Friday, October 08, 2010

"Get Down On It" by Kool & The Gang

Birthday wishes go out today to Robert Kool Bell, founding member, lead singer and bassist of urban music pioneers Kool & the Gang; Get Down on It originally appeared on the band's 1981 album Something Special, following their smash hit Celebration from 1980.

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Pop History Moment: The Capture Of Che Guevara


On this day in 1967 Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's days as a hunted man came to an end when he was captured in Bolivia by a CIA operative named Félix Rodríguez while encamped in the jungle with a detachment of guerillas headed by Simeón Cuba Sarabia. As he was shot and wounded, Guevara called out to his assailants 'Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.' Truer words were never spoken; alas, they weren't to be heeded...

Guevara was taken prisoner, and passed that night at a makeshift hospital in the village of La Higuera, refusing to be interrogated; the following day the only person he would speak to was the local school-teacher, 2o-year-old Julia Cortez. Guevara used the opportunity to militate against the terrible conditions under which she was forced to work; he may also have been using her as a kind of witness, in case his captors tried any funny business and fudged the the time and date and means of his death.

Two days after his capture, Guevara would be shot dead by Mario Terán who'd been selected as his executioner by Bolivian president René Barrientos; his orders further stipulated that the government's story that Guevara was killed in combat should be consistent with the wounds he was to be given. In all Guevara would be shot nine times, including five times in the legs, once in the right shoulder and arm, once in the chest, and lastly in the throat. He is reported to have faced his executioner bravely, and even bitten his own wrist to keep from crying out before the fatal bullet did its work.

As the life ebbed from his body, it proceeded to flow into his legend, affording him a kind of immortality through the books he wrote, the anecdotes of those who met him, and the images taken of him - the most famous of which is Alberto Korda's Guerrillero Heroico. Within two years of his death, Che was being played by Omar Sharif (in the film Che!); he's been played twice by Gael García Bernal in recent years, and also by Benicio del Toro.
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Juan Peron: The People's Dictator

Were it not for the subsequent intervention of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Juan Peron might have gone down in history as yet another tin-pot dictator soiling his own Third World nest in the Casa Rosada at the head of an avaricious kleptocracy... A colourful figure in the venerable South American mold, it is true, but far from the legend of pop culture he is currently.

PhotobucketI mean, he's still all those things and more, only now there are a couple of peppy songs (sung by the likes of Jonathan Pryce) to act as soundtrack to the story of his many outrages, committed both on his own or with the assistance of two of his wives: the secular saint and still-revered Spiritual Leader of the Nation Eva Duarte or the tyrantess Isabel Martínez Peron, who succeeded him in the presidency in June 1974 two days before his death. In fact, only his ill-fated first wife Aurelia Tizón seems to have escaped the ruthless PR ministrations he was known for visiting upon his spouses unscathed; then again, she died of uterine cancer a decade before his rise to power.

Yet even as the musical hagiography committed in memory of Evita - itself paradoxically based on the outright hostile book The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main - spilt some of its glamour onto Peron himself, nothing* can excuse the fact that here was a man who harboured Nazis, curtailed press freedom, forced the disappearance of his enemies (or indeed anyone who spoke against him), and stole from both the rich and the poor to give to himself disguised as charity and concealed by shady or non-existent book-keeping.

So while the jury is still out on whether Peron - born on this day in 1895 - was a Fascist**, the fact is that he learned governance at the elbow of Benito Mussolini, palled around with such genuine baddies as Alfredo Stroessner and Francisco Franco, governed when he did by control rather than consent, and skilfully manipulated the poorest of his citizens - the descamisados - by pandering to their Catholic sentimentality and outrage over greedy foreign influence in order to build up a cult of personality which still exists. The Justicialist Party is to this day the official conduit of Peronism in Argentina; interestingly, it can be said to have both a left-wing and a right-wing instead of only one, and is the party of the country's current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as well as former presidents Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner (currently Argentina's First Gentleman).

Not even the fact that he's among the only ostensibly right-wing despot whose policies pointedly favoured the working class yet was generally opposed to higher education, despite the fact that education is the surest means of occupational uplift.
**He was not, for instance, anti-Semitic; in fact, he could even be considered pro-Semitic, especially for his times.

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In Memoriam: King Zog

Not content to be either Albania's Prime Minister (which he was from 1922 to 1924) or, following his return from a brief exile, President (1925-8), in September 1928 Ahmet Bey Zogu became Zog I, King of the Albanians. That's when the real fun started...

