Thursday, April 08, 2010

"Pennyroyal Tea" by Nirvana

From MTV Unplugged - the show which gave me my first real appreciation for the work of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana - it's Cobain himself with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl; originally aired in December 1993, and later a hugely successful album, it was the band's last televised appearance together.

Pennyroyal Tea appeared on Nirvana's album In Utero, and was slated to be a single in April 1994, when Cobain was found dead; its B-side, tellingly, was to be a song entitled I Hate Myself and I Want To Die.
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Remembering... Kurt Cobain

Even to a person who feels normally, the world can seem like an overwhelming and cruel place at times; to a highly sensitive person, though - unequipped with the ability to occasionally shut out the more hurtful aspects of human nature and focus on the good - life can make them feel like the only sardine in a bucket of piranha...

PhotobucketKurt Cobain was one such person. By all accounts a joyful and loving boy, following his parent's divorce in 1974 (when he was just seven) Cobain became withdrawn and began acting out. He developed an early interest in punk music, likely as a release for pent-up emotion; when it became clear that he wasn't going to be like a regular guy - that is, a misogynist jock - the bullying started. An early friendship with a gay classmate didn't make things any better.

With as much emotional pain as he had, Cobain also spent most of his life with chronic physical pain as well; persistent bronchitis frequently left him ill, and doctors were unwilling or unable to determine the cause of a debilitating stomach ailment. In 1980, at the age of 13, Cobain tried marijuana; when that superior brand of pain relief failed to work he found something stronger: heroin. For the first time in his life, his physical pain was gone. However, his emotional pain would only worsen as that drug wove its tendrils around him...

Cobain was 14 when he'd first picked up a guitar, and within a decade Nirvana was the biggest rock band in the world. Yet if there was anyone in the world less able to deal with the peculiar savagery of stardom it was Kurt Cobain. For awhile it looked like Cobain had come to some peace via his art; marriage to Courtney Love and the birth of his daughter Frances Bean ought to have made things right. That is, if life were anything like a fairytale. But Love had her own struggles, and given the couple's individual reputations, their being together didn't merely double their problems but multiply them.

In retrospect, it all happened so fast; Nirvana's first album Nevermind was released in September 1991 and the band was propelled to super-stardom on the strength of the teen-angst anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit, he married Love in February 1992 shortly before his first attempt at rehab, Frances Bean was born in August, there was an overdose in July 1993, and an initial suicide attempt the following March.

On this day in 1994 Cobain was found dead in the room over his garage at his home in Lake Washington, a room known as 'the greenhouse'; he was 27. His body was discovered - by Gary Smith, a technician who'd been hired to install security lighting - holding a shotgun; when found it was obvious he had suffered a major head trauma. A suicide note, addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, quoted lyrics by Neil Young: 'It's better to burn out than to fade away.'

Since then, many conspiracy theories have bloomed - many of them pointing directly at Love; most of these are discussed in Nick Broomfield's documentary Kurt & Courtney. Such things, though, are often smoke screens for the simple truth, since the grief-stricken will believe anything - it seems - but their own grief; the simple truth in Kurt Cobain's case seems to be that he was tired of being in pain, and could think of no other way out...
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In Memoriam: Mary Pickford

It's always struck me as slightly humourous that one of the first women to be known as 'America's Sweetheart' was actually a Canadian; then again, it's happened often enough one would think the humour had worn off this particular gag by now, but I guess the classics never lose their zing. That Mary Pickford was one of the first Canadian women to infiltrate American show business - and to do it so thoroughly - is a given; that she was also one of the first film actors to be known to her millions of fans by name* (even though, as with so many others, it was not her birth name they knew her by) not to mention the first woman to sign a million-dollar contract makes her more than a mere actor but the blazer of multiple trails...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1892, Pickford's career began even as the 19th Century was ending, when she hit the boards of Toronto's Princess Theatre at the age of only seven, in a stock company production of The Silver King. Thereafter she undertook numerous roles with the city's Valentine Company, culminating in the starring role of Little Eva in their stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most popular play of the era.

