Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Get Me (Anthem) Rewrite!

In his first 500+ days in office, the President's war against disrespect for the National Anthem has become one of his reliable go-to chestnuts, a greatest hit with a dog whistle chorus that he sings with panache to keep the crowd in his pocket.

But today he took it to another level, by claiming the song is actually good. And I couldn't help thinking comedian Albert Brooks had it right 45 years ago when he did a routine suggesting we needed a national contest to pick a new one, and how that might go.

Since Trump himself is the master of reality TV, maybe it's time to revisit the idea.

After the President learned that only a handful of the Super Bowl Champ Philadelphia Eagles were going to show up for his White House celebration, he disinvited them, claiming (in a third-personese statement) to do so because the players disrespected the Star-Spangled Banner:
“They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.” 
Of course, fact-checkers immediately pointed out that in fact, none of the Eagles on the roster had taken the proverbial knee the entire championship season, but never mind.

Trump rejiggered the ceremony to be a celebration of America, and his early morning tweets began praising the Anthem itself as a wonderful/great piece of music.
7:08 AM:
 13 minutes later: 
But as Trump supporter Roseanne might be among the first to attest, the National Anthem is a difficult thing to sing, both clunky and wide-ranging. And though the lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 to an old oft-used tune, it wasn't even crowned our Anthem till 1931, and was toyed with endlessly over the years. As the NY Times has reported
In the 19th century, the tune was regularly refashioned with lyrics to be, alternately, a rallying cry for abolitionists (“Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light, The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming”) or a temperance-movement indictment of alcohol (“Oh! who has not seen by the dawn’s early light, Some poor bloated drunkard to his home weakly reeling”).
So in 1973, when Brooks, then 26, did a routine suggesting America rethink the tune - it had only been in its esteemed slot for 42 of America's 197 years. (And Nixon was one year shy of resigning over Watergate.)
(When I wrote a career tribute to Brooks seven years ago, I embedded a video of him performing it live that since has been removed from YouTube in America due to copyright reasons, so you're going to have to listen to it. Pretend it's a podcast!) 

Prophetically for today's climate, Brooks begins his routine - recorded live at L.A.'s Troubadour -  by saying "The National Anthem - What happened? Oh, someone got up! No, no. You don't have to stand." 

Then Brooks declares the anthem has to be rewritten "very soon" because "Nobody sings it on the way to work any more." And he asks, what's the fair way for it to be rewritten? Give it to the country's most popular songwriter at the time, Burt Bacharach? He quickly proves that would be a disaster.  (Who would today's equivalent punchline be, Taylor Swift? Kanye?) 

Instead, Brooks says, it should be open auditions - kind of an American Idol before its time. He then acts it out, playing plays both the host and the entrants, giving them only a few bars, Gong-Show style.  

A sampling: 

"Ted Rutherford, Dallas,Texas" sings a tune that Trump would probably like:  "Hey, World! / Look at us! / We're the greatest!" 

"Leroy Williams, from any ghetto you choose" quickly hammers home a point even more valid today: "You jail / all your blacks--"

I could transcribe the whole thing, but it's really worth hearing Brooks' performance. Especially the Vegas meandering schmaltzmeister doing "I've Gotta Country."

Maybe the President can produce the Anthem-audition show and put on hold his other fall pilots, Summit On Again-Off Again, Everybody Hates Jeff, and Pardon Me!
UPDATE: Meanwhile when the event happened, the President seemed not to know the words to another on his "wonderful" playlist, "God Bless America":

Anthem submissions welcome in the comments. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

My 40 Years of Bruce: A scrapbook

Both the first and most recent times I saw Bruce Springsteen - almost 40 years apart - I sat left of center.

Most everything else had changed.  When we started this dance, I was a high school senior; now he's a senior citizen (and I'm still only 12 years younger). We both had kids (though mine seem more interested in his music than his). He moved his act uptown from the scrungy Palladium (RIP) to a posh Broadway theater, along the way putting a wrecking ball to the original Giants Stadium.

And the face value of my ticket went up from $8.50 (though my scrawl in my scrapbook indicates I actually paid a scalper price, $32) -- to $400. The Times, They Are Ka-Chinging.

The Ties That Bind (and cost big bucks)
I've seen Bruce live maybe 3 dozen times - fewer, to be sure, than the hardcore diehards, but still, more than any other musician, in venues large and small, from acoustic to full strings and horn section - even when he sacrilegiously disbanded the E street band for a tour ("Shayne Fontayne on guitar!" Really?).

I had his poster in my college dorm room, own more Bruce bootlegs than all other artists combined, and sprang for most of his recent overpriced boxed-set-remixed-reissues (even though I will probably never slog my way through all the peripherals, right).

