Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Higher Ground" by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Birthday wishes go out today to Michael 'Flea' Balzary - bassist and founding member of the LA-based noise makers Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose original instrument was the trumpet, and whose original aspiration was to play jazz. Taught to play bass by his friend (and future Pepper) Hillel Slovak, Flea was a member of Slovak's band Anthym for a time, before quitting in favour of punk combo Fear; in 1983 he united with Anthony Kiedis and Jack Irons and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were born.

Higher Ground is of course one of many huge hits popularized by Stevie Wonder, appearing first on his 1973 album Innervisions; RHCP's version gave the band the breakthrough it needed in 1989, when it was released along with their album Mother's Milk. As per usual, in lieu of the original video - unavailable for the same reasons as always* - I've posted a clip of the band performing the song at Woodstock 94.

*The damn suits!
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In Memoriam: Eugene O'Neill

The works of Eugene O'Neill are not merely renowned but acclaimed for their bitterness and cynicism; his characters are generally downtrodden, prone to the abuse of alcohol, and generally speaking something of a sorry lot. This is probably why I have always studiously avoided them, and him. After all, it should come as no surprise to even the most casual observer of the Pop Culture Institute that its author is rather obsessed with comedy, and the reason why ought to be obvious even to the most glib of pop psychologists.

PhotobucketNevertheless, his is a name which recurs rather too often in the course of my research - especially since it so often appears in conjunction with other bold-faced names of 20th Century entertainment - and so for the sake of this blog I've decided to finally man up and face what amounts to one of my demons: the professional tragedian.

Born on this day in 1886 in a room of the Barrett Hotel in New York City's Times Square, as a child he was sent to Catholic boarding school, where naturally he found no solace in religion but plenty in books. A lengthy sojourn at sea ended when he contracted tuberculosis, following which he turned to writing to make his convalescence more bearable. A Greenwich Village bohemian long before it was a pose, in 1916 O'Neill discovered the Provincetown Players while on vacation in New England, and a memorable partnership was born...

At a time when the American theatre was still rather plagued by melodrama, O'Neill's stark realism was both a breath of fresh air and a challenge to the ruling orthodoxy - which simultaneously made him a bold innovator and a major threat. His first Broadway show was 1920's Beyond the Horizon, and its timing was propitious; as a nation embittered by its involvement in a European war entered the hedonistic Jazz Age and its government swore everyone off alcohol (wink, wink) O'Neill's dissipated vulgarians became contemporary archetypes seemingly overnight.

PhotobucketMany of Eugene O'Neill's plays were hugely successful both on Broadway and in repertory; a fair number were made into movies. The highlights of his literary career include The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, Ah, Wilderness! (his only attempt at comedy), The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Given the lack of good examples from his life and the challenges he faced thanks to booze, it should be no surprise that Eugene O'Neill was never going to be either husband or father of the year; both husband and father of three, not only did his marriages scandalously overlap but his eldest son committed suicide, his middle child became a heroin addict (and also committed suicide), and his daughter Oona he disowned when she was just 18 for marrying 54 year-old Charlie Chaplin.

O'Neill was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds; in life, O'Neill had been close friends with John Reed (and even closer to Reed's wife Louise Bryant, if you know what I mean). Reed, of course, was played by Warren Beatty and Louise Bryant by Diane Keaton. Both his Connecticut home (Monte Cristo Cottage) and his home in California (Tao House) have been designated national landmarks; even the site where he was born - at the epicentre of American entertainment, Times Square, now home to a Starbucks - is marked by a plaque. In addition to his numerous awards - including various Pulitzers as well as the Nobel Prize - The Eugene O'Neill Award named for him has been handed out annually in Sweden since 1956.

He died in November 1953.
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Remembering... Jean de Brunhoff

On this day in 1937 Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar, died - aged only 38; that's, like, younger I am now, man. Makes you think...

