Chrissie Hynde: Still going down the middle of the road

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 15, 2014.]

I was looking forward to interviewing Chrissie Hynde but couldn’t help wondering about the mood in which I’d find the 63-year-old rock legend when she phoned from London at the appointed hour. Surely Hynde, about to embark on her first tour without the Pretenders label, though still with a backing quartet, had nothing left to prove after millions of album sales and decades of searing, honest, original music. Would she be in the habit of eating journalists alive as if they were so many veggie burritos? Would she answer my questions in bored monosyllables before cutting the interview short to give equally bored answers to my counterparts in Boston, Chicago, Denver and Dallas?

Well, no and no. After a free-flowing conversation on topics ranging from the current state of South by Southwest (her mood: curious) to audiences’ current mass obsession with smartphones and selfies (dislikes in the extreme) to the comeback of vinyl records (likes) to Amy Winehouse (admired her individuality and her unique take on a retro sound) to the state of music on the radio (great in the ’50s and ’60s, not so great from the ’80s onward, but could be getting good again), I’ve concluded that Hynde is either the most self-effacing, unpretentious major rock star of all time or missed her true calling as an actress. Does she really not think of herself as anything special, just another rock singer and guitarist in a touring band?

Pun intended, I don’t think she was pretending.

This was Hynde’s response when I asked whether she’d rather be known as a performer or a songwriter:

“I don’t really care how I’m known, y’know? As long as I can write songs, I’ll make records. The only thing I don’t want to be known as is a celebrity. Anything but that.”

Since Hynde possesses such a distinctive, expressive singing voice, I ask if she’d ever had any formal vocal training.

“Well, y’know, this is rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “You can’t learn this stuff in school. It’s not a technical thing — you just listen to the radio and then copy it. I suppose if you were in theater or opera and you have to project certain ways, obviously there are technical abilities that some singers have to have, but not if you’re a rock singer.”

Well, OK, then.

Despite being a Londoner since the ’70s, Hynde retains the accent and rapid-fire speaking style of a gum-chewing waitress in an Akron diner, which, she implies, could have very well been her fate if not for sheer chance and good timing. When I ask if she’s enjoying her life, she retorts, “Hey, I get to play guitar in a rock band! Are you kidding me? Can you think of anything better? I’m even a (expletive meaning “terrible”) guitar player! On top of that, thank God for punk, I found a way to slip through the net. But I’m not very ambitious. All I wanted was to play guitar in a band, so I lucked out, man.”

After heading various incarnations of the Pretenders for three decades, Hynde released the album “Stockholm” under her own name last June. She co-wrote most of the tracks with Bjorn Yttling, of the Swedish group Peter Bjorn and John, using mainly Swedish musicians. Though Yttling’s production is on the commercial side and it lacks the song-to-song hairpin turns of the brilliant early Pretenders albums, it’s decent enough, and Hynde’s patented tender/tough vocals land their intended effect.

It’s good, I note, to change things up every now and then.

“Yeah, every 40 years or so.”

Her penchant for wisecracks aside, Hynde has a few things to say about what it takes for a performer to have a sustained career. Just one decade in the spotlight, let alone three, now seems like an eternity in a world stuck on fast-forward.

“I guess I am an optimist,” she says. “I just sense that at the moment it feels quite good in music. I don’t know much about the technology, because to be perfectly honest, as soon as they brought in pushbutton radios I got lost. Let alone going on the Internet.”

For Hynde, “Middle of the Road” is more than just one of her old songs. “My personal discipline has been to try to stay in the middle, always, no matter what I’m doing,” she says. “If I buy a jacket and it comes in three sizes, I want a medium. You have to learn how to temper yourself and hold back till you get to the end.”

Hynde will always take a club over a stadium, and she praises the importance of local music scenes. “What could be better than to be in your town, and you know five or six other guys that are in bands? I mean, that’s where it’s at. And then all your girlfriends pile into a car and go out to your local club and see your favorite band. Isn’t that better than to go see a bunch of has-beens on stage in a stadium? Wouldn’t you rather see what’s going on right now in your local community, somebody that speaks to you, that talks about the air that you breathe and the water that you drink? That’s more relevant, and that’s got to be more fun, because it’s there, and it’s yours.”

Despite being active in various causes (most visibly, PETA), Hynde’s not into preaching from the stage. “I’m only there for people to enjoy themselves, really,” she says. “I’m certainly not trying to be controversial, or even thought-provoking. I have things to say if they’re interested, but you have to ask me for it. I found something out a long time ago: If someone doesn’t ask for advice and you give it to them, they’ll hate you for it.

