Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Dalai Lama In Exile


On this day in 1959 Tibet's spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, crossed the border into India after an epic 15-day journey on foot over the Himalayan mountains... His Holiness' exile came after a failed uprising in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March of that year during which thousands of civilians were slaughtered by the Chinese military.

Once settled in Dharamshala (known today as 'Little Lhasa' as much for his presence as for that of the 80,000 refugees who followed him into exile there) the Dalai Lama established the Government of Tibet in Exile; also established were the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, which is the foremost institution of higher learning for Tibetans in exile in India.
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"Come What May" by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman

Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge! is a frenzied mess - obviously edited in a Cuisinart - a purported musical in which the hard work of the dancers isn't effectively shown, lest a snippet of film longer than three seconds accidentally find its way into the print; believe me, when I say something is too busy it's too busy, and this makes Hong Kong on a Friday rush hour in summer look as activity-free as Paris Hilton's CAT scan.

I realize that in saying this I am leaving myself open to assassination, as I once made the same point (although far more diplomatically) at a gay dinner party, and was nearly defenestrated; fortunately there were only six of them, and the spindly buggers couldn't lift me. I stand by my original assessment, though: if you don't have ADD going into this film, you will when you come out!

Still, I love the song Come What May for the honeyed tones of Ewan McGregor... And what's-her-name; she's good in it too.
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Happy Birthday Ewan McGregor

They're subtle, these charms of his, or at least they were. He was amazing in Trainspotting, of course, but at the time it came out he didn't make much of an impression on me. I do remember thinking, 'Why would they use a real junkie?' Of course, he was just... ACTING!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHe more than compensated for Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, though, turning his Alec Guinness impression into the most gracious homage when it could have so easily been the same kind of grotesque Stepin Fetchit-esque burlesque his animated costar was.

But when McGregor opened his mouth to sing in Moulin Rouge...? I can't remember a moment in cinema for five years that electrified me like that, mainly, I guess, because I hadn't been prepared for it. Come What May indeed; by the time he'd finished singing it there wasn't a dry seat in the house.

Since I originally posted this two years ago today (!) I've also had the chance to see him in Down With Love, co-starring David Hyde Pierce and Squinty Fatface-McBonerack; as an homage to Sixties sex comedies of the Rock-and-Doris variety it was pretty good, but for all the time they took on costume, set design, and hair they got the lighting wrong. It was too dark to evoke the Technicolor gaudiness of the era, and since it didn't show Ewan bathed in the same golden light as my admiration for him it wasn't as good as it could have been.

Still, given the choices he makes, I have a feeling the Pop Culture Institute will be celebrating Ewan McGregor's birthday for many years, come what may...
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Pop History Moment: Newfoundland Enters Confederation


If you believe in omens, then the original date determined for the completion of the Canadian Confederation is a doozy; negotiations had already been concluded - and the date set - when someone pointed out that April 1st is also April Fool's Day. Only the quick-thinking diplomacy of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was able to literally save the day, by moving the moment at which the independent Dominion of Newfoundland became the subordinate Province of Newfoundland back one minute. Newfoundland, therefore, became part of Canada at 11:59 PM on March 31st rather than at midnight the following day as originally planned.

PhotobucketThe province's first premier, Joey Smallwood (shown, at left), was vehemently pro-Canadian; so much so that for many years - and even unto this very day - he's been accused of employing much villainy to make his country's transformation into a province - via two national referendums, both in 1948 - a fait accompli. Rumours of vote rigging are the least of them; his own campaign speeches are masterworks of political bribery, promising jobs, pots of money, health care - everything, in fact, that the majority of Newfoundlanders had been struggling to obtain ever since John Cabot arrived in June 1497, or at least since John Guy's plantation opened at Cuper's Cove in 1610.

Smallwood's opponent Peter Cashin favoured a continuation of Dominion status, foreseeing a time when that would lead to independence for the island colony. Britain, on the other hand, was still reeling from the effects of World War II, and was glad to offload the money-sucking (albeit prestigious) holding, which Sir Humphrey Gilbert had claimed for Elizabeth I as Britain's first overseas possession in August 1583; the prevailing sentiment in London at the time was that if it must go, it should go to Canada all at once rather than to the United States by attrition.

If all this seems like the ideal recipe for a slew of conspiracy theories you're either as cynical as I am, or already familiar with the story; again and again the results of the final referendum have been investigated. Close as they were - 51% for Canada to 49% for Newfoundland - they seem to be legit. Yet legends persist of boxes of pro-independence ballots turning up in cellars and attics, even though surely evidence as damning as that would have been long ago burned.

Wayne Johnston's superlative 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams deals with the events of Joey Smallwood's life before, during, and after Confederation, and comes highly recommended; just as highly recommended is the film Secret Nation (1992), starring Cathy Jones as a doctoral candidate determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
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POPnews - March 31st

[This 1901 map of Vancouver Island - which, at 32,134 km² (12,407 sq mi), is Canada's 11th and the world's 43rd largest island - doesn't even begin to demonstrate the myriad charms of the place, unlike the website it links to...]

