Culture Corner

And the Alternative Oscar Goes To…

Bernie Langs

You obviously cannot hand out Academy Awards for every superlative acting performance and deliver a statuette to all deserving movies every year. That said, here is a commercial-free presentation of Honorary Oscars for a handful of overlooked actors, actresses, musicians, films, and filmmakers that doesn’t take three prime time hours to get through and has absolutely no Geico commercials.

For goodness sake, give Amy Adams her due with a career award for Best Consistently Awesome Display of the Depth of the Emotional Dictionary. Adams has failed to earn an Oscar five times for supporting roles and once in the Best Actress category. She is gifted with an uncanny ability to dive deep into an oceanic expression of diverse emotions. She is a fearless explorer of uncharted feelings and personality traits expressed to perfection in the diverse characters she creates. As a brilliant linguistics academic in 2016’s sci-fi thriller, Arrival, she raises the film’s power and intensity to unexpected intellectual heights. Adams presents to her audience a study in disastrous life choices in romance and love in her role as Susan Morrow, a wealthy Los Angeles-based art gallery owner, in Tom Ford’s deeply disturbing and violent tragedy, Nocturnal Animals (2016). In David O. Russell’s dark comedic take on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ABSCAM sting, American Hustle (2013), Adams and Christian Bale shine as a pair of con artists conscripted by federal agents to entrap mobsters and crooked politicians in exchange for a reduction of their criminal charges. Adams is also no stranger to outright comedy, portraying famed pilot Amelia Earhart in spunky overdrive in one of the Night at the Museum franchise films, and as a fairyland, songstress princess brought magically to New York City in 2007’s Enchanted. How much more does she need to give us on celluloid before the Academy recognizes her extraordinary talent?

The Oscar for Most Overlooked Soundtrack Artist goes to Jimmy Cliff for his acting and musicianship in the 1973 film The Harder They Come. Set on the island of Jamaica, Cliff’s story about a young man in poverty trying to beat the oppressive system stacked against him as a musician and outlaw literally brought reggae music to the international community. The title tune is a joy-filled social statement and Cliff rises again to the moment with You Can Get It If You Really Want. A lesser known gem on the soundtrack is Johnny Too Bad, a sublimely catchy bit of island sound performed by The Slickers. Hunt that song and the rest of the album down on Spotify and you will not be disappointed. 

Best Badass Performance in a Futuristic Non-Superhero Role is a tie with the award going to Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for her portrayal of Sergeant Rita Vrataski, the “Angel of Verdun,” and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as Imperator Furiosa, a warrior bent on moral vengeance in a post-apocalyptic world surviving in a desolate desert landscape amid a grotesque, fascist society. Both films are fueled by high-octane action, which may turn off many viewers until they realize that Blunt and Theron’s characters have layer upon layer of complexity. Blunt acts in tandem with Tom Cruise while Theron performs alongside the marvelous Tom Hardy. The audience holds tight as the partners in both films ride nonstop through choreographed mayhem of ever-increasing ferocity. Furiosa accomplishes more in the name of justice (and feminism) as a one-armed, brute-strength crafty soldier dressed in drab fatigues than the newly branded Wonder Woman achieves with her multitude of superpowers.

Best Underappreciated Performance in a Supporting Role is presented to Robert DeNiro for his role as Pat Solitano Sr. in another dark comedy directed by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook. Released to great acclaim in 2012, the cast is led by Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany) and Bradley Cooper (Pat Jr.) as two emotionally damaged people recovering from difficult life traumas concerning their spouses. The entire supporting cast is incredible, including Chris Tucker as Pat Jr.’s manic former mental hospital friend and Jacki Weaver as Pat Jr.’s snack-baking mom who’s left bewildered by the unfolding events. DeNiro, who was nominated in the Supporting category (and lost), gives a masterful depiction and study of a father confused by his son’s mental illness. Ironically, the audience realizes that although Pat Sr.’s obsessive compulsive disorder may not be on the destructive level of his son’s violent flare-ups, this imbalance was most likely inherited by Pat Jr. As Pat Jr. heals himself through Tiffany’s endearingly quirky and odd wooing, DeNiro’s recovery and revelations are more subtly played out. In a powerfully emotional scene, Pat Sr. transforms himself in a matter of minutes from raging anger towards his son and Tiffany into a complete (and humorous) acceptance and understanding for what she has been doing for his family. The sequence morphs from a position of seemingly irreversible tragedy to a plot shifting moment of hope and redemption.

Best Performance in a Mob Movie More Realistic Than The Sopranos goes to both James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano in the HBO series) for his role as Uncle Marv, a bar owner in Brooklyn, and Tom Hardy for his role as bartender, Bob Saginowsky, in 2014’s The Drop. In the final role of Gandolfini’s career (he died suddenly in 2013 just prior to the movie’s release), he plays a bitter man angry with the world about his life and situation, taking his frustrations out on the seemingly slow-witted employee portrayed by Hardy. The bar, now owned by local Chechen gangsters, is being used with Marv’s blessing by the criminals to move their illegal nightly cash take. When the bar is robbed of the mob’s nightly take, the hunt by the ruthless, yet oddly savvy, Chechens devolves into tragedy for Marv and Bob along with many other characters caught in their web of revenge. Bob has long accepted his basic lot in life, but Marv unrealistically holds fast to a fantasy that his patrons still respect the power and aura he once had in better days. In an effort to save him from his own worst instincts, Bob is forced to confront Marv with the uncomfortable truth that he has to move on and understand that he has always been and will never be more than the owner of a small local bar. It is very sad to think about what future roles Gandolfini may have excelled in, had he lived. Hardy remains an actor of fabulous and rare talent, and although he chooses most of his roles selectively, at times his fans must admit that he takes some parts “for the paycheck.”

Best Film Depicting Unwavering Political Courage in an Era of Existential Crisis goes to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) starring Daniel-Day Lewis, which follows the iconic Civil War President as he desperately seeks to secure Congressional votes to ban slavery in the United States, and Darkest Hour (2017) with Gary Oldham as Winston Churchill on the eve of Britain’s entry into World War II. Both Lewis and Oldham deservedly took home the Best Actor statuette for their respective roles. Each film is an exciting tutorial on courageous leaders facing the pressing reality of the potential destruction of their nations. Lincoln and Churchill both remain steadfast with their plans for victory and national survival. They refuse to waver or cave to the many calls put forth by friend and foe alike for ill-advised, half-baked compromises that would leave their countries as empty shells of their historic selves and betray the core values on which their national identities and foundations are grounded. Holding firm to an ideal of freedom for all and staying a moral course during crisis—these are timeless ethical bedrocks so rarely taken to heart by politicians in our own era. Too often we are witnessing an embarrassing international dearth of character in our leaders that would appear as nothing less than shameful in the eyes of those who crafted and refined the living definition of public service for the good of all souls. 

We hope you have enjoyed the First Annual presentation of Honorary Oscars! And now…a message from Geico!

Culture Corner

Painter as Cinema: Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away

Bernie Langs

View of new works by Gerhard Richter at the Marion Goodman Gallery in 2012; image originally appeared at that time in a Culture Corner art review in Natural Selections

One of the difficult processes of being solidly past sixty years of age has been the near-weekly grieving for the passing away of cherished, long-time film, television, and music personalities. Many of my favorite musicians are over seventy years old, and although they are leaving our common “stage,” there are many recent recording artists whom I respect that can at least partially fill the void left by their absence. It was only when I decided to write this article about one of the world’s greatest living artists, Gerhard Richter, that I realized that within the genre of the arts, the number of genius painters has dwindled down at breakneck speed to a handful of survivors. And as for a new generation carrying the creative torch, I can’t think of a single talent anywhere close to their level of accomplishment.

I tend to read a limited amount about the personal life of contemporary painters outside of books and articles. I try to focus more on the works themselves in the context of art history. In some ways, the mystery of living American legends such as Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), and Frank Stella (b. 1936) might be diminished in my eyes, should I read details on what they do day-to-day for amusement or how they fare as family men (think the disappointment of knowing about Picasso’s personal traumas). 

Two of the best living painters are German and both have made it a point at times to starkly depict subjects centered around their country’s horrific Nazi history and the avoidance by everyday people of individual responsibility for crimes against humanity. 

Each time I have viewed a large, multi-faceted work by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), I have been stunned and awakened to a world not quite recognizable, but in some way tangible while horrifically unreal. His many dark textures and use of thick substances in his choice of paints and other materials literally jump off his canvases and emerge far beyond the emotional, colorful gobs of tortured oils used by van Gogh. As you take in Kiefer’s ordered madness, you realize that the overload is systematically planned, and that he is as strong in personality as an artist can be and could never conceivably end up like poor Vincent. In February 2020, The New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy feature on Kiefer, where the famous and eccentric Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard met up with him on several occasions to learn his working process while attempting to discover the motivations of his soul. Knausgaard reports back to his readers about this mission and highly personal quest to draw back the wizard’s curtain of Kiefer’s private incentives and succeeds in exposing the character strengths and perplexing weaknesses of the artist. Kiefer is presented as a confident, eccentric genius but with flaws that at times render him callous and vacant. 

In my opinion, the world’s greatest living artist is Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Richter gives interviews from time to time for the Wall Street Journal about art and life, and I look forward to them, few as they are. Richter has had an interesting career, making his name with early monochromatic, photorealistic paintings that dig to the core of the beholder in an unfathomable manner. He later moved on to paint everything from color charts to large abstract canvases and even turned to using electric lights in his works. My favorite paintings are his early large photorealism depictions of scenes and portraits from family snapshots, and his Forty-eight Portraits (1971-1972) series where with the precision of early twentieth century official academic portraiture and a palette of black and white tones, he created representations of well-known writers and composers such as Kafka and Mahler. Richter’s early work also featured slightly blurred canvases showing candles that seem to slowly waver on viewing. His Woman With an Umbrella is a portrait of the grieving Jackie Kennedy, composed in a startlingly different way than Warhol depicted her in his many silkscreen pieces. 

Although I enjoy and revel in Richter’s magical, photorealistic work, there has always been a lurking disturbance in each painting that I never truly attempted to understand or define until I viewed the fifteen works at the Museum of Modern Art that make up October 18, 1977. MoMA’s website notes that the paintings “evoke fragments from the lives and deaths of the Baader-Meinhof group and reflect Richter’s distrust of painting’s ability to accurately represent the world, a recurring subject of his work.” One cannot view these images of a terrorist group, three of whom were found dead in their jail cells on the series’ title date, and ignore their unsettling underpinnings. Richter may consider himself the artist of removal, yet by choosing such a controversial subject and presenting it in such eerie fashion, he makes an absolute statement. But what exactly is that statement and how much meaning does the viewer bring to it from their own heart and mind? That has always been an interesting aspect of looking at art, but in this case, the mere looking at it in a museum setting seems to evoke collusion in an undefined societal crime.

In 2018, the movie Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and said to be based on the life of Gerhard Richter, was released. Prior to viewing it, I read a piece in The New Yorker about how the filmmaker approached Richter to loosely base the young protagonist’s life on the German’s early travails. Richter at first eagerly cooperated only to suddenly lose interest and become very angry  about the project. That said, the movie is a great one, an extraordinary personal journey of a young painter painstakingly discovering his identity, vision, technique, and philosophy, which turns out to be a purposeful avoidance of philosophy. Never Look Away is emotionally wrenching and an up-close trip through Cold War Germany as the nation both accepts and hides from its responsibility for Nazi atrocities.

In the movie, the artist-to-be, Kurt Barnert (portrayed as a young man by Kurt Schilling), is of a very young age during the years of Nazi rule. In the opening sequence, his eccentric aunt, the young and beautiful Elisabeth, brings him to a museum where a curator leads visitors through an exhibition featuring one of the surveys of what the National Socialists pronounced “degenerate art.” To the surprise of the little boy, his aunt confides in a gay, laughing secret that she admires the paintings, going against the official party line.

Elisabeth proves to be clinically manic and loses herself to madness. The film shifts to the institution where she is held at the mercy of cold-hearted physicians who are triaging patients to be transported to camps for extermination, selecting those they believe to fail mental and physical Nazi standards for German citizenship. Elisabeth makes a last tearful plea for clemency to a doctor in his private office, who is visibly both moved and horrified by her burst of raw honesty. After she is taken from his office, we see this cruel man hastily sign the medical papers that will lead to her death. 

The subsequent story is partially but not entirely true to Richter’s life and that of one of his wives. After the war, the physician conceals his past behavior and escapes punishment for complicity with the Reich. By the 1950s, he is living as a reputable and respected doctor. Ironically, the Richter-character, Barnert, falls in love and marries the doctor’s daughter without a clue that his father-in-law doomed his aunt to death in the camps. The doctor proves to be as brutal and calculatingly cruel with his own daughter and Barnert as when he was a Nazi collaborator.

Early in their careers, both Richter and Kiefer painted as subjects or put photos on display of Nazis in casual poses, shocking the German establishment of the 1950s and 1960s with their honest portrayal of local, familial pride in the Reich. In Never Look Away, Richter’s character eventually reaches the eureka moment of discovery of the photorealistic style and we watch his first solo exhibition that ends up launching his long career as a successful artist. In addition, when his father-in-law drops by his studio to see the photographically-based paintings, he is shocked to see portraits of the long dead Aunt Elisabeth, recalling how he’d signed off to have her murdered as she desperately asked him to think of her as a daughter and as a growing young woman like those of his own family. Neither painter nor doctor know any details of the other’s ties to this woman. In addition, Barnert based these large paintings on personal photographs from the 1930s of the medical institution where his aunt was held and his father-in-law worked. His father-in-law can’t fathom how these people came to be the subject of his son-in-law’s art. Finally, this beast of a man appears to understand the horrific things he has done and continues to do to his own family and we watch with satisfaction as this previously unflappable doctor stumbles unhinged and physically unbalanced from the studio.

Toward the conclusion of the movie, we finally hear words from Banert at his solo exhibit’s press conference that sum up what some of us have learned to be the real Richter’s attitude towards painting: The artist, by definition, is not in control of their own work and can give no meaning to their creations—there’s no point or reason to debate otherwise. Never Look Away does not make the viewer ponder art and life in the same way Richter’s paintings do. It makes a louder and broader statement, and the viewer cannot retreat from it like one can in a museum, strolling from canvas to canvas and then out the door to the sidewalk. This film and its powerful sequences remain in the mind for days after viewing, eventually lodging in the unconscious where it simmers and ponders in continual background revelation. I, for one, think that is a good thing.

Culture Corner

A War of the Worlds for the Age of Pandemic

Bernie Langs

Spoilers below!

There have been two excellent film adaptations of the ahead of its time 1898 science fiction novel by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. Gene Barry starred in the 1953 movie that would find repeated airtime in the late 1960s on local New York television, where I first viewed it as a boy. The most memorable moment (and sole remembrance for me) is towards the end of the story, when the terrified humans not yet slaughtered by the invading armies of aliens, take refuge in a bombed church. In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed a fantastic take on the notion of a merciless killing machine of invaders, with Tom Cruise as the hero (Ray Ferrier) who is forced to take fast and imaginative action to survive. The movie focuses on Ferrier’s desperate attempt to stay ahead of the alien starships as they pillage and destroy not only human life but turn the very earth itself into a blood-soaked wasteland. Spielberg effectively transforms Cruise’s character of a divorced and out-of-touch father of a young girl (the superlative Dakota Fanning) and teenage son (well-played by Justin Chatwin) into a selfless defender willing to take all measures to protect his family. In the last scene, as the aliens are dying off and crashing their vessels into sections of Boston, a tongue-in-cheek surprise occurs when Ferrier reaches his ex-wife’s home to safely deliver his daughter. He is greeted not only by his ex-wife and their son (who had been thought dead due to an earlier attack), but also by his former father-in-law, portrayed by none other than the star of the 1953 War of the Worlds, Gene Barry. 

Illustration by Henrique Alvim Corréa for The War of the Worlds (1906)

In both movies, the aliens easily repel the greatest efforts of mankind’s weaponry, only to die off naturally soon after their invasion.They succumb to the worlds’ ecosystem and atmosphere and are unable to defend themselves from microbes and bacterial disease. Although they are technologically superior and advanced, these monsters still die from invisible and natural attackers. The dread and fear that Spielberg evokes not only comes from the monstrous appearance of those steering the alien forces, but from the sounds their ships make announcing their approach. In one touching sequence, Cruise and his children march silently through a town with hundreds of other weary, fatigued, and fleeing refugees. The village’s walls are plastered with missing person posters, very much like those that covered Manhattan in the days after the September 11th attack. As the 1953 version of War of the Worlds might be considered a study in Cold War angst, the Spielberg film is a bleak portrayal made for the post-9/11 era. Harking back to the radio play voiced by Orson Welles in 1938, one can sense that it too was a mirror and reflection of the times. It would be but a matter of months before much of Europe would lie in ruin from the German onslaught of World War II.

Science fiction movies of aliens wreaking havoc on the earth come in several brands, the most popular being those depicting them as harsh killers desiring earth’s minerals and vegetation, as well as human flesh for sustenance. A few recent movies turned the genre on its head, including the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where destruction is targeted only at the human species by a superior race of invaders who intend to save all other natural life forms from pollution and destructive wars. The 2016 movie Arrival is quite sophisticated and smart, as the army and intelligence units enlist a brilliant linguistic professor (Amy Adams) and physicist (Jeremey Renner) to break through in communicating with enormous octopus-like aliens manning ships hovering over major cities with unknown intentions. Arrival dives deep into science and philosophy and boasts a breathlessly tense and intellectually satisfying resolution. 

