Sunday, March 29, 2015

Chocolate roses: the Gershwin legend






















Welcome to the latest chapter in my exploration of Gershatology, a. k. a. Gershitudinousness. I don't know why it is, but I keep turning to the ever-changing, eclectic and dynamic medium of the Blingee for my pictorial analyses of George. Here are ten takes on a single picture. The most meaningful is perhaps the second-to-last. One of the saddest and strangest stories in the Gershwin canon (not the boom-boom kind) is the squishy chocolates incident. In the ravages of a brain tumour that nobody seemed to want to acknowledge, Gershwin's behaviour became very strange indeed. He had been hallucinating smells for years, experiencing screamingly horrendous headaches, falling down, drooling, etc., all symptoms of, according to his psychiatrist, "hysteria". Nothing neurological going on at all. No sir. Gershwin was so hysterical that one day, when a box of chocolates arrived, a gift from the Gorgon Lee Gershwin, he smashed them all up into a goo and began rubbing them all over his body. I think such an act should be commemorated somehow, if only because it's the strangest thing I've ever heard a sane person do.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The great heady surf: Gershwin's Cuban Overture




What can you say about a piece of music you've fallen wildly in love with? Having barely recovered from discovering the Makoto Ozone version of Rhapsody in Blue (and yes, his name really is Ozone), I now encounter one of the most rapturous, madly life-loving things I've heard in a long time. Or ever. As my Gershquest continues, now taking me through the rather lumpy and formerly scandalous Peyser biography, his music deepens and takes on new dimensions for me. I want to SING his stuff, I want to be draped across a piano in a smoky room. Would I have wanted to know GG? Who wouldn't want to know a genius?




When I try to take apart and figure out this strange phenomenon of the early 20th century, I find a lot of interlocking puzzles in three dimensions. In his mad social circle of drunken and underaccomplished codependents, he was more addictive than all the champagne in the world. He seemed glued to the piano at these events, or maybe his body grew up out of it, centaurlike. One of the most oft-quoted descriptions of GG's seductive charm came from somebody named Sam Behrman (who also wrote an agonizing description of GG's horrendous last days): "I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it."

This is as good a description of an addictive drug as I have ever seen, but it is also charged with an erotic longing that dares not speak its name. "Was Gershwin gay?" is still a favorite parlour game among musicologists, as if such a complex man could not be both gay and straight at the same time (which I believe he was: he was simply too beautifully androgynous and dressed too impeccably to be more than 75% straight). And he was a good dancer. My God. I begin to think I am writing about a musical Harold Lloyd.





But this piece, this Cuban overture which was largely overlooked when he wrote it: at first listening you might think, that's not Gershwin. It's just a standard rumba, Latin music writ large. But give it another chance, and another, and you'll hear the dissonances, the bluesiness, the chord progressions which could only be early 20th century (Petrushka, anyone?). He was in with those big guys, the elite composers, but that isn't what stands out here. It's the sheer heat of it, not something you expect from an urban dandy with seventeen summer suits who seldom peels himself away from the piano. Latin music informed a lot of his stuff, including the Rhapsody, but here he wades right in and is consumed. And when I listen to this, I feel an indescribable ecstasy, I want to scream with it! Largely overlooked? Were they crazy? Is everybody NUTS?




Kay Swift, one of GG's longsuffering sort-of-girl-friend-non-fiancee-longtime-lovers, believed Cuban Overture was "Gershwin's finest orchestral composition and also his sexiest. But it went all but unnoticed then, and it has never caught on." I don't know about that. The book I'm quoting from was written in 2009. When you look up the piece on YouTube, there are seemingly dozens of versions, which I have combed through to find (I think) the best. As happens to most artists, Gershwin was a victim of his own success, and once Rhapsody in Blue had everyone in thrall, they didn't really want to hear anything else.

I haven't even begun to probe the enigmatic miracle of that unit, Georgeandira, surely the most codependent songwriting team ever. I once did a line-by-line analysis of the seemingly-simple The Man I Love, a microcosm of a song that would bookend nicely with The Man That Got Away (tune by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira). Don't ever think you can do this stuff, because you can't. "The winds blow colder/Suddenly you're older." That's dangerous. It leaps on you like the predatory animal a great song can be. Ira was George's inverse, his shadow, his verbal self. It worked, until that great prismatic glass splintered into shards, and the universe had to do without him.