1146 - In a field outside the French village of Vézelay and in the presence of France's King Louis VII Bernard of Clairvaux preached a sermon urging the necessity of a Second Crusade, which convinced the King if no one else.

1492 - Under the terms of the Alhambra Decree, Queen Isabella of Castile ordered her 150,000 Jewish subjects to convert to Christianity or face expulsion.

1717 - In the presence of King George I the Bishop of Bangor - aka Benjamin Hoadly - delivered a sermon entitled The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ which argued that no temporal Church government had any spiritual authority, provoking the Bangorian Controversy.

1774 - In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party Parliament in London ordered the port of Boston closed with its passage of the Boston Port Act, one of the so-called Intolerable Acts which precipitated the American Revolutionary War.

1778 - Captain James Cook first landed on and then claimed what later came to be known as Vancouver Island for Great Britain.

1854 - Commodore Matthew Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa with Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi as the representative of the Empire of Japan (on behalf of Emperor Kōmei, who by custom and temperament was neither allowed nor cared to interact with foreigners); the treaty opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American trade, albeit against their will and at the end of a cannon, ending a two-century period of insularity known as Sakoku.

1889 - The Eiffel Tower was inaugurated.

1917 - The United States took possession of the Danish West Indies after paying $25 million to Denmark, renaming the territory the US Virgin Islands.

1959 - The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, crossed the border into India and was granted political asylum at Dharamsala, where he established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

1964 - The Dictatorship in Brazil, under the aegis of General Castello Branco, began.

1968 - US President Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the nation when, in a televised address, he announced that he would not be running for re-election; although he would have been eligible for another term (since his 'first' term was technically the remainder of President Kennedy's) his health was poor and his popularity was suffering due to the ongoing Vietnam War.

1970 - Explorer 1 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere after 12 years in orbit; having discovered the Van Allen radiation belt, it made its last fiery flight over the southern Pacific Ocean.

1979 - The last British soldier left Malta upon that country's independence; the day is still celebrated as Freedom Day, or Jum il-Ħelsien, as well as being commemorated by a monument in the town of Birgu (Vittoriosa).

1986 - The Thatcher government abolished six metropolitan county councils under the terms of the Local Government Act 1985.

1990 - 200,000 protestors took to London's Trafalgar Square to show their displeasure at the Thatcher government's newly introduced Community Charge. The so-called Poll Tax Riots lasted more than ten hours, during which time 45 police officers were among the 113 people injured; 20 police horses were also hurt in the fracas.

1991 - In the Georgian independence referendum nearly 99 per cent of the voters supported that country's independence from the Soviet Union.

1992 - The US Navy's last active battleship - the USS Missouri (BB-63) - was decommissioned in Long Beach, California.

1995 - 23 year-old Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Perez - better known as Selena - was shot and killed in Corpus Christi, Texas, by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her own fan club.

2008 - Aloha Airlines permanently ended passenger service following bankruptcy.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Vincent" by Don McLean

I've published this before - in October, for Don McLean's birthday - but it's just as appropriate to publish it here, I think. Maybe even more...

The song Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) was written by McLean in 1971, after reading a biography of Vincent van Gogh, and it says a lot about the size of van Gogh's talent that even eighty years after his death he was inspiring others in their own acts of creation; it touches on van Gogh's struggle with mental illness which, as verboten a topic as it is even now, was a major no-no back then.

For that alone McLean ought to be entitled to every accolade he would earn for it, including the #1 spot on the UK pop chart.
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In Memoriam: Vincent van Gogh

I can't imagine what I could say about Vincent van Gogh that hasn't been said a hundred times already, but I'll sure give it a try; for a man whose brief life and prolific career were spent in utter obscurity, his posthumous fame has meant that almost anyone can provide a thumbnail sketch of him: unheralded in his lifetime, bit of a nutter, cut off his ear, committed suicide... This is the kind of Q rating many an art school brat would give, well, their left ear to a prostitute named Rachel to achieve...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1853, van Gogh lived only 37 years; yet how many people on their fortieth, fiftieth, or sixtieth birthdays can say they've lived as much as he did in the short time he allotted to himself, felt as much, expressed as much... To many he is the quintessential artist, while to those who don't fully understand the mechanics of an artist's life and mind he may seem merely self-indulgent, as if that were a bad thing.

Van Gogh may have painted from madness, he may have acquired madness from painting - literally; the use of lead-based paints may have been his undoing. This is not so dangerous in itself, but the fact that he used to eat the paints (possibly in an ill-advised attempt to infuse himself with the colours) was. Nevertheless the uneasy balance he achieved, and was able to maintain - at least until he shot himself in July 1890 - had already fascinated the general public for a decade prior to 1934, when Irving Stone's biographical novel Lust for Life was published.