A new eight part Epix series based on H.G. Wells’ story debuted in the U.S. in early 2020. This version of War of the Worlds draws from the best approaches of past renditions and other alien invasion stories and makes a timely contribution to the surreal and challenging times we currently inhabit. Aired just prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, its lessons would have been equally as powerful had it been released two years after the end of this crisis.

Unlike the unfolding days and weeks of murders of past War of the World films, most of the mass killing by the invaders occurs immediately in this series. The handful of survivors living in England and France are initially saved only by finding accidental shelter from the destructive sound waves that killed millions of their fellow humans in a flash. The aliens are on a mission to not only hunt down and kill these survivors one-by-one, but also harvest their organs. In early episodes, we are teased with fleeting views of the aliens, making us think they will be as terrifying as those that Spielberg set loose over fifteen years ago. But the galloping dog-like creatures turn out only to be crude, metallic, robot-like machines (plenty scary though when they kill people). When one of them is finally destroyed and split open, it appears to utilize inexpertly cobbled together human tissues for its rudimentary thinking and actions. It becomes apparent to the survivors that these are only worker drones or soldiers of an unseen master (or masters) who have yet to reveal themselves from the mother ships.

Family and survival are a key to this series, but in a 21st century way that Steven Spielberg could never have anticipated in 2005. One English family, the Greshams, consists of a matriarch, Sarah (Natasha Little) and her two teenage children, the quietly pensive, but thoughtful Tom (Ty Tennant) and blind daughter, Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones). The viewer is teased into believing that Sarah will act in the Cruise-like role of steadfast family protector, but immediately her children question her protectiveness as selfish when they are confronted by people in need whom their mother wants to bypass and leave to fend for themselves. This dynamic becomes more and more complex as the series evolves. On the French side, the Dumont family unfolds as a portrait of modern dysfunction to a tragic degree. Even in a time of emergency, the force and power of their past failures and pains cannot be escaped and become a danger to themselves and to the one man, Jonathan, trying to save them. He also happens to be the head of the Gresham clan and his goal is to return by foot via a long trek to London through The Channel Tunnel, where he hopes to reunite with his wife and children, should they still be alive (the viewer knows they are, but he doesn’t).

The most interesting aspects of this War of the Worlds are its portrayal of the two scientists, Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker), an astronomer in the Alps who first hears the signal of the invading force on a frequency in an observatory, and Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne), a brilliant and aged neuroscientist in London. Unknown to each other, as both face life-and-death situations with their one surviving family member, they are attempting to figure out a method to defeat the invaders based on their own training. Ward wants not only to discover the aliens’ vulnerabilities, but to learn and comprehend its motives. It is this plot device that makes the production so unique. The unknown entities ruthlessly attacking are not here to blindly destroy or colonize or save other species from humans. What they crave is life itselftheir own livesand their fear of death, quite a human notion, is what motivates their blind pursuit of any actions that may save their species from oblivion. 

The series has countless shots of the streets of London and towns of France eerily empty at the height of the day, quite like what we are witnessing during our virus-protective lockdown in April 2020. Never has a television film centered on destruction been so eerily silent for so many long sections of its telling. Durand in France tunes into the alien signal at one point to hear music playing. It turns out to be one of the songs that astronomers launched in a space vehicle hoping to discover other intelligent life forms in the galaxy, quite like what NASA has done in the past. To her horror, Durand realizes the song she hears is one that she so harmlessly selected for the probe herself. The invaders found earth by tracing back the music to its origin and the astronomer is devastated to learn that it was her team’s recordings that led them here. In the final episode, Durand does find a frequency to disable the attack – at least for now, but we are not witnesses to its implementation. However, there are other complex and very gray aspects to the final episode of part one of the series that make for great emotional and tragic drama. 

I was taught long ago in school that bacteria, the killers of aliens in past War of the Worlds films, were living, natural beings. Viruses, on the other hand, I recall as a membraned “box” encasing a squiggly line of nucleic material with a small antenna-like shape atop—a killing machine knowing nothing but sucking life-force from its host and replicating like a blind monster. In the Epix series, the aliens adapt their destructive plans as humans make headway in understanding their weaknesses. Similarly, a virus mutates to evade medical treatments. Yet with great effort, scientists eventually discover medicines that viruses ultimately succumb to no matter how they morph. It may be a little silly to say that life will be true to art here, but in my heart, I believe that it will be our tireless, selfless scientists who bring down or find a way to protect us from this current viral invasion.

Culture Corner

Best of the Boston Music Scene, 1979-1981: The Neighborhoods

Bernie Langs

The Neighborhoods in 1979, left to right, “Careful Mike” Quaglia, John Hartcorn, and David Minehan (image courtesy of Boston Groupie News)

I lived in Boston from 1979 to 1981, spending time as an active participant in the local rock music scene as a musician and songwriter playing in a short-lived band. The time period is now considered a ”golden age” of local New England music talent. I can attest to the truth of that label. My bandmates and I would frequent club performances displaying astonishing musicianship and singing, powered by a brutal adrenaline rush of energy that I believe has vanished from current popular music. 

Several Boston clubs boasted an extraordinary vitality, walled in ragged punk decor, including some of the venues we performed at—Cantones, The Club, Jonathan Swifts (in Cambridge), The Channel (more upscale), and especially the center and hub at the time of the local music scene, the Rathskeller, nicknamed “The Rat” and known as “Boston’s CBGB’s.”

One of my favorite acts was the group The City Thrills, and I enjoyed speaking and joking with their lead guitarist, Johnny Angel. Their dynamic lead singer, Barb Kitson, dated the soundboard tech at The Rat, “Granny,” whom we were all in awe of. Another of my favorite groups was The Lyres, led by the golden-haired, powerhouse performer known as “Mono Man” for his style of playing a vintage organ using one finger at strategic moments to hold a long, solitary high note for dramatic effect. The Lyres did a version of the sixties hit 96 Tears that was sublime, and my band was graced with a request to open for them for a show at a small club. A band called Robin Lane and the Chartbusters was tight and precise in their sound and often played the larger venues to sold out crowds. 

There was one undisputed leader of the pack during this period of fabulous live music, a trio named The Neighborhoods. They are still active as a band, with only their leader, David Minehan, remaining from the time I was a devoted fan. Through mutual friends, my band got to know the drummer, Mike Quaglia, an amiable fellow known as “Careful Mike” for the way he maintained a steady beat as his bassist and guitarist inflicted their wall of sound on the audience. His tenure with The Neighborhoods was from 1978 to 1990. We’d also chat at the clubs with bass player John Hartcorn who was with the band from 1979 to 1981. But I would never have presumed to approach the lead singer, guitarist, and composer, David Minehan. There was no musician or personality like him in Boston, not one player/composer/singer in his league. He would have been a presence in any music scene from New York to London. I’d venture to say that most of the band members from the Boston area that had made it on the national charts didn’t have Minehan’s natural star power, not only as a performer, but as a personality offstage (the one notable exception being Aerosmith’s front man, Stephen Tyler).

Everything about The Neighborhoods was unique. Their songs were centered around basic rock compositional form, but had great twists in their complex melodies and chord structures. The lyrics were poetic, minimal and displayed the rare sweet spot of intellectual, yet approachable subjects and expressiveness. Minehan played his blue Stratocaster hard and with sustain, but never overly distorted. You could hear each power chord and lead note ringing out from floor to ceiling at the clubs where they played, but not at a blistering volume at the threshold of pain. His guitarwork was not an attack on the ears but more like the comfort of a demonstrative cathedral bell ringing out in majesty. Minehan moved about the stage in a trance-like, troubled dance of tough emotions, and his demeanor was otherworldly, as if he existed in his own parallel universe of sound and vision. His hair was colored red rooster crimson in the style of early David Bowie, and piled up high in the manner of members of the English band, The Faces. 

Minehan’s act was no act at all, it was completely honest and unassuming. There was also no self-consciousness in any of the other band members as they created their joyful music. All serious rock enthusiasts long for a pure experience of music, something untainted by commercialism, consumerism, and a compromise of values for the sake of monetary success. The greatest bands never change their core sound or message to increase their audience, thereby polluting artistic vision. The Clash is the only other band I know of in a brotherhood with The Neighborhoods in terms of unwillingness to be anything other than true to music and the intellectual values held precious in the hearts of its members. 

There were times in my own band that we’d kick off our rehearsals by playing a rocking version of The Neighborhoods song, No Place Like Home. Our guitarist Dave would rip into the guitar and vocals and our virtuoso bassist Bill duplicated Careful Mike’s high harmonies. Our magnificently talented Keith Moon-style drummer, Dermot, brought a power and danger to the song that Careful Mike would never have attempted. No Place Like Home is a tale of a teenager’s withdrawal into a private world of music, with the reassuring tagline chorus shouted to the listener, “Little boy I know what you are going THROUGH!” The song kicks off with an amusing description of the youth’s family scene: “Mom and dad are so frightening/Every day is a crisis/Dad gets home and he’s NERVOUS!/The air’s so thick you can’t breathe!/Don’t let them get to you/there’s not much you can do/ and little boy I know what you’re going through…” Much of what Green Day would go on to write about in the 1990’s with their massively successful song output was anticipated by The Neighborhoods.

My other favorite songs by The Neighborhoods included an ode to the wondering eye of a young man, Flavors, featuring the cool chorus, “I love flavors – I love to try them ALL!”, and Prettiest Girl, which Elton John could have fit in nicely on his masterpiece album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of their most complex lyrical expressions was the power ballad, Mr. Reeves, a thoughtful meditation (and more) on the suicide of the original television Superman actor, George Reeves, whose bizarre leap off of a building haunted many a child watching the show during the 1960s.

 My band opened for The Neighborhoods in May 1980 at an intimate club in Providence, Rhode Island. It was an honor and a privilege to have done so. About five years ago I recorded a cover version of No Place Like Home as a birthday surprise for our former band’s guitarist Dave who remains a close friend with me and other members of the ‘Tones. We still bask in the memory of having witnessed the peak of The Neighborhoods forty years ago. The Neighborhoods would go on to open for David Bowie in 1987 at a stadium show in Foxborough, MA, and tour with major acts such as The Ramones, Cheap Trick, and Bowie’s art band, Tin Machine. David Minehan also played a stint as a guitarist with the alt-rock sensation, The Replacements. He currently runs a recording studio, Woolly Mammoth Sound, in the town of Waltham outside of Boston, and The Neighborhoods’ new set of songs, Last Known Address, can be streamed on Amazon Music and other services. I consider myself so fortunate to have been a witness to one of rock’s under-appreciated moments of glory, an exceptional, brief window of time in the genre that was honest and true with brilliant and pure sincerity in every performance. Everyone should be so lucky to be in the presence of genius in the artistic genre they hold closest to their soul. Link: The Neighborhoods perform Prettiest Girl and No Place Like Home in 1979 on Boston television: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5Mia0yvVmw

Culture Corner

Films of Exploration and Adventure: The Lost City of Z and The Lighthouse

Bernie Langs

Photo courtesy of A24.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Spoiler alert below!

In the time of movies featuring a multitude of superhero comic book stories, cliched comedies, and explosive action adventures with mindless plots and throw away dialogue, we can still rejoice knowing that studios will occasionally take chances on more complex and thoughtful cinematic ventures. The box office and critical success of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and the sophisticated comedic murder mystery Knives Out come to mind. There are other genres to be found by audiences among the artistic rubble of the explosions presented in many blockbuster stories. These include thought-provoking tales of adventure and period pieces delving into the psyche of obsessive individuals stretched to the breaking point. Two recent movies are grand examples of this: The Lost City of Z (2016) and The Lighthouse (2019).

The Lost City of Z is a creatively intellectual and extremely entertaining movie. Directed by James Gray, who also wrote the screenplay, the story is based on the book of the same title by David Grann. Z centers on the true events of the life of explorer Percy Fawcett, played with nuance, bravery, and dashing elegance by the English actor Charlie Hunnam. As a British military officer in the early years of the twentieth century, Fawcett is unexpectedly conscripted against his career wishes by the Royal Geographic Society and the British government to lead a surveying expedition and settle a boundary dispute between Bolivia and Brazil that will have important implications for the lucrative rubber trade and industry. Fawcett’s transformation from an unwilling participant in the discoveries of uncharted Amazon into an excited and obsessed groundbreaking explorer is a captivating and endearing tale.

Hunnam’s portrayal of the understated Fawcett is a work of art as he survives the trials and tribulations of disease-ridden jungle and river exploration. Fawcett is at times forced to act quickly and with daring imagination to find life-saving ways to communicate that his team comes in peace to wary native inhabitants. On his return to London, he must deal with resistance from the Royal Geographic Society’s snobbish members about the possibility of a lost city—a previously unknown, sophisticated ancient civilization in the Amazon, which the Society deems “savage.”

In addition, Fawcett has to justify and explain his years of absence to his growing eldest son, and the limits of his enlightenment are tested as he struggles to recognize and fully respect the intellectual equality of his wife. Sienna Miller lights up the screen as Nina Fawcett, who suffers for years worrying for the safety of her husband and bearing the sole responsibility of raising their children. Percy Fawcett eventually manages to learn from and understand Nina, and there are emotional moments in the movie as his son starts to idolize his father’s courageous exploits and even secures funding for further exploration from the likes of U.S. newspapers and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Father and son (the latter now a young man), set out together into the danger-filled Amazon for a final attempt to locate the Lost City, now experienced simultaneously as both an ancient reality and a fragment of a dream within the explorer’s psyche.

Robert Pattinson is fantastic in his role as Fawcett’s second in command, Corporal Henry Costin. He is smart and witty, and the actor hides his Twilight good looks under a beard and a ravaged explorer’s body. Pattison’s Costin is a throwback to the sidekick companion of old-timey movies and we delight in his growing devotion to and friendship with Fawcett.

Quality films set in the past that delve deep into the inner psychology of men and women plagued by labors that take them to the limits of sanity are few and far between. Director John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of the novel Moby Dick (1956), for example, showcases Gregory Peck as the infamously tormented Captain Ahab. Ahab’s rage and quest to kill the white whale not only boils to overt fury and self-destructive action, but also softly simmers during his rational, quiet conversations with officers of his crew.

Melville wrote his sea adventure in 1851 and set the launch of the doomed Pequod from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Robert Eggers’ film The Lighthouse also takes place in the late nineteenth century and is set somewhere in northern New England. Actors Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, and (once again) Robert Pattinson as Thomas Howard/Ephraim Winslow, are paired together to work a stint at a lighthouse on a tiny island, with Wake as the older and more experienced keeper. The backbreaking work amid lonely isolation leads to more and more sarcastic bickering and stinging jabs and arguments, and the two men reach a breaking point when they realize that the team scheduled to relieve them from their duties is not going to appear and allow them to return to the mainland.

With its unrelenting barrage of crazed situations and behaviors, I would not recommend that everyone see The Lighthouse. Prior to viewing the film, I read some superlative reviews touting the incredible acting by Dafoe and Pattinson and I did find their superlative portrayals worthy of Academy Awards. The audience is also treated to a study in black and white cinematography and the unusual horizontal shrinking of the actual film space. This “narrow vintage aspect ratio” gives the movie a more realistic nineteenth century feel and enhances the mood of stress in the claustrophobic living space shared by the duo. As the two main characters become more and more unhinged, the dive into their insanity plays out like a fascinating live theater-like stage rendition of immediate violence. There are mystic hints of a moral and religious reckoning, complete with chilling visions of hallucinatory mermaids and sea gods. The mystery of the blinding white light of the tower lantern of the lighthouse becomes a powerfully charged character on its own, an unknown entity, which may be abstractly fueling the deadly struggle between its two attendants.

As I left the multiplex after The Lighthouse, I was in a state of shock from the continuous horror the pair go through and inflict on each other, and although I didn’t “like” the experience, I (sort of) inexplicably did, and plan to watch it again as a rented movie at home. The interactions between Dafoe and Pattinson bounce around the emotional spectrum and the destruction of their lives and souls unravels and unfurls with a rarely viewed intensity, one without relief or pause for the audience to take a breath in recovery. The movie’s greatest moment, oddly tinted with humor, initiates as a petty argument over the quality of Wake’s cooking and ends up devolving into the fury of a legendary curse invoked by him upon the life and soul of his young worker. Dafoe masterfully delivers a harsh, yet poetic verbal assault, piling up a list of vengeances that draw from the history of sailors’ myths and fears. Dafoe’s character also dives deep into plagues worthy of the Old Testament on the life of his hapless co-worker. That speech alone makes The Lighthouse worth the viewing. The Lighthouse ends with a new take on violently creative punishments, reminiscent of those in ancient Greek mythology. That brand of complex allusion is what draws filmgoers to sit through such a difficult and hard-to-take story.

Culture Corner

Comparing Ancient and Contemporary Ideas of Time: The Writings of Plotinus and Carlo Rovelli

Bernie Langs

Plotinus, The Enneads, Penguin Classics; (November 5, 1991), 688 pages, paperback

Rovelli, Carlo, The Order of Time, Riverhead Books; (May 8, 2018), 256 pages, hardcover

Plotinus (A.D. 204-270) founded the school of Neoplatonism and selections of his work, The Enneads, reveal his ideas which blend the thoughts of Aristotle, Plato, and other schools of ancient Greek philosophy. If one has read some of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and great thinkers of the Pre-Socratic school, The Enneads is highly approachable and understandable. The powerful and enlightening insights delivered by The Enneads complete an ancient system of thought as well and serve as a new beginning of spiritual mysticism. The book contains hints of the Christian philosophy that would soon flourish after the passing of Plotinus. Plotinus may have been exposed to many other religions and mystic ideas during his time in Rome.