“And as far as when we’re onstage, all I want is for at least one person to go home that night and say, ‘Wow, that was the best guitar player I ever saw.’ I mean, it won’t be me, it’ll be James Walbourne, but you know what I mean. I just want one person to go and say, ‘Wow, that was a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”

Hynde won’t be hitting up Franklin’s or La Barbecue, but she looks forward to stopping by nonetheless. “We love Austin,” she says. “Austin’s like rock central. Drag Willie Nelson along, but tell him to leave his vaporizer at home.”

When I tell her there’s actually a statue of Willie outside ACL Live, Hynde, after a beat, says, “A-MAZE-ing. Yeah. I was on his bus once and it took me three days to recover. I was only on the bus for 12 minutes, so, y’know, do the math.”

Burt Bacharach is Still Pretty Damn Cool

Burt_B_conductingBurt_Bacharach_2014

The following post is a revised and substantially expanded version of an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman/austin360.com on Nov. 21, 2014.

Inevitable preface: I don’t usually do these kinds of jazz improvisations on a journalism theme, so to speak, but  this particular subject seemed to demand a longer treatment, even if only for a blog post.

It’s a sad commentary on recent times that I’ve been thinking lately about whether I need to justify writing so much about such “trivial” things as art and music; I read the news like everyone else and am as disheartened as so many others that things lately seem to be sliding from bad to worse. Of course, if you pay attention that’s the way things always seem, but especially lately, and it’s hard to fight battles against such an overwhelming amount of stupidity, venality, selfishness and shortsightedness that you see demonstrated by people everywhere. (Not from everyone, of course, but it seems to be increasing steadily every year along with the population.)

When faced with the horrible things one watches and reads about every day — some of them very real, some of them phantoms ginned up by the less reliable elements of antisocial media — you might well ask yourself, what good does music and art do? For many, it’s just a detail, something in the background. For others, including me, it’s such a key element of life that doing without it seems unthinkable, whether you’re fortunate enough to create it or just enjoy consuming it, losing yourself in it. Music, literature and other art forms are the way we explain life to ourselves, come for lessons, come to feel, even so briefly, that we’re not alone in this mystery. And so, I don’t apologize for what I do — I greatly value these conversations, which in the best of worlds, run both ways, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to contribute.

********************************************************************

Some years — OK, decades — ago, when I was in high school on Long Island, the school administrators called an assembly to listen to a songwriter give a speech about his work.

The songwriter was a nondescript-looking middle-aged man named Hal David, who lived in Roslyn, a few towns over in Nassau County. David was a lyricist who had written the words to scads of hit songs composed by Burt Bacharach.

I listened raptly to Hal David’s tales of how he wrote “Alfie” and other songs. I don’t remember a lot of details, but he was amusing in a plainspoken, low-key way, and in the end he received a standing ovation from me and my fellow students.

A couple of years ago, when I mentioned this assembly to the classmates I’m still in touch with on Facebook, nobody else remembered the day we sat and listened to Hal David. But I know it happened, and when, many years later — after, in fact, Hal David had died — I got the chance to speak with the other half of the songwriting team, I told him how much of a pleasure it was for me to get the chance to do so. And it was.

_____________________________________________________

Take a day trip out to the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas – properly, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park – and get on the tour bus. Towards the end of the tour, guides will play a recording of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” written in 1969 for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and a number-one hit for singer B.J. Thomas, and inform you that it was Johnson’s favorite song.

When I tell him this, the song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, says, “Oh, that’s great. I’d never heard that. That always is terrific when you hear something like that. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, he was a good president, he really was. He got things done.”
Bacharach, who stops by the Long Center Sunday night with his seven-piece band and a trio of singers, has gotten a few things done himself. “Raindrops” was just one of a remarkable run of songs – “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” and on and on – composed in the ′60s by Bacharach and his lyricist, the late Hal David, and sung mainly by Dionne Warwick, a vocalist born to handle the duo’s unusual use of syncopation and time signatures.

The result was music two or three degrees of sophistication beyond nearly anything else on commercial radio at the time.

Bacharach hasn’t played Austin since an October 2006 visit to the Paramount (“I remember the bats,” he says), so make no mistake: an opportunity to see the master playing his immodest amount of hits in person with 2015 knocking at the door is a special event, indeed.

Over the phone from his home in LA, the composer charms you with his earnest, deliberate manner, old-school courtesy and unpretentiousness (don’t call him Mr. Bacharach; “It’s Burt,” he insists). Listening to him talk about Hal, Dionne, and Jerry Orbach, you sometimes feel transported into an article in Esquire magazine from 1966, and involuntarily adjust an imaginary tuxedo.

