A Prayer for AJ…and all the others.

I prayed last night.
That may not seem like a big deal to you, but for me it is positively out of character. I am no longer an observant Jew. I am a cultural Jew. In fact, in the religious sense, I am as close to being an avowed atheist as one can be without actually avowing it. I guess the early brainwashing infiltrated a bit deeper than I thought. More about that later.

Mind you, I don’t criticize or make fun of people who pray regularly, but I have not done so in more than 40-years.

I’ve recited prayers when appropriate and as a gesture of love to others for whom it was a significant act…but actual prayer went out the window right at this time of year around 41 or 42 years ago. I was sitting in Shul for the High Holidays – which begins tonight in observant Jewish households — after the recent passing of my Aunt Edie, who was more a second mother to me than an Aunt. And I was still grieving.

All this high-holiday talk and prayer about living a good life and getting “written into the book of life for a good year” suddenly seemed like so much bullshit to me. Cancer had taken my Aunt. She was a fine person who lived an exemplary life and did not deserve to be taken at age 53. So all this “deserve” talk, all this proscribed penitence and ritualized righteousness to me, amounted to nothing.

Tonight on Erev Rosh Hashonah – the Eve of the Jewish New Year – I will light a Yahrzeit candle – a memorial candle – in remembrance of my father who passed away five-and-a-half years ago. I will recite the traditional prayer as I light the candle, but I need neither to remember him, because he is with me every minute of every day.

I do it because I think it would be meaningful to him and because he did it for HIS father. I do it out respect and out of love.

None of which is why I prayed last night.

Last night I prayed out of frustration. And anger.

I know that –like virtually everyone else regardless of religion – since the age when I was too young to think for myself, I was brainwashed into believing there was a God. What’s more he was a nice God, a loving God…an Uber-Parent…maybe even an Uber-Grandparent of a God.

At first the brainwashing was subtle…like when the holidays came around…the festive, holiday smells in the house changed as Mom spent days cooking the Rosh Hashonah dinner for a couple of dozen people. Or a Passover Seder that grew like topsy until we had to find venues other than our house to contain the crowd of participants. Chanukah brought presents and latkes – fried potato pancakes – and did I mention presents? The proverbial spoon full of sugar that made the medicine go down.

Then, when I turned 9, I was off to Hebrew School a few nights a week after regular school. Here was the doctrine. Here was the overt brainwashing. Some took, some didn’t.
But the constant was this nice guy, forgiving God.

Except that as I got older and looked around I realized that if this “nice guy God” was really so nice, how could he have allowed all of the horrors mankind inflicts on itself. The answer – almost invariably – was that God gave mankind free will and would not interfere with it, for better or worse.

Sounds like a cop out considering he’s such a good-guy God, but it does conveniently account (and abrogate responsibility) for the wars and the Holocaust and the myriad other genocides that point up “man’s inhumanity to man” and turn it into a English Lit course cliché.

So assuming I actually buy the “free will” rationale for an uninvolved God allowing mankind to slaughter itself and the planet which sustains life, explain to me please how “free will” plays into a child being stricken with cancer at 7-months old.

Explain to me why at the age of three he will shortly enter the hospital to have a port inserted into his chest so that for five-days every month for the next nine months at minimum, they can easily pour chemo-therapy drugs into his tiny body in the hopes that it will poison the cancer that afflicts him, into remission.

The cancer is called Langerhan’s Cell Histiocytosis and if you’ve never heard of it, it’s because it only threatens a couple of million people, many if not most of the afflicted are children. So there’s not a lot of awareness or research or resources being focused on it.

We Call Him AJ…

AJ

Well, my dear friend’s grandson and her dear daughter’s son, has this terrible disease. He is the three-year old I spoke of. We call him AJ, and he is a wonderful, bright-as-sunshine, inspiring boy who is being betrayed by his body and if you believe in them, the fates, the gods…the God…if he, she or it actually exists.

I love AJ and it broke my heart to see what has befallen him. When they finally diagnosed him and got him into one of the few programs in the country that knows anything about this cancer, he met up with another boy named Leo who was similarly afflicted.

Little Leo and AJ…

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Little Leo was a couple of years older than AJ and this past summer, he lost his battle with the disease. He was five years old…and when I heard about his passing I wept, though I knew him only from photos on Facebook, his mother’s posts and updates, and the fact that he was AJ’s friend.

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I wept when I heard the news, I wept when I saw the coverage of his funeral and in fact, I am weeping now as I write this, recalling this sweet boy’s passing.

So we debate healthcare and pre-existing conditions and the very validity of science itself, but we pray to a God who either does not exist and never did, ceased to exist at some point or exists but simply doesn’t want to get involved.

Yeah, yeah…some of you will accuse me of sacrilege and that’s fine. I own it. I’m pissed.

And I prayed last night out of frustration when I heard that AJ’s cancer was re-emerging with a vengeance and this draconian measure that will hopefully help, is what we must now put this sweet little three-year old boy through.

The opening words of my prayer were, “God I don’t know if you actually exist, but I’m not taking any chances.” Then I went on: “This prayer is for AJ and all the other AJs and Leos out there. If you really are all powerful and merciful and a good guy God, then get off your ass and do something to help AJ. Help them all.  We already lost Leo and countless others whose names I do not know. If you are there…if anyone is actually home in “Superior-Being-ville” then act like it.”

Amen.

AJ CoolestBrotherEver

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THE KOREAN MISSILE CRISIS… 1962 Adjusted for Inflation & Conflagration

Fifty-five years ago this October, I was 9 years old…just turned nine a couple of months before in fact. The world swirled around me and I’m not too sure I paid it much attention. On sunny days we’d go out and play because it was “too nice to stay in the house” according to my Mom. We didn’t have play dates…we walked around the corner, knocked on our friend’s side-door and “called for them.”

The front door was reserved for real people and guests, not kids. Besides, “who wants the kids traipsing through the living room in their dirty shoes? I just vacuumed in there.”
So came the rap on that side-door.

“Can Charlie come out to play?”

We didn’t have video games, or DVDs but I liked watching “The Three Stooges Funhouse,” hosted by “Officer” Joe Bolton and the “Abbott and Costello Show,” on that old black and white Philco TV in the basement. And I especially liked watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves in the title role (even though George had died three years earlier).

For roughly the first half of that month, October 1962 was no different than any other October that had preceded it. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and a traditional “fast day” had been on October 8th but as I was not yet 13 (Bar Mitzvah age when you become “a man” in the eyes of the religion) I could forego the fast and eat and…and no doubt, I did. In fact at age-9, I had only just started going to Hebrew School to learn all about it.

In 1962 the World Series was a bi-coastal affair that took the max seven games to decide. It ran from October 4th to the 16th with the New York Yankees besting the San Francisco Giants four games to three. I was not much of a baseball fan in 1962. My brother – nearly seven years older than me – was a huuge Yankee fan.

