Monday, September 7, 2015

Mythical History Tour

Yesterday while going through a box of old papers, I came across a research paper I wrote for a college journalism class: The Beatles and the Electronic Media. The paper was dull as dishwater, and don't worry, I won't ask you to read it. However, attached to it was the following brief essay, which I apparently wrote for extra credit. The professor enjoyed it and raised my grade from a B to an A, which made me realize that, if I was going to have a successful career as a writer (and as it turned out, I wasn't), it would have to be as a writer of complete nonsense.

The Beatles: 1920

In 1920 two young men from Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, scraped up enough money to make a trip to London to see a special concert at the Paladium: Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra. It was a journey which would change their lives and the shape of the musical world.

Lennon and McCartney returned to Liverpool with the idea of forming their own big band. Unfortunately, they only had two takers: George Harrison and Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr. Even so, they billed themselves as "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" and proceeded to try to take Liverpool by storm.

None of the four had had much experience with jazz; most of their musical experience was in the form of community band concerts: military marches, Gilbert and Sullivan and the like. They had managed to get hold of Scott Joplin's Red Back Book, and so were familiar with ragtime. Their early sound was a sort of bizarre Joplin-Sullivan-Whiteman hybrid. Amazingly, it caught on. Liverpool didn't know much about jazz, either.

In 1921, while playing their brand of jazz at a Liverpool nightspot, the group was discovered by Brian Epstein, who talked them into letting him become their manager by promising big bucks in the recording industry. It was Epstein who suggested that "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" was a ludicrous name for a four-man ensemble. He suggested "The Rolling Stones." They finally decided on "The Beatles."

Epstein took the group to a friend in the recording industry, George Martin. Martin liked the group's sound, and immediately signed them to a contract. Within a year their records were selling like hotcakes and being played on BBC Radio. The Jazz Age had hit Britain.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the Beatles' career was their conquering of the United States. After all, we invented jazz, and surely we could tell the difference between the real thing and ersatz Liverpudlian. But perhaps by the time the Beatles hit our shore, we were jaded by the Charleston, flappers, and hooch. We were ready for something new. Early in 1923 U.S. radio stations got hold of copies of the Beatles' latest hit, "I'd Like to Hold Your Hand." Paul Whiteman heard it and invited the group to join him in giving a formal concert in New York City. George Gershwin was there, performing his own Rhapsody in Blue. In his autobiography, Gershwin states, "The Rhapsody in Blue was well received, but it was the group from England, the Beatles, that the people really came to see." Music critics have stated that they detect the Beatles' influence in much of Gershwin's later work.

From New York, the group traveled to Chicago, where they had the honor of sitting in with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Morton had a profound influence on them, and is said to be the inspiration for what is considered their greatest work, Sgt. Pepper's Red Hot Band.

Throughout their tour, the group made many live appearances on radio, playing their Liverpool jazz and charming audiences with their wit and modesty. They returned to Britain and continued making hit records. Then, in 1927, they were asked by Warner Brothers to do a semi-documentary film, the first talky, The Jazz Singers. The Jazz Singers was a tremendous success (witness the number of remakes), but the jazz era was nearly over. By 1930, the Beatles had disbanded.

In the words of Duke Ellington, "They really had something. I don't know what it was. But you know, the first time I heard those boys, I thought they were black. That's how good they were."

Saturday, September 5, 2015

So Many Books, So Little Time

“So many books, so little time.” Those words come to mind a lot these days. The other day I Googled the phrase, and I discovered that the Internet attributes it to Frank Zappa. This bothers me a little. I have nothing against Frank Zappa. I’m sure he deserves credit for a lot of things. It's just that I’m not sure he deserves credit for this particular phrase. I'm pretty sure other people said those words long before Frank Zappa did—lots of other people.

Does Frank Zappa really deserve credit for this phrase? Also, why
is there only an empty chair in this picture? Where are the books?

For instance, I could swear Burgess Meredith said those very words—or words very much like them—in one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. You remember. It’s the one where Buzz plays a bookish bank teller who is constantly complaining that there is not enough time to read all of the books he wants to read. One day, he slips into the bank vault to hide and finish his book. While he is in there, a nuclear attack destroys the city and people around him. With no job and no people to disturb him, he suddenly finds himself with “Time Enough at Last” to read all the books he wants.

Then he breaks his glasses.

Buzz has “Time Enough at Last”—until he breaks his glasses.

The irony!

As a book lover, I understand just how devastated Buzz is when he breaks his glasses, and I feel sorry for him. However, I do not feel too sorry for him, because I know that if I were in his position, I would find a way to read. I would find a pair of glasses or a magnifying glass somewhere; if necessary, I would make one. Or maybe I would teach myself Braille.

Because “so many books, so little time.” And the older I get, the littler the time gets. Consider that I am now nine years older than Burgess Meredith was when he played that meek, bookish bank teller. And consider how many more books have been written since 1959, when "Time Enough at Last" first aired.

So many books, so little time!

In one respect, I am much better off than Buzz. I have a Kindle. I take it with me everywhere, so that I will always have something to read: when I’m standing in a line, when I’m waiting in the doctor’s or dentist’s office, during breaks at work. The nice thing about a Kindle is, if you break your glasses, you can enlarge the size of the words until you can read them. Of course, if there's a nuclear holocaust you're screwed, because electronic devices will be toast. But then, if you don't have access to a bank vault, you will probably be toast too.

I will never be without a book, until they pry my Kindle from my cold, dead hands. Or maybe they could just bury me with it, because—who knows?

Now if you will excuse me, I have some serious reading to do before summer is over.