Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Killing of Lee Harvey Oswald

Even as a punditling*, whenever I saw this bit of film all I could think is 'bullshit'; this couldn't look more set up if... Well, I can't think of a suitable comparison, because this couldn't possibly look more set up**. And yet, we don't see much except Lee Harvey Oswald falling, culminating in yet another famous photograph from that terrible week...

As narrated by Ed Herlihy, though, one of the most significant plot twists in the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy takes on the necessary gravitas; Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby, would die of a 'heart attack' in January 1967 before a new trial might have given history a better glimpse into Ruby's motivation on this day in 1963.

The damage this crime caused to the investigation into the killing of the President is immeasurable; one thing it did do was cement the importance of television in the life of Americans, seeing as it took place live on the air. Any generation, not just the Baby Boomers, who'd witnessed such a thing would most assuredly remain riveted to the box on the off chance that something like it might happen again...

*The technical term for a pundit under the age of 13.
**A photograph taken shortly before an assassination attempt made against Pope John Paul II comes close.

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Remembering... Carlo Collodi

The best children's literature ought to appeal to adults as well; inasmuch as we were all children once, and surely enjoy reconnecting with our earlier innocence, adults are also the ones who read the kiddies their books from the time they are very young. If we are engaged by the stories and the characters we are reading to them, so will they continue to be engaged by reading as they grow older...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketCarlo Collodi (born on this day in 1826) obviously understood this, as his most famous book The Adventures of Pinocchio is so much more than an amusing Quixote-like picaresque designed to amuse the bambini, but a piquant allegory on adult themes such as class and upward mobility. The story was originally serialized between 1881 and 1883, at which time it was given a second half and published in its present form. Unique among children's fiction today (although not in those days), Pinocchio's adventures include many frightening or dangerous events, which too many modern children are prevented from discovering in the relative safety of their imaginations by over-protective parents.

Pinocchio's fame was slow to take off, and Collodi died in 1890 before the advent of moving pictures and major advances in child literacy made his characters household names; the book's translation into English in 1911, the advocacy of its moral teachings by Benedetto Croce, as much as a 1940 film version by Walt Disney did much to cement the reputation of the marionette who dreamed of one day becoming a real boy firmly within the pop cultural firmament - so much so that not even a poorly received 2002 film adaptation (starring Roberto Benigni) could diminish it.
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Happy Birthday Billy Connolly

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Years ago, Billy Connolly was a well-kept secret among my Caledoniaphile* friends and I; we'd collect his concert tapes (and there are many) and watch or listen to them until we could recite them backwards. To this day, I know someone who, if he's having a bad day, I only have to call an 'aggressive sweetie' to make even his worst anomie dissolve like so much fairy floss...

Since those halcyon days of the early 90s, Connolly's become more of a name on this side of the pond; still not the stature he has in the UK - yet - but thanks to high-profile appearances in films from art house (Mrs. Brown) to blockbuster (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), not to mention the prevalence of YouTube and a plethora of new ways to get the word out he's no longer the sly secret of a select few, but belongs at last to the multitudes...

*A fancy way of saying 'Scots-loving'...

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"Crying Over You" by Platinum Blonde

On this day in 2008 bassist and keyboardist Kenny MacLean was found dead of an unspecified heart ailment... He was 52.

Scottish-born MacLean wasn't a founding member of Canadian glam-rock outfit Platinum Blonde, but he did come on board just as the group found its greatest fame with the monster hit album Alien Shores - which says more than I ever could in the space allotted about the importance in life of seizing an opportunity and running with it.

Crying Over You was arguably the band's biggest hit, placing MacLean and his new bandmates front and centre in Canada's thriving music scene at the height of the 1980s.
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"Grace Darling" by William Wordsworth

Among the dwellers in the silent fields
The natural heart is touched, and public way
And crowded street resound with ballad strains,
Inspired by ONE whose very name bespeaks
Favour divine, exalting human love;
Whom, since her birth on bleak Northumbria's coast,
Known unto few but prized as far as known,
A single Act endears to high and low
Through the whole land--to Manhood, moved in spite
Of the world's freezing cares--to generous Youth--
To Infancy, that lisps her praise--to Age
Whose eye reflects it, glistening through a tear
Of tremulous admiration. Such true fame
Awaits her 'now'; but, verily, good deeds
Do not imperishable record find
Save in the rolls of heaven, where hers may live
A theme for angels, when they celebrate
The high-souled virtues which forgetful earth
Has witnessed. Oh! that winds and waves could speak
Of things which their united power called forth
From the pure depths of her humanity!
A Maiden gentle, yet, at duty's call,
Firm and unflinching, as the Lighthouse reared
On the Island-rock, her lonely dwelling-place;
Or like the invincible Rock itself that braves,
Age after age, the hostile elements,
As when it guarded holy Cuthbert's cell.
All night the storm had raged, nor ceased, nor paused,
When, as day broke, the Maid, through misty air,
Espies far off a Wreck, amid the surf,
Beating on one of those disastrous isles--
Half of a Vessel, half--no more; the rest
Had vanished, swallowed up with all that there
Had for the common safety striven in vain,
Or thither thronged for refuge. With quick glance
Daughter and Sire through optic-glass discern,
Clinging about the remnant of this Ship,
Creatures--how precious in the Maiden's sight!
For whom, belike, the old Man grieves still more
Than for their fellow-sufferers engulfed
Where every parting agony is hushed,
And hope and fear mix not in further strife.
"But courage, Father! let us out to sea--
A few may yet be saved." The Daughter's words,
Her earnest tone, and look beaming with faith,
Dispel the Father's doubts: nor do they lack
The noble-minded Mother's helping hand
To launch the boat; and with her blessing cheered,
And inwardly sustained by silent prayer,
Together they put forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar, and struggling on they go--
Rivals in effort; and, alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty's will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman's fortitude--so tried, so proved--
May brighten more and more!

