Friday, December 31, 2010

"On The Radio" by Donna Summer

Whether or not Donna Summer - born on this day in 1948 - ever said AIDS was a punishment from God* in the early Eighties, the damage to her once-stellar career was done. Her core fan base gone, the string of hits that made her the undisputed Queen of Disco evaporated almost as quickly as disco did; only the rock-flavoured She Works Hard for the Money managed to climb the charts in 1983 before she appeared to be washed up.

Nevertheless, at her peak she could do no wrong; Love to Love You Baby (1975), I Feel Love (1977), Last Dance and MacArthur Park (1978), Hot Stuff and Bad Girls (1979), and On the Radio (1980) are among the dozens of singles she released which form the greater part of the era's soundtrack.

In 1989 she returned to dance floor dominance - even in gay clubs - with This Time I Know It's For Real, from the album Another Place and Time, and in 2004 she was among the first inductees in the Dance Music Hall of Fame.

*And there are those who weren't even there who'll insist she did, even though she has been vehemently denying she said it ever since she is alleged to have said it. For the record, the Pop Culture Institute is willing to believe her version of events.

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Happy Birthday Bebe Neuwirth

PhotobucketAlthough for many of us, our first encounter with Bebe Neuwirth came when she portrayed Lilith Sternin, the romantic foil to Frasier Crane on Cheers - for which she earned Emmy Awards in 1990 and 1991 - she was a respected member of the Broadway community first, having made her stage debut in 1980 as Sheila in A Chorus Line; she's also appeared in such movies as Say Anything (1989), Green Card (1990), and Bugsy (1991).

However, I could listen to her performance of Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival of Chicago all day long - I know because I often have.

A graduate of Juilliard, Neuwirth was honoured with a Tony Award for her role in Chicago, as well as for her performance in the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity; she was also hailed in the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees and most recently became the latest in a string of actresses to portray Morticia Addams in the Broadway version of The Addams Family opposite Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams.

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POPnews - December 31st

[Except for New Year's Eve 1962, during which heavy snow caused the pendulum to detach and forced it to ring ten minutes late, and New Year's Eve 1976, which was interrupted due to major damage to the clock mechanism earlier that year, Big Ben has rung in the new year in the British capital every year since it was first built in 1859.]

1229 - An army commanded by Aragon's King James I - who was known as 'the Conqueror ' - entered Medina Mayurqa (which he promptly renamed Palma) thus completing the Christian reconquest of the island of Majorca.

1600 - The British East India Company was chartered by England's Queen Elizabeth I.

1687 - The first Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in France, set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.

- Gramercy Park was deeded to New York City by Samuel B. Ruggles; the oldest private park in the United States, it's gated, and local residents are able to buy keys.

1857 - Queen Victoria chose Ottawa for Canada's capital over the likes of Toronto and Montreal, both of which have been over-compensating for it ever since.

1862 - The USS Monitor sank off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras.

1879 - Thomas Edison demonstrated incandescent lighting to the public for the first time, at Menlo Park.

1904 - The first New Year's Eve celebration was held in Manhattan's Times Square, then still known as Longacre Square.

1909 - The Manhattan Bridge opened.

1923 - The chimes of Big Ben were broadcast on BBC radio for the first time to mark the arrival of the New Year.

1929 - Guy Lombardo performed Auld Lang Syne at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City for the first time; coming as it did just two months after the Wall Street crashed must have given it the utmost poignance.

1960 - The farthing coin ceased to be legal tender in the United Kingdom.

1963 - The Central African Federation officially collapsed, splitting into Zambia, Malawi and Rhodesia.

1981 - A coup d'état in Ghana removed President Hilla Limann's PNP government and replaced it with the Provisional National Defence Council led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings.

1986 - A fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, killed 97 and injured 140.

1987 - Robert Mugabe assumed office as President of Zimbabwe; he clings to power still, but for how long...

1992 - Czechoslovakia was dissolved, resulting in the creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

1999 - Boris Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia, leaving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in charge.

2007 - Boston's massive Big Dig construction project ended.
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Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Hold On Tight" by Electric Light Orchestra

Birthday wishes go out today to Jeff Lynne, founding member and principal songwriter for the Electric Light Orchestra, who are also known as ELO; Lynne's career also incorporates the Eighties super-group Traveling Wilburys, to which end he recorded two albums with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan.