He’s also the busiest 86-year-old you’ll ever encounter, and probably has more plans for the coming year than you do. If his voice is raspier than it used to be and his step maybe — maybe — a bit slower, his mind remains sharp and he doesn’t live in the past. Last January, for example, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal urging revisions of the antiquated regulations allowing online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify to get away with paying next to nothing in royalties to performers and songwriters, even for songs getting plays in the tens of millions. “Nobody’s thinking of how people get paid,” he says. “There’s so much free music to be had.”

When I ask, “Do you think there’s still a place for sophisticated, literate songs in today’s pop music landscape?” Bacharach laughs heartily and says, “Nope! Well, do you?

“I think there is a place, I think the songs just don’t get heard,” he clarifies. “Radio has kind of just corrupted that whole possibility, because the playlist is so short. Sting’s new musical (“The Last Ship”) is rich with music, it’s beautiful; now, will it be heard on radio? NPR, maybe. I don’t know.”

In the ′60s Bacharach seemed to bestride the world, a dashing international playboy of a songwriter. But he was also something of a late bloomer. He began his career as a pianist for various singers, notably Marlene Dietrich (for whom he also arranged and conducted), didn’t have his first hit record until he was 29 and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his 30s.

Compared with most of the other songwriting teams clustered around New York’s Brill Building, Bacharach and David, who was seven years his senior, were the adults in the room by both age and musical preference. The simple chords of early rock ′n’ roll didn’t impress Bacharach, who had cut his teeth on the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and modern classical works by Ravel, Stravinsky and others; he was also influenced by Brazilian music from the likes of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento.

(Snippet of interview follows)

Me: Does working with different lyricists or singers affect how you compose a song?

Bacharach: Yeah, absolutely.

Do you hear them in your head performing the work first, or…?

Yeah. We started with Dionne with “Don’t Make Me Over,” and the more I saw that she could do, the more the possibilities became musically, and I guess for Hal lyrically too, because we could stretch – all you have to do, Wes, is look at a song and say, like “Promises, Promises,” in the Broadway show it was very intense and very trying for the singer; the singer had many words and many notes. Jerry Orbach used to say, “God, why’d you have to make it so tough?” Well, I made it so tough because it has to work (out) the anger – “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises now,” y’know, and showing him pissed off and showing him able to actually go and free himself…I have no regrets that I made it (with) that many notes and that many words. You listen to Dionne’s record, it’s so fluid and fluent, she floats through it. Effortless.

It’s like, “Syncopation? No problem.”

Yeah, and effortless. You know, in one breath, taken this way, that way, no labor, no stress doing it.

That – is the syncopation, the rush of words, the taking people in unexpected places melodically…

In principle.

That’s something that comes naturally to you –

Exactly.

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He was a perfectionist in the studio but tripped up away from it, with an often messy private life marred by bad decisions — if you’re interested in more background on both, including his four marriages and the tragic suicide of his daughter Nikki, read his candid-to-a-fault 2013 autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. (I didn’t elect to talk to Bacharach about his private life. I’m more interested in his music.)

If Bacharach descended into schmaltz – if commercially successful schmaltz – in the ’80s, he became hipper than ever in the ′90s, working with Elvis Costello and seeing his songs covered by appreciative rockers like Chrissie Hynde, Oasis, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five.

In recent years he’s been working on not one but two stage musicals with Costello, with whom he collaborated on the remarkable 1998 comeback CD “Painted From Memory.” Bacharach and Costello have long been noted as one of music’s odder couples, but there’s no denying the chemistry of their complementary sensibilities; aside from Hal David, has Bacharach ever had a more productive pairing with a writing partner?

One musical, currently on hold, is based on the “Austin Powers” movies (in which Bacharach appeared in cameos as a talisman of ’60s cool). What kind of tunes, one wonders, did they end up crafting for this. “Some are funny, but they’re not like run-of-the-mill songs,” he says. “Because I don’t write that way. But they’re good.”

The other work, based on “Painted From Memory,” is a creative alliance between Bacharach, Costello and Chuck Lorre, the TV writer and producer behind “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” and a songwriter and musician himself. Bacharach calls it “a serious, dark drama musical.”

On top of this, he’ll soon be collaborating with a couple of country songwriters – Bacharach scholars might note here that his first hit, “The Story Of My Life,” reached number one on the country charts for Marty Robbins in 1957.

