Treadmills

 

These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers

This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
‘Cause God’s stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all God’s children
Crept out the back door

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much, much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time

These are the days of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year

This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is over here

So you scream from behind your door
Say what’s mine is mine and not yours
I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
‘Cause God’s stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things they sold you
Did you cover your eyes when they told you
That he can’t come back
‘Cause he has no children to come back for

It’s hard to love there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time

“Praying for Time,” George Michael

 

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The late, great George Michael sang those words in 1990. Scary, how relevant they sound now.

Since the 80’s pop superstar’s untimely death at 53, on Christmas Day, this song, from his superb album, Listen Without Prejudice, has been playing endlessly in my head.  I highly recommend listening to it, if you never have. It’s a powerful piece.

I won’t pretend I understand everything he said in it, but a good part of it is pretty hard to misinterpret. Especially, in light of our current circumstance.

It amazes me how many songs speak, not only to their times, but to ours. They serve as sobering reminders of how little progress we human beings have really made in how we treat each other.

We just stay on our treadmill, walking endlessly and getting absolutely nowhere.

What will it take to get us off that treadmill, and actually moving forward?

What will it take for you?

The Usual Gang of Idiots

 

No, this post is not about Congress. (rim shot)

Many of you will recognize the above phrase as the description of the contributing artists and writers in each month’s issue of a favorite indulgence of mine in my youth, MAD Magazine.

I loved MAD Magazine. The satire found in its pages was consistently brilliant. Comedian George Carlin once acknowledged its influence on the development of his own satirical worldview. Though its humor was decidedly less acerbic and adult than the other classic humor magazine of its time, National Lampoon, MAD still landed plenty of hard punches to politicians, show biz types, business big shots, the media, doctors, lawyers, preachers, you name it.

With the ubiquitous, gap-toothed smile of Mr. “What, Me Worry?”, himself, Alfred E. Neuman, greeting you on the cover of every issue, MAD reliably brought the laughs, along with the relevant social commentary. It was an original.

Some of my favorite regular features from MAD were:

  • “The Lighter Side Of (something different every month),” by Dave Berg.
  • “The Shadow Knows,” by Sergio Aragones. (also his clever drawings in the margins)
  • The movie spoof, usually drawn my Mort Drucker.
  • The TV show spoof, usually drawn by Angelo Torres.
  • TV commercial spoofs, by various artists and writers.
  • “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and the always brilliant “MAD Fold-In,” by Al Jaffee.
  • The classic, wordless “Spy vs. Spy,” by Antonio Prohias.
  • Frank Jacobs’ hilarious poems and song lyrics.
  • And my personal favorite, “MAD’s MADdest artist,” Don Martin. Hysterical. (Fact: The hardest I ever saw either of my brothers laugh was at a Don Martin cartoon.)

These great talents, along with many others, like Bob Clarke, Dick DeBartolo, Paul Coker, Jr. and Jack Davis, were far from idiots; they were smart, razor-sharp and, above all, consistently funny. Every issue had something in it to crack me up, and I greatly enjoyed reading them.

MAD Magazine is 64 years old this year, and while it doesn’t boast the readership it had back in its heyday, it still delivers on humor that is fresh, relevant and incisive.

(And Jaffee, Aragones and six other longtime veterans are still at it! They must be MAD)

But, make no mistake, before there was Spy magazine, before there was Saturday Night Live, before there was Second City Television, or National Lampoon, there was MAD, the granddaddy of satire.

The original “Up yours, the Establishment!” publication.

Happy Birthday, MAD Magazine. A toast to all you idiots.

Leonard and Leon

 

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

“Hallelujah”, Leonard Cohen

 

I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

“A Song for You”, Leon Russell

 

Now, I ask you: Have there ever been any lyrics written to surpass the two examples I just presented?

Two songwriting giants no longer roam the earth.

We lost Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell in quick succession, recently. Each lived a life long and full – Cohen died at the age of 82, Russell at 74 – yet it still feels like they both departed too soon. But, boy, were we lucky to have ’em with us for awhile.

This has been a tough year for music fans.

It started with the one-two gut punch of David Bowie and Glenn Frey’s passing, followed by Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, the loss of country music legend Merle Haggard, the tragic, untimely death of Prince, along with several more of their brilliantly talented fellowship.

And now, these two legendary figures.

If you’re not familiar with the works of Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, do yourself a big favor, and get acquainted. If you want to learn about songwriting, these gentlemen are the Master Class. You might discover you know more of their songs than you thought; you just never knew these guys wrote them.

Vocally, each of them is, putting it kindly, an acquired taste. Just warning you, in case you’ve never heard them before. But don’t listen to their voices; listen to their words.