Hold on Tight originally appeared on the band's 1981 concept album Time. I choose to post it here because of its obvious New Year's overtones; having completed another year of striving on behalf of the Pop Culture Institute, another year of coming into my own, and of having to hold on tight as things are finally starting to take off...

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Pop History Moment: The Fall Of A Tyrant

I have to admit, I never thought they'd do it...

PhotobucketI never thought anyone would have the guts to actually execute Saddam Hussein; I figured they'd just drag it out until he died in custody, Milosevic-style. When I awoke to the news of it on this day in 2006 I went back to sleep, only to dream that he'd then been reanimated and was on the loose inside the Green Zone, until Dick Cheney started shooting at him and he turned into a giant Zombie pinata.

This is what happens when you eat Slim Jims before bed, kids. Especially when high.

A n y w a y...

Maybe it was naive of me to think that the respect for human life so amply demonstrated by the US and Iraqi governments over the years would apply to even the greatest of villains; in fact, I know it was naive of me to think that, stupid even - albeit hilarious - which is probably why I did it in the first place.

Still, I was shocked - shocked! - when I heard that he'd been hanged, at Camp Justice. It was only a matter of time (in fact it was in the very same news cycle) that bootlegged footage of the execution itself, botches and all, had been released. Ironically, for as high as he'd gotten, it was an all-too-short fall that provided better justice for Saddam Hussein than he had ever shown his people.

All in all, it made for a real yikes of a day...
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"Runaway" by Del Shannon

Vintage footage of birthday boy Del Shannon here, performing his smash hit Runaway circa 1961, which features the first sustained synthesizer solo, in this instance provided by the Clavioline. The song's success would not only electrify audiences, but its electrification would change the sound of pop music forever...
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POPnews - December 30th

[Back in the olden days robber barons capitalists like James
Gadsden used their influence within the federal government
to line their own pockets... Thank goodness that kind
of corruption doesn't occur anymore!

1066 - A Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada, crucifying the city's Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacring most of the Jewish population of the city in what came to be known as the Granada Massacre.

1460 - During the so-called Wars of the Roses the Battle of Wakefield pitted the House of Lancaster's Margaret of Anjou against Richard, Duke of York - aptly enough of the House of York.

1853 - The US paid Mexico $10 million for the Gadsden Purchase, which works out to about 53 cents an acre for a parcel of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico which would become the final addition made to the lower 48; it was bought at the behest of James Gadsden, who negotiated the deal, then used the land to complete his transcontinental railroad.

1896 - José Rizal was executed by firing squad in Manila; widely considered a martyr of the Philippine Revolution, his death is currently celebrated as a holiday in the Philippines.

1903 - A fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago killed 600 just 37 days after it opened; the club's promotional advertising had promised it was 'absolutely fireproof'.

1905 - Former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg was assassinated near his home in Caldwell, possibly by Canadian-born labour leader Harry Orchard.

1916 - The last coronation in Hungary was performed for King Charles IV and Queen Zita.

1922 - The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed.

1927 - The Ginza Line, Asia's first subway, opened in Tokyo.

1943 - Subhash Chandra Bose raised the flag of Indian independence at Port Blair, apparently.

1947 - King Michael of Romania was forced to abdicate by his new Soviet-backed Communist government; it was revealed 60 years later that His Majesty was told if he didn't 1,000 students would be executed, so he did.

1948 - Cole Porter's Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate - based on William Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew - opened at the New Century Theatre; originally starring Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, it ran for 1,077 performances, as well as becoming the first show to win the Best Musical Tony Award.

1965 - Ferdinand Marcos became President of the Philippines.

1977 - Ted Bundy escaped from his cell in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; it was a clean getaway, as his captors didn't notice he was missing for 17 hours. While eluding capture in Florida Bundy managed to kill Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman (as well as sexually assaulting Levy) and severely injure Karen Chandler and Kathy Kleiner, all Chi Omega sorority sisters. He also crippled Cheryl Thomas before abducting, raping, and murdering Kimberly Leach, before he was recaptured, accidentally, by Pensacola police officer David Lee in February 1978.

1986 - A bus chartered by the Swift Current Broncos - a junior team in the Western Hockey League - crashed during bad weather outside of their hometown, killing 4 players and injuring 1. At the time of the crash the team was on its way to play a game in Regina, where I was living at the time, against the Regina Pats. Among the players who survived the crash was Joe Sakic, the future Hall-of-Famer who currently plays with the Colorado Avalanche.