Poster I had in college
But as his core E Street band members have started to die off (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici) and the others - unlike Bruce - have started to show their age from the wear and tear of his marathon shows, I started to feel my Springsteen concertgoing experience becoming something of a replica of the real thing. Not Vegas, not a tribute band, but just less freewheeling. He was still putting out the energy and spirit on stage (a mutual high that he admitted in interviews he was addicted to - as were we all), but I was missing the unpolished spontaneity and quirky personal discursiveness that had helped attract this sheltered suburban kid to his wild-eyed yearning romanticism.

Well, Bruce has been also thinking about (and working on) himself - including publicly, first for my friend Peter Ames Carlin's bio Brucein which Springsteen not only was unusually open about his private demons, but allowed those in his life to speak without NDA restraints; then for his autobiography, Born to Run (recommended in audio form).

I had long joked that as Bruce hit his 60s, instead of exhaustingly touring worldwife, he should just take up residency and just play a month a year at an arena in Jersey and his fan base would make pilgrimages to see him. (In recent years, Billy Joel and Jerry Seinfeld have both done versions of this.) Now Bruce has hit on a plan that satisfies his musical and introspective urges, and one that leaves the E Street Band off the hook: this solo Broadway run, five shows a week, sold by lottery trying to thwart scalpers (as if), opened October 3, 2017 for "8 weeks only" but has been extended three times (as of this writing) to December 15, 2018.

15 months only! (so far)
It's not a rock and roll show, though he does play some of his biggest hits on piano and guitar. Instead, hearing Bruce's elegiac travelogue through his life and career, I found myself newly moved, as he described looking back wistfully at the time when his life was ahead of him like a blank page.  He spent as much time talking as he did singing, and he candidly admitted the man who wrote "Racing in the Streets" was very late to even learning to drive, and that the rebel who wrote "Born to Run" and swore to escape his "death trap" hometown, now resides a stone's throw away. He brought out his wife, Patti Scialfa, for a couple of songs. He revisited the meaning of his friendship with Clemons.

As I sat there, I also realized that, when you spend 40 years in the company of a sentient artist, you accumulate a lifetime of memories - even if the relationship is one-sided (I have only met and spoken to him once - more on that below).

Just as if you live in New York long enough, nearly every block and corner of Central Park you walk in holds a special memory - if you see enough Bruce, it becomes its own narrative of your life, with the inevitable tragedy, comedy, and every now and then, a glimpse of salvation.

I know everybody's got their Bruce stories, but these are mine.
Since most of them predate cell phone cameras, this is my scrapbook.

1977, sophomore year. I'm at Steve Hertz's house. He's a senior and, LP's spread everywhere, has been playing deejay to help upgrade my musical taste from the mainstream I'd embraced so far (Beatles, Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Eagles, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Queen. ELO, ELP).

Steve puts on a song: "You know this?"
Of course.
"This is the original. Isn't it so much better?"

The song is "Blinded By The Light."
I only knew the version I'd heard on the radio, by Manfred Mann's Earth Band (in which the confused Brits sing "revved up like a douche" instead of "deuce").

I dunno -- a little tinny sounding? I am still not sure. (!)

Eventually Steve wears me down. And when he graduates, a senior in the next class, Eric Alterman, imparts an even bigger Bruce fandom knowledge (as well as inculcating me into the Clash and Elvis Costello). He would later write a fan's appreciation book.

Soon I am tuning in to Springsteen's live radio broadcasts and taping them on my cassette deck, and trading others with collectors. (Of course, all these recordings can now be found on YouTube with the click of a button, but at the time, the sheer effort was part of the fanatacism.)
In the fall of my senior year, I finally got to see Bruce live. After a long legal wrangle with his former manager, he released Darkness on the Edge of Town in June 1978 - a long three years after Born to Run won him simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers.

And yet after playing his first headlining shows at the Garden that summer, in the fall he returned to the 3000-seat Palladium (the size of the Beacon) for three more shows, and I luck into a transformative experience. I believe the only reason I landed a ticket to the show on September 15, 1978, is that someone else couldn't go - my much-cooler-than-me classmate, Eddie Zalaznick (he'd been playing guitar and in bands since fifth grade, for fuck's sake).

I'd never seen anything like it. It was like a revival meeting, and for a not particularly religious suburban Reform Jew, I had found the closest thing I had to a preacher I could follow. I had to look up the setlist (thanks, internet). He opened with Darkness on the Edge of Town -- one of only two times he's EVER done that - - and a bootlegger informs he dedicated it to Muhammad Ali, who had just won a fight. I do remember Bruce's incredible energy for epics like "Kitty's Back," (apparently the first time he'd played it in 3 years, done to shut up a fan who kept yelling for it), his Elvis-like stage charisma on "Fire," and his knowledge of music history - he played "I Fought the Law" and "Mona" and "Quarter to Three." (Update: In response to my post, I discovered a friend of a friend had shot these photos of the gig.)