“Not that I know how to write a country song,” he notes. “I don’t know what a country song is, really. Right now the country market is so male-dominated, ‘I love my pickup truck and a bottle of beer.’ But good songs still have a chance there. I start the day after Thanksgiving with Tim Nichols, who’s coming out here, and he’s a very good country writer. We’ll see what we come up with. Harmonically, I don’t think guitar-wise. I’m more keyboard-oriented, and (don’t think in) simple, plain three-note chord songs or basic chords with no sevenths, no seconds or anything like that.”

Bacharach has always enjoyed performing live, which is why he still does it.

“When you are playing for people, it’s a great kind of a contact,” he says. “I don’t like it when the room is dark, ′cause you’re just playing in a sea of blackness — I like to see people, I like to see their reactions. If there’s a tear shed, I like to see that. If they’re moved, it makes it all worthwhile. If they’re touched, if they feel good, if you can make somebody feel good for a couple of minutes in their day, that’s a big reward.”

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At the Long Center that Sunday night, November 23, he walked out from the wings, casual but impeccable as usual in a blue blazer, neatly pressed dark jeans, and a tieless blue shirt, to tremendous applause from the mostly older crowd. Burt hadn’t only shown up, he was in command, a maestro seated center stage at his Steinway Grand, confident and in his element as he directed the players with quick, minimal arm movements, and relayed brief anecdotes about the songs throughout the concert. As noted, Bacharach is a raspy-voiced singer of limited range, but when he took on “The Look of Love” and “Alfie,” you held your breath as time stopped and just appreciated what he was giving us. Even his minimalist reading of “Wives and Lovers” – a pop song saddled with some of the most sexist lyrics of all time – was a revelation, more of a plea than an breezy anthem.

The seven-piece band — including, naturally, a flugelhorn player (“the sound of the ’60s,” as Mrs. Pogoer put it), Bacharach’s 21-year-old son Oliver on occasional piano, and a trio of three versatile singers, John Pagano, Donna Taylor and  Josie James — moved seamlessly from one hit to the next in a seemingly endless stream (see the set list below, which I scribbled down while I listened in a semi-trance).  I couldn’t find another review of the Austin show online, but for comparison, here’s a review of the show he did two days before in Kansas City and here’s a video of “I Say A Little Prayer” in concert in Ravello, Italy last summer that shows the same basic stage setup.

Call it easy-listening or elevator music if you like; to me, it was two solid hours of classy, superb pop, and it felt like coming home. Believe it or not, Bacharach, at 86, still seemed to be at the top of his game.

_______________________________________________________

Reasonably accurate set list at Burt Bacharach’s concert at the Long Center, Austin, Nov. 23, 2014 (includes medleys):

What The World Needs Now

Don’t Make Me Over

Walk On By

This Guy’s In Love With You

I Say a Little Prayer

Trains and Boats and Planes

Wishin’ and Hopin’

Always Something There to Remind Me

One Less Bell to Answer

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

Only Love can Break a Heart

Do You Know the Way to San Jose

Anyone Who Had a Heart

God Give Me Strength

Waiting for Charlie to Come Home (Etta James, b-side of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” recorded 1962, lyrics by Bob Hilliard)

Love Theme from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

My Little Red Book (“My only attempt at writing a rock ‘n’ roll song”)_

Windows of the World

Baby It’s You

Message to Michael

Make It Easy on Yourself

On My Own

Close To You

The Look of Love (sung by Burt)

Arthur’s Theme

What’s New Pussycat

The World Is A Circle

The April Fools

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wives and Lovers (sung by Burt, very minimalist, quiet version)

Alfie

A House is Not a Home

Encore:

Two new-ish songs whose titles I don’t know, but they were good (from Some Lovers, a 2011 musical Bacharach wrote with lyricist Steven Sater and the composer’s first musical since Promises, Promises)

Any Day Now

That’s What Friends Are For

Second Encore: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (audience singalong)

The secret history of ‘Dirty Dancing’ and why it’s still topical

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 9, 2014.]

More often than not, movies that not only become massive hits, but endure through the decades as iconic cultural snapshots of their era — think “Star Wars,” “Rocky,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — begin their lives as small projects with limited, or even nonexistent, expectations. So it was with a low-budget romantic drama released in the summer of 1987, set in a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the summer of ’63, with a cast short on big names and a director who had previously only filmed documentaries. Upon viewing the movie, one of the producers spouted, “Burn the negative and take the insurance.”

