Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jews don't worship stones

     I'm actually on vacation this week, working on a long-delayed project around the house. 
     But I don't want to abandon you entirely, particularly as the news keeps coming, alas.
     Tired of tossing lit matches at the powder keg of the Korean peninsula, Donald Trump decided to shift Amateur Hour to the Middle East on Wednesday. He announced that the United States would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a reckless and destabilizing move, done against the counsel of his top advisers, one that pleases Trump's evangelical, let's-end-the-world-now-so-Jesus-comes-back Christians, and hard right Jews who support whatever folly Israel happens to be cooking up at the moment, and nobody else.
     Otherwise, it lights a fire under parties that need little provocation to unleash their basest instincts. Peace is now even more distant, hair-trigger tempers will flair, innocent people will die and nothing has been accomplished, except the kind of tough guy posturing that the right finds so appealing. 
     To be honest, there isn't much point to picking apart the folly of what Trump has done. All we have to do is step back and wait for the latest chapter of the half-century disaster to unfold.
    In the meantime, here's a visit I took to Jerusalem 13 years ago, as a guest of Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service. If you can, try to get to the end, because what the tour guide says reflects back on the whole situation. We're in love with land, but we used to stand for something, for justice. God has unleashed a number of his little jokes upon the Jewish people over their 5,000 year history. But if they've gone through all that only to end up as permanent jailers to an ever-increasing Palestinian captivity....well, the Big Guy wouldn't do that to us, or to them. Would he?

     JERUSALEM -- They don't call it the "Wailing Wall" anymore. For thousands of years Jews went there to lament the destruction of Solomon's Temple. But wailing is so, I don't know, negative, and Jews are trying to put a cheerier spin on life, where possible. So instead we call it the "Western Wall." Either way, it's an expanse of limestone blocks, the only remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
     I took a cab to the Old City. We pulled up by crenelated ramparts. I strolled in the direction of the Wall, illuminated by floodlights. The sight stopped me in my tracks. Enormous limestone blocks, with tufts of greenery spilling out. Above it the golden Dome of the Rock. As I hurried forward, my dead relatives shuffled into mind. As if all those slaughtered Bramsons, sleeping in their slit trenches in Poland, stirred.
     What would it have meant to them, I wondered, to have gotten here? To do what I could do right now? My grandfather, Irwin Bramson, had been the only one of his large family to slip out of Poland before the charnel house doors clanged shut. I have a hundred letters from his relatives left behind, his brother Zalman, his mother -- my great-grandmother -- Devora. Letters describing the tough life in Poland in the 1930s, expressing joy over the birth of a baby—my mother—and asking if my grandfather might not send another bundle of warm clothing and, maybe, a little money.
     The tradition is that you write down prayers and tuck them into cracks in the Wall, so God has an easier time finding them. Several people gave me notes to put in, and I created my own note, a small triangle cut from paper from an envelope from one of the letters to my grandfather. I liked the idea of paper used by a doomed Jew in Bialystock ending its days stuck in the Western Wall, melting in the soft Jerusalem rain.
     What to write was a puzzle. You can't comfort the dead, can you? What could I ask God now to do for them? It's a little late.
     For being the holy focus of Judaism, the atmosphere at the Wall is surprisingly casual. People came and went, with no one in apparent charge. A Hasidic beggar cadged coins. A box of cardboard skullcaps stood unattended. Most of those praying at the Wall were from the ultra-Orthodox sects that populate Jerusalem, rocking back and forth. Some sat on the chairs scattered around or stood still at little lecterns. Others merely folded their arms against the Wall and laid their head down, almost as if resting.
     I slapped on a cardboard skullcap and walked slowly up to the Wall. I found an open spot, placing both palms flat against the stone. Then, leaning forward, I touched the Wall with my forehead and prayed.
     It seemed the thing to do.
     In 30 seconds I exhausted the store of Hebrew prayers I know by heart. So I prayed the standard pleas, for the health of my family, for the future of my boys, and—this is scary—to be a better person. Jet lag.
     Then, without forethought, I kissed the Wall—a big, full-lipped smack—lingered for a long moment, and then left. That kiss really surprised me. I hadn't planned to kiss the thing.
     Caught up in religious frenzy, I suppose.
     If I didn't quite find faith at the wall, I did experience a temporary suspension of cynicism, which might be about as close as I come. I didn't carefully observe the scene, as I should have. I didn't take notes. I forgot to estimate how high the wall is or how wide (nearly a city block, with the men comfortably praying at three-quarters of it and the women jammed in the rest. Islam isn't the only religion where women can get the short end of the stick).
     Reason quickly returned to me. Kissing the Wall, I later realized, was as hygienic as drinking a teaspoon of Ganges River water. The next day a wonderfully acerbic tour guide took us through the water tunnel running parallel to the Wall. He reminded us that the Wall is not actually part of the Second Temple. Rather, he explained happily, it is part of the retaining wall used to create the mount where the Temple stood. There was no religious reason for Jews to pray there.
     "The stones there are as holy as the stones in my backyard," he said. "A stone is a stone is a stone. Jews don't worship stones."
     He's right, I thought, feeling a little embarrassed about the kiss.
     But not about the note. The Jews weren't praying to the limestone Wall. They were praying at it. Which is a different matter. We don't worship stones, but we do venerate life, and remember those who came before us. This was the place that Jews all over the world hungered toward. They didn't want to come here because of the weather, or because of the Wall, necessarily, but because this was their place -- is their place -- the place where they can stand and pray and not be afraid (OK, the "not be afraid" part is still a work in progress).
     You can't comfort the dead. But you can do what you imagine, had they known, might have brought them comfort. Perhaps Zalman Bramson, trapped in Poland, tried to rationalize his fate by telling himself that at least his brother escaped and that maybe, just maybe, one of his descendants will someday find himself in Jerusalem. He will overcome his skepticism. He will take a 70-year-old scrap of paper, write on it a prayer asking God to bless the memory of a family he has never met, and place it reverently into the Western Wall.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 30, 2004

