" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Monday, March 30, 2015

'The Almost Nearly Perfect People': Bustin' on my Scandinavian homies

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By Michael Booth
New York

Now I know why we left the old country.

Michael Booth’s new survey of the Nordic lands is a feisty, funny, trip that enlightens as it entertains.

The English travel and food writer has a long-standing connection to Denmark through his wife, and the book originated in his chagrin at Denmark’s consistent rating as the world’s happiest, most progressive society. “They don’t look that happy to me,” he thought, and what results is Booth’s frank and acerbic levering up of the great assumptions about these cultures’ superiority to take a peek at what squirms about in the shadows beneath them.

As he travels through Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, Booth does an admirable job of blending reportage, anecdote, and historical contextualization to present a balanced sketch of each society. This is a tricky business – Booth plumbs the national stereotypes for validity, and confronts his own ingrained generalizations, revealing a much bumpier, more complex reality.

Not that this is an expose or stab job. Booth is keen to remind the reader that in a world where poverty, conflict, disease, and injustice are par for the course, the problems of the highly developed, affluent North are relatively minor. Additionally, he espouses the virtues that makes these societies work – “trustworthiness, accountability, openness, a strong civil society, long-termism, individual self-control.” However, those of Scandinavian heritage raised with an intimidating sense of where they came from will find this study a big fat relief -- as some of these stereotypes are all too grounded in fact.

For instance, it seems that Danes are not the most happy, they are simply the best at pretending that everything is just fine. The Norwegians come off as not-too-bright, right-wing tribalists rendered effete by their vast oil revenues. Iceland? Vikings led astray into modern financial incoherence by their piratical tendencies. Finland is portrayed as composed of tough, taciturn binge-drinkers. And Sweden, the economic leader of them all, is a stultifyingly conformist culture, the ultimate nanny state, with an enormous immigrant problem.

In fact, the problems of multiculturalism crop up again and again in “Almost.” These host cultures are incredibly homogenous, not just culturally but genetically. The need for workers willing to do the mundane tasks that keep things running falls more and more to refugees, and inclusive philosophies are being tested now up North, with intermittent success. Enforcing tolerance and avoiding racial stratification is the new challenge.

The overall sense that Booth leaves the reader with is that, like a typical American suburb, Scandinavia is a nice place to be from. The traits I thought were my family’s alone are more broadly based. The aversion to conflict, the lack of emotionality, the stiff politesse, the smugness, the non-specific gloominess, the nagging sense of personal unimportance, the shyness, the yearning for universal approval, and wielding relentless, lethal niceness as a weapon all are found among the people Booth meets on his way.

Booth quotes journalist Niels Lillelund --“In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding, we create hopelessness, helplessness and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity,” and The Economist – “Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born . . . but only if you are average. . . . if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.” Why leave heaven? Well, if for you it's hell.

The idea that these “perfect” societies tend to iron out or exclude the unique, eccentric, and enterprising individual makes me understand why my dissatisfied, grumpy, free-thinking ancestors got the hell out of there. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” has more than a dollop of truth in it. Of course, Booth's observations have stirred debate, as they should. "Almost" is great look below the surface.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Super Mario: America’s greatest tenor and the seductions of schmaltz


“ . . . the house had been hit in a raid, and among the losses was my record collection, all save one, which I still have . . . I daren’t play it much; it creates such vivid memories. I have to go for a walk; even then it’s about three hours before I can settle down again.” Spike Milligan, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall

Sitting in my head for decades is a root musical memory of the vinyl disc RCA Victor LM-1837. It’s got the ungainly title of “Mario Lanza sings the hit songs from The Student Prince and other musical comedies.” On the album’s cover there floats Mario’s big, ripe, grinning head, cut out and set against a blood-red background. Inside, a flood tide of rich phrasing and incredible vocal pyrotechnics. My father, an operetta aficionado, played it all the time. My mother, normally allergic to this kind of thing, shared an affection for it with him. They had been carting it around all their married life. By the time we kids got to it the vinyl was scratched and pitted with affectionate use.

Why was Lanza so important to both of them? What did he mean to them?

