Never gonna give you up

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My precious. (Photo by Joyce Millman, 2017)

Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.

The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.

Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.

But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.

But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.

I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.

What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember;  I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.

When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)

I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30

 

What's New - Nov. 1979 (Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)
What’s New – Nov. 1979
(Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today, and he’s celebrating with a new autobiography Born to Run,  to be released Sept. 27. But as we all age along with Bruce, I’m thinking back to a landmark birthday he shared with an arena full of us in 1979. It was Madison Square Garden, Sept. 22, the first night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two-night appearance on the bill of the all-star MUSE concerts against nuclear energy. At midnight, as September 23 dawned and Bruce turned 30, he stopped the music to say, “Well, I’m over the fucking hill. I can’t trust myself anymore,”* and then threw a chocolate birthday cake into the seats down front.

Luckily, I was up in the rafters on my own dime, a baby rock critic covering the show for a free Boston music rag called What’s New. It was a wild night. The Boss was in a bit of a mood, and he was exorcising it all on stage. But this show was unforgettable for more than Bruce’s birthday, or the gigantic charity rock show vibe. This was the night Springsteen debuted “The River” from an album that wouldn’t be released for more than a year. He sang this new ballad at a deliberate pace, with immediacy and fierce passion, with no guitar in hand, no barrier, between himself and the audience. The performance was hypnotic and heartbreaking, and watching him, it was as if the thousands of souls around me slipped away; there was only the sweeping, piano-driven melody and the open-ended story of young lovers beset by accidental pregnancy and harsh economic realities.

One part of the song, in particular, grabbed me. It was the moment the narrator slips into a memory of the river as Eden, the lovers “tanned and wet down at the reservoir,” only to dissolve it in the next frame with a vision of the lovers visiting a dry riverbed: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …” Did Springsteen become a poet that night, or was my 22-year-old self finally alive to the poetry that was there all along?

With the 2016 River anniversary tour just wrapped up, it seems like the right time to share this clipping from the vault and remember the night that journey started. Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen. Long may the river run.

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*He’s quoting a saying we had back in the ’60s and 70s: “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.

(P.S. – I know it looks like the review says “his 11 hour set,” but, sadly, that was a typo. I think it was supposed to say “1 1/2-hour”. And love to my friend Holly Cara Price, who made this adventure happen.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Here’s “The River” from the movie of those MUSE concerts.

Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

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The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

The year in guns and music

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)

 

Music normally provides a refuge from and a response to the sorrows of the world. But in this bitter and broken year, even music became a war zone. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue to support live music, continue to go to shows, continue to choose art, joy and freedom over fear.  U2’s stunning Paris concert, which HBO aired live on Dec. 7, was a powerful antidote to the vile “keep Muslims out of the U.S.” posturing of Herr Trump that coincidentally dominated the news cycle that day. But, more important, it was a healing gesture — as far as gestures can go — to the city of Paris and to musicians and music lovers shaken by the horror that took place at the Bataclan.

I’m sure I’m not the only fan who once believed to my core that a rock concert is hallowed ground. How can anything bad possibly happen when you’re dancing to the music you love? But it did, and we have to acknowledge that dark cloud. We in the U.S. also have to contend with domestic terrorism wrought by the NRA’s insane GOP-enabled perversion of the Second Amendment. But you know what? Life goes on. Music goes on. Thirty-five years ago this month, John Lennon became a gun violence statistic, murdered by someone who should never have been able to obtain a gun. We thought the dream of peace and love died with a Beatle, but it didn’t. It lives on, even stronger, in the increasingly angry and emboldened response of sane Americans to the mass shootings that have taken place almost daily, and to the racist, xenophobic, gun-humping, misogynistic filth spewing from the mouths of the fringe crackpots the Republicans are trying to pass off as presidential material.

On the night of Dec. 7, after a scrolling remembrance of Paris casualties and shouts of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,”  Bono brought an emotional Eagles of Death Metal onstage to sing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The audience jumped, cried and howled along on Smith’s progressive battle cry — “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools” — like a great wounded animal stirred. And you never want to underestimate a wounded animal.

Much of the music on my best-of list reflects my state of mind this year, probably more than it does the musical moment. The news was frequently so depressing, I found myself gravitating towards music as an uplifting escape. My Top Seven albums of 2015:

  1. FFS. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks morphed into a defiantly off-kilter entity, serving up an album “so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious” (as I wrote in June). There was one song on the record that diverged from the upbeat mood, Alex Kapranos’s atmospheric ballad about a man with a gun, “Little Guy from the Suburbs” (“I’m just a little guy from the suburbs/ Who learned to kill better than the others”). As the year went on and the mass shootings by terrorists both domestic and foreign piled up, the song took on a grave kind of prescience. But FFS didn’t let that weigh them down. Their jubilant, inclusive concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland was also my show of the year.
  2. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Album). No, I haven’t seen it (I’m hoping for a West Coast tour). But the album, oh the album. Hamilton stands on its own as a hip-hop/pop opera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton — Founding Father, guy on the $10 bill, famous duel victim — a work of straight-up genius in so many ways. Listening to the album reminds me of how, as a kid, I locked myself in my room with Hair and didn’t come out for a year.  Hamilton brings popular music to Broadway in a more original way than jukebox musicals like Motown: The Musical, harnessing the power of rap as storytelling form (and connecting the dots backward to Shakespeare in the process). The show’s electricity comes from how star and creator Miranda frames Hamilton as an outsider with a vision of democracy and equality (“just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry”). Its heartbreak comes from the audience’s knowledge that the show’s big ideas — the abolition of slavery, the right of women to determine their own destinies, the creation of a strong central government (“Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’ “) — are still regarded as open to debate by a large swath of the population. At the very least, the boundary-crossing popularity of Hamilton might make American history sexy again for a country that often seems sorely in need of a history lesson.
  3. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up. Achingly lovely and lonely pop from a performer for whom weed, wisecracks and meals alone in front of the TV no longer seem to be enough. The haunting “Deeper than Love,” in which she details her discomfort with intimacy and her fear of aging and death, is as wrenching a piece of confessional songwriting as you will ever hear.
  4. Grimes, Art Angels. Colleen Green works in tight-focus; on Art Angels, Grimes (Claire Boucher) blows her music up to IMAX. This is a big record, in sound, intention and the talents of its creator, and it mostly succeeds. Producer/arranger/songwriter/beat-creator/musician/performer Grimes moves confidently from sugar-voiced yet tough-edged dance pop (“California”) to savage electronica full of other-worldly mystery (“Kill V. Maim”). On Art Angels, Grimes emerges as the spiritual daughter of Madonna in her prime and Yoko Ono at her wildest.
  5. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?  Glorious electronic dance music about the challenge of growing older without letting the world turn you bitter. My review is here. 
  6. Shamir, Ratchet. This young, agender Las Vegan delivered the debut album of the year, featuring sublime dance hits “On the Regular” and “Call It Off.” On their sassy delivery of those two primary-colored tracks, Shamir calls to mind a cross between Sylvester and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. On a downcast song like “Vegas,” the bright lights fall away, revealing a willingness to acknowledge ugly truths: “You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/ But if you’re living in the city, oh you already in hell.” Shamir’s combination of playfulness and darkness raises the ante for future work.
  7. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Not actually an album (though there is a companion playlist), but reading Costello’s memoir was exactly like listening to his lyrics. His writing here is dense, assured, filled with dazzling turns of phrase and tricky — unfaithful — when it comes to narrative structure. This is a book of memories that unspools like both a memory and a melody, moving back and forth in time, often steeped in self-loathing, but always returning to Costello’s main refrain and reference point — his beloved, often-absent father, the big-band musician from whom Elvis inherited his sense of showmanship, among other things. This is a deep, rewarding tale, beautifully sung.

And this was my song of the year. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but the power of it is, still, a comfort.

©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

Saturday Night Live is not dead

The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players
The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players

It feels like we’ve been celebrating the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary for approximately 40 years now, but the biggest bang is yet to come with a four-hour live reunion/tribute show this Sunday night. I’m not sure why we’re doing all of this commemorating now, when the actual 40th anniversary of the debut of SNL is not until Oct. 11. But if it gets Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman back on TV, if only for one night, that’s OK with me.

There have already been so many SNL anniversary pieces and listicles written that one more would be superfluous. But I do have something to toss into the mix. Let me tell you what it was like to watch the debut of SNL on Oct. 11, 1975, as an 18-year-old college freshman.

It’s simple: Before SNL, there was nothing.

The three networks didn’t program in late-night on Saturday nights; old movies aired locally in that spot. And there were no off-mainstream humor shows aimed at baby boomers running in prime time. (Although Home Box Office existed, there was no real cable programming yet.) The closest we came to having a comedy show of our own was the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which managed to air for three seasons on CBS, despite being under constant threat of censorship and cancellation for its drug references and anti-Vietnam War sentiments. But that was nearly eight years before, and I, for one, had been too young to really get it. Oh, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein were around, performing their boundary-breaking stand-up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, but none of them had a weekly gig.

The only place to regularly see weird, surreal, sometimes transgressive counterculture comedy was my local PBS station, which aired reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the BBC. Monty Python was a revelation for me;  it was the first time I fell in thrall to comedians the way I was in thrall to rock stars. Maybe it was their British accents.