Hundreds of millions in box office and home-video sales and a multi-platinum soundtrack album later, the movie spawned a stage musical that’s toured Australia, Europe and North America in the past decade and hits Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday. And if you’ve read this far, face it: You know you want to go.

We speak, of course, of “Dirty Dancing.” No, it’s not the greatest movie ever made. Call it a cheesy, guilty-pleasure chick flick if you like; anachronisms and plot holes abound if you look closely, and some of the acting doesn’t exactly call to mind Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis. But none of that matters when you’ve got Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in their career-defining roles as working-class dance instructor Johnny Castle and idealistic, sheltered 17-year-old doctor’s daughter Frances “Baby” Houseman, and those steamy dance scenes where the fumes from actors playing hormone-soaked adolescents and twentysomethings practically come off the screen. (Spoiler alert: If you don’t know the story, plot points are discussed ahead.)

But keep looking closely and you’ll notice real social commentary sneaking in amid all the grinding and secret trysts. Few movies have used a hazardous illegal abortion as a central plot point, or depict class distinctions in the USA with such matter-of-fact astringency. Take Robbie, the self-serving young waiter about to enter med school who got Johnny’s dance partner Penny pregnant but doesn’t care, dismissing her as he flashes an Ayn Rand novel in Baby’s face (he doesn’t fare well).

Meant to evoke an end-of-an-era feel — for America’s innocence before JFK’s assassination, even for childhood itself — 27 years after its release, “Dirty Dancing” now delivers a heady dose of ’80s nostalgia to boot. We recently spoke by phone with the ultimate “Dirty Dancing” insider: Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter and co-producer behind the original movie and creator of the stage production.

Bergstein, a doctor’s daughter who grew up in Brooklyn, was called “Baby” until she was 21 and vacationed in the Catskills with her family, where she participated in spicy mambo competitions from age 13 on. While in college, she became an instructor in an Arthur Murray dance studio. But don’t ask her if “Dirty Dancing” is autobiographical: She’s a novelist and screenwriter, after all.

“You use something from every part of your life,” she says. “That’s why I say when people think I’m Baby, there’s as much Johnny in me as Baby.”

Bergstein says that before the film was released, “We expected nothing but total disgrace and humiliation. Partly because when it was finished, everybody hated it. Nobody had any hope for this movie at all.”

Just as Grey wasn’t a typical leading lady, “Dirty Dancing” differed from previous popular movies fueled by dance rhythms, particularly “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” which Bergstein calls “crazy fantasies which had no reality base in mind.”

The movie undoubtedly has a huge female fan base and appeals so much to preteens that it’s sometimes called “’Star Wars’ for girls.” Mention this to Bergstein, though, and she’ll bristle a bit and relate one anecdote after another to prove that “Dancing” has a sizable male following. She’ll talk about the field hands in Tuscany who joyfully tossed their hats into the air when Baby’s father snatched the money away from Robbie at the end, and the scores of Australian truck drivers who apparently travel with a copy of the movie in a portable DVD player and watch it at every rest stop.

Because the stage show is longer than the movie, Bergstein added new material, some about the ’60s civil rights movement and some about the illegal abortion. She notes how few movies since “Dirty Dancing” have dealt with the topic at all.

“In the last 25 years,” she says, “most of the movies, even the cutting-edge things like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Juno’ and ‘Knocked Up,’ always end up with the girl not having the abortion, but having her baby. And she doesn’t end up, of course, in a shelter or with the baby in some terrible shape. She gets married and lives on Central Park West, and it’s all very nice. Somehow, in some very subtle way, it stopped being in the national conversation.

“So many things happened then: Young men going across the world to fight in a war that they didn’t believe in, young blacks going down to a Freedom March being thrown into swamps and killed in the street, so many things. Believe me, I have no joy in saying, ‘Look at that, it’s a topical show.’ I just feel, ‘Oh my God, I thought some of these battles had been fought, and here they are back again.’ That’s very sad.”

We’re a long way from “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”


Enough with the links: Original Content Monday on Facebook

Facebook annoys me. I know, I’m not the only one. The constant data mining, the behind-the-scenes manipulation, the mass delusion of the users that they have some say in how they use the site (in reality, they have not much more say than sausage has in how it’s getting stuffed at the Jimmy Dean factory).

Modest proposal for a palace revolt? Let’s start with a small blow for creativity. Henceforth, devote Mondays to original content on FB. No links to Salon or Slate, unless it’s to posts you wrote your own self. No Upworthy, no Huffington Post, no NY Times or Mother Jones or MSNBC or Fox or even the local paper.