PhotobucketIt's a funny thing, but while I really liked Babar as a child, I hadn't thought about him for more than twenty years* when, this past summer, I was walking past a display of stuffed animals and saw a 10-inch tall Babar in amongst the others. Naturally, as I am a creature who is absolutely dominated by whim, I bought it and gave it pride of place on the shelf where I keep my books suitable for youngsters.

Then, mere weeks ago, The New Yorker ran an article by noted Canadian Francophile Adam Gopnik not merely about Babar and what he means but also about the man who created him - Jean de Brunhoff.

Well! Turns out I was quite the dupe even as a child; it would never have occurred to me then that what I was reading was a blatant propaganda in favour of colonialism. I mean, I certainly never got that out of it then, and to be quite honest I'm a bit afraid to revisit the books now out of the fear that yet another of those favoured things from my childhood should be rendered obsolete by politics.

*And had probably never given a thought to the man who created him, then or now.

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Günther Grass Is Always Greener On the Other Side

Every so often I come up with a title so compelling I feel the need to publish a post, even if it's about someone whose basic details are unknown to me*; well, it's not like I know nothing about Günther Grass - I know he wrote The Tin Drum, for which he won my most coveted literary prize, the Nobel - but other than that, as with a lot of the work that has appeared here, I'm learning about two steps ahead of you.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1927 in the Free City of Danzig Grass experienced first hand the upheavals that beset Poland and Germany during his youth. His later admission that he'd actually served with the Waffen-SS in the dying days of World War II was met with criticism both from his allies on the left and his enemies on the right; Grass easily brushed aside these critics, claiming youthful stupidity and pointed to a lifetime of work spent at undoing any damage he might have done in the service of National Socialism**.

Grass' Danzig Trilogy is the most openly critical of the tyranny in whose thrall he was briefly held; consisting of The Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961), and Dog Years (1963), it chronicles the life of its protagonist Oskar Matzerath through his interactions with the people of Gdansk, and does so with a deft magic realism which was rare in Northern Europe at the time, when a kind of brutal naturalism was favoured.

Grass continues to write this day, and his list of publications is prodigious: novels, plays, poetry, essays, speeches, and criticism. Add to that a 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion, and Grass proves he's anything but green.

*Or even if, like this one, it doesn't necessarily fit.
**Also, there's no telling what effect such an admission would have had on his future success had it been revealed in the 50s, as opposed to 2006.

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Pop History Moment: The Death of Marie Antoinette

By the time of her death by guillotine on this day in 1793, the feel of cold steel on her neck might have seemed like a sweet release to Marie Antoinette, especially compared to the agony her life had become over the previous few years. That she should lose her head to the blade is only apt, as her reputation had by then already been the victim of a serious hatchet job for years...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFew stories fill me with such dread and loathing as those of the French Revolution, even when they're as well-written as they are in Antonia Fraser's excellent 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. In her book Fraser limns the life of the sheltered Austrian princess who again and again finds herself in over the head she would one day lose. It is a story told on a tumbrel of a woman who refused to believe in the depths of human evil, even as it was swallowing her whole.

At the birth of the Age of Reason there was an Age of Chaos: disguising mob rule as democracy, the newly 'freed' French went on a killing spree which at the time was unprecedented in the post-Renaissance era. It was only a matter of time, then, before the crowd caught up to its former Queen: both a foreigner and a woman, she would make a doubly good scapegoat. Utterly blameless and with no power to speak of, save the money she quietly distributed to orphanages and hospitals, Marie Antoinette was nothing less than a victim of her class, a martyr caught in the teeth of an unreasoning genocide...

Tales of her behaviour from those who knew her, even those who didn't like her, differ so greatly from the picture of her painted by scurrilous pamphleteers (none of whom had even met her) that only the most bigoted could believe the least of the allegations made against her. They are also testament to the corrosive effects of slander; 200 years later and her legend still calls out for understanding.

