Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Kids table

When I was young, Thanksgiving dinner was always held at my Grandmother's.

My Grandfather had died two years before I was born. Nana had remarried and moved to the next town down the road when I was three.

Her parents (my great-grandparents) would be there. And her three sons, (and the eldest's wife), my brother and myself. And Nana's second husband's son, wife and at first two, then three kids. Then my youngest uncle would add a wife and a couple of children of his own. It was quite a crowd. All of us kids would have our own table. At first we were put at a card table in a corner of the dinning room, but in following years we were put at the table in the kitchen. It was special, and I dare say that we all felt very grown up to be off on our own. I'll bet our discussions were a lot more fun than at the big folks table. I do remember that once or twice an adult came in to quiet us down.

In those days, it would have been considered horribly rude to have the television on during dinner, or to eat in the living room with it on. There were no big football games to be watched - they hadn't started televising them yet (if they were even held), and no one in my family would have been interested. We did have Thanksgiving football, though. While the morning was given over to watching the Gimbels parade on the tv, early afternoon, for anyone interested (none of us were until our teenage years), was the high school's final football game of the year with our traditional and properly hated main rival.

For the feast itself, we'd not only put the extensions into the dining room table (and lay down the extra table mats), but we'd get out the special china, the special silver service (which came out of a dark wood box luxuriously lined with green felt), the crystal water glasses (we did not have wine, although I do not know if that was common or just my family - there were dark rumors of a relative from the 1800's who had been "lost to drink"... ). We dressed in company best clothes, too, even though we saw each other constantly - it was a nod to the day. My great grandfather always wore his suit.

That was all a long time ago now. These days, I live an 8 hour drive away from the town where I grew up, and all of my direct family members are gone; only an aunt, stepmother, and stepbrother and his family remain. I would love to see them all, but it's too long and expensive a drive (these days I have no car), and it is too expensive to go by train. I get together every year with Laura of the Austanspace blog for dinner - it's our own little tradition in a world where even traditions are now merchandised and made meaningless. But we carry on. We don't dress up, and there is no special china, or freshly polished silverware in a dark brown felt lined box, it's been years since Laura had a dining room (instead, we lounge around her living room - it's the modern version of the kids table). But there is still a feast to celebrate another year of our survival in an increasingly difficult world, memories to share of times and people gone by, lots of gossip, and an unspoken celebration of our family of friends who care about each other. And for that, I am truly thankful. May we all be so blest.

Best Wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fruitcake Weather

Sometimes in life there are unexpected consequences, or in this particular case, unexpected benefits. I haven't had tv since last February - a little matter of the cable bill. Where I live, there is no tv without cable. And even though there is a wealth of it on the internet and dvd, it somehow isn't the same when one is not partaking of the communion simultaneously with millions of our mass media brothers and sisters. The benefits include missing out on the incessant frenzied hyperbolic chatter when there is nothing new to report on an inane topic of intense focus, as well as missing out on the barrage of post Labor Day vulgar corporate Chri$tma$ hucksterism.

There is far less tension and anxiety in my world as a result. And now that I am retired, I will not have to spend the next 30 some days in a constant state of aural fear as the overproduced humbug of alleged holiday music is blared at one and all to further engender that holiday shopping urge - in a food store. It makes me wonder if we are being prepared for the day when an appropriate gift will be a can of genetically modified vegetables in a sauce of  tasty chemical additives. Oh, wait...

It was all so much simpler when I was young.

Every generation gets to say that, and for just about every generation, there is much truth in the statement. When I was young, it was considered unseemly to use advertising to implant Christmas desires before Thanksgiving. Holiday music was written by people who knew how to write real songs, and performed by people who could actually sing - and wasn't played until about two weeks before The Day. Christmas Holiday cheer was saved until Christmas was nigh. 

Last year, I discovered that most of the old Christmas specials and tv show episodes - the ones that could actually bring a bit of the spirit of joy and sharing into our lives, were either played continually on cable channels, or (for the better shows) available only on pay per view. The programs on pay per view were originally broadcast for free - or the price of watching a commercial. It tells you something about our modern world that the current corporate owners of those programs keep them unavailable until they are paid by each viewer for each viewing over a closed wire system which must also be paid for. 

And, sadly, some of the best programs have gone missing for one reason or another. I still have fond memories of a muppet Christmas special which had only one human character - Santa Claus, as played by Art Carney. I seem to recall it was rather sad, and I've never heard of it again. I thought I was imagining it until Laura over at Austanspace told me she remembered it too. Carney, by the way, was absolutely great as the Santa in the Twilight Zone episode, "Night of the Meek".

But the special I want most to see again was an ABC Stage 67 program, "A Christmas Memory". It was adapted from a Truman Capote short story by Eleanor Perry and Capote, who narrated it. It won Emmys for Geraldine Page and for the script. It also won a Peabody award. There is a multi-part post of it on You Tube, but it is in black and white. There is a good, clear print of it in color, but it is variously reported as missing, destroyed, or tied up in rights. It's complicated.

The story begins on a crisp cold morning in late November as... well, here, let Mr. Capote tell it:

" ...she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.... It's always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: "It's fruitcake weather!"

Thanksgiving is tomorrow. The current version of holiday madness is about to begin in earnest. I try to find joy in the sheer vulgarity of it all, the overwhelming garishness of the decorations, the frenzied mobs I try to avoid, the steep prices that will be reduced the day after The Day, but it gets harder every year.