In 1962 they still played World Series day-games and very often the only source of score information during the school day was our school janitor, an affable old gent named Ernie. Ernie had his transistor radio tuned to the game and up to his ear. Our other sources of World Series news was a cool teacher who would get the skinny as he saw Ernie walking the halls and then pass it on to us.  (That’s how news of the Kennedy assassination filtered down to the classrooms some 13-months later). Finally,  there were the very cool teachers who designated one kid in the room who also had a (forbidden) transistor radio complete with discreet earpiece, and was allowed to update us on score changes.

At times like these, when every game counted to determine the immediate future of the baseball world (if not the future of the actual world), my brother would rush home from school and ask my Mom, “Who’s winning???” My Mom’s stock answer – deadpan all the way — was, “Who’s playing?” She was not a particular Yankee fan and it frustrated my brother no end.

So, sibling rivalry still being what it is, “Way to go Ma!”

The Yankees’ victory on the 16th gave cause to celebration by my brother…but not for long as we will soon discuss.

In those early days of October I was probably thinking about what I would dress up as for Halloween and how much candy I’d get and how many pennies would end up in the milk carton for UNICEF.

So what made that October 55-years ago , so special, so memorable?

Truth be told I didn’t understand it at the time…at least not a first. But having an older brother only too happy to disabuse me of childhood notions and childlike priorities meant that I would not be quite so ill-informed or naïve for long.

The “crisis” began on October 16th…the same day the Yankees beat the Giants to become the “world champions” of American baseball.

This was the time when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and American President John F. Kennedy stood nuclear-nose. to nuclear-nose and dared the other one to blink…or sneeze…or flinch…or any other bodily metaphor that might cause the world as we knew it to dissolve in a mushroom cloud.

That old black & white Philco in the basement was getting quite a workout…and all of my shows were getting pre-empted for news coverage of this thing called “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Even “Superman.” This I found to be unacceptable and I must have said so within earshot of my brother because I got an awful earful of reality in return.

The world,” my brother told me grimly, “is on the brink of World War III.”

That, I understood. I already knew about World War III. All the kids in the neighborhood did because we lived a half-a-block from a defense plant and were thus assured to be among the “first strike” targets to be incinerated, if the Russians attacked.

This seemed pretty serious.

Now add what I did not already know. My Dad, an officer in the Army Reserves was walking around with “pocket orders” should the worst come to the worst.

That made this crisis thing a lot more personal.

Thanks bro, you got my attention. And all because I wanted to watch “Superman” instead of Walter Cronkite.

Buut…cooler heads ultimately prevailed…the concept of “mutually assured destruction” was apparently recognized on both sides as a ginormous lose-lose scenario. The crisis lasted 13-days and ended with the dismantling and removal of Soviet nuclear missile sites from Cuba, 90 miles from our mainland. History tells us it also subsequently – and in a quiet, quid pro quo sorta way – resulted in the removal of US missile batteries from Turkey (within close and easy range of the Soviet Union).

And reruns of “Superman” returned to the airwaves.

All of this comes to mind because the current state of belligerent affairs with North Korea and the bellicose threats made by our wacko-in-chief and their wacko-in chief has the world’s power players choosing up sides based on various doomsday scenarios.  It also has the rest of the world sitting back and shitting a brick waiting to see what will happen…and when.

Will the cooler heads prevail? And do the cooler heads actually have any influence over the wackos who are jointly ratcheting up the situation?

Does the concept of “mutually assured destruction” resonate any longer with people? Or is there some delusion that a nuclear war is winnable with (to borrow a line from “Dr. Strangelove”), “modest and acceptable civilian casualties?”

We can “hope for best,” though a big deal corporate CEO type once told me, “hoping is not a strategy.” No it’s not. Any more than buying a Powerball ticket equals retirement planning.

But hope may be all we got this time.

Because the people of one country blindly acquiesce to being ruled by a dynasty of belligerent nut jobs, while the people of another country willfully elect a belligerent nut job.

Stay tuned…

For what may truly be the ultimate in reality TV: “The End of the World starring Donald Trump and Kim Jung-Un.”


An Album In the Life: Deconstructing “Pepper” 50-Years On…

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By Richard E. Altman

On June 1st 1967 I was still a boy of 13 in Queens, New York. Walking past the neighborhood Mays Department store that doubled for our local record store (“Every day is a sale day at Mays”), I noticed an odd-looking album cover in their window.

Odd because it looked kind of old-fashioned…and at the same time new and kind of trippy (though I’m pretty sure that was not yet an adjective in common usage, if at all). Not quite sure I would even have understood what trippy meant on June 1, 1967. The cover was populated by all sorts of dolls, wax figure likenesses and life-size cutouts of famous people, assembled around what appeared to be a grave.

Odd.

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It certainly looked like no other pop album cover I’d ever seen.

The album of course was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” now about to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of its release with a mega series of remixed, re-releases. When I heard it the first dozen or so times, I knew the cover was the least of this album’s oddity.

Unlike pop records that tapped into teenage angst, the heartache of a breakup or of unrequited love, Pepper spoke to me in ways my soon to be 14-year old brain was only beginning to understand. And it wasn’t just me. The album was having the same effect on people much older than me. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen…even 20-year olds were stunned by what they heard.

And musicians, from my friends in neighborhood bands (and those who wanted to be in neighborhood bands) to the pros with recording contracts and their own cadres of screaming fans (screaming fans still being in vogue), all recognized the game-changer when they heard it.

“Pepper” was it.

Soon the Stones would come out with their trippy album cover “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request” (though the disc inside was not nearly among their best);” John Fred and His Playboy Band would make the singles chart with “Judy in Disguise,” largely because the lyric was reminiscent of “Lucy in the Sky,” and Johnny Rivers would immortalize the “Summer of Love” as the “Summer of Pepper” with lyrics in his hit, “Summer Rain.”

“All summer long we spent dancing in the sand/And the juke box kept on playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

That summer of love I went to a “sleep away camp” in upstate New York. It was a “Performing Arts” camp which meant, in addition to the arts and crafts and horseback riding and raids on the girls’ bunks, we put on plays and took classes in fencing and mime and set painting and even photography. It also meant that record players were in ample supply, as were copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Pepper” was the soundtrack to the summer and by its end we knew each song by heart and, having pored over the lyrics printed on the back cover, we absorbed its nuance, its frustration, its disillusionment and in counterpoint to all that seriousness, its whimsy. Sgt. Pepper emphatically ushered out the old and heralded the arrival of the new. And we were the new.

Sgt. Pepper was a rite of passage.

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I am approaching my 64th birthday now as I was approaching my 14th birthday back in the summer of ’67. I know better than to think that The Beatles were being prophetic on my account when they recorded “When I’m 64.” They were being ironic…for all of us…those who would turn 64 with them, and those who would turn 64 with me, fifty years hence. They were being wistful perhaps for the prosaic simplicity of our working class/middleclass priorities and expectations.

Yet the lyric – the story more accurately – of “When I’m 64” is not prosaic…at least not in the unromantic sense of the word. I realize that now, as I approach 64. What is more romantic than spending one’s waning years with the one you love… the one you spent all those earlier years scrimping and saving with? What is more romantic than celebrating family while bouncing grandchildren on your knee? Or going for a holiday, just the two of you, somewhere lovely but not too expensive.