Yet xenophobia and misogyny are two of the oldest and therefore fondest of history's prejudices, and so might be the hardest ones to be overcome; Marie Antoinette faced them both with a poise that had been ingrained in her from birth. In fact, of her it could rightly be said she never once lost her head, right up until the moment she did.
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Oscar Wilde on "Monty Python's Flying Circus"

Here Graham Chapman plays Oscar Wilde, John Cleese plays James McNeill Whistler, and Michael Palin plays George Bernard Shaw in a somewhat anachronistic scene from Grandstand (aka Episode 39 of Monty Python's Flying Circus), given that Terry Jones is obviously playing Edward VII (they call him 'Your Majesty') even though the sketch is set in 1895, six years before the death of Queen Victoria.
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"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" by Oscar Wilde

Because of the length of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, I've decided to publish only the first part here; however, feel free to follow the link at the bottom of the post and read the rest. ~ MSM


He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
"That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty place

He does not sit with silent men
Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the terror of his soul
Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
Through a little roof of glass;
He does not pray with lips of clay
For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
The kiss of Caiaphas.

[To continue reading...]
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In Memoriam: Oscar Wilde

Novelist, poet, playwright, bon-vivant, and the foremost wit of the Victorian era, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on this day in 1854, in Dublin; his father was the noted ear and eye specialist William Wilde, his mother the successful writer Jane Francesca Elgee, an Irish nationalist who wrote under the name Speranza.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWilde's precocity was evident from an early age; home-schooled until the age of nine, he was sent away to Portora Royal School first, then to Dublin's Trinity College. Having excelled at his schoolwork, Wilde was awarded a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied the classics and rowed crew.

At one time enamored of Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker), in May 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd; together they had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, who after their father's 1895 downfall would be known by the name Holland. Although Wilde had been aware of his attraction to men throughout his life (thanks to early liaisons with Frank Miles and Robert Baldwin Ross) it cannot be said for sure when he first engaged in 'the unspeakable vice of the Greeks', or with whom. However, it was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas which was to prove both the apex of Wilde's homosexual life, even if their illicit love would also bring about the nadir of his reputation.

While it lasted, though, what a reputation it was! Built on such novels as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and theatrical comedies of manners as Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895) their aesthetic flamboyance and (for the times, anyway) racy dialogue was nothing compared to Wilde's own patented affectations - principally a wardrobe of velvet and satin combined with a flair for caustic witticisms. In a society for which the best-suited adjective will always be 'stuffy' Wilde was a breath of fresh air... Alas, Victorian society was stuffy for a reason, and those who'd made it that way increasingly sought to keep it stuffy at whatever cost.

It was at the beginning of April 1895, at the pinnacle of his greatest success - as author of the hugely successful play The Importance of Being Earnest - that Wilde sued Douglas' father, the irascible* Marquess of Queensberry, for libel; before the trial was over, thanks in no small part to the legal maneuvering of Edward Carson QC, not only was Queensbury's libel disproven but Wilde and his quick wit would be vanquished. Encouraged by the few friends he had left to flee to the Continent, Wilde refused.By the end of the month he'd been arrested outside Knightsbridge's Cadogan Hotel and would soon thereafter be sent to jail - first to Pentonville, thence to Wandsworth, and finally to Reading Prison (wherefrom sprang his famous Ballad). Released in 1897 after two years imprisonment, his health ruined, Wilde settled in Paris (often under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth); he died 3 and a half years later, in November 1900, in room 16 of the Hôtel d'Alsace - his condition apparently aggravated by the decor**.

Initially buried outside Paris at Cimetière de Bagneux, his body was later moved to its current resting place, at Père Lachaise Cemetery, within a tomb designed by Sir Jacob Epstein: as proof of the rehabilitation of Wilde's memory, his final resting place is today covered with lipstick traces, and is among the most visited in that hallowed ground.

Oscar Wilde has been best played onscreen by Stephen Fry in the 1997 biopic Wilde, which was itself based on Richard Ellmann's definitive 1989 biography; interest in Wilde, though, remains high - as evidenced by recent works like Oscar Wilde Discovers America: A Novel by Louis Edwards.