And appreciate the two peerless craftsmen who graced us with them.

Rest in peace, gentlemen. Thanks for what you shared with us.

 

P.S. – Russell’s “Tightrope” features one of my all-time favorite lines:

Like a rubbernecked giraffe, you look into my past.

Gotta love it.

 

 

Best Scare I Ever Got

People, it’s October, already. Good grief, where has this year gone?!

Well, it’s like Neal Peart, lyricist and drummer for the rock group, Rush, once wrote, “The future disappears into memory/with only a moment between.”*

Time flies, in other words.

You know why it flies? The retail industry.

Just tell me you haven’t already seen Christmas decorations in the store shelves. I know you have. That’s…just…wrong.

Anyway, I digress.

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As everybody knows, October is the month for Halloween. And Halloween, of course, is the time to get the s**t totally scared out of you. Fun, right?

One way to get a good scare is to visit one of the haunted houses in your community. You can pay good money to walk through a pitch black building, screaming your fool head off as monsters jump out of nowhere, brandishing sharp implements, chainsaws, Donald Trump photos, whatever will scare you right to the marrow of your bones.

Another good way is to go see a horror movie. A new one usually comes out just before Halloween, one that you haven’t yet watched through your fingers. That was my preferred way of getting a good scare. My preferred way now is not to get scared at all, seeing as how real life does that quite well. A bit too well.

And the best scare I ever got was in 1979, when I saw Halloween, starring Donald Plesance as Dr. Loomis, and featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.

Man, that was a scary movie!

 

It tells the story of Michael Myers, one seriously  messed-up dude. For starters, he murders his older sister on Halloween night when he’s only six years old. (Can’t start ’em too early, right?) He gets put in a mental institute, but escapes fifteen years later, and returns to his peaceful little hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois (on Halloween, naturally), and gets right to making up for lost time.

There’s almost no blood and gore in Halloween, but there’s plenty of Boo! moments in it. Michael was really good at staying hidden until just the right time, then suddenly appearing with his big ol’ knife to scare all of us to death. (Of course, the same could be said for Sheriff Brackett, only without the knife. Don’t you know it’s mean to sneak up on folks like that?)

What really made it good, though, was the audience. You can choose to watch this movie at home, by yourself (do you DARE??) or with others, but I’m telling you, you can’t beat seeing it in a theater full of shrieking, hysterical moviegoers. I hadn’t heard that much audience participation since the first Rocky movie.

I mean, people were just screaming at Laurie to HURRY UP HE’S COMING GET OUT OF THE HOUSE HURRY UP JUST BREAK DOWN THE FREAKING DOOR OMIGOD HERE HE COMES HURRY UUUUUUUPP!!!!

See, that’s the thing: we were all trying so hard to help this girl, and she didn’t listen to a word we said! Stubborn, huh?

Anyway, it was great. That’s when a movie is fun, when the whole crowd is into it like that. And, as I said, the best scare I ever got.

But, I think even it will end up in second place, behind an upcoming feature that promises to be even scarier and more horrifying:

Our Next President!

YAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!!!

 

*”The Garden”, Rush

Songwriters
LEE, LIFESON, PEART

Published By
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

The Movie Music Man

Watch out, here comes a shark!

Oh, no, and a T-Rex!

And, OMG, Darth Vader!!

Someone please help us!!!

Wait, look! It’s…Indiana Jones! And Luke Skywalker! And Superman!!

We’re SAVED!!!!

Okay, quick, how many movie theme songs just played in your head?

You’ve got one person to thank for that: John Williams.

 

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching the annual American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, given to someone in recognition of his or her outstanding contribution to the movie industry. (As a movie lover, I dig this kinda stuff.)

Usually, this award goes to an actor or director but, this year, for the first time ever, it was given to a composer.

And for John Williams, it’s about freakin’ time.

Here’s but a small sample of the movies for which Mr. Williams composed the soundtracks:

Star Wars. Jaws. Raiders of the Lost Ark. E.T. Born on the Fourth of July. Schindler’s List. Jurassic Park. Superman. Harry Potter. Home Alone. Saving Private Ryan. Hook. Far and Away. JFK. Seven Years in Tibet. Lincoln. Empire of the Sun. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Witches of Eastwick. Amistad. Presumed Innocent.

And that’s just a VERY small sample!

Some of the best known, best loved films of our generation. And a major reason for that is the inspired music that graces them all. We attach that music to our memories of those movies, and they assimilate into our regular lives.