When the book was later adapted into a movie of the same name, many questioned the wisdom of casting tough-guy Kirk Douglas in the lead role; yet Douglas' personal vigour matched van Gogh's own workaholism (possibly induced by a manic condition known as hypergraphia, which is the overwhelming compulsion to write - a condition about which I know nothing) as much as the actor's appreciation for visual art, which is evident in the size of his own well-known art collection, housed at his home at Palm Springs. The artist has also been portrayed by Tchéky Karyo in the 1990 film Vincent and Me, Tim Roth in Robert Altman's film Vincent & Theo from the same year, and Jacques Dutronc in the following year's Van Gogh, directed by Maurice Pialat.

In the end, van Gogh could have had no better executor than his brother Theo who, along with Dr. Paul Gachet (as often described as van Gogh's patron as he is the man who failed to treat his depression) did as much to further the painter's reputation after his death as the painter himself did to earn it while still alive. English critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell (affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group, whose members knew a thing or two about the connection between creativity and madness) brought the life and works of van Gogh to the attention of the English-speaking world as early as 1924; publication of Vincent's letters to Theo in book form have allowed professionals and amateurs alike to delve into the complicated psyche of one of the greatest artists of all time, providing an array of medical and psychological diagnoses as well as the necessary lore to make Vincent van Gogh a genuine cultural - not to mention pop cultural - icon.

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Gratuitous Brunette: Warren Beatty

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Having made his film debut opposite Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan's 1961 celluloid version of Splendor in the Grass - William Inge's paean to sexual repression, which he adapted from his own novel and in which he briefly appears - ought to have set Warren Beatty's career up nicely; instead, he spent the next six years drifting in and out of Hollywood's boudoirs, waiting for a second chance at a big break.

That opportunity came in 1967, when he played legendary bank robber Clyde Barrow opposite Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty's contributions to the film weren't merely confined to those on the screen; not only did he assist David Newman and Robert Benton on the screenplay (as did Robert Towne) Hollywood lore has it that this was the film that gave Beatty the producing bug.

Having been raised by teachers (alongside his sister, the incomparable Shirley MacLaine) ensured that Beatty was more than a pretty face, no matter how pretty that face was; he seems to have realized early in his career that the movie business really only benefits producers, and thereafter conducted himself accordingly. A string of hits - including McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Parallax View (1974), Shampoo (1975), and Heaven Can Wait (1978) - gave him significant box-office clout, which he used to produce his magnum opus, Reds (1981). That he followed his greatest work with one of the greatest bombs in Hollywood history (1986's Ishtar, with Dustin Hoffman) was readily redeemed by 1990's colourful, campy Dick Tracy.

It was Warren Beatty's role as a Hollywood lothario, though, that always threatened to overshadow his reputation as an actor and director - especially since most of his relationships were with his leading ladies; it took one of such leading lady - Annette Bening, his costar in Bugsy - to make an honest man of him with their March 1992 marriage and the subsequent birth of their four children.
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"Sing For You" by Tracy Chapman

Having covered the early and middle part of Tracy Chapman's career thus far, what birthday video hat trick would be complete without an example of her more recent work...

Sing For You was the first single from Chapman's eighth studio album, Our Bright Future, released in November 2008; the album was co-produced by Larry Klein, whose previous claim to fame was having been the former Mr. Joni Mitchell.

She's seen here performing it live and acoustic...

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Pop History Moment: The Rosenbergs Are Convicted

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On this day in 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American electrical engineer and his wife, were found guilty by the Federal Court in New York of passing secrets about the atomic bomb to Russia. They would become the first American civilians executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.

In the history of frame-ups, this surely ranks as the first and foremost. It's also the only thing I ever saw my grandparents argue about. My grandfather was rabidly anti-communist; my grandmother was like me, and highly suspicious of the way governments witch-hunt minorities. Despite their agreement on the old maxim 'where there's smoke there's fire' my grandmother - an inveterate and critical media watcher - always had her doubts...
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Remembering... Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

For nearly eight decades the woman who began life in August 1900 as Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon epitomized the royal way... Although born the daughter of an Earl she was nevertheless a commoner; noble, yet possessed of the common touch which was all-too uncommon among others of her class and station. Elevated to royalty upon her marriage to a shy stammering Prince, she then returned the favour by elevating royalty in the public's eyes, ironically by bringing it down out of the clouds...

PhotobucketFollowing her marriage at Westminster Abbey in April 1923 - after which ceremony she laid her bridal bouquet upon the Tomb of the Unkown Warrior, thereby setting a precedent for all royal brides to come - she quickly became known as 'the smiling Duchess' for her benevolent demeanour during public engagements and functions of State alike. When her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose were born - in 1926 and 1930 respectively - she broke the mould for being a hands-on mother; while her husband had seen his parents at most for an hour a day as a child, the Duchess of York (as she was then known) spent as many extra minutes as she could spare in the nursery.

