Category Archives: Colin’s Theories of Culture

The Ceiling Fell In and the Bottom Fell Out

by Categorized: Colin's Theories of Culture, Deep thoughts, Music, Uncategorized Date:

I attend, every year, a wonderful New Year’s Day’s party, one that feels like a European salon. You can very easily find yourself sitting around a table in the kitchen with an art curator, a physicist, a medical policy expert, a teacher and a philosophy/cognitive science scholar, straining to hear something profound about the measurement of reality over the background chatter and clatter and the occasional drowning roar of the garbage disposal.

One of the more pedestrian topics this year was our perception that people of pivotal importance and/or life-enhancing qualities died in a big cluster right at the end of the year. Meadowlark Lemon, Haskell Wexler, Ellsworth Kelly. Wayne Rogers, who died on Dec. 31, was not at the same, iconic level, but who knew he later became a money manager and investor of great expertise? (The medical policy expert reminded us that, statistically, people die in disproportionate numbers after big holidays, having hung on by force of will.)

At this same New Year’s Day party, one is sometimes asked to step into the next room and sing, say, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” with the jazz pianist Matt DeChamplain. There was less of that than usual this year, especially for me, in the lingering stages of a cold. We probably should have attempted a Natalie Cole medley, but the news of her death was so fresh we could barely process it.Nataliecole2007

I hope to read something learned and eloquent about Cole next week in Metcalf on Music. (He too attends this party.) For now, let me offer my own meager apercu. I’m not sure Cole gets enough credit for introducing, with one album, the sound and feel of the American songbook and jazz standards to a generation that had, for the most part, no relationship at all with this material. “Unforgettable…With Love” sold seven million copies worldwide, five million in the States. Am I forgetting someone, or does this eclipse any  comparable collection in the last 25 years? Has Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr. sold that many copies of one album, ever? (Let’s not get into a conversation about artistic merits or wholeness or authenticity.) Of course, album sales themselves are a thing of the past. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, whose collaboration release overlapped two of Cole’s songs, probably haven’t sold a million units yet.  Cole already had an R&B fan base. It’s beyond dispute that she shoved the music of Arlen, Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins into grateful ears that had previously shown no appetite for them. How many converts did she make? We’ll never know.

“Unforgettable…With Love” also points us at a really fascinating argument launched by Ben Yagoda this year and perhaps developed a tiny bit more  in a conversation among Yagoda, Metcalf, singer Tracey Moore and me. Yagoda says that American popular music suffered a nervous breakdown between the end of World War II and the onset of rock and roll. The dance band scene, which provided the propulsion for American standards, collapsed in favor of domestic life and booming out babies.  And the country, especially its young adults, was too frazzled by what it had endured during the war to embrace music full of deep emotion.  They preferred lightness, perhaps even novelty tunes. Cole’s father straddled those two worlds as few other singers could. So you get “Orange Colored Sky,” a 1950 tune which I happen to like but which, let’s face it, is not “This Can’t Be Love.” Musical monstrosity side note: Burt Ward, who played Robin on the old Batman TV series, recorded an upsetting version of the song produced by Frank Zappa. “L-O-V-E,” written a decade later is, nonetheless, further proof of the hollowing-out of the songbook style. That tune is credited to Bert Kaempfert who, according to a really fascinating obituary also from the tail end of the year, may have stolen “Strangers in the Night.”

Thus concludes my argument for giving Natalie Cole extra credit as a popularizer of America’s greatest music. It was only a paper moon, but it was the best I could do.

Alta Tensione!

by Categorized: Colin's Theories of Culture, sports Date:

altaYou know what the Courant should do to John Altavilla?  Basically nothing.*

And I don’t say this as his chum. I worked onsite at the Courant for 20 years, but that was, um, 20 years ago. I’m not in the building now. I don’t know him.

And is it great that he informed the world about the way the skimpily dressed Texas cheerleaders delighted him? No. It is not great. But neither is it dastardly. Just kind of bad judgment. The Altavilla story, which has been sitting out there as the center lead at Ct Capital Report for half a day now, is more a story about the world of online Pecksniffs who have never outgrown the habit of telling the teacher what the other boys were doing. Thus we have somebody named Andy Hutchins who, were he a different person, could easily have confronted Altavilla, at least on Twitter, and suggested he tone it down. This is what big boys do. You got a problem with somebody? Tell him. He might even thank you for the nudge. If he won’t straighten out, see the light, take the hint, maybe you go upstairs at that point. But Hutchins’ first instinct was to drag Altavilla’s employer into the fray.

As a caustic political columnist, I may have no standing to complain about this. And I get that the internet is often about counting coup and maybe even loading your belt with scalps. But what I can’t forgive is a piece written by AA Locker.  If you’re going to write a takedown on your Deadspin wannabe website, use a real name, please.

I started thinking a lot about the culture of digital ostracism last week while preparing for this show. I was struck anew by how much trouble you can get in these days, and how little it takes. This seemed especially true in the case of Andrew Pessin.  Let me preface this by saying I sit on the other side of the aisle from this guy. I’m more likely to think that the Palestinian case is under-represented in the American debate and that the actions and rhetoric of Israel are often too easily waved off. So the last thing I need is another armchair Likkudist professor, and I was prepared to be thoroughly outraged by his comments.

