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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