PhotobucketFor slightly more than a decade, King Zog (who was an Albanian aristocrat and claimed descent from the country's 15th Century national hero Skanderbeg) continued the reforms he'd begun as President: eliminating serfdom, moderating Islam* in the style of Kemal Ataturk, and generally presiding over what could have been a time of chaos following the country's independence from the Ottoman Empire with the moderating influence normally associated with constitutional monarchy. In retrospect, it would be the most stable decade in the history of modern Albania, despite the repressive methods he practiced over the country's Greek minority, which remain the worst blot on an otherwise progressive record.

Although (or, more likely, because) Zog was a moderate reformer, as King he survived more than 55 assassination attempts, including some by partisans of Shefqet Bey Verlaci, to whose daughter he'd been engaged and which engagement he'd broken off; during the most famous such attempt on his life, in Vienna in 1931, Zog drew the pistol he kept on his person and returned fire - a first for a King anywhere.

Born on this day in 1895, King Zog took a Queen in April 1938, in the person of half-Hungarian half-American Countess Geraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Apponyi; their only child, HRH Crown Prince Leka, was born the following year on April 5th. Two days later King Zog was deposed - only to be replaced by Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III following the invasion of Albania by their former closest allies - at which time the senior members of the House of Zogu fled into exile in England. King Zog died in France in April 1961, two days after the 22nd anniversary of his deposition, having invested Albania's plundered treasury in real estate as far away as Long Island.

Since he was such a colourful figure, King Zog has appeared from time to time in pop culture; he made a thinly fictionalized appearance in 1938 in the Tintin comic book series as King Muskar XII in King Ottokar's Sceptre, but most notably served as a kind of running gag on Monty Python's Flying Circus. The song Don Juan by those well-known anti-monarchists the Pet Shop Boys (the B-side to their 1988 single Domino Dancing) contains the phrase 'King Zog's back from holiday, Marie Lupescu's grey and King Alexander is dead in Marseilles', and his most famous assassination attempt was depicted in the 1987 film Aria, in which King Zog was played by Theresa Russell in a segment directed by Nicolas Roeg.

*His Majesty was Muslim himself.

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Happy Birthday Chevy Chase

That Chevy Chase should have the reputation of being a colossal douchebag might come as a surprise to many, but it's no surprise to me whatsoever; having reviewed a considerable amount of reading materiel on his career, and extensively perused the First Season episodes of Saturday Night Live besides, can I just say that I'd have been more surprised to learn he wasn't a douchebag than I was to learn he is... Then again, that could simply be his shtick.

PhotobucketNevertheless, Chase's nine stints as guest host of the show that launched his career - the last of these being in 1997 - are responsible for an untold amount of post-traumatic stress disorder among the members of the show's various casts, as graphically recounted in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. Chase actually came to blows with his replacement, Bill Murray, prior to his first appearance as guest host in Season Three; according to both of them, the feud has long since been resolved, as evidenced by their work together in Caddyshack.

Still, I've always tried to make the focus of this blog on the person's work, rather than the person; as far as this goes, Chase's work (and the fact that he's a rabid Democrat) more than make up for the rest. Caddyshack (1980), National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), and Fletch (1985) were among my favourite films in high school, and although he continues to make appearances on television and in movies - often on behalf of prominent Democrats or environmental causes - his profile has never since been higher than it was in the fifteen years following the debut of SNL in October 1975.
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"Hello Mary Lou" by Ricky Nelson

For all that it has been mocked as some bastion of 1950s morality, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet - which debuted on radio on this day in 1944 - produced its share of innovations as well.

Chief amongst these was the decision made by Ozzie Nelson (himself a bandleader in the Twenties and Thirties) to include popular music in the show. The way the musical numbers on the show were shot renders them among the first music videos, as witnessed by the above clip.

Hello Mary Lou was written by Gene Pitney, and recorded by Ricky Nelson in 1961; the B-side of that record, Travelin' Man, was - if anything - an even bigger hit for Nelson.
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Pop History Moment: The Great Chicago Fire


Legend has it that on this day in 1871 Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the Great Chicago Fire, which over the course of three days would eventually destroy four square miles of the city's historic downtown; so devastating was the conflagration that only six buildings within the disaster area survived, including the newly built Chicago Water Tower, St. Michael's Church, and the O'Leary family home as well as their house of worship, Holy Family Parish.

The fire was not, however, started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow; in 1893 the reporter who wrote that story, Michael Ahern, admitted to making it up because he claimed it made for more compelling reading. The real reason for Ahern's deception may have simply been the usual anti-immigrant rhetoric still favoured today; ironically, O'Leary's cow (and by extension its owners) made the ideal scapegoats. Whatever Ahern's reasons for saying so, the fire may indeed have started in a small shed behind 137 DeKoven Street owned by the very same Patrick and Catherine O'Leary whose cow has borne the blame lo these many years.

