Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Woodstock 1969: Peace, Music And Three Days In The Aquarian Age

The Woodstock festival began on this date in 1969. It attracted an audience estimated at 400,000 - twice what the promoters expected - with more than 35 of the leading or up-an-coming musical attractions of the day. 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 still 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.

The day before the festival began, one of its performers, David Crosby, celebrated his 28th birthday. Now at 76. 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 1960's. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. 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.


Photos and Illustrations:

All quotations:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Have You Seen The Perseids Tonight?

Perseid shower time lapse, August 2009                                           NASA/JPL

The Perseid meteor shower returns this week! It's both the most reliable shower of the year and one that produces the most fireballs. Best viewing will be after midnight on the nights of August 11 and 12. A waxing moon will make for somewhat better viewing on August 12. With clear and dark skies you should easily see 60-70 meteors per hour. The good news is you don't have to be up just before dawn to see the fireballs. They are random meteors, brighter than the planets Jupiter and Venus, and often traveling longer arcs across the sky. 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. One never quite knows what to expect when you watch the sky.

Viewing is easy and best in the Northern Hemisphere. If the night is clear, 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. As you might guess, the meteors radiate from this point, but it's important to note that they may occur anywhere in the sky dome. Furthermore, you will likely see some random meteors that will not fit the pattern. Don't bother with a telescope, but you may enjoy binoculars for exploring deeper into space when the meteor watch gets a tad boring. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A New Weapon Obliterates A City And Ends An Aging War

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the first use of an atomic bomb. It was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, by a B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, under the command of Col. Paul Tibbets. The crew may have had suspicions about their mission beforehand but Tibbets let them know only after the bomb had been armed a mere hour from its target. 

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, many thousands had already vanished. A massive firestorm would grip the city within minutes and kills thousands more.

The decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - and Nagasaki three days later - was a difficult and controversial one that 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. The controversy is still with us. For more on this historic event and its aftermath readers should visit this fascinating Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archive of primary sources relating to the story. 

Tibbets waves from the cockpit prior to takeoff


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


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Conrad Aiken: "I Love You, What Star Do You Live On?"

Conrad Potter Aiken was born on this day 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.

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.

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.

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 would go on to write lyrical poetry weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." Later in his career he moved predominantly to prose expressing "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to 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.

Unfortunately, for all of his output Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot or other contemporaries. Shyness kept him away from readings that, for a poet, were lifelines to his audience. Also, he was a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. Lastly, as a resident of both the United States and Europe he could never quite be associated with writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1960, he had been resident in the U.S for some years and "rediscovered." Aiken eventually returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah. He spent the winters living next to his boyhood home, becoming 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." Aiken indeed saw himself a cosmic mariner who on his death in 1973 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 his 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.

Ruinous blisses, joyous pains, Life the destroyer, life the breaker, And death, the everlasting maker....

If readers want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend they read this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.



Conrad Aiken, The New Georgia Encyclopedia, entry by Ted R. Spivey
Conrad Aiken, Wikipedia
Conrad Aiken: Progidy Unitarian Poet, Richard A. Kelloway

The poem fragment is the conclusion from Aiken's, "The Dance of Life" published in 1916.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Tony Bennett: Singing America's Songbook At 91

Anthony Benedetto, better known as Tony Bennett, turns 91 today. After more than sixty years on stage, he still draws huge audiences to his full concert schedule of tunes from jazz, to Broadway, to the Great American Songbook. Bennett has been at the business so long he's had two careers, a fifteen-year affair with the Greatest Generation, and a now thirty-year reinvention with new artists, music, and audiences following a lull during the rock and roll era. Bennett also has been in the forefront of introducing current generations to the Great American Songbook.

Bennett is an interesting blend of vocal talent and showmanship, a well-perfected entertainer with a not so perfect voice. You have to learn how to appreciate the value of a permanent vocal strain and a sound occasionally from the depths of vaudeville. For me, it was a long learning process, but I've come to appreciate and enjoy the total Bennett experience. Here he is performing a jazz standard from the Great American Songbook as a duet with the sensational jazz/pop vocalist, Norah Jones:

We wish Tony Bennett a happy 91st birthday and many years to come in the spotlight. The best is yet to come, so he sings!

If you enjoyed Speak Low, a unique blend of words by Ogden Nash and music by Kurt Weill, buy the music and help keep jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook alive and well.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Even The Smallest Person Can Change The Course Of The Future."

On this day J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring first appeared on store shelves in the United Kingdom. A used copy of that first edition with its original dust jacket would fetch an owner at least $6500. An autographed copy would easily be in six figures as Tolkien was a bit of an introvert and disliked autographing his books. I doubt that any sum would matter much to true fans. To them the words within are priceless.

Here is a brief video about the author's life and his creation of Middle Earth. The film comes from the Behind the Scenes series issued in the special edition video package of director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It would take another generation following Tolkien's death in 1973 before a cinematic version of his great work would or perhaps could appear. In the interim his imagination gave new energy to a full range of fiction writers. His is a rich legacy that has recently been enjoyed and expanded with the video release of the Hobbit series - 2012 through 2014 - also by Peter Jackson.

The 1937 cover


title quote taken from The Fellowship of the Rings.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

He Brought Us "The Soft Glow Of Electric Sex Gleaming In The Window."

Today is the birthday of the American humorist, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999). His best known contribution to American humor is A Christmas Story, a compilation of stories and characters drawn from his earlier work. It was originally produced as a feature film in 1983 and made the transition into a television classic thanks to the persistence of Ted Turner. Almost any man born before 1950 has lived some or all of the "you'll shoot your eye out" childhood of Shepherd's semi-autobiographical character, Ralphie Parker. Each man's path to adulthood is his own, but the markers are identical. Jean Shepherd was a genius at capturing them. And his skills as a narrator made him a natural at weaving the common threads into humorous and entertaining listening.

Shepherd on the air in 1970

I find Shepherd's personal path in the American experience a most interesting one. Although he surely had the talent to become a well-known national treasure, radio did not provide him coast-to-coast exposure available with the new medium of television. He was fiercely independent, a maverick, and one not to take life too seriously. I can imagine he was a threat to the ego of more than one radio executive. Furthermore, he was a "night owl" on radio, broadcasting to a dedicated but smaller audience, and in direct competition with televised local news and the likes of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. In fact, an unverified Wikipedia entry notes that Shepherd was in line to take over The Tonight Show with Steve Allen's departure in 1957, but Jack Paar had the right of first refusal with the NBC network. Paar unexpectedly accepted, thus, denying Shepherd his big break on one of television's most popular shows. Finally, from my research, it seems Shepherd maligned his radio work when he moved into writing film for television in the '70's. Indeed, it apparently was a clean break - maybe the execs were happier without him - and he did go on to success with films, including The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Still, I think the fates denied him the opportunity to become a big television star in the 1950's and much better well-known in his lifetime.

Jean Shepherd died in Florida sixteen years ago known primarily for one film produced in 1983 when he was 62. There's much more to him than that and I hope more people come to enjoy his work. The settings now and in the future may be different but the collected experiences from childhood and adolescence often age into fine wine. Thanks to Shepherd we can enjoy the harvest.

"...the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window."