So I look back on Pepper much as I do another creative rite of passage that I experienced a few months after hearing the album. That event was a book on my High School sophomore required reading list. I hated required reading lists because too often the books required were downright dreary and dull. Yet our teachers assured us they were classics…or at the very least, “important.”

The sleep-inducing nightmare book for me was “Washington Square” by Henry James.   I wonder whether the book’s heroine, the rebellious Catherine, who seeks only happiness and love over her father’s better judgement, might in 1967, have been the disenchanted girl seeking happiness and love that was immortalized on Pepper’s “She’s Leaving Home.”

No surprise: the required reading book that was to be my second rite of passage was J.D. Salinger’s “the Catcher in the Rye.”   I didn’t know people wrote like that. I didn’t know writing could reach inside of me so precisely and profoundly. Oh sure the school tried to ruin it by dissecting it and discussing the symbolism of the red hunting cap instead of feeling it. But I felt it. It was then that I knew that I had to write.

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Ay, here’s the rub.

But for that one time in 10th grade, I have never picked up a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and read it again. Not once. Not even tempted. Why? Because reading it the first time was like catching lightening in a bottle for me. Reading it again…with 20…30…40…50…64 year old eyes and the experiences those eyes have seen, might lessen the memory. I might find that it is not as great a read as I recall it to be. So “Catcher” remains a seminal a force in my life, pristine in my memory.   My recollection of that book is I think where Salinger meant it to be…in the context and the awakening of a 14 or a 15-year old consciousness. Revered, but not re-read.

It gave me great and terrible pause back in 1980 when John Lennon was assassinated, that the one who did it — who shall go nameless — was carrying a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” as if it were his Bible. That was as close as I ever came to picking it up “Catcher” again. To see why he committed so horrific a crime. Then I realized, it didn’t matter why. The deed was done and there could be no good reason, no explanation that would ever mitigate the murderous act.

I mention this in the context of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because unlike the book I would not re-read, I have worn through vinyl copies of the album in both mono and stereo; purchased its first CD iteration back in the late 1980s; the more recently remastered CD (as part of the grand digitally remastered Beatle box set of 2009) and now…I am staring down the prospect of getting the newly remixed, super deluxe six disc box set, complete with outtakes, new mix, stereo mix, mono mix, 5.1 surround sound mix, book, posters and a DVD documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper.

Oy!

An aside:

Fifty-weeks after Sgt. Pepper was released, in May of 1968 I maneuvered myself into a press conference with John and Paul. They were announcing the formation of their own record company, their own group of companies in fact. The entity would be known as “Apple,” (which now explained the mysterious small-print credit on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album).

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The “Apple” Press Conference, May 14th 1968, New York City. John looking directly down into my Kodak Instamatic camera, perhaps thinking, “what’s this kid doing here?” Photo Copyright: Richard E. Altman

I brought my copy of “Pepper” with me in hopes that they would sign the glorious gatefold sleeve picture of the band. John demurred. “Don’t start the ball rolling,” he said to me. I didn’t understand and went on to ask Paul. John said to me again, “Don’t start the ball rolling.” Now I understood. I got it…the adults were not immune. Had John or Paul signed for me, the floodgates would have opened and many — even members of the jaded New York Press corps in that room — would have stormed the Beatle barricades, pushing pads and pens at the two “for my daughter/ sister/girlfriend/wife.” Never for themselves of  course, Too cool.

The ball did not roll and I never got the album signed.

Over the years as I saw the four Beatles individually, things did get signed. John signed a copy of his book of poems and short stories, “In His Own Write,” to me, adding his caricature sketch of John and Yoko to the inscription. Yoko gave me an inscribed copy of her book, “Grapefruit” with an inscription in Japanese that translates to “Even the swan for all its beauty cannot change colors against the blue of the sky or the blue of the sea.” A music book signed to me by Paul, a CD booklet from Ringo and a photograph from George round out the mementos of a misspent youth.

But I digress.

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I still listen to Pepper. It doesn’t fail me. It still even surprises me. Because as is true of any great work of art, what you get out of it has largely to do with what you bring to it. Call it frame of reference…call it context…call it what you will. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is still a revelation to me.

It’s easy not to hear a familiar song or album when its playing. I mean to really hear it. We know it, we sing along with it, dance around, play air guitar or air drums…perhaps even air keyboards; We lead the band and anticipate the next track on the album. In so doing we enjoy the nostalgia of the music but miss out on what it brings to us in the here and now. Fifty years after its initial release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still bringing it. If you listen, you can hear it.

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Does “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” describe an LSD trip? We certainly thought so back in the day and many of the period’s psychedelic illustrations and artwork had some reference to “Lucy” at their core. John said, no. It was a child’s fanciful piece of artwork done by his son Julian depicting a classmate named Lucy O’Donnell. As the story goes, John asked Julian what the picture was and young Julian replied, “it’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”

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“It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds…” Young Julian Lennon’s actual artwork that inspired his Dad to create –intentionally or otherwise —  the greatest psychedelic anthem of the 1960s.

Sadly, Lucy Vodden nee O’Donnell died of Lupus in 2009 at the age of 46. But her place in music history is secure even if we still debate John’s claim of coincidence in the song’s LSD acronym. Hell, historians are still discussing who modeled for the Mona Lisa. One of the great things about great art is it provokes interest, inquiry and discussion. Sometimes, it even marshals a bit of social change.

For the purposes of Sgt. Pepper, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the start of the journey we’re about to take across two sides of vinyl, with all the fun house, tunnel of love distortions that life throws at us captured in its grooves.

So in the end, what made, or rather what makes Pepper, “Pepper?”

It can be summed up by the album’s final track: “A Day in the Life.”

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The album carries us through the days in many lives, as The Beatles’ fictional band introduces us to the singer Billy Shears who gets through life with a little help from his friends (don’t we all?) and the indecorously diamonded (and possibly psychedelic) high-flying Lucy.

Next comes the admittedly optimistic assessment of our personal evolution; a look at how we live our life; treat others and the general state of our humanity. It’s a yin/ yang self-appraisal: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, getting better all the time (it can’t get much worse).”

On to do battle with the everyday banalities…Fixing a hole from whence distractions rain –other people and other things — that keep us from focusing on what’s really important in life. Let those people – the ones who have their opinions of me and everything else; who protest and “disagree” ad nauseum “but never win,” think their thoughts. For better or worse and whether they like it or not, “I’m right where I belong.”

Why did Pepper resonate so strongly with a 14-year old and still have something powerful to say to 18- or 20- year olds back in ’67? The answer may well be found in “She’s Leaving Home.” Wrenching for daughter and parents alike but as inevitable as day into night, here is the family navigating change as their child seizes her adulthood and departs without a word, save for a letter of farewell “she hoped would say more.”