1994 - John Salvi murdered Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney during shootings at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts; despite being sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences for his crimes, these convictions were overturned by the sentencing judge - Barbara Dortch-Okara - following Salvi's November 2006 jailhouse suicide, invoking the legal principle that a conviction may not stand if the accused dies before his appeals are exhausted.

1995 - The lowest temperature ever recorded in the UK was recorded in Scotland; no surprise there. A bone-chilling -27.2°C was recorded at Altnaharra in the Scottish Highlands. This equalled the record set at Braemar, in Aberdeenshire, in February 1895 and January 1982.

2004 - A fire in the República Cromagnon nightclub in Buenos Aires killed 194.

2006 - 2 people were killed and 26 injured when Madrid's Barajas International Airport was bombed; the separatist organization ETA later claimed responsibility.
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Love Is All Around" by Sonny Curtis

The theme tune for The Mary Tyler Moore Show - entitled Love Is All Around - is probably the most famous song Sonny Curtis ever wrote; I say probably not merely out of my predisposition for using weasel words but because armed only with my puny human brain I can't possibly gauge the fame such songs as Walk Right Back (made famous by the Everly Brothers) let alone I Fought the Law (covered by everyone from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to The Clash) might have attained.

Anyway, I've posted it here in honour of the woman it was written to celebrate, namely Mary Tyler Moore, whose portrayal of Mary Richards made her the first feminist sitcomedienne, and who today turns 74.

If you're up to it, may we suggest tossing a woolen hat in the air to celebrate.
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Happy Birthday Mary Tyler Moore

She can turn the world on with her smile, something that's been in evidence since well before Sonny Curtis wrote the words to Love Is All Around, which was used to introduce Mary Tyler Moore to TV audiences most Saturday nights from 1970 to 1977...

PhotobucketInitially a dancer, in 1961 she was cast (from a field of 60) as Laurie Petrie in the classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, where her pert personality (and even perkier ass) set a new standard for TV wives; playing a young married couple, she and Dick Van Dyke had some serious carnality in their chemistry.

When that show went off the air in 1966, Moore made a few movies and did some theatre - including a turn as Holly Golightly in a notorious 1966 flop musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's on Broadway, and the truly bizarre film Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) - while waiting for the perfect vehicle to bring her back to television; she found it in 1970.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
touched a nerve in American life, giving the nascent Women's Movement a telegenic and well-loved proponent, as well as blending the two halves of the sitcom (domestic and workplace) even more handily than had her previous gig. It also spawned a number of spin-offs, such as Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant, as well as featuring the abundant comedic talents of Edward Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, and Georgia Engel.

Since that show ended in 1977, Moore has made an Oscar-nominated appearance in Ordinary People (1980) and was memorable in David O. Russell's 1996 film Flirting with Disaster, a movie so good even Patricia Arquette and her dead eyes couldn't ruin it.

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Paul Rudnick: When It's Laughter You're After...

PhotobucketAlthough I didn't know it at the time, I was a fan of Paul Rudnick's long before I'd ever heard his name...

As Libby Gelman-Waxner, Rudnick has been reviewing movies for Premiere magazine since God was in short pants, or so it seems anyway. Rudnick/Waxner's take on the modern cinema is so incisive, I have no idea why all the other critics haven't long ago packed it all in; 61 of their finest collaborations are collected in If You Ask Me: The Collected Columns of America's Most Beloved and Irresponsible Critic.

Born in Piscataway Township, New Jersey, this multi-talented writer and humourist is responsible for the novels Social Disease (1986) and I'll Take It (1989), as well as the plays I Hate Hamlet (1991) and Jeffrey (1993); he's also written the screenplays for Addams Family Values (1993), Jeffrey (1995), In & Out (1997), Isn't She Great? (2000), Marci X (2003), and The Stepford Wives (2004).

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"Rasputin" by Boney M

From their 1978 album Nightflight to Venus, it's Boney M's classic song Rasputin.

Because how could I not post this today?
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The Death of Rasputin

If all you knew about the life of Grigori Rasputin was that he had spooky eyes and held the Russian Royal Family in a kind of a thrall - and even that you learned from the 1978 song about him by Boney M - that would be all you needed to know. The details of his life, influence, and especially death have all been muddied to the extent that sorting the truth out of the lies may well be impossible at this late date...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhile initially engaged by the Tsaritsa Alexandra to heal her ailing, hemophiliac son, the Tsarevich Alexei, he soon came under the scrutiny of the court for his profligate ways, some or even all of which rumours may have been slanderous. After a dozen years as confidante to Tsar Nicholas II and his family, other nobles at court had had enough, especially one Prince Felix Yusupov (who presumably was jealous that the Romanovs were lavishing so much attention on a peasant).