Plotinus centers his philosophy on three levels. The first level or the One, also known as The Good, The Transcendent, or The Absolute, is indescribable, much like the name of God in the Pentateuch or Old Testament. Nothing can be said about it and it has no body, history, shape, or presence in our world, yet is the source of all. The second level is The Intellectual-Principle or Intelligence and Divine-Thought, acting as a go-between between The One and the third level, The All-Soul. The latter is where our physical universe and the life-forms on Earth exist. The beings at the lowest level are created by the second as a mirror image, a stamped second-tier impression of the pure Essence originating from the first. The first level is well-known in philosophy as the Platonic Forms, and it renders all we know and see in our own world as imperfect reflections. I’ve always had a problem accepting the unquestioned reality of ideal Forms, and Plotinus’ work revolves heavily around a more detailed and philosophically agreeable use of the concept.

The editors of the Penguin edition of The Enneads introduce the book’s Seventh Tractate by stating that it is of importance as the only extended discussion in ancient philosophy of the theory of Time, apart from that of Aristotle in Physics. Early in 2019, I read a fantastic book, The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli, on the current state of the study of time in physics, related to his own research conducted as the director of the quantum gravity group at the Centrede Physique Théorique at the Aix-Marseille University. He is considered to be one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. Rovelli embellishes his highly readable journey on the history of the study of time by peppering the short work with quotes and summaries not only by those studying physics and other relevant scientific fields, but poets, writers, religious leaders, and modern and ancient philosophers. Noticeably absent, however, is a mention of Plotinus and his important tractate on the subject.

On a mission to see where Rovelli bridges mathematical  theories with those of humanistic and philosophical Time, I reread the chapter on Time by Plotinus and much of the book by Rovelli. As I read Plotinus, I understood that one has to allow for a high level of speculative thinking in approaching his concepts. The basis of ancient Greek scientific thought presented, for example, by Aristotle or in older works describing a world resting on an invisible atomic substructure, was often created from the sheer intuitive process of these thinkers of the time. Rovelli gives many nods to this idea, writing, “The ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking,” and gives examples of this by citing the works of Anaximander, Copernicus, and Einstein. Yet, Rovelli argues many times in his book that we can’t trust these instincts. For example, he writes the following about Einstein’s realization that time was slowed down by speed: “The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all.” In addition, there are many intuitive ideas that a modern scientist deems worthy of detailed exploration as compared to those that are often regarded as spiritual or philosophical in nature, dismissed from the start for initiating any objective and rational follow-up and pursuit.

Rovelli is on an exciting mission to spread the newly discovered truths about time and use the study of physics to educate and end the common and popular misconception that time is linear. Time does not move, using my own analogy here, like film flowing through an old projector system, passing through the light of the camera’s lens for one immeasurable moment of the now, and with no possibility of return or vision of what will be shown in future frames. Instead, Rovelli makes the case for the nonlinearity of time. He quotes the poet René Rilke on this subject, “The eternal current/Draws all the ages along with it…” and describes how we grab on to the idea of persistent time, its slippage and “anxiety about the future.” But the reality is in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, where there is no such difference between past and future or cause and effect. The Order of Time is at its best when it lays out for the non-specialist reader the history of time in physics, from the disconnect between Aristotle’s and Newton’s theories to the groundbreaking discoveries of Einstein and discussions on subjects and areas of study such as entropy, gravity, the second principle of thermodynamics, and many others.

Rovelli’s area of study is loop gravity, and it works without a variable of time in its equations. His research focuses on the fields that form matter, photons, electrons, subatomic particles, and gravitational fields: “all on the same level and seeking only a coherent description of the world as we understand it so far.” In this world, time and space are no longer containers or general forms of the world and act as approximations of quantum dynamics which itself knows neither space nor time. He states it is representative of a world of “only events and relations. It is a world without time of elementary physics.”

The Order of Time describes how Plato had the “excellent” idea to translate mathematics and physics using atomists’ (i.e. Democritus) insights. Rovelli notes, “But he [Plato] goes about it the wrong way: he tries to write the mathematics of the shape of atoms, rather than the mathematics of their movements.” He also states that “For a long time, we have tried to understand the world in terms of some primary substance. Perhaps physics, more than any other discipline, has pursued this primary substance. But the more we have studied it, the less the world seems comprehensible in terms of something that is. It seems to be a lot more intelligible in terms of relations between events.”

Plotinus is in agreement with Rovelli that the world of substance is not to be trusted as a source of anything absolute in terms of knowledge or fact. He would never pursue a study of a “primary substance,” as Rovelli says physics has mistakenly done in the past, since he believes it to exist only in the unreachable realm of Forms and that’s all that we as humans comprehend of it. Plotinus also notes that the study of movement has nothing to do with Time, and that the observer of movement has nothing to do without Time outside of being a convenient tool of measure.

Another concordance between Plotinus and Rovelli is that language in itself will always be an imperfect conduit in describing ultimate theories, whether it be The One or a “theory of everything,” a belief in a single quantum equation that ties all fields in a neat packaging. Plotinus writes, “Let them [beings] have it [Time], present to them and running side by side with them, and they are by that very fact incomplete; completeness is attributed to them only by an accident of language” and “[Eternity] can have no contact with anything quantitative since its Life cannot be made a thing of fragments…it must be without parts in the Life as in the essence.”

Rovelli and Plotinus are both in agreement that there is no difference in past, present and future, with the latter saying in terms of physics, “Being can have no this and that; it cannot be treated in terms of intervals, unfoldings, progression, extension; there is no grasping any first or last in it” and “The Primals, on the contrary, in their state of blessedness have no such aspiration towards anything to come: they are whole, now…therefore, seek nothing, since there is no future to them, nothing eternal to them in which futurity could find lodgement.”

The Enneads strays farthest from any semblance of what would be thought of today as recognizable scientific study in its systematic and unwavering belief of how and why this world exists. Plotinus writes, “Time, as noted by Plato, sprang into Being simultaneously with the Heavenly system, a reproduction of Eternity, its image in motion, Time necessarily unresting as the Life with which it must keep pace: and ‘coeval with the Heavens because it is this same Life (of the Divine Soul) which brings the Heavens into being; Time and the Heavens are the work of the one Life.” Science, with good cause, prefers the mathematic study of “infinity” over speculative notions of an “Eternal”. Plotinus writes that we, as human souls, must attempt to rediscover our vision of and relationship with the realm of Forms, a perfect Good, a beacon appearing only in our Intellect through study and Buddhist-like meditational transcendence. For Plotinus, concepts such as the Eternal don’t offer much towards revelation—they are ideas to ponder while trying to reach that higher plane of pure unwavering perfection, which knows no Eternity.

Rovelli writes how he agrees with the late philosopher of science, Hans Reichenbach, that, “in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us…we have imagined the existence of ‘eternity,’ a strange world outside of time that would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls….The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time – Heraclitus, or Bergson – has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate the layers of that mystery…the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions.”

That said, all of Rovelli’s philosophical quotes and anecdotes are truly poetically placed in his book so the reader knows he’s not just a physicist in an ivory tower with knowledge of what only concerns his area of study. He’s a man of the wider world and has read a vast number of books in the humanities. I came to believe during my second reading of The Order of Time that he may actually believe that many of these works offer little in terms of the hard science of physics on time outside of their importance in the historical narrative of misconceptions on the subject.

Towards the end of the book Rovelli notes, “The vision of reality and the collective delirium that we have organized has evolved and has turned out to have worked reasonably well in getting us to this point,” and in closing his work says, “And it seems to me that life, this brief life, is nothing other than this: the incessant cry of these emotions that drive us, that we sometimes attempt to channel in the name of a god, a political faith, in a ritual that reassures us that, fundamentally, everything is in order, in a great boundless love – and the cry is beautiful.” I would beg to differ. Our “collective delirium” has been the source of the deaths of tens of millions of people (see the wars of the 20th century alone) and that our emotional “beautiful cry” is far too often more one of pain than glory. It is unrealistic to believe that science will ever cast a wider net when choosing which of the intuitions of philosophy it deems worthy of research, especially given philosophy’s close relationship to the fool’s gold so often offered up by the schools of theology. After all, Plotinus himself admits that we can say nothing more about The One outside of that it exists and should be strived for internally through Intellect. There’s nothing there to study at length, and no purpose would be served in “locating” the primary level since it’s more of an invisible axiom than a tangible theorem in space or time. Yet it has purpose as a vital pursuit, one that could well serve as a motivator in the back of the mind of any individual seeking a wider understanding and awareness of the world.

Plotinus may have introduced in his Tractate on Time an early inkling of the concept of the multiverse, and it is a hopeful one at that. He writes, “Thus when the universe has reached its term, there will be a fresh beginning, since the entire Quantity which the Cosmos is to exhibit, every item that is to emerge in its course, all is laid up from the first in the Being that contains the Reason-Principles…There is nothing alarming about such limitlessness in generative forces and in Reason-Principles, when Soul is there to sustain all. As in Soul (principle of Life) so in Divine Mind (principle of Idea) there is this infinitude of recurring generative powers; the Beings there are unfailing.”

Culture Corner

An Interview with 2001: A Space Odyssey Star Keir Dullea

Bernie Langs

Keir Dullea with Katharina Kubrick, daughter of Stanley Kubrick, at showing of 2001 at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Keir Dullea as astronaut David Bauman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Photo: MGM Studios)

 Keir Dullea is a stage and film actor best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece and genre-changing movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. During an hour-long phone interview from his home in Westport, Connecticut, Mr. Dullea’s voice and his sharp recall of his career did not convey any sense of him slowing down at 83 years old. I could easily recognize the same vitality that his 2001 character, astronaut David Bauman, displayed as he powers down his spacecraft’s infamous computer, HAL, goes rogue. Mr. Dullea is still performing on the stage and he briefly discussed some of his upcoming films. What follows is an edited version of our discussion.

Keir Dullea on why he enjoys the stage:

 I had the theater before I ever did my first film. I would say a lot I had done in those days, they don’t really do this anymore, summer stock at the summer theaters around the country, as resident companies where you would have a group of actors that would do every play for ten weeks, ten plays in ten weeks and you didn’t even have a full week’s rehearsal. I had done my first season in 1957. For four years in the summers I had done probably fifty plays, always an exciting challenge.

The big part of what makes theater for me more exciting than film: it’s working with a live audience. There’s this spirit that makes every performance slightly different because if it’s a five-character play, there’s a sixth character and that’s the character of the audience. And if it’s a serious play, it makes a difference every night.

I’ve done about thirty-five films, but I’ve probably done about sixty or seventy plays in my life. I’m pleased with some of the films I’ve done [such as] 2001 and David and Lisa, but also my first film, which didn’t do a lot for my career, but it got great reviews. David and Lisa is one I’m very proud of. That was my second film and kind of was responsible for my film career.

My first hit on Broadway was Butterflies are Free with Blythe Danner. It was her first Broadway play. The peak Broadway experience for me was the first revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Ashley. She’s done some important films, but her Broadway credits are enormous. She’s a brilliant actress. She was nominated for a Tony and she should have won it. Tennessee Williams said, because he was around while we were rehearsing, she was exactly the character he had in mind when he wrote the play.

Working on [the film] Bunny Lake is Missing was not a pleasant experience because of the director; Otto Preminger’s reputation among actors was pretty bad. He humiliated his cast and screamed at the top of his lungs.  [Co-star] Laurence Olivier was very conscious of it, but he didn’t treat Olivier that way. Olivier was very conscious of the pressure that I was under. I would [mess] up my lines. It wasn’t because I had a lot of lines. Being a stage actor, I’m used to memorizing a lot of lines. The stress of working with that man was such that I would often go off in my lines.  Olivier would run lines with me; we’d off away from the set for hours at a time. He was so kind. He was wonderful. I loved working with him.

On working on The Good Shepherd directed by Robert DeNiro:

…DeNiro, we both grew up in the same part of Manhattan in Greenwich Village. We had met sometime briefly [years before the film]. My role wasn’t that demanding. I loved the opportunity to be working with Angelina Jolie. She was lovely. She wasn’t like, ‘I’m the star.’ She was very natural and easy to work with. As was William Hurt. And DeNiro was lovely to work with. I loved just meeting Matt Damon. I have great admiration for him as an actor.

On getting chosen for the lead and working with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001:

One day after work on Bunny Lake is Missing I came back in the evening after a day of shooting. And my wife said, your agent called, so I called my agent and he said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “No, why?”. “You better sit down, you’ve just been offered the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s next film.” Out of the blue. I had no idea I was being considered. I don’t know all the films he looked at, but I know he’d probably look at David and Lisa. Although if you’ve seen that, it wouldn’t clue you into it, but Stanley saw me for the character that he wanted.

It was a dream experience. I can’t say it’s the role of my dreams. But I am an important link of many links in one of the greatest films ever made. It all has to do with Stanley Kubrick. He was a genius. The funny thing is the film didn’t start off being successful. It took a couple of months for MGM to stop being worried because there were three major premiers–Washington, New York, and Los Angeles–and people walked out of all of them. Some of the reviews were brilliant, but a lot of them by well-known critics really slammed the film. And then suddenly, there were lines around the block a couple of months later and the makeup of those lines was the younger generation. I think they came out with a new poster because they figured that a lot of these young people were smoking “funny cigarettes.” It said “2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ultimate Trip.”

Arthur C. Clark…we met, we had discussions, and I sort of got to know him. I wasn’t a big science fiction fan by the time I made 2001, but I was as a teenager. My mother would give me every year in those days a book that was the best science fiction of 1950 or whatever. I remembered reading the [2001] script before I arrived in London to begin filming. And I’m thinking it was vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. I had read a short story by Arthur C. Clark called The Sentinel. That was the germ, that was the short story that Kubrick read. To be in the presence of [Kubrick] and the contrast between Otto Preminger and this man was just enormous. Never raised his voice, was always quiet, was open to discussion. You could suggest things.

During the final scenes of the film, we watch Dave Bauman aging and watching himself age. The culmination is a shot of him eating alone, breaking a wine glass, and suddenly stopping to see his final, eldest self in bed breathing his last as the Monolith appears towering over him. On how Dullea influenced that stunning moment:

 It’s not one of the major elements of the film, but yeah, I think it’s a major element in the film. I think it’s immense. Kubrick was always open to [ideas]. He was going to use it, but, then I explained why, the reason I wanted to do it. It was not for some esoteric reason. If you remember the first view of me in that room, I’m still in my space suit yet looking out, I’m still in the pod. And then the next version–I’m still standing in the room, and then there’s another version [of me] where, I look out of the visor of the space suit and see that my spacesuit is gone. And then that version walks into the bathroom and there then is me. Each, a younger version–and what does he see? He sees the older version. You never cut back to the first version. And so he looks and he sees the older version sitting at the table eating. In the scene where I knocked the glass over, I said, let me have a slightly different way of reacting to hearing something. Let me knock the glass over and in mid-gesture, reaching over to get the glass, I’m aware of something. And what I am aware of is the oldest version [of me] on the bed. I wanted a slightly different way of reacting. I didn’t want to just hear something, I wanted a gesture that somehow that was different. The brilliance shines in every scene, but particularly in that scene. That oldest version, thank God, we didn’t have to do that more than one or two takes. It was all done within one day. The makeup for that version took twelve hours.

On some of Dullea’s favorite moments in 2001:

One of my favorite sequences when I first saw the film was, ‘The Dawn of Man.’ Dan Richter who played the leading ape was a mime. He was brilliant. The ‘jump cut’ in the film, from the bone to the space station, that’s the greatest jump cut in the history of film. And my other favorite moment in the ‘Dawn of Man’ is when Dan Richter is fiddling around with some bare bones, just kind of arbitrary, and he’s hitting one bone, hitting the other bone and suddenly a piece flies up in a certain way. He pauses for a minute and is curious, suddenly tilts his head. And it’s the moment when the penny drops. He gets it. It’s brilliant.

It’s amazing that how Stanley got so many things completely right. He absolutely had [predicted] Skyping, he had [predicted] iPads. He contacted something like forty different corporations and asked them to send their best guess as to what their product might be [like] many years later in 2001.

Dullea’s line in 2001, “Open the pod bay doors please, HAL,” is #78 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes. He noted that since Stanley Kubrick couldn’t decide on a voice for HAL, during filming an assistant with a strong British accent would feed the stand-in lines for HAL’s voice. On the iconic scene where he turns off the computer and about a speech of his that was later cut from the film:

 We had weeks of discussion before we began filming, [and Kubrick] had Gary Lockwood who played the other astronaut and myself there for all kinds of reasons, costume fittings, and makeup tests. But one of the things we talked about was who these characters were, how he imagined they might be chosen in the year 2001 [for the mission]. He said that it’s not mentioned in the film, but I think you both probably have double doctorates in some scientific disciplines of some sort. And more important than that is your psychological profile. One of the reasons there is the least dialogue of the whole film [in our part] other than ‘The Dawn of Man,’ is that the other astronaut and I are the only two astronauts awake. And it’s been months this journey from the Earth to Jupiter, imagined by Stanley, would take months. So by the time we pick up on their trip, they’re talked out, there’s nothing left to talk about. They have their daily routines, which you don’t have to talk about.

In terms of an emotional scene, the closest I had was when I’m taking HAL apart. And for me, you try to find it as an act when you’re playing a role. In order to play it successfully, it doesn’t mean you have to have gone through those experiences exactly the way it is in the script yourself. You’ll have to find parallels. The closest parallel in your own life or even if it’s a book you’ve read, some emotional response that you had and you bring that to those moments. And the closest that worked for me is [the film of] John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men. He [Lenny] doesn’t shoot him [George] with anger. He shoots him because he cares about him. Don’t forget HAL is a member of the crew.

