Sunday, December 17, 2006
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
For some strange reason, I’ve been thinking about the music classes we had in grade school. Do schools even have music classes anymore? Music teachers? I imagine private schools do, but I’m not really sure if such a thing is still a priority with public schools. They must, if they want to have marching bands in their high schools. I don’t picture many kids learning the piccolo or tuba of their own free volition.
Another of those rare things I’ll bust my parents on is that they should have made us all learn an instrument. Jesus, I was practically begging for a piano or keyboard of some sort when I was a kid. We had a play-by-number organ in my dad’s room that I learned. After I mastered the play-by-number book, I would take the sheet music from my sister’s flute charts (she played that in the marching band) and transpose the notes to numbers. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is burned in my mind as a result. Unfortunately, I think the coolest song they did was “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright, which sounded fucking insane on a play-by-number organ. If I would have had one of those “samba beat” functions, I could have pulled it off.
That’s about as far as I got. Older brother M bought a shitty used acoustic guitar somewhere, and we all tried and failed at learning it, not even sure how to tune the damn thing. All we had was some instructional manual featuring a cowboy on the front – I’m sure those familiar with rudimentary guitar probably remember the book and/or title, which I’ve forgotten. Without a teacher, it was a waste of time. It seemed like most “musical” kids came from families where their parents or older siblings played instruments, too, and the kids would just pick it up as they went along.
The music classes we took as part of the curriculum in grade school were something else entirely. I recall them lasting up through the 8th grade and being an excuse for most kids to laze around. Music teachers tended to be a pretty weird lot. The weirdest was Mr. M in our 5th and 6th grade classes, a very small guy who looked like a skinny eskimo and was very prissy. I remember the time a bunch of bigger kids saw him on the sidewalk in front of the school wearing a gigantic parka, and the kids surrounded him, poking fun at his choice in outerwear. All he did was stomp his foot and say, “Are you done with this infantile tom foolery? This type of cavalier behavior is unacceptable.”
The kids didn’t get into trouble. Your average male teacher would have beat the shit out of them, which wasn’t a capital crime back then and probably changed the course of a few rowdy kids who really needed that sort of ass-kicking.
By the same token, the 7th and 8th grade music teacher, Bruce M, who had Bruce Dern’s psychotic demeanor, yet was about 5’ 2”, never had any sort of respect issues with kids. I once saw him make Rick G, the toughest kid in our grade, openly weep after getting him in a headlock. Rick was probably about four inches taller and 50 lbs. heavier than him at the time. Mr. M was a bad ass who eventually was asked to retire early because he was still throttling misbehaving kids. (From what I see of kids, he was probably right 99% of the time. But with how litigious society has become, and the “enlightened” new rule that teachers can’t lay a finger on kids, it was probably for the best that he left early.) Bruce M was a pretty good guy if he liked you, and he liked most kids. He was in a band in the 60s that nearly broke the Top 40, but never quite made it. Thus, he gigged around with his band in the area, making good money in the process, and he could make all the girls cry by playing “Nadia’s Theme” on the piano. We got along like gangbusters.
Music class started out being fun, because when you’re seven years old, it’s a kick to sing out loud with a group of other kids. We’d have a ball singing “Senor Delgato,” “Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy” and “My Hat It Has Three Corners.” People not raised in the 70s may listen to that Langley Music Project CD and think all kids in the 70s were singing “Desperado” and “Space Oddity” in their music classes. Guess again. Those kids in that Canadian school had a hippy music teacher who has pushing the envelope. Contemporary music was looked at as being barbaric and inferior. I also couldn’t see us grooving to “Satisfaction” and “Stairway to Heaven” – hard group sing-a-longs and strange lyrics for kids to be singing. I once recall we had a mandatory talent contest in the second grade, which amounted to nearly every kid doing an acapella version of “Joy to the World.” I’m picturing myself in my skintight plaid red bellbottoms, doing my Brady Bunch dance moves and fearfully warbling “Jeremiah was a bullfrog/Was a good friend of mine” in front of 20 other equally scared shitless kids waiting their turn to be publicly humiliated.