Luring Rasputin to Yusupov's Moika Palace near Saint Petersburg on this day in 1916, they plied him with wine and cakes laced with 'enough cyanide to kill five men' by Vasily Maklakov, to no effect. Yusupov then got a gun and shot Rasputin in the back; when even this didn't kill the monk he got his friend (and, some say, lover) Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich to handcuff Rasputin and throw him into the icy Neva River, which seems to have done the trick.

Of course, Yusupov's subsequent versions of these events varied to the extent that no two accounts match, which makes him an unreliable source at worst, and a talented fabulist at best; a 2004 autopsy of Rasputin located no active poison in his stomach, nor any water in his lungs. He'd obviously been stabbed, shot, and assaulted, but even this evidence contradicts reports given by Yusupov in 1916, 1917, 1927, 1934, and 1965.

All in all it was the perfect crime; despite numerous admissions that he had shot and killed Rasputin, Prince Felix Yusupov was never charged with any wrongdoing in connection with his death.
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Pop History Moment: Murder In The Cathedral


Kings, as people, are used to getting what they want, especially the medieval ones; feeling themselves imbued with the blood royal, stalking the Earth as God's representative, it's easy to see how someone could develop a really severe entitlement complex. Provided the King in question was reasonably diplomatic, and his courtiers suitably acquiescent, everybody could get what they want and no one would get hurt. Alas, this sort of thing almost never happened.

Would that Henry II were one particle as diplomatic as his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket; not that for all his reputation as a holy man, Becket wasn't as capable of towering arrogance and even bluff cruelty as his Lord and Master. It's just that Henry was a general first, and was used to either getting what he wanted or else killing whomever he had to to get it, and then taking it.

One day the King had had enough of Becket's intransigence and, raising his feverish head, from his sickbed called out: 'Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest?' Not specifically an order, but for four of his knights - Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton - already attuned to doing the King's will, it was enough.

Away they went to Canterbury, where they found the priest at prayer amid some monks, and brutally slew him, on this day in 1170; by all accounts, Becket faced his murderers calmly. A clerk named Edward Grim was visiting Canterbury Cathedral at the time, and was slightly wounded in trying to save Becket's life; he later wrote a biography of the slain cleric, including a firsthand account of his murder.

The site of Becket's murder quickly became a shrine for pilgrims; Henry II himself was one of the earliest penitents, which may have set the trend, visiting first as he did in the midst of the Revolt of 1173–1174. Over the next two centuries untold numbers followed in his footsteps; Geoffrey Chaucer's book The Canterbury Tales was the earliest account of this activity, written two centuries hence. Becket's quickly became the richest shrine in England, until it was broken up in 1538 and seized for the treasury of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

In fact the later Henry's struggles with the Pope over matters of spiritual and temporal authority, which bore fruit upon the creation of the Church of England, may have done so from seeds sown by his ancestor on this day.

Becket's life and death have also been adapted for the stage by T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, Jean Anouilh's play Becket (both later made into films) and in print by Ken Follett's historical novel The Pillars of the Earth.

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"Broken English" by Marianne Faithfull

Birthday wishes go out to the grandmother of all show business survivors, Marianne Faithfull...

Her relationship with Mick Jagger in the Sixties, when they were the golden couple, should have done her in; it didn't, and she went on to record this, without question her biggest single. From her 1979 album Broken English, it's the title track.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Birthdame!

For me, at least, nothing clears up a case of the blues like watching Maggie Smith...

PhotobucketWhether portraying the scheming Duchess of York in Richard III (1995), Gunilla Garson Goldberg - the snob with a heart of gold - in The First Wives Club (1996), the bitchy Lady Hester Random in Tea With Mussolini (1999), or the acidulous Countess of Trentham in Robert Altman's brilliant Gosford Park (2001), she may prefer to call the characters she plays 'grotesques' but to me they're just what the doctor ordered, as long as what the doctor ordered is a bit of a laugh to forget all about - as the kids say - yo' shit.