I had this dialogue, which was the longest piece of dialogue in the whole film. It was very hard to memorize because from my point of view, it was technological gobbledygook. I worked on it for weeks. And, Kubrick ultimately when he was editing the film, cut the scene, deciding it was redundant. But because of the way I had to memorize that, like memorizing phonetically a foreign language that you don’t speak, I can still do the speech. Exactly.  And it went like this: ‘Mission control is there’s extra a elder one at one nine or two zero on board vault prediction center in a nightmare. The zero computers showed up, the echo three, five units as possible. So you within 48 hours request check your in shift system simulator. Also confirm your approval. Our plan to go Eva replace out the echo three, five unit five and failure. Mission control this is X, a Delta one transmission concluded.’  (It’ll go to my grave!)

Culture Corner

Collecting Art

Bernie Langs

I’ve been acquiring works of art for most of my life, starting with the 1960s-style posters that graced the walls of my childhood bedroom. If you keep an eye out at galleries and book/gift shops, you can purchase some great and affordable pieces that will brighten living and work spaces, keeping you artistically and aesthetically satisfied for years. Here are some of my favorite works that I have on display at home and in my office.

My favorite (and the rarest) piece in my collection is this beautifully detailed watercolor design for a stained glassed window that was created by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, an English firm that produced such windows from 1862 to 1953. One afternoon in the 1980s, I acquired it at a Manhattan gallery owned by the late Spencer Samuels. I found his staff packing up to move locations and there were several unframed window designs made by the firm on the floor waiting to be wrapped up. When I expressed an interest in them, they let me purchase this one at a huge discount, much to the amusement of the owner. The scene is of Christ healing the sick with a typical English harbor in the background, complete with ships with masts. It was most likely painted in the late 1800s as a design for a church in the United Kingdom. Westminster Abbey includes a Heaton, Butler and Bayne window, installed in 1868.

Top: These ancient Roman artifacts from 100-350 AD were mostly purchased at the Antiquarium Ltd. Fine Arts Gallery at 790 Madison Avenue. Left to right: coin of the Imperial Emperor Constans (he reigned from 337–350 A.D.); bronze horse head; perfume bottle with a wonderful patina; terracotta doll’s head for a child; and Roman oil lamp. Bottom: Bronze bracelet from Greece cast in 400-323 B.C., purchased from the Sadigh Gallery Ancient Art, Inc. These ancient works are affordable since there are many scattered around Europe.

My family commissioned this painting, Still Life with Fruit, from the talented artist Walter Rondiak. It is incredible—the light striking both the fruit and the platform, the varying dimensions, the reflections, and so on. It is the first work of art visible upon entering my home. I find it as intellectually exciting as paintings in this genre by Cezanne and Chardin.

I have purchased several Japanese Edo-era woodblock prints in the Ukiyo-e style from the Ronin Gallery on 57th Street both for my own collection and as gifts. They have high end prints as well as affordable designs. The small woodblock on the top is from a series, The 53 Stations of the Takaido by the great Master, Hiroshige (d. 1858). The larger print to the bottom is by his pupil and son-in-law, Hiroshige II (1826-1869).

This rendering (with detail) of The Electric Light in Madison Square, New York, is a colorized page from the January 14th, 1882 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The image was made by artist Charles Graham shortly after arc lighting systems became implemented in cities. My wife and I bought it at the Summa Art Gallery in Brooklyn Heights in the early 1990s.

This large print with its deep, rich colors and gloriously sublime view of the hills of Tuscany was bought from the inventory of an art dealer and auction service on a cruise ship. It is the centerpiece of my living room and every guest to my home is struck by its beauty.

Used book stores often have collections of affordable old magazines, posters, and prints. This map of England and Wales was published in 1790. I bought it from the Old Book Shop in Morristown, New Jersey. The prices of such maps vary from about fifty to several hundred dollars. The store also maintains a large collection of vintage postcards of great variety, mostly under five dollars each. The maps and the postcards make for creative gift giving.

Nine years ago, I visited one of Rome’s National Museums and was stunned to sit in a large room graced on each wall by frescoes depicting faux foliage for the subterranean dining room of the famous Villa of Livia (30-20 B.C.). The decoration was created to give the illusion by the patroness of outdoor dining for her guests. I found this poster of a section of the landscape in the gift shop for the Roman Forum and I keep it on display in my home office as inspiration for my creative works.

An Anglo-Roman brooch from about 200 A.D. showcased on a shelf next to a fabulous Joe Namath/New York Jets commemorative Super Bowl III plate that my brother-in-law gave me. The brooch and the Jets’ appearance in a Super Bowl are both ancient history!

Signed (bottom right) poster for a stunning 1986 exhibition of large black and white photos taken by Philip Trager of villas in Italy designed by the architect Palladio. There was a book produced for the exhibit as well and I recently chanced upon a used copy at The Chatham Bookseller, LLC in Madison, New Jersey, which I gave to a friend who has long admired the poster.

My daughter, Jordan, made this linoleum cut print of a relaxing cup of hot chocolate while she was a middle school student. It was recognized with a Scholastic Art Award at a ceremony for students at the Morris Art Museum in New Jersey. We have it hanging in a hallway at home next to prints and posters from Italy and framed family photos.

All photos by Bernie Langs.

Culture Corner

An Interview with Musician and Composer Izzi Ramkissoon

Bernie Langs

Photo Courtesy of Mike Shane

When you speak with the award-winning electroacoustic multimedia composer, performer, and audiovisual artist Izzi Ramkissoon about music, you are immediately swept up by two things. The first is his zen-like manner, which invites you to engage and share his passion for music and the creative audiovisual process. The second is realizing you are dealing with a man who takes the difficult path in composition and musical performance and does so with both a commitment to excellence and appreciation for his collaborators. Ramkissoon pushes the boundaries of the electronic instruments he plays and actually physically creates, and invites his collaborators to immerse themselves in his fabulously original work.

Ramkissoon notes in his biography that, “He has written works for a variety of media including theater, dance, installations, alternative controllers, and interactive multimedia” and that “his compositions deal extensively with the use of technology in composition.” His work has been featured extensively at venues and shows such as New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, World Maker, New York City Creative Tech Week, and in numerous international festivals.  He fuses media, technology, intelligent dance music, hardcore, classical, musique concrete, and other resources to perform interactive, improvisatory, and experimental creations.

When I was first introduced to Ramkissoon’s work I was dazzled by the perfection of his videos. Utilizing the structure of the atonal, abstract forms of his compositions, his films create a synergy between sound, color, and image. One is swept away into the experience, with emotions running the gamut from joy to fear, with tints of beauty, all with the smoothness and ease promoted by the notion that you are in the hands of a wise and sensitive conductor.

Ramkissoon has worked in many venues, such as The Public Theater, Public Assembly, The Robert Miller Gallery, National Art Gallery, and Experimental Media, The New York Hall of Science, and Webster Hall, as well as at Princeton, the Ionian University in Greece, and the American University of Rome. He serves on the New York Electroacoustic Music Festival steering committee, teaches undergraduate music technology courses in the City University of New York system as an adjunct professor, and gives guest lectures and performances at various universities. He also performs with electronic music groups as a solo artist and musician.

Ramkissoon works with The Rockefeller University’s Information Technology Department engineering and developing their audiovisual systems and events. He was kind enough to answer questions via email for Natural Selections.

Bernie Langs (BL): You studied electronic multimedia composition and sound design with many great teachers and now you teach as well. What are the ideas you took from your educators and what do you hope to impart to your students?

Izzi Ramkissoon (IR): I had the opportunity to study with electronic music pioneers such as Morton Subotnick, Joel Chadabe, [and] Robert Rowe, and they were all very encouraging.  All of them were a great fit for my musical direction, as I was interested in blending composition, improvisation, interactivity, experimentation, and technology.  One thing I really enjoyed when studying with Mort was his approach to developing a musical language.  In our lessons, he was breaking down language in a way that was very primal and connected with my approach to rhythmic development.  I was interested in building an approach from the ground up starting with my most basic impulses.  During the time I was studying privately with Mort I was working on a new audiovisual piece for clarinet and interactive electronics called “Domesticated Animalia.”  This was for Esther Lamneck.  I use this piece when discussing language, improvisation, and interactivity as part of an approach to musical composition with my students. It is an example of building a dialog from the ground up using musical gestures. During my studies, Joel Chadabe [posed] questions like “what is a composition?” and I felt that was important in breaking down any remaining definitions and prejudices I had toward what a composition should sound like.  Robert Rowe was my thesis advisor and led me to review different technologies and approaches to integrating technology within a musical composition.  This made me question the relationships of technology to the musical work.  Does it support the work in a meaningful way and contribute to the creation of the piece or is it passive, separate, and noncommunicative.

BL: Your music, with its atonal underpinnings, has a dynamic of what I would label “relaxed audio tension.” Is that an assessment you would agree with, that the music, though harsh at times, maintains a meditative appeal?

IR: With the recorded sound you can capture a moment and transport that sound to a different location.  Familiar sounds in an unfamiliar environment or visa versa.  I think there is something comforting about the sounds I use.  I grew up in a household filled with television noise, pots and pans, close to the street with NYC transportation, and construction.  I felt every day it was either a circular saw humming a new tune to a preacher and choir on the television or pots and pan creating rhythms against the tape noise of my low budget home recording studio feedback.  When growing up in a dynamic urban environment you learn to meditate in dissonance and find harmony in a variety of sounds. Every sound has something to offer.  There is a relationship linked to the sound itself.  The sound is the center of the piece with its own musical tone producing tension and release.

BL:Sub-ter-ain Frequencies” and “Asperity of Lace” are seamless videos where the images and their motion and coloration align to perfection with the music.

IR: When building these pieces I work closely with a longtime collaborator and friend of mine Alain Alfaro.  Over time we have developed in parallel similar processes and ideas when working on audio-visual works.  Sometimes I make music for his films and other times he makes visuals for my music.  He is a fantastic cinematographer and has many video techniques that mirror my audio processing style.  When we work on a new piece I tell him the narrative and we both collect audio and video from a selected environment.  I have a definitive form associate with the audio and he enhances that form and structure with parallel visual themes. I have worked with him long enough that I trust his decisions and we tend to operate in separate spaces many times. The most important part of this relationship is our friendship and his ability to know me well enough to make independent complementary choices.  I have worked with other visual artist[s] and there has been a lot of explaining associated with this type of process.

BL: Your music with the Izzi Ramkissoon Multimedia Trio INTAR Rehearsals leaves space for improvisation associated with jazz. How has that developed in your music?

IR: I have always been interested in improvisation and the techniques used to create an improvised piece of music.  To be an improviser, a musician must have a familiarity with their instrument that goes beyond playing what’s on the page.  There is a creativity and unplanned freedom of speech that I enjoy when performing with improvisation techniques.  In order to communicate and have a real time conversation on a topic you must know the subject matter well.  Working with various groups of improvisers has led me to develop a language of my own to support spontaneous expression in the context of different forms and structures within my musical pieces.  Improvisation and interactivity have been two themes that I investigate often in my music. I have been working on a dialog between computer and human performer.  I am interested in the computer as a performer and how that can sound.  I have worked with programs that generate algorithms and respond to a performers input using music information retrieval (MIR) techniques and analysis.  I have made controllers… to augment my electric bass performance and improvisations with musicians, [such as “The Bass Sleeve: A Real-time Multimedia Gestural Controller for Augmented Electric Bass Performance”].

BL: You had a longterm video project that you abandoned after years. How does failing in your art lead to new avenues of exploration?

IR: It was more of a video experiment that wasn’t complete and developed enough. Those happen a few times before the final version of any of my pieces.  I give myself a set amount of revisions to get it right.  Throughout the development of each new composition I am learning something. At the end of my set amount of revisions I am ready to take what I learnt and create a new piece and the process begins again.  I tend not to dwell too long on the past, and I leave enough reflective time to learn.

BL: What do your musician collaborators bring to you and what do you want to give them in return?

IR: The best part of creating a new piece of music is the conversations and learning during the process.  I enjoy working with creative musicians to develop my pieces.  I appreciate the space to experiment and test out ideas with a musician; this can offer me insight to the way their instrument works and new techniques that may be available outside of traditional techniques.  I build compositions with the performers in mind and work with them closely to create the music.  When creating interactive or improvisatory computer music pieces, I like to work with the performer while developing the programming of the piece.  This is an iterative process for me as sometimes changing the composition involves changing the hardware and/or software created for the composition. Being able to hear how the computer responds to a performer is important when fleshing out a work.

BL: Your performances are geared to a live audience that understands the parameters of what they are about to hear. How can you increase your listening public, given the difficulty and complexity of your music?

IR: The audience for experimental electro-acoustic music is very specific.  I am on the Steering Committee for the NYCEMF (New York City Electro-acoustic Music Festival, https://nycemf.org), which has done collaborations with ICMC (International Computer Music Conference), and other major art institutions in New York City such as National Sawdust, NYU, Sheen Center, Roulette, and Issue Project Room. The music you hear at these types of festivals and conferences brings a variety of people from all over the world, many composers and instrumentalists.  These non-commercial entities support the creation and the audience for this type of work.  You can say the audience for this music has been artists, composers, new music enthusiasts, and academia.  Anyone really with an open mind and ears.

 Further work:

Love Machine at 3LD (Izzi Ramkissoon Interactive Designer and Composer, 2014)

Culture Corner

Television Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and Springsteen on Broadway

Bernie Langs

Photo Credits: Netflix

If one believes that we’re living in a golden age of television, that blessing comes with a bonus of a golden age of rock and roll documentaries. Recent superlative films airing on Netflix and other cable services include full-length features about Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison, with an emphasis on new interviews with the primary subject (unless deceased), as well as many musicians who retell their stories as witnesses to the life and era in question.

Two new documentaries have left me with an increased appreciation and respect for the featured artists. Martin Scorsese’s film about the mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of Bob Dylan is anchored throughout by a rare discussion with Dylan today. The second is the Netflix feature of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, which was a sell-out hit during its limited run. The contemporary Dylan interviewed by Martin Scorsese is insightful, intelligent, humorous, and energetic, defying his late 70s age at the time of filming. Springsteen appears bright, witty, and deeply introspective as he relates the story of his life and career without pause and with biting emotional intensity.

In Springsteen on Broadway, the artist undertakes a live performance of his recent autobiography, Born to Run. Springsteen strums a solo guitar or plays the piano while recollecting and diving deep into the key events of his life and successful years in the world of music. It is unlike any Broadway show I’ve ever seen, a unique journey of the heart and soul.

Springsteen has a physical appearance akin to a chiseled stone monument, a weathered journeyman who has risen to peaks of success and heights of uncompromising integrity. Yet the artist has been felled at times by his depressive inner demons, many stemming from decades of confusion about his relationship with his tough, emotionally-stunted, hard-drinking father. Springsteen’s confessions are so raw, open, revealing, and, at times, brutal that I could only watch the documentary in short segments over several weeks. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, joins him onstage to perform at times during the show, a respite from the rough ride we’ve been witnessing.

Springsteen rolls through versions of many of his hits, including “Thunder Road,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Born in the USA,” and supplements the music with a wide range of discussions. He speaks at length about how his long-time sax player and stage foil, the late Clarence Clemons, burst into his life and remained an overwhelming vital force throughout their many years together. The void created from Clemons’s death has been a great one for Springsteen, one with which he continues to struggle.

As an artist, Springsteen has a unique mind and a sharp view of the America in which we live today. His autobiography, the basis of the Broadway show, is an exciting read and a vivid display of literary rock and roll reminiscing. During the show, the stories about his father include the tale of how he had brought him to one concert to make his father see that his rock star son’s entire stage and musical persona as a working class man dressed in factory attire was based not on his own experiences but is borrowed from his dad. This manipulation was used by Springsteen to make an artistic statement, which was the key to his success.

More than any top director of major artistic films, Martin Scorsese is a musician’s filmmaker. He cut his teeth working on the Woodstock documentary and his early movies are peppered with well-placed rock and roll classics. His music documentaries include studies of George Harrison’s life, Living in the Material World, and the final performance of The Band in The Last Waltz. His new feature, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story studies the artist’s enigmatic mid-1970s wandering, troubadour-like tour, with its free spirit and great musical intensity. The new interviews with Dylan are focused and revealing, and one delights in the sing-song cadence of his spoken word. Dylan is the epitome of a vastly creative, genius poet well deserving of his Nobel Prize in Literature.

In one of Dylan’s first scenes, he asks Scorsese to halt filming as he attempts to get a handle on recalling the tour that took place decades ago. He humorously claims not to remember one thing about Rolling Thunder Revue and notes, “I wasn’t even born yet!,” a notion that makes complete sense in that this Bob Dylan is absolutely not the man we see speaking and singing in the 1970s footage. In the same segment, Dylan notes that his life has been centered around the act of creating, nothing more and nothing less, a remarkably astute sentiment.

There were many great artists that bounced in and out of the line-up of Rolling Thunder Revue, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and the late Mick Ronson, the guitar virtuoso who helped propel David Bowie to fame. The footage of the legendary Ronson soloing with the band are a highlight of the movie. One interviewee claims that Ronson told him at the time he had no idea what Dylan thought of him and that Dylan had never spoken to him during the tour. Yet there is a moment captured in the movie when Dylan stands before Ronson, rocking back and forth in a bliss-like state as the guitarist riffs with powerful intensity.