Then again, it may have been Daniel 'Pegleg' Sullivan's and Louis M. Cohn's craps game - which apparently took place in the O'Leary barn as well* - that started the blaze; the most out of the world theory, though, has it that the fire was caused by the breakup of Biela's Comet over the American Midwest. Credence for this theory derives from the fact that four major fires all started at roughly the same time on the same day - one in Chicago, one in the Wisconsin town of Peshtigo, and two in Michigan (Holland and Manistee). A fifth fire swept along the shore of Lake Huron and destroyed the town of Port Huron along with its nearby neighbour White Rock. Despite the damage caused in Chicago (and even, in April 1906, in San Francisco) the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in US history; in addition to 1.5 million acres of forest and a total of twelve towns burned, and as many as 2,500 people died.

Although founded in August 1833 with a population of 350 and only incorporated in March 1837, Chicago's population at the time of the fire was 300,000 - of whom 90,000 were left homeless with winter fast approaching. Despite a remarkably modest death toll of 2-300, only 125 bodies were recovered from the ashes. While the people of America responded with their usual generosity to the fire's victims with gifts of clothing, blankets, and food, the business community responded in its usual way too - with rapacious land speculation. By the dawn of the 20th Century the ramshackle wooden city of old had been replaced by a modern skyline of towers, many of which are today considered among the most beautiful and accomplished skyscrapers in the world.

Chicago's Great Fire has not been overly represented in pop culture over the years; among the only (as well as least accurate) depiction is the 1937 film In Old Chicago, with Alice Brady playing Mrs. O'Leary; the fire's presumed culprit was the subject of a song by The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, which appears on his landmark 2004 album SMiLE (begun in 1966).

*One of the O'Leary children - James Patrick O'Leary - later grew up to run a Chicago gambling hall.

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POPnews - October 8th

[This now-iconic image of Cosette from the musical Les Miserables was originally made by Émile Bayard for Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables, and later adapted - to spectacular effect - for the poster.]

451 CE - At Chalcedon - a city of Bithynia in Asia Minor now considered to be part of Istanbul- the first session of the Council of Chalcedon began; called by Pope Leo I, the Council ended on November 1st after a whole lot of hoo-hah about what did or did not constitute heresy resulted is a schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

1075 - Dmitar Zvonimir was crowned King of Croatia at the Basilica of Saint Peter and Moses in Solin.

1480 - The so-called Great Standing on the Ugra River - a confrontation between the forces of Akhmat Khan, Khan of the Great Horde, and Russia's Grand Duke Ivan III - resulted in the retreat of the Tataro-Mongols and eventual disintegration of the Horde.

1600 - San Marino adopted the constitution it still uses, which is the oldest constitution still in use in the world.

1821 - The government of general José de San Martín established the Peruvian Navy.

1856 - The Second Opium War between several western powers and China began with the Arrow Incident on the Pearl River.

1895 - Queen Min, the last Empress of Korea, was assassinated at Gyeongbok Palace in what has come to be known as the Eulmi Incident; she has latterly been hailed as a heroine for her defense of Korean autonomy.

1912 - The First Balkan War began when Montenegro declared war against Turkey.

1932 - The Indian Air Force was established.

1944 - The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet debuted on CBS radio. In the middle of the 1949 season the show switched to NBC's Blue Network, which later became ABC radio. In October 1952 the show transferred to ABC-TV, where it ran for fourteen seasons, spending a total of 22 years entertaining American audiences by the time it went off the air in September 1966.

1952 - The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash killed 112 people.

1956 - Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, during Game 5 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1957 - Team owner Walter O'Malley announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers would be moving to Los Angeles, apparently.

1967 - Che Guevara was captured in Bolivia; he was executed the next day by Mario Terán.

1974 - The Franklin National Bank collapsed due to fraud and mismanagement; at the time it was the largest bank failure in US history.

1978 - Australia's Ken Warby set the current world water speed record of 511.13 kph (317.60 mph) on board the Spirit of Australia at Blowering Dam.

1982 - Poland banned Solidarity, apparently.

1985 - Cameron Mackintosh's English-language version of Les Misérables had its world debut in London at the Barbican Arts Centre; the show transferred to the Palace Theatre in December 1985, and again to the Queen's Theatre in April 2004, where it is still playing.

2001 - US President George W. Bush announced the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security, to be headed by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
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