Will these parents be the couple doting on each other at 64? Will this girl who left home to find herself ever find her way back? Will she be the one who brings Vera, Chuck and Dave to visit their grandparents? In the old days of vinyl, you had to stay tuned to side 2.

We are told that our departing girl is among other things seeking a little fun in her new life. What better place to find fun than in a circus…a carnival…a sideshow “on trampoline,” no less. Historically we know that this Lennon lyric — “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite — is a bit of found poetry, with much of the lines cribbed from an actual Carney poster. Still it provides a needed moment of frivolity (if not quite joy) following the sobering subject of the previous track.

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As a kind of footnote to the finished album, the Pepper sessions included two other seminal Beatle songs that were not included on the final album. Rather, they were rushed to market as a “Double-A-Sided” single, meaning both sides were chart climbers, presumably to slake consumer demand for new product while the masterwork was being created. The “45” in question was “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Both songs were a nostalgic, quaint and offer poignant reminiscences of the Beatles’ boyhood haunts in Liverpool.

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Ironically, had “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” been integrated on to the album – without having to displace any other track (unlikely, given the constraints of vinyl in 1967), Pepper’s literary cousin might be Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” with Liverpool (and a dash of London) standing in for the mythical Grover’s Corners.

The strains of George’s sitar on “Within You Without You” no longer seem strange or foreign to me…they belong right where they are. And George’s lyrical power within his own canon, remains unsurpassed on that song. It is a haunting plaintive paean to our relationship with our self and with others; our place in the universe and the understanding of our own mortality.

One of the beauties of The Beatles music was that regardless of how big they got, how iconic they became, they never outgrew or forgot their working class, lower middle class upbringing in a country that is ever so class conscious. MBE awards, subsequent knighthoods (well, one anyhow) and even an International Airport (another one-off honor) bear witness to their cross-class appeal.

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The Beatles posing with their Madame Tussaud selves in London. They would reunite with their wax dopplegangers on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as they bid adieu to their “mop top” image.

During The Beatles Royal Command Performance back in 1963 John sheepishly asked “the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you, if just rattle your jewelry…”

So it is the next two songs celebrate – no not celebrate, chronicle is more apt – the lives of people not born to the entitlement of upper class society, nor embraced by them based on achievement (as The Beatles were and are).

Hittin’ on the meter maid…Good, solid working class girl. Affecting good manners and propriety to get her to agree to “take some tea” only to stick her with the bill. Like the man in “Norwegian Wood” from a year and a half earlier, she’s working, he apparently is not. No middle class, “man pays the check” mores in play here. Lovely Rita picks up the tab for dinner. In Rita’s world, is this the cost of getting a man in her life?

“Took her home, I nearly made it…” Does she still live at home with her parents? Does she have a curfew, only slightly missed? “That’s OK…Meet the family. These are Rita’s sisters…”

Or does she room with her sisters in their own flat with all the personal freedoms that may entail. In which case “I nearly made it, sitting on the sofa with a sister or two” can easily conjure an image of an almost orgy. Rorschach do your worst.

From a Meter Maid to what sounds like the more exciting day in the life of a policeman, perhaps a Doctor or an EMT. Still it devolves into dull routine and boring blather. The meaningless, perfunctory, parroted salutations, “Good Morning, Good Morning,” are underscored by a soundtrack of barnyard greetings of no particular meaning…to us at least. Do we really mean “I wish you a good morning,” any more than we give a damn whether God blesses you or not after a sneeze?

It’s just auto-response…convention without conviction.

Jaded by the repetition of impersonal life and death, our police or medical first responder assess the situation and matter-of-factly resigns the play. “He’s dead…nothing to do now but to “call the wife in” to cry over her deceased husband. Business to them, but it’s sure as hell personal to her. Standing awkwardly in the background or perhaps even stepping out of the room to give this newly minted widow some privacy, the small-talk begins…One Doc to another…or one Cop to another…“how’s your boy been.”

On goes the day…desperate for something to make it seem worthwhile. Going by the old school…To what end? Gonna relive past glories? Think of passions and ideals long since strangled? Or simply wonder how it all went so wrong, so quickly. Suddenly the work day ends and life begins anew. Work is not my life. It’s what I do to pay for my life. Suddenly it’s great to be alive…to have fun. To have purpose…even if that purpose is no greater than giving someone the time of day.

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The Sgt.’s band is back center stage and the clipped countdown commences… “1-2-3-4” cues that great thumpin’ kick bass and snare beat…The show is over…time to go…hope you had the splendid time we promised. “Get home safe…” Ah but wait…life again intrudes…reminds us that even when we’re having fun or just going about our mundane, every day business, events can change in a millisecond.

The critical seamlessly melds with the trivial…a man dies in a traffic accident because he was not paying attention…was he “somebody?” The story is followed by an inventory count, a survey of municipal potholes. How bad are the roads in Blackburn Lancashire? 4,000 holes by golly…enough to fill the Albert Hall. Another “real world” measurement equivalency the media condescendingly uses for those of us too dense to figure it out any other way. The Brits have “Albert Hall,” we’ve got the number of “football fields” as our dumbed-down yardstick.

Finally the crashing discordant crescendo of the piano brings a finality to this day in the life…this album in the lives. In the end, no one gets to finish out the day. Or to quote George, “Life flows on within you…and without you.” And all that is left is the squeak of the piano bench in studio two at Abbey Road.

The power of Pepper remains 50-years on, partly because boomers are nostalgic and have the bucks to shell out for another copy of an album they already have. But also because it speaks of life’s timeless truths and the human experience, wherever one is now.

And so as I approach 64, the reality of being needed or being irrelevant; of being a relic of a bygone era or a still vital contributor, weighs heavily at times.

Whether we’re deconstructing Pepper, aligning and exploring its messages, or re-mixing the sacred tapes made 50-years ago on a four track tape recorder into 5.1 surround sound, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as a musical milestone that revolutionized the concept and expanded the canvas of what a pop or rock or jazz or blues album could be. Significantly, it remains a cultural touchstone as multiple generations (especially mine) come to terms with their frustrations with how the previous generation (or the following generation) sold out or screwed things up.

Does the Sgt. catch the kids before they fall? Sometimes I suppose he does. For me the Sgt. sounded reveille. It was an awakening. And it was a revelation, Like that book I won’t re-read.

The Pepper in the Rye.

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ELI

“If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”
Remembering Eli Wallach

On my dining room table is a letter that will never be mailed. I wrote it late Saturday night —four days ago as I write this — and planned take it to the Post Office on Monday. I didn’t make the Post Office on Monday and, on Tuesday the addressee passed away.

Now the odds are that the mailman would not have beaten the reaper to his Riverside Drive door, but I am sad that I did not have one final opportunity to tell Eli Wallach how much his work is cherished by me and countless other fans of film, stage and ultra-fine acting.

The unmailed letter was prompted by a photo I just saw of Eli and Clint Eastwood at the Museum of Tolerance Award ceremony back in 2010. The image is of two grizzled, old pros clearly enjoying the get together and the caption that immediately came to mind was the “The Good, The Bad and the Elderly.”