Between 1945 and 1955, you couldn’t buy a beat in pop music. Somewhere between swing music and rock and roll, a great wave of sentimental balladry took hold in America. As soldiers came home from World War II and inaugurated the Baby Boomer generation, big bands faded and singing stars – Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, Vic Damone, Frankie Laine, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Patti Page, Nat “King” Cole, Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, Jo Stafford, Andy Williams, the Chordettes, the Ames Brothers, the McGuire Sisters – took over the airwaves and jukeboxes. The county was awash in violins and vibrato.

Now, in 1940, big bands were riding high. The Swing Era was inaugurated by Benny Goodman’s breakthrough concert in Los Angeles’s Palomar Ballroom in 1935. Ten years later, it was over. Many factors contributed – the drafting of many musicians in World War II, the crippling ASCAP strike of 1942-1944, and most importantly the phenomenal explosion of interest in Frank Sinatra, who went from being one of Tommy Dorsey’s juvenile singers to a number-one sensation. Suddenly, instead of a vocalist serving as one component in the ensemble, he or she was pushed into the spotlight. Song choices and musical arrangements were now shaped around a vocalist’s range and persona.

Into this setting stepped the ambitious 26-year-old Lanza. His slowly developing career took off after his performance at the Hollywood Bowl on August 28, 1947. The 4,000 in attendance included many people from the film industry, including MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer quickly signed Lanza to a contract. Three films later – “That Midnight Kiss,” “The Toast of New Orleans,” and “The Great Caruso” – he was the first to sell a million copies of an operatic recording, 1951’s “Great Caruso” soundtrack, one that has never gone out of print.

 Then he eased out of the onerous pressures of Hollywood, trained himself to an exemplary degree, and became a long-lived and beloved opera star, the greatest tenor of the 20th century.

Of course, this did not happen. In fact, this is precisely the opposite of what happened, and that flicked the switch on the tragic nimbus that still hovers behind Lanza’s memory. The singer, the only child of a passive, shell-shocked WWI veteran and a domineering, frustrated-musician mother, was spoiled as a child. His lack of discipline and impulse control as an adult, mated to childish willfulness, led to a lifetime of self-destructive behavior.

Lanza seemed bipolar, swinging abruptly between extravagant spending, womanizing, and boasts that he was greater than Caruso, and long periods of crippling stage fright, depression, isolation, paranoia, and compulsive bouts of eating and drinking. (He repeatedly went on sometimes-successful crash diets to reduce his weight for filming – yo-yoing between 180 and nearly 300 pounds.) He would sabotage his voice by singing loudly all night before a concert – then cancel the concert due to a sore throat. (Like Pavarotti, he was famously called out for lip-synching in public; his sloppy erotic divertissements with Judy Garland and others are on record.) In the end, he stormed and strutted like the stereotype of the preening Italian tenor.

MGM announced that Mario Lanza would play the lead in Sigmund Romberg’s “The Student Prince” in 1951. However, this marked the point at which Lanza’s diva-esque behavior would drive the studio to suspend him, cancel the film, and sue him for damages. After pre-recording his songs for the film shortly before his conflicts with the studio became unworkable, Lanza found himself frozen out of the production. Finally, Lanza submitted to the ultimate insult – his vocal tracks would be lip-synched by a slimmer and more cooperative actor, Edward Purdom. The authorities finally divorced Lanza's wonderful voice from his troublesome self.

The movie was released two years after Lanza’s recording sessions. By that time, he had made one more film in the U.S., “Serenade,” and would be off to Italy, from where he would not return alive.

Lanza was possessed of the finest natural tenor voice many have ever heard. It is full, ringing, clear and expressive. When Lanza was focused and disciplined, his breath control, diction, tone, interpretive skill, and sense of dynamics was unsurpassed. However, when in distress or out of shape, these abilities would lapse and audiences would hear some of the qualities complained about by many critics – a forced, metallic quality, pushing for effect, poor breath support, and an impulse to constantly go for “toppers” – stunning bursts of  volume and flashy high notes, whether the material warranted it or not.

Being an overnight sensation meant that Lanza was pushed into recording lots of forgettable pop. However, while his health permitted his versatility and sensitivity to the material meant that he recorded many fine interpretations of ballads. Too, his renditions of many romantic and lyrical canzone Napoletana (Neapolitan songs) are considered definitive.

Lanza’s voice is so compelling and penetrating, he sings with such commitment and intensity, that it is difficult to be unmoved. Tied in with the conventions of the day – heavily orchestrated accompaniment, echo, stereo reprocessing – the result is super-extravagant schmaltz of the highest pitch. It’s a collision of the high-art operatic and the lowbrow, sentimental mush of the time.

