THE INK SPOTS

THE INK SPOTS

Whatever may be wrong with the age we live in, it has this advantage: Anything can pop into your head and you can find it on line. The Ink Spots, for instance. The other day I noticed an obituary for Huey Long – not the Kingfish from Louisiana, but the Texan who was among the legitimate members of the Ink Spots singing group.

One has to qualify members as “legitimate,” because successful singing groups often have a kind of pseudo-life that goes on and on long after the original DNA has sputtered and died. Anything “legit” about the Ink Spots had disappeared by the early ’60s, but today there are still guys billing themselves under the group’s name.

By some counts, there were eleven men who could call themselves Ink Spots without  running afoul of the criminal code, and Huey Long, who died last week at the age of 105, was one of them.

HUEY LONG AT 103

HUEY LONG AT 103

Reading about Huey Long’s death put a song in my head — “If I Didn’t Care.” This song is one of my earliest musical memories; I remember hearing it on the radio that was on all day in our house when I was growing up. Also, my parents had several of the group’s Decca recordings. I looked around on line and soon found a video of the real Ink Spots singing that song. They approached many of their songs in the same way: the tenor sang the melody and a bass then recited either the same lyric or the bridge, embellishing it with terms like “honey chile’ ” and “darlin’ .”

One of my favorites among the Ink Spots recordings is “Java Jive,” which I found at http://www.archive.org/details/JavaJive . I think that song was original with them. The only rendition I like as much as theirs is Christopher Lloyd  as Jim Ignatowski, singing it in the Sunshine Cab Co. garage on “Taxi,” but that’s a whole other thing. I also like the Ink Spots recording of “My Prayer” by George Boulanger and Jimmy Kennedy — which was the number 3 record in the country for a while in 1939. It’s been recorded by at least 40 different artists, ranging from the Platters to the Mantovani Orchestra. The Ink Spots version is at http://www.last.fm/music/The+Ink+Spots/_/My+Prayer


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Joy, joy, joy

June 13, 2009

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

I don’t know why this took so long, but I’m glad to see that Joy Behar is finally going to have her own TV talk show. It will be on at 9 p.m. weekdays on HLN, the network formerly known as Headline News.

I listened reguarly to Behar’s radio show on WABC in New York. I didn’t always agree with her – particularly on religious issues – but I was drawn in by the combination of wit, intelligence, and common sense and by her willingness to listen to other points of view. In fact, I called in to her show several times, and she always gave me enough time to say what was on my mind.

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

While she was still doing that radio show, I wrote a long profile of her. I remember the lead: “Joy Behar is a chiacchierone” – that being the Italian term for “chatterbox.” I spent about an hour with her at WABC, and I later talked by phone to the station manager, who told me Behar’s show was doing well and that he had just signed her to a new contract. It wasn’t long after that that she was fired, not a surprising turn of events in radio. She seemed too liberal and too outspoken in general for the management of that station, but she wound up working for the same parent company when she got her position as a co-host of “The View.”

ANN COULTER

ANN COULTER

It isn’t possible to judge Behar’s potential as a TV host based on “The View,” because guests aren’t given enough time on that show and the hosts often talk simultaneously. There was a better example of  her work recently when she substituted for Larry King and interviewed Ann Coulter. When Coulter appeared on “The View” the conversation deteriorated into babble as everyone tried to make her point at the same time in a contentious atmosphere. On the King show, however, Behar and Coulter were able to have a linear conversation in which – though they may be polar opposites in many ways – they showed each other mutual respect and the viewer got a chance to learn something from the dialogue.

At last, something  to look forward to in the bleak landscape of television.

STEPHEN T. JOHNS

STEPHEN T. JOHNS

So James von Brunn finally got what he wanted. After years of sitting around drinking red wine and spouting anti-Semitic and anti-black rhetoric, the little man made himself important. The only justice in the matter is that von Brunn is nearly dead and that most of us will soon forget his name. Like the melting wax the psalmists liked to write about, he will be unimportant and useless – a fate that probably would have annoyed the hell out of him. It’s tragic and sad that Stephen Johns, a man who mattered, had to cross paths with von Brunn at the Holocaust Memorial Museum just when the non-entity was being important.