Example: Have you ever been in a pool or a lake and pretended to be a shark, about to put the big chomp on some poor, unsuspecting victim? I dare you to tell me you didn’t start singing, “Da-dum…da-dum…da-dum…dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum…” Yeah, I knew it. You couldn’t resist.

Have you attended or watched a Major League Baseball game, and heard one of the batters stride up to home plate to the tune of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)?” When pro basketball star Kobe Bryant came back for his first game after an Achilles injury, in 2013, he was introduced to the crowd with “The Imperial March” playing in the background, as he requested.

One other thing: how many marching bands, high school or college, have you heard playing the theme from Star Wars at halftime of a game or in a parade? Or, maybe, some other John Williams tune, instead?

And that music has infiltrated other movies, too. In The Big Chill, before Kevin Kline’s character races heroically to the attic to do battle with a pesky bat, what does he do for inspiration? Sings the theme song for Indiana Jones!

His music stays in our minds because it stirs our hearts. Who can listen to the plaintive theme from Schindler’s List and not get a little teary-eyed? Who hears “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan and doesn’t feel pride and sadness in equal measure for our men and women who have sacrificed everything in war? Who hasn’t been carried back to the wonder and magic of childhood by the theme to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, longing for the chance to ride a bicycle through the air?

All these unforgettable melodies, and so many more, blossomed from the sublimely brilliant mind of one man. Lucky us.

The AFI Life Achievement Award presentation to John Williams will be rebroadcast Monday, September 12, at 7:00 PM Central time, and on Tuesday, September 13, at 1:30 AM Central time, on the Turner Classic Movies network (TCM). Do yourself a big favor: Record this show, enjoy hearing from the actors and directors who had the pleasure of working with John Williams. Listen, also, to the man himself, and know just what a genuinely humble genius he is.

And sing or hum along to all those terrific movie themes. C’mon, you know them.

The King and The Kid

Brace yourselves, Baby Boomers. Two milestones occurred this week that might just stop you in your tracks:

The 39th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

And the 80th birthday of Robert Redford.

I’m just gonna give y’all a minute to let those last two statements sink in.

Now, tell me, how old do you feel?

 

The first Elvis song I ever heard, courtesy of my brothers’ old 45 RPM records (Google that, kids) was Jailhouse Rock. Gotta be honest, it didn’t set me on fire. I was just a little kid, in elementary school; rock and roll wouldn’t sink its hooks in me for a few more years, yet. I mean, he seemed like a perfectly nice young man, and he had a lovely voice, but no, I didn’t become an instant convert.

Like some of my relatives did. You know who you are.

And I certainly wasn’t aware we would all go to Hell for listening to him.

Now, of course, I have much more of an appreciation for just how influential a figure he was, not just in music, but show business, in general.

Elvis’ career, as I see it, had three phases: the rock-n-roll rebel, the movie star, and the Vegas sensation, with the silk scarves and the brilliant white sequined jumpsuit. Everybody has his or her preferred way of remembering Elvis, and my way is as the young rock-n-roller, with the onstage gyrations that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis”, making black music safe for white audiences and changing the world in the process, as all the girls screamed, cried and fainted at the sound of that one-of-a-kind voice.

The King may be gone, but the legend lives forever.

Poor Groucho Marx. The comedy movie icon died the same week as Elvis, but who remembers?

 

And now, let us praise the Sundance Kid. (The Sundance Geezer?)

I have always been a Robert Redford fan. He brings to all his roles a certain intelligence that conveys the message, don’t try and outsmart me; I’m onto you. He’s got that disarming smile that conceals the spark of danger just underneath. You get the impression he could be a great friend, but a fearsome enemy. Even the Sundance Kid’s best buddy, Butch Cassidy (played by Redford’s real best buddy, Paul Newman) knew enough to be a little afraid of the guy.

It’s hard for me to decide my favorite Robert Redford performance. The Sting is my all-time favorite movie, but that’s not his best performance, in my view, though it is a good one. I like some of his earlier work, like The Candidate and Jeremiah Johnson. From later in his career, Brubaker, The Natural and The Horse Whisperer are favorites.

Oh, yeah, and from very early on, Barefoot in the Park, with Jane Fonda. The guy has a great sense of humor, and it showed here.

Happy Birthday, Sundance.

The great thing about these two icons is that they each have a body of work that has made them immortal. We can enjoy them over and over, anytime we want, and appreciate the contribution each has made to our culture. Both these guys have marvelous legacies.

Thanks for sharing, fellas.

 

 

A Dan Good Time

Something you should know about me at this point.

I’m a man. Who’s a fan. Of the Dan.

Steely Dan, that is.

I just saw them in concert this week, and it reminded me of why I love those guys so much. Those guys being Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the driving force behind Steely Dan.