I am making my way through a long essay from a medical journal about George Gershwin's psychoanalysis and his death from an agonizing undiagnosed brain tumor. The psychoanalyst was a charlatan and a sadist who enjoyed dangling people and messing with their minds. He had sex with Kay Swift during their appointments, convincing her it was a necessary part of the treatment. Incredibly, this psychiatric fiend was convinced, and convinced everyone else, that blinding headaches, hallucinations, falling down, being unable to eat or play the piano, and having all manner of bizarre behavioural seizures was merely the result of "hysteria". For one thing, it bollixes my mind that a man could be diagnosed with hysteria - I thought that it simply didn't happen. But the real horror of it is, they killed George with neglect. By the time the medical community came to the conclusion it should have drawn years before, he was dead.  But I just had this thought now - this second - George played into it too, because for all his fiery genius, he was paradoxically a don't-make-waves sort of person, almost passive, so eager to be liked that he buried his anger and went along with whatever attitude prevailed. OK, so it's psychosomatic. Now what?

But that's for another post. Another Blingee, another George.




Hey. . . they named a car after my cat!









Pretty classy car.




Pretty classy cat!


"Get that Twain character out of my office!"


Jumping frogs and other phenomena of the literary swamp




I've been on a bit of a Mark Twain kick ever since I saw a superb PBS documentary about his life a few months ago. I got a copy of the DVD, along with two massive biographical tomes, the kind you can hold in each hand to attain rippling biceps in only three weeks.

I want to reread Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to see how much they've changed since my youth (ahem), but until then I tread deep water in these books, packed with too much information. Twain wasn't the nicest fellow, was an egotist, was moody, was often suicidal, and definitely pushed his own agenda. Good thing, too, or the following harrowing scene (which took place when Twain was still relatively young, but with a growing readership) would have erased Huck Finn from our collective memory:

"Sam, 'charmed and excited', had every reason to believe that a contract would be extended to him as soon as he walked through Carleton's door. So certain was he of this that he dashed off a private letter to his sponsor at theAlta, John McComb, in early February, boasting that he was about to 'give' Carleton a volume of sketches for publication. The paper printed a brief summary of this letter for Mark Twain's followers in mid-March - nearly a month after Sam had kept his appointment with Carleton, and been given the bum's rush.




"He never forgot it: his diffident arrival in the publisher's office at 499 Broadway, the brusque statement of the clerk that Mr. Carleton was in his private office: his admission to the great man's quarters after a long wait; Carleton's icily impersonal greeting: 'Well, what can I do for you?'

(Editor's note. This would happen to me on a good day. But wait! Here comes the best part.)

"Sam's abashed response - that he was keeping an appointment to offer a book for publication - triggered a temper tantrum from Carleton that lives in the annals of bad editorial judgement. . . Whatever the impetus, Carleton treated his speechless visitor to a vintage New York-style tongue-lashing At the end, he swept his arm around the room and delivered the coup de grace that will forever be associated with his name:

'Books - look at those shelves. Every one of them is loaded with books that are waiting for publication. Do I want any more? Excuse me, I don't. Good morning."




After this, the biographer Ron Powers cites the infamous"Whales, Mr. Melville?" (to which I add, "Scribble, scribble, eh, Miss Bronte?"). These can be lumped in with "These guitar groups are on their way out" (Beatles) and "Who's this Bob Dylan?" ( - oh, and - one of Twain's early magazine stories found an enthusiastic audience, but unfortunately the editor spelled his name Mark Swain.)
There are whole books full of "famous rejections", which are supposed to make the aspiring writer jump up from his/her bed of suicidal depression, all fluffy and flumphy like freshly-plumped pillows. It doesn't work, however, because greatness has a way of coming through no matter what. Or does it? How many Huckleberry Finns languished in drawers somewhere, only to be thrown in the fire a la Thomas Carlyle when the weather got cold?

It's too depressing to contemplate.