The only times I can recall having fun in music class were when we’d break out the percussion instruments and, with the teacher’s encouragement, get some sort of tribal rhythm thing going, sometimes to the tune of “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, although that was our “play time” song where we’d rock out before taking naps on wrestling mats set up in the coat room. (Why can’t work be like this?) There’d be 20 kids banging away on tambourines, jawbones, bongos, cymbals, woodblocks, maracas, snare drums, and sometimes each other for the more forward youths. The teacher would have to flash the lights off and on and raise her voice to let us know we were going too apeshit.
Later, with Bruce M, he somehow got the school to buy him a Moog Synthesizer. This was about 1978, and synthesizers were still a fairly new instrument on the music scene. He had a few classes where he tried to teach us how to use it that ended with everyone making the synthesizer blast out a farting sound, thus reducing all of us to tears of laughter. We loved playing with that thing, and I understand there were a few talented older kids in Mr M's homeroom who actually knew how to play thing and were doing Moog versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “Iron Man.” He should have had a class focused solely on playing that synthesizer, but that would have been a pretty radical departure for a rural high school in the 70s.
There were some kids who took a real shine to music class and singing in public. My old friend Rod W in particular. We called him “Hot Rod” because he was a bit nerdy – the kind of guy who sported a peach-fuzz mustache at 15 and had this odd weezing laugh. He used to beat me with a tree branch during recess at the grade school next to my house, then would whine like a lost dog when I avoided him for weeks afterwards. A strange kid who eventually got around that sort of stuff.
Hot Rod could sing like a bird. If we wanted to piss him off, we’d call him Songbird, the insinuation that this made him somehow more effeminate. It didn't help that Hot Rod wasn't too coordinated and didn't like sports. In music class from the first grade onward, while other kids, including me, would cower in front of the class and warble something like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” when we had to sing for the music teacher, Rod would be leaning over the teacher’s desk, shot glass of gin in hand, wearing a leopard-skin cravat, and crooning away like Dean Martin, sometimes shouting “come on, everybody sing” before the chorus. He really loved singing in public and knew how to project a presence while he sang.
Guys like Hot Rod ended up in the glee club … dressed in blazers and striped clip-on ties, singing shit like “Sunrise/Sunset” and “What I Did for Love” … sometimes in period costume … dressed like peasants and Hawaiian natives … zoot-suited street hoods in a back alley. You’d get the more industrious/smarter athletes doing this stuff, too, although they weren’t anywhere near as talented as guys like Rod who lived for this. Glee Club was the gayest shit going around in high school, yet you had a few guys in it who could most likely kick your ass. I can still recall quarterback Dave M, in a monk’s robe along with all the other Glee Club guys, squatting onstage and singing that “Always Thought That I’d Be an Apostle” song from Jesus Christ Superstar. Dave looked a little too into it, like he was having a religious conversion.
But most glee-club stuff had that strange barbershop quartet/middle-aged people singing 'round the piano in the parlor vibe to it. They should have just given the guys Rob Roys and let them unloosen their clip-ons, so that they could really tear into “Blue Velvet” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I actually like that sort of 1940s-60s pop stuff now, but hated it with a passion back then. Still, I’m thinking now, what were they supposed to do? The kids doing rock songs would have freaked out the parents and would have been even more gay presented in that sort of stilted/sterilized environment. Still, it would have been nice to see the choir take a stab at “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
A strange thing that I developed such a strong passion for music in my adult life, when I took so few of those small avenues open to kids to develop an appreciation. I’m not sure if things would have been any different if music departments geared their lessons towards music kids actually listen to. Or throw more money into music programs.
There’s a big deal made in urban areas about declining music programs, and how this has tied in with the birth of hiphop – yo, because the kids are creative and doing their own thang. Which is utter bullshit. Are you picturing a teenage 50 Cent playing a trombone in the marching band? Snoop Dog in a blazer and clip-on clicking his fingers while crooning, “Good Morning, Starshine”? Jay Z. manhandling a contra-bassoon? These guys were dealing crack at that age. They were probably beating up kids in the marching band and stealing their instruments. I suspect it’s much cheaper to buy a starter guitar at Walmart than it is to buy a beatbox and a PA system. And if a kid doesn’t have the inclination and discipline to learn either, doesn’t matter how much money his school district does or doesn’t have.