The Abdication Crisis of 1936 thrust her and her husband onto the throne, a turn of events no one could have predicted and one which he himself admitted he would never have been able to handle without her assistance; yet for all her smiling and benevolence, there was concealed in her a spine of steel. As they hastily prepared for their coronation (the date of which hadn't changed when Edward VIII stepped aside) she helped to coach the stammer out of her husband's speech, so that as George VI he would be able to address his people during the difficult times which everyone knew were coming.

World War II shattered Europe even worse than had its predecessor a generation earlier; despite it, the King and Queen remained resolute. They were in residence when Buckingham Palace was bombed, and in her inimitable way she thumbed her nose at the entire affair simply by remaining unruffled. As a reward Hitler described her as 'the most dangerous woman in Europe', which remains the apogee of praise considering the source.

PhotobucketWhatever wounds the war left on Britain, it left its mark on the King as well; he died less than six years after the cessation of hostilities, in February 1952. At that time the newly styled 'Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother' contemplated a Victorian retirement at the remote Castle of Mey in Scotland; her daughter (and new sovereign) was having none of it. Though no one could have known it at the time, the dowager Queen was then merely at the mid-point of her long life, and still had half a century of service to render.

Over the next five decades, the Queen Mother earned her eventual position as the Nation's (and indeed the Commonwealth's) granny; she travelled widely and was greeted with unabashed affection wherever she went. As eras will do, though, hers came to its inevitable end; following the death of Princess Margaret in February the Queen Mother's indomitable spirit, which had seen her through so much, finally began to flag. At Windsor's Royal Lodge, shortly after 3:15 PM on this day in 2002, and with her remaining daughter by her side, she finally passed from this world, just five months shy of her 102nd birthday.

Still, she had a few more surprises left up her flowery, organza sleeve; pundits predicted that her lying-in-state - to be held as per usual in Westminster Hall - would be poorly attended. In fact, a great many of them seemed to want it that way, to confirm their own middle-class prejudices against the monarchy. Over the next three days more than 200,000 people filed past the royal casket, confounding the expectations of the punditocracy by simply confirming the public's respect as well as their desire to be there for her as she had been there for them so many times before.

In a final poignant tribute her four grandsons - Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Viscount Linley - stood the Vigil of the Princes on April 8th; the following day a million people stood their own vigil, silently grieving outside the Abbey and along the 23 km route to St George's Chapel, Windsor, where she was to be reunited with her husband. According to the Queen Mother's final wishes, as her coffin left the Abbey, the Queen placed the wreath that had lain atop it on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a final poignant echo in a long life well-lived.

The official biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother - an impressive 1100-page brick of a book - was released in 2009, containing much material from previously unpublished private materiel held in the Royal Archives. Naturally enough, it wasn't long after its initial publication a copy found its way into the collection of the Pop Culture Institute.


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"Telling Stories" by Tracy Chapman

It's yet another theme song for the Pop Culture Institute, as telling stories is all I'm trying to do here; it's also the title track from Tracy Chapman's fifth album, 2000's Telling Stories, and the second in her birthday hat trick today.

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There's Nothing Dull About Tom Sharpe

There are few novelists today willing to risk the infamy that comes with being entertaining, let alone amusing, which in turn makes the comic novel the literary world's one genre of endangered species; all this while comedy on television and in the movies is at an all-time zenith. Yet Canada's Todd Babiak, Carl Hiaasen in the United States, and the UK's Ben Elton toil in relative obscurity while their contemporaries churn out depress-a-thons (and scoop up awards) by the score. I forget who said it, but it bears repeating: making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is truly difficult. It must have been a comedian...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1928, since 1971 Tom Sharpe has published more than a dozen insightful, angry, and philosophical novels which also happen to be hilariously funny. The English seem to excel at this sort of thing, or did anyway, once upon a time. Douglas Adams was practically a one-man industry during his all-too short life, and try as he might to continue his friend's legacy, Stephen Fry is simply too deep to maintain the level of glibness necessary. These days only Robert Rankin even comes close to achieving Sharpe's effortless absurdity, and in many cases overshoots it, landing in a literary cream pie in the process.

Yet it's funny (although not funny ha-ha) how many current titles in the stacks here at the Pop Culture Institute have covers with quotes promising 'funny' - from Will Self to Lisa Moore to Julian Barnes (fine writers all) - whose books could sooner crack a walnut than a smile. I buy them all - Nick Hornby, Jasper Fforde, even Wendy Holden - and while a few of their books are funny in passing, the humour in them is more wry, and either seems forced or accidental, rather than having anything to do with any effort on the part of their authors. I even bought Sorting Out Billy, a novel by Jo Brand (an actual comedian who's actually funny) while in search of a bit of a laugh, and never laughed once; in the meantime I continue to haunt secondhand stores looking to complete my Tom Sharpe collection.

Nowadays Sharpe is the grand-daddy of the comic novel, having limned the changes in society over the past four decades - be they in academe, the aristocracy, or apartheid. One of them - 1975's Blott on the Landscape - was even adapted into a sitcom; a similar treatment could easily be provided for The Great Pursuit (1977), Grantchester Grind (1995) or indeed any of them, without having to change much but the format. Although now 80, he continues to write, and so there may yet be another offering from Tom Sharpe in the years to come.