Anyway, this was how I got my comedy fill in high school: Python, variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny and Cher, Johnny Carson. And then something magical happened. On Oct. 11, 1975, at 11:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I sat down in front of the TV to do what we always did on Saturday nights: make out. But Saturday Night Live wouldn’t let us. The cold open was a very Pythonesque skit in which a foreign man in a hat with earflaps and an overcoat receives an English lesson from a teacher who makes him repeat such phrases as, “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?”  The foreign man was played with deadpan innocence by pudgy, impish John Belushi, the teacher by the very unsettling, Ichabod Crane-like Michael O’Donaghue. We were hooked, even before we saw the bee sketch, the “Show Us Your Guns” commercial and Andy Kaufman miming the Mighty Mouse theme song.

Without the assistance of the Internet, without Twitter, without the massive media delivery and consumption machinery we now have in place, Saturday Night Live became an overnight happening, TV’s first cult hit. I had never seen Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase or Garrett Morris before, but it was as if I’d known them, loved them, all my life. In the manner of the shaggy-haired and fearless Monty Python, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had the aura of rock stars, and indeed, it wouldn’t be long before their posters were hanging on every dorm room wall.

To be an SNL fan in those first weeks was like being a member of a club that bestowed instant coolness.  SNL was ours. It was a ritual on campus, a show that was on late at night, that was funny whether you were stoned or straight, that aired some very outrageous, strange things. Everybody was talking about it: Who would the guest host be? Who would the musical guest be?  Will they do the Samurai skit again?  We all started dropping SNL catch phrases into conversation, like spies communicating in code: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”; “Never mind!”; “Cheeseburgie!” I remember watching a comedy night put on by theater students in which every other skit was a blatant knock-off of bits from SNL. But who could blame them? We all had SNL on the brain. We were all besotted. SNL was Must-See TV, years before NBC rolled out that advertising slogan.

SNL in that first season was topical, daring and unreservedly silly. Then, as now, it relied heavily on advertising, TV and movie spoofs and recurring characters, but with more of an edge than similar spoofs on Carol Burnett, say. And then, as now, it could also be juvenile, annoyingly self-referential and self-indulgent. After 12:30, it was sometimes painfully flat. We endured its flaws, because the cool thing, the thing that lit us up, was the anarchy of it all;  watching it was like watching a circus knife-throwing act — there was always the possibility of carnage. (In fact, real blood was shed in a Samurai sketch in 1976 when Belushi accidentally slashed host Buck Henry in the forehead live on camera.) The first three years of SNL represented the changing of the TV comedy guard;  suddenly, Johnny Carson, once the epitome of hip, was looking very square. And, for better or worse, the change spilled over into movies, as Belushi departed to make National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, which launched a new genre of youth-pitched (or as the media called them, “gross-out”) comedies.

By 1980, all of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players had left the show for feature films or network sitcoms;  creator/producer Lorne Michaels went with them, and the show was in disarray. I still watched with my boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), but it often seemed more like holding a deathbed vigil than true enjoyment. SNL had been eclipsed in our hearts by the Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV (with John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, et al), which NBC had picked up and slotted at 1 a.m. after SNL to create a hip comedy block. By 1982, when Belushi died of a drug overdose like the rock star he was, those early, stunning seasons of SNL felt very far away, a mind-blowing dream dissolving into the light of day.

I never thought SNL would make it to its 10th anniversary, let alone still be on the air now, as much a pillar of NBC’s broadcast week as The Today Show and The Tonight Show. I’ve sworn it off over the years, but I always come back. Part of what keeps pulling me in is Lorne Michaels’ damnably canny eye for talent; Tina Fey would have been enough, but Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon … I would have been a fool to miss all that. But mostly, I’m an SNL lifer because, despite cast changes, lost seasons and played-out characters flogged into the ground, there is still nothing as exciting as watching comic actors and writers at the top of their game nailing it on live TV.

It’s strange — as old as I get and as young as the cast members remain, SNL still makes me laugh. Does this mean that SNL is woefully old school?  Well, it does have a comedy formula, from which it never fundamentally deviates. For instance, the misunderstanding-based news commentaries of Emily Litella live on today in the addled commentaries of Drunk Uncle. The marginally talented but lovable Sweeney Sisters have morphed into the inept yet lovable Ex-Porn Stars.

Yet, this old, formulaic show blows up Twitter every Saturday night, as viewers decades younger than me have a virtual, communal watch (or hate watch, as it may be). Which tells me that SNL‘s formula transcends the chronological age of its audience and pitches its comedy-music spectacle to the youthful smart-aleck inside us all. Even now, some part of me is still 18, with a chill of anticipation down my spine for whatever madness may come, whenever I hear the words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

(The first episode ever of Saturday Night Live will be shown in the SNL time slot, 11:30 p.m., Feb. 14.)