Friday, December 01, 2006
I may have touched on these issues before with each story line, but it’s good to compare and contrast. Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers the world has known. I can recall reading A Tale of Two Cities in a factory lunch room during summer break at college, getting choked up at the end and pretending I had to sneeze. Even now, that particular story line rings true to me.
But I have trouble with A Christmas Carol. In short, I don’t believe Scrooge, who is positioned as a lost soul in need of spiritual redemption, needs to be redeemed. Sure, he’s a prick. He’s going to bust Bob Cratchit’s balls by making him work on Christmas. I guess Scrooge is some type of loan shark, and we get to see his progression from an unloved child, to relatively cheerful young man working for a really cheerful older man, to a guy in his 20s who chooses money over a chick, and then somehow about 40 years are magically skipped, and we’re left with Scrooge as a bitter, angry, money-grubbing bastard. Not since Jesus has such a meaningful, decades-long time gap existed in an otherwise coherent story. I guess Dickens, had he detailed the lost years, would have had Scrooge spanking his monkey on a regular basis over that chick he left behind while he worked his way up to owning his two-man loan company. And who knows – that might have been for the best. Maybe if he’d chosen love over money, he’d be miserable and abusive to his wife, and felt trapped by his kids.
It’s my contention that I’ve worked for and with dozens of people who make Scrooge look like a pussy. There was no traceable downward trajectory into prickdom for these people: they always were about the money. Started out in life that way, raised by greedy parents who nurtured this way of seeing of the world, valued money over love, and saw it all the way through to their monied lifestyle. Oh, they had families and such. But they still valued money over love. A lot of them can’t stop working because they feel empty and lacking in any sort of power or identity without a high-powered job. Affairs. Backstabbing coworkers and leaving footprints on their backs. Business practices that would land them in jail if they weren’t white collar. Scrooge? You got a rich old bastard who needs to ease up on his lone employee a little around the holidays. He’s nasty to kids on the street? I got news for you. Kids on the streets of major cities have always been jerks. Hats off to Scrooge for getting the drop on them.
I don’t buy his redemption either: fuck Tiny Tim. Whether Bob Cratchit is a bachelor or has 20 kids shouldn’t be any of Scrooge’s concern or business. What the fuck is Bob Cratchit doing with a gigantic family when Scrooge is paying him shit? I gather this was Victorian England and things were pretty rough all over. But it seems to me that poverty was part of the landscape; Scrooge’s place looked like a dump, too.
I don’t get the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone and having that send the final redemptive blow into Scrooge’s soul. Shit, man, we all die. We’ll all have tombstones. People will talk good and ill of us afterwards. Scrooge is an old man. Of course, he’s going to die soon.
Here’s what happened to Scrooge after he was redeemed. He made Bob Cratchit a partner in his loan-shark firm, taking in Tiny Tim as an intern. As the years went on, Scrooge kept seeming to make less and less money, but he didn’t really care, as he now knew the meaning of life was love. Tiny Tim’s legs got better, to the point where he grew into a fine young man. At that point, Cratchit let Scrooge knew that he had spent the last decade shaving shillings off every pound the firm brought in and now held a majority interest. Tiny Tim had also become an expert forger and signed over the deed of the company to him and his father: Cratchit & Son. Both of them then beat Scrooge to death with a hot poker and ate his corpse over the next few days. Cratchit & Son went on to became the most ruthless loan-sharking operation in all of London at the turn of the 20th century. Before Bob Cratchit passed on in 1910, Scrooge’s spirit visited him in hopes of scaring him into redemption, but Bob said he would be perfectly comfortable ruling in hell and sent him on his way.
I like the concept to a It’s a Wonderful Life, too: a suicidal man on a bridge, on the verge of losing his business, feels his life has been wasted by remaining in his hometown, jumps into the river and is saved by an angel, who then shows him what the world would have been like if he had never lived. Naturally, it would be a much worse place, and this knowledge gave the man, George Bailey, the will to live, and he runs back to his family and town, is accepted by all with open arms, all of them raining money on him so he can keep that musty old savings and loan running.