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Pop History Moment: The Shooting of President Reagan


On this day in 1981, shortly before 2:30 PM, President Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest outside DC's Hilton Washington Hotel by John Hinckley, Jr. during an assassination attempt which severely injured White House Press Secretary James Brady; police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy were also shot in the attack, and that evening's planned telecast of the Academy Awards was postponed one day. Hinckley later claimed to have done it to get the attention of Jodie Foster, whom he'd been stalking.

The President was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he was operated on by the head surgeon Joseph Giordano, who it should be noted, was (and probably still is) a liberal Democrat; in the aftermath of the shooting Secretary of State Alexander Haig sparked what was at the time a major scandal by proclaiming 'I'm in control here', even though the Secretary of State is technically fourth in the presidential line of succession. Instead of allaying the nation's fear, the comments were seen as an attempt by Haig to overstep his authority, and some of the more hysterical elements of the Press likened it to a virtual coup by him, until First Lady Nancy Reagan offered them some of her Valium and they finally chilled the Hell out.

Pop culture reaction, though not swift, was sharp when it finally occurred; nearly two years later - on March 12th, 1983 - Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in which Buckwheat (played by Eddie Murphy) was assassinated by 'John David Stutts' (also played by Eddie Murphy); the sketch was a pointed satire on the killings of Lee Harvey Oswald and John Lennon and the attempt on the life of Reagan as covered with repetitive shrillness by the nascent 24-hours news media, then beginning to emerge thanks to networks like CNN.
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"Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman

As the centrepiece of her 1988 debut album Tracy Chapman, Fast Car is one of those songs that will always have certain memories for me; that was the first summer after I'd learned to drive, and because of my aversion to drink (not to mention my need to be needed) I'd fallen into the role of designated driver for the greatest group of lushes and reprobates I've ever had the privilege to pull over to the side of the road for so they could vomit - Matthew, Jonathan, Rhonda, and Tracy.

Despite the song's sad message, I took it as a warning to live for myself; for the first time in my life I was enjoying the camaraderie that had been denied to me all through high school, and despite the strain of coming out and having to do so in a Bible Belt town where I was still underaged - and therefore not allowed to attend the once a week gay dances - I still have fond memories of long moon-lit drives through the countryside on warm evenings, sitting on the hood of the burgundy station wagon and listening to this song while watching the Eastern horizon growing into a blue dome in advance of the sunrise, the smell of regurgitated Rockaberry wine cooler wafting past.

Good times...
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Happy Birthday Tracy Chapman

Partly because of the songs she sings (issue-oriented) and the style in which she sings them (folky) - but mainly because she hasn't emerged from some music industry cookie cutter, instead earning her cred performing on the coffee-house circuit of Cambridge, Massachusetts, while attending Tufts University - Tracy Chapman was never going to have one of those Top 40 careers; still, to those who admire her work (like the Pop Culture Institute) her every smoky utterance is a welcome dose of content in an increasingly content-free world.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1964, Tracy Chapman's first big media exposure was her performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988, following which her first single Fast Car - from her debut album, Tracy Chapman (1988) - drove straight to the top of the charts and parked there; Give Me One Reason, from her fourth release New Beginning (1995), was a bonafide smash, and remains her biggest single to date in terms of sales. Since then she has remained consistent, retaining her cadre of loyal fans by writing thoughtful lyrics and elegant melodies well-played and beautifully sung.

Eight albums and twenty years later, Tracy Chapman still tours extensively, rarely gives interviews - the one at left, for Rolling Stone, being a remarkable exception - and continues to work on behalf of causes dear to her, namely AIDS and human rights; in 2006 Chapman was outed by novelist Alice Walker, who discussed Chapman's relationship with Walker's daughter in The Guardian.

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POPnews - March 30th

[Russia's sale of Alaska to the United States was accompanied by this cheque for $7.2 million, the equivalent of $104 million in today's money; it is said the sale went ahead because Russia feared losing the territory without compensation, either to the Americans or the British, who were then pretty firmly entrenched in Canada.]

1282 - On Easter Monday the people of Sicily had finally had enough, and undertook a popular rebellion against their hated Angevin king Charles I during what became known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers; Giuseppe Verdi's opera Les vêpres siciliennes would later be based on this conflict.

1296 - England's King Edward I sacked the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed (now in Northumberland but then in Scotland) during his strenuous effort to subdue that country; in all some 8,000 residents fell beneath English swords - even those who had sheltered in churches - laying the groundwork for the First War of Scottish Independence.

1822 - The US Government created the Florida Territory.

1842 - Anesthesia was used for the first time in an operation when Dr. Crawford Long used diethyl ether while removing a tumour from the neck of James M. Venable in Jefferson, Georgia.

1855 - So-called Border Ruffians from Missouri invaded Kansas and forced the election of a pro-slavery legislature during the Bleeding Kansas era which led directly to the American Civil War.