My favorite moment in Rolling Thunder is when Joni Mitchell, who joined the performers late in the tour, is in a back room with Dylan and Roger McGuinn teaching them her newly-penned song “Coyote,” which went on to become a classic (and which is also featured in Scorsese’s Last Waltz). When Mitchell begins singing this fantastic tune, we once again understand her status as one of the most respected artists in popular music. It’s a sublime moment in rock and roll history, captured on film in this one-time, unrehearsed, spur-of-the-moment performance with three legends.

The 1970s Dylan and the man we see on film today seems honest and genuine, nothing like the cunning, cultural manipulator described by the over-imaginative rock press through the years. He loves music and appreciates his musicians and it is obvious he is enjoying the tour. Funny enough, Dylan also drives the entourage’s large tour bus, the sight of which is oddly surreal. Perhaps he took the wheel because it offered the best and widest view of the scenery, a front seat vantage from which to take in America as they ride the open roads and swing into towns and cities.

Scorsese has chosen wisely from the many works performed during the Rolling Thunder Revue. We see some of the most moving songs by the artist from his mid-70s catalogue and hear several from his earlier days. There is a powerful version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” an emotionally meditative “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and a searing rendition of “Isis.” “Isis” was on Dylan’s 1976 album, Desire. It is a power-packed story of love and the seeking of earthly fortune. Dylan sings as a wide-eyed, energetic narrator with his face painted Kabuki white. It invites the listener to dream of cinematic action and adventure.

I believe that the present-day music industry has struggled to produce consistently high quality music on par with the excellence we are experiencing today in movies and television shows. But I’ll take it as a win that I find such deep satisfaction from a new documentary about a Dylan tour from a long past era or by watching Springsteen onstage in a Broadway show expounding with deep emotionality the tales of his older catalogue as it relates to his personal life. I consider these two films a huge validation for the continued relevancy of rock and roll, the music that acts as the powerful soundtrack for so many lives, including my own.

Culture Corner

A Garden of Sports and Musical Delights

Bernie Langs

The period of the mid- to late- 1960s and early 1970s in America was the greatest window in history to experience childhood and adolescence. The whole world had the opportunity to enjoy the fantastic and exciting revolutionary developments in the arts at that time. A new creative sensibility and awakening was flowing out like fine wine as we took in the music of The Beatles and other pop and rock-and-roll groups; heard sounds in jazz from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Freddie Hubbard; and listened to Leonard Bernstein as an international conductor demanding that his audiences give twentieth century atonal classical pieces the respect he passionately believed they deserved. Film directors such as Truffaut, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and many others churned out thoughtful masterworks, and television expanded its comedic and dramatic programing for the better.

Stateside, if one adds the element of sports, those of us growing up in the Tri-State area were doubly blessed with a Golden Age of baseball, football, and basketball championships. In addition, several legendary players graced the roster of the New York Rangers hockey team. It was my great fortune that from late childhood to my teen years, I was able to enjoy the best of sports and music because of my frequent visits with family and friends to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. I also saw games at Shea Stadium, where I witnessed the New York Mets rise to a World Series victory, and I watched the Jets from field level seats win a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, which brought them to the Super Bowl. I visited Yankee Stadium where I enjoyed seeing Whitey Ford pitch and attended a game where Tom Tresh hit three homeruns, one landing smack into the baseball glove of a lucky fan just rows away from my seat. When Nassau Coliseum opened in 1972, my father got tickets for us to see the Islander hockey team and my brother bought us tickets there for my first concert in the mid-1970s featuring Bob Dylan and The Band.

These places all had their appeal, but there was nothing like the magic of being inside Madison Square Garden when the New York Knicks were locked in battle against their rivals or as the Rangers furiously skated around the ice. In music, nothing could compare to when the Rolling Stones and other mega-groups bounced around onstage in passionate performances at the venue.

My earliest Garden memories are of attending afternoon Rangers games with my father, brother, and sister. Since the games were replayed in the evenings on television in the 1960s, we would stroll  by the announcers interviewing players between periods of action and later see ourselves on our fuzzy, black-and-white television at home. We went as a family to the final hockey game at the “old” Madison Square Garden in 1968, and I recall that the friend I brought returned from the restroom with a wooden sign in his hands reading “Men’s Room” and rationalized his vandalism as his chance to procure a vital piece of sports history. Seeing players such as Rod Gilbert and the talented goalie Eddie Giacomin are still among the happiest of my early memories. In addition, as a teenager I went to a Rangers’ game and sat with my father and his friend, the well-known retired NHL referee who made a name for himself as a TV hockey announcer, Bill Chadwick, known as “The Big Whistle.” I beamed in joy as Rangers fans casually greeted him with smiles and handshakes all evening.

We were fortunate at that time to witness the greatest basketball team that the New York Knicks ever assembled, featuring talented stars such as Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, and Earl Monroe. These gentlemen played as a unit and brought intelligence, grace and sportsmanship to the court. I went with a friend in the early 1970s to a game where future Los Angeles Lakers’ coaching genius Phil Jackson went to the free throw line for the Knicks towards the final moments of the game, a shot which would determine the outcome of the contest. The ball hit the front of the basket’s rim, bounced backwards to the backboard, and we collectively gasped as it fell through the hoop. The crowd erupted in a wave of sound so loud it was as if we were standing next to the engine of a jet plane. It was a unique moment of euphoria that only the sharing of a live sports contest can elicit.

The first concert I attended at the Garden was by the rock band, The Who, in 1974. My friends and I were huge fans, but being in high school out in the suburbs prevented us from going to the New York box office at the Garden the day tickets were on sale. A friend called his father in Manhattan where he was working at his business in the Garment District near the Garden on 7th Avenue. His dad waited a couple of hours outside in a line for the tickets with hundreds of young people, and he got us the coveted seats. The Who gave a great show in 1974 at the Garden, playing hits from their 1960s and early 1970s repertoire. A few months later, we again enlisted this wonderful man to do the same for The Rolling Stones. That afternoon, a teenager in queue marveled to his friend that the line for tickets was huge and around the block. My friend’s dad turned to them and to their surprise said, “This is nothing! You should have seen how long the line was for The Who!”

When we trekked a few months later to the Garden to see The Stones, the stage was custom-designed for the band’s New York dates. As we heard the opening guitar chords of Honky Tonk Women, a huge, tightly-shut, silver “flower” opened to reveal the band that had been hidden inside of it, with lead singer Mick Jagger riding atop one leaf as it descended. Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards often tell interviewers that they truly love playing the Garden and how special the energy is in the arena.

I understand how lucky I was to have had many opportunities for such pure and positive experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s at live sporting and music events. It makes me think of Mick Jagger crying out onstage between songs: “Madison Square Garden – Top of the World!”

Culture Corner

The Piero Tour in Italy

Bernie Langs

 

While familiarizing myself over the years with the pictures painted by the Masters of the Italian Renaissance, I have found that one artist stands out as singularly enigmatic in his body of work, Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492). I have read various summaries about della Francesca in art history books and enjoyed Kenneth Clark’s detailed study where he analyzes how the artist’s few surviving works leave the viewer in a state of dumbstruck awe. I became deeply interested in the artist, after reading an essay by art historian Michael Baxandall which focuses on the visual tricks utilized by della Francesca in the “Resurrection” fresco and other ideas about its creator.

I first heard about “The Piero Tour” in early 2018 while vacationing in London. My wife and I had gone to see a performance of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” where we were glad to be among an audience mostly filled by natives of London or the United Kingdom, including to our delight the famous actor, Sir Ian McKellen. After the production, I spotted an impeccably dressed gentleman striding by holding the program booklet in his hand. I called out, “What did you think of the play?” initiating a twenty-five minute, robust discussion covering a wide range of cultural topics. When I mentioned the sublime collection of della Francesca’s major paintings I’d viewed that day at the National Gallery, the gentleman agreed that there is a mysterious quality to della Francesca like no other artist and he insisted that we must take The Piero Tour around Italy, centering on the city of Arezzo and surrounding smaller towns where the Master’s finest works are concentrated. In late 2018, my step-sister, Jen, was visiting New York from Milan with her Italian-born husband, Gui, and when I told them of our London conversation, Giu nodded and said, “Of course, The Piero Tour. I’ve done it and you have to go as well!”

Months later, I read a fascinating scholarly book by Professor Carlo Ginzburg who is currently teaching at University of California Los Angeles. In “The Enigma of Piero: Piero Della Francesca,” Professor Ginzburg combs through the historical record like an art history Sherlock Holmes to identify specific portraits embedded in della Fancesca’s frescoes and paintings and makes countless, detailed discoveries on the meanings of such masterpieces such as “The Flagellation,” which has defied narrative understanding for centuries. Professor Ginzburg also undertakes a complex deconstruction of the fresco cycle in Arezzo known as “The Legend of the True Cross.”

This March, my wife and I took a vacation in Italy, staying thirty minutes outside of Pisa in a quiet hillside area. We drove to Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa and enjoyed the art, food, and wine of Tuscany. When I had emailed Jen prior to the visit, she and Gui said they would meet us in Arezzo for a day trip, the plan being that they’d give us the truncated version of The Piero Tour.

Arriving in Arezzo on a brisk morning, the four of us made our way to the church of San Francesco to view della Francesca’s large set of frescoes, the above mentioned “Legend” cycle. The four of us stood in the uncrowded chapel space in awe, raising a pointed finger now and then to share the discovery of an unexpected detail. Most of our time in San Francesco was spent silently ingesting the power and beauty of this wonder of the world.

“The Legend” frescoes are a high point of Italian Renaissance art. The cycle is centered a thirteenth century tale of how the wood from the Garden of Eden was eventually used to construct the cross on which Christ was crucified. The Bacci family in Arezzo commissioned it in the mid-1440s and it was most likely completed in 1466. Scenes depicted in the upper registers include “The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood,” “The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,’ “The Death of Adam,” “Exaltation of the Cross,” “The Dream of Constantine,” and “Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau.” Professor Ginzburg’s book on della Francesca explains the meaning of these works, noting that the frescoes display events with Old Testament figures as well as those who lived in the pagan world at the rise of Christianity, such as Constantine the Great prior to his conversion to the new faith.  Ginzburg also describes how the Legend cycle depicts tensions, both religious and political, in the mid-fifteenth century Eastern and Western worlds of Europe and beyond, by pointing out in one example, that the portrait of Constantine the Great in the frescoes is none other than John VIII Palaiologos who served as the penultimate reigning Byzantine Emperor, ruling from 1425 to 1448. The emperor’s portrait is used to similar ends in della Francesca’s painting of “The Flagellation.” It is suggested by Ginzburg that those in the circle of della Francesca’s patrons knew and had met with Palaiologos.

Ginzburg explains why della Francesca chose certain real-life individuals for portraits strategically placed within the frescoes, discovering that these faces recur in other smaller paintings by the artist and with similar discrete intentions. But much of what I’d read slipped away from me while marveling at the art in San Francesco that morning. The beautiful colors of the landscape, garments, and skin tones are muted and reassuring, especially the blues and reds. Later in the day as we drove around the area, the cloud cover receded and the blue sky overhead taught me more about della Francesca’s eye and brushstrokes than anything one could read in a book. The sublime skies of his paintings singularly match those viewed in Arezzo.

The men and women depicted by della Francesca in “The Legend” frescoes exude an inner quality of delicate grace and refinement. As we continued through the day, I noticed this aspect in other paintings by him and many others of the region. Regardless of whether you buy into established Christianity or not, the paintings often teach a lesson on the finest qualities of mankind’s soul. Depictions of the so-called “higher” human attributes through the brush or by the chisel in statues, make them more than a fanciful display of the talent of an artist. This art acts to encourage us all to do better, be better people, and to think better of each other and our higher potential in life. Centuries-old divine attributes displayed by posed, static, artificially-created individuals, stories, or landscapes, can offer nothing short of essential life lessons that even my fellow hardened agnostics and atheists should gladly embrace, stripping away the religious context and retaining the best of the rest.

Leaving San Francesco, the four of us made our way to Arezzo’s cathedral, where Gui led us briskly down an aisle to stand before della Francesca’s more obscure fresco from 1460 depicting Saint Mary Magdalene. Mary’s garments are painted with simple, subtle tones, and her features, though individual, display della Francesca’s standard facial physiognomy, the broad nose, full lips, and heavy-lidded eyes, which may express anything from fatigue to resignation or perhaps a quiet inner state of enlightenment. “The Magdalene” was an overwhelming joy to behold and it felt very special to be in its presence in the magnificent cathedral.

We next drove to the Museo della Madonna del Parto located in the nearby town of Monterchi. della Francesca’s “Madonna del Parto” was most likely produced after 1457 and it only survives as a fragment. The fresco survived an earthquake in the late 1700s and has moved multiple times. The Museo has a nicely presented short film explaining the complex meaning of the work and gives detailed geometric graphics of how the master’s placement of the Madonna and two attending angels are set with mathematic precision. The “Madonna del Parto” is on view in the Museo as the only work in a small, white-walled room. It’s a beautiful painting of the pregnant Virgin, yet I was very much distracted by the modern setting. Much of its power and meaning was lost to me by not seeing in situ in a Gothic or Renaissance church among other surviving statues, frescoes, altar works, and paintings from the time period. I couldn’t make total sense of the art in its fragmented state, and could not coalesce an aesthetic or emotional reaction into some kind of whole.

We continued the tour by driving to the town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro (Sansepolcro), where della Francesca was born and where we later toured his unexpectedly large family home in the city. Sansepolcro was alive with Medieval and Renaissance reverberations all over its joyful streets. Two major works by the artist are on view at the Museo Civico de Sansepolcro, “The Polyptych of the Misericordia” and the extremely famous “Resurrection.” The oil painting of the former centers on the motif of the Virgin of Mercy. The Museo Civico is a more traditional museum than the one housing the “Madonna del Parto” and the “Misericordia” maintains an incredible power and force on viewing. After studying the painting for a long period, I suddenly recognized from Professor Ginzburg’s book the figure kneeling on the far left beneath the Madonna as della Francesca’s patron, Giovanni Bacci, who also commissioned with his family “The Legend” cycle in Arezzo. The mystery of della Francesca and his overwhelming power was stronger in the “Misericordia” than in any other we viewed that day. The central panel and its surrounding smaller pieces, as well as the predella (the smaller panels at the base of an altarpiece) and the tympanum (the pediment panel pictures above the main images) sweep deep to the mind’s interior defying translation into words or emotional adjectives.

“Resurrection” was painted in the 1460s for the city’s Town Hall, which is now the Museo Civico where it remains, though not in its original room. The detached fresco is displayed on a wall in a large space, which was undergoing renovation. It was the only work of art on view besides two small fragments that were reproductions of frescoes that are out on loan. I’d waited decades to see the “Resurrection” and although it was remarkable, once again, to view it in a white-walled space and not in a church or even with its artistic “family” of paintings in a museum, distorted my attempted meditation. In any case, it was incredible to actually see in person the well-known sleeping Roman soldiers, including a supposed self-portrait of the young della Francesca. The mysterious landscape background, half-alive in foliage and half-dead, is haunting. The image of Christ, climbing out of the sarcophagus in defiance of death elicited an odd reaction from me. Perhaps through a fault of memory of the reproductions in books, I had expected Christ to look fatigued and weak, but found his large body muscular in tone and in an almost inappropriate state of power given his recent trauma. I hope to return one day to the Museo to take more time studying this invaluable work of art.

During our visit, we took a detour to visit a small church built on the remains of the building where Saint Francis of Assisi retreated at times for meditation in the thirteenth century. The complex is embedded in the mountains of the area and in contrast to the countryside my wife and I had driven through during our stay near Pisa; with manicured, rolling hills speckled with graceful cypresses and other trees, this was a semi-wild, rolling forest and the view from the church revealed no other structures in sight. There were a couple of cars at the site, but we saw no other person inside or outside the tiny buildings. The view was spectacular, and out of nowhere we were joined by a friendly cat, who later accompanied us up the hill and back to our car. I joked that it was the ghost of the Saint, noting the irony that the man who had famously preached to the birds was now a feline.

After a relaxing dinner in Arezzo, we walked the dark streets towards the arches in the old walls leading to the car park. The wind and cold picked up and we were the only four people on the last cobblestone street lined with old stone buildings from the Middle Ages. Flags flying above rippled and crackled in the wind, and as we passed a sculpted display on the walls depicting the coats of arms of the old families of Arezzo, I mused that these statements of civic pride had stood there for hundreds of years and would be there for hundreds more. As my wife and I parted with hugs and smiles from our gracious guides, Jen and Gui, I was warmed by the idea that I’d had one of the best days of my life.

Piero della Francesca, “The Legend of the True Cross” (details), c. 1452-1466, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

Piero della Francesca, Saint Mary Magdalene,1460, Duomo, Arezzo

Piero della Francesca, The Polyptych of the Misericordia (detail), c. 1460-1462, Museo Civico di Sansepolcro

Madonna del Parto (after 1457), detached fresco, Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi

Piero della Francesco, Resurrection and detail of possible self-portrait of the artist, center, Museo Civico di Sansepolcro

Mountain retreat near Monterchi visited by Saint Francis in the 1200s with his “ghost” appearing as a friendly cat

Culture Corner

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones

Bernie Langs

Inner Sleeve of Beggars Banquet, photo by Michael Joseph.