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bob Greene redux, this time as Trib triumph


Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel"

     I suppose it's inevitable, with sexual harassment pinballing around what's left of the media, that the mouldering corpse of disgraced Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene would eventually be dug up. 
     And I suppose it's equally inevitable that former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, now curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, would feel herself the person to do it.  Lipinski takes yet another victory lap for the Trib finally firing the guy in 2002, as if his predatory behavior were not an ... well..."open secret" was the phrase I was going to use, but that doesn't quite capture it. "Well-known, endlessly-discussed fact" is more apt, since you couldn't turn around in a newsroom without bumping into revolted female professionals with tales of staving off Greene's crude advances.
     It was no secret at all. I wrote a column mocking Greene's column in the Chicago Reader and, in 1995, seven, count 'em, seven years before the scales fell from Lipinski's eyes, mentioned in print Bob's proclivity for luring young interns to hotel rooms, or pathetically trying to. 
     Not that it did any good. And to be honest, I had never been accosted by Greene. In fact, I never met him. I was far more offended by Bob's writing and worldview; his deplorable personal conduct was an afterthought, a dig, though at least it was that. For his bosses it wasn't something they'd consider at all, not publicly, not when they could maintain a willful, profitable blindness. 
     It's bad enough to ignore a problem for years and years, but to then present it as some kind of triumph of personal integrity prompted me to grab a shovel myself and do a bit of  disinterring.
     Ecce homo. I found this, a timely year-end review of Bob's work, using primitive America Online archive technology. Which, alas, did not extend to movies, because, I should note, that, upon looking for images now, I mis-remembered the ending of "The Blue Angel"—Emil Jannings is in the classroom all right, but in street clothes, not a chicken suit. 
     A forgivable lapse, I hope. Not my only one, which does make me uncomfortable, occasionally, with this whole grab-a-sin-from-40-years-ago-and-smear-it-on-someone cultural moment. Because people do change. Not Bob Greene, of course, his tragedy, and ours. Nor Ann Marie Lipinski, who dislocated her shoulder patting herself on the back in 2002 and is still at it. 
     But it does happen, and I am concerned that nuance will be lost, that the Al Frankens will be lumped in with the Roy Moores, and we'll end up with a new way to defame people but little actual progress.
     Still, if cracking open the past and hunting down sexual harassers means our society is actually improving, that the often degraded position of women is advancing, it will have been worth it. Though Donald Trump was still president last time I checked, so let's not take our own victory lap quite yet. Bad enough to hear the ululations of self-praise echoing from the ivory towers of Harvard. 