Vintage Southside Johnny Lyon

In January, 1979, off the road and preparing to record what would become The River, Springsteen played a private birthday party for Clarence Clemons at a small club in Fair Haven, New Jersey, called Lock, Stock and Barrel.

Through some kind of Bruce grapevine, I heard that Southside Johnny, a blue-eyed Jersey soul singer who Springsteen had written songs for and shown up on stage with (right), would be playing the same club, sitting in with a local guy named Stormin' Norman. I led a road trip with my high school girlfriend Andrea, my friend Peter now at college, and his girlfriend Evy. We drove two hours from Scarsdale to Fair Haven, hoping Bruce would show.

He didn't. But playing along with Southside were Clarence Clemons and E Street bassist Garry W. Tallent. It was amazing. Andrea went home with one of Clarence's reeds and an autographed picture of Southside.

Back home, I took full advantage of my power as yearbook editor-in-chief, and among the layouts of my 420 classmates' headshots, I snuck in Springsteen's 1967 Freehold High portrait (stolen from People magazine, I think).
When I arrive at college, I aspire to deejay on the campus radio station, WHRB. But this being Harvard, instead of just "hey gang, let's put on a show," there's an elaborate "comp" process to weed out the less than worthy applicants, concocted and proctored by upperclassmen. Kind of like a frat hazing for nerds. I have to answer a long written exam to show off my knowledge. ("Who are the glimmer twins?") But I have to laugh when asked to fill in the blank of the lyric,
Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a ---
Of course I knew the answer - "teenage diplomat" - thanks, Steve Hertz. 

Just a few weeks into my freshman year, September 21, 1979, I road trip back to New York to attend one of the "No Nukes" benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. The E Street Band had been off the road for 8 months. The price was high (it was for charity) -- a whopping $18.50. We had to sit through *4* opening acts (Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ry Cooder, Chaka Khan and Jesse Colin Young). And Bruce then only played 85 minutes. 

But what an 85 minutes. It included, I believe, the first public performance of the song "The River" 
No More Nukes! More Bruce! 
The "Jackson" singing "Stay" is Jackson Browne. (Amazingly in his review, the Times' pop critic, John Rockwell, misidentified the song -in which "Stay" is said dozens of times - as Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer.") (Even more amazingly, the way I know this is because the review is Scotch-taped in my scrapbook above the ticket stub. On the Times website, the mistake is conveniently MIA - a whole line of type is missing.) 

I was a college sophomore when Bruce hit the road for The River in 1980, and luckily, being in New England and New York, was able to follow him around like a Deadhead. I saw him over Thanksgiving break at Madison Square Garden on November 28, in Providence on December 11, and in Boston December 15 & 16. 

The Providence show, the seats were so good, and the sound so good, that I made my own bootleg -- with a mono tape recorder - and took my own photos (with an SLR camera!). 
Photos by David Handelman
The most memorable show experience that tour, though, was something like a Christmas miracle - though I guess some Scrooges might call it a horribly illegal scam. 

It was December 29, 1980. I had already seen Bruce four times in the past month. But I'd missed his return to the Garden, and he was playing again so nearby, at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island....

If you look carefully at my stub above (bottom left), it's actually says Dec 28 and has a Sharpied 
Funny story. 

I have no recollection how this happened, or how in the days before the internet, we even learned about it, and it would NEVER happen today. 

But there was a scam in which we obtained taped-together discarded stubs from the previous night, had to find one specific entrance gate at the Coliseum, and have the guard who was part of the scam rip our "tickets" and we got inside. 

We had to stand the whole time, but who cared? 

Only one other time did I successfully sneak in. I was driving up the Jersey Turnpike and spied Giants Stadium all lit up like a spaceship. I remembered - Bruce was playing.

I drove into the parking lot and got out of the car and listened. I walked up to the gate. Nobody was guarding it. I walked inside and got to see all the encores. Amazing.

Emboldened, the next night I drove back around the same time with a buddy, sure I could duplicate my experience. No dice. We sat outside and listened.

Jackson & Daryl
May 1985 - I'm attending the Cannes Film Festival and see Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah park their car and walk along the Croissette. 

Later that day, I learn in the press room that Bruce has suddenly married model Julianne Phillips.

 I am flabbergasted. I don't know who to share this with, or how. (This is before cell phones, before the internet. )
Bruce & wife #1, 1985
I decide to scribble a note, "Bruce got married!" and walk back to Browne's car and leave it under the wiper. I have no idea if it got to him, but on that day, I believe I invented a very primitive form of Twitter. 