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The inspiration for the unsent letter: Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood at the 2010 Museum of Tolerance Award ceremony honoring Eastwood

Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he passed last night. I was first introduced to him by my father who was an early and ardent fan of great acting and hence, Eli’s work. No matter who the top line star of a picture might have been, my Dad would say, “Eli Wallach has a new movie out,” and off to the movies we went…a guys night out sometimes accompanied by my Uncle Abe and cousin Harvey. My Dad’s rationale was simple and as it turns out, quite correct: “If Eli Wallach is in it, then it’s worth the price of admission.”
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Self-Captioned: Eli Wallach as Calvera, in the classic
western “The Magnificent 7” (1960)

So it was that we watched “The Magnificent Seven” on TV back when I was in short pants and so it remained when we went to see that other iconic portrayal of a Mexican bandito by a Brooklyn Jew…”The Good The Bad and The Ugly.” It was as fine an acting performance as one will see and it was largely dismissed because the film was only a “Spaghetti Western.”

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Eli Wallach as Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (the “Ugly”) in
“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1967)

I say again… It was as fine an acting performance as one will see; at once daring and nuanced, subtle and over-the-top and always spot-on and in character. There is nary a false breath taken in Eli Wallach’s portrayal of Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez…”alias the Rat,” as Clint Eastwood’s character tells us. And that rat characterization truly fits, as Eli’s beady eyes and rodent like teeth reveal moments of barely pent up avarice, anticipation and lust, followed by frustration, fear, unbridled anger and a string of epithets so vile and insulting that we can best recall them here with his rhetorical catch phrase:

“Blon-deeeeee…you know what you are…”

I only met Eli Wallach once and that was in the very early 1980s at a pro-celebrity tennis match to benefit some no doubt worthy but now forgotten (by me at least) charity.

I recounted the scene at the tennis match to him in a letter I sent back in December 2008. “After all the roles I had seen you in, I confess that seeing a tanned Eli Wallach in tennis whites seemed oddly out of context. I shook your hand, told you I was a big fan and asked if you ever considered playing a Mexican. You laughed as if it was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to you…”

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Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach in Baby Doll (1956)

That 2008 letter to Eli went on for three typed pages, as I could not miss the opportunity to offer another standing ovation from a grateful fan. I recalled his performance in “Baby Doll,” and “The Misfits,” and of course, Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” and Tuco in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

So many other roles could have been and could still be recited, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally figured out in 2010, when they gave him a life achievement Oscar for his brilliant body of work.

About a month after I sent my letter I received a handwritten reply from Eli. In it he first acknowledged my father’s influence and for his “his love of westerns and his comments about my work in them—I even enjoyed his repeating my line from the good, bad ugly…’if you’re gonna shoot – shoot – don’t talk.’”

Eli’s “salute” to my Dad in his return letter to me evoked a broad smile from Dad, as if he had co-written the original letter, which in a real sense he did.

He concluded telling me. “I have a collection of letters from people that I keep—Your letter goes in there—I’m very happy with what you’ve written. Best wishes –Eli. Into the hand-addressed envelope he placed a color 4×6 photo of himself as “Tuco,” inscribed to me.

There are some well-meaning clichés people use when praising an actor (of either gender). “An actor’s actor” means of course that it takes one to know a really great one. The other is to say that one is a “character actor” which clearly all actors should be. Still it is used most often to describe an exceptional performer who is not considered “a leading actor.”

Language is funny that way.

Eli Wallach was certainly among our leading actors and an extraordinary talent. If he were an English actor Eli Wallach would no doubt be a “Sir” or even a “Lord” as Olivier was. They were certainly peers.

But Eli Wallach was an American actor, a character actor, an actor’s actor, a director’s actor, a writer’s actor and most importantly, an audience’s actor. His directors span a hefty history of cinema including Kazan and Sturges, Huston and Coppola and yes, Leone. His lines have been scripted by the likes of Eugene Ionesco, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Murray Schisgal… along with Shaw and Shakespeare and so many others.

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The Misfits (1961) L-R: The film’s author/screenwriter (and Marilyn’s husband) Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, Director John Huston, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe

On stage or on screen, Eli Wallach’s presence is always strongly felt. He was never over-shadowed but never intrusive either. His power and perception as an actor were always in the fore, whether he was playing across from Maureen Stapleton, or Anne Jackson (his wife of 66 years), or co-stars such as Carroll Baker and Karl Malden; Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe; Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef; Al Pacino and Talia Shire or that “magnificent” assemblage of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buckholz and Brad Dexter.
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Eli Wallach and Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Misfits” (1961).

In the six years between my first correspondence with Eli Wallach and the letter that lies unsent on my dining room table, much has happened. My Dad passed away in 2012 (three weeks shy of his 92nd birthday), but he lived to see Eli take a bow for that lifetime Oscar.

I had some other words to share with Eli and alas, I waited too long and missed my opportunity for one final kudo. (Note to self re procrastination: “If you’re gonna shoot – shoot. Don’t talk”). I hope he would have liked this last letter too and perhaps even added it to that file of saved fan mail.

Eli Wallach was 98 years old when he died yesterday, and gone too soon from the world stage. I can only imagine the magnitude of loss that his wife, family and close friends are feeling at this very moment. My condolences – heartfelt but inadequate – are sent their way.

I’m guessing that the Broadway Theater marquis will dim tonight as they traditionally do at the passing of a giant of the craft. As for me, I will celebrate his career with a tribute of my own tonight: a mini-Eli Wallach film festival . And I will raise a glass to his memory. A good single malt I think. My Dad would approve.

Rest in Peace Eli.

December 7, 1915 – June 24, 2014


Mortality

It begins insidiously, first appearing to be an anomaly then morphing into a trend.  A few years ago  – check that, it was seven years ago, though it seems so much more recent – my dear friend Steve died due to the negligence of the hospital treating him.  He was 63 and I spoke to him the night before he passed.  The next morning his newly minted widow was on the phone breaking the news to me.  At the time of Steve’s passing I was ten years younger than him, nearly to the day.  Our mutual friend David already suffering from myriad ailments had been or was about to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  David would live nearly another seven years, passing away at the age of 55, leaving a wife and two sons among other bereaved friends and relatives.

On reflection, I went through stages like that.  When I lived in the Washington DC area during the Reagan years I lost two dear friends to cancer.  Nasty way to go.  Though older than me, both were young, both had wives and children and both were savaged and ravaged by the disease.

A few years later my cousin Ronni (who was more like a sister than a cousin) was diagnosed with cancer and after what seems like numerous treatments and remissions the disease got her with a vengeance.  She died at 53. Her mother, my beloved Aunt Edie, was the same age when cancer got her. Nasty way to go.  Before Ronni, my cousin April in California was also taken by a variation on the theme.  She was the youngest still.

Some time four days ago, my cousin Harold – age 55 – went to sleep and never woke up.  It was unexpected.  He wasn’t sick with any catastrophic illness like Parkinson’s or cancer…he had no reason to place his life in the hands of incompetent hospital workers…he just passed away, alone in bed.  Did he have some realization as to what was happening to him or did he just slip from one state to another seamlessly?  I suspect we will never know.  I’d like to think he was spared that final “holy shit!” moment, for all the good it would do.  Harold was my cousin and my friend and his passing snuck up on me – on everyone – with the stealth of …of what?  Nothing can be as surprising, as random and out of the blue as unexpected death.  It is the ultimate misdirection:

”Pssst…over here…watch the old people…watch the sick people…Gotcha! “

It’s the very definition of stealth.

Tomorrow is promised to no one,” goes the cliché.  Neither tomorrow, nor later today…not even the next minute.  In the end, none of us finish out the day.

My mother is nearing 92.  My father fell short of 92 years by 21 days.  She is the last one standing – albeit with the help of a walker – of her generation of family and friends.  The peers she grew up with and old with are pretty much all gone.  Friends, and loved ones have gone and she remains, occasionally taking inventory of her memories…double checking who still shares this mortal plane with her.  The roll call is mostly silent and she will tap her forehead sadly and say, “How could I not remember…”

Still, with the exception of an episode spurred by a dream about the whereabouts of my father –her mate for some 70 years – and the disbelief that he was gone, there has been no Groundhog Day revelation; no repeat of the initial shock and trauma of the actual event.  I’m thankful for that because my awareness of that loss is constant.

I used to subscribe to “the theory of the laughing Gods.”  Basically it states that when you finally have it good, particularly after years of trials and false starts, when optimism finally and truly takes hold, something intercedes and takes it all away.  I figured that when something good finally happens to me it will be gone before it can be savored.

When Harold passed a few days ago, it occurred to me that I may be heir to the curse that my mother is now living.  Don’t misunderstand…I don’t wish her gone.  I am grateful to still be able to talk to her, hold her hand, see her smile and give her a kiss…but I can’t help but think in those moments when she is alone with her thoughts, whether she really wanted to be the last of her generation.

I surely do not want to inherit that role.  Increasingly I think that all that the future holds for me is garbage and that longevity only curses me with a hefty span of years filled with the same.  I have no children to rescue from their own miscues as my father did for me; no grandchildren, real or potential, to dote on or bitch about when they don’t visit or send thank you notes for gifts.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the lack of heirs. Just saying.

But I don’t want to be the timekeeper or time chronicler either, noting each successive passing and placing it into some familial or social context, or calling the roll in my head and hearing only silence.

There’s an old toast – I think it’s Irish but even if it’s not it probably sounds better spoken with a brogue – that proclaims: “May you live forever and may the last voice you hear be mine.”

Thanks…but no thanks.

Is it unseemly to show contempt for longevity in the immediate aftermath of the untimely passing of a dear and valued friend and relative?

Probably so.

Will it change my feeling?

Unlikely.

Provoked by the passing of Harold Richland

A.K.A. Calvin B. Streets

“The Brooklyn Blues Man”

November 6, 1957 – January 12, 2014


A Voice Silenced But Not Lost

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The day after my 60th birthday (which I celebrated with my usual non- aplomb) a news item appeared on my computer screen.  It said that Linda Ronstadt, the country rock diva I fell in love with in the 60s had lost her singing voice to Parkinson’s disease.  According to the article, the dreaded Parkinson’s had also taken a chunk of her mobility, causing her to steady herself using poles when walking on uneven ground and utilizing a wheelchair at other times.

I am saddened by this news for lots of reasons that I will go into, all at least a little selfish.  The last time I saw Linda perform live was back in June, 2006 at what had been the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island and was then called the Capitol One Bank Theatre.  Sounds a little heavy-handed but, hey it was the W. Bush years and Linda had already gotten in trouble in Vegas for making critical comments about our then leader of the free world.  Unchastened she made a few more comments that night in Westbury, prompting only one boorish outburst from a guy in the audience obviously enamored with W. and presumably dragged to the show by his wife.

The sex symbol of rock n roll was gone but that blessed voice remained.  And while any Ronstadt show is too short, her body of work has become so extensive and diverse that one would always be disappointed by what was left out of the show, though never by what was included.

How things had changed over the years.  The first time I ever heard of Linda Ronstadt she was this sexy young thing performing on one of those Saturday afternoon TV music shows with a band called the Stone Poneys.  They did a song called “Different Drum” which would become their first hit.  I was probably 14 at the time (making Linda an unattainable 21) but I was smitten.

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The choice of the song alone made a statement about Linda Ronstadt though I don’t know if it was consciously selected for that reason.  The song is a brush off (in the clichéd “it’s not you it’s me” tradition) that guys routinely dispensed to their wannabe (or soon to be ex-) girlfriends.  In fact the song was written by Mike Nesmith (of Monkees fame) probably for himself or some other male singer.  Can’t you just picture Mike trying to let her down easy singing, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, I’m saying I’m not ready for any person, place or thing, trying to pull the reins in on me.  So Goodbye, I’m leaving. I see no sense in crying or grieving…”

Typical sleazy guy, right?

But that lyric in the hands of a woman with a powerful voice and a Daisy Mae sex appeal was revolutionary.  Here was a hot, sexy woman telling her guy, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty…”

Pretty?

Guys are not pretty…that’s not masculine.  Yet Linda had begun to establish her rock music street-cred as an equal to the boys, at a time when feminism was just finding its voice.  She could stand there all cute, giggly and typically barefoot, and guys would melt. But she would still be standing.

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Over the years as her star rose first to cult status within the music industry and among the early generation of “rock critics,” and then to superstar sex symbol gracing the coveted cover of the Rolling Stone at least four times that I can recall, along with the cover of Time Magazine and countless other pubs, Linda’s rep, fairly or unfairly, seemed to reflect that self-possessed woman who lets the guy down easy as she is walking out the door.

Sometimes –perhaps even most often – the guys were other musicians…sometimes they were stars in other fields like movies or politics.

In fairness it was a time known for “sex, drugs and rock n roll,” and Linda was a rock star.  Still, Linda never lost her sense of self or of the music, at least not from where I was standing.  And from where I was standing, that voice never failed to give me goose bumps.

Funny thing is, for all the talk of sex-symbol this or that, she really did break the mold image wise.  Over the years lots of female singers went by one name: there was Cher, Madonna, Odetta, Annette (back in the day) and nowadays Adele, but only two female singers that I can think of have the distinction of being tagged by their last names alone, like the Chairman himself…As it was with Sinatra (Frank not Nancy) and Streisand, she is Ronstadt.

I first met her in 1969 at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan.  She was the opening act for Tim Buckley and “Special Guest Star Van Morrison.”  Near as I can tell from the historical data, some of the members of her backup band that night went on to form the Eagles.  The night was historic musically because Tim Buckley put on a very freakin’ strange show which I described at the time as making animal sounds.  Others in the audience seemed as puzzled as I was, but fortunately Van Morrison was his typically brilliant self.  And that opening act…and the reason I was there at all (sorry Van), was barefoot Linda and her band.  She sang “Long, Long Time” that night and it gave me those goose bumps for the first time.  It would never fail to elicit the same reaction from me whenever I heard her perform it live.  The encore was “Different Drum,” and it remains the only time I ever heard her perform it live.