In December of 1968 The Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet just months before they would be introduced as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” The record, which features tunes by the songwriting team of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the very peak of their creativity, has a consistent, unified sound. Richards’ guitar work on Beggars ranges from nuanced and subtle to in-your-face, airplane engine electric power chords, ringing out and enveloping Jagger’s vocals in a cocoon of creative textures. Charlie Watts on drums and Bill Wyman on bass anchor all of the music with exactitude and precision. The band’s fifth member, Brian Jones, was fading away at the time of recording into an introverted state of confusion and a paranoid drugged out haze. Jones only contributed here and there, his last gasp of what he did best as a musician, putting the cherry atop the sweet sundae of the Stones’ tracks. It would be his final album as a Stone, as he was asked to leave after the record was completed so the group could bring in virtuoso guitarist Mick Taylor. Just a month after exiting the band, Jones died, drowning in his swimming pool.

Beggars Banquet was the first Stones album produced in the studio by the late Jimmy Miller. Miller would go on to work with The Stones on their finest albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Glyn Johns served as the studio engineer on Banquet and Nicky Hopkins provided piano for the band, shining on these tracks with his individual style. The late Hopkins may have been the greatest keyboardist who served as a hired hand for any major popular music band.

I was eleven years old when Beggars Banquet was released in America. My siblings and friends all knew that this record was something special, appearing a year after The Beatles released their genius LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nothing on Beggars was similar to Pepper’s. The compositions penned by Jagger and Richards remained rooted in the chord structures of traditional blues and also continued the Stones’ extrapolations on Chuck Berry’s “1-4-5” structure of early rock and roll composition, a pattern also derived from the blues. Lennon and McCartney’s songs on Pepper’s dazzle in experimental melodic complexity amid George Martin’s nuanced production. Martin and The Beatles would selectively celebrate their tracks with orchestral strings and woodwinds when the moment called for it. In contrast, the Stones stayed minimalistic on their records and could easily move from studio to stage with their tunes centered around two guitars, bass, drums, and piano, with small horns thrown in at times for variety.

Beggars kicks off with the infamous “Sympathy for the Devil” which was viewed in 1968 as reflective of the Stones’ image of danger and dark mystery. Even in my youth, however, I was intrigued by the serious nature of the lyrics and how deeply poetic they were in contrast to a lot of throw-away songs at the time. As Jagger steps into the guise of Lucifer, he’s more Oscar Wilde’s horrific gentleman Dorian Gray than a horror flick notion of the Devil. The character takes the listener on a tour of mankind’s violent history and sings with intensity as he describes his role both as observer and bloody instigator. The song’s exotic descriptions include gems such as “I lay traps for troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay” and “I watched in glee as you kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made,” which may be the only reference in pop and rock music to The Hundred Years’ War. Lucifer is a “beggar” who demands sympathy for what he’s watched us do and what he has had to endure. Yet he also threatens that “if you meet me have some courtesy, have some sympathy, have some taste; use all your well-learned politeness, or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”

Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director, filmed the Stones recording “Sympathy” and put some of the footage in his movie “Sympathy for the Devil.” I find that movie ridiculous and unwatchable and wish someone would extract the footage of the band, add moments that didn’t make the final cut, and release it on its own (note that director Peter Jackson is currently taking the best parts of footage of The Beatles’ mess of a 1970 documentary “Let It Be” and adding many new scenes of them playing that were left on the cutting room floor). Godard captures how the band began with Mick Jagger strumming “Sympathy” on a guitar and how after some standard arrangements, the piece shifts to the heavy percussive Latin background sound, which is heard on the album. The congas and drums conjure the devil like Shakespeare’s witches brewing evil tidings from a boiling kettle. The song builds to a frenzy and fades away with the singer’s echoing falsetto cries as Lucifer spirals downwards to hell—the band plays furiously amid Richard’s sharp lead guitar work knifing through the mix. Lyrically, the words have more in common with England’s grand poetic tradition than the good vibrations and flower power anthems spilling out on the radio at the time. If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize in literature for his groundbreaking lyrics, Jagger and Richards surely qualify as Britain’s Poet Laureates.

Beggars has fabulous moments of acoustic guitar-centered songs. After “Sympathy” fades out, the next tune is “No Expectations,” a Jagger and Richards song that mirrors the classic “Love in Vain” by American bluesman Robert Johnson. The Stones would record “Love in Vain” for their next album, Let it Bleed and while Johnson’s tune is about unrequited love and features images of trains leaving the station with one’s lost lover, the narrator of “No Expectations” is broken-hearted and requests in the opening lines, “Take me the station and put me on a train, I’ve got no expectation to pass through here again” and ends with a similar plea to be sent off far away in an airplane. The song’s narrator describes the fleeting nature of the love he’s lost, “like the water, splashing on a stone” and notes, “Our love is like our music—it is here and then it’s gone.” Brian Jones plays a wicked slide acoustic guitar, which resolves on an “open” E chord that Keith Richards must have been awed by, even through his anger with Jones’ continual drugged out confusion.

The best acoustic performance on Beggars is, “Prodigal Son,” written by Robert Wilkins, a reverend who recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m not certain how old I was when I realized that the story of the song is Biblical, the famous tale of the arrogant youth who leaves home to find the world a harsh, punishing place and later crawling back to his father for forgiveness. Jagger singing affects a Southern, African-American spiritualist tone and Richards’ acoustic chords and lead flourishes are passionate and heartfelt. After Jagger’s last line, “My son was lost but now he is found” you can hear Richards give a guttural cry of “Hey!” as he brings it on home. One may venture that Mick and Keith would be absolutely content each day to sit on a porch in Mississippi in the summer sun, playing guitars and singing songs while swigging moonshine from a jug.

The rock songs on Beggars are fantastic, especially “Parachute Woman” and “Stray Cat Blues.” “Stray Cat Blues” in particular is an example of the Stones’ swaggering sexuality. When I was teaching myself guitar as a teenager, I would tune up to Beggars to play along with the album, and the rhythmic intensity of “Parachute Woman” was difficult to master. When I finally got it down, it was almost as if the guitar took over in the song for itself, and the intensity of the trancing repeating riffs brought me to a plane of surprising joy and newfound release. I could never truly master Keith’s leading stabs in “Stray Cat Blues” but Jimmy Page would give them homage on Led Zeppelin’s final album, “In Through the Out Door”.

The greatest masterpiece song on Beggars is “Street Fighting Man.” It is a slice of English history in living color, summing up the frustration of being a young man with energy and new ideas in 1960s London. It speaks of revolution, revelation, rebellion, and resignation all in one set of lyrics. Even if youth should run rampant through the city streets and “kill the King” they will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than bit players in a culturally limited rock and roll band. The sound of “Street Fighting Man” is the most complex in terms of instrumentation on Beggars. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards recorded their initial drums and acoustic guitars on a cassette recorder and Jimmy Miller manipulated that sound to abstract perfection. Additional guitars, percussion, and piano were added later and Brian Jones contributed well-placed drones on a sitar. Jaggers’ vocals are menacing, multi-tracked, and startlingly direct. I’ve listened to the song for fifty years and it is fresh on each hearing.

Beggars closes out with a beautiful song “Salt of the Earth,” an ode to the working class men and women of Great Britain. At the same time, in the song’s middle break Jagger admits that while on stage performing, the crowd is nothing but a “swirling mass of grays and blacks and whites” that don’t seem real to him and are actually “strange” in his eyes. The song hits a galloping peak and they give pianist Nicky Hopkins the honor of having it fade out to his manic right hand banging out a set of rapid chords.

The album’s release was delayed in 1968 because the record companies in America and Britain balked at the LP’s cover art of a dirty public bathroom with graffiti about the Stones and the songs on Beggars. It was eventually released with a white cover and a mock invitation to the banquet. The inner sleeve, however, boasts a black and white photo with shades of muted colors of the Stones celebrating like peasants who have invaded the King’s table in the Dark Ages. It may be the greatest match of image and personality in a band in the history of rock music, a fitting idea for an incredible piece of music.

Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Stephen Kurkjian discusses the Gardner Museum Theft and the Podcast “Last Seen”

Stephen Kurkjian (photo courtesy of Mr. Kurkjian)

Courtyard of the Gardner Museum in Boston (photo: Bernie Langs)

“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt, stolen in 1990 from the Gardner Museum (photo: Wikipedia)

At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as policemen gained access to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with thirteen pieces of art, now valued at $500 million. The stolen works included Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentlemen in Black, Vermeer’s The Concert, and Manet’s Chez Tortoni. Not one piece grabbed that night has been located despite the offer of millions in reward money for any credible information leading to the recovery of the paintings.

In 2018, The Boston Globe and Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, teamed up to create an investigative crime podcast about the theft. “Last Seen” is a fascinating dive into how the heist was pulled off and follows up on many potential leads about where these masterpieces may now be stashed and who may have been behind the heist. “Last Seen” boasts riveting audio of interviews and discussions with many of the key players surrounding the crime. The podcast audience also listens in on conversations with mob figures made by agents wearing wires, including those made by the FBI’s longtime art-crimes investigator, Bob Wittman. The search veers off in a multitude of directions as ideas are revealed and tested, mixing intense drama with unexpected moments of emotion and humor.

I reached out to The Boston Globe for comments about “Last Seen” and they directed me to Stephen Kurkjian, a retired Globe reporter and one of the show’s co-producers and lead investigators. A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Kurkjian is the author of the book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which continues his investigation into the Gardner theft. After a quick chat on the phone, I emailed Mr. Kurkjian questions about “Last Seen” and his involvement in the case.

Bernie Langs: The final episode of “Last Seen” is a panel discussion with you and others who worked on the production and reporting. You discussed your personal history as a Boston native, the son of an Armenian immigrant who became a commercial artist and taught you about the value of Boston’s cultural treasures. You explain, “…this is the artwork of the ages. Everything passes. Art endures. And this is our art. Mrs. Gardner put those on the wall for us, put them on the wall for my father.” Can you elaborate further about your obsession with recovering the art?

Stephen Kurkjian: I don’t see myself as “obsessed” by the Gardner story as much as I do doing what any investigative reporter would do—following a compelling story that has great meaning and purpose to their city. As an investigative reporter, especially one who grew up in Boston, I am drawn to stories that have “purpose” for the community. Mrs. Gardner had assembled this extraordinary collection for a transcendent reason—to motivate all Americans to be inspired by artistic achievement. She understood, having traveled the world over, that the civilizations that survived in time were not those that had the strongest military or economic might but those that valued art, be it paintings, statuary, tapestry, music, etc. While America was becoming a world power during the Industrial Revolution, she did not see us gaining an appreciation for art and she wanted to do something about it. That is why when she opened the museum she insisted that attendance be free of charge—except for a donation, if possible—and she encouraged local schools to send class after class to the museum so youngsters could be inspired by her art. On the personal side, my father, Anooshavan Kurkjian, a refugee from the Armenian Genocide, was one of countless art students who visited the museum daily so he could study the techniques of the artists. And though he was proud of the results of my investigative reporting in other areas, he was especially pleased when I turned my sights to the Gardner case. “You have to stir the conscience of the community for it to understand the fullness of what was lost here,” he stressed.

BL: The podcast covers how you and others follow-up each credible lead. The Boston FBI refused to speak on the record in reply to your queries. One can’t help but speculate about why they repeatedly dropped the ball in this case, effectively ruining some of the undercover efforts and remaining secretive when they should have mobilized the city’s residents to assist in identifying suspects. Is it possible that the FBI killed leads about the theft for nefarious or duplicitous reasons?

SK: Following this story is difficult enough and I’ve sought to avoid chasing conspiracy theories. That being said, it is also true that the FBI has not covered itself with glory in pursuing the case. Yes, the agents assigned to the case have done so with diligence, but my complaint is that the agency has failed to act creatively in its investigation. They have restricted other agencies, especially the Massachusetts State Police and Boston Police, from playing a leadership role on the case. That was regrettable, especially at the start of the investigation, as these other agencies would have had valuable sources and resources to put to the effort. Why? Likely because the agency didn’t want to jeopardize its confidential intelligence to these other agencies in fear leaks might happen. Also, I think at the outset the FBI believed that the case would be solved quickly—either through an arrest or an exchange that gained the arts’ recovery. And the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office didn’t want to share the glory that would come from such a recovery with any lesser agencies.

While it may not point to a conspiracy, I remain intrigued as to how the FBI could have muffed the investigation at several key points. Why not focus on [museum guard] Abath more widely and intensively at the probe’s outset? More recently, why release a tape in August 2015 that seemed intent on finding the identity of a stranger who was allowed into the museum the night before the theft, and disregard the outreach of several former staffers who willingly told me that it was not a suspicious entry at all and identified him as the former security deputy director? How did the FBI misplace key forensic evidence taken from the scene of the crime that was not available decades later when officials wanted to do advanced DNA testing on the material? But my sense is that taken together these amount not to a conspiracy to impair the investigation rather than a lack of expert and strategic thinking about how to advance it.

BL: “Last Seen” grabs the audience from the very first episodes. When you tracked down the guard, Rick Abath, living in a shack in Vermont, was that an important find for you, when you discussed the suspicion that he may have been the “inside man” in the theft?

SK: I did that interview with Abath, and taped it, for a profile I was doing on him for The Boston Globe, not the podcast. He was willing to speak—for the first time, on the record—as he was thinking then of coming forward with a book on his involvement with the case. But I had interviewed him many times in the years before that, since 2005 in fact, when I originally found him living in Vermont. I had spent the entire day trying to find his whereabouts in that city, and when I finally found his house, a tiny cabin on a remote hillside, only the moonlight led me to his front door. Interestingly, he wouldn’t let me in but agreed to an interview in a city tavern. That was an exciting interview, as for the first time I was learning details of the theft that the FBI and the museum had never made public.

Included in it was how Abath acknowledged his two grievous errors in letting the thieves into the museum. He thought some kids drunk from the St. Patrick’s Day celebration had jumped the iron fence behind the museum and were possibly causing damage to the Gardner’s rear premises…he fell for the thieves’ ruse…he feared he’d be arrested and miss the Grateful Dead concert that he had a ticket for in Hartford later that night. But he was convincing in his assertions of innocence, that he was not part of any robbery scheme, nor could he recall ever giving security secrets to any gangster-types who could have used them to pull off the heist. I have detailed other reasons that raise suspicions about Abath’s actions that night in my book, Master Thieves, but the FBI has never had enough to arrest him for involvement in the crime.

BL: My own theory about the theft had always been that it was financed by an eccentric collector utilizing mobsters to grab the art for his private collection. “Last Seen” destroys the wealthy villain mastermind idea making it clear that this was a well-planned theft by seasoned criminals. Can you explain why you know that this is the scenario that makes the most sense?

SK: No one “knows” anything about this robbery. No one knows for sure who did it, how they conspired to do it, or what happened to any of the art work. My thinking is all informed by hard reporting and deductive reasoning built off that reporting. If the theft had been engineered by a “Dr. No”-type criminal, an oligarch-type or arch criminal, who commissioned the robbery in hopes of gaining a beloved masterpiece, then I doubt that the thieves would have been so rough in how they treated the works they stole. Remember, all paintings were broken out of their frames, and the two large Rembrandts were cut out of their backings. I’m thinking the mastermind who may have commissioned the theft would have been very upset by such treatment. Also, with thirteen pieces being stolen, you would think that if they had been divided up, that someone would step forward or screw up so that the authorities would get a trail to a recovery.

But the feds told me in 2010 that the FBI had not had a single “proof of life sighting” of any of the thirteen pieces, which in FBI lingo means that there had not been a photo taken of the pieces showing their whereabouts since the theft or a single piece of forensic evidence, which would show that a person could back up their claim that they had access to or knowledge of the whereabouts of the stolen pieces. Which leads me to the belief that the pieces were stolen as a potential “get out of jail free” card for someone already in jail or someone who was facing a prison term. In the last chapter of Master Thieves, I tell the tale of just such a person, a mob leader who had been jailed four months before the Gardner heist, and the person who pledged to help get him out of jail.

BL: You have won Pulitzer Prizes, worked on investigations with The Globe and their famous Spotlight team. You have written about everything from the clergy abuse scandal inside the Boston Archdiocese to political scandals in Washington. Master Thieves continues your investigation into the Gardner heist. You retired in 2007, yet here you are still trying to recover those paintings.

SK: I was a founding member of The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team. It was commissioned in the early 1970s to work on stories that had purpose to Boston and New England, and its three Pulitzer Prizes, 1972, 1980, and 2003, are evidence to the success of focusing on such stories. I regard the Gardner as a similar story and backed up by my personal ties to the museum via my father and my cousins, both of whom were classical pianists who often performed at the museum. Because of those ties, I have come up with an alternative approach to gaining a recovery—a full-fledged public appeal, which would be powered by social media. I remember what attention the “Ice Bucket Challenge” gained in the summer of 2014 to ALS research. I think a similar drive should be established to bring the public attention and energies towards a recovery. Such an appeal would include outreach to all segments of society both those law-abiding and criminal. The message should be that these masterpieces were put on the museum’s walls for all Bostonians, rich and poor, and that they remain missing (hidden somewhere!) serves no purpose. My sense is that no one knows where the artwork was hidden, and the two thieves and their boss who did know the whereabouts are now dead, as the FBI confirms. But there are still people alive who know or have suspicions about who did it, and what they may have done with the artwork. But those people are unlikely to say something because to do say is breaking some mob code of “omerta,” and to bring forward such information would be considered “ratting.” The conscience of these people has to be engaged and they have to be reminded that many of history’s greatest artists, including Van Gogh and Michelangelo, came from impoverished backgrounds like they and their families. Perhaps their grandchildren could be inspired by one of those masterpieces to become an artist but they need to be back on the museum gallery’s walls. They are doing no good being hidden away. It is time that they be returned. Regrettably, neither the FBI nor the museum has seen fit to advocate for the social media campaign.