I joined the staff of Rolling Stone in early 1987, making my access to buying house seats easier, like when he played an acoustic set in tandem with Jackson and Bonnie Raitt in November 1990 to benefit the Christic Institute. 

I was too far down the totem pole to be assigned to interview him. But in a way that made me happy -- it kept me a pure fan, kept him a purer icon instead of a job (or, possibly, a disappointment). 
Still, I did enjoy it when my boss, Jim Henke, came back from being on the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N'Dour, (left) and told people Springsteen "looks just like Handelman!" (For the record, I didn't quite see it.) 

I am gonna skip my experience of the 1992-3 "Other Band" tour. Sorry, guys. Roll of the Dice.

My one and only personal interaction with Bruce was thanks to Rolling Stone, but indirectly: My RS colleague Sheila Rogers had left to be a producer for Late Night with David Letterman. And I eventually left to be arts editor at Vogue. 

On June 25, 1993, when Dave was about to leave NBC for CBS, she called me at the office. (Again,  before cell phones.) She was whispering. 

"Can you get over to 30 Rock? There's a surprise final musical guest. It's Bruce. You can't tell anyone."

So I got to see Bruce play "Glory Days" up close.
After people were milling around backstage. He was just....there. 

I walked up to him and thought quickly about what I should say. I wasn't going to gush like everyone else. I wanted to give him a message. But what? Finally, I blurted, 

"You really should release 'Murder Incorporated." 

Here's the thing. Long ago I had heard a many-generations-muffled cassette version of a studio outtake by Bruce from the 1982 Born in the USA sessions that it sounded unlike anything else he'd ever done - more hard-edged punk. 

I could not understand most of the lyrics, but I thought it odd that he'd never done anything with it. So I made my fan request. 

"Yeah, there's a lot of stuff we've recorded," he said, cheerfully. Nevertheless, I persisted. "But that one is really special," I said. 

I went to a landline phone backstage and called my then-wife. "I just met Bruce!" I enthused. Then Bruce was again hanging with nobody to talk to. 

I remembered reading a story in Rolling Stone when I was a teenager about Bruce meeting some fan in Jersey who invited him home to his house to meet his mother -- and Bruce doing it. 

So I made another request. I asked him to get on the phone to my then-wife. I only heard his side of it.

"Hey. Yeah yeah yeah, no that's okay. No, that's okay. Yeah yeah." 

He handed the phone back to me. I asked her what she said. She told me "I apologized for you making him do that."

LO AND BEHOLD, two years later, in 1995, Bruce released a Greatest Hits album, with four new tracks to entice buyers who already owned everything: "This Hard Land," "Blood Brothers," "Secret Garden"-- and "Murder, Incorporated." 

In the liner notes, it said
I was so excited. Bruce had clocked our brief conversation! (And David Browne, reviewing the album in Entertainment Weekly, said "Murder, Inc." was the best new song. )

Then I read an interview later where he cited some dude who went from show to show waving a banner asking for the song.

Fine, so we both helped.

When you see him multiple times, you've seen "Born to Run" every time, so songs like Murder Inc, covers, and rarities start to become markers for shows. During the CD revolution, many, many bootlegs from past years started to circulate and I remember nearly crying when went to my friend Sal's upper west side shop NYCD got three boxed sets of ALL covers.

And for this reason, one of the most memorable shows I saw was during his 1999-2000 E Street Band Reunion Tour (the first time they'd toured in eleven years!), in Philadelphia on September 24, 1999, the day after his fiftieth birthday.

He opened by playing a voicemail birthday message from a friend of his mother over the sound system  He quoted W.C. Fields saying "All things being equal, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," and launched into "Growin' Up" - which he hadn't played on that tour - and later played tour debuts of "Does the Bus Stop on 82nd Street?" "The Fever" (one of my favorites, an old outtake  he gave to Southside Johnny and rarely plays) and "Blinded by the Light." I was high for a week. (Of course, it's now available on disc and youtube.) 

Having kids is a fun way to relive your youthful enthusiasms and pass them on. I played Bruce in the car stereo for my two daughters. But - like most fans - they really started to understand his power when they saw him live - first on the DVD made of the reunion tour, "Live in New York."

One particular screening in February, 2002, was particularly memorable.

Their mother and I had separated, and I was living temporarily in my friend George's apartment.

They came over and during "(Just Around the Corner to) The Light of Day" we danced wildly. I felt giddy that this was all gonna be okay. I swung them around, lifted one of them up -- and my back froze.

I collapsed on the floor in a heap. I couldn't stand. I had herniated a disc. It took several months of physical therapy, but I was back on my feet for his next tour.

In October, 2