Cool People

Triolet for Robert Plant

Happy birthday to Robert Plant, who is 68 today. Robert Plant is (should I say was?) the singer and primary lyricist for my favorite band of all time, Led Zeppelin. I was easily sucked into the history of the band and haven’t yet read about Mr. Plant’s life before it, but he is an exceptional writer and singer and I can’t imagine any other voice in his place. It’s hard to read Zeppelin lyrics without the context of the music because they’re so recognizable, but to me his writing is accessible–a next-level understanding of things situated in reality. In that spirit I wrote this poem.

Triolet for Robert Plant

First find your gift; then exhaust its full extent.
These are the ones who live beyond their years.
You can never be too late, too old, too spent—
First, find your gift. Then exhaust its full extent.
Accepting less than best breeds spite and discontent,
and a mediocre life is not a life revered.
First find your gift; then exhaust its full extent.
These are the ones who live beyond their years.

This verse is a triolet, an 8-line repetitive stanza following an ABaAabAB pattern. Most examples I noted were also in iambic pentameter so I went for it, but I deviated quite a bit. I prefer to work with a syllable count and let the meter come naturally. It was a neat little exercise, anyways!

Bach By Popular Demand

On March 31, 1685, an artist was born that would give Western music a kick in the pants. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, may have enjoyed success as a musician during his life, but his significant influence can still be heard more than two centuries later.

Bach lived in the Baroque period (~1600-1750), the music of which could be characterized as dramatic, elaborate, and a little over-the-top. Just as the Renaissance before it was about evolving instruments and sounds, the Baroque period evolved music with the creative use of keys, vocals, and melodies with greater and greater complexity. Bach was a gifted organist and wrote an extensive body of religious music. Perhaps his greatest contribution is his innovative style, which layered melodies to become more than mere accompaniment, but an actual unification of sounds. Mozart and Beethoven, by far the two greatest composers of the following Classic Period, grew up with Bach’s music and practiced his arrangements. Perhaps even more telling is the lengthy list of popular composers of the Romantic Period who have churned out so many excellent and timeless works, and so close together–I think of all the rock bands of the 1990’s who cite Led Zeppelin as a big influence.

Bach certainly closed out the Baroque era with an exclamation point when he passed in 1750. I’m no musician, so I certainly can’t speak on the technicalities of Bach’s compositions, but I can speak to the emotion that oozes from each work of thoughtfully constructed notes. When I hear Toccota and Fugue, I’m a little sad, a little crazy, and incredibly intense. Air on the G String does just the opposite, but in a very good way.

Whether or not you listen to Classical music, any art requires a respect for that which came before. Step Bach and think what the world might have sounded like without him.

From Russia, With Love

“I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”
-Boris Pasternak

I can’t pinpoint the reason, but there are some historical cultures I’ve just always been fascinated by, like Ancient Egypt or 20th century Germany. At any point in it’s timeline, I have a feeling surpassing curiosity about Russia. Though I’m no expert in Russian history, it’s difficult to ignore the impact of the country’s past on it’s artists. While I love the whimzy of The Nutcracker, I’m drawn to the dramatic minor chords of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I read Atlas, Shrugged by the great Ayn Rand last year, and developed a major girl-crush on assertive Dagny Taggart. I’m recording the War and Peace TV miniseries adapted from Tolstoy’s popular novel, and I’m currently working on Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I’m finding to be a pleasantly surprising page-turner even though I’m a slow reader.

With all of this Russian through my head (!), I thought a lame pun could be excused (?). Really, though, when I found out it was Boris Pasternak’s birthday today (1890-1960), it seemed fitting to pay it forward, and not in rubles.

Pasternak penned the novel that became one of my favorite films, Doctor Zhivago. In the story, Zhivago is both an upper crust doctor and love-torn poet at the mercy of the Russian Civil War. Wrongly labeling Pasternak a novelist, I learned that he only wrote the one, and is well-known in Russia for his poetry. I found the below poem at PoetryFoundation.org and thought first of a woman, then of the White army:

Fresh Paint
I should have seen the sign: “Fresh Paint,”
But useless to advise
The careless soul, and memory’s stained
With cheeks, calves, hands, lips, eyes.

More than all failure, all success,
I loved you, for your skill
In whitening the yellowed world
As white cosmetics will.

Listen, my dark, my friend: by God,
All will grow white somehow,
Whiter than madness or lamp shades
Or bandage on a brow.

Hey, Stella!

On this day in 1947, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway. The original production featured Marlon Brando as the rough-and-tough blue collar anti-hero, Stanley Kowalski, a role he reprised in the 1951 film. Williams’ gritty drama would have shocked audiences regardless, but Brando’s masterful performance of the brutish Stanley pushed the envelope enough to shove him into stardom. Brando co-starred with Jessica Tandy, who won a Tony award for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois. With the exception of Tandy, much of the theatrical production transferred directly to the silver screen, including Elia Kazan’s direction and cast leads Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden (Mitch). Vivien Leigh replaced Tandy on screen for the sake of having some star power in the credits, but her unforgettable Blanche won her best actress that year.

I have never seen Streetcar on stage, but I’ve read Williams’ script and have seen the movie many times. I’m a huge Brando fan and I absolutely love this story, I think because it’s not afraid to be ugly. Really, Stanley is a male chauvinist-slash-rapist with serious anger issues, and Blanche is a spoiled, washed-up waif with a freakish past. Somehow, though, Williams captures my interest and even makes me care. I personally think his writing broke a lot of ground in demystifying taboos and loosening censorship codes, though it wouldn’t be considered shocking today. I’d be interested in getting my hands on a special edition DVD of Streetcar that includes some stills or a bio on the production.