But there is something about Thanksgiving that gets us.  Everyone seems to celebrate it, friends and families draw together, and every year it seems like we have to triumph over ever increasing odds just to do it. But we do it. Even though it is mostly ritual now, often devoid of meaning, we still do it. There is something in us that understands. It is more than just a day of thanks giving. It is the start of a time which exhilarates our imaginations, and fuels the blaze in our hearts. And it always starts the same, on a cold morning in November, when it's fruitcake weather...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cleve Duncan

The Penguins, (top to bottom) Bruce Tate,
Dexter Tisby, Cleve Duncan, Curtis Williams
I've just discovered the sad news that Cleve Duncan passed away earlier this month at the age of either 77 or 78. Mr. Duncan was unknown to me, but his voice wasn't. He was a member of the doo-wop group the Penguins, and sang lead on their only hit, "Earth Angel". His voice soared.

"Earth Angel" was a huge hit in 1955. It was recorded in a garage as the "B" side to "Hey, Senorita" . Then a DJ started playing the flip side. It moved up the charts until Billboard listed it for three weeks as #1 on the r&b chart, and simultaneously at #8 on the pop chart - a rare feat.

It is regarded as the first #1 rock and roll song in America.

In those days, many groups would perform and or record their own versions of hit songs. The Canadian group the Crew-Cuts released a popular version that went to #3 on the pop charts, and started them on a career of doing r&b covers. But I grew up near Philadelphia, then a hot bed of music and early TV. Philly radio stations gave preference to the Penguins. It was still popular when I was a teenager in the 1960's. I can remember slow dancing to it at the monthly teen dances in the old American Legion hall before that venue was condemned as unsafe. And it was still on the jukeboxes in area diners. As a kid, I bought the 45rpm re-release on the Mercury label. The Penguins never had another hit; their manager spent more time on, and gave the better material to, his other clients, The Platters. In 1958, the Penguins disbanded. Mr. Duncan would later re-form the group with a succession of new members. The new group lasted another 40 years, and were still performing earlier this year. Of  "Earth Angel", Mr. Duncan said, “I never get tired of singing it, as long as people never get tired of hearing it.” I can't speak for anybody else, Mr. Duncan, but I sure won't.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Duncan, rest in Peace.

Something's Gotta Give...

Jeeezus. It's that time of the year already. Thanksgiving is just a few days away. The annual holiday madness is about to descend upon us. And this year, to add extra spice to the surge in travel, heavier use of electronics and communication devices, and SEED (Seasonal Emotional Excess Disorder - I just made that up but it fits, and there will be lots of fits - trust me), we have Mercury retrograde. Basically, when observed from our planet, mercury appears to go backward in the night sky. It is an illusion. But, like many an illusion, the effects it engenders are all too real. I am very glad I no longer travel long distances this week. Because this year, it's probably gonna be a mess out there. It's already been bad enough with computer problems, machinery breaking down, the computer acting up - what should have been a few hours work putting in a new hot water heater (my studio apartment has hot water baseboard heat) has now taken most of a week and still isn't finished, etc. And I have the added joy of being a Virgo. My ruling planet is Mercury. It would probably be best if I were to stay in bed, pull the covers over my head, and touch nothing mechanical or electronic. Oh, just for extra added kicks, it's shadow Mercury-Scorpio. If you don't know, it's best not to ask. Trust me. Mercury will go direct again on November the 26th. Two days before a Lunar eclipse (swelling dramatic something is about to happen shark music). It'll all be over around December 14th - provided we survive the darker reaches of the soul introspection thing. Don't ask.

Today is a beautiful but cold sunny Sunday morning. And it's already weird. At our Community Radio station, the guy who plays older gospel was in for his 6am show, but both the 8am show and the 10am show are missing in action. The 6am guy hadn't been doing his show for months - and re-emerged three weeks ago when Mercury Retrograde started. The two shows following him are both dependable and always there - except today.

Two favorites of mine have birthdays today. It was on this day in 1928 that Mickey Mouse made his debut in the first synchronized sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie". It was actually the third Mickey Mouse made, but the first released. The first two were silent, although by the time they saw release they had added soundtracks. Disney considered this date Mickey's birthday, and that's good enough for me. And, it's a very Mercury retrograde kind of thing...

And Joy! be upon us. Ralph arrived late for his radio show (problems with traffic - you now know what at work), and he is doing a birthday tribute to the other birthday celebrant I wanted to mention, a b-i-g Stevil music fave, Johnny Mercer. The first hour plus of my own radio show last night was a Johnny Mercer celebration. How important is Johnny Mercer to the Great American Songbook? Well, look at it this way - in the late 1950's and early 1960's, at the height of her powers, Ella Fitzgerald recorded a series of nine 'songbooks'. Of them, only one was dedicated to a lyricist - and that lyricist was Johnny Mercer. In 1942, along with a Hollywood executive (who was also an occasional songwriter) and a record store owner, Mercer co-founded Capitol Records. Although he started on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, he had gone  west in the early 1930's. The numerous songs he wrote for the movies earned him 19 Oscar nominations. He won four times.

Just to name a few Mercer penned hits: Jeepers Creepers, Blues in the Night, Hooray for Hollywood, And the Angels Sing, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread), This Time the Dream's On Me, That Old Black Magic, Travelin' Light, Skylark, One for My Baby and One More For the Road, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, My SHining Hour, Dream, Come Rain Or Come Shine, Early Autumn, Autumn Leaves (English lyric), Something's Gotta Give, The Days of Wine and Roses... and that just scratches the surface.

Here's one of the ones which won an Oscar for Best Song (although the print quality and color are a disservice to this production number):

Here's another of his Oscar winners:

After Johnny Mercer passed at the age of 66, his wife gave his last lyric to Mercer's friend Barry Manilow, who set it to music. Here it is performed by Rosemary Clooney backed by the Glenn Miller ghost band on a New Year's Eve in 1988. Oh, yeah, the song became a bit of a hit. And I have to tell you, at my age (I'm now 62), this one has really begun to hit home.

So Happy Birthday, Johnny Mercer, and Thank You for all the music.