Success destroyed Lanza. The money, fame, and adulation sudden film stardom brought were just as addictive as the women he chased and the booze he poured into himself. To his handlers, Lanza was a machine that printed money. Very few of the people who did business with or for him had any regard for his sanity or long-term career. Studio heads, music producers, managers, agents, lawyers – he quickly grew a protective carapace around himself -- one that required massive amounts of income to sustain. It was in no one’s interest to say no to him.

So, if Lanza’s life was a tragedy, whose fault was it? It depends on which biographer you read. Six different biographies range in their depictions of Lanza from a suffering saint to a contemptible cur. Some are clearly written for gain, retailing Lanza’s flaws to sell books. These include books in which the authors felt no compunction about making up reams of imaginary dialogue, as well as the inner thoughts of its subject and everyone around him.

Another pushes the myth that the Mafia killed Lanza. In fact, Lanza’s self-indulgent lifestyle weakened his heart considerably and contributed to the phlebitis that killed when a blood clot left his leg and migrated to his heart, causing a fatal heart attack.

One reliable source is Armando Cesari’s “Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy,” which includes a painstaking list of his recordings, films, concert, and radio appearances as well as a Cesari-curated CD of rare live and home-recorded tracks that bolster his extensive, solid analyses of the singer’s changing voice.

Roland L. Bessette’s “Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile” is its equal. Bessette is painfully honest about many embarrassing incidents in Lanza’s life, but balances them with equally affecting stories of his kindness and his bouts of professionalism. At book’s end, Bessette speculates that Lanza’s inherent character flaws would have prevented him from having other than the life he did. “He had . . . the best career he could have had.” All who examine his life declare his voice a natural talent so immense that it crushed the man who had to bear it.

This is where my parents come in. My father, raised in a comfortable middle-class household, was heir to a taste for light classical music and operetta, from Gilbert and Sullivan through Herbert, Friml, Lehar, and the rest of those composers of tuneful pleasantry from the turn of last century. My mother, out on the farm, had no such musical pretensions, and grew up on country music and white (aka unswinging) gospel. But she was quite imaginative, well-read and had a flair for the dramatic – thanks to her, we had a well-stocked assortment of musical comedy soundtracks.

Somehow, Lanza hit the sweet spot for both of them. It served as a sort of soundtrack to their courtship. Later, it became a humorous and affectionate reference for them. Much later, it became something no one wanted to hear around the house. It had become an unbearable reminder of a romance that played out into a marriage overwhelmed by alienation and despair.

“The Student Prince” is powered by a classic romance plot: he’s a student prince, she’s a barmaid . . . complications ensue.

We kids played Side One over and over, crooning and swooping about the house, making melodramatic gestures of cross-eyed devotion in jerry-built costumes we thought mimicked the elegant finery of the principals. There was nothing more exhilarating than to imagine that I might one day be as captivating as Mario, with a magnetic voice that no one woman could resist!

“Overhead, the moon is beaming
White as blossoms on the bough
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird
Filling all the air with dreaming
Could this beauty last forever?
I would ask for nothing more, believe me
Let this night but live forever, forever and ever more!”

Lanza’s sound penetrates the thick, warm orchestrations, creating a kind of gem-scattered brilliance on a velvety background.  It’s not hard to see how Lanza and his music became a metaphor for the world of unattainable, disturbing fantasy the protagonists of Peter Jackson’s film “Heavenly Creatures” seek. For a while, it was our fantasy world as well.

Likewise, after years of contemplating my parents’ emotional dynamic, and sometimes overcoming its shadow on my own relationships, I have to come to a conclusion parallel to Bessette’s concerning Lanza  – they had the best marriage they could have had.

As for me, to the extent that I grew up thinking that love was supposed to be one long operatic epiphany . . . well, life took care of that. I spent many years chasing that addictive love high. Complications ensued. Now on much more solid ground, I can finally detach myself from all the regretful associations and really hear that voice for what it is.

And there, distilled in those romantic melodies, is still a kernel of what drew my parents together. Whether it was illusory, or never meant to last, those songs embody a majestic passion that must have consumed them, once. It’s comforting to know that.


Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile
Roland L. Bessette
Amadeus Press
Portland OR

Amore: The Story of Italian American Song
Mark Rotella
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
New York

Lanza, His Tragic Life
Raymond Strait & Terry Robinson
Englewood Cliffs, NJ

Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods
Derek Mannering
University Press of Mississippi
Jackson, MS

Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy
Armando Cesari
Baskerville Publishers
Fort Worth, TX

The Mario Lanza Story
Constantine Callinicos
New York

Mario Lanza
Matt Bernard
Macfadden-Bartell Corp.
New York

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hack away: the virtues of going for it


"Success is an ugly thing. Men are deceived by its false resemblances to merit . . . They confound the brilliance of the firmament with the star-shaped footprints of a duck in the mud." Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Hey, how’s it going? Mind if I ask you something? What if you’re a hack? An artistic fraud? A waste of time and money?

Guess what – it doesn’t matter.

For years, I strove (strived? stroved?) to make it. Too arrogant and idiosyncratic to follow any normal course of employment, I went from acting to comedy to radio to journalism to social media to, hopefully finally, writing and editing. I wasted a lot of time trying to achieve that supposed moment when popular acceptance would be mine and I would be another cultural icon, embedded in beneficence and solvency in the firmament of collective consciousness.

It didn’t really work out. And now, it doesn’t have to.

It’s important that every person of artistic bent collide with the real world, at least initially. The first thing you learn is that everyone is talented, and that talent doesn’t have much to do with success. Starting out at the bottom, working crap jobs to stay alive, learning how to be a functioning part of a larger whole, all important skills. Learning that truisms such as showing up on time and ready, with an open mind, put you miles ahead of others, or that you have to know how to take orders before you can give them, or that the worth of your commodifiable skills are not identical with your inherent worth as a person.

It’s instructional to see business deals blow up, projects collapse under you, bosses make choices that doom you and others to unemployment – to see how many ways thing scan go south. Your work can be scorned, ignored, or simply not show up on society’s radar. However, at some point, if you are still capable of producing creative content, you can stop standing in your own way, cease worrying and just get the work done. Your standards are too high.

Have you ever tried to write something popular? Has it ever worked? (I’m not talking to you, Nicholas Sparks.) No one knows what will be a hit – either now or in the scope of human history . . . hey, might as well aim high. Critic Anthony Lane memorably read and reviewed the literary top 10 of 1945 in 1995; the results were ghastly and involved books no one now remembers. OK – my grandpa had a copy of “Forever Amber” stashed on a high bookshelf – I heard there was sex in it and dashed eagerly through its pages, unsatisfied.)

You can never tell. It is a truth in standup comedy that generally, the jokes you’ve written that you really love don’t get a great response but that the ones you aren’t so crazy often click with the crowd. If you have a bone of self-preservation in your body, you keep the jokes that work and toss or rework the ones that won’t. But how many of your darlings do you have to kill to make it? I try to balance my desire to write about whatever the hell I want with the need to craft something interesting and readable to humanity at large. I am still often wrong. Oddly enough, when I stopped worrying, I started selling more stories. My voice got stronger. I could hear myself instead of my anxieties. You need to express yourself, whether there’s a check at the end of the trail or not. It’s a crap shoot.

And even when you get to that point, there is still the concern about if the work will speak to the masses, if it will “endure.” Come on. Really? When I was younger, I and the rest of my fellow struggling, resentful, well-drink-slurping comics in the back of the club hated the comedy hacks that always got time in the clubs, even though they did the same banal crap over and over. I used to scorn TV shows and TV writers, the whole shoddy lowest-common-denominator bunch.

Now, I find that many of my friends write for and produce these TV shows. They do it well. They have houses, spouses, kids to put though school, and they earn every penny of their salaries. They are highly intelligent, talented, and tough people -- who sometimes have created forgettable entertainment. So what? Once I learned about these people’s work weeks, my respect for them went stratospheric.

If you have been alive for any length of time in this world, you need a little mindless distraction. Crap in our entertainment diet is good for you, roughage for your aesthetic digestive tract. For all that I grew up on high-falutin’ films like “Children of Paradise,” I needed “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy,” too. I needed Miro and Matisse, AND Famous Monsters of Filmland and Tales from the Crypt. As Patton Oswalt put it in “Silver Screen Fiend,” “If people need bread and circuses, better it be bread from the finest flour and springwater, and circuses under the cleanest canvas with the healthiest animals.”