Heck, let’s face it: those guys are Steely Dan.

My taste in music is pretty varied. I enjoy rock and roll, jazz, country, bluegrass, classical, gospel, blues, R&B, even some rap. Don’t go much for heavy metal, though. Sorry, all you headbangers; in my younger days, I did like me some Black Sabbath now and then, but now that I’m a geezer, it’s just a little too hard on the ears.

Anyway, back to those guys.

The brilliance of Steely Dan is that they arranged a perfect marriage of straight-up rock and cool, slick jazz, creating their own little niche, where no one else resides. Even if someone does, Becker and Fagen were there first, and do it best.

Listen to the breezy melodies over the complex chord structure, the musical performances buffed to an ultra-high gloss in the studio, with the help of some of the best jazz musicians in the business. Early on in their career, Becker and Fagen abandoned the idea of a band, forsaking live performances and focusing instead on bringing in outside session players to help them achieve the sophisticated sound they were looking for. Even without touring, they built up a fiercely dedicated fan base.

Pay close attention to the lyrics, though, and you realize there’s some sinister goings on under all that sheen and polish: stories about incest (“Cousin Dupree”), pedophilia (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”), drug manufacturing (“Kid Charlemagne”) and dealing (“Glamour Profession”) and consumption (“Time Out of Mind”), gang violence (“Josie”), psychotic breaks (“Third World Man”, “Don’t Take Me Alive”) and, especially, dirty old men (“Hey Nineteen”, “Janie Runaway”, “Babylon Sisters”). And all delivered by the wonderfully sardonic vocals of Donald Fagen. You can just see the arch of the eyebrow when you listen to him.

But they sound so good. Especially, in concert, when they have such a topnotch assemblage of musicians backing them up. A couple of particular standouts are drummer Keith Carlock and guitarist Jon Herington, but they all tear it up right good, believe me.

If Steely Dan has escaped your radar to this point, I highly recommend you check ’em out. Oh, and they can definitely rock when they want to; “Kid Charlemagne”and “Bodhisattva” are all the proof you need for that.

And if you really want a treat, look into where this duo got its name. That’s all I’m saying on that.

In Praise of a Madman

I grew up listening to what is now affectionately known as “Classic Rock.” Artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Band, David Bowie, Steely Dan, on and on and on.

I mean, it was a great time to listen to the FM radio.

There was one person for me, though, who stood head and shoulders above all the rest. (Even though he’s actually quite short.)

This guy…was my rock and roll idol in my adolescence.

 

You all know him. Elton John. Captain Fantastic. The Rocket Man. Or, as a high school classmate so sardonically, yet prophetically put it back then, “the homosexual who sings on stage.”

I played some piano in my younger days, and one of my brothers suggested to me, when I was about 13, 14 years old, that I ought to give Elton John a listen.

Well, I went to the local Gibson’s and purchased an Elton John album, the first one I ever bought with my own money. The album was Madman Across the Water.

I’ve been a madman for the Madman ever since. Thanks, bro.

I gotta say, I was really glad there was a lyric sheet included in the album, because I found that British accent of his almost impenetrable in places when he sang. But he had a terrific voice, and he sure could play the youknowwhat out of a piano. (Still does, still can.) I started learning how to play his songs, envisioning myself as a big-time rock star one day. I would put on my Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, start the first track, “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, and play right along with it on my baby grand. It felt awesome!!

Back then, I had a peculiar habit (one of several) of playing the first side of an album for days before ever flipping it over to hear the second side. So, it was quite a while after I bought the Madman record before I heard “Indian Sunset”, the first track on Side 2. If you’ve never heard this masterpiece by Elton and his longtime lyricist, the phenomenal Bernie Taupin, do yourself a favor and download it, since that’s how we listen to music nowadays. The melody and lyrics, combined with Paul Buckmaster’s exquisite orchestration, make for a sublime listening experience.

Through the years, I’ve had several such experiences listening to Elton and Bernie’s fabulous work. (And they’re still going strong 49 years later!!) Listen to “Ticking”, off the Caribou album, and see if it doesn’t give you chills when you think about the mass-murder culture we live in now. Listen to “American Triangle”, from Songs From the West Coast, which speaks to the ignorance behind, and the resultant tragedy from, homophobia. Listen to “Home Again”, from The Diving Board, and reminisce about the crazy dreams of youth bringing you full circle. Or just crank up the volume on “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and rock your ass off!