For nearly fifty years, Maggie Smith's appearance in a film has been a guarantee that an enjoyable performance is on its way; she can even deliver a badly written line well (which skill I was grateful for about ten minutes into Sister Act 2, believe me). In addition to those previously mentioned, her resume contains several notable highlights, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Travels With My Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile and California Suite (1981), Clash of the Titans (1981), A Room with a View (1985), Sister Act (1992), Keeping Mum (2005), and Becoming Jane (2007) among dozens of others.

And let's not forget her sterling performance as Minerva McGonagall...
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Monday, December 27, 2010

"I Couldn't Be Annoyed" by Marlene Dietrich

Drawn from the same movie, Blonde Venus (1932), as yesterday's Hot Voodoo - only way less old-fashioned, attitudinally speaking - it's I Couldn't Be Annoyed; I couldn't post that film's third musical number, a jaunty little ditty called You Little So-and-So, since it doesn't appear anywhere on YouTube, about which I definitely could be annoyed. That is, if I didn't already own the DVD.

As shocking as Marlene Dietrich's appearance in a tuxedo was here - and it was shocking - it wasn't the first time she'd sashayed across the stage in male apparel; she'd originally committed this naughty bit of cross-dressing in Morocco (1930), only in that one a) it was an actual man's black tux, rather than a sparkly white woman's one, and b) while in it she planted a kiss on another lady!
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Remembering... Marlene Dietrich

PhotobucketMarlene Dietrich the icon was created entirely out of the whole cloth of herself, an amazing transformation that went way beyond the tweezing of a few eyebrows and a liberal application of peroxide. From a mousy frump who both sang and spoke with a squeak emanated a sylph-like temptress with a voice like wood smoke; that the transformation should have occurred on film is just one of the miracles of the modern age.

By the time the film The Blue Angel was being shot at UFA in 1930, she was already being molded by the legendary Josef von Sternberg; by the time of her appearance later that year in Morocco the American Dietrich was complete.

Born on this day in 1902, Dietrich contrasted a worldly persona onscreen with a more homely one in real life; the reality was somewhere between the two.

Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary Marlene captured her, cranky and embittered, toward the end of her life (she died in May 1992); for a bit of contrast, may the Pop Culture Institute recommend The Glamour Collection, 5 movies from the era 1930-1947 (Morocco / Blonde Venus / The Devil is a Woman / The Flame of New Orleans / Golden Earrings) which showcase her at the other end of her life, before the awful toll her celluloid transformation had taken on her psyche began to show.

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Happy Birthday Sarah Vowell

Like many mid-career authors of popular history, what Sarah Vowell really wanted to do was be a cartoon character; appearing as Violet in The Incredibles made that dream a reality, and hopefully introduced her (and her work) to a whole new audience in more ways than one...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1969 (alongside a fraternal twin sister named Amy) Vowell moved from Oklahoma to Montana to Chicago in pursuit of her education, and now resides in Manhattan, where she is a sought-after author and commentator on shows like This American Life on Public Radio International, as well as a popular guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as more serious fare such as Nightline.

Her most recent books - 2002's The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Assassination Vacation (2005), and The Wordy Shipmates from 2008 - look at history from a personal angle, often in the form of travelogues.
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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bonus Video: "Hot Voodoo" by Marlene Dietrich

It's completely wrong, but somehow wrong in all the right ways...

So as to cleanse my palate from the previous upheaval of earnestitude over the death of Dian Fossey - which occurred on this day in 1985 - here's a wickedly un-PC clip from the 1932 film Blonde Venus, featuring the ample talents of one Marlene Dietrich; her suave onlooker is Cary Grant.
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Pop History Moment: The Poaching of Dian Fossey


The received wisdom concerning the death of Dian Fossey is that she was killed by poachers; certainly, her fatal blow was struck with a panga, a poacher's weapon if ever there was one. Only here's where the story gets twisty; the panga that split her skull open was her own, confiscated from a poacher years earlier and kept as a trophy. Ironically, she was known to carry it with her as protection.

While the brutality of her death betokened the work of those soulless killers who hunt not for survival but for greed, she was found indoors; poachers would have killed her outside, likely in the same way they'd have killed one of her gorillas, given half a chance. Yet, despite a massive head wound, there was little blood on the premises, which could mean she'd been killed outdoors and bled off via natural processes during transport; something else poachers wouldn't be likely to do - they'd have just left her in the jungle. And even though her cabin was ransacked nothing had been stolen, not even the thousands of dollars in cash she kept.