Having well and truly caught the acting bug, Mary Pickford spent six years of the early 20th Century seeing America the hard way - by rail - with her mother, Charlotte Hennessy, and two younger siblings Lottie and Jack Pickford (thespians all) in tow. Finding herself in New York City at the end of that wearying era she gave herself just a year to find a role on Broadway or else return home to Toronto - keeping in mind that she was about 15 when she made this momentous decision. That break came in 1907, when she landed a role in The Warrens of Virginia, by William C. deMille, whose brother Cecil B. deMille was also appearing in the cast. More than a mere costar, DeMille's impending epics as a director would prove as important to her future as the play's producer, David Belasco, would be to her present, when he swept away the Gladys Smith of the past and ushered Mary Pickford into the rapt footlights of the New York stage.

From that lucky break - hard won and well-earned as it was - Pickford's career picked up considerable momentum; she was screen-tested by D. W. Griffith for the Biograph Company in April 1909, and although the role in Pippa Passes went to someone else, Griffith was taken with the budding ingenue. Not only was she hired, but after just one day on set she was earning double the salary of the other players - an extraordinary $10 a day against $40 a week. It was during her tenure at Biograph that Mary Pickford would develop her extraordinary range as an actor, which of course would later matter not one whit thanks to the typecasting her public foisted upon her.

In January 1910 she was among the players who travelled out to California with Biograph to investigate the possibility of relocating the nascent film industry there; the strong perpetual sun and considerable distance from the thugs of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company must have made Los Angeles a very attractive prospect to all those involved.

In December of that year Pickford left Biograph for Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Pictures Company (which in 1912 would be absorbed into Universal Pictures); during this time, Pickford also made films for another company, called Majestic. Unhappy with the lower creative standards she encountered at both of these studios she returned to Biograph - but not for long - leaving them for good in 1912 to return to Broadway for an appearance in A Good Little Devil for her former employer, David Belasco.

Tempting as it is to write the longest piece in the history of the Pop Culture Institute extolling the talents and accomplishments of this indomitable lady over the next 25 years, though, her story has been better told at length elsewhere, including in a very thorough work by Scott Eyman. Suffice it to say, the life and career of the canny and talented Mary Pickford - which we leave off here just as it was asserting itself - could fill a blog of their own, although you've neither seen nor heard the last of her here, Dear Reader. Not by a long shot, not even by a close-up...

*The first, of course, being Florence Lawrence - who was also Canadian.
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Introducing: The Naked Cowboy

Times Square is one of New York City's most popular tourist attractions, and one of Times Square's most popular tourist attractions is the Naked Cowboy.

Actually, his Nom de Busk is a multiple misnomer: for obvious reasons* he isn't naked in public (he wears tighty-whities with his name emblazoned on them) and he was born in Cincinnati (not exactly prime cowboy territory). He's been at it for a decade now, and he's doing pretty well (reportedly making 100k a year); besides, how many buskers do you know who have a website, let alone a video?

Plus, for a blonde he's pretty hot.

*Human bodies are disgusting and shameful, according to the Bible and the various people who swear by it despite never having read it.
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Pop History Moment: Longacre Square Became Times Square


On this day in 1904 Longacre Square in New York City was renamed Times Square by Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. at the behest of Adolph Ochs, owner and publisher of The New York Times, which had only recently relocated its offices there. For its profusion of chop houses, gambling dens, and brothels, the area had already earned its reputation as 'Thieves Lair'; the mayor was further persuaded to locate a subway station in the basement of the Times Building - now called One Times Square - allowing the card sharps and pickpockets a handy means of escape should the need arise. Its northern end was later dubbed Duffy Square.

Already home to the Olympia Theatre (built by impresario Oscar Hammerstein I in 1895 and razed in 1935), the intersection's proximity to subway lines meant that before long it would be not only the transit but the entertainment hub of Manhattan as well. While the year before the corner had been lit by a single gas street lamp, it took just three weeks for the first electrically illuminated sign to be erected, which started something of a precedent. Another precedent was born when, on New Year's Eve 1907, a ball was dropped from the roof of One Times Square to the delight of a crowd below, a crowd which seems to grow larger every year. Prior to the advent of cars, buses, and trains the area had housed a number of carriage makers, all of whom progress had swept away by 1913, when Times Square became the terminus of the Lincoln Highway, which connected it to Lincoln Park in San Francisco for the first time by road. That same year the Times itself left its eponymous locale for more spacious premises nearby.