Of course, there was also the sheer spectacle of Elton’s shows in his heyday. Outrageous costumes, outlandish glasses, Hollywood-caliber entrances, handstands on the keyboard, you name it. The man always knew how to give a crowd its money’s worth. Even though he’s toned down the flash in recent years, he still gives you an evening of great music, hit after hit after hit, he and his band firing on all cylinders, making sure everybody who attends has a great time.

But I don’t just like Elton John for his music. I admire him for the way he’s overcome some personal obstacles and is now doing so much to positively impact the world. Go on his website and check out his inspiring work in the battle against AIDS. His foundation has raised over $300 million to combat this disease across the globe, largely due to his indefatigable efforts. See how you can join the fight.

Also, I admire how much Elton values his sobriety. This guy had a serious drug problem back in the day, coupled with some other crippling addictions, but he had the presence of mind to do something about it and get help, and now, with his husband and their two sons, he is a happy, healthy family man.

He still has his flaws, as do we all, and as he will readily admit. Despite them, though, I believe he is a decent, kindhearted man blessed with a monstrous amount of talent. I’ve seen him perform three times in my life, (once with my other piano hero, Billy Joel; talk about awesome!) and I’m ready to go again, anytime.

Sir Elton, you da man. Long may you rock!

 

LMFAO

I love comedians.

There’s something special about people whose mission in life is simply making everybody else laugh. They point out the absurdities in life we all encounter; in our home and family, in our working life, in the society we inhabit. They mine the limitless natural resource that is our government. And, of course, they share their own personal stories, of which we each have our own version, allowing us to laugh at ourselves.

They’re here to remind us to not take this life so damned seriously. If we get bogged down in all the stressful situations we constantly wrestle, coupled with our daily recommended dose of end-of-the-world crises on the news, we’d probably all ball up in a corner and cry ourselves to sleep.

We have to be able to laugh at something, just to maintain sanity. And that’s where the comedians come in. They reintroduce us to the simple, often overlooked hilarity of life on this planet. We laugh our heads off and, for a little while, forget about all the pain, all the tedium, all the BS we cohabitate with the rest of the time.

And that’s why laughter is the best medicine.

 

I got hooked on comedy at an early age. Before I listened to rock and roll, before I listened to country and western music, I was listening to comedy albums.

You readers of a certain age not familiar with the concept of albums, consult your grandparents. And isn’t it amazing vinyl is making a comeback? Everything old is new again, right? What’s next, 8- track tapes? (Again: grandparents.)

Anyway, I digress. When I was about six or seven, my parents gave me a record player for my birthday, and started a record collection for me consisting of some comedy albums and old 45’s. (Jeez, I am so dating myself here!) I was listening to guys like Shelley Berman, Dick Gregory, Brother Dave Gardner, Jonathan Winters, and my all-time favorite, Bill Cosby.

(I don’t care to get into Mr. Cosby’s current situation here, sordid and shameful as it is, which isn’t to say I’m ignoring it. The man still made me laugh more than any human being ever did, and whatever pall these latest headlines undoubtably cast, that will not change for me.)

I listened to those records over and over and over. And over. I memorized every line, every word, every vocal inflection. And whenever I had myself a captive audience, whether friends or family, I would recite these comics’ routines verbatim.

And when I say a captive audience, I mean it. Whether these poor people wanted to hear this stuff or not, I just steamrolled ahead. There was no escape ha HA HA HAAAAAA……

Sorry.

I couldn’t help it. These guys made me laugh so much, I just wanted to share their comedy with everyone else. Plus, I discovered the incredibly addictive rush of making other people laugh, and I’m telling you, there ain’t nuthin’ like it.

And I’ve enjoyed good comedy ever since, from so many talented people. Bob Newhart. Richard Pryor. George Carlin. Joan Rivers. Steve Martin. Stephen Wright. Ellen DeGeneres. Eddie Murphy. Robin Williams. (I so miss that guy.) Steve Harvey. Jeff Foxworthy. Heather McDonald. I could go on and on. A really funny guy out there now is Alonzo Bodden; check him out.

Do yourself a big favor. Block out some time to listen to some inspired comedy by one of these masters, or to anyone who cracks you up, and get yourself a good, hearty dose of laugh! Forget about whatever else is going on in your life right now, just for a little while, and give yourself permission to laugh ’til you cry. You’ve earned it; trust me.

Also, tune your eyes and ears to the comedy going on around you. As a chauffeur, people have got in my car and said the funniest things without even realizing it. You can pick up on it, too, if you pay attention.

Or just throw a pie in someone’s face. (Just kidding!)

 

Note: I hope you’ve enjoyed this little four-pack I’ve presented as a way of introducing myself. Be assured, though, this blog-a-day pace is going to cease. See you again in a week or so. Thanks for stopping by!