Man walks into a publisher's office. Disreputable-looking, shabby clothes, big intimidating cookie-duster of a moustache and untameable head of (red) hair. Obviously a bad character. Has this manuscript he thinks he can sell me, haven't looked at it yet and haven't got time. Worked as a rough-and-ready reporter out West somewhere, has nothing to say to a sophisticated New York audience. Wrote one story, something about a jumping frog, that was published all over the country, but who wants to hear about a jumping frog? This fellow seems to have a million ideas spilling out of him, and we can't have that. He'll stain the Wilton carpet. Uncouth, he is. Smells like tobacco and gin. A man's man, with feverish ideas. But the stunned look, the look of a small child who has been slapped instead of kissed, reveals him to be just another no-talent who can't take his rejections like a man.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jon Hamm: I am worried about this boy





(From the Washington Post. I've long wondered if Hamm's ability to inhabit the tortured soul of Don Draper is connected to some torment in his own soul. This, apparently, answers my question.)

Jon Hamm exits rehab for alcoholism before ‘Mad Men’ final season premiere





Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.” (Michael Yarish/AMC via AP)


After a 30-day stay, “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm has been released from a rehabilitation center where he sought treatment for alcohol addiction.

“With the support of his longtime partner Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm recently completed treatment for his struggle with alcohol addiction,” a spokesman for Hamm said in a statement, as the Associated Press reported. “They have asked for privacy and sensitivity going forward.”

After a long struggle in Hollywood, Hamm, 44, became famous in 2007 for playing alcoholic, womanizing Don Draper on the landmark AMC series. He won a Golden Globe in 2008 for the role, and has been nominated for an acting Emmy seven times.

TMZ reported that Hamm completed a program at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., at the end of February. The publication called it a “high-end facility,” and the hospital is affiliated with Yale University.

After an eight-year run, “Mad Men’s” final season will air this spring.





“There’s no version of this ending that is not super painful for me,” Hamm said last year, as The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever reported. “[‘Mad Men’] has been a single constant of my creative life in the last decade, so that’s kind of tough. Yeah, I will be happy when [the final episodes] air and I don’t have to fake like I don’t know how the show ends [but] I will never be able to have this again, and that’s a drag.”

[Jon Hamm and others discuss a ‘super painful’ (but ‘satisfying’) end to ‘Mad Men’ at TV press tour]

In the past, Hamm has tried to draw a bright line between himself and the character he plays on television.

“There is no Don Draper,” he told Esquire last year. “Don Draper was blown up in a ditch in Korea. That whole ‘Be Don Draper’ thing, I feel it’s … sad.”

He added: “This is a fundamentally f—– up human being.”





But some quickly drew a line between the real man and the ad executive who specializes in behaving badly. Deadline Hollywood called Hamm’s trip to rehab “a surreal case of life imitating art.”

“The news does change the narrative in the final promotional push for AMC’s celebrated first original series,” Nellie Andreeva wrote. “It also raises the question about the toll of playing an anti-hero.”

Andreeva pointed out another case of an actor who perhaps got too deep into a role: the late James Gandolfini. After Gandolfini first inhabited New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” which debuted in 1999, his personal life seemed to get worse. He got divorced. There were problems with drugs. He would disappear from the set. And he reportedly once punched himself in the face.





“Turning Tony — anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, suburban seeker of meaning — into a millennial pop-culture icon, the character’s frustration, volatility, and anger had often been indistinguishable from those qualities of James Gandolfini, the actor who brought them to life,”GQ wrote after the actor’s death at age 51 in 2013. “It was a punishing role, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorization and long days under hot lights, but also a daily descent into Tony’s psyche—at the best of times, a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst, ugly, violent, and
sociopathic.”






I can't help but note a fundamental change in the things Jon Hamm is saying to the press. In the past, he was almost glib about Don Draper, as if he was a vehicle - classy, if a little cracked and broken in places - that would take him far. At one point an interviewer asked him, "Do you think Don Draper can find happiness?" His response was, "Oh, of course! Why not? Anything is possible," or words to that effect.

I've been a Maddict since the show began in 2007, and while last season kind of slid sideways, there was still much to recommend it. Don's chronic desperation was beginning to get old, almost frayed, as was the character himself. Those message boards plumbing hidden symbols in the show (and Don is a good plumber, by the way, fixing the ineffectual Pete Campbell's leaky faucet) seemed a bit too much for me however. EVERY atom of EVERY episode was analyzed - oh, Don could be like Don Corleone! Or Dawn - the dawning of a new day? Draper - obviously, he has draped himself to hide his real identity, and if you take the d away, you have "raper"! We won't get into Dick Whitman, except that Dick is a penis and Whitman is a folksy/literary allusion to Walt Whitman. And so on, and so on, ad nauseam.