Not One, Not Two, But Three Starlet Birthdays

Three award-winning female entertainers of Old Hollywood share a birthday today, June 30th, as well as a common experience of initial career struggle followed by tremendous success later in life.

Lena Horne (1917-2010), who would have been 98 this year, is easily the most recognizable African-American female performer of the Hollywood Studio era. A great beauty and a gorgeous voice with tremendous range, Horne sang in such musicals as Cabin In the Sky (1943) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), but failed to secure top billings because of her race. After her film work in the 1940’s, Horne made frequent television appearances in the 50’s and 60’s. In 1981, Horne starred in the Broadway revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music for which she won a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. Throughout her long singing and acting career, Horne promoted civil rights and took an active role in the NAACP.

SusanHayward

Susan Hayward (1917-1975) started out as a fashion model and began her acting career in small parts for B-grade films. It wasn’t until she began playing alcoholics, seductresses, and other anti-heroine roles that her career gained momentum. Natural and believable in intense dramas, Hayward earned five Academy Award nominations for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), My Foolish Heart (1949), With a Song in My Heart (1952), I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) and the film that finally earned her the win, I Want to Live! (1958). Hayward also replaced Judy Garland in the powerhouse role of Helen Lawson for Valley of the Dolls (1967). Hayward’s life was cut short by brain cancer, though she performed until she was too ill to be able.

DorothyMalone

Dorothy Malone (1925) began her acting career in the early 40’s. As a brunette, Malone got off to a slow start in minor roles, albeit in films as famous as The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart (1946), Night and Day with Cary Grant (1946) and Artists and Models with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1955). In 1956, Malone went blonde and won an Academy Award for her sex-charged bad girl performance in Written on the Wind with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall. After a handful of impressive film roles, Malone began a successful television career in the 60’s, and she is perhaps best known for playing Constance MacKenzie on Peyton Place from 1964-1968.

Happy Birthday, Cole Porter

On June 9, 1891, songwriter Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only child of the wealthiest couple in town. Porter grew up in refinement, attending Yale to study English then Harvard to study law. His interest in music turned from a hobby to a passion, and he gave up law to pursue composition. It is fairly well known that Porter was a closeted homosexual, but in the early 1920’s that simply wouldn’t do. While living in Paris, he entered a marriage of mutual friendship to wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas. Though Porter experienced only minor successes abroad, his wife encouraged him in his work. Once he returned stateside, he fared well on Broadway despite the crash of 1929 and began writing songs for Hollywood.

Much of Porter’s work is included in the Great American Songbook, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and more recently, Harry Conick, Jr. and Michael BublĂ©. Some of Porter’s best known songs include Night and Day (1932), I Get a Kick Out of You (1934), I’ve Got You Under My Skin (1936) and From This Moment On (1950). In addition to popular songs, Porter wrote the musical scores for the hit stage shows Anything Goes (1934) and Kiss Me Kate (1948), both adapted as successful films.

Porter’s wife, Linda, and his mother both died in the early 1950’s, and later in the decade Porter underwent an amputation of his right leg. He lived in relative seclusion in New York and stopped writing music. On October 15, 1964 at seventy-three years old, Porter passed of kidney failure. Porter was a huge contributor to music history, and his life was the subject of two biopics, 1946’s Night and Day starring Cary Grant, and 2004’s De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline. Chances are you’ve heard or seen a Porter song. His extensive body of work remains popular and continues to be re-imagined by contemporary acts.

Eartha Kitt sings Night and Day
Ella Fitzgerald sings I Get a Kick Out of You
Frank Sinatra sings I’ve Got You Under My Skin

MM MyHeartBelongsToDaddy

Marilyn Monroe performs “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”

In Honor of Frank Sinatra

“You gotta love livin’ baby, cause dyin’s a pain in the ass.”

Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. The Voice. One of my all time favorite stars. You just can’t beat Frank Sinatra. He enjoyed a long, dynamic career as a singer, actor, playboy, and professional VIP, passing of a heart attack on May 14th, 1998 with an elegant send off on May 20th. Not bad for 82 years on this earth, many of them spent with Jack, Johnny, Jim and the Marlboro Man.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey (there’s something about a celebrity who keeps their given name that I find very endearing). Sinatra never finished high school, though his instincts didn’t steer him wrong–leading him to a singing career early on. While performing in night clubs during his early twenties, he caught his big break by signing with Tommy Dorsey and his famous orchestra in 1939 (one of my favorite years). The Voice burned up the charts and Sinatra became the teen idol for the 1940’s. Later that decade, he starred in a trio of musicals with another one of my favorites, Gene Kelly, giving lovable performances in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town (both 1949). He starred and sang in other memorable musicals including Guys and Dolls opposite Marlon Brando, High Society with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, and Pal Joey with Rita Hayworth.

Sinatra proved he could be a dramatic heavy hitter as well, winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Maggio in 1953’s Pearl Harbor romance From Here to Eternity, and scoring a Best Actor nomination for his performance of a heroin addict in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm. During the 1960’s, he starred in a variety of comedies, dramas, and war time films, including The Manchurian Candidate and a handful of films with fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin.

I enjoy watching Sinatra on screen, but I think most people associate Sinatra with his voice, a smooth-as-silk and easy sound. As his heart-throb image wore off in the late forties, his larger than life Vegas image gained momentum in the fifties. I haven’t heard a single Sinatra recording I didn’t like. Whether he’s singing melodic hits from the Great American Songbook or crooning through “Luck Be A Lady” or “Witchcraft,” listening to Sinatra is comforting. It feels cool, romantic, and genuine.

Since his was a very public life, I’m adding His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra to my summer reading list in the interest of gaining some more perspective on this fascinating man.