Thursday, October 22, 2015

That's Entertainment

    I can't recall our first TV, the one with the rounded tube in a blond, mid-century cabinet atop spindly little legs sporting faux brass socks. We may never have had such a set, actually, and I could be confusing it with the Victrola upon which Dad spun such timeless platters as Percy Faith, Lester Lanin and Drums of Passion. But I do remember the excitement and fanfare that built up around the day he brought home the modern, table-top version; a Zenith, which carried us from the grainy Nixon, Kennedy debate through the assassination, the endless, crepuscular funeral cortege and Jack Ruby's astonishing epilogue. Along the way there must have been some Alan Shepard and some Elvis, but popular apprehension concerning what television might do to our brains had convinced my parents to ban the Box altogether on weeknights.

If I were sick and home from school, a feat that might be easily achieved through the judicious application of an oral thermometer to a glass of hot water - this proscription might be eased, and I'd catch up with a bit of Dobey Gillis or Bowery Boys, but after the early morning newsreels devoted to American agriculture or industry on parade – those stentorious epics depicting massive combines rolling over amber fields of grain – there wasn't much to watch beyond test patterns until Johnny Mathis showed up after lunch to help the housewives with the ironing.

    Between Lyndon Johnson's reluctant, on-screen ascension and his withdrawal a few years later, Dad's restrictions had eased, though he never ceded control of the device, switching it on for Chet Huntley and off after Walter Cronkite. Occasionally he'd insist on a Special or Gala after the news, hosted by Judy and Bing, perhaps, and featuring Ethel Merman; nothing drove his children from the room faster than these three wrapping it up with an encore of  “Alexander's Ragtime Band”!  By that time the War was well under way and it was hard to pass by the tube without Cronkite grabbing you by the elbow and forcing you down into a chair, regardless of house policy.  Night after night, over a plate of Triscuits and Cracker Barrel, we'd watch choppers hovering above the flattened paddies, disgorging one hapless soldier after another into the maelstrom of visible tracer fire below. This prospect -  my nearly certain future, if the TV's prognostications proved correct - made me so unsettled that I rarely stayed for the somber casualty call that ended each report. My father had no stomach for footage of rude, entitled hippies, and, with the barbarians at the gates in Chicago we left home for school and nearly an entire decade elapsed – with the notable exceptions of the moon landing and impeachment hearings - before SNL got my attention. On infrequent trips home I'd find that Dad,  having finally given up regulating the box, had chosen to embrace it and had pretty much given himself over entirely to Carol Burnett, Colombo and Kojak.


     Somewhere over the last thirty years – perhaps it began with the relentless podium digressions of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, I find we've fallen once more into the void. We bought cable. When analog faded away, we went digital; we found ourselves glued to real-time wars, disasters and elections. We subscribed to pay-stations, had to get NetFlix and have burrowed into intricate dramas that take years to resolve. Where thirty minutes of a thoughtful Mr Cronkite was once enough, we subject ourselves to hours of shrieking from Matthews or O'Reilly and, in place of the comedy of Carol Burnett, sufficient to lull my father to sleep of an evening, we're transfixed by the giddy hysteria of the  fall of Republicanism and the rise of Donald Trump, the Great Charlatan.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What Can I Help You With?

    Scholarship, it may be said, has never been a defining characteristic of the males in our line. Primarily concerned with the making and spending of fortunes, at least during the century, more or less, when such fortunes were still available to them, these gentlemen were perhaps more enthusiastic about buying leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes by the pound to decorate the shelves of their smoking parlors than actually sitting down to read any of them. For my own part, few subjects took sufficient hold of my imagination in elementary school to prompt the sort of immersion that might lead toward scholarship and, in any case, the furrow leading from interest to expertise proved almost invariably too long a row to hoe. 

   Thus it became my great good fortune in college to wind up sharing a loft above the porno store on Snow street with a young painter who had already consumed so many of the world's great works that he fairly exuded scholarship from the noodle atop his jaunty beret to the tip of his long, rabbinical barb. Under his tutelage I soon found myself toting around tattered copies of Panofsky's seminal spellbinder, Meaning in the Visual Arts or Gandhi's epic page-turner The Story of My Experiments With Truth, blowing the guys who still thought it was cool to be seen with The Fountainhead or Turtle Island right out of the water. In the evenings we'd sit across the table from one another trading belly laughs over citations from Nijinsky's Diaries, Dead Souls or Canetti's, The Comedy of Vanity. As with most of the knowledge I acquired in college, literature came to me more through peer-to-peer osmosis than any syllabus or requirement of the school itself. As it turned out, I liked to read but wasn't particularly interested in the scholarship of literature; I liked to paint but was bored by the clinical scholarship of painting. Around this time I developed interests in fishing, malted beverages and Jazz. Although these subjects may appear more recreational than academic, authorities from Izaak Walton to Leonard Feather have produced enough Moroccan-bound compendiums on their every minutia to satisfy even the decorating requirements of my forefathers.

   I spent the Eighties kneeling on a brown shag rug in Brooklyn, finger poised above the pause button of the Teac, waiting for Phil Schaap to stop talking and drop the needle on Billie Holiday or Coltrane or Mingus or Bird. Schaap was a DJ on New York's preeminent Jazz station and I became a devotee from the moment I discovered him launching into an endless soliloquy on what Charlie Parker may have had for breakfast the day he joined Jay McShann in Kansas City. A decade later I 'd amassed, through relentless taping and oblique osmosis, a nearly encyclopedic education in the form, the closest thing to scholarship I may have ever attained. In those days I could tell you who was who and who wasn't, what the tune was and what tune that riff was based on. Most of this knowledge has faded away in the absence of Jazz radio and the distance I've put between myself and the bright lights and Big City; I can still name the major players, most of the time, but I find myself often stumped by what might once have seemed obvious and unforgettable.

   The other day we were working down the road and listening to Body and Soul on Pandora via Malcolm's laptop. I was thinking maybe Ben Webster..... but not quite. Certainly not the classic, not Hawk, but close. This should be an easy one, I thought, putting down the paint roller, leaning into my ladder and letting the saxophone envelop me. “Hey,” Malcolm called from the next room, breaking the spell. “Come watch this; this is unbelievable!” He was holding his new iphone 6, the laptop on the table between us, the rich, mellifluous Body and Soul filling the room. “Siri!” He said into the phone, “What tune is this?” I started to say something about how almost anybody could name that tune when Siri cut me off. “Let me listen for a moment...” she said, “Ok, I think I've got it. That's Body and Soul by Andy Sheppard!” 

   And Siri was right, of course. I've never even heard of Andy Sheppard. If Siri can do that with an obscure tenor man, she can presumably do it with a painting, a line of verse or nearly anything else we might imagine. Can there really be any future for scholarship?