But I was still drawn back again and again. I don't know if I have a favorite episode because the show, more so than most,  is all of a piece. I just saw, for maybe the fourth time, the one where Don has to fire Lane Pryce for embezzlement. It's particularly powerful because of Don's reaction: straightforward, not shocked nor apologetic, but with absolutely no room for discussion. You're out of here, Lane, I can't trust you any more - and he's right. It's hard to feel much sympathy for this cloying, blithering Englishman who tries to commit suicide in a "Jag-yew-ar" that won't start, but when the staff find him hanging dead in his office, Don once again shows a kind of low-key integrity by insisting on cutting him down, honoring the body in a way that reflects his wartime experience, no matter how flawed.

Re-watching these still-watchable things, which I really wasn't going to watch, but I recorded them anyway, I once more got lost in the labyrinth. Fortunately the episodes wear well, better than I thought they ever could. Even knowing exactly what came next, I was drawn in. Again.




One of my favorite characters - maybe my absolute favorite - is Sally, whose odyssey has taken her from chubby eight-year-old girl ballet dancing for guests in the living room to fiery, rebellious young woman, someone who conveys a brokenness that she will somehow parlay into an extraordinary life. She has always been a Daddy's girl, but has seen much of Daddy's dark side, which is very dark and murky indeed. She watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot, screamed when Don scored tickets to the Beatles, got her first period in the Museum of Natural History and ran home to her mother, jumping over years of alienation and emotional abandonment for an understanding and comfort which, against the odds, she did receive.  Sally and I are the same age, which took me a while to realize. She's experiencing all the madness of the 1960s through the eyes of a smart but confused, often emotionally-deprived child. And where else can you find a character like that, one who is allowed to develop in so many directions, with so many dimensions, over a period of eight years?




I do hope the series winds up with a little more dignity than was displayed in the last few episodes, which in many ways sucked. I groaned at some of it - Ken Cosgrove's meaningless tap dance seems to have hit a new low. It was a mistake to take the series into the beginning of the '70s, when all that Rat Pack coolness had worn off and people were into long greasy hair, sideburns and polyester leisure suits. And everyone's wondering what will happen to Don. Will they kill him off? (That would once and for all eliminate the possibility of Mad Men II: The Adventures of Disco Don.) Will he become hap-hap-happy at last? Will he realize all those flashbacks to the old homestead were a complete fiction (as witness the fact that the young Dick Whitman looks more like Alfred E. Neuman than Don)? I would be happy if they killed off the repulsive, non-acting Glen, Matthew Weiner's talentless, creepy son, who has blighted the show and pulled down the quality of it for many seasons now.




Last episodes are a stumbling block for long-running, epic series. Most of them fumble, drop the ball. St. Elsewhere was ludicrous, with the whole series being the dream of an autistic boy. The Sopranos turned all the lights out or something (I didn't watch), stopping in mid-conversation and leaving everyone hanging. Seinfeld just had a ridiculous jailhouse scene that seemed to be punishing the characters for being too entertaining all those years. It was a long time ago, but I think MASH squeezed it a little too hard, so it came out almost as maudlin as the excruciating ending of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Sex and the City - dear God - talk about Don Draper! Carrie returned to the wealthy, powerful, smooth sociopath Big after he had mangled her heart a hundred times - and everyone cried and clapped their hands - it was sickening, but no more sickening/completely irrelevant than the two movies that followed.




We'll keep our expectations low, or maybe we'll have no expectations at all. But we'll watch. I don't think we'll find it as hard to say goodbye to it all as Jon Hamm, who seems to be at a fragile point right now. He speaks in another article about Don Draper building his house on a crumbling foundation. It alarmed me, because I wondered if the brokenness in him was being laid bare by playing a deeply broken character for so long. I was even more alarmed reading about James Gandolfini - I confess I never watched The Sopranos, but I hated to see what happened to him when the show got hold of him.

Actors become. Don't they? Do the best of them stay separate from their work? Can they? And how do you do that, exactly? Why would anyone need to anaesthetize and numb themselves with booze to the point of needing rehab? Doesn't this point to a pain and a pressure approaching the unbearable load Don Draper has carried for eight years?

For if Don's fundamental nature is one of integrity, as that one episode seems to indicate, how and why has he trespassed against himself that many times, and survived?















"You had me at hello"

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Nightmare on Farm Street