Just. Original. Content. Stuff you did yourself. Your own opinions, whether published anywhere else or just for your Friends. Books, magazine articles, blog posts, poems, whatever, as long as it’s yours. You can link to anything you created yourself — music videos, photos (professional or not), portfolios of your sculptures or paintings or dress designs or even, help us all, ad campaigns.

No links to editorials with a short note from you saying “Worth the Read.” No YouTube videos. No stories about that couple married 62 years who died within 22 minutes of each other (only women seem to like posting that one). No photos of puppies, unless they happen to be yours. Deal?

Call it Original Content Monday, which will be universally abbreviated within nine days to #OCM.

Let’s go.

Lisa Gerritsen, Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Postcard_from_Lisa

Chess in 'My World'

Chess in ‘My World’

Even though I’m not Catholic, the last few days before a fast-approaching birthday seem to me as good a time as any for making a confession, so here’s one for you: Unlike many of my U.S.-raised peers in my generation (sometimes known as Late Boomers or Generation Jones), I have no childhood memories to speak of involving watching The Monkees or The Brady Bunch, nor do I feel much fondness for the likes of Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie. Due to a likely combination of personal preference and selective memory, however, I do have strong recollections of many shows that were, to put it gently, not exactly hits. Many of these date from roughly the 1968-70 era, when I was unhappily settled in a strangely quiet, oppressively grassy Long Island suburb after my family had moved from Queens in ’67. Lonely, feeling isolated, and missing the bustling streets of Flushing, I watched a lot of TV to compensate. There was one bonafide hit, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that firmly planted itself in my memory banks, but also a sitcom called The Good Guys (starring a post-Gilligan Bob Denver and a pre-Golden Girls Herb Edelman, as old buddies running a diner; the theme song is indelibly imprinted in my mind, particularly the phrase “by the teeth of our skin”); an equally undistinguished sitcom, Arnie, starring Herschel Bernardi as a working-class Greek-American promoted from the loading dock to the executive suite (oh, the hijinks and scenery-chewing that ensued); and by far my fondest 1969/70 TV memory of all, My World and Welcome To It.  (Follow that link for a good general outline of the program, including capsule descriptions of all 26 episodes. A DVD of the complete show has been one of my greatest entertainment-based wishes for years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I myself have to be the one to see that particular project through. Message me if you have ideas.)

Despite general critical acclaim and two Emmy awards in 1970 (for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for the star, the late William Windom), it never saw a second season; in his Emmy acceptance speech, Windom, in full sarcastic mode, reportedly thanked NBC for canceling the show. My World was based, loosely at times and more closely at others, on the cartoons and writings of James Thurber, a singular 20th-century humorist. On the off-chance you need an introduction to him, Thurber was a prolific short-story writer, cartoonist, and playwright from Columbus, Ohio who wrote a lot for The New Yorker and whose fate seems to involve having his writings screwed with without compunction by Hollywood, especially his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” made into two films to date (starring Danny Kaye, 1947, and Ben Stiller, 2013, neither of which I’ve seen, nor particularly care to; in Hollywood’s defense, the story itself takes perhaps 10 minutes to read, as Thurber was neither a novelist nor a big fan of the long-form essay).

My World, however, was a notable exception to the rule, treating Thurber’s cartoons (animated within the show by the good graces of DePatie-Freleng), plots, and a good deal of his prose with respect and intelligence. The milieu was updated to the 1969 present and set in a Connecticut suburb (which contained a few rural hayseeds apparently relocated from the Ozarks for comic effect). To me, the show at its core was about the power of the imagination and its sympathy for both the creative spark and for artistic, dreamy types trapped in the banality of the quotidian, personified by the Thurber analogue, Windom’s brusque suburban knight John Monroe, a cartoonist and writer, and his occasionally sullen but often sweet, smart, inquisitive and forthright tween-age daughter, Lydia. Windom played Monroe with a definite curmudgeonly edge, but the soft, dreamy center was never too far away. Try on this dialogue for size:

Lydia: “Daddy, are people who see things and daydream, are they, well, normal?”

John: “No, they’re much better than that. Why, for heaven’s sake, they’re the artists, the poets, the bums, the cream of society. They get a lot more out of life than normal people. For one thing, they’re never lonely or cold or hungry,
because they’ve got their imagination to keep them warm and to keep them company. And, don’t you believe for a minute  that because they see things that you don’t, that those things aren’t there.”