Yet another faction believes it was proponents of eco-tourism - who saw Fossey's opposition to their goldmine and her increasingly persuasive reputation in the halls of power around the world as serious impediments to their future wealth - who killed her and then made a rather feeble attempt at framing poachers for it; this is the view of the naturalist Farley Mowat, who wrote the book Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey about her life and death.

Or maybe there was some collusion between the two; the point is, we may never know.

All we know for sure is that on this day in 1985 the gorillas of Rwanda lost their finest advocate, a passionate woman of principle whose zeal for habitat preservation was just beginning to win converts from those who had previously supported a conservation model based on game preserves and zoos, which she considered barbaric.

Many of Fossey's students at the Karisoke Research Center - which she founded in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda in 1967 - favoured eco-tourism for its lucrativity, seemingly unconcerned by the deaths of those gorillas who perished from diseases brought in by said tourists.* Fossey's desire, on the other hand, was to preserve wild places where wild animals could remain wild, a noble cause if ever there was one; certainly, the gorillas at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, for all that I love to look at them there, look amongst themselves like they'd rather be anywhere else.

Fossey was famously portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist (based on Fossey's own book, published in 1983.) Weaver's portrayal, naturally, is a heroic one; it amply depicts what Fossey's detractors have called her 'obsessiveness', reframing it as 'fervour'. Since in Fossey's mind no one else was looking out for the gorillas, she decided to do it herself; 'my gorillas' she called them, and she wasn't wrong. If anyone had the right to make such a claim it was the woman who gave both her life and her death to save them.

[* What kind of business plan is that? What could be more exploitative than taking the maximum profit on a minimal investment, before the venture itself is guilty of killing off the chief asset? Not only dangerously short-sighted but a recipe for certain extinction. Gawd, the greed on some people... ~ MSM]

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Carroll Spinney: The Man Behind The Grouch

Carroll Spinney, the man behind Sesame Street's legendary characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, occupies an enviable place in the world of puppeteering; having performed literally thousands of hours in an eight foot tall pile of foam and feathers - which is the kind of gig that would kill even an Australian drag queen - he must surely hold some kind of world record for endurance.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1933, Spinney had a long career in puppetry and animation before coming to the Children's Television Workshop. Renowned as a children's educator (not to mention the co-author of The Wisdom of Big Bird and the author of How To Be A Grouch), Spinney has received four Daytime Emmy Awards, 2 gold records for his musical performances, a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and the adoration of two generations of children.

Recently, after more than thirty years, Spinney has had to give up playing Big Bird, passing that duty off to Matt Vogel.

I must confess, though, it's Oscar the Grouch for whom I developed an early affinity; and not just on my bad days either, when the resemblance between us is eerie, but all the time. I can tell you're shocked.

Even as a kid I had the vague sense that the show I loved had a tendency toward sappiness; Oscar, on the other hand, gave the festivities a little variety. For someone who lived in a garbage can (albeit one which was easily as palatial as Snoopy's doghouse) and had to endure an endless string of people calling him a grouch - which would make anybody grouchy - he actually seemed pretty happy in his own way; Oscar's embrace of his own bohemianism led me to believe that when I was older I too could live and act the way I chose and, aside from constant reminders of how weird I was from those around me, also be happy in my own way.

Having early on embraced my inner grouch, this is exactly what has come to pass...
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"People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield

When Curtis Mayfield died on this day in 1999, the music industry lost one of its most talented practitioners - a prolific singer, songwriter, and record producer whose politically conscious work was renowned for the social justice it championed.

First recorded in 1965 with his band The Impressions, Mayfield's civil rights anthem People Get Ready is one of the most covered songs of the rock era, with versions by performers as diverse as John Denver, The Housemartins, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo; here he's seen performing it on Lorne Michaels' short-lived syndicated show Night Music with Taylor Dayne on backing vocals.
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Happy Birthday David Sedaris

It's not often a person as jaded and cynical as I am finds himself so helpless with laughter he's gasping for breath; unless, that is, I'm reading the works of David Sedaris. Or, you know, there's 'something in the air' that's known to induce giggling, if you catch my meaning. A n y w a y...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1956, and raised near Raleigh, North Carolina, Sedaris has had the ideal life to make him either a noted and versatile humourist or a sad, bitter barfly: effeminitely gay from an early age, living in the American South - in the Sixties, no less! - a former drunk and drug addict, underemployable, short, and possessed of a voice ideal for silent films... Fortunately for everyone concerned, Sedaris learned to exploit the weirdness of his persona to great end, with a perspective so skewed it's a wonder it doesn't fall off.

