Thursday, August 16, 2018

David Crosby: The Songs Go On

David Crosby turned 77 yesterday. He may be a social and political bad boy in the eyes of many, but he remains an iconic figure in the performance and evolution of popular music beginning in the 1960s. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. Though the pace may be slowed, Crosby is still on the circuit adding his signature sound --and rather strong it remains--after all these years. Considering the toll from years of unhealthy life choices both emotional and physical, we're fortunate to have him around for another generation of admirers. For me, Crosby ranks among the best of the singer songwriters.

He's completed three albums in the past four years. From all accounts, he's loving it and so are his audiences. Here is a sample of the poet's work performed in its golden age, first with Graham Nash, and second, with Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young:

Happy birthday, David. Sail on!


Photo:, photo by Django Crosby


The Aquarian Happening Called Woodstock

The historic three-day festival called Woodstock opened in Bethel, New York. on August 15, 1969. It attracted an audience estimated at 400,000 - no, I wasn't there - or twice what the promoters expected. The event featured more than 35 leading or up-and-coming solo performers and bands of the time. That year the rock critic, Ellen Sander, said this about the festival's significance:

No longer can the magical multicolored phenomenon of pop culture be overlooked or underrated. It’s happening everywhere, but now it has happened in one place at one time so hugely that it was indeed historic .... The audience was a much bigger story than the groups. It was major entertainment news that the line-up of talent was of such magnificence and magnitude (thirty-one acts, nineteen of which were colossal) .... These were, however, the least significant events of what happened over the Woodstock weekend. What happened was that the largest number of people ever assembled for any event other than a war lived together, intimately and meaningfully and with such natural good cheer that they turned on not only everyone surrounding them but the mass media, and, by extension, millions of others, young and old, particularly many elements hostile to the manifestations and ignorant of the substance of pop culture.


Today, the Woodstock Preservation Alliance has this to say about the event's long-term significance to the American experience:

Woodstock was the culmination of a transformation in American popular music that had begun with [the] Monterey [Pop Festival]....Woodstock introduced the same wide diversity of talent, albeit on an expanded scale, to a truly mass audience....A subsequent documentary film...and several sound recordings helped establish what only two years before had been underground or avant-garde musical styles and ushered them into the mainstream.
Participating musicians, industry insiders, and rock critics and historians concur that Woodstock changed the way that popular music was programmed and marketed. Festival promoters noted the large numbers of fans who were willing to put up with often inadequate facilities....Promoters saw opportunities to improve their profit margin by more efficiently organizing festivals....They also understood that increased ticket prices would need to be moving the festivals from pastoral settings into sports arenas and convention centers and limiting the shows to a single-day or evening.... [Such changes] altered the festival-going experience... and thereby diminished the sense of community that many commentators considered the sine qua non of the Woodstock experience.
The development of "arena rock" marked the end of the rock "vaudeville circuit," and led to the demise of the smaller concert hall venues....The arenas also gave the upper hand to the style of music called heavy metal, represented by loudly amplified guitar based and blues-inflected bands composed almost entirely of white male musicians, whose aggressive style of playing was ideally suited for filling the audible space in arena settings.
After Woodstock, musicians apprehended the seemingly insatiable demand for their music and began commanding higher fees. It thus soon proved to be no longer economically feasible to book several major bands on the same bill....This in turn led to the segmentation of the fan base....In the years fol1owing Woodstock, however, fans were channeled into attending concerts that featured fewer acts, typically representing one or two musical styles.
Part of the Woodstock Festival's enduring legacy is the continuing efforts to counteract this trend by replicating the multi-performer/genre concert experience. Over the past three decades various parties have staged or attempted to stage successors to Woodstock, either by that name at different sites or else on or near the original site under a different name. [These efforts have had mixed success over the decades.]

Joni Mitchell didn't appear as scheduled but she penned a perfect description of the event, one that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would bring alive as a #1 hit that stills captures an audience.

Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere was song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

In addition to CSNY, the following acts graced the stage during the "three days of peace and music":

Swami Satchidananda
Bert Sommer
Tim Hardin 



All quotations:

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Looking Back On American Graffiti

In 1973 the following movie industry names were virtually unknown: George Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Candy Clark, Kathleen Quinlan, and Susan Somers. Lucas was a 28 year-old aspiring director with one mediocre film - THX-1138 - on his resume. He had been thinking for some time about a coming-of-age film based on his personal experience growing up in Modesto, California in the early '60's. That film, American Graffiti, featuring the actors in the list above reached American theaters on this day in 1973. Aside from its themes the only recognizable aspects of the film were its soundtrack filled with 41 hit songs and Wolfman Jack, a legendary deejay who had previously been known to his vast audience almost exclusively through his unforgettable radio persona.