*Which is putting it mildly... He was, in fact, a major league prick - yet his other accomplishment in life were rules for fair play in the pursuit of pugilism.
**He did, after all, famously quip from his death bed: '
My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.' In truth, Wilde succumbed to cerebral meningitis.
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Happy Birthday Bob Mould

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketContradicting the myth that all gay men are disco queens, Bob Mould broke the mould by forming Hüsker Dü; over the course of a dozen albums' worth of glorious noise, the band bridged the gap between punk and rock, their sound presaging alternative rock by a decade in a time dominated by hair metal...

Mould's solo projects have maintained the hallmarks of his work both with Hüsker Dü and Sugar, the band he formed in the 1990s, while showcasing his more experimental side. Walls of noise and outraged sentiment for diehard fans meet acoustic arrangements, introspective lyrics, and even the occasional foray into the dance and house sounds of his emerging oeuvre.

And so begins Act Three for Bob Mould, whose electronica-influenced Modulate was released under the name LoudBomb (an anagram of his name) to the usual mixed reviews that anyone with the willingness to try something new will often receive. Yet if there's one thing Bob Mould has proven time and again in his long career it's that he knows how to be ahead of the curve, and critics be damned.
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Pop History Moment: The Burning of Westminster

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[The burning of the Palace of Westminster was painted from memory,
but witnessed first-hand by the painter J. M. W. Turner.

Most of the Palace of Westminster, seat of Britain's Parliament, burned to the ground on this day in 1834; as reported by Charles Dickens, the cause of the blaze was the burning of useless old tally sticks, which had formerly been used by both the Commons and the Lords in the tallying of votes. The only parts of the old Palace to survive were Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St. Stephen's Chapel, and the cloisters.

Rebuilding was begun in 1840, and continued officially until 1860, although further work would be done over the following decade as well; principal architect on the project was Charles Barry, aided by Augustus Pugin. The new Palace of Westminster, rebuilt in the Perpendicular Gothic style, is one of London's most popular and recognizable historic landmarks.
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POPnews - October 16th

[Since criticizing their country's abysmal progress with regards to civil rights at the Summer Olympics on this day in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been labeled 'anti-American' and much, much worse - think n-words and lots of 'em! - more or less proving their original point.]

1841 - Queen's University was founded in Kingston, Ontario.

1859 - Abolitionist John Brown led an ill-fated raid on the Armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

1869 - The Cardiff Giant was 'discovered' near Cardiff, New York; the petrified prehistoric man was later discovered to be a hoax, perpetrated by George Hull.

1905 - India's Partition of Bengal took place at the behest of the British viceroy, Lord Curzon.

1916 - Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood.

1923 - The Walt Disney Company was founded by Walt Disney and his brother, Roy Disney.

1934 - Chinese Communists began the Long March, which ended a year and four days later, by which time Mao Zedong had regained his title as party chairman.

1940 - The Warsaw Ghetto was established.

1946 - Ten war criminals were hanged at Nuremburg, including: Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Alfred Jodl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and Julius Streicher. This is what's known these days as 'a good start'...

1949 - Nikolaos Zachariadis, leader of the Communist Party of Greece, announced a 'temporary cease-fire', effectively ending the Greek Civil War.

1951 - The first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in Rawalpindi.

1962 - The Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than at any other time during the Cold War, began.

1968 - American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off their team for performing a Black Power salute during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The silver medalist, Australia's Peter Norman, wore a badge in support of them, but for obvious reasons did not perform the salute himself.

1970 - At the request of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to deal with the burgeoning October Crisis.

1972 - Emmerdale - originally known as Emmerdale Farm - debuted on Britain's ITV; the show was created by Kevin Laffan.

1978 - Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II.

1984 - Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1995 - The Million Man March converged on Washington, DC.

2002 - Cairo's Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated.
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