It'd been a long journey from country estate - which it was when George Washington stayed there during the American Revolution - to the urban thoroughfare it had become more than a century later, but if anything it was the next century which saw the greatest changes to the place. From vaudeville stages in the 1920s to movie theatres in the 30s and 40s to grindhouses in the 50s and porno palaces in the 60s and 70s, Times Square's degradation had reached its nadir (or apex, if you're a degradation aficionado) by 1975, when Martin Scorsese filmed Taxi Driver there.

In relative terms, the transformation of Times Square from a Tenderloin District to a Disney Attraction (and an E ticket at that) has been remarkably rapid. Today, despite what a few grumbling New Yorkers may have to say about how it was so much better in the old days, Times Square remains one of the city's foremost tourist attractions and one of the most concentratedly entertaining parts of one of the most exciting cities in the world.

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POPnews - April 8th

[Despite its dramatic West Front, there's very little about Winchester Cathedral that would indicate the marvels to be found within its precincts; yet this is one of the largest churches in England and has both the longest nave and greatest overall length of any Gothic church in Europe. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity as well as St. Peter and St. Paul its name also commemorates one who is actually buried there, namely Saint Swithun, who was Bishop of Winchester until his death in 862 CE. Plus, it has a pop song written about it... Take that Brompton Oratory!]

217 CE - Roman Emperor Caracalla was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, Julius Martialis, while urinating at the side of the road near Harran; he was succeeded by his Praetorian Guard prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, who was almost certainly complicit in the killing.

1093 - The new Winchester Cathedral was dedicated by Walkelin, the first Norman to serve as Bishop of Winchester; situated adjacent to the Old Minster - which was founded sometime in the 4th decade of the sixth century CE - the cathedral marks the resting place of Saxon royalty such as King Eadwig and his queen Ælfgifu as well as the notable novelist Jane Austen.

1149 - Pope Eugene III took refuge in the castle of Ptolemy II of Tusculum, where he would remain until November; while there he met France's King Louis VII and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who stopped over while on their way home from the disastrous Second Crusade.

1271 - Sultan Baibars conquered the Krak of Chevaliers in Syria, capturing it from the Knights Hospitaller by tricking them into thinking Bohemond VI, count of Tripoli, had enjoined them to surrender; the castle's design was later adapted by England's Edward I (who saw it while on the Ninth Crusade) to fortify his new vassal state of Wales.

1730 - Shearith Israel, New York City's first synagogue, was dedicated, apparently.

1808 - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baltimore was promoted to an archdiocese, with the founding of the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Bardstown (now Louisville) by Pope Pius VII.

1820 - The Venus de Milo was apparently discovered, on the Aegean island of Melos, by a peasant named Yourgos; sculpted of parian marble around 130 BCE and attributed to Alexandros of Antioch, the sculpture was subsequently seized by the Turkish then purchased by the French for the Louvre, where it still resides. For a statue she's had quite a life, as detailed in Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo by Gregory Curtis.

1886 - Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone introduced the first Irish Home Rule Bill into the British House of Commons.

1895 - The US Supreme Court declared unapportioned income tax to be unconstitutional in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.; the opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Melville Fuller.

1904 - The French Third Republic and the United Kingdom signed the Entente cordiale, ending nearly a thousand years of conflict between the two nations.

1913 - The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution - requiring the direct election of Senators - became law.

1935 - The Works Progress Administration was formed when the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 became law.

1950 - Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru signed the Liaquat-Nehru Pact in an attempt to cool sectarian tensions between the two countries.

1953 - Jomo Kenyatta was sentenced to seven years' hard labour by Kenya's British rulers for organizing the Mau Mau movement and planning the Mau Mau Rebellion.

1973 - Pablo Picasso died at his villa at Mougins.

1974 - Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth's 39-year-old record.

1986 - Actor-director Clint Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

1992 - Retired tennis great Arthur Ashe announced that he had AIDS, acquired from blood transfusions during one of his two heart surgeries.

2006 - The bodies of eight men, all shot to death, were found in a field 5 km north of Shedden, Ontario; the murders of what came to be known as the Shedden Massacre were soon linked to members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang.
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