Production struggled from the start and the studio that thought so little of the final product recommended it as a television movie. Only the enthusiastic conversations of studio employees overheard by the execs saved the film from the mediocrity of television. Perhaps the product was a poor fit for management but it was a blockbuster hit with audiences. To date the film and its associated products have earned over half a billion 2015 dollars for its owners.

Earning were only a part of the story. All of the unknowns on our earlier list became household names in the entertainment industry. The film also launched a huge wave of interest in nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950's. Ron Howard in particular rode that wave through its full cycle to directorial success and beyond.

Matt Singer writing at helps us understand American Graffiti's appeal:

[What] is the secret to American Graffiti’s success, the reason it resonated so strongly with viewers in 1973 and every generation since: It isn’t simply a nostalgic movie, it’s a nostalgic movie about nostalgia. Lucas could have set the film in 1959, when Steve, Curt, and John were still in high school and still cruising night after endless night. Instead,Graffiti begins right as the fun is about to end, and gives its characters just enough self-awareness to recognize that this is last call at the party. George Lucas isn’t the only one mourning for this magical lost era; the characters onscreen mourn right along with him.
1962 was a fortuitous year for a young American like Lucas to lose his innocence. Soon, the entire country faced similar disillusionment. A year after Lucas’ (and American Graffiti’s) accident, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The Vietnam War quickly escalated, claiming tens of thousands of American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. By the timeAmerican Graffiti was released in August 1973, the Watergate scandal was in full, ignominious swing. Like Lucas’ Star Wars, a futuristic movie anachronistically set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,”American Graffiti is a chronicle of a simpler time that has since vanished from the universe as if it never existed. And like Star Wars, it follows a teen as he contemplates leaving behind his provincial hometown for an exciting destiny elsewhere.

American Graffiti ranks #62 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest films. In a decade I would not be surprised to see it move into the top 50. It's not quite a masterpiece but it is an innovative and beautifully executed piece of art that foreshadowed the genius of its creator and impacted much of the nation's popular culture for a generation and beyond.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Perseid Meteor Shower 2018

Heads up, my friends!

They're back. Time for the Perseids, the most reliable meteor shower of the year. But you don't have to wait to see some potentially amazing meteors. New research has concluded that the Perseid event produces more fireballs - meteors brighter than the planets, Jupiter and Venus - than any other shower. There's even more good news. Since fireballs are random meteors, you don't have to watch the skies after midnight to see them. Anytime after sunset works. One of the most spectacular fireballs I ever saw cut across at least 120 degrees of steel blue sky about half an hour after sunset.

The NASA/JPL time lapse photo above shows scores of meteors radiating from the constellation Perseus in 2009.  Best viewing will be after midnight on both Saturday and Sunday night. The best viewing this year should be on Sunday night at 9:00 PM, Eastern Time, as the earth  moves through a rich debris belt. The new moon - no moon - will make for excellent viewing both nights. With clear skies and no moon you should easily see 70 to 90 meteors per hour or more if you can avoid light pollution.

Here's how to enjoy the Perseids. If the night is clear, find a dark location, take a lounge chair or blanket and bug spray outside between midnight and dawn and look into the northeast sky. In that sky, you'll see a lopsided "W" known as the constellation Cassiopeia, an easy marker for its neighbor, Perseus. The shower radiates from this point as it rotates across the sky, but it's important to note that meteors may occur anywhere in the sky dome. Furthermore, you will likely see some random meteors that will not fit the pattern.

For more news about this year's Perseids visit this page at

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Atomic Age Ends A War

On this day at 8:15 A.M. Japan Local Time, the world changed 

Forty-three seconds after releasing the bomb nicknamed "Little Boy," pilot Col. Paul Tibbets was alerted to the blast by radioactivity tingling in his teeth and the metallic taste from electrolysis on his tongue. Ten and a half miles away, tens of thousands had already vanished in a brilliant flash. A massive firestorm would grip the city within minutes and kills thousands more. This photo taken minutes after the blast at a distance of six miles was found in a suburban Hiroshima grade school in 2013:

This photo taken after the removal of street and lot debris revealed the full extent of the destruction. 