He first came to the attention of readers in 1992, chronicling his travails in the employ of the R. H. Macy Company, in SantaLand Diaries on NPR; it's now must-read material here at the Pop Culture Institute during the holidays. Barrel Fever appeared in 1994; a cobbling together of essays from various sources, it's more scattered than his subsequent works, anarchic in the best sense of the word (meaning it sounds better than saying car-azay!*) and almost entirely fictional (again, in the best sense of the word).

Having learned to exploit his own weirdness in print, Sedaris turned his laser-like powers of description onto his family, including noted comedian and hostess Amy Sedaris, a favourite of ours here at PCI. 1997's Naked is a tour de force of the art of memoir that will make you think twice before buying brown towels, guaranteed; the same year's Holidays on Ice will similarly make you think twice before sending out that same old boring Christmas newsletter to all your friends and family. PCI's copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) has been inscribed by his very own hand, with a similar clunking diction as its title; I must say, he is quite charming and affable in person.

The backlash waited, though, until after the 2004 release of his latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim when, thanks to James Frey and his ilk, the criticocracy decided to get its knickers all up in a snit over possible falsehoods contained in his work. First of all, if you want the truth, stay the Hell away from writers, is all I'm saying; when the larger truth is the intended target, nothing gets in the way like a whole mess of petty facts.

His most recent book - When You Are Engulfed in Flames - arrived in stores in June 2008, and was in my hot little hands mere moments later...

* That is, 'crazy', prounounced in a crazy way. ~ MSM

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POPnews - December 26th

[By the time Emanuel Leutze painted the allegorical Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1851, the American myth-building industry had already been at maximum production for eight decades; despite its potency, though, this view of one of George Washington's finest hours functions better as propaganda than it does as history.]

1251 - Alexander III, King of Scots, married Margaret - the eldest daughter and second child of England's Henry III and Eleanor of Provence - at York Minster.

1606 - The first known performance of William Shakespeare's King Lear was given.

1613 - Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, married Frances Howard - inspiring John Donne to write his poem Eclogue.

1776 - George Washington's troops defeated a combined British and Hessian force commanded by Johann Rall at the Battle of Trenton, owing largely to the Americans' surprise attack following their crossing the Delaware River in the middle of the previous night.

1811 - A theater fire in Richmond killed the Governor of Virginia, George William Smith, as well as the president of the First National Bank of Virginia, Abraham B. Venable.

1825 - Officers of Russia's Imperial Army officers led approximately 3000 soldiers in a march on St. Petersburg's Senate Square against the accession of Tsar Nicholas I, who'd previously been removed from the succession when his brother Constantine spurned the throne himself; although the Decembrist Uprising ultimately lost momentum because it failed to attract widespread support from the military, it was also deserted by its leader, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy.

1862 - Four nuns serving as volunteer nurses on board USS Red Rover became the first women to serve in that capacity on a US Navy hospital ship.

1870 - Both ends of the Fréjus Rail Tunnel met, deep inside the Swiss Alps; only a devout Freudian would be able to read anything into that...

1871 - Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration - their lost opera Thespis - opened at London's Gaiety Theatre; while it did modestly good business, the two would not collaborate again for four years.

1906 - Charles Tait's The Story of the Kelly Gang - generally considered the first feature film - premiered at Athaneum Hall in Melbourne, the city where most of it was shot; concerning the exploits of Australia's notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, only 17 minutes of its original seventy remain.

1908 - Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champ when he defeated Tommy Burns.

1919 - Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees.

1925 - The Communist Party of India was founded.

1944 - The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams was first performed, at the Civic Theatre in Chicago.

1946 - The Flamingo Hotel opened in Las Vegas.

1966 - The first Kwanzaa was celebrated by Maulana Karenga.

1982 - For the first time in its history Time magazine's Man of the Year wasn't a man (or even a person) at all, but the personal computer.

1986 - The long-running American soap opera, Search for Tomorrow, went off the air after 9130 episodes; created by Roy Winsor and initially written by daytime television legend Agnes Nixon (and later by Irving Vendig), the show had its debut on CBS in September 1951 at 15 minutes a day, went from live to tape in March 1967, began broadcasting in colour in September 1967, expanded to a half hour format in September 1968, then moved to NBC in March 1982.