The ticket to the show was around $3 as I recall and I could not afford to buy another for the second show.  I figured to lay low in the bathroom between shows so I didn’t get tossed out, and then mix in with the late show crowd and watch the second show too.  As I was passing the candy concession in the theater enroute to my hideout, there was Linda Ronstadt looking to get a snack.  The young guy working the candy counter gave her whatever candy bar she had picked and refused payment when she offered. She kind of half-giggled and said thank you. I watched and said nothing (or perhaps Hi) and proceeded on my way.  Got to see the second show (though I think I left after Linda’s set).  It was late after all, and if I was lucky I was facing a two-hour trip back to Queens…F train from 14th Street and Union Square to Kew Gardens Union Turnpike Station followed by the Q44A bus to the “City Line” that divided Queens and Nassau Counties.

In the years that followed I got to see Ronstadt perform maybe two dozen times on various tours and even managed to chronicle part of her tour with Jackson Browne for a feature in a rock paper I was writing for.  I had back stage and even dressing room access at Carnegie Hall on that tour, at a venue in Philly…at a show at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey, got to know some in her band and crew and managed mostly to be a fly on the wall…though occasionally a very stoned fly, as some very fine weed would make its way around the dressing room.  Truth be told, I never saw Linda take a toke…not to say she didn’t or she did. Just, I never saw it.

I saw her again in New Jersey at the Capitol Theater the night Jimmy Page stopped by the dressing room to say hello.  I wasn’t on assignment then, just welcome to be there.

She was playing the old Tennis Center in Forest Hills around “When Will I Be Loved” time, and making headlines for her romance with California Governor Jerry Brown.  Her star had risen and those in the business who were not early fans were flocking around her.  The same publisher that printed the “On the Road with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt” feature, turned me down cold when I asked to be assigned to write the review for Ronstadt’s upcoming gig at My Father’s Place, an iconic music club in the Village of Roslyn on Long Island.

When I asked him why I couldn’t have the assignment he said to me, “Altman, I’ll give you two reasons…first, letting you review Ronstadt would be like letting you review your own Bar Mitzvah and second, because I’m doing it myself.”

Sooooo…with no tickets for any of the sold out shows at My Father’s Place – and there were three sold-out shows that night – I went down to the club with my buddy Evan.  The doors had not yet opened for the first show and the line of ticket holders stretched down the street, waiting to get in.  Half way down the line was my publisher who nodded as he saw me bypass the line and head for the front door of the club. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do when I got  to the door, but as I approached providence stepped in.  There was Ed Black…Linda’s brilliant pedal steel guitarist whom I had come to know from all those previous shows.  After an exchange of “Hey mans” and “how ya beens,” Ed turned to the guy on the door and pointing to us said, “him and him, guests of Ronstadt, let ‘em in.” 

And in we went and in we stayed for all three shows…no longer hiding in the bathroom…welcome in the backstage/dressing room area.  Between shows, Linda and the band had a poker game going…not sure who was winning but her musical director and keyboard player Andrew Gold seemed no worse for the wear.  The first show went off without a hitch, as did the second. Between the second and third show, the pace seemed to be taking its toll and the band and Linda started goofing around with some favorite songs not in their show.

Someone started playing “Heat Wave” and before long the whole band was jamming a cover version of the old Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit, with Linda on lead vocals (naturally).  They rolled through the third set, with Linda confiding to the audience that she felt like “a big Wurlitzer” up there.  Apparently losing track of what they had already played that set, they realized they needed a rousing number to close the show.  With nothing left on the set list, they went with the impromptu rendition of “Heat Wave” that they had horsed around with between shows.  No set arrangement meant no set ending to the song, so the band huddled up on stage and and told Linda to finish with a “superstar exit.”   After her final note, Linda raised her arms in the air like Ali after a knock out, said thank you to the audience and walked off stage to cheers.  And the band rocked on till the house lights came up.  Not long after, Linda released a single of “Heat Wave” which charted at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.

Later on Linda did the series of big band albums with Nelson Riddle, performed on Broadway as Mabel in “Pirates of Penzance,” recorded albums of canciones celebrating her Mexican roots, collaborated with her friends Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton and did some notable duets with Aaron Neville and also with James Ingram.

Watching Ronstadt perform was a treat, not simply because of her exquisitely powerful voice and ability to phrase a song to maximize its meaning and its impact; not even because of the visual package this beautiful, sexy woman presented that kept audiences transfixed on her.  No, the power of the live performance was in the way she performed. The way she seemed swept up by the music and lyrics, closing her eyes and almost seducing the microphone.  Not overtly sexual…more sensual and sensory. Or celebrating the hip swinging joy of a rock standard like “That’ll Be the Day.”  And hitting and sustaining those gorgeous, goose bump-provoking notes.

Those selfish reasons I mentioned at the outset are by now apparent. There will be no more Linda Ronstadt concerts to go to, no new recordings to soak in. Still, listening to Ronstadt sing is a gift that will never go away. The recordings exist for all to hear for generations to come.  There are even some pretty compelling performance videos on You Tube.  And in a couple of weeks, Linda Ronstadt’s own memoirs will be published.  We are told they don’t mention the Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Perhaps that will be for another book or perhaps it’s simply too personal to share.  I cannot imagine what it must be like for a person who clearly took so much joy from singing and gave so much joy by singing to find out that she can no longer perform in that way.

I will read her memoirs and try to juxtapose her recollections and her vantage point with my own limited though fortunate memories of her.  And I will send kindly vibes of thanks over the ether for all that she brought into my life in the 46 years since I first heard her sing.


So You Wanna Be a Thriller Writer

“Dear Sir or Madam will you read my book,

It took me years to write, will you take a look?”

Paperback Writer by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

OK, ‘wanna be’ is a little unfair.  The population of attendees at the International Thriller Writers Annual “ThrillerFest” convention in New York City is — at least by a show of hands — people who had written or were writing books of the “thriller“ genre.

At first blush, the name ThrillerFest may seem a bit garish, conjuring up images of costumed FWLs (Fans Without Lives) wandering through aisles of arcania: props, posters, comic books, bootleg DVDs, CDs and of course action figures. 

Well…to borrow the old adage about telling a book by its cover, you can’t tell a convention by its name.

ITW ThrillerFest is an extraordinarily thoughtful, insightful and generous literary conference that offers its attendees a chance to gain pointers and perspectives and be forewarned of pitfalls from established practitioners of the genre.  Add in(and this is key) sage advice from employed book editors, legit literary agents, PR folks and marketing people (some of whom actually earn their living by enticing readers to purchase a book by its cover art), and you’ve got one valuable learning experience.

While this is no fan fest, it seems that those who write thrillers are also the genre’s biggest fans.  What’s more, for a literary conference there is precious little condescension and backbiting between the authors (academia are you listening?) and nothing but encouragement for those who come to learn or to improve their game from the genre’s current crop of successes and masters of the craft.