And then. I wasn’t.

I mean, I didn’t agree with them.  Or like them. I would have welcomed a chance to tell him he was off base. But I would not have needed to do it with my hands around his throat, nor would I have had to retreat to my fainting coach and reset my trigger warning light.

So, John. Eyes off the pom poms. Eyes on the court. I realize that part of the problem may have been how boring most UConn women’s games are. My idea of hell is to be stuck at a 105-54 blowout (and with a 1 seed playing a 5, for heaven’s sake). Attentions are bound to wander. Don’t do it again. Bygones.

* I’m reserving one escape clause. I had to think about the “urban sportswriter” tweet for a while before I realized it was a reference to the Boz Scaggs song in “Urban Cowboy.” Did I miss something else. Is there some more profoundly carnal meme in these tweets?

Northern Courage

by Categorized: Colin's Theories of Culture, Deep thoughts, Show ideas, Uncategorized Date:

Johan Christian Claussen Dahl - Nordiske landskapet
On days like the one we’re having here, it’s not uncommon to see one of us northerners post something on social media and see, in response, a comment from a transplant: “I wouldn’t know. It’s 76 today here in South Carogeorgialorida. So glad I’ll be out on my boat today instead of shiviering with the rest of you!”

And I reflexively think: I’d rather be freezing my cheeks off up here than wedged up against a d****ebag frothing with self-congratulation because he figured out it gets warmer as you approach the equator. I’d like to be warmer too, but not if it means being surrounded by people with no sense of irony, people who are more likely to be depicted in than entertained by Coen Brothers movies. To re-phrase “Repo Man,” sometimes it seems like the more you drive South, the stupider you get.

But that’s too easy, and it’s probably wrong to exalt one’s choices at the expense of a whole region of people many of whom are perfectly nice. Why the hell ARE we here? And then somebody sent me this essay, which feels more like the beginning of a conversation — and therefore a radio show idea! — than a solid answer.

Could northmanship be a thing? I mean, is there a connection that we make to truth and beauty here in the north? Of course, the north itself is retreating from us. One of McEnroe’s Immutable Theories of Culture is that the more we celebrate a thing, the more likely it is that it’s dying. And right now, we celebrate the north. I mean Joakim Zander is the new Henning Mankell who is the new Stieg Larsson. Iceland is hip. Cultural conservatives are shook about Lady Thor. Nordic pop and Canadian comedy. Holla!

I stray from my point. I wonder if there’s something mystical and meaningful about the cold and the darkness and the starkness. In which case, we should embrace it, rather than curse it. We should be content with the notion that Rilke is cooler than Jimmy Buffet. And not — as one voice in the Gould piece says — not throw away our North for a mess of pottage.

Often when I imagine you your wholeness cascades into many shapes. You run like a herd of luminous deer and I am dark, I am forest.

Who Was Afraid of Mike Nichols?

by Categorized: Colin's Theories of Culture, Moon Pitchers Date:

I had a theory about Mike Nichols which I have tried, with middling success, to expand to other auteurs. Nichols was such a brilliant guy that he didn’t do much work that was really bad. But Nichols always struck me as brain first, heart second. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. And it meant, to me, that he was better off directing work that had pre-loaded emotion. “Carnal Knowledge” is great because the emotions are already there in every character but Nicholson’s Jonathan. It’s about what happens to emotional people when they fall into the clutches of transactional people. “Primary Colors” is not so good because it’s cerebral layered on cerebral. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Angels in America” were suited to Nichols because each one was a cluster of volcanoes. In the case of “Angels,” it’s tough to think of anybody better suited to pull all those sprawling sensations into a framework. Nichols could do chilliness like nobody else. Not just Bancroft in “The Graduate,” or Weaver in “Working Girl.” But I think also of a small role in “Carnal Knowledge,” played by Cynthia O’Neal, wife of Patrick. She wasn’t really an actress, but she popped in up in Nichols movies and became a very early AIDS activist. In “Carnal Knowledge,” she plays a player. She makes a pass at Nicholson’s Jonathan and suggests she has more to offer sexually than the woman played by Ann-Margret, whom she calls a fat cow. And you realize that Jonathan is looking at himself writ female and drained of even the small amount of warm blood he still retains. It’s a scary, sexy moment.

It’s a fun game to play with Nichols. Is he too damn chilly for “Closer?” Does “Heartburn” work because it plays against his type? I’m not sure how well it works for other auteurs, but maybe it’s an argument for getting them out of their comfort zones now and then, Maybe Wes Anderson should direct something like “The Departed.” Maybe Christopher Nolan should direct something like “Something’s Gotta Give.” Tarantino should do an “Oklahoma” type musical with no violence or hipness. Play it with your favorite auteurs.  Doesn’t work with the Coens because they already would do almost anything.

Martha Swope photo of Nichols acting at the Long Wharf in 1980 via NY Public Library

Martha Swope photo of Nichols acting at the Long Wharf in 1980 via NY Public Library