1991 - The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

"A Thousand Beautiful Things" by Annie Lennox

The problem with publishing a hat trick of Annie Lennox videos is not struggling to find that third video (as per usual) but represents nothing less than the epic battle between head and heart in trying to choose which three of literally dozens of incredible performances to include.

I mean, if I choose A Thousand Beautiful Things does that mean I can't show Walking on Broken Glass? Or No More I Love You's? What about Dark Road? Not even Waiting In Vain?

Talk about your Sophie's choice*...

[* '...a forced decision in which any and all options have equally negative outcomes' as per the 1979 William Styron novel and 1982 Alan J. Pakula film of the same name. ~ MSM]

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"Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye" by Annie Lennox

From 1990's AIDS charity album Red, Hot + Blue - which featured modern (if not always modernist) takes on the songs of Cole Porter - it's Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye, performed by Annie Lennox, in a video directed by Ed Lachman; the following year, while great with child, she sang the song to great effect in Derek Jarman's film Edward II.

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"Why" by Annie Lennox

How fucking amazing is this woman?

Normally I would be entirely peeved at having to forego posting the official video for this song - which is a work of art in its own right - but with Annie Lennox, any version of any of her songs is guaranteed to thrill; recorded live at the 25th Anniversary Gala for Arista Records, here she covers herself with astonishing aplomb, performing the smash hit song Why, from her 1992 debut solo album Diva on a grand piano.

Because what Christmas would be complete without an angel...?
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Happy Birthday Annie Lennox

Born on this day in 1954 in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, Annie Lennox is a classically trained musician with an intuitive zeitgeist-ometer that's been working overtime since 1981, when Eurythmics' first album, In the Garden, was released...

PhotobucketWith more soul in her break than most singers have in their whole voice, Lennox's honeyed contralto slunk, shrieked, and otherwise basically blasted through seven albums, including some of the greatest pop music ever recorded:

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
(1983), Touch (1983), 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) (1984), Be Yourself Tonight (1985), Revenge (1986), Savage (1987), and We Too Are One (1989)

It was her 1992 debut solo album Diva, though, that made Lennox the durable icon she is today; 1995's Medusa deftly dodged the sophomore slump with a collection of material which aren't merely cover versions but instead re-imaginings, simultaneously demonstrating the sheer elasticity of pop music as well as her distinctive approach to it. In 1999 she reunited with Dave Stewart to record Peace; 2003 saw the release of Bare, another solo effort which is uber-acoustic, like a lullaby for our collective jangled nerves. 2007's epic Songs of Mass Destruction continued to demonstrate both the growth and maturity of Lennox's gift.

Already the owner of much coveted music industry hardware for both her group and solo projects, in 2004 Lennox was awarded 'the granddaddy of all chachkes' when she won an Oscar for her song Into the West, from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

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Pop History Moment: The Coronation of William the Conqueror

As much as the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings, it was the coronation of William the Conqueror (on this day in 1066) that was intended to secure his tenure as King of England through a not-so-subtle show of strength; seated on the throne which earlier that year had been occupied by England's last Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, the Duke of Normandy exacted an oath of fealty from a native aristocracy which would be largely wiped out, thanks entirely to his own efforts, over the next generation.

PhotobucketHaving defeated the Harold's army of Saxon volunteers in October, he waited for a formal invitation to become King, which anyway he believed had been promised to him by Edward the Confessor; instead, the Witenagemot, proclaimed a boy - Edgar Ætheling - the new King, albeit without the benefit of a coronation.

So William's forces marched on London, passing first through Dover (a major port) and Canterbury (even then a major religious centre); he met strong resistance at London Bridge and so turned back to approach the city from the northwest, crossing the Thames at Wallingford. Forcing the capitulation of Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, he arrived at Berkhamsted and personally received both the crown from the erstwhile boy-king and the fealty of the assembled Saxon nobility.

It is apt, then, that he was crowned by Aldred, Archbishop of York; it would take the new King six years to subdue his rebellious northern lands, in what used to be the Kingdom of Mercia. To this day it remains one of the great what-ifs of English history: what if disease or battle had carried him off sooner, an all-too-common occurrence in the lives of medieval warrior kings, and not allowed him a generation's time to impose his will upon his conquered realm?
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