So…for four days every July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan (this year it’s July 10-13th), the ballrooms, conference rooms, guest rooms and one suspects, local barrooms (after hours of course), are filled with purveyors of the insidious plot, treacherous twists and adrenalin pumping, pulse-racing resolutions.  For these four days each year, the hotel atop Grand Central Terminal marks the treasured spot for thriller writers, becomes the crossroad of the literary world, where popular art and commerce pick each other up and occasionally consummate that meeting with hot, steamy success.  

Before we go further, don’t confuse thrillers with mysteries.  While both are page-turners (at their best), mysteries celebrate the more cerebral solution of a plot (hence its ‘whodunnit’ hang tag).  A thriller typically gives the reader more information than the central characters have and ratchets up the tension and suspense with ticking clocks (or time bombs), truly deadly deadlines and of course, catastrophic consequences should the hero fail to thwart that which they presently know precious little about.  Toss in a few twists of plot, a turncoat or two and a typically fast-paced resolution (cliché car chase optional), and you may well be thrilled.

The names of current (and previous year) guest speakers fairly leap off the best selling booklists nationally and internationally.   This year’s Thrillerfest VIII honorees and instructors include Anne Rice, R.L. Stine (lest one thinks that the thriller genre is reserved for adults and adult subject matter), T Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child and Steve Berry.   Their descriptions – should they actually need describing – read like the stats on the back of a baseball card and often include data about how many books they’ve written, how many million copies they’ve sold and in to how many languages their works are translated.  

In all, ThrillerFest VIII will present hundreds of thriller writers participating in more than 85 classes, panel discussions, interviews and events over the four-day confab. They will provide insider views of the business side of the genre, from ‘how-to’ tips on perfecting the two-minute elevator book-pitch for editors and agents and, in a twist on speed dating, actual access to those agents called…wait for it…AgentFest.

In Thrillers the sub-genres are legion.  Indeed, the list can seem near as long as Bubba Gump’s methods for preparing shrimp (though in the thriller genre our hero, at great personal peril, would have to prevent those shrimp from being poisoned by say, a catastrophic oil spill perpetrated by powerful international oil interests in cahoots with a consortium of foreign shrimp mongers).  

Much like the hyphenates Americans use to retain some connection to their ancestral culture and perhaps define their current-day point-of-view, the thriller sub-genres cater to far more specific literary tastes and interests. Among the most popular and enduring are the traditional “spy thrillers” like Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (continued by others); John le Carre’s more realistic approach to the world of espionage; Ken Follet’s breakthrough “Eye of the Needle,” and more recently, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. 

There are also psychological thrillers, political thrillers, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, romantic thrillers, erotic thrillers and techno-thrillers.  Who knows…in time the “Gump thriller” may well expand that oil-poisoned shrimp scenario with fresh new plot lines featuring radioactive-poisoned shrimp, E. coli-poisoned shrimp and the ever popular, Fugu-poisoned shrimp.

How DO they think of all those nefarious plots?

A few years ago I attended ThrillerFest for the first time in order to cover a panel discussion on writing spy thrillers.  The panel was moderated by James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson and populated by other published spy-thriller authors including the then latest Bond continuation author, Jeffery Deaver.  (Bond “continuation authors” are selected by the estate of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and to date have included Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver).  The newest one-off Bond continuation author tapped by the IF estate is William Boyd, whose contribution to the Bond canon will go public later this year.

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Together Again For the First Time…James Bond continuation authors Raymond Benson (L) and Jeffery Deaver (R) joined together with other spy-thriller authors for a “how to” panel discussion at ThrillerFest VI, New York City July 2011.  Photo (c) Richard E. Altman

That ThrillerFest marked the first joint appearance by two James Bond continuation authors and was followed by the first joint interview of the two for a lengthy feature on the literary Bond tradition I was working on for Autograph Quarterly Magazine’s September 2011 issue.

That brings us to the first two days of ThrillerFest, designated CraftFest for its attention to the nuts and bolts of thriller writing from concept to contract and beyond.  The folks behind it modestly call it their “writing school.”   There are also those panel discussions, keynote style sessions and interview sessions all designed to give the assembled writers and aspirers (sounds nicer than wannabes) insight into the creative and commercial process of thriller writing.

At one such keynote style session, an affable and eminently approachable Ken Follett takes the podium and gives a remarkable 50-minute talk on how thrillers work, giving a rapt audience of writers – published and not yet published – an insider’s view of the process of thrilling and the business of thrilling. 

With 27 books in print and more than 130-million copies sold, Follet knows from whence he speaks.  He appears to be the epitome of the successful writer.  No, appears to be is not quite fair. He definitely is the successful and ever popular thriller writer who, after a few published misfires, broke through the pop thriller clutter decades ago with “Eye of the Needle.”

The shock of brown hair at 29 is now silver at 62.  The intervening years have been good.  Two dozen best sellers and more than 130-million books sold is an enviable track record.  Follett offers a deferential nod to Ian Fleming in his opening remarks, noting that before Fleming a gun was just a gun.  In the post Fleming world, it had to be a specific gun… like a Walther PPK 7.65 mm carried in a Berns-Martin triple draw shoulder holster. 

Details are important…details make the fantastic seem credible, even believable.  And details mean lots and lots of research, lest the writer fall prey to the dreaded reader-identified error. No one is exempt… not even Ian Fleming.  It seems the Berns-Martin triple draw holster was meant for a revolver and did not accommodate an automatic weapon such as the Walther PPK. 

Armourer…a new shoulder holster for 007. Stat!

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The Key to Ferraris…Best selling thriller author Ken Follett signs one of his books at ThrillerFest VI in N.Y.C., July 2011. Photo (c) Richard E. Altman

 

Follett – perhaps with a nod to those published, early career misfires mentioned earlier – noted too that simply getting published doesn’t buy many Ferraris.

The object is to write a bestseller. 

Crass commercialism one might argue, but oh the joy of those “guilty pleasure” reads on the nightstand, in the john, on vacation, at the beach or on the bus, subway or round tripping on whatever light rail system your commute to work has to offer.

Pace is a key to writing the successful thriller, Follett offers.  And he’s right of course.  As a reader I often try to savor a book that I am enjoying to make it last longer.  That’s a no-no with thrillers…one can’t be precious with a page-turner and hope to preserve the intended impact.

At a certain point you need to bite the bullet and go for it.  After waiting some two years for that last James Bond Thriller (the Jeffery Deaver one), page rationing went out the window and I read the last 175 pages in one sitting, enduring all of the twists, turns and false endings the author is known for. 

Damn it was fun.

On the more mundane side of the thriller business – the business side — the presentations were no less pithy.  Writers advising other writers included such gems as “You’re not the only writer your publisher/editor/agent loves,” “learn how to read the contract,” and it’s corollary, “It’s too late to wonder where your career went when you didn’t think about it being a career when you signed the contract.”

ThrillerFest VIII (www.thrillerfest.com) et al. returns to the Grand Hyatt Hotel New York, July 10-13, 2013.