1856 - The Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Crimean War.

1858 - Hymen Lipman patented a pencil with an attached eraser.

1863 - Danish prince Wilhelm Georg was chosen to serve as King George I of Greece.

1867 - Alaska was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million - about 2 cents an acre or $4.19/km² - by US Secretary of State William H. Seward; the news media instantly dubbed it Seward's Folly, but history would make them eat their words. There's thought to be some $450 billion in oil still to be found beneath its surface, in addition to a rich natural wilderness above it, although how much of the latter will be spared in the unremitting zeal to get at the former is anybody's guess.

1870 - Texas was readmitted to the Union during the period of US history known as Reconstruction.

1885 - The Battle for Kushka triggered the Pandjeh Incident which nearly gave rise to war between the British and Russian empires.

1909 - The Queensboro Bridge opened linking Manhattan and Queens.

1912 - Sultan Abdelhafid signed the Treaty of Fez, making Morocco a French protectorate.

1939 - The Heinkel He 100 fighter jet set the world airspeed record of 463 mph.

1949 - A riot broke out in Reykjavík's Austurvöllur Square when Iceland joined NATO.

1954 - Toronto's Yonge Street subway line opened, making it the first of its kind in Canada.

1979 - British politician Airey Neave was killed by a car bomb as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park; a group calling itself the Irish National Liberation Army later claimed responsibility. As Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland (and poised to become the minister in that post in the upcoming general election) Neave was an unremitting hardliner who many felt would have brought The Troubles to an abrupt end with savage tyranny - or, more likely, made the situation much, much worse.

1997 - Channel Five began broadcasting in the UK.

2006 - Marcos Pontes became the first Brazilian astronaut.
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Monday, March 29, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Shooting of Spain's Infante Alfonso

[This photograph shows the Countess of Barcelona with her four children - from left Infanta Pilar, Duchess of Badajoz, Infanta Margarita, Duchess of Soria, the ill-fated Infante Alfonso seated on her lap, and the future King Juan Carlos I beside her - at some point in the late 1940s. ]

On this day in 1956 Spain's then-exiled House of Bourbon was rocked by tragedy when the second son and fourth child of the Count and Countess of Barcelona - the 14-year-old Infante Alfonso - was killed by a gunshot wound to the head... At the time of the accident the royal family were on holiday at their home, Villa Giralda in the Portugese resort of Estoril, and had just returned from Maundy Thursday church service; His Royal Highness had earlier in the day won a junior golf tournament, and was excited to see his elder brother, who was home from military school for an Easter visit.

As with any accident of this type, rumours and conjecture have run rife over the years; the official story, predictably, failed utterly in satisfying the chattering classes. One thing the various versions do have in common, however, is that the prince's death was clearly an accident. Whether he shot himself while cleaning a pistol or whether his older brother did it either in an act of horseplay (believing the weapon to be unloaded*) or because he was startled or bumped by an opening door and whether the bullet struck the prince directly or following a ricochet scarcely matters at this point. The princes had been exceptionally close as children, during their shared exile, and the elder has been said to have never quite gotten over the loss of his brother.

Despite the fact that the news got very little coverage in Spain under the regime of Francisco Franco, many hundreds of royalist Spaniards braved crossing the border to bring Spanish soil with which to cover Prince Alfonso's coffin lid when he was buried the following Saturday, Holy Saturday, in the nearby municipal cemetery in Cascais. In October 1992 his remains were re-interred at the Pantheon of the Princes of El Escorial, near Madrid, where they lie to this day surrounded by those of his illustrious ancestors.

*A highly unlikely scenario, given the royal brothers' training in marksmanship and acuity with firearms.
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Standup by Mitch Hedberg

I could write at length about the unique comedy stylings of the late Mitch Hedberg, who died on this day in 2005; I could even quote him extensively if I was up for the thrill ride (and publicity bonanza) of a lawsuit by his estate... Or, I could simply post a clip of him doing what he does best and shut my mouth for once.

Here then is one of Hedberg's last television appearances, on The Late Show with David Letterman.
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Remembering... Mitch Hedberg


On this day in 2005 the world of comedy lost one of its best and brightest; born with a congenital heart defect - as well as being a recreational drug user - a New Jersey coroner nevertheless ruled his cause of death as being due to 'multiple drug toxicity'. It seems unlikely his death was a suicide, and indeed his condition may have been exacerbated by his habit one time too many.

Hedberg's standup was different from the rest, mainly due to its having been performed despite crippling stage fright. He often wore sunglasses onstage, and even then refrained from looking at the audience as he bombarded them with some of the most whimsical material out there - a cross between Steven Wright and Emo Philips. His act was also considerably more self-aware than usual; when a joke bombed he would acknowledge it, and rather than skating over an instance of bad delivery or timing, he'd make a joke of it instead, and repeat it until it got the desired effect. Overall, the effect of Mitch Hedberg's persona was lovability, and indeed he is fondly remembered by colleagues such as Dave Attell.