True to the mark,
They stem the current of that perilous gorge,
Their arms still strengthening with the strengthening heart,
Though danger, as the Wreck is neared, becomes
More imminent. Not unseen do they approach;
And rapture, with varieties of fear
Incessantly conflicting, thrills the frames
Of those who, in that dauntless energy,
Foretaste deliverance; but the least perturbed
Can scarcely trust his eyes, when he perceives
That of the pair--tossed on the waves to bring
Hope to the hopeless, to the dying, life--
One is a Woman, a poor earthly sister,
Or, be the Visitant other than she seems,
A guardian Spirit sent from pitying Heaven,
In woman's shape. But why prolong the tale,
Casting weak words amid a host of thoughts
Armed to repel them? Every hazard faced
And difficulty mastered, with resolve
That no one breathing should be left to perish,
This last remainder of the crew are all
Placed in the little boat, then o'er the deep
Are safely borne, landed upon the beach,
And, in fulfilment of God's mercy, lodged
Within the sheltering Lighthouse.--Shout, ye Waves
Send forth a song of triumph. Waves and Winds,
Exult in this deliverance wrought through faith
In Him whose Providence your rage hath served!
Ye screaming Sea-mews, in the concert join!
And would that some immortal Voice--a Voice
Fitly attuned to all that gratitude
Breathes out from floor or couch, through pallid lips
Of the survivors--to the clouds might bear--
Blended with praise of that parental love,
Beneath whose watchful eye the Maiden grew
Pious and pure, modest and yet so brave,
Though young so wise, though meek so resolute--
Might carry to the clouds and to the stars,
Yea, to celestial Choirs, GRACE DARLING'S name!


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In Memoriam: Grace Darling

History is filled with evidence of intellectual ferocity and feats of derring-do as committed by the so-called 'weaker sex'; it seems to me the only weakness involved when it comes to women is in the minds of the men who write 'history', for both promulgating and regurgitating such patently false balderdash...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn this day in 1815 at Bamburgh, Grace Darling grew up at the seashore, raised as she was by a lighthouse keeper; it was at one such place - the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands - when Grace Darling committed the singular act of bravery that assured her immortality.

Observing the SS Forfarshire run aground in September 1838, the 22-year-old Grace and her father took to the lifeboat in heavy seas and rescued nine crewmen from certain death. Accolades were immediately forthcoming; she was made the subject of poems and paintings. There is a museum dedicated to her in the town where she was born and - in October 1842, at the age of 26 - died... More recently singer/songwriter Dave Cousins of Strawbs wrote Grace Darling (from their 1975 album Ghosts) in tribute and as a love song.

Amazingly, Grace Darling wasn't even the first such courageous woman to prove her mettle in the midst of stormy seas; ten years previously, in July 1828, Ann Harvey of Newfoundland had assisted in the rescue of 163 people shipwrecked from the Despatch near Isle aux Morts over a grueling four days when she was just 17. A Canadian, Roberta Boyd, rescued 2 men in New Brunswick from a similar predicament in the 1880s. Which only goes to show that misogyny is just so much claptrap!
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"Who Wants To Live Forever" by Queen

Who Wants to Live Forever is arguably one of Queen's most moving songs, and one which took on a whole new meaning on this day in 1991 - the day its singer died...

Appearing on their 1986 album A Kind of Magic, written by Brian May and sung as a duet between himself and Freddie Mercury, it was recorded for the soundtrack of the film Highlander, and released on September 15th of that year.
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The Death of Freddie Mercury

Did Freddie Mercury conceal his sexuality, ethnicity, and eventual HIV status out of cowardice, ambition, or protection - or was he simply beyond it all: post-gay, world citizen, and zealously protective of his privacy? In lieu of having the man himself to ask we can only speculate. One thing is certain, he was consistent; school chums he'd made in the 60s agreed with people he met professionally in the 80s - he was always reserved and soft-spoken, despite his flamboyant onstage persona.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn in September 1946 as Farrokh Bulsara, and educated partly at St. Peter's School near Mumbai, in 1964 Mercury and his family fled a revolution in Zanzibar (where they lived) to settle in London. In his new home, Mercury studied art, first at West Thames College and later at Ealing Art College; while working his way through a series of odd jobs the shy yet musically precocious Mercury also drifted through a series of bands, finally finding the one that clicked in April of 1970: Queen.

With such diverse influences as Lata Mangeshkar, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Liza Minnelli Mercury threw himself into the new venture he'd started with Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon came later) and by 1973 the band's eponymous first album was released. As adored by fans as it was trashed by critics, it would set the tone for the band's entire career; Sheer Heart Attack in 1974, and 1975's A Night at the Opera forever cemented the band's reputation.

It was on this day in 1991 Freddie Mercury left this world, but not before leaving the world the legacy of his music. Only the day before he finally confessed that he had HIV (although rumours had been rampant for some months, owing mainly to his gaunt appearance); he is survived by his partner at the time, Jim Hutton, and by Mary Austin, a long-time girlfriend who was the chief inheritor of his estate, as well as by family, friends, and fans the world over.

Yet, not even in death has Mercury been afforded the privacy he so zealously sought in life; as late as 2006, officials in Zanzibar - the island in the Indian Ocean (now a part of Tanzania) where he was born - quashed plans to host a 60th birthday tribute to him because his openly gay lifestyle was said to clash with Islamic values.
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