn] sprinklers all the way through the second series,” explains Simpkin. “They’re nonsensical, and represent colonialism—sprinklers everywhere, like in England. And you see that motif through the desert, front and foremost in the shootout.”

She notes, too, that the “bucolic European world [created] in a beautiful desert” also juxtaposes ironically with the scenes of excavation of an Indigenous site by a Swedish female archaeologist.

“The second series touches upon scientists and anthropologists—people studying Indigenous artifacts, but taking them back to Europe and British museums. It also touches on the cultural repatriation movement, which is certainly happening in Australia and in Kimberly. The archaeologist character comes at everything from a scientific point-of-view, and only in the end does she touch the earth and understand the meaning of country, and that the connection to the land is really important.”

So is “the local natives’ objection to her quest to uncover Indigenous cultural artifacts to rewrite their history,” says Simpkin, noting that the character suffers a crisis of conscience when she finds an unidentified modern grave at the archaeological survey site.

“It jeopardizes her work, yet it could also solve a murder,” Simpkin adds, but the archaeological excavation subplot also significantly represents a facet of Australia’s historic exploitation of its Indigenous population that has yet to be fully reconciled.

Simpkin points to the first Mystery Road TV season, during which the Judy Davis character discovers that her own ancestors poisoned a water hole used by local natives.

“These things happened all over the country, and people here have denied they ever happened,” she says. “People who live on the coastline—in Sydney or Melbourne—aren’t even aware of the desert! But all [of the Mystery Road releases] deal with the effects of colonization.”

She relates, in fact, that Ivan Sen conceived the series because his cousin was murdered: “He felt the police never tried to find the murderer–and we carried that into the second series.”

But Simpkin cautions against assuming that all of Australia can be understood by Mystery Road—or that every dusty Outback town is like the ones attended to by Jay Swan.

“We made up the towns and created a world that does represent Australia to a degree,” she says. “It’s the frontier—an interesting place where one can disappear. But it’s an enormous continent and really quite incredible: For at least 70,000 years Aboriginal people have lived in tune with that land. We’re certainly not saying all places are interesting like that, but the relationship that the Indigenous Australians have with the land is ingrained.”

Meanwhile, Simpkin reports that Sen has already written the outline for a third Mystery Road TV season. And incidentally, his Bunya production company name comes from an Australian pine tree, which every two years brings together thousands of Indigenous people to celebrate the fallen bunya cones.

Ken Burns, the Memorial 101, and the other Alison Krauss

I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.

Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.

But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.

I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.

But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.

Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.

One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”

The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”

The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.

Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.

Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.

Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”

I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.

There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.

First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.

Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.

Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.

Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.

The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”

Four dead in Ohio.

I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.

A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.

I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”

It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:

First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.

I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”

I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.

Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.

But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.

She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.

But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.

So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.

A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”

While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.

I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.

I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.

As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.

As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

Sam Lovullo–An appreciation

I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.

I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.

Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.

And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.

But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.

I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.

In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.

And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.

People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.

Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.

Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.

Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”

“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”

John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.

John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.

‘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

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.


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 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.