Please visit Mr. Kurkjian’s Web site for additional background on his fantastic career: http://stephenkurkjian.com/. To reach Mr. Kurkjian regarding his work on the Gardner theft, email stephenkurkjian@gmail.com.

Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

David Bowie’s music always showcased complex arrangements, alongside lyrics reflecting the turmoil of our world. To learn more about Bowie and his music, I contacted musicians and producers who had worked with him during his productive recording and touring years (2002-2004) hoping to land an interview.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard, who worked with Bowie at that time, amiably agreed to speak with me. Leonard appears in YouTube videos of several of Bowie’s tours and in documentary movies about Bowie’s late career.

Leonard hails from Dublin and studied classical guitar at the Municipal College of Music. He became interested in the harmonic possibilities of the electric guitar and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of equipment for creating original ambient sounds using complex machinery. His solo career centers on his work with his band, Spooky Ghost. Leonard recently toured with rock artist Suzanne Vega and with Rufus Wainwright. He has also worked with performers such as Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, and Avril Lavigne.

Leonard’s work with David Bowie is featured on the albums Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day, lending ambient space that gels seamlessly with Bowie’s musical vision. His guitar sound allowed Bowie to expand and perfect his musical statements. Leonard also acted as Musical Director for Bowie’s Reality tour.

 

Gerry Leonard.

Gerry Leonard (r.) and Gale Ann Dorsey (center) with David Bowie. All photos courtesy of Spooky Ghost: The Official site of Gerry Leonard https://gerryleonardspookyghost.com.

I interviewed Leonard on the phone and met him briefly in December. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Bernie Langs: Artists such as U2 and Sinead O’Connor continue to reflect traditions of Irish music. Your work with “Bowsie” and Susan McKeown reflects that. Do you approach this as a responsibility, a need to continue this tradition?

Gerry Leonard: It is in a sense [a responsibility]. Music and writing and literature, poetry, all of those things have very rich traditions in Ireland because Ireland was essentially a pretty poor peasant country—all of the entertainment and all of the stories in the late night get-togethers with people making their own entertainment, and making it their own, passing on their own heritage, through story and songs. That’s very much alive in the arts culture and always has been. And I think you see that with Sinead O’Connor and U2—we all come from the same water in a sense that the stuff was around.

However, when I started picking up the guitar, I was really interested in [the British TV music show] Top of the Pops. We’d watch the bands and then I’d get together with my friends—we had a little band, and then we’d try and work out these songs. We then got into a little bit of progressive rock and then punk rock and new wave hit for me in the mid-late ‘70s. And it was such a profound shift in terms of the role of the guitar in music, the type of bands.

I’ve always had a huge respect for the Irish traditional music. Susan McKeown, in regard to the “Bowsie” project, she came to me and I was already doing my more ambient, guitar-scape kind of music, and we had this idea to take some of these traditional Irish songs that she had learned in an oral tradition. She’d gone and traveled and met the person and they taught her the song. She visited people and learned the song from somebody, which is the way it needs to be done.

BL: You’re known for your ambient sound and guitar loops and creating that kind of atmosphereWhat drew you to that?

GL: I really love music and it’s always resonated with me on a deep level. Emotionally, I love listening to music and playing music and the raw power of rock and roll. But I also love more complicated things [including] some of the modern classical composers. I really like what [recording artist/record producer] Brian Eno does for instance, with space. I’ve always taught that through the use of some basic guitar pedal ideas, like echo, reverb, and distortion, you can start to change the harmonic characteristics of the sound and the length of the sound. Cathedrals, for instance, you go in there and you play a note and it does all that reverberation. Something changes in the sound and it becomes enriched by its surroundings.

When I play in an ambient way, I really recreate those kinds of atmospheres. It’s an environment, a flavor, and a color. When I teach, everybody’s focusing on the pedal and so forth, but there are many variations on the machines that do those things in different ways and some in really beautiful complex ways, but what goes in is important too, and that’s for the harmony and the music and the musical idea. I practice two things: like the way an athlete would practice, it’s a muscular thing, being in touch with your instrument, and then I practice harmonically, trying to understand the different keys, different voicings, and be more fluent in those things. Or in the studio, I can quickly analyze the harmonic sense of the song and where I see these shapes and colors in the song I can try and accentuate those with the ambient thing or with a line that’s got a certain tonal quality to it, which brings more color to the picture of all the elements that are really important.

If you think about a quality of a David Bowie song, for instance, he always had a kickass rhythm section and he always loved guitar and stuff, but there’s also room for a coloration or something a little more extreme in there and he enjoyed that boldness. Getting to play with David was a great culmination of a lot of those things for me. I think of recording as a snapshot, and it can be very static, but it can also be really interesting and mysterious. That is when it gets interesting to me, when you get this kind of lightning in a bottle where you’re getting something extra. It’s a constant quest.

BL: It’s amazing that Bowie recognized that he could use your technique for his work.

GL: It really was. Part of being in New York was about establishing a foothold for yourself. I’d been playing whenever possible, just learning my craft, and using New York as a filter to figure out what’s your strength, what’s not your strength, especially in regard to ambient guitar, figuring out a way to make it happen in the room live. I’d been working on all those things and then the call came through from my friend Mark Plati. Mark was working with David and asked me to do a track, and one thing led to another.

It was a very, very proud moment to get the call from David to be involved with him. He’s such an icon, and as a guitar player, it’s such a great legacy to be involved in, to be one of the guitar players. Even if it was in his later career, just to be able to play all that stuff with the guy who was there and wrote it. And he was a great inspiration to be around playing that stuff. It brought such a level of authenticity to it, and his very being—being around David you got that guru-like quality about him. It was tremendously exciting and a great honor, and it’s one of those ones where you really have to pinch yourself and go, “did this really happen?”

BL: When you were with Bowie, was there always an awareness of who he was?

GL: I realized quickly that when you’re with David, people start seeking you out with [ulterior] motives. You’re sitting in a hotel lobby waiting, and somebody comes up and goes, “Hey Gerry, do you want something to drink?” And I’m like, “Who is this person?” So you realize you kind of have to put up a wall around that because people want to get to David because he really is that person—he’s a rock star, but he’s touched so many people and changed so many people’s lives, and people have this real adulation for him.

The nice thing about working with David is he never wanted that; he didn’t want anybody sucking up to him. He wanted to be able to just be himself and he wanted you to be yourself. So that was always nice and refreshing to be around. But you have to put up a little bit of a wall around him because people, they changed their nature towards you.

BL: When you were with him alone or with him and the band, could you ever let go of who he was?

GL: Yeah, we did—I think we did. We had a lot of laughs. He was very good at kind of breaking that stuff down. You would get to a place where you were not self-conscious and that’s what you want. You want the truth in yourself and in your nature and in the way you responded to things, and you don’t want to be a deer in the headlights and freeze up. He wants you there to be part of a creative solution. We would pretty quickly, especially when we were working on music, get to a place where it was very relaxed. I’d been with him in social situations, too, and when we were together it would be really easy. Sometimes we’d go out to an art museum or something, and people would sidle up to me and go, “Is that David Bowie?” and I’m like, “Yes, it is, but you probably should just leave him alone. Because he’s there and just wants to look at the art.”

BL: I’ve watched videos of you discussing how “Loving the Alien” came to be performed with just you and Bowie. How did you feel alone, just you two, performing that song onstage?

GL: I literally got a call on a Tuesday. It was very David, where he’d obviously come up with this idea where he was like, “I want to do this song, I want to do a stripped-down version of it,” and he called me and told me, “Rehearsals are on Friday, are you up for it?” And I was like, “Yes, of course, I’m up for it,” and I remember putting down the phone and going to listen to the song and having that moment of panic, “What do we do here?” I worked on it and came up with that little [guitar loop] line, changed the key, and worked out a version on the guitar. When I got there on Friday, we did a couple of songs [in rehearsal], Tony Visconti had a string quartet and we were doing the other song and I was playing on those and everybody left and it was me and David, and he’s like, “Did you get to look at ‘Loving the Alien’?” and I played this loop to demonstrate and I start playing with it and he comes in singing and I keep playing and he keeps singing—we do the whole song. And he said, “Great, we’ll do that tomorrow night.”

Then that was that. It was like one of those things where I guess I got it right, but it was his idea, his song, and his idea to do it in this way. I brought my thing to it. He liked it. We did it. He liked it so much for me to continue to do it and it framed the song. It would be fair to say that we didn’t overthink it, but I also worked with David a few times prior, so I knew that I had to come up with something that stood on its own. I’m really proud that we got to do that. I’m very proud of the arrangement, and I love that he liked it. So, it was a nice moment where our two worlds met.

BL: It seems that Bowie recognized what all of you were doing for his music, using, for example, bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey as a foil while performing the songs and joking with the audience.

GL: Well exactly. David loved the personalities and he chose people as role players. Mike Garson [Bowie’s long-time keyboardist] would say he was like a casting director when it came to this and he did celebrate the musicians. He was very generous in those ways. And he was very comfortable in his own skin and he was able to share the spotlight in the sense, to give Gail a solo—and he always gave people their due.

BL: On the Reality album, I sense the perfection in the studio that began with Station to Station. And the social philosophy that began with Low. When you were working in the studio on Reality and Heathen, were you thinking of it that way?

GL: He definitely heard a lot of those philosophies going around, you could tell, in terms of the songs. I love what he did with Heathen. He took a real shift—he was going to do this record, essentially his reworked songs that he had over the years, and then suddenly he shut down that project and went and did Heathen. It was almost like he went off and wrote a novel or a prose thing. And I love that about it.

David was such an avid reader. He was always a searcher. You could tell. You’d come in, and if you hadn’t seen him in a while, he was always full of these stories or facts or things that he was interested in, whether it was art, sculpture, TV shows, whatever was going on. He really liked to stay in touch with a lot of things that were current, whether it’s music or comedy or TV or film, but he was always reading all kinds of stuff. And when he did the Next Day record and the Black Star record [Bowie’s final album] he was really into his books and those stories are seeping into his work. It’s a classic situation where David always got this insatiable thirst for art and then he had this way of taking what really inspired him from that stuff and somehow working it into his records and his music, and I think that happened all the way along. He just had this uncanny knack. I think when you got two records like Heathen and Reality it was just a more evolved, or more grownup version of it.

You were aware that these things were going on. Often though, working with David, you didn’t get the full picture until later because he would [only] have some lyrics done. He’d generally have a melody and a sense of what or where he wanted the song to go. But he was always open for you to put your two cents in. And sometimes you put something in there, and it would make it turn for everybody.

BL: When I saw Bowie in New York in 1978, there was no rock star thing going on with him. I was amazed he would stand back in the background just enjoying the band at times during solos.

GL: That’s classic Bowie. He was really good at reading people, reading situations. He had an instinct for that. I think he’s a huge music fan too, with other artists, and he had a real sense of how to write a song. If you take something like Heroes, he’s already reinvented himself a few times. And now he’s with Visconti, and he’s coming to the table with all these fresh ideas. It made such a potent thing, and it knocked all our socks off.

BL: When Bowie died, my friends and I were heartbroken. It’s so rare that a public figure’s life is so roundly applauded for his life in the media on passing. But for you, this is your friend, bandmate, and creative partner, a different level of grief.

GL: It is. It’s still hard to believe that he’s not with us. I was used to long periods where I wouldn’t see David, or didn’t speak with him, so it wasn’t unusual to be without him for a while, but at the same time, to realize that you’re never going to have those moments again is really, really sad. You have a feeling of the things that you should have said, you could have said, opportunities that were missed, just on a personal level, you think, “Oh God, why didn’t I say this? Or do this or ask him this?” It’s ongoing. At the same time, I know he would want us to just do our music and be the best that we can be. He was always really encouraging. When I was with Spooky Ghost, and I would do some shows on the road, he would come out to them every now and again, just to hang out. He was super supportive. So you temper it with that. We miss him.

BL: One of my friends once said, “There will be all the pop songs that nobody’s going to remember in the years ahead. And at that time, they are still going to be studying David Bowie.”

GL: Well, I think he would be happy to hear that. I don’t think he was made in that way, but he was a searcher, and he was not interested in resting on his laurels. That’s what is really rich about this whole scene of David Bowie, that there’s plenty to go on, and the archeological dig can continue for some time. The guy operated on a lot of different levels, and yet he was able to write and speak to the multitude. He had that gift, whether in Changes or in Heroes, or any of these iconic songs, he was able to capture what we all thought, felt, and wished for. That’s what’s beautiful about it. It was always contemporary, and it was always written for the people. It wasn’t written for some kind of elite. A unique gift. I miss him terribly.

People come up and tell me that all the time, especially when going to do these Bowie celebration gigs, and that’s all they want to talk about, their experience how David moved them, how he changed them. It’s really remarkable. It’s also hopeful. I feel like as part of the legacy with David, part of our duty is to keep his work alive. I feel very lucky to have worked with him, he was the one that really moved people, and everybody’s looking to get a little closer to that.

 Thanks to Victor Cisneros and Erin Henegan for technical assistance in recording and transcribing this interview. [Edited for clarity and length.]

 

Culture Corner

Concert Review: Paul Simon at the Prudential Center (Newark, NJ), September 15, 2018

By Bernie Langs

Paul Simon sings “The Boxer” at the Prudential Center—YouTube view by audience member.

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon completed his farewell tour with an outdoor concert in Queens, New York on September 22, 2018, close to where he and his former musical partner Art Garfunkel grew up together in the 1950s. The duo joined forces in the 1960s creating hit records as Simon & Garfunkel and acrimoniously splitting in 1970 at the height of the band’s fame. Garfunkel has a fabulous voice, hitting and sustaining high harmony and lead vocal notes that few can attain in the pop/rock genre, but Simon wrote most of the band’s hits and played a mean and creative acoustic guitar on songs such as “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Boxer.” Simon’s voice is wonderfully rich and unique and he’s a masterful composer and arranger, but in the same way that Eric Clapton had many great records after he left his Cream bandmates in the late 1960s, both he and Simon could never maintain the unique fantastic sound they had as a member of a group during that turbulent decade in musical history.

I saw Simon perform at Newark’s Prudential Center one week prior to his final bow in Queens. The artist informed the crowd that although it is well-known that he grew up in New York, he was actually born and spent the very early days of his life in Newark. Simon has always had an amiable persona and has hosted Saturday Night Live many times over the years, often appearing in self-deprecating skits and showing off his natural wit and humor (see his infamous opening bit where he is dressed as a turkey for Thanksgiving while crooning his song, “Still Crazy After All These Years”). I jumped at the opportunity to see Simon in concert after viewing video of his brief reunion tour with Garfunkel—they have yet to speak again according to many sources.

Simon played many of his solo hits as well as those from his days in Simon & Garfunkel and each song was a delight for different reasons. He had a back-up band of about fifteen musicians, featuring virtuoso guitarists Mark Stewart, who played with Simon on the prior tour with Garfunkel, newcomer Biodun Kuti, as well as Bakithi Kumalo, who is a smooth bass guitar master running complex lines that are easy on the ears, yet technical wonders. The band’s lineup included drummers and percussionists, string, woodwind, and horn players, and a bevy of back-up singers. The group performed as a miraculously tight unit amid the complex arrangements. Simon’s solo career is an homage to world music, showcasing African and Latin textures throughout his compositions. In the international mode, the band tore through crowd-pleasing renditions of “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and the grooving, reggae-inspired “Mother and Child Reunion.”

For me, the hits from the 1960s that Simon performed throughout the evening were the highpoints. The performer’s voice was unexpectedly strong for a 77-year-old man and he did not shy away from challenging vocal phrases and high notes, which he hit each time. He retains a knack for making his guitar playing stand out as both accompaniment and lead. Simon took time during the show to tell anecdotes, reminisce, and discuss the emotions surrounding his retirement from touring. He never mentioned Garfunkel by name, who flew by in only a handful of photos in the highlight film reel of his career. When Simon performed their music, the oft-times melancholy tunes took on greater significance, not just for the star himself as a farewell, but as a moment of finality for the music of the 1960s. Simon opened the show with “America,” a hit from 1968 that could have served as the thinking man’s hippie anthem. “The Boxer” was released in 1969 and it was played in Newark as a dark, yet celebratory poem on the subject of the unexpected and unending turbulence of life and love. As the emotional tone and tide rose during the lamenting chant sung by the backup singers at the end of the song, Simon’s acoustic flairs finally relieved the crowd from its grip and we were brought back to calmer waters by his instrument’s marvelous ringing, bright tone.

Near the halfway point, Simon told the audience that the next song was one he’d known immediately on composition as a more exceptional creation. He explained how he’d given it away to another artist to record and would now play his own rendition. The joke, we realized as the tune began, was that the song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a huge hit for Simon & Garfunkel, sung solo on the record by an emotionally expressive Garfunkel until Simon enters later with dazzling background harmonies. At the Prudential Center, the composer reclaimed his song, and the new arrangement with Simon on lead vocals was not only the best moment of the evening, but among the top performances I’ve ever heard live. I was absolutely stunned by how “Bridge” built and towards the end I became completely overwhelmed by the music. Perhaps the Sixties and its promised utopian nonsense, which I’d bought into, were now long gone and deservedly recognized as idealistic, unrealistic dreaming? Perhaps my musical heroes were now too often appearing in the obituary section than in the arts section? Perhaps Simon, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were old men—not the youthful powerhouses who had had wowed us decades ago as they swept millions of people into the clouds with promises and sounds of sweet song? But as “Bridge” finished up, and later as the artist played the final song of the evening, “The Sound of Silence,” alone with his acoustic guitar, I knew that Simon’s music was as strong and powerful as ever and he had absolutely proven that the soul survives.