But long after we have to ask each other the name of the jerk that shot Stephen Johns, the more insidious purveyors of anti-Semitism and racism will be doing their work in deserved but dangerous obscurity. Like the priest I once knew who told another priest in the presence of two young altar servers that the actor Mickey Rooney wasn’t a “Mick” but had changed his name to hide the fact that he was a “Hebe.” Rooney did change his name from Yule, but I don’t know that he was Jewish. He’s been a Christian for many years. But whatever the facts about Rooney may be, it was an offensive way to refer to Irish and Jewish people and an offensive imputation about Rooney’s motives. When I asked the priests if they realized the boys had heard their conversation, their rationale was that the kids wouldn’t know who Rooney was and probably didn’t understand those terms.

A neighbor recently was explaining at a party how Jewish people were responsible for a lot of the current economic difficulties because, as we all know, they control the wealth. Apparently because he knows I’m a clergyman, he leaned toward me and asked, “That’s what Jesus had against them, isn’t it?” “Jesus was Jewish,” I said, “and most of the people he spent his life with were Jewish.” And my neighbor blushed a little and scratched his head and said, “Oh yeah. That’s right.”

In the long run, people we meet in everyday situations, people who go around confirming in casual conversation age-old stereotypes, often to willing or indifferent audiences, are at least as insidious as people like von Brunn who nurse the same mindless errors until they blow their tops.

EMILY MORTIMER

EMILY MORTIMER

We watched “Dear Frankie,” a 2004 movie shot in Scotland, directed by Shona Auerbach. The story concerns Lizzie Morrison, played by Emily Mortimer, a single mother who has spent years avoiding her husband, Davy, who physically abused her and their son, Frankie (Jack McElhone). As the film opens, mother and son — accompanied by Lizzie’s mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), have moved again to a seaport town in Scotland.

To shield Frankie from the hard facts of his past, Lizzie has maintained the fiction that the boy’s father is a merchant seaman who travels the world aboard HMS Accra. She regularly writes letters to Frankie over his father’s name — often including exotic postage stamps — and Frankie writes back in letters that Lizzie retrieves when they are returned to the post office.

JACK McELHONE

JACK McELHONE

Frankie is deaf and rarely speaks — though he can — but he is exceptionally bright and excels at reading lips. One of his schoolmates discovers in a newspaper shipping news item that the Accra, which Frankie thinks is headed for the Cape of Good Hope, is actually to dock in that Scottish town in a few days. This information spurs Lizzie to search for a man who can pose as Davy for a few days. Through one of her few friends in town, she hires a man whom she requires to have “no past, no present, no future,” and he appears — with no name as well — in the form of Gerard Butler. He presents a grim figure, but it appears from the beginning of his relationship with the Morrison family that their bizarre situation piques first his curiosity and then his interest.

GERARD BUTLER

GERARD BUTLER

As Lizzie and the nameless imposter carry on the charade with Frankie, Nell discovers that Davy or someone on his behalf has been searching for Lizzie and is close at hand.

This story, which was written by Andrea Gibb, could easily have disintegrated into absurdity, but no such thing happens. Offbeat as they are, the issues in this film are family issues, and they are presented in terms of the private pain and fear and disappointment that are not strange to many people. These characters and their situation have about them the smell of reality, and Auerbach firmly grounds them with every aspect of her direction, but particularly with her use of real time — pauses, stillness, silence that some directors might be afraid to employ. There is, perhaps famously by now, a scene in which Lizzie and the imposter stare at each other for what seems like minutes, though it seems that long only because it is longer than many directors would dare to abandon motion and sound. In lesser movies, their mutual stare might have led to a  cheap and easy consequence, but not here.

One caveat. As annoying as subtitles can be, we left them on, because some of the actors’ pronunciation makes the dialogue difficult to follow.

LAURA LINNEY

LAURA LINNEY

We watched Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film “You Can Count on Me,” which explores a theme not often treated in movies — the relationship between a grown brother and sister. In this case, the siblings are “Sammy” Prescott, played by Laura Linney, and Terry Prescott, played by Mark Ruffalo. In the opening scene, which occurs while Sammy and Terry are children, their parents are killed in a highway accident. When we next see Sammy, she is the single mother of an eight year old boy, Rudy, played by Rory Culkin, still living in the family home in an upstate New York town. She is eagerly anticipating one of the infrequent visits she receives from Terry – who has become a pot-smoking, hot-tempered but charismatic wanderer. The visit does not go well for several reasons, including Terry’s influence on Rudy, his unreliability, and his meddling in Rudy’s ignorance about his biological father.