Hedberg is survived by his fellow comedian Lynn Shawcroft, whom he married in February 1999; his website remains active as a tribute to him. At the time of his death Hedberg was 37.
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Happy Birthday Amy Sedaris

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That anyone could take this lovely visage and bury it under the slag heap of Jerri Blank during three seasons of Strangers with Candy on Comedy Central (plus in a feature film) strikes my shallow heart as simultaneously brave and cruel; nonetheless, her refreshing lack of ego means she will remain lovely while her contemporaries manage to worry their looks away fretting over how they'll keep them.

Currently living in Greenwich Village with the ghost of her murdered imaginary boyfriend Ricky and a pet rabbit, Sedaris (sister of humourist and fellow Pop Culture Institute favourite David Sedaris) is also the author of I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence as well as the co-author of numerous plays; she's also a fixture on the talk-show circuit, her subversively bubbly demeanour frequently livening up the proceedings at Late Show with David Letterman or merely adding her own personal nuance to the anarchy at Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

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"Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" by Eric Idle

Birthday wishes go out today to Eric Idle, founding member of Monty Python, singer-songwriter and all around douchebag - er, good egg. That's what I meant to say, obviously.

Having been firmly grounded in comedy by his experience at public school, Idle earned himself a seat in Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, a rich font of comedic talent that is also known for occasionally producing academics as well; invited to join the Footlights Club, there he met such comedy lights (and future collaborators) as Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman, and John Cleese. Before his time there was up, Idle had been made President of the Footlights Club, an honour so prestigious it has been sought by literally no one, and was subsequently held by such no ones as Clive Anderson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, and David Mitchell (all of whom you'd know about if you regularly perused the Pop Culture Institute).

Released from the grind of an English degree, Idle made his way to London where in no time he was appearing in a subversive children's programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, alongside future Python costars Terry Jones and Michael Palin, who were also funny, despite having gone to Oxford. There he also met Terry Gilliam - who was, of all things, an American - who'd provided bizarre animations for both the previous and future shows.

Following the success of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Idle threw himself into the creation of Rutland Weekend Television, film projects such as All You Need Is Cash (a sentimental look at a fictional band called The Rutles) as well as various Python movies - only the latter of which has anything to do with the matter at hand, namely Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a spritely ditty from the utterly blasphemous (although equally spritely) film Life of Brian.

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Pop History Moment: "Some Like It Hot" Premieres

On this day in 1959 the movie Some Like It Hot had its world premiere in Hollywood; directed by Billy Wilder and starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe, it was hailed as a classic from the start. Just for good measure, the Catholic Legion of Decency slapped it with a C (for 'Condemned') rating, ensuring massive attendance.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOriginally intended as a colour film (which Monroe would have preferred) it was later decided to film it in black & white to conceal a greenish pallor from the makeup worn by the male leads. The result is a visual splendour to match the utter verve of the script and the amazing onscreen chemistry of the actors.

During its production stories about onset antics filled the celebrity press, not all of them positive; as good as Marilyn was when she was good, when she was bad she was worse, and Wilder apparently had to harangue her into take after take to say the simplest line: 'Bourbon?'. On the positive side, a location shoot at the Hotel Del Coronado generated a huge amount of buzz for the movie.

Good gossip or bad, none of that mattered as the film unspooled that night, and a captivated audience became the first in history to witness what, in 2000, the American Film Institute named the greatest American comedy film of all time.
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POPnews - March 29th

[Located in the town of Mariefred beside Lake Mälaren 60 km (37.5 miles) west of Stockholm, Gripsholm Castle has the kind of long and storied history one might expect from such a place... Originally built by Bo Jonsson in 1380, the fortress was seized and then rebuilt by Gustav I (known as Gustav Vasa) in 1526; used as a residence by the Swedish Royal Family until 1731, Gripsholm was controversially renovated by Fredrik Lilljekvist between 1889 and 1894, although in the end his renovations weren't as extreme as planned. Today it houses Sweden's National Collection of Portraits (Statens porträttsamlingar), thought to be the oldest portrait collection in the world.]

1461 - At the Battle of Towton - during England's Wars of the Roses - Edward of York defeated the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou (wife of Henry VI) to become King Edward IV.

1632 - The Treaty of Saint-Germain was signed, returning Quebec to French control after the English had seized it in 1629.

1638 - Swedish colonists established the first settlement in Delaware, calling it New Sweden; they then proceeded to build Fort Christina (named for Queen Christina) where today the city of Wilmington stands.

1792 - King Gustav III of Sweden died after being shot in the back at a midnight masquerade at Stockholm's Royal Opera just 13 days earlier; he was succeeded by Gustav IV Adolf.

1806 - Construction of the Great National Pike, better known as the Cumberland Road, was authorized by President Thomas Jefferson; it would become the first federal highway in the United States.

1809 - King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden abdicated following a coup d'état by his military officers, who seized him and his family and imprisoned them in Gripsholm Castle; he was eventually succeeded by his uncle Charles XIII.