Kelvin Droegemeier, Trump’s Pick for Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy

Aileen Marshall

Kelvin Droegemeier, November 19, 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On July 31 of this year, Trump nominated Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist, for Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  This position has been vacant for 19 months since Trump took office, an unprecedented length of time. At this time, Droegeimeir will need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Droegemeier, age 60, was born and raised in Kansas, and earned a bachelor’s in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma in 1980. He received a master’s in atmospheric science in 1982 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and then a Ph.D. in the same field there in 1985. That same year, he joined the faculty at the University of Oklahoma and became their Vice President of Research in 2009.

Most of the work over his career has been developing ways to use computers and other technology to predict severe weather events, particularly for businesses. He has been active with the National Science Foundation (NSF), a government agency that supports scientific research and awards grants. In 1989, he started the NSF’s Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms. He was that Center’s director from 1994 to 2006. In 2000, he started his own private company, Weather Decisions Technologies, which now has offices worldwide. He founded the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere at the NSF in 2003. He was that center’s deputy director from 2006 to 2012. He was appointed to the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, and acts as advisors to the president and congress, in 2004 and 2011, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama, and was the board vice chairman from 2012 to 2016.

At the University of Oklahoma, Droegemeier created the Sasaki Institute to develop “application and knowledge, policy and advanced technology for the mutual benefit of the government, academic and private sectors.” He also established a supercomputing center there. According to his biography at the National Science Board, Droegemeier has more than 75 journal articles and book chapters, and over 200 conference publications. He has worked as a consultant to several companies, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Honeywell, as well as with the National Transportation and Safety Board. He is currently Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology and on a state committee to encourage the growth of private weather companies.

Last year, Droegemeier wrote an editorial to the Des Moines Register encouraging federal research funding. “Though the benefits of short-term savings in the yearly federal budgets may be appealing, they result in insidious, long-term consequences…. Our country is losing ground rapidly to other nations…Due to underfunding, we risk losing an entire generation of researchers… Balanced, predictable and stable funding, is essential for the United States to remain a world leader in research and a translator of research outcomes into practical products and services that benefit all of our citizens.”

Reactions to his nomination by his peers have been positive. John Holdren, Ph.D., a previous director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, called Droegemeier “a solid choice.” He said that Droegemeier was a serious climate scientist and advisor. Kei Koizumi, who previously worked with Droegemeier, while working at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that “He is an excellent scientist, communicator, and public servant, and therefore a superb choice to be the next director of OSTP.” Roger Wakimoto is the President of the American Meteorological Society and has known Droegemeier for many years. He said that Droegemeier “has often been the voice of reason with indisputable and comprehensive facts at congressional hearings and other venues….I give him my unqualified support.”

So far, during his Senate committee hearings, Droegemeier has strongly supported keeping science free of political influence and sexual harassment. He said that having researchers from other countries is an important part of science, but should be done “with care”.  He has avoided a response when asked about climate change. Droegemeier is expected to have his full Senate confirmation hearings starting the last week of September.

 

Culture Corner

Camila Cabello’s Havana Wows Pop Music

Bernie Langs

 

Photo: Sony Music Entertainment

The first time I heard the pop song Havana by Cuban-American recording artist Camila Cabello was on a radio tuned to one of my 20-year-old daughter’s stations. I was immediately floored by the the great groove and the unusually complex, smooth, and melodic vocals. I’ve lamented for many years that most contemporary rock and pop songs bounce back between two or three chords and depend on singing lines that border on the monotonous. I’ve also long held the opinion that the main concern in today’s music is tilted towards the emotional state of the lead singer, too often an expressive lament over a broken relationship or other adolescent issues that have long ceased to concern, amuse, or interest me. Therefore, as an old-school rock-and-roll geezer, my attention was pleasantly caught by Havana as it played that first time for me over the airwaves. When I got home, I located the song on Spotify and found it sounded even better on good audio speakers. My daughter popped into the room as I listened, informing me that she too loved the song, and suggested I find Cabello’s version in English, rather than the Spanish one I was listening to. I had been so transfixed by the entirery of the music that it didn’t register that I hadn’t comprehended a word.

Havana was released in the summer of 2017 and was composed by Cabello and nine other writers. But the magic, along with her fantastic singing, is in the tune’s brilliant production by Frank Dukes. Much of the song is done with just a few instruments, a minimalist and smart use of piano, horns, and creative bass playing. The bass line hits many wonderful lower fret notes, and they buzz and reverberate while remaining softly cool, calm, and completely unaggressive. Cabello’s voice is stunning, displaying multi-faceted and multi-dimensional textures and emotions. The lead vocal is powerfully up front in the mix, teeming with a Latin pop feel expressing sensuality and confidence, along with a big dollop of subtle and clever humor. In the sections with just a sparse piano and bass accompaniment, her singing is bold and forceful. Each time I listen, I look forward to two of her well-produced vocal twirls in the melody, nailed by Cabello with delightfully awesome wonder and beauty. Her multi-tracked backing vocals are best listened to with good headphones with the singing “placed” and separated by producer Dukes to the far left and right sides of one’s internal listening space, making it startling, fresh, and surprising every single time.

Soon after I fell for Havana, I read an interview with Cabello in Rolling Stone magazine and learned how she has deftly handled the social media attention and drama surrounding her leaving a girl group that we rock-and-roll geezers don’t give an old man’s hoot about. But she also spoke about choices and chances and more on the art and craft of music than many of her contemporaries about whom I’ve read interviews.

Last month, I hunted down the song’s video, which is truly clever, downright funny, and does justice to the song. I’ve since learned that the video won many music industry awards and has been viewed 680 million times on YouTube. Cabello plays several roles in the short film, and there is a telenovela-in-a-video, a family sage-in-a-video, and a movie-in-a-video in Havana as well as other unexpectedly funny turns. Cabello’s Spanish-speaking grandmother in the video is played by a bearded man wearing a wig and a nightgown and his heartfelt concern about Cabello’s lonely, homebound alter-ego makes you forget it’s a young man doing the worrying. There is a short rap break in the song performed by Young Thug that is tasteful and fits in well with the groove of the recording. Once again, the production makes the transition from Cabello’s singing to the rap a seamless one, and Young Thug’s appearance in the video works nicely within the framework of its many shifting themes.

Havana is the best song I’ve heard in twenty or thirty years. The only great rock and pop songs in recent memory for me have been by Joe Strummer and The Mescleros, which were composed and recorded between 1999 and 2002. Havana delights with each listening experience. As one who records and writes his own music, I find it inspiring on many levels, from composition, performance, and in cleverness and production. I hope to hear many more songs in the coming years from this young talent expressing her good vibes and playful humor. I recall that as a teenager in 1975, I read a music review in Rolling Stone by its editor, Jann Wenner, of a concert in Los Angeles by the Rolling Stones, which he felt was the best show of their entire tour at the time. The last line read something like, “For days I talked about it to anyone who would listen.” Since hearing Havana I am doing the same, telling friends, colleagues at work, and even random strangers just how great this tune is.

 

Culture Corner

Visiting Michelangelo’s Sculptures in Florence

Bernie Langs

One of my personal goals during a late May 2018 visit to Florence, Italy was to view as many sculptures by Michelangelo as possible. Here is a rundown of my thoughts on some of the works that I saw.

The Deposition at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and Palestrina Pietà at Galleria dell’Accademia

These two sorrowful scupltures are very much akin. The Depostion was created by Michelangelo originally for his own tomb and it is generally agreed that the hooded figure of Nicodemus carrying the body of the dead Christ is a self-portrait of the artist. It is a moving, emotionally strong work of art reflecting the deep-rooted inner pain suffered by Michelangelo. The sculpture seemingly begs to be read as a statement of profound religious ideals, but it can also be read as a harsh metaphor for mankind’s turmoiled existence. The Palestrina Pietà is another study in grief, also depicting Christ in the moments after his death, this time supported by two figures, the one to his side most likely his mother, Mary. This sculpture is now attributed to Michelangelo, though may be a work he started that was later completed by another hand.

Museo nazionale del Bargello: Brutus, Bacchus, and Madonna (“Tondo Pitti”):

 Brutus is a fantastic marble bust depicting Julius Caesar’s infamous assassin. Although Dante placed the ancient Roman far down in the depths of Hell, Michelangelo’s work leans towards Brutus’ heroic nature, mirroring the Florentine movement of Republicanism against the notion of tyranny, a perspective current to the artist’s sphere. While many sculpted busts from the Renaissance, ancient Greece, and Imperial Rome illicit only an appreciative glance when I visit museums, the rough texture, turned head, and other features of Brutus compelled my extended meditation. Based on photos I’ve viewed in art history books, I had concerns about seeing Bacchus face-to-face, in the God of Wine’s all-too-very naked flesh. I found the inebriated young man easier to view in person than in printed reproductions. At the Bargello, I was also delighted to encounter the gracefully sculpted Madonna (known as “Tondo Pitti”). It is one of the Master’s emergent marble bas-reliefs and a study in nuance, poise, and gentle religious rendering. The sculpture is breathtaking in its simplicity and the stone’s ethereal color.

Galleria dell’Accademia: David and The Bearded Slave

 

The big enchilada of Michelangelo’s achievements and one of the most referenced works in all of art history, David, does not disappoint when encountered in a museum setting. The Master’s creation is enormous in size and impossibly carved with a polished gleam. The youthful figure liberated by the artist from a block of marble into the absolutely stunning, striking image of the Biblical hero makes for an awe-inspiring personal encounter. While I found many other sculptures by Michelangelo more engaging on emotional and philosophical levels, David’s undeniable beauty is quite enough for any viewer to experience joy in its presence. The Accademia lines the approach to David with several unfinished pieces that are grouped together under the heading of non-finito. The works garner less attention from many tourists than the colossal David at the end of the passageway. These odd, yet beautiful “slaves” or “prisoners” in varying twisted or turned poses offer great insight into Michelangelo’s working process and showcase the tragic aspect in the forefront of many of his late works.

Casa Buonarroti: Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs (detail)

Palazzo Vecchio: Genius of Victory

I chanced upon Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory while roaming through the huge chamber of the Palazzo Vechhio’s Salone dei Cinquecento. One walks in the majestic space gaping at enormous military and battle frescos. It was beneath one of these paintings that this sculpture by Michelangelo drew my attention. This great work of art is made even greater because of where it is situated. Nestled along a wall below the massive, colorful frescoes, it is strategically placed in the company of several other monumental statues, including Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s Labors of Hercules. The Palazzo Vecchio was also the site where Michelangelo planned to paint and Leonardo da Vinci toiled unsuccessfully with “dueling” frescos that are now lost to history. David was also originally displayed in the outside courtyard of the Palazzo.

Museo delle Cappelle Medicee: Tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici with Night and Day and Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici with Dusk and Dawn

On my final day in Florence, after seeing hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and architectural wonders of the bejeweled city on the river Arno, my very last stop was at the Medici Chapel, where I stood with a handful of visitors to take in the sight of two tombs designed and executed in marble by Michelangelo. One set of sculptures depicts Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (and a brother of Pope Leo X) flanked by reclining statues of Day, in the guise of a strapping man, and Night, depicted as a sleeping woman. The other is the tomb of the Duke of Urbino, Leo’s nephew. The Duke’s pose is thoughtful and pensive as he sits with Dawn on his right and Dusk on his left. All of the figures in the room led me to a state of bewildered, confused meditation. The gestures and bodily postures of both deceased men, as well as their distant facial expressions, led me into serious thought and an odd, quiet sadness. They came across as holding an internal, desperate gravitas, tinged with the mournful aspect one finds in ancient Greek and Roman funerary steles and sculptures. The four reclining mythological figures appeared in my mind’s eye as a mirror of the deepest religious, spiritual, and philosophical state that embodied the soul and genius of Michelangelo. These figures are beyond allegory. I stood in the Chapel for a very long time, dumbfounded and amazed that an artist’s inner being could reach so profoundly and harshly into such deep and dark territories unknown in his time – and to this very day.

 

 

Culture Corner – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

 

Bernie Langs

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Julian Jaynes
Houghton Mifflin, 1990; originally published in 1976
491 pages
Paperback, $15.00

 

 

Two cylinder seals with modern impressions; top: Weather god on a lion dragon, Northern Mesopotamia, Mitannian period, mid-2nd millennium B.C.; bottom: Worshiper and a god with a rod and a ring, Mesopotamia, Kassite period, reign of Kurigalzu I, early 14th century, B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photo: BL)

Wall-sized Assyrian palace scupture (detail); 883-859 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: BL)

Mable statue of a kouros (youth) with close-up of face; Greek, Attic, ca. 590-580 B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photos: BL)

Having read two-thirds of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, Ph.D., I am comfortable in discussing the ideas proposed in this groundbreaking, extraordinarily exciting treatise prior to finishing the book. Dr. Jaynes lays out his theories and conclusions from the very start, working backwards by examining detailed supporting evidence, which he offers as proof of his hypotheses. The Origin has evoked a wide spectrum of reactions since its publication in 1976, labeled by some critics as nothing more than an outlandish set of propositions, while others embraced it as a revolutionary and unique perspective on how the mind developed in the ancient world.

Dr. Jaynes’ presentation of such a large-scale and all-encompassing overview on the subject of the history of mankind’s inner thinking can’t possibly hit the bullseye. Yet in The Origin he proposes with confidence and endearing, affable humility that he has discovered how human neurological development worked in tandem with historical, religious, cultural, economic, and social events mostly over the last three thousand years he discusses how this ultimately leads to the unique, individual, and highly structured voice we maintain today: our inner consciousness.

Although this book is at times scattershot, it must be recognized at least as a great start to further engage in a more complete, nuanced, and timely follow-up. Dr. Jaynes’ theory centers around details of the biology of the brain and interpretation of the vast ancient historical record, and he readily notes that such an enormous theory of everything needs more work and study. Dr. Jaynes concedes that many of his ideas are speculative, but he does not waver from his belief in its basic foundation.  One may criticize, for example, his dependence on selective writings, artifacts, and remains from the ancient period for use in generalizing what motivated the behavior and interior observations of all people thousands of years ago.

When looking at the statues, buildings, imprints of seals, ivories, and so on from ancient Middle East, we can’t help but make assumptions about the past based on our contemporary atmosphere. Yet it is apparent, as Dr. Jaynes notes, that in the regions covered by the book the expressions and features of kings, gods, attendants, and others are coldhearted and emotionally distant.. Eventually, there’s a slow progression, culminating with the ancient Greeks at about 700 B.C, as the images morph into representations graced with loving beauty, heroic postures, grand gestures, and an appreciation, bordering on ecstatic at times, on notions of both body and soul.

Dr. Jaynes details the Greek reaction to the horrific misery of the “Dark Ages” which were initiated in about 1200 B.C. and lasted several centuries, set in motion the timeline that will eventually resolve into the way we speak to ourselves in our heads to day. The proposed “bicameral mind”, presented in The Origin can’t be observed or proved to actually exist, yet the theory is beautifully described with personal passion by Dr. Jaynes. He believes that the left and right portions of the brain were divided in the way they processed the external world surrounding ancient mankind, with one half fooled by the other to believe that hallucinated voices originated from sources that could be deemed as commands by the gods. These voices, heard only by some, arose as spoken language along with the development of the written word. Those with the strongest connection to what they believed was the forceful directing of society by these vocalizations took on the roles of king, priest, or intermediary with the gods.

Dr. Jaynes proposes this system developed regionally and with individual characteristics throughout the area under study. The so-called “breakdown” of the bicameral mind occurred slowly over centuries, after populations grew, war became unexpectedly common, and trade led to increased contact between varying tribes and societies. These changes introduced incompatible rival gods and customs in the region leading to confusion of the voices, akin to the described mayhem in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Dr. Jaynes also describes several natural crises that put the normalized system of the period into panic. By the start of the first millennium, Homer’s work had been passed down for generations and finally canonized in The Iliad, and Dr. Jaynes unveils the tense struggle within the general population, as the hallucinated commanding voices needed to be replaced for survival’s sake by an emerging personal, inner dialogue. Jaynes’ discussion and analysis of these changes motivating the non-evolutionary, yet biological shift, reads as the most historically and scientifically sound section of the book. Ancient mankind perceived the world through external instinctual sensation, which Dr. Jaynes’ believes was dominated and ordered by invisible vocalizations. After 1000 B.C., the world had to adapt to changes on many levels making internal decision-making processes take over based on reactions to visual stimuli. The world moves from the shackles of auditory constraints towards the eye’s window to the soul.

I have to admit that I do not completely believe Dr. Jaynes’ idea that the minds of those living in the ancient civilizations under study lived and died by the commands and rules laid out by hallucinated voices of the so-called gods and divinities. The tenuous biological support of the wider theory, which relies on studies that discussed observations of patients today with neurological conditions and symptoms mirroring what he believes were the hallucinated and god-like voices in the heads of the ancients (e.g., schizophrenia).

Perhaps the works of the Pre-Socratics and others who put aside the conception of the gods as creators of the physical world and the actions of men can be read as the evidence of the final labor push of the birth of the inner individual. Standing in front of the famous Kouros sculpture from ancient Greece the other day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I meditated on its mysterious face in light of the theories of Dr. Jaynes. The sculpted youth appears ready to wake up, was along with the whole world, to freedom granted by new consciousness. You can almost hear the voice of reason speak for the first time.