     With New Year's approaching I can't help but think of the classic movie "The Blue Angel," in which hot young Marlene Dietrich lures doddering Emil Jannings away from academe and into burlesque. The last scene shows the old guy back at his deserted schoolroom, still in the chicken suit from their nightclub act. He clutches at his old desk, weeping, emitting pathetic little chicken noises, as the enormity of his squandered life comes crushing down on him.
     Now, I realize it's pointless to hope that Bob Greene will be suffering similar pangs of remorse this December 31. It's too late for that.
     But can't you just see him? Wandering gravely from room to room, lit only by candles, trailing his fingers over the flat surfaces?
     Perhaps Bob too would be wearing a ridiculous costume—the tattered rags from some forgotten Bexley High School play. And he too would weep, as memories from the wasted year just past assailed him. The bells on his costume would jingle derisively as he moved through the dim hallways.
     We need not rely upon such conjecture to delineate the enormity of Bob's failure this year, pleasurable as it may be. There's an engine now available that can outline Bob's offenses against thought and journalism with greater precision than mere subjective adjectives like "repetitive" or "infantile" or "dull" ever could.
     I'm referring to the Chicago Tribune computer archives, which recently became available—at the usurious fee of $1.25 per minute prime time--on America Online.
     A few keystrokes and we see that Bob had written 167 columns in 1995 as we went to press. And that 59 of those columns were about Baby Richard. A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion.
     Another 20 columns—about 12 percent—were spent denouncing major league baseball and embracing the scab players.
     Scanning over his year's output, I find it difficult to pinpoint a nadir, though I would cast my vote for the pair of columns he devoted last month to reprinting old movie lines and old newspaper leads. It was a classic Bob straw-man tactic, in which the untrue premise (that the written word is no longer valued) is followed up by the canard reaction (let's have an "experiment" to see which medium, newspapers of 60 years ago or classic films, is better). Jesus, couldn't he have just used a sick day?
     But why limit ourselves to the past year? The Trib archives also have a 1985-1995 search mode. You can view the full scope and horror of Bob Greene's world, the sad spectacle of his near-autistic fixation, suffocating narrowness, and tedious, head-crushing repetition.
     I've just spent some time there, and boy, I'll tell you, it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass.
     In those 11 years, Bob has written 1,923 columns. More than a third—723—involve children, a reminder that before Richard there were Joseph and Sara and all the other wee ones Bob has used to cynically fill his columns with pages of court transcripts and letters of reader outrage.
     A quarter of the columns—484—mention television. Bob's home state of Ohio pops up in 170 columns. Another 74 feature Elvis Presley in some capacity--often a starring role. Thirty-six columns dredge up Bob's pointless fictional character, Mike Holiday, the supermarket bagger last heard from, mercifully, in 1993.
     Woody Hayes shows up ten times. One hundred and twenty-four columns pass through an airport; 72 mention a hotel room (though, oddly, none of these include a young intern). In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words "hairpiece," "smarmy," or "too many vodka gimlets." Yet there are four references to Barbie, and two columns—nearly identical in content and five years apart—devoted to his old high school principal, C.W. Jones.
     Michael Jordan appears in 67 columns, just three more times than the word "mall" appears. Spend enough hours working the archives, and weird parallels will start to pop out. In his column of June 6, 1994, the word "Elvis" is repeated 23 times; exactly two months later, a column repeats the word "mall" 23 times. Of the 32 columns containing the word "brave," each uses "brave" exactly three times, except for the November 13, 1991, column, "The U.S. Shrinks to the Size of a Mall," which uses it five times.
     The clock moves toward midnight. The year 1996 stretches ahead of us, filled with promise and mystery. Only two things are certain: Bob will continue to boldly explore the bedpan ocean of his soul. And the Tribune is going to make a fortune on-line.
     —Originally published in the Reader, Dec. 21, 1995

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Steinberg family Christmas dance