(And, in case you were wondering, this gets my vote for the greatest SNL skit of all time, Chevy Chase and guest host Richard Pryor in “Word Association.” Warning: It contains the N-word.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

On grief and “Seinfeld”: A Festivus story

My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990. ©Joyce Millman
My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990.
©Joyce Millman

[NOTE: This piece was written in December 2014, in memory of my father, Jerry Millman.]

Ever since my father died in July, I’ve been watching Seinfeld reruns every night. Oh, I’ve seen the whole series before, nine seasons’ worth, top to bottom. This is different. This viewing feels like compulsion, borders on ritual. Perhaps I’ve discovered a new stage of grief, the one where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer appear to you in a flickering vision and whisk you away to a land of familiar punchlines, where only happy memories dwell. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Seinfeld has always resonated with me;  it was the first TV show that reflected the particular brand of middle-class Jewish nuttiness from which I sprang. I always thought my family was unique in this respect, until I saw Jerry’s (fictionalized) parents, Morty and Helen Seinfeld, and George’s parents, Frank and Estelle Costanza. It’s true that Costanza isn’t a Jewish surname, but, come on, I know these people. I was raised by these people. The yelling as the default level of speech, the “why me?” melodrama, the obsession with getting a deal — I’m sure I’m related to the Seinfelds, the Costanzas and their creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, somewhere in our family trees. How else could the tone of the show’s humor be so closely aligned with the tone of my father’s humor, equal parts sarcastic, warped and silly? My dad was the one who introduced me to Allen Sherman, Nichols and May and the Three Stooges at an early age. I was glad to repay the debt in 1990 when I, Miss Big Shot TV Critic, told him, “You have to watch Jerry Seinfeld’s new show!”

As much as I loved Seinfeld, my dad loved Seinfeld (and David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) even more. In our weekly cross-country phone calls, we spent more time rehashing Seinfeld episodes than we did talking about real life. Real life, deep soul baring, was awkward. Humor was our preferred mode of communication. It’s possible that we both had an identification with Seinfeld that verged on over-the-top. But who could blame us, when the show hit so close to home?

My father was a perfect blend of Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza. Like Morty, he had been in the garment business, was happy to shlep around on the bus rather than pay for a taxi, and he could have been Morty’s wardrobe double in his old man jeans, short sleeved plaid shirts and windbreaker jackets. Like Frank, there were a lot of dismissive “ughs” for dramatic effect, and Frank and Estelle’s bickering over the trivialities of life was an exaggerated version of my parents’ (more affectionate) jousting. I give you this exchange between Frank and Estelle from “The Puffy Shirt” (1993), which I watched the other night:

ESTELLE: Georgie … Georgie, would you like some Jell-O?

FRANK: (Voice rising) Why’d you put the bananas in there?

ESTELLE: (Yelling) George likes the bananas!

FRANK: (Yelling) So let him have bananas on the side!

Welcome to my world, circa 1972.

Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, my dad was absolutely cuckoo for Jerry Stiller, who played Frank. His eccentric line readings and barrel-chested weirdness sent my dad into fits of laughter, and, mind you, that laugh was high-pitched and uncontrollable once it started. It’s part of family lore that you couldn’t risk going to see a funny movie with Jerry Millman because his spasmodic cackling was going to get you thrown out of the theater.

My father and I were in agreement that the Festivus episode (“The Strike,” 1997) was Frank Costanza’s finest (half)hour. This was the episode where it became clear that Frank was a raving lunatic. His irritably declaimed tenets of the holiday he’d devised as an alternative to Christmas commercialism are seared into my brain: “A Festivus for the rest of us!”; an aluminum pole instead of a tree (“It requires no decorating. I find tinsel distracting”); the traditional Airing of Grievances (“I got a lotta problems with you people. And now you’re gonna hear about it!”).  The fact that Festivus falls on Dec. 23 — my sister’s birthday — made it seem even more like this was our own personal holiday, proof that Seinfeld was speaking directly to us.

For the past three years, I watched reruns of the Festivus episode on Direct TV on the JetBlue flight to Boston for the holidays. On each of those visits back, there was less and less of the robust, jovial dad I knew. My siblings and I fell back on familial black humor and a Seinfeld-reference-laden shorthand to draw him out. We could always get a laugh out of him with an exclamation of “It’s a Festivus miracle!” or of Frank’s bellowed meditation mantra, “Serenity now!” How deeply is Seinfeld embedded in our family psyche?  The night before my father’s funeral, my brother and sister and I got into a giggle fit talking about the episode where Kramer was giving carriage tours of New York with a flatulent horse called Rusty.

It’s strange. I was numb or stoic (not sure which) at my father’s funeral. I do know that I was relieved, given all he and my mother had been through in the past two years. But it’s only now, in this holiday season, that the heavy fog of sadness is descending on me, hard. I know that watching Seinfeld reruns every night is the equivalent of curling up in the fetal position, but I don’t care, because it brings me bittersweetly close to my dad. Festivus will never be the same without him.

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014