Sunday, November 27, 2011


Like so many record collectors I've known over the years, family life put a serious dent in my mom's ability to collect music. As a young single women, she and my aunt amassed a wonderful collection of 50's era 45's that I remember listening to when I was a small child, as my mom did household chores around the house.

Still, new releases would find their way into the house over the years from time to time -often times gifts from my dad to my mom: The Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" album, the soundtrack to "The Graduate" with all of those wonderful Simon and Garfunkel songs, and the soundtrack from the Broadway musical "Hair." Because fewer recordings were coming into the house, any new ones got played and played and played, until everyone in the household was quite familiar with all the songs.

Unlike the two preceding albums, by artists whose work I have collected over the years, I had largely forgotten the soundtrack to Hair, until I happened upon a showing of the 1979 movie version, directed by Milos Forman (who also did "One Flew OVer The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus.")

Also, unlike the two the preceding albums, I realized that there were songs from Hair that mom never played on the family hi-fi.

As I watched "Hair" on Thanksgiving night, a couple of things struck me about it. First off, the music, whose new arrangements had been done by the show's composer Galt MacDermot seemed lackluster and dull. The music in this version of the original rock musical no longer rocked. What had sounded vibrant and exciting on the soundtrack album, now sounded like music from a variety show.

Secondly, the portrayals of the main characters seemed menacing and obnoxious as opposed to charismatic, lovable and freewheeling, which was the vibe I picked up from the music years ago. Having never seen the play, or even knowing what it was about, I presumed the movie was a faithful retelling of the play.

As it turns out, it wasn't.

From what I can gather, the play "Hair" was less a plot-driven piece, than a theme driven meditation on a variety of 60's issues: the peace movement ("Aquarius,") race relations ("Colored Spade,""White Boys" and "Black Boys") free love ("Sodomy,") drug use,("Hashish") the enviromnment ("Air") and the hippie movement ("Hair.")

Many of the songs were simply lists of terms: Colored Spade was comprised of racial epithets, Sodomy is a list of sexual proclivities, Air is a list of chemicals in the air, Hashish is a list of drugs and true to its name, Initials is a list of initials.

There are also silly, funny songs used to introduce the various characters: Berger's opening song "Donna" is about returning from San Francisco looking for "a sixteen year old virgin" and "psychedelic urchin" who was "busted for her beauty"

His buddy Claude's introductory song "Manchester England" shows him as a poser from Flushing Queens, talking in a fake English accent, and claiming to be a "genius genius" from "Manchester England England"

What plot there is to the show involves Claude's moral dilemma, whether or not to report for the draft for the Viet Nam war. Eventually he does, and we learn in the finale, that he was killed in action.

The movie switches things up considerably. Claude (played by John Savage) is a country bumpkin from Oklahoma, making the long bus ride to New York City to be drafted (which, in itself makes no sense.) Once in town, he encounters Berger (Treat Williams) and the others panhandling for money.

Williams is a fine actor, but in this role, he comes across more like a Manson-era bully than one of the Fabulous Freak Brothers (which is closer to the spirit of the original characters.) Inexplicably, Berger sings "Donna" while Claude is chasing a woman he's just seen in the park (Beverly D'Angelo) while both are on horseback.

Later, Treat Williams as Berger steals Claude's introductory song, and sings "Manchester England" as a way of introducing Claude to the group, before Claude himself takes the lead and finished it himself.

Through a series of plot contrivances, Claude becomes angry with the group after a practical joke and he reports for active duty and is sent to Nevada for basic training. Once the group hears from him, they steal a car from Beverly D'Angelo's boyfriend and drives there. Berger sneaks on base dressed like an officer, and swaps places with Claude, so he can drive off base and visit his hippie pals. While he is gone, Claude's unit gets called up for Viet Nam, and Berger has to go in his place.

What should be tragic, comes off as funny, given how obnoxious Berger has behaved up to his point. Getting sent into combat serves his lazy, non-conformist ass right. The film ends with the gang standing around a grave marker with Berger's name (shouldn't that be Claude's name since he was pretending to be him?) and then there is a big peace rally in front of the White House. The End.