MATTHEW BRODERICK

MATTHEW BRODERICK

Sammy works as a loan officer at the local branch of a larger banking company, and her comfortable situation there is disturbed by the arrival of a new manager, Brian Everitt, played by Matthew Broderick. Brian fusses about Sammy’s practice of sacrificing some of her lunch time in exchange for running out at 3:30 every afternoon to pickup Rudy at the school bus stop. Brian’s concern with this issue seems to be a symptom of a supercilious management style and a lack of leadership skills. His relationship with Sammy seems inevitably headed toward termination, but forces in both of their private lives sends them in a direction that Sammy, at least, would not have expected.

Sammy’s only “romantic” interest is in Bob Steegerson, played by Jon Tenney, but this appears to be a match with no direction.

MARK RUFFALO

MARK RUFFALO

Well, those are the facts of a story that Lonergan wrote and that Lonergan tells very well. I recall reading an essay when I was in college that made the point that the American genius resides in process rather than in product — which, if it was ever true, may have dissipated in the past couple of decades. But what is fascinating about this film is that Lonergan — who, incidentally, gives an effective performance in the movie as a minister who counsels both Sammy and Terry — focuses on the lives these folks are actually living, not on the resolutions either he or we might imagine or hope for them. He assures us of one thing, that Sammy and Terry love each other unconditionally. But he doesn’t make any heavy-handed attempt to explain the siblings’ present predicaments in terms of the early loss of their parents, and instead — what is of more value — leaves us to speculate about that based on what he reveals about their experiences and their inner lives. He leaves us thinking that everything could turn out all right for these characters, but he gives us no more assurance about that than we have about our own near or distant futures.

RORY CULKIN

RORY CULKIN

All of the performances are exemplary, and it would have been hard to cast a more appealing trio than Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick. Rory Culkin was a remarkable actor at 11, about the age he was when he made this film. He has a haunted and haunting look that is exposed in several closeups. If we can believe what we read on the IMDb web site, Lonergan had trouble getting the boy to smile or laugh on camera; if so, that serious side of his personality served him well here.

This film was nominated for two Oscars and it won several awards, and none of that is surprising.

 

ELAINE STRITCH

ELAINE STRITCH

I had a phone conversation last night with Elaine Stritch concerning her upcoming appearance at the Paper Mill Playhouse in “The Full Monty.” Something in her conversation put me to mind of a song written by Johnny Mercer sometime around the time I was born. I’m crazy about Mercer’s stuff – and there’s a lot to be crazy about since he wrote about a thousand songs. His lyrics were so hip; I never get tired of listening to them.

The song I was thinking about last night was “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid.” This was part of the lyric:

The people in the ballroom were stuffy and arty / So I began to get just a little bit frayed / I sneaked into the kitchen, I dug me a party / The waiter and the porter / And the second storey maid. / I peeked into the parlor to see what was a-hatchin’ / In time to hear the hostess suggest a charade / But who was in the pantry a-laughin’ an’ scratchin’ / The waiter and the porter and the upstairs maid.

There’s a great recording of this song by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and the Jack Teagarden Orchestra. The smart-alec lyrics were perfect for Crosby.

 

JOHNNY MERCER

JOHNNY MERCER

The reason I thought of that song last night was that Elaine Stritch was telling me about the sort of egalitarian social life she leads in which she is likely to talk to and even make friends with almost anybody. “I don’t know how I’d live,” she said, “if I couldn’t talk to the consierge when I get home after a performance or a rehearsal.”

I asked her what she meant by a remark attributed to her: “Being bored is the greatest sin.”

She said: “What is boring is spending your life with the same kind of people all the time. I avoid that. I reach out. I spent half of my life in kitchens. At parties, I would end up in the kitchen, having a ball. Or I’d be with the musicans; I l0ve to hang out with musicians.”

“But,” she said with a laugh, “I also had a lovelyevening with the Queen of England, so the hell with everybody.”

Mr. Mercer — on four:

 If ever I’m invited to some fuddy-duddy’s / I ain’t-a gonna watch any harlequinade / You’ll find me in the kitchen applaudin’ my buddies / The waiter, the porter and the upstairs maid.

 

 

 

 

 

Inquiring minds etc.