One problem I have, and I hate to say this, but if you could magically show some people what the world would be like if they’d never lived, the world would be a better place without them. And the angel would be doing a better thing to push them into the river. Jeffrey Dahmer? Hitler? Those are extreme examples. But you will find “every-day people” who sexually or physically abuse their children, have committed murder, rape and other horrible crimes against others, in short, spent their lives making the lives of people around them worse. I always thought it would be a wonderful idea to remake It’s a Wonderful Life with the old banker in a wheelchair deciding to commit suicide, wheeling himself off the bridge, and an angel shows him how the world would have been without him (i.e., virtually no different). After seeing it, the old coot moans “fuck it” and still wheels himself off the bridge, clutching the angel as he plummets over the railing in hopes that they both drown. Merry Christmas!
My real issue with It's a Wonderful Life is the stereotypes of happiness and sadness the director Frank Capra places in the movie. The one that really grates on me is his wife, who is portrayed as the happy, strong-willed mother who bears George’s children and has a full, wonderful life with him, whether or not the old savings and loan goes under. The version of his wife without George: a pathetic old spinster/librarian who stalks the streets of their doomed little town at night like some dark specter of loneliness and dreams deferred.
How many older single women watching that movie thought, “What the fuck … that’s me they’re showing up there! Is my life that bad?” The gist is unless you reproduce and have a big, happy, wonderful family, you’re somehow not living right. Ditto the “floozy” girl George helps out with his savings and loan who, without him around, turns into a prostitute. What I don’t get is that the town of Bedford Falls, without George, is portrayed as a den of sleaze, sin and greed. Wouldn’t a prostitute stand to make a lot more money in a town like that than in the “clean” version of town created by George’s existence? Would making the jump from town pump to working prostitute be that much of a stretch? If I remember, the woman was having some kind of money issues that George helped with her. If she’s out screwing dozens of guys for money, she’s probably making better money than when she was just screwing guys for kicks. For however harder Bedford Falls would have become without George around to "save" it, one thing is clear: there'd be a lot more money going around.
Even the local bartender, who has Joe Palooka written all over him in both versions of the town, is made to be a somehow darker, badder guy for throwing the disgraced pharmacist, the now-unknown George and the angel out of his bar. I suspect the bartender, even in the real town, probably gave the bum rush in the exact same way to belligerent drunks, bums and people acting no more or less strange than George is in this alternate world.
Ultimately, I think the problem is that I was just never all that nuts about Jimmy Stewart as an actor. From all accounts he was a genuinely kind, decent man, which is far from the norm in Hollywood, and obviously one of the greats who appeared in dozens of classic movies. But I just don’t like the “aw shucks, mac” spin he put on most of his “everyman” characters, the same way I don’t like Jack Lemmon, another great actor, sputtering like a mental patient in most of his roles. (I think Glengary Glenn Ross was the best thing he ever did, where he portrayed a desperate real-estate agent about to lose his job in a cut-throat agency.)
I don’t dispute the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s a good concept to show a virtuous human in crisis that his life matters. What I dispute is that everything around him appears to turn to shit in that fantasy world where he never existed, and it’s my take that this world could be just as good without him, and this wouldn’t in any way detract from his existence. Instead, we get this ham-fisted version where Bedford Falls and everyone in it has gone to hell. I aint buying it. One of the other kids probably would have pulled George’s brother from the pond when the ice broke. His wife might have met someone better. Or met a butch girl named Spike, moved to Key West and lived happily ever after? The old pharmacist might not have put the rat poison in the wrong bottle. Someone might have shot the banker for being such a bastard. I have a hard time believing an entire town’s morality is going to hinge on one guy and his small savings and loan company, that it will turn into Babylon without him. A lot more shit would have to go on with that town than the lost presence of one person who played a small-but-vital role in the town’s well being.
And ultimately the problem with both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life: Christmas is not a redemptive time. We like to think it is, because we give each other presents. Oh, and it’s Christ’s birthday. But it’s my experience that pricks go back to being pricks after Christmas, and even when they’re not being pricks during the holiday season, you get the vibe that the feeling is very forced and unnatural for the person. I think that’s why people get depressed over the holidays – they feel this façade growing in the weeks leading up to Christmas and reject it out of hand, not quite understanding you should just accept kindness in whatever form it comes. Just a nice gesture that should be appreciated, and hopefully returned. Not redemption. A huge difference. Have you ever met anyone redeemed by the Christmas spirit?
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