As the first use of an atomic weapon against an enemy, the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - and Nagasaki three days later - was controversial. The decision assuredly brought a very quick end to the war with Japan and in the eyes of most historians and military experts saved the lives of millions of combatants and civilians.  For more on this historic event and its aftermath readers should visit a fascinating Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archive of primary sources relating to the story.

Tibbets, pilot and commander, in the cockpit prior to takeoff for Hiroshima

For a three minute assessment of the event by Tibbets visit this link.

The last surviving Enola Gay crew member - Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk - died at his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 2014. It's one more indication that our greatest generation as an eyewitness to history is itself rapidly moving into history.


Photos and Illustrations:
Ground photo,
Hiroshima aftermath, U.S. Navy Public Affairs Website,
Enola Gay photo, National Archives and Records Service


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Conrad Aiken: Savannah's Cosmos Mariner

Born in that most magical city, Savannah, I was allowed to run wild in that earthly paradise until I was nine: ideal for the boy who early decided he wanted to write.

Conrad Potter Aiken was born in Savannah in 1889 and lived in an elegant townhouse on Oglethorpe Avenue across the street from Colonial Cemetery. He often played in that ancient burial ground midst tabby crypts and tombstones where the mortal remains of many of Georgia's aristocracy found rest. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a poet. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters.

With his parents immersed in Savannah society and surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, he seemed destined for happiness. After all, his father was a successful New England physician and both parents had a long heritage steeped in Unitarianism and transcendental thought. But all was not well. One day, when he was eleven, he returned home to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. Conrad Aiken's world changed forever that day and he would never fully recover from the horror he saw.

With his parents gone, young Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England, but he felt homeless there. Aiken felt detached from his world, but he was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana, and struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken wrote lyrical poetry, weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." By 1920, he moved predominantly to prose expressing his "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to quell his personal chaos and bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.

For all of his output, Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot, or other contemporaries. Several reasons explain his obscurity. He was deeply introverted to the point of being clinically shy. That shyness led him to avoid public readings, an activity generally considered essential to a poet's success. Furthermore, he chose to be a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. And finally, during his middle years, he was a resident of both the United States and Europe. Many writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic never quite claimed him as one of their own. By 1960, readers and critics "rediscovered" him after he had been resident in the U.S for some years. Two years later, he returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah where he spent the winters living next to his boyhood home. He soon became the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.

If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery, you arrive at Aiken Way. There, with the vast salt marshes of the Wilmington River spreading out to the distant treeline, you find a simple granite bench. Conrad Aiken installed it as his memorial headstone before his death. His parents rest next to the memorial. Their headstone bears identical death dates, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.

For those of us who have found our peace, there is a profound release there under the live oaks and Spanish moss. Others may not be so fortunate. Aiken is one them. In life, he was restless, a constant searcher forever sailing through an uncertain sea. He felt the same about death and wanted us to know. How fitting it was that he should find his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." 


On August 17, 1973, his spirit cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of such navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.

Read more about Conrad Aiken and his work at these sources which form the core of my blog entry:

The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Conrad Aiken, entry by Ted R. Spivey
Wikipedia entry, Conrad Aiken, public domain portrait photo, bench photo
Conrad Aiken: Prodigy Unitarian Poet, by Richard A. Kellaway
The Paris Review, Issue 42, Winter-Spring, 1968, The Art of Poetry: Conrad Aiken, interviewed by Robert Hunter Wilbur

This post is an edited and expanded version of a post  from 2009. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Louis Armstrong: What We Play Is Life

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. He was a phenomenal jazz trumpeter, performer, writer, stage personality and all around good will ambassador who was born on this day in New Orleans in 1901. He was nicknamed, "Satchmo," short for "satchelmouth," as a child because of his prominent mouth. The moniker stayed with him as he blazed a trail of unforgettable music throughout his life. Although he passed away in 1971 his imprint remains large in popular music and jazz in particular.

Here is a link to the Armstrong page at NPR's Jazz Profiles where you can listen to the master himself and to others as they describe his broad cultural legacy. Readers can learn more at the Louis Armstrong House Museum site.

Satchmo                                                    Adi Holzer, 2002

In 1956 Armstrong joined with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Quartet to make an album that to this day consistently appears in lists of the top ten jazz albums of all time. Here is a sample from this masterpiece:

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. May his smile, his sound, and his goodness stay with us for a long, long time.


title quote from Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 1999