And besides, what harm does bad art cause? Someone I can’t call to mind at present insisted that artists’ errors are unimportant as, unlike doctors, chefs, or politicians, when an artist screws up, no one dies. In fact, horrible artistic efforts have spurred even greater ones – think of Mark Twain being inspired to write merely by reading James Fennimore Cooper until he couldn’t take it anymore? And in fact, Cooper began writing in reaction to the even worse popular literature of HIS day.

And is it every really definitively crap? The 12-cent superhero comic books we treasured bloomed into a mythos that has sold billions of dollars in movie tickets. Jerry Springer became the subject of an avant-garde opera. John Kennedy Toole wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” killed himself in 1969, won the Pulitzer for it in 1981. Stick with it – you never know.

You have very little, if any, control over how your work will be taken, or utilized. Sometimes, like a favorite character actor, you may find yourself as that familiar ace in the corner of a movie screen whose name can never be summoned. Even Boris Karloff, typed if ever an actor was, said this:

“One always hears of actors complaining of being typed – if he’s young, he’s typed as a juvenile; if he’s handsome, he’s typed as a leading man. I was lucky. Whereas bootmakers have to spend millions to establish a trademark, I was handed a trademark free of charge. When an actor gets into a position to select his own roles, he’s in big trouble, for he never knows what he can do best. I’m sure I would be damn good as Little Lord Fauntleroy, who would pay ten cents to see it?”

Within the confines of what we are capable of and what people can absorb from our work, we can make magical things happen. It just never goes quite the way they told you.

And hey, what about having a life? That’s all the stuff that happens every day while you are waiting for the universe to tell you that you are loved. That is important. When I get published, I get a spectacular rush – for about 10 minutes. Then I got back to whatever else it is that’s on my desk to be done. But my wife and kids and family and friends and pets and nature and God and music and baseball and good Mexican food and IBC root beer . . . these things stay with you far longer. Pay attention to them.

If things go as they have been, I need never worry about the pitfalls of popularity. Here’s how it works: I write first, I sell it after. (The few major-media gatekeepers left standing aren’t guarding much of anything; and their choices are as always dictated by budgets, not an altruistic desire to exhibit your genius to all and sundry.) Nothing gets wasted; I can always rework something that doesn’t move commercially and post it myself. Maybe I’m an arteeste, but the only thing that gets me through a work day is craftsmanship, discipline, and a good will to forge ahead. Writing a story can be as complex, tedious, and ultimately rewarding as building a cabinet.

You never know where your obsessions will take you. After years of just keeping my head down and writing no matter what, I found that a lot of work that I thought was random coalesced into themed groups – and that I had pretty much written the sample chapters for four books, which I am now peddling. Will they sell? I don’t know. But they are there, and they weren’t before.

And what are awards and pans but ways of categorizing and controlling creatives? You have no control over that, either. What if your work doesn’t get read? What if someone, just one person, finds it hundreds of years later and gets something out of it? In my researched pieces, I find this all the time – as if someone long dead was thinking of me and left some information, some guidance I needed. Love is as strong as death, but writing is stronger.

And what if your masterpieces aren’t just scorned or ignored but lost? Destroyed? Your laptop’s hit by lightning, the studio burns down, the recordings get thrown out. Once during a period of volunteering at the local Goodwill store I had the extremely sad experience of seeing a cache of 19th-centry family photos, and 78-rpm records, smashed and thrown into the trash because no one could conceive that they might have some value, or were worth preserving. Who knows what works of genius, of irreplaceable memories, have gone out with the trash?

I believe that the effort to create, even if unrewarded, works on some spiritual level as a counteractive to the more selfish and hateful impulses that drive this world. To glean meaning from a seemingly random and unfair world is an assertion of worth and significance.
In the end, you’ll be dead. It won’t matter if you will end up rivaling Shakespeare or you wind up the poet laureate of East Jesus, Nebraska, if even that. Do not waste your time wondering where all this is getting you, and don’t listen to those who wonder it out loud for your supposed benefit. It works for me.

So get up on your mountaintop of genius, or your molehill of mediocrity, and trumpet, strut, and bellow. We each have one song to sing in life, so get up there and sing it, dammit. Only God or fate determines what of us persists, of what we did that is deemed worthy. Sing, bird, sing.