Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pilots Industry

Katie once told me about a date that she went on, to a Kenny Rogers concert. Rogers kept up a pretty good stage rapport with a man in the front row, who finally admitted he was there against his will and only at his wife's request. Amused, Rogers offered the man $10 cash on the spot for every song of his the guy could name. "The Gambler." "Lady." $20, and that was it. Apparently, Rogers was then in the habit of wearing shoes with large heels, and took a number of pot-shots at his wardrobe, himself, and his songs, stopping periodically to offer the man more money with the first verse of each hit: "Lucille," "Coward of the County," "We Got Tonight," "I Just Dropped In...," "Through the Years," etc. A quick YouTube search of Kenny Rogers turns up karaoke versions of these and still other hit songs, movie clips from The Gambler (Parts I-V) and The Coward of the County, appearances on the Muppet Show and in Jackass, covers by fans, live performances, and the background songs to any number of family video collages. And, of course, postings for the original hipster website, Men Who Look Like Kenny Rogers Dot Com.

Here's some trivia about the 1983 country hit, "Islands in the Stream," recorded and made famous by Rogers and Dolly Parton. It was originally composed by the Bee Gees in a late-70's R&B style, to be sung as a duet by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. It is named for a tragic novel written by Ernest Hemingway, published posthumously in 1970, meant to rehabilitate his career. While the tune is clear and catchy, its lyrics are widely misunderstood to state, alternately, "Violence in the Streets, that is what we want," "Pilots industry," "Aliens in the Street," "Hives of industry, that is what we start." The Rogers-Parton version of "Islands in the Stream" was the only country song to hit #1 on the Billboards charts for the next seventeen years. In 2005, it was voted the best country duet of all time by Country Music Television. In April 2008, a South Bend radio station played it continuously for several days to announce a format change to all country music. In 2009, Tom Jones recorded a popular version for the Comic Relief charity (the video here) that earned him the distinction of the oldest living person to record a #1 hit on the British charts. During a classic moment in Season 2 of The Office, Jim bails out Michael's awful falsetto rendition by singing the Parton portion.

In a post-hipster/tentatively-twee age, who better encapsulates our simultaneous deep yearning for and well-earned suspicion of sentiment than Kenny Rogers? Parton and Rogers's 2005 duet at the CMT Awards, coupled with his appearance that year on Reno 911!, gets at this schism beautifully. Rogers and Parton nail their performance: perfect choreography, pitch, hair, and teeth. On Reno 911!, Deputies Garcia and Wiegel grill Kenny Rogers about Gambler IV and encourage him to give up singing ("I really think you should get out there and really act more and, you know, leave that other singing stuff behind"), while Lieutenant Dangle keeps insisting on more protection for the Rhinestone Cowboy. Toward the end of the season, Kenny appears in Dangle's dreams, then his bed; then Rogers is stabbed by a maniac fan who distracts his police escort by announcing a Kenny Rogers look-alike in the food court. Only someone with a sincere appreciation of his own talents, who is also comfortable enough in his own skin to have fun with his public image and laugh at himself, could be the quiet center of both considerable adoration and merciless skewering.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a long essay for my wrestling and politics blog comparing the echo chamber of information about Andre The Giant (most of it comes from a DVD interview with his Princess Bride co-star, Cary Elwes, recorded after Andre's death) to the swarm of wild criticisms being hurled in the direction of health care reform legislation (death panels, etc., being imagined and perpetuated by a few wily, if irresponsible future Republican presidential nominees). Last night, Cait, Walt, and I went over to her brother Bart's house last night, and watched The Princess Bride. I had forgotten all of the clever wordplay throughout The Princess Bride, from Fezzik and Inigo's rhyming game, to Wallace Shawn's "Inconceivable!" to the extended con that Westley uses to best Prince Humperdinck. But maybe best of all is the subtle persuasion that Peter Falk works on Fred Savage throughout, steady, trusting the material to work its magic. It took Bart's boys a few minutes to catch on, but by the end we were all watching with rapt attention.

I have found myself listening over and over to two songs from Bruce Springsteen's 1987 album, Tunnel of Love, "One Step Up" and "Brilliant Disguise." The songs are bookends, of a sort, about failure in relationships. Bruce wrote the album by himself, while in the process of breaking up the E Street Band, and also divorcing his first wife, the actress Julianne Phillips, to marry his then-backup-singer, now-wife, Patti Scialfa. The video for "Brilliant Disguise" is amazing--a single, continuous, and unedited shot of Bruce playing the song in a kitchen, with the camera moving in closer and closer until only his face is in frame. His singing during that take is mic'd over the recorded version, and so there is more inflection and interruption in the video version of his voice. That Bruce found a space to speak directly and unflinchingly about complication in his life, even to his discredit, creates the space for a kind of honesty that makes listening to the whole album (for which he recorded many of the backing tracks) feel intensely personal and revealing.

Last year, I memorized the poem this blog is named for, "How To Like It," and I still find myself at random times, in random places, working over lines from it. It's stuck in my mind in a welcome way. I've added alongside it eight or nine other poems. I find myself thinking through my interest in memorizing a poem; usually, it's to understand better why I like it. I can think of only one poem that I've committed to memory and found that I liked considerably less after the fact. There is a quality to exceptional poetry, and I guess, art, that seems beyond aesthetic, dealing explicitly with transformation and transcendence. Rarely does it work the other way, and when it seems to--the life enhancing the art--I often find myself mired in nostalgic anthems for "old" times. Putting it another way, I can listen to "Islands in the Stream" over and over for a couple of days, sure, but eventually, I feel more than a little dirty and snap out of it.

In his introduction to Marianne Moore's 1935 Selected Poems, T.S. Eliot declares that poets "have to choose whatever subject-matter allows us the most powerful and secret release; and that is a personal affair." I'd like to think that there is some kind of continuity in my life worth thinking and writing about, for lack of a better word, between "then" and "now." I'm not sure exactly what those words mean in this context, except that, for a project about circumstances, memory, commemoration, withstanding, I seem to be the connective tissue. A friend who is also a colleague remarked recently that there is a kind of comfortable mystery to interacting with me on a social level, because one knows that something terrible happened to me a while back, but because I don't require strangers to participate in the tragedy after the fact, they can sort of acknowledge it by not acknowledging it, they can imagine it without need to verify it, and so they are allowed to be close to something awful without having to take either part in or responsibility for it. The Guy With A Past.

Walt is a beautiful boy. He smiles a lot, laughs every once in a while. He holds his head up. He drools. He eats a thoroughly mystifying amount of food. He rarely sleeps through the night. He has gray eyes that are changing, over time, to pale blue. He has thin blond hair that clumps at his neck in a strange mullet. He is growing and gaining weight at an incredible pace; there is more of him to hold every day. He has preferences, grabs fingers, tracks his own hand. He has figured out that he has hands and wants to put them constantly in his mouth. The soft spot on his head is getting smaller. He has endured his first head cold. A friend said that this time in life is slow days, quick years. There is a poem by Thomas Lux, "A Little Tooth," that gets at that sense in an incredibly concise and heartbreaking way, even if it move swiftly past these great, early days.

Happiness is a passive state of being: lazy, static and complacent. Happy songs often run together, are unmemorable and full of insistent choruses proclaiming states of mind unpersuasive to everyday living. Fine, you're happy but are you going to take out the trash or what? Happy lyrics feel familiar and run all together over time. Like happiness itself, happy songs are easy to appreciate and difficult to actively enjoy. Often, it does not matter that you get the words to the verse right, as long as you sing at just the right moment, say, "Islands in the stream, that is what we are!" Whole batches of happy songs get partially memorized and eventually farmed out to happy-song radio stations, with dulcet tones and promises of, if not happiness exactly, then a carefully managed range of neutral feelings.

Melancholy, on the other hand, is absence right at the center of your being. It allows for commiseration when you need it, isolation when you don't, and separation all of the time anyway. If you withdraw from the world, you don't need to bring much to do because withdrawal is a full-time job. It pays well. It is fertile ground for creativity. And melancholy is chronic. Not feeling happy today? That's too bad. Not feeling melancholic today? Give it a few hours. Melancholic songs are intensive, all-consuming affairs. You memorize the lyrics, then you go back through and check the articles, prepositions, and spellings of foreign cities. You read the liner notes for biographical data and insights into the melancholy articulated, as manifest in the author. You sing a melancholic anthem full-throated, so that you might find, wherever, someone else certain to know the kind of suffering that consumes you. You exchange phone numbers, and as long as you both remain melancholic, and neither one of you gets happy, you will be friends for life.

If you look at Kenny Rogers now, you'll notice that he's had some work done, his range is limited, he sings hokey, cloying Christmas carols surrounded by small children. It would be easy to say it's his right, but when does the intention to stay relevant and appeal to any audience--to keep working--trump the production of meaningful and memorable work? Isn't it just as easy to keep touring and singing the greatest hits? Bruce Springsteen's last great album was The Rising, his 2002 response to the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. I've talked about this album a bit before, here. It is a lush, exhausting, willfully exuberant statement of elegy and grace. It is of a different order than the albums that preceded and, ultimately, followed it, and equal to his best work. In keeping his chops fresh and in shape, Springsteen arrived at a different kind of witness and withstanding to express in his work, as well as a good deal of reflection and scrutiny, an insane, ridiculous tragedy transformed into anthem. Anthem. Or, maybe, a gift, a love life / Utterly unasked for, especially that first track, "Lonesome Day," it's double-barrel-or-double-express-trains, optimism and anger. What an awesome, gut-kicking, leave-it-all-on-the-floor declaration of meaning. When I listen to the live version below a few times in a row, I notice more the artistry, the lyrics, the layering of guitar and saxophone at the bridge, the key changes. The singing along to the opening chords that is both reverent for and enthusiastically withstanding the tragedy that inspired it.

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