June 3, 2009

KING TUT'S MUMMY    

KING TUT’S MUMMY

One of the curiosities of American history is that no one has ever figured out who was the mother of William Franklin. We know the father well enough – Benjamin Franklin, one of the geniuses of the American Revolution. But Ben wasn’t married to Billy’s mom, and though he took good care of the boy until they split over questions of loyalty or rebellion, the old man never let slip the mother’s name. No scholar has been able to unravel the mystery.

But that’s cheap cheese compared to what the Egyptians are monkeying around with — trying to determine who was the father of King Tutankhamun. That’s been the subject of speculation at least since the king’s tomb was uncovered in 1922, but now Egyptian scholars are using DNA samples from the mummy to narrow the parentage down — presumably to either Akhenaten or Amenhotep III. 

 

FAUX NEFERTITI

FAUX NEFERTITI

Meanwhile, there has been some controversy over a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti — a contemporary of King Tut’s — whose reputed good looks have been the source of fascination for centuries. Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin wrote in a book published this spring that the statue is a copy dating only from 1912. Worse yet, German scientists earlier this year speculated that the sculptor of the original bust may have smoothed out creases around the queen’s mouth and straightened out her bumpy nose. 

If these intimate secrets aren’t safe after 3300 years, what chance has Adam Lambert got?

SUSAN BOYLE

SUSAN BOYLE

Andy Burnham, the British culture secretary, wants the Office of Communications to investigate whether the television network and the producers of “Britain’s Got Talent” had acted responsibly toward Susan Boyle in the runup to the show’s finals. The implication is that the people behind the show that vaulted Boyle from the obscurity of a Scottish village to the limelight of YouTube should have done a better job of protecting her from the effects of sudden fame.

Burnham made reference to Britain’s broadcast code when he called for a determination that “duty of care” had been exercised with respect to Susan Boyle, who was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion after coming in second in the show’s finals. The Office of Communications doesn’t think the broadcast code covers what happened to Boyle, but Burnham said: “We are living in a world where it is not just about what happens on telly on a Saturday night. There is 360 degree scrutiny, 365 days a year.  We need to look after people, not just around the camera. Broadcasters should always put people’s welfare first.”

This has prompted some bitter responses from readers of The Times of London, some sympathetic to Susan Boyle, some not. Some of the readers were outraged that the government would even think of becoming involved in a trivial, private matter. I liked the comment from Al of Manchester:

The UK is full of cruel people feasting on a diet of bile soaked Tabloid fodder and Reality TV trash. First they jeered and sneered at Susan for not looking like a singer and now they do the same because she not “tough enough to take it”. What a sad place and sad people we’ve become.

And Jessica of Eastbourne:

Can I just say that “they” did not treat Susan any differently than any of the other contestants. Susan was a victim of the throwaway celebrity culture that the UK and the US fawn over so much. If anyone “threw her away” it was the public, and the show’s producers are not as much to blame as we are.

What I loved about the reporting of this story is that after the universal handwringing and public penance over the snickering and eye-rolling when Susan Boyle first appeared on the show, the media couldn’t mention her without pointing out how “dowdy” she is, how unlikely a celebrity she is, or without calling attention again to the fact that she is a “virgin” who has “never been kissed.”

Puffin at the westernmost point in EuropeI photographed this puffin two years ago at Latrabjarg, Iceland, which is the westernmost point in Europe. Puffins, as the photo makes clear, are cute. Too cute to live, apparently, because the Icelandic people eat them. The puffin population isn’t in any danger due to this, because the taking of puffins is controlled, and there are plenty of them.

We were talking at a dinner party the other night about the odd contradictions in the way many of us respond to food. I was a good example. I won’t eat rabbit, for instance, for which there is no rational explanation. I would eat game birds that I have not ever tasted – say, pheasant – but I wouldn’t eat a pigeon. Well, for me, puffins fall into that category.

So it didn’t set well with me to read that a visual artist named Curver Thoroddsen has opened a pizza restaurant in a lighthouse near the cliff where I took this picture, and that one of the most popular items on the menu is puffin pizza. Thoroddsen said he was inspired to open the restaurant – which he pointed out is as close as one can get to the United States and still be in Europe – while he was doing graduate work in New York, where there is a pizza joint on every block. I wonder if, while he was in the city, he took advantage of the abundant supply of pigeons.