The biggest tragedy though about the movie version is this: in our culture, the motion picture seems to be the final word on anything: novels, plays, short stories, even tv shows. By creating a lackluster version of an otherwise dynamic musical experience, the majority of those who see the film will presume what I initially did -that it was a faithful adaptation of the play, but one need only compare the movie's production of the title song to that of the 2009 version of the play to see how ineptly the movie was handled:


2009 Play

Gotta say, the movie version looks like it primarily appeals to aficionados of shampoo commercials and really lame prison riots. The play looks like a lot of fun. The next time a touring company comes through town, I hope to be there.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Music My Dad Shared With Me

A lot of fathers and sons connect over sporting events or favorite teams. Unfortunately, sports never resonated with me (beyond loafing on the couch for a couple of hours, eating snacks!) What we did connect over was music, movies and books. Dad passed on to me his love for the esoteric, eclectic and out of the ordinary. 

In this post, I'd like to share a few songs Dad opened my eyes to.

Dad was a life long fan of Opera and Classical music. Before you skip over this video, take a quick peak at opera hottie Julie Migenes singing "La Habanera" from the movie version of Georges Bizet's Carmen. This is from one of my Dad's favorite operas, and one of mine too.

Long before the Doors recorded "The Alabama Song" it was a well known tune on my parents hi-fi, in the basement of our old house on 91st Street. A fan of the post modern German operas by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, Dad took a fancy to this song he thought was ludicrous in a funny kind of way.

Rather than revisit the Doors version, which most people know, here is David Bowie's which is much closer to the original:

While we're visiting the works of Weill and Brecht, let's hear the original "Mack the Knife" or (as it was originally known)"Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer" Here is a literal translation....note how much darker the original was, than Bobby Darin or Louis Armstong's American version:

And the shark, he’s got teeth
And he keeps them in his face,
And MacHeath, he’s got a knife,
But not in such an obvious place.

On a beautiful blue Sunday
Lies a dead man on the beach.
And a person goes around the corner
Whom they call Mack the Knife.

And Schmul Meyer still is missing,
And such a great, rich man,
And Mack the Knife has his money.
No one can prove anything on him.

Jenny Fowler was found
With a knife in her breast,
And on the waterfront goes Mack the Knife,
Who knows nothing about anything.

Where is Alfons Glite, the chauffeur?
Does it come to the light of day?
Who could ever have known?
Mack doesn’t know.

And the big fire in Soho—
Seven children and an old man.
In the crowd is Mack the Knife,
Whom no one questions and who knows nothing.

And the child bride on her wedding night,
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was raped.
Mack, what was your price?

And fish, they disappear
But to the sorrow of being eaten.
Someone appoints an end to the shark,
But the shark knows nothing of it.

And he can’t remember himself
And no one can recognize him.
For a shark is not a shark
When no one cam prove anything.

My first exposure to Jimi Hendrix was from my dad, who back in the early 70's was NOT a countercultural type, up to date on hard rock music trends, but rather as an open minded eclectic who had seen the movie "Woodstock" at the University of Oklahoma, where his employer, The Post Office had sent him to study computers. I'd fallen asleep in front of the set, when Dad woke me up to see Jimi on a late night rock show. He told me "Watch this guy, Robbie. He's going to play guitar with his teeth and then set his guitar on fire." I thought Dad was yanking my chain, but sure enough, that's exactly what the guy did. From that moment on, I was a fan of Jimi Hendrix and hard rock:

The only person Dad was more impressed with in the Woodstock movie than Hendrix was Richie Havens. He liked the way he played guitar and how one guy with an acoustic guitar could mesmerize a million or so people all at the same time. In 1972, when my folks gave me my first eight track player, there were tapes by both Jimi an Richie there for me:

Dad was a big fan of Buddy Holly, and particularly this song, "Everyday." He was drafted and sent to Germany less than six months after marrying my Mom, and this song, specifically, is one that became anthemic with him, as everyday, his return home came a little closer:

Dad was also a big fan of French chanteuse Edith Piaf. In the year before his stroke, he and I went to the Manor Square Movie House to see the biopic "La Vie En Rose" about Edith Piaf. I'm not sure if it was during his time in Europe in the 50's with the Army, or prior to that that he became a fan of her music, but her music was some of his favorite, right up to the end.

Being of Scotish heritage, Dad was always a fan of bagpipe music, and the song that sticks out most in my memory is "Scotland the Brave" performed here by The Pipes & Drums of The Royal Tank Regiment:

A group that Dad and I saw in concert three times is Riders In The Sky, a modern group of virtuoso musicians re-creating some of the goofiest Cowboy Movie music from the 30's and 40's.

Lastly, here is the Gene Autry version of the classic, "I'm Heading for the Last Round Up" a song Dad once said he wanted played at his funeral. Given contemporary Catholic liturgical norms being what they are, I doubt that's in the repertoire of his home parish, but here it is for our listening pleasure, as my Dad heads for the last round up: