Chasing Amy

 

Detail from foyer image of "Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait" (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)
Detail from foyer image of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)

Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.

There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”

The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.

It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that  school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.

And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex;  a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.

But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy;  your heart aches with the loss of her.

The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.

Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.

But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.

In the notes, Ottinger writes,  “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”

While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?

Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music;  that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.

Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?

I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?

The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy. 

Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.

There are gorgeous moments in the movie;  in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.

The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).

Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.

Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.

Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success —  invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)

As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.

While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put Amy’s bulimia down to “a phase.” Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in Amy — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.

After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”

(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Amy is playing in theaters now.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

I went to Live Aid and this is my story

Pic, so It did happen.
Pic, so it did happen.

July 13, 1985. Thirty years ago today. The anniversary took me by surprise. Live Aid is not something I think about a lot, except in the context of, “Oh yeah, wait a minute  — I did see Led Zeppelin!”  It was my first and last music festival, for reasons that I’ll get into in a minute.

When Live Aid happened, I was a rock critic for the Boston Phoenix and my editors Milo Miles and John Ferguson had the big idea to send me to cover it. I said yes, because Led Zeppelin. I should also mention that I was a bit on the sheltered side for a 27-year-old. The flight to Philadelphia was only the second time I’d been on a plane. So there we were, my husband and I, with tickets in hand, swaggering like big-time rock critic royalty on the Phoenix’s dime. And I do mean dime. Expense was spared. But we didn’t care because, Led Zeppelin.

How unworldly were we? We knew we were going to a 14-hour festival. We knew the temperature was supposed to be approaching 100 and humid. We knew we would be in the sun. We went to the 7-11 and bought a few bottles of water and some bags of cookies and chips. We didn’t think to pack any real food. We thought, Oh, there has to be food there. HAHAHAHAHA!

Needless to say, on a personal level, none of this turned out well. There was no food, only hot dogs that ran out by early afternoon. There was no water, but lots of Cherry Coke. It was unbelievably hot. People were fainting. The irony is not lost on me: This was a concert for African famine relief, and a bunch of privileged white Americans were hot , thirsty and hungry. Boo-hoo us.

So there I was, freaking out in the blazing sun, scribbling obsessive notes, because I knew that I had to deliver next week’s cover story in only a two-day turnaround, which I had never done. Yes, I saw Zep (let us not speak of Phil Collins on drums), and it was surreal and beautiful to finally get to sing along to “Stairway to Heaven” with my junior high idols. I saw Madonna, still in the backlash from those stupid nude photos, tell the crowd, “I ain’t taking off shit!” as she danced in the heat wearing five layers of paisley ’80s fashion.

And then we went back to the hotel, where I started throwing up and hallucinating from dehydration and my husband dragged me down to the all-night coffee shop and force-fed me oatmeal at 3 a.m. I should have been in an ER with IV fluids in my arm, but we were just kids. So that’s my Live Aid story. Not exactly the brown acid at Woodstock. But my discomfort was temporary. The African famine the concert was staged to help? Still there. So what exactly was Live Aid all about?

I came home with a massive three-day headache and wrote a huge cover piece for the Phoenix in which I attempted to answer that question, a feat which astounds me to this day. I pulled the piece out to read just now, and it didn’t make me cringe. I wish that I could link to it, but when the Phoenix folded, its online archive did too. Who needs history?

So I’m going to type out the first few grafs here.

“The Songs Remain the Same

PHILADELPHIA – “This is your Woodstock and it’s long overdue!” shouted Joan Baez to kick off the American portion of the July 13 Live Aid concert, the transglobal rock-fest-telethon organized by Band Aid founder (and sometimes Boomtown Rat) Bob Geldof to benefit African famine relief.

Oh sure, Joan, this was just like Woodstock — if Woodstock had been held in a football stadium on I-95 instead of a sleepy hamlet, or if Woodstock had been partially underwritten by Pepsi, Chevrolet and AT&T. This was just like Woodstock, except that if you weren’t there, you could watch it on TV, and if you were there, you could look forward to reliving it through the magic of your VCR. This was just like Woodstock, if Woodstock had been MC’d by screen stars like Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase and Don Johnson, or if at Woodstock, New Cokes had cost $1.25 ($2.50 with ice – so nobody would throw cubes). This was just like Woodstock, except that nobody died and nobody was born (though one fan was airlifted from JFK Stadium to undergo his long-awaited kidney transplant). Former hippies and rads may rhapsodize about Live Aid being the dawning of a new age of benign high tech and renewal of political commitment in rock, but one lesson of the ’60s remains: the revolution will not be televised. And it won’t be sponsored by multinational corporations , either.

The crowd at JFK had not gathered to flaunt its independence or power or solidarity to a hostile establishment — rock and roll is too well established for that. After all, what better sign of mainstream legitimacy than a telethon? No this concert pounded home with a thud the ideology of rock in the ’80s. The hippie idealism of the ’60s passed into ’70s self-analysis, which in turn mutated into fashionable selfish consumerism and shabby patriotism; and in the process rock lost some of its liberal/underdog/outcast sheen. You can no longer go to a rock concert, especially one this ostentatious, and be certain that the person seated next to you is on your side. The London version, at Wembley Stadium, was presided over by the Prince and Princess of Wales; at JFK, a video of the Russian pop band Autograf was greeted with a modest chorus of boos, and most of the bed sheet banners bore T-shirt slogans like “Feed the World” — it’s unlikely that the TV cameras lingered over the messily hung banner in the west section that read, “Agribiz=Death.”

This was the pop world’s first post-MTV rockfest — huge Diamond Vision screens for those camped in the far reaches of JFK’s infield, and little time for fidgeting. The 20-minute sets zipped by at an MTV pace; between acts at JFK, you could watch live-via-satellite footage of the show at Wembley, or videos done especially for the occasion … To make us feel more at home, they even gave us commercials; Lionel Richie’s Pepsi ad, AT&T’s Reach Out and Feed Someone spot. A decade ago, who’d have thought you could gather 101,000 rock fans into a stadium in 100-degree heat, turn on the TV, and keep them amused? Ah, progress.”

I also have a tape of Live Aid that I recorded on my VCR. I never watched it.

@Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

FFS: A mind-meld you can dance to

The drummer is always the first to go.
The drummer is always the first one to go.

 

Consider the Cronut. Croissant, donut — what could go wrong? A lot, actually. Some things, while fine on their own, are not meant to be combined. But once in a while, a collaboration comes along that’s so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious. Like peanut butter and marshmallow creme. Or, as it turns out, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks.  FFS, the new, self-titled blending of these two outwardly disparate ingredients, is a luscious pop treat, salty and sweet with sticky melodies and savory wit. I mean this in the best way possible: FFS is a big, satisfying Fluffernutter of a debut album.

But first, a digression …

I won’t lie. I never really paid much attention to Sparks until late last year when Franz Ferdinand announced the collaboration. Although I was alive and listening to music in 1974 when Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House was released, L.A.-raised brothers Ron and Russell Mael were too weird for my Stones- and- Zep-loving teenaged self. I knew who they were, from reading Creem magazine (androgynous, falsetto-singing Russell certainly was easy on the eyes), but they weren’t in heavy rotation on the radio station I listened to. Also, Ron’s stern visage and Hitler mustache creeped me out. Some years later, when I was writing about music for a living, I could have and should have given Sparks a chance, but I didn’t. This was wrong and I’m sorry.

So thank you to Franz Ferdinand, a band that I’ve long admired, for challenging their fans to become acquainted with the Maels’ catalogue (22 albums deep). I wanted to hear what drew the impeccable Glasgow art-pop-dance-rock-whatevers to the eccentric Maels, who are now in their late sixties. I started by reading this exhaustive overview of Sparks’ first 20 albums. That led to crate-digging and long trawls through You Tube, and I quickly discovered two things: I love Sparks, and, I am an idiot for not realizing this decades ago.

If I had, I would have known that Sparks got to operatic glam-rock before Queen did, perfected the naif-ish narrative voice before David Byrne and made techno-disco before Daft Punk. I would have had years more pleasure listening to the cerebral/surreal humor of their lyrics, which are like Monty Python with a poker face to match Ron’s. I would have discovered sooner that Kimono My House and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1995) were two of my favorite albums, ever. And when I first heard the shouted-in-unison chorus of Franz Ferdinand’s “What She Came For,” I would have jumped up and said, “Aha! That reminds me of ‘The Rhythm Thief’ from Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven” album!

Live and learn.

*******

The story FFS is telling about their union is that the Maels approached Franz Ferdinand back in 2004 when the latter were blowing up with “Take Me Out.” It isn’t hard to figure out why Sparks dug the ambitious and unorthodox structure of “Take Me Out”; with its front-loaded verses, it’s all chorus and riff and, in 2004, sounded like nothing else on the radio.

But the more you listen to both bands, the more you see the deeper connections between them. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks share an omnivorous approach to pop music, playing with genre and instrumentation (neither band ever met an electronic keyboard sound it didn’t like). Ron Mael and Alex Kapranos favor intelligent, cheeky jigsaw-puzzle assemblages of lyrics that often become part of the rhythm — listen to the heady clashes of consonants on Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen.” And both bands have a heart, though they don’t wear it on their sleeves;  there is deep empathy beneath the deceptively jokey premise of Sparks’ “The Ghost of Liberace,” for example, and an aching wistfulness shadows the philosophical posturing of Franz’s “Fresh Strawberries.”

FFS choose to lead with their hearts on the new album. The first track, “Johnny Delusional,” is a sad song masquerading as a sunny one, about a poor sap who’s “borderline attractive from afar,” and in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists. It opens with some stately Ron Mael piano chords, then turns into a bouncing disco beat that would mash-up nicely with Sparks’ Gratuitous Sax version of (maybe) their masterpiece, “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” Kapranos and Russell Mael alternate on the verses but blend so seamlessly on the multi-tracked chorus and outro that it’s hard to tell where one voice ends and the other begins. Like “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?,” “Johnny Delusional” is a song about a nobody yearning to be noticed and loved: “Though I want you/ I know I haven’t a chance/ Still I want you/ Johnny Delusional here.” Like “My Way,” the song takes a minor-chord dip on the choruses that hits you like a pang of despair.

“Johnny Delusional” sets the theme of the first four songs — little men who want to be big. There seems to be a direct relationship between “Johnny Delusional” and the song that follows,  “Call Girl.” Over a suave synth dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on Franz’s Tonight, Kapranos and Russell sing as one in the familiar Sparks narrative voice: here’s another earnest sap who can’t see the romantic truth staring him in the face. Like Johnny, he’s in love with an unreachable woman. That she’s a prostitute apparently fails to register: “I gave up blow and Adderall for you/ So I’d have dough and spend it all on you/ So call girl, why don’t you give me a ring/ Call girl, pick up and ring.”

The next two songs, “Dictator’s Son” and “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” look at males with delusions of grandeur from two sides of the same coin. “Dictator’s Son”  is a darkly comical profile of an autocrat-in-training, “born with a silver gun,” from “a nation of fearful men and women afraid of them,” as he heads to L.A. to bask in Western culture (“I’m into Hugo Boss/dental floss … coed’s knees, BLT’s”). With its staccato circular piano riff and Russell’s falsetto dominant in the mix, this is the most Sparks-sounding song on the album. But there is nothing comical about the haunting “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” which sounds like the nihilistic last thoughts of a terrorist (or an average, everyday mass murderer) justifying his suicide mission. The atmospheric ballad is sung with a quiet chill by Kapranos, with Russell’s soaring falsetto joining in on the “no heroes, just those who care more for their legend than their life” chorus, the melody of which ranks as one of the most beautiful that Sparks or Franz have ever written.

I also like the back-to-back placement of “Things I Won’t Get,” a list of unattainable intellectual and material goals sung artlessly by Franz guitarist Nick McCarthy, and the social-climbing satire “The Power Couple.” Where “Things” offers a sweet grasp on what’s truly important in life (“When I see you lying by my side looking extra clean/ I’m in a state where I don’t mind/ My thoughts turn obscene”), “The Power Couple” lunges forward on a marching piano and martial drumming, with a choir of Alexes and Russells, all fiercely calculated ambition, declaring, “We must make a good impression/ We must make a GREAT impression!”

The balance of FFS is insistently danceable and fabulously strange. The clever, frenetic electronic pop of “Police Encounters” and “So Desu Ne” fuses the sound and sensibilities of both bands into something vaguely familiar but, ultimately, not easily pegged to either one.  And, as an introvert, I have been waiting all my life for “Piss Off,” a joyous sing-along halfway between a football chant and a 1940s Hollywood musical showstopper that gives the middle finger to all the clattering, nattering intrusions on precious solitude.

The album’s magnum opus, clocking in at 6:42, is the self-referential and very funny operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work,” a dazzling mosaic of shifting tempos, styles and orchestration reminiscent of the chamber pop of Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven album. The lyrics chart the stages of collaboration from hopeful beginnings (“you start off deferential and strangely reverential”) to verbal axe-throwing, Russell in full diva falsetto trilling, “I don’t need your navel-gazing!” and Kapranos responding, “I don’t get your way of phrasing!” All six members of FFS enter the fray, each singing lines on the mid-section (yes, even Franz bassist “Silent” Bob Hardy!). And there’s a great moment when Franz Ferdinand feigns, “Oh, screw it,” and asserts its will with the most overtly Franz-sounding passage on the record, all slicing drums and stabby guitars and Kapranos crowing, “I ain’t no collaborator … I am the sadistic young usurper … If I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man!”

Obviously, he’s joking. What FFS have made together is truly rare; the album doesn’t sound or feel like an awkward grafting of one band onto another. Instead, it’s as if Franz Ferdinand and Sparks have created a musical playground where the cool kids and the freaks could hang together outside of labels and comfort zones. It’s liberating to hear Franz let out their inner nerd, and gratifying to hear Sparks playing modern pop again. FFS begin a European tour this month, with rumored U.S. dates to come beginning in November, and it’ll be interesting to see what the fans of each band make of this new entity. Some advice? Don’t let the Hitler mustache scare you away.

“Johnny Delusional” by FFS (Official Audio)

“When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” by Sparks

 

And then, there’s this.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Paradise by the refrigerator light

Perfect harmony?
Perfect harmony?

 

The Mad Men finale was overstuffed and all over the map, emotionally and geographically. Peggy did get to have it all, more or less (a generous nod to Peggy/Stan shippers). Joan chose her career and lost her eleventh-hour, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, but who cares about him anyway? Roger and Megan’s mother lived happily ever after (I never could get behind this weird and pointless coupling). Pete flew off to become the King of Wichita.

And Don … His story, and the series, could not have ended more perfectly. In the previous two episodes, Don plunged deeper into the Dante-like symbolic death that began in the first episode of season 6, “The Doorway”. In “Lost Horizon,” he disappeared from McCann-Erickson as if he was shedding his skin;  in “The Milk and Honey Route,” his stolen identity in shambles, he head out on a road trip searching for salvation in the form of the elusive Diana, but ended up in an Oklahoma motel that practically screamed “Purgatory.”

As the finale, “Person to Person” opened, it was late October 1970 (only a few weeks after the action in “The Milk and Honey Route”) and Don was racing a test car in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Apparently, some time after we left him at the Oklahoma bus stop in “The Milk and Honey Route,” he hooked up with a couple of car racers who agreed to take him to California in exchange for his staking their expenses. We soon see him talking on the phone to Sally, who betrays her mother’s confidence and tells her father that Betty is dying. In one of several moments that teased viewers’ hopes for “closure,” Don tells Sally, and then, in another collect call to Betty, that he’s coming home to care for his kids. Could it be that Don is going to finally get it together and be a selfless, responsible family man?

Nah. You could almost hear Matthew Weiner chuckling “Gotcha!” Both the resolute, resigned Betty and the newly grown-up Sally reject Don’s attempt at reconciliation. Betty tells him that she wants the boys to live with her brother and sister-in-law. So Don, a.), gets drunk, and, b.), continues on to California with the racer boys.

It’s no surprise that Don is headed for California. That’s where his lives as Don Draper and Dick Whitman converge. In the finale, he washes up on the doorstep of Stephanie, the hippie niece of the original Don Draper’s (now deceased) widow, Anna. When last seen, Stephanie was broke and pregnant, asking Don for money. Now, Don wants to give her Anna’s wedding ring, last worn by Megan. But Stephanie rejects the family heirloom. She tells Don — she calls him “Dick” — that she doesn’t understand or need his concern for her welfare. She’s heading out to a “retreat up the Coast” — probably the Esalen Institute in Big Sur — and Don tags along.

Don is an amusing fish out of water at Esalen, scowling through encounter groups as earnest, emotional souls try to reach their “human potential.” At one point, when Stephanie confesses her guilt over having hated being a mother (she gave up the baby), Don tells her the same thing he told Peggy after she gave birth to her out-of-wedlock child — to “move on,” “pretend it never happened.” Indeed, a heartbreaking, if somewhat conservative, thread that runs through the finale and the series itself is the depiction of children as collateral damage of sexual freedom and divorce amid the social upheaval of the ’60s (poor Sally and her brothers). Don and Stephanie argue and she leaves, taking her car and abandoning him at the retreat.

Once again, Don has been led to a place he doesn’t want to be, by a woman from whom he sought salvation, love and family, and he’s been left in limbo. He’s been rejected by his Draper family. He’s been rejected by his Whitman family. If he had sought to shed “Don Draper” and return to being “Dick Whitman,” that path has been closed off. He calls Peggy collect and breaks down; she tells him to “come home” to McCann. “They’d take you back in a minute … Don’t you want to work on Coca-Cola?” He hangs up and falls to the ground immobile.

But then along comes another women to guide him, an earth mother-y Esalen instructor who picks him up and coaxes him into the encounter group she’s heading. Don sits in the circle, looking lost and glassy-eyed. And then a middle-aged man named Leonard — pale, average-looking — starts talking about feeling invisible in his life, about wanting love, but never quite getting it. The man tells a story about a dream in which he was on a shelf in the refrigerator, waiting in the dark for the door to open and the light to come on and to be chosen. Don watches with increasing sympathy. When Leonard begins to sob, Don unexpectedly goes to him and hugs him, sobbing with him.

The scene is rich with imagery. Leonard wears a light blue sweater the color of holiness and healing; Leonard’s story of being ordinary, unwanted, unloved resonates with Dick, the whore’s unwanted child who grew up craving family and love. When Don embraces Leonard, he’s embracing his Inner Dick Whitman. He becomes whole.

If Don’s descent into Hell began with his affair with Sylvia, and if Oklahoma was Purgatory, then Esalen is Paradise. It just takes him a while to realize it. In the final shots of the episode, Don is standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, haloed by the sun. And then he’s dressed in white, eyes closed, cross-legged on a bluff, greeting the morning with retreat-attendees of assorted age and race. As the camera pans in on Don’s face, the meditation leader guides the flock to give gratitude for “the lives we’ve led, the lives we’re yet to lead, a new day, new ideas, a new you.” A bell tinkles. The group, including Don, chant “Om.” Don gives a slow smile, a bell dings again. And then we see the famous “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing” Coke ad from 1971, with young people of all races and nationalities standing on a hillside, equating world peace with Coke. The episode ends with the last line of the jingle: “It’s the real thing.”

The only ambiguity in this ending is in its intent. Read one way, Don/Dick’s smile suggests that he has made peace with himself, has survived the traumatic ’60s and will enter the ’70s as a more enlightened person, a “new you.” Maybe he went home to McCann, sober and self-aware, and used his Esalen experience to create the Coke ad, because he genuinely wanted to teach the world to sing. (See photo below.)

But read it another way, and the tiny bell that rings after Don smiles becomes the cha-ching of a killer advertising idea. Don has finally made peace with his past, and in doing so, it cleared his brain of self-doubt, absolved him of his bone-deep shame; freed from these distractions, Don is now cleansed of outdated ideas about how to speak to the desires of the consuming public. The juices are flowing again. And, if we really want to take the cynical road about the result of Don’s epiphany, the Coke ad in its time represented the end of whatever was authentic about the hippie ethos. It co-opted “love and peace” to sell sugar water.

I’ll take the latter interpretation, in all its bittersweetness and complexity. Sure, Don Draper didn’t really create Coke’s “Hilltop” ad in real life. But in the Mad Men universe, it has Don Draper written all over it. Don spent the series searching for “the real thing,” needing to believe that it existed; he based his greatest ads, which hit the mark like spare, poetic arrows to the soul, on that need. In the end, what he takes from his journey is that his emptiness and loneliness is not unique, but his talent for reinvention is. But has he really changed? Maybe the smile is Don welcoming back his true self, the lie that is the real thing.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Left:  Front desk employee at Don's retreat. Right: Girl from actual "Hilltop" Coke ad.
Left: Front desk employee at Don’s retreat. Right: Girl from actual “Hilltop” Coke ad.

 

 

 

 

 

Peggy, for the win

I am woman, hear me roar
I am woman, hear me roar

Mad Men is as much Peggy’s story as it is Don’s. She’s not just his protege. She’s both his conscience and his opposite. Don is ultimately a negative, defined by a void filled with all the things he is not, a pantomime of a kind of Scotch-swilling manliness rapidly becoming extinct.  Peggy is the positive image, a vivid Kodachrome snapshot of a woman shaped by the emerging feminism of the times.

At the beginning of the series, Peggy is Don’s secretary, a wide-eyed, pony-tailed girl from a strict Catholic family. She tries to want what she’s supposed to want — basically, a job until she snags a husband — but it isn’t enough. Peggy is ambitious, but she’s so naive that she doesn’t understand what that feeling is, bottled up inside and clawing to get out. She mistakes it for sexual hunger, and has a tryst with a drunken Pete that leaves her cluelessly — and secretly, even to viewers — pregnant. As the first season continues, Peggy begins speaking up with ideas for tag lines, and guilelessly tells Don that she wants to do what he does. When the baby is born in the final episode of season one, Don counsels her to give up the kid for adoption, to “pretend it never happened.”

That episode, “The Wheel,” was also the episode where Don promotes her to junior copywriter after she shows her skills behind the scenes on the Clearasil campaign (which Pete steals). In a sense, her pregnancy was like a chrysalis, and out of it emerges a tougher, more assertive Peggy. She gives up her son for adoption (her married sister initially takes him, but then he’s adopted out), and refuses to be shamed by the disapproval of her mother and their priest. Like Don, Peggy sees a clear path to reinvention and grabs it.

As she grows into her career, Peggy inevitably clashes with Joan Holloway, the highest ranking woman at the agency. Joan was “raised to be admired”; she’s beautiful and smart, but she’s disastrously slow to change with the times, still using her looks and “feminine wiles” to go after what she wants, asking rather than taking, pinning her future on the whims of powerful men.

Both women assert their ambitions in the season five episode “The Other Woman,” both come up against entrenched sexism. Joan agrees to have sex with a sought-after Jaguar client in exchange for a partnership in Sterling Cooper; in the saddest scene in the series’ entire run, she undresses for the piggy client, he puts a jeweled necklace around her throat, and we see in her eyes that she knows exactly what she has become.

In the same episode, there’s a horrifying moment when Peggy clashes with Don over her request for more autonomy and he responds by throwing cash in her face. By the end of that episode, Peggy has accepted a copy chief position at a rival agency for more money, and Don is kissing her hand, with tears in his eyes. It’s a courtly, almost fatherly, gesture. But as poignant as their truce is, it’s also another signal that Don is out of step with a changing society. He is unable to relate to women as equals. And it’s clear (to both of them) that, in ambition, creativity and nerve, Peggy is his equal. There is only room for one of them at Sterling Cooper. But in moving on to a newer, younger, agency, Peggy outstrips Don. He’s the relic, and time is increasingly catching up with him. Peggy is the future.

That future comes to fruition in the beautiful, brilliant ad campaign she devises for Burger Chef in “The Strategy” from the final season. All of the previous Burger Chef ideas, including Don’s, were rooted in shame, fixated on masking uncomfortable truths about societal changes pulling at American families. Who resorts to fast food for dinner? Working mothers. And whatever happened to the ideal of a family sitting down together, without Dad working late or the kids glued to the TV?  Peggy’s breakthrough on the campaign comes when she stops trying to shoehorn the family reality of 1969 into nostalgic ideals of the past. She creates a campaign revolving around the notion that every table at Burger Chef is “the family table” in an oasis of calm. She takes what was once looked down upon as a sign of slovenly housekeeping and turns it into a positive. These families are not “broken.” Our idea of what constitutes a family is.

As a woman who has chosen work over motherhood, but has a psuedo-mother-son relationship with a little boy in her apartment building, Peggy gets it. Family is where you find it. And the episode’s last pullback shot of Peggy, Don and Pete sitting down to a meal at Burger Chef glows with the prescience of Peggy’s vision: Work families, friend-families, unconventional families are no less a family.

In the episode “Lost Horizon,” Peggy and Don have parallel moments where they face down their secrets and make peace with them. Peggy tells Stan, her platonic friend, about her out-of-wedlock child; she may never have another, and it hurts, but maybe not every woman has to be a mother to be fulfilled. Maybe there’s no such thing as having it all. Meanwhile, Don is in the process of shedding the armor of his false identity. On the same night, Don has a ghostly visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, while Peggy has a surreal encounter with Roger Sterling in the emptied, half-dismantled offices of Sterling Cooper. The founders are passing their respective torches, and it’s fitting that Don appears on his way to disappearing, while Peggy, after an inebriated pep talk from the non-conforming Sterling, emerges as the surviving soul of the defunct firm.

In an indelible scene (Elisabeth Moss absolutely nails it), Peggy shows up for work at McCann-Erickson the next morning, wearing dark sunglasses to hide her Sterling-sized hangover, a cigarette dangling Draper-like from the corner of her mischievously grinning mouth. Her hips sway as she strolls down the corridor holding a cardboard box of her possessions, with Bert Cooper’s prized erotic Japanese painting of a woman being pleasured by an octopus under her arm. Peggy is the unconventional creative spirit of Sterling Cooper gearing up to raise hell inside the advertising factory that is McCann.

What’s ahead for Peggy in the series finale? I’m betting that there’s a jump in time and when we next see her, she’ll be running her own agency. Olson, Holloway anybody?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

The death of Don Draper, Part 2: Purgatory

King of the road
King of the road

 

The next-to-last episode of Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route,” which aired May 10, takes its title from hobo lore. Sociologist/hobo Nels Anderson (under the pseudonym “Dean Stiff”) explained the phrase in 1931 in his “The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos”:

Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a “milk and honey route.” The original milk and honey route was a railroad from Salt Lake City southward through the valleys of Utah. Along this line were the Mormon villages so euphoniously named, Moroni, Manti, Nephi, Lehi and Juab. In the early days, before the Latter Day Saints got disillusioned by the great influx of bums and yeggs, or, what is worse, the auto tramps, this was the greatest feeding ground for hobos. Hence the name, milk and honey route, which has since become a household term among hobos. Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.

In “The Hobo Code” episode in season one, Don gets high on weed and flashes back to an incident from his childhood, where a hobo gives the young Dick Whitman his first glimpses of the possibility of escape and reinvention. Dick/Don has lived by that code ever since.  “The Milk and Honey Route” echoes back to “The Hobo Code,” and also continues Don Draper’s flight from himself which began the week before in episode 12, “Lost Horizon.” (See The Death of Don Draper.)

“The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don stranded in an Oklahoma backwater when his Cadillac breaks down. He takes a room at a roadside motel, and the vibe is unsettling — as in “Twin Peaks” unsettling — from the git-go. The motel is a log-cabin and pine affair run by a suspiciously folksy old husband and wife. The handyman is a fledgling con artist who mistakes Don for an easy mark. (The actor who plays the con artist bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Dana Ashbrook, who played delinquent teen Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks.) The repair of Don’s car drags on and on, while the motel owners inveigle him into attending a fundraiser for a war vet at the VFW.  At the VFW, he gets drunk with a group of old soldiers, one of whom was, like Dick Whitman, a Korean War vet. Without fully confessing to identity theft, Don acknowledges aloud for the first time in the series, the stroke of luck that ended his war: “I killed my CO. I dropped my lighter and it blew him apart.”

Later, he’s accused of stealing money from the benefit and beaten by the vets, who take away his car keys. The only way Don can leave is to find the stolen money. He doesn’t have to look far; the young con man has taken it, and Don leans on him to cough it up. The ambitious, rough-hewn kid clearly reminds Don of himself, and in a scene heavy with meaning, Don offers to drive the kid to the bus stop on his way out of town. But when they arrive at the deserted roadside stop, Don hands over the keys to the kid: “License and registration are in the glove box.” Like the hobo from his childhood, Don passes on the gift and secret of the road to the kid. Don takes a seat on the bus stop bench, while the kid drives off in the Cadillac, which is the last outward vestige of “Don Draper.”

There’s another haunting callback to the past in that final shot of Don, smiling under a wide sky in the middle of nowhere. His possessions are contained in one Sears shopping bag, a far cry from the Samsonite suitcase that provided a touchstone moment in the season 4 episode “The Suitcase,” in which Don gets news of the death of the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna. In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Dick/Don unloads the last of the baggage of his past and his deception, the suitcase replaced by a paper bag, the Caddy by a bus. He is free at last.

“The Milk and Honey Route” also called back to “The Doorway” from season 6. That pivotal episode, which sets up the long dark night of the soul from which Don has now emerged, opens with him reading Dante’s Inferno (a gift from his extramarital lover Sylvia) on the beach in Hawaii. So it’s no accident that “The Milk and Honey Route,” with its endless waiting and surreal, disorienting tone, felt like Don/Dick in Purgatory. There’s a moment in the episode where Don hangs out by the motel pool and is stunned by the sight of a beautiful brunette sunbathing. He considers her hungrily, but then her husband and kids arrive and Don turns away. He resists the temptation. This moment, and his truth-telling at the VFW hall, might have been the actions that tip the scales in his favor, that clear the way for his passage from Purgatory. When he hands off the Cadillac — registered to Don Draper — to the kid, it’s his final act of coming clean, of skin-shedding. Next stop, transcendence?

***

I have the strong suspicion that next week’s series finale will be set some years on from where the series is now (Fall, 1970), which means, it will be after the death of Betty Draper Francis. Matthew Weiner dropped quite the bombshell in “The Milk and Honey Route” when he revealed that Betty is suffering from metastasized lung cancer. It’s not a random diagnosis; Betty smokes cigarettes throughout the series, Don works on ad campaigns that glamorize cigarettes. You could read her illness as this: Being married to Don has, literally, poisoned her.

But Betty, with her icy propriety, has always been a throwback to an era of remote femininity. Remember that line about the hobos: “What may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.” Betty reaches her Land of Milk and Honey, twice, in marrying two handsome men who provide her with wealth, children and status. But her tragedy is that she was never able to quell the messy emotions and ambitions required of her to play the part of the Perfect Middle-Class Suburban Wife and Mother.

Betty has a college degree, as she often reminded people, but was never encouraged to use it. She could never quietly tolerate Don’s infidelity. She replaces Don immediately with another knight in shining armor, rather than embracing the role of single mother (as Trudy Campbell did). And she has been, at times, a terrible mother, angry, cold, selfish, taking out her unhappiness on her children, particularly on Sally. Betty learns, too late, what Peggy already has — that not every woman is cut out to be a mother, that there is no such thing as having it all. But Betty does learn it. Thankfully, for Sally’s sake, “The Milk and Honey Route” finds Betty expressing her love and approval to Sally at the eleventh hour, writing her a note that tells her that she admires her for marching to the beat of her own drummer. And though she left her self-actualization as a mature returning student until it was too late, the last shot (maybe forever) we have of Betty alive is her slow climb up a staircase to her college class, breathless from the cancer. But still she ascends, lit from above.

Well, if Weiner is taking the Dante’s Inferno metaphors literally, Don is going to need a Beatrice to guide him through Paradise.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

The death of Don Draper

The artist formerly known as “Don Draper”?

“Lost Horizon,” which aired on May 3, would have made a terrific final episode of Mad Men. There are two more to go, but that episode felt like we were seeing the character known as “Don Draper” evaporate before our eyes.

Ever since the series’  season 6 opener “The Doorway” (the Hawaii episode), Mad Men has been about Don Draper losing his carefully constructed sense of self. Money and success do not bring happiness. In episode 10 of the current season, “The Forecast,” Don sells his penthouse in the wake of his divorce from Megan (her mother has had her revenge by selling off all of Don’s furniture), and the realtor tells Don that it’s a hard sell, because his empty living room looks sad. Don counters, “A lot of wonderful things happened here.” But I can’t think of a single one, can you? That line might have been the last shriveled leaf of self-delusion clinging to the wintry branches that are Don Draper.

Ever since it began in 2007, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has told a beautifully intricate story about transformation and reinvention. On one level, it portrays an era — the 1960’s —  when the world took a giant leap into the new, when American society and culture underwent a sea change. It was still a white man’s world in which to pursue the American Dream, but women, minorities and youth, were knocking at the gates of privilege. The meaning of the American Dream, the sureness of the American purpose and individual ideas about right and wrong, about expected life paths, were all in flux.

Mad Men used advertising as the lens through which to view the pop culture-driven ’60s. It gave us advertising as the purveyor of the American Dream, the great tempter, the seller of false aspirations, but also, advertising as an art form, a kind of poetry attaching desires and emotions to objects, making those objects symbols of deep, inarticulate yearnings.

But at its core, Mad Men was about Don Draper, the ultimate self-made man. Born with the inelegant moniker “Dick Whitman,” “Don Draper” is a Gatsby for our time. Don spent the greater part of Mad Men running away from himself. Dick Whitman was raised in a brothel, unwanted and unloved. He was a coward in the Korean War, a deserter who stole the identity of another man killed in the war. Dick was a hermit crab of a man, hiding inside “Don Draper.” Freed from the shame, insecurity and self-loathing of his early life, Don Draper is Dick Whitman’s American Dream made flesh. Draped across Dick Whitman’s frame, Don is an advertisement for himself; he is a masterpiece, a performance piece, and he’s dazzling, tall and handsome and manly, with just the right touch of mystery, so that people look at him and see the archetypical American hero. Inside Don Draper’s skin, Dick is free to express his poet’s soul, and to pursue his longing for home, roots, family, love — all the things little Dick never had. And Dick/Don’s story meshes perfectly with the stories that advertisers need to tell. Don is a walking lie telling beautiful lies to a culture hungry to hear lies.

But inside the impeccable gray-suited prince of Madison Avenue, all was turmoil. The great achievement of Jon Hamm’s acting is his ability to play a man acting as if he’s supremely comfortable in his own skin — virile, in control — and then slowly, through the smallest of changes (like that thing he does where he shows you fear in his eyes and his face suddenly looks ravaged), lets his character’s uncertainty slip through. Inside Don Draper, Dick Whitman will not be still. He sabotages his marriages, he cheats, he lies, he drinks. Enough is never enough to silence the self-doubt and the urge to self-destruct. In the ’60s, America was coming apart from within. And so was Don Draper.

The long unraveling begins in the long opening sequence of “The Doorway,” in which Don doesn’t speak a word, as if he’s sleepwalking through his dream life. He woos Sheraton officials in Honolulu, he smokes dope and makes love with his young wife, actress Megan Calvet. He stares inscrutably at the surf. Toward the end of the episode, he pitches a strange and disturbing ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His prototype shows a drawing of a beach, a man’s clothing discarded on the sand, footprints leading to the ocean, with the tag line “Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point.”  It was suicidal, in every sense of the word.

That scene (as well as the “falling man” imagery of the show’s opening credits) was echoed in “Lost Horizon,” when Don is shown to his new office at McCann-Erickson (Sterling Cooper has been subsumed by the parent company) and he touches the skyscraper window and it unexpectedly rattles. Startled, Don jumps back. It would be so easy.

I have the feeling that everything from Hawaii on is Don Draper wrestling with Dick Whitman for control. Don begins to show his age, looking tired, haggard. He loses Megan because he can’t rein in his desire for new romantic conquests, can’t stop following his Dick. Don drinks, messily, spectacularly. His hands shake. He sabotages a pitch meeting with Hershey’s by blurting out a confession about his hidden past, recounting how, as a child, he received Hershey bars from the whores for good behavior. Is it Don, trying to patch up his facade, who subsequently humbles himself to accept his suspension from Sterling Cooper, and to pledge sobriety and re-dedicate himself to Megan? Or is it Dick, trying to come clean? It’s unclear who means to obliterate who.  But one thing is clear: Whether metaphorically or literally, “Don Draper” is not going to get out of this show alive.

In the first of the seventh season’s final episodes, “Severance,” Don — or perhaps, Dick — considers the road not taken, as he becomes simultaneously obsessed with a depressed, cryptic waitress named Diana (like Don/Dick, a runaway from her life), and Rachel Mencken, the department store heiress with whom he had an affair in earlier seasons. While pursuing Diana, Don dreams of Rachel, and when he tries to track the latter down, learns that she has recently died.

The timing of Don’s interest in Diana/Rachel is interesting. Separated from Megan, Don appears to be flying on automatic pilot in his attempts to quickly replace her with another brunette. He seems genuinely shocked when he hears of Rachel’s death; his desire for a do-over with the brunette not taken hits a dead end. And so he woos Diana harder, but his wealth and charm appear to have no affect on piercing her aura of profound sadness and mystery.

There’s a comical moment in “New Business,” episode 9 of the current season, where Diana calls Don in the middle of the night, waking him from a sound sleep. He asks her to come over, but in the next scene, he answers the door of his apartment fully dressed in his usual crisp suit and tie, hair perfectly groomed. At least, I thought it was comical when I first saw it. But the more this half-season has progressed, the more haunting and significant that scene now seems to me. Don — or should we call him Dick? — is desperately trying to keep up appearances, to keep being Don Draper. The suit is key. It’s always been his “Don Draper” skin. But now, Diana takes a look at him and laughs.

In “Lost Horizon,” there’s another resonant “suit” scene where Don’s boss at McCann tells him that he’s expected to turn on the dazzle at a big meeting with Miller Beer, and Don automatically produces the Don Draper smile and announces, “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson”. Except that Hamm perfectly calibrates the moment, overdoing it just the tiniest bit, so that it feels and looks as if Don (Dick?) has to work harder to sound convincing to himself. Don is not quite Don anymore, and all the outer trappings of being Don Draper are revealed as mere costumery. He is an empty suit.

In the extraordinary Miller pitch scene that follows, Don looks around at his McCann peers, all with pens raised, an identical white, male, necktie-sporting mass. He (and we) see advertising for the first time on the series not as a juicy, brainy creative endeavor but as a cold calculation, a predatory activity. Detached, Don  turns to gaze out the window at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, and something springs to light in his eyes. He gets up and slips silently out of the meeting, leaving that room as if he’s shedding a skin.

Don goes to visit ex-wife Betty, intending to drive daughter Sally to boarding school, but Sally has already left, and his sons are out at their little-boy activities. He has no place there and is unneeded. He’s also homeless;  he’s living at a hotel while his realtor and secretary find and decorate his new apartment. Diana has disappeared, with no forwarding address. And Sterling Cooper is no more. So Don does what he does best — he runs away.

Driving on an impulse to Wisconsin to track down Diana’s ex-husband, Don has a bleary, night-driving visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, who last appeared to Don as a ghost singing “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free” — quite a statement for a man who founded a firm dedicated to selling and consumption. I think “Lost Horizon” is Don’s Road to Damascus moment. Don appears to have lost his religion for advertising, appears to be considering Spectral Cooper’s newfound renunciation of the material world.

When Don gets to Diana’s ex’s house, he bluffs his way in by claiming to be “Bill Phillips” of Miller Beer, there to inform Diana that hers is the winning entry in a contest for a new refrigerator. But the ex-husband is not fooled. Don’s (last?) attempt at identity-assuming, something he has previously been so successful at doing, falls flat. In the episode’s final shot, Don picks up a hippie hitchhiker and agrees to take him to St. Paul, and they drive off down the straight, open, empty highway. My wild guess is that we’ll never see Don among his Sterling Cooper cohort again. We may well have seen the last of “Don Draper,” entirely. The question is, does this man have one more reinvention left in him?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Thoughts on Peggy to come …)