The Hatch Family, by Eastman Johnson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     A good pun should be savored. You do not want to rush it. So after I opened my menu at Szechuan Kingdom the day before Thanksgiving, sitting in a booth with my wife and sons, I saw my opportunity, but took my time. I let them order first. Then the waitress looked at me. 
     "I'll have the 'Happy Family,'" I said, order a special of scallops, shrimp, chicken and vegetables, only then glancing over at my wife, who was genuinely surprised, almost shocked.
    "You always get the beef and broccoli," she said.
     It's true. I really like beef and broccoli. 
    "I thought I'd try something new," I explained. "Although I've sampled the 'Happy Family' at every Chinese restaurant I've been to. To compare them. And do you know what I've found?"
     I paused, savoring their puzzled faces.
     "All happy families are alike..."
     I don't think there was actually the sitcom groan that lives in my memory, but the triumph was mine. Nice one dad.
    Of course I missed my beef and broccoli during dinner—I always order it because I really, really, really like beef and broccoli—but it was worth it.
    The opening sentence of Anna Karinina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 
     A famous line, though, like many aphorisms, not necessarily true. The happiness in my family seems more idiosyncratic than general. We don't watch football, except sometimes the Super Bowl. But Tolstoy is not only bantered, but played a significant role in there being a family at all: years before I got married, I remember seeing Edie on the sofa, reading Anna Karinina, her face wet with tears, and thinking, for the first time, 'Can't let her go.'"
     We toted his-and-hers copies of War and Peace on our honeymoon, and while we didn't find time to read them, beyond a few symbolic minutes at the end, just because we had lugged the damn things, we did eventually. I later read the whole book, aloud, to my older son, finishing the night before he left for college, a high point of parenthood. Not only do I not believe the happiness of all dads involves reading War and Peace twice, I'm fairly certain it's just me.
     Not that reading, and punning about reading, is all we do. We attend or throw the same big family gatherings that most families have, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the Jewish holidays and sometimes we assemble just for the heck of it, and bathe in the glow of relatives close and distant. 
     Though other families find happiness in other ways. The Orgill family of Utah, as I discovered on Facebook Monday, choreographs ecstatic Christmas dances, which they perform in their home, record on video then share online. I assume doing so makes them happy, though following in their footsteps would be the definition of misery for the Steinbergs (though I do smile imagining the result, no doubt something between "The Dance of the Hours" in "Fantasia" and "Long Day's Journey into Night.")
     Although we did have one quasi-Orgill family moment. We were on our way to Ohio, to visit old friends who have a place at Put-in-Bay. We stopped at a Wal-Mart for some reason—pick up supplies I imagine—and they had this deep sale on these grey and aqua striped t-shirts. They were practically free, $2 or some such thing. So we each bought one, and put them on. Dressed identically, we rolled up to our friends' house. There is a photograph, but I'll be damned if I'm going to put it online, not matter how many clicks it would get. Give those wholesome dancing families credit. It takes guts. I like to think my family has courage too, in our, very different way. So with apologies to Tolstoy, I'd suggest that all happy families are not alike. While unhappy families, well, all families are unhappy, at one point or another. The key is getting past the unhappiness and becoming happy again.  

Monday, December 4, 2017

Where to go? Book bird-dogs intriguing Chicago places

Phil Sipka, at the Kusanya Cafe.
     Englewood is a long way to go for a cup of coffee. But I like coffee. So when I heard about Kusanya Cafe, a coffeehouse at 69th and Green, I decided to slide over for a cup. Most Chicagoans never go to Englewood for any reason. They associate it with murder, not coffee. But even the worst neighborhoods are also just that — neighborhoods — and I figured, if people can live there, I can visit.
     Inspiration came from a book called "111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss," published by German publisher Emons Verlag. That aspect is what initially caught my attention; I hoped to smirk at some foreigner's wildly mistaken impressions of Chicago. The book arrived from Germany; alas, it was written by Amy Bizzarri, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who lives by Logan Square.
     "I have a severe case of wanderlust," she told me. "But I can't go to India, so I go to Devon Avenue. It's my way of traveling. I feel I know a lot of hidden corners of city.
     The Chicago volume is one of dozens of "111 Places" books Emons sells, featuring the hidden charms of cities from New Dehli to Berlin to Istanbul. 
     "I saw the New York edition and thought, 'I'm the perfect person to write this for Chicago,'" Bizzarri said.
     She's right; she is. It's hard to pull off a book like this. You don't want to be too familiar. No point alerting folks to Wrigley Field. But you don't want to be too esoteric either. 

      Bizzarri succeeds. She finds the sweet spot, visiting many worthwhile Chicago treasures, ranging across the city and the spectrum of culture: music, museums, shops, restaurants. She hits many of my favorite obscure places, including the Sky Chapel atop the First United Methodist Church, with its bas-relief of Jesus pondering the skyline of Chicago circa 1952, and Red Square Spa, the former Division Street Russian Baths. The book is illustrated by creative, colorful pictures snapped by Chicago photographer Susie Inverso.
     A few places struck me as too well-known: the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle in the Museum of Science and Industry, for instance. And a couple are too obscure: The School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts is whimsical, but it isn't somewhere you visit but somewhere you enroll. If anybody reads this book and decides to become a cobbler, I'd love to hear about it. 
     Quibbles aside, the book's main value, for me, will be as a tip sheet, bird-dogging intriguing places I've somehow never heard of and now can visit. Chicago Honey Co-op? Big Monster Toys on South Racine? I'm on my way.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bumped into Phil Corboy the other day...

    Attended the Chicago Bar Association Christmas show Thursday night. I almost passed on it; I'm a homebody. But I couldn't very well mock the mayor for not going and then skip out on it myself. There's enough hypocrisy going around without me adding a cupful to the ocean.
    I'm glad I went. The show was boisterous fun. My favorite song was an ode to personal injury litigation, "Duty and the Breach" sung to "Beauty and the Beast." 
     It seemed apt, since the reception beforehand was held on the second floor of the CBA headquarters , in Philip H. Corboy Hall, under the watchful gaze of a big oil painting of the great Chicago litigator. He passed away five years ago, and it was good to see him again. I went over to say hello.
     It's always a little odd to see guys I knew lionized in semi-permanent form: the bust of Jack Brickhouse in Pioneer Court, or Kup gesturing—with what I hope is contempt—at Trump Tower, squatting on his former home. 
     I got to know Corboy a little—he was a good man, proud of his family and his profession, helpful when I had a question about the law, even more helpful when I got in trouble with the law myself. Not every friend of mine stood up; he did. We first met when, researching something else, I noticed his first case, and wrote the column below:

     Two men, friends since childhood, got in a drunken fight, picked up pistols and killed each other. Their life insurance policies had clauses denying payment if death was caused while committing a felony.
     The widows turned to a young lawyer, Philip H. Corboy, for help. Corboy convinced a jury that the men were too drunk to have the intent needed to commit a felony.
     That was Nov. 11, 1950—50 years ago next Saturday—the first rung in what has been a climb to the legal summit: Corboy is the most visible lawyer in Chicago and among the most successful personal injury trial attorneys in the country.
     I sat down with Corboy last week in his 21st floor Dearborn Street office. I wanted a glimpse of what a man learns after 50 years of representing the most grievously injured people involved in the most heartbreaking cases, and extracting compensation out of corporate America.
     Sitting at his antique, four-sided English partner's desk, with a splendid panoramic skyline behind him, Corboy radiated success, confidence and energy. I couldn't help but be struck by how tremendously handsome he is; surprisingly so for a man in his mid-70s, with pale blue eyes and pure white hair. He looks like Kirk Douglas and has an actor's eloquence, honed by a half century of arguing before judges.
     "I have never calculated the number of cases I've tried to a jury," he said. "I've 'tried' thousands of cases where the case gets ready for trial, you have a jury in the box, you spend four days trying the case, it gets settled. Ninety percent of these cases get settled."
     In part, no doubt, out of respect for Corboy's track record. Many people are under the impression that Corboy has never lost a case. That is not true. He ended up losing that first case—the judge threw out the jury's verdict. And he lost a case in 1985, though it was reinstated on appeal and his client ended up with $ 1.35 million.
     But that's about it. This near-perfect track record has lent Corboy's 24-lawyer firm a certain air of invulnerability. The firm of Corboy & Demetrio turns away 19 out of 20 cases, so when he represents a client—such as the family of the woman who was killed when a pane of glass fell from the CNA Building—it is a sign of the unfairness of the tragedy and reliable foreshadowing that some deep pocket is going to be turned inside out.
     "There is no segment of the citizenry population I have not represented," Corboy said. "I've represented prostitutes. I've represented monsignors in the Catholic Church. I've represented ministers. I've represented rabbis. I've represented housewives. I've represented convicted felons."
     While certain professions scream at the cost of litigation—doctors, pundits, politicians— Corboy pointed out that when a tragedy happens to them, sudden changes of heart frequently occur.
     "We represent many, many doctors who sue other doctors," said Corboy. "When a newspaperman is hurt, he comes to us. We get politicians who have voted for tort reform who send us their children who have been hurt."
     Despite the speed at which people rush to law to address their problems—or perhaps because of it—lawyers are generally held in low regard, and personal injury lawyers receive particular scorn. It doesn't bother Corboy at all.
     "Lawyers in my type of work are quite secure they are doing the right thing," he said. "When you watch movies, with tension between the local police and the FBI, how does the FBI come off? Interferers? Dolts? Do you think the secure FBI man cares?"
     In his time he has seen law change, he says, for the worse, a "crankiness" born out of the practice of winning cases not in courtrooms, but by drowning your opponent in a roomful of documents.
     "Corporate America," Corboy said, "insurance America, medical America, are in the . . ."—here he chooses his words carefully— ". . . business of properly protecting their clients with devices that are meant to precipitate the generation of paper."
     He has been involved in many important cases; his firm represented the families of six of the seven victims of the Tylenol poisonings. Perhaps Corboy's most influential case came in 1965, when he represented the owner of a race horse killed in a freak accident at Arlington Park.
     Corboy won a $93,708.33 judgment for the worth of the horse, which was ironic because at the time in Illinois there was a cap on the wrongful death of human beings of $30,000.
     "If it was the jockey who was killed instead of the horse, his widow could have only collected $30,000," said Corboy, whose testimony in Springfield did much to remove such artificial caps.
     We spoke for two hours. The problem with a subject like Corboy is that one barely scratches the surface, and then it is time to stop.

            —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 5, 2000


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Motherhood hasn't mellowed Amanda Palmer

     I don't watch TV much. But occasionally, when I want to unwind, I'll dip into YouTube and look around for something new.
     Last week, on a Sunday, I noticed a new Pink video. I like Pink, and admire her taut, well-produced videos, for first-rate songs such as the dark, decadent "Sober," with its establishing shots of an overcast Stockholm, or the heartbreaking journey through divorce's lasting impact in  "Family Portrait," maybe my favorite song of hers.
      This new one, however, "Beautiful Trauma," is just dreck, in my eyes. The same tired cotton candy 1950s imagery that was trite decades ago. A jarring literalness. At "the pill I keep taking" she gobbles some pills. The cross-dressing that Annie Lennox was doing in 1984. And the song itself? True, not many songs work the first time you hear them. But unpromising. I've listened to it twice and have no idea what she's singing about.
    No big deal. Performers peak and enter their downward limbo, a shadow of themselves. No matter how sharp and hungry—Ani DiFranco—they go flat and out-of-focus and whatever spark they have gutters. To be honest, I didn't think about it.
    The next day, however, the very next day, in one of those intriguing real-life juxtapositions, Twitter served up Amanda Palmer's cover of Pink Floyd's "Mother."
     I gave it a watch.
     First, what a great choice, for Palmer to reach into the nightmarish "Wall" double album and serve up this lament, so necessary in the hideous era we find ourselves in, as Donald Trump and his followers distort everything good and decent about America. A funhouse mirror reflecting our very worst selves.
     Savor the fierce scowl on Palmer's face when the video begins. I can't remember ever seeing a singer so pissed off in a music video, and rightly so. We all are, or should be. The elegant, unsettling imagery, the string ensemble, the piggish politicians, the Trump figure, the allegorical escape/rebellion, the children building their little wall—literal too, in its own way. But somehow it works here. It all works.
    I won't give away the surprise ending, beyond to say that it's there, and I think Palmer is about the only singer who would do that. People sometimes accuse her of being an exhibitionist. Maybe so. Or maybe just fearless. Either way, it jarred me. Now there's something you don't see in every music video...
     Very few music videos are artistic, or engaging, or worthy of thought or a second glance—Sia's "Chandelier" and the other way-creepy vignettes with pre-pubescent dancer Maddie Ziegler come to mind. I have no idea what Sia's trying to convey in these, but boring they are not.
     Maybe it's that I feel a bit of residual kinship of Palmer after meeting her a few years back, and reading her book. I assumed she had disappeared into motherhood, having had a baby a couple years ago (Duh, "Mother." I just thought of that connection. Making the song doubly apt).
     Not that creativity is always rewarded—the Pink video, released Nov. 21, had 16 million hits when I looked at it. The Palmer video, released five days earlier, had 20,000.  No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. (Although, to be fair, "Chandelier" has 1.7 billion views, so I suppose the message is, if you're a big enough star to begin with, you can take risks, which circles back to Pink and the surrender of "Beautiful Trauma.")
     Singly, I'd never murmur a word on either video. And I am no Lester Bangs, so I hope you'll forgive this foray into contemporary music criticism. But somehow, the interplay of the two videos made them worth mentioning, fodder for a Saturday, and since you'd probably otherwise never encounter the Palmer video, I thought I'd point it out. What do you think?