1847 - During the Mexican-American War US forces led by General Winfield Scott took the city of Veracruz following a siege.

1867 - Queen Victoria gave Royal Assent to the British North America Act, which would establish the Dominion of Canada the following July 1st.

1871 - The Royal Albert Hall was opened by Queen Victoria.

1879 - During the Anglo-Zulu War British forces led by Evelyn Wood defeated 20,000 Zulus under Ntshingwayo Khoza at the Battle of Kambula.

1882 - The Knights of Columbus were established.

1930 - Heinrich Brüning was appointed Germany's Reichskanzler.

1951 - Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage by Judge Irving Kaufman; the prosecutor in the case had been the notorious Roy Cohn.

1961 - The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, allowing residents of Washington, DC, to vote in presidential elections.

1971 - A Los Angeles jury recommended the death penalty for Charles Manson and three female followers - Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten - for their role in 1969's Tate-LaBianca murders.

1974 - NASA's Mariner 10 became the first space probe to fly past Mercury, having been launched in November 1973.

1981 - The first London Marathon was run, in which 6,700 participants turned out to brave the drizzle along a 41.84 km (26 mile) route from Blackheath in Greenwich to Buckingham Palace in The Mall; because it begins on one side of the Prime Meridian and ends on the other, it is the only marathon in the world to take place in two hemispheres.

1982 - The Canada Act 1982 (U.K.) received Royal Assent from Elizabeth II, setting the stage for her in her role as the Queen of Canada to proclaim the Constitution Act, 1982.

1993 - Catherine Callbeck became premier of Prince Edward Island, the first and so far only woman in Canadian history to be elected to such a post in a general election.
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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Remembering... Dwight D. Eisenhower

I've published this before, and no doubt I'll publish it again, simply because it needs to be said again and again: the military-industrial complex (a phrase first coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) is the only real menace to the progress of peace - having, as it does, a vested interest in seeing that the copious quantities of ordnance and materiel it produces is occasionally destroyed and replaced with more of the same (or preferably more of a slightly better kind) in the name of consumerist fascism.

On this day in 1969 the man who first warned Americans about the military-industrial complex, the 34th President of the United States, passed away at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, at the age of 78; upon leaving office in January 1960 Eisenhower made the speech from which the above clip is derived. It was undoubtedly the high point of a decidedly mixed legacy.

While on the one hand a career military man - at one point the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II - it was on his Presidential watch that the ill-considered police action known popularly as the Korean War was ended. A supporter of human rights and instrumental in beginning the process of integrating black and white students in schools across the Nation, he was also behind implementation of In God We Trust as the national motto of the United States in 1956 over the more inclusive E Pluribus Unum.

This single act as President not only breached the sacred separation of Church and State so favoured by the Founders of his nation - a concept which allowed the land of the free and the home of the brave to become just that - but it likely marked the beginning of the end for the American Empire as well. Nothing has caused so much bigotry in the United States over the past half century as Christianity, and people like Matthew Shepard and Lawrence King owe their eventual fates to the hatred inherent in those four vicious little words.
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Pop History Moment: Three Mile Island Melts Down


On this day in 1979, a pump in the reactor cooling system at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island failed, resulting in the evaporation of some contaminated water into the atmosphere and causing a partial nuclear meltdown in the facility's Unit 2, which has been shut down ever since.

Immediate reaction to the accident was hysterical, likely because it had been perfectly timed to coincide with the release of The China Syndrome just twelve days earlier, in which a far worse accident occurred at the fictional Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in California (itself based on both the Santa Susana Field Laboratory - which had melted down in July 1959 - and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, both in that state).

The film starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas; following the real-life events near Harrisburg only Jane Fonda became politically active against nuclear power. Still, her agitiating may have had some effect - either that or she timed her activism to coincide perfectly with pre-existing government plans - because there has been no subsequent expansion of nuclear power capabilities in the United States (except in Springfield). Producers of The China Syndrome, unwilling to be seen as capitalizing on the accident, pulled the movie from certain theatres in the area; nonetheless, the movie's timeliness - not to mention its solid acting and story elements - made the film a blockbuster at the box office, earning it 4 Academy Award nominations in the process.

Unlike the far worse events at Chernobyl in April 1986, the 25,000 people living in the vicinity of Three Mile Island have reported no elevated incidence of diseases like cancer in the three decades since the accident, although stress-related illnesses haven't been factored in; physicist Edward Teller claimed to have been the only victim of Three Mile Island when he suffered a heart attack the following May. 'You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous,' he said, in a pro-nuclear ad placed in the Wall Street Journal.

More hysterical reaction followed, this time in the form of laughter; in April 1979 Saturday Night Live aired a sketch entitled The Pepsi Syndrome in which President Jimmy Carter (played by Dan Aykroyd) was adversely (or not, depending on your outlook) affected by radiation while touring the accident site at 'Two Mile Island'; that accident had been caused by a technician (played by Bill Murray) carelessly spilled a cola onto his control panel, after which he opined: 'I coulda had a V8!'
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