Which brings us to Lisa Gerritsen. Was she my first, and only, TV crush? If I ever had one, I suppose that, yes, she would be it, and I’m far from the only introverted, bookish kid she had this effect on. And, yes, like the esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist who penned this key bit of Gerritsen lore back in 2000 (making the definitive case for leaving her alone into the bargain), I’ve long since moved on.

But when the conversation turns to smart, somewhat geeky but endearing young female characters on TV, this is where Lisa and My World deserve particular mention. Before Mayim Bialik played Blossom (and later, Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory), before Alyson Hannigan portrayed Willow Rosenberg on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before Sara Gilbert embodied Darlene Conner on Roseanne, and even over a decade before young Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker entered Weemawee High School as Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs, there was Lisa Gerritsen as Lydia Monroe on My World and Welcome To It and Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis.

Gerritsen, arguably the most accomplished and least affected child-to-teen TV actor of her generation (which is also mine), excelled at playing smart-but-vulnerable characters. On My World, she held her own with superb performers like Windom and Joan Hotchkis, who played her mother, Ellen, with a fair bit of spark and verve.

Lisa Gerritsen came from a long-established show business family on her mother’s side, stretching back at least as far as her great-great-grandmother, Carro True Boardman, who was an actress and acting teacher in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (here’s a link to a short piece with a photo in the San Francisco Call from 1901, describing Carro as a “well known exponent of elocution, physical culture and dramatic art”).

The moniker “True” recurs again and again in the Boardman family as a first or middle name given to, or adopted by, both males and females (including Lisa herself, who was occasionally billed as Lisa True Gerritsen). It does seem like a fortunate talisman for an actor to carry and a lodestar to sail by; after all, it means “real.” Carro Boardman’s son, William True Boardman (1882-1918), dropped his first name and, as True Boardman, starred in early silent films, as did his wife, the much longer-lived Margaret Shields, who adopted the stage name of Virginia True Boardman. Their son, William True Boardman, Jr., later True Eames Boardman (1909-2003), Lisa’s grandfather, acted alongside Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford as a child, and later had a long career as a scriptwriter for radio and TV, including westerns like The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Although I suppose it wasn’t exactly coincidental that Lisa appeared on all three of these shows (per IMDb, she was on Gunsmoke four times between 1968 and ’70, in four different roles), and her grandfather’s connections undoubtedly smoothed her entry into show business to some extent, she wasn’t just another forgettable, two- or three-note child actor. The camera didn’t lie: she came across as remarkably natural and genuine in whichever role she played.

However, Lisa Gerritsen retired from acting over 35 years ago; her last credit on IMDb is for an episode of the religious anthology program Insight which aired in November 1978, shortly before her 21st birthday (TV.com summarizes the plot as “A pregnant young girl finds a friend in her boyfriend’s mother”). I don’t know whether her decision was due in part to her experiences taking Bess Lindstrom into young adulthood (to the point of being married and expecting a baby) in the troubled MTM spinoff Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman in the title role as Lisa’s antiheroine mom (here’s a superb, detailed recounting of that show’s travails), not wanting to be in the public eye anymore, or something else, because she hasn’t granted an interview in decades and from all accounts, doesn’t even like to talk about her years in show business to anyone outside, I suppose, her family and close friends. After hanging up the phone on Bess Lindstrom she went to college, then worked for a couple of software companies, then became (per IMDb and other sources) an independent relocation consultant and facilities project manager. She’s also been married since 2000, and lives a quiet, private, apparently very normal life with her family in a town north of San Francisco (I know which one, but won’t name it here).

A friend of mine once told me that the only thing worse than changing is not changing, which I think is probably as good a definition of the human condition as any. The trick is not only knowing when to close the door on one chapter, but knowing when to refrain from paging through the old chapters (which perhaps explains why so many people find Facebook a stressful experience).

The desire to read about people spillin’ it all will always be with us, but so will the value of silence and privacy. (Even as a journalist, this is something I can appreciate.) Yes, there’s power in a dignified silence and the quiet grace that comes with saying, “This part of my life is now finished. I have moved on and am in a different place now. I’ve let go; maybe you should do the same.” How much better is what Lisa did than the path taken by so many of her acting peers: staying fixated on their childhood in the spotlight for want of anything better, and, drugs and early deaths aside, stumbling from one reality TV show to the next, publishing memoirs and cookbooks ad nauseam, traveling from one fan convention to the next, endlessly pushing the nostalgia cart from one town to another or dancing on a stage in Branson, Missouri, because, let’s face it, ain’t much else going on. How much better to have a life in the now, not condemned to wander the land endlessly because your life peaked at age 12, and everyone you sign an autograph for knows it.