Friday, December 1, 2017

Bruce Springsteen's darkness not just on the edge of town

     Bruce Springsteen was our Elvis.
     When I became a teenager in the mid-1970s, the original King of Rock and Roll was an over-the-hill joke. But Bruce? On the cover of both Time and Newsweek, young, raw, supremely talented.
     His music ticked off the milestones of my life: howling along with "Rosalita" in a circle of beer-soaked freshmen. Screaming myself hoarse to the man himself live at McGaw Hall.
     The Boss had my back. When I was gathering my courage to get married, he offered up "Tunnel of Love," his crawl through the carnival of matrimony.
     His music was epic, inspirational, almost protective. I remember listening to his live album on a Walkman during two weeks wandering Port au Prince in 1987, a sonic talisman against the overwhelming reality of Haiti. I might be alone in the Cite de Soleil slum, but I was born in the USA. No retreat, no surrender.
     Springsteen even introduced me to the indignities of age, when I played his music for my own teenage sons. Without hesitation, proud, revealing a wonder. Give a listen to this, boys. I was genuinely flabbergasted when they greeted his music with a shrug. "The songs are all the same, dad," one said. I wilted, the magician with a stream of cards tumbling out of his sleeve. Oh right. I too will grow old and everything I care about will be mocked as a joke.
     Fanhood faded. Years passed. Then a few months ago I joined Audible, and one of its quirks is that it charges you for a book a month. You might as well pick something and listen. I chose "Born to Run," narrated by the Boss himself. A nostalgia trip.

     The first half is his laser-guided-missile climb from working class Freehold, New Jersey, his chain-smoking blue collar father's taunts burning in his ears. Once Springsteen becomes a rock star, however, the book really gets interesting. Turns out becoming rich and famous was the easy part.
     "At the end of the day, I was simply a guy rarely comfortable in his own skin," he writes.
     Panic attacks. Clinical depressions that lasted 18 months. Medication. He calls himself "broken," "damaged goods," adrift in "an ocean of despair," lashed by "torrents of self-loathing."
     Stability, marriage, a home, kids all elude him. It turns out that while I was dreaming of being Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen was dreaming of being me.
     His book, published last year, is a tremendous gift to those who struggle through this difficult life, a.k.a., just about everybody. Springsteen lays himself bare with rare candor. He recounts 30 years of therapy. Nobody looks cool weeping in his psychologist's office, but Bruce isn't trying to be cool. He's trying to do in a book what he does in his songs: tell the truth and maybe help people make sense of things.
     "Born to Run" really sings when when his three kids show up.
     "You're gonna miss it," his wife, Patty Scialfa, warns, of their children's early morning routine, leading to this:
      The next morning, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. "What do I do?"
      She looked at me and said, "Make the pancakes."
     Make the pancakes? I'd never made anything but music my entire life. I...I...I...don't know how! 
     He does. Springsteen also tries to shield his children from his fame. When people stop him for autographs, he tells his kids he is "Barney for adults." And he shares a sentence that every prospective parent should be made to memorize before being allowed to procreate: "At the end of the day, as parents, you are their audience. They are not meant to be yours."
     Much hard-won wisdom is here, the truest being that no success is huge enough to inoculate a person from the sting of living. There is great comfort here for we ordinary schlubs trying to get through the day. If Bruce Frickin' Springsteen has to fight to be happy— the struggle continues—has to work hard to attain the serenity we all seek, and can be this honest about it, how can any of us be ashamed of our struggles?
     "At the end of the day," Springsteen writes, "life trumps art, always." He says it twice.