I also think most of us civilians (the non-famous, non-showbiz public) have a big problem understanding how people who have been successful, even partially, in creative pursuits like acting and music, can voluntarily give it up at a relatively young age, never looking back, and do something totally different — write software, work as a museum archivist, become a lawyer, teach, sell real estate — and seemingly be happy about their decision, not feeling they owe their old fans an explanation, not feeling they have to get together for a reunion concert every few years, host a retrospective of their old shows on a TV nostalgia channel, get together with the old gang for a “Where Are They Now?” photo spread in People, or write their autobiography, unless they really want to. They had the nerve to want to hang it up and be normal; and so, they did.

Who knows how creative people who give up that life deal with what I sometimes think of as the golden reactor core of creativity — something that can never really be shut down, regardless of whether the public outlet for that creativity still exists or was walled off, voluntarily or otherwise. Do they write songs still, just for themselves and their family? Do they put on plays in their kitchen for five people and the cat? One never knows. More likely, though, is that they live more or less normal lives and are no more or less happy than the rest of us, except for having some special memories and, one hopes, a deep sense of satisfaction for what they were and what they did, even though that time is no more.

And time has, indeed, passed. Lisa Gerritsen is now, believe it or not, 56, a decade older than William Windom was when he played her father on My World. (As for myself, it’s disconcerting to occasionally see the mid-to-late 1970s Windom looking back at me in the mirror these days, though I know I could do a lot worse.) With so much of our lives behind us, we can surely discern the outlines of that far shore looming ever closer, but still, through it all, somehow, we maintain a child’s sense of wonder and optimism, and impulses urging us on to playfulness and love. Our better selves. We live on, and our creativity never really stops, the golden reactor core keeps glowing; it just takes different forms toward different ends. But it’s real; oh, it’s real. Never doubt that.

If Lisa ever reads this, I don’t expect her to answer, but I’d like to say thanks, anyway, for what she gave us in that time, and also for leaving when the time seemed right to her. Lisa, I miss your talent and your presence, but I also understand that you knew better than anyone else when it was time to close that door. You did a real and genuine thing. One might even say, True.

 

Cross-pollination time: Announcing The Odd Interview blog

I’m proud to announce the launch of my new all-interview blog, The Odd Interview. I love interviews — reading them, listening to them, and participating in them, and perfecting the art of the interview (yes, there is one, and I’m still working on it). So I had this lengthy and wide-ranging Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson just sitting around doing nothing, and the premiere of Cosmos is happening tonight, and so, I figured, what better time to launch a dedicated blog to serve as a repository for my past interviews and to even put new ones now and then? Thus, here we go.

Yes, as occasional readers of this blog will know, my interview with Dr. Tyson was published in the Austin American-Statesman last December. The Q&A published here, though, is, aside from minimal editing, the complete,  uncut, never-before-seen, peek-behind-the-scenes, DVD-extras, director’s-cut version. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly appreciate newspapers and magazines publishing my work. But all newspapers and magazines have space limitations and house styles, not to mention other writers competing for assignments. I’ve interviewed a lot of prominent people over the course of my career (here’s a CV with a brief summary of my greatest hits, with live links), and most of the time, most of the interview ends up on the virtual cutting-room floor. I understand why this is, but in some cases, you just wish you could have had more of it see the light of day.

I hope you’ll have a look and enjoy the read.

You know you’re an American who’s been in Slovenia a while when…

[This piece first appeared in my original website, http://www.pogoer.org, under the title “You know you’re a foreigner who’s been in Slovenia too long when…” In retrospect, I don’t think there’s any such thing as too long, and the list is somewhat American-specific and, yes, a bit dated. So be it, then.]

1. You pepper your conversations (with other English speakers) with expressions like “ah res?” and “v redu!”

2. You think of Wheel of Fortune as your country’s version of Kolo
Sreče.

3. It seems normal to have to visit two cashiers’ windows to (a) pay and obtain a receipt, and (b) present the receipt to the clerk, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut and bags your single 9-volt battery.

4. On trips home, you speak to shop clerks and waitresses in Slovene. Or at least think about it.

5. You stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a clothes dryer again.

6. When asked to spell out your name, you automatically do it pronouncing the letters the Slovene way.

7. You stop converting prices from tolars into your home currency.

8. You start following Slovene politics.

9. You tell friends you’re going on a short trip to Dunaj or Benetke.

10. The words “Jogurt” and “joga” look normal to you in print.

11. Shutters on windows begin to seem like a decadent Western affectation.

12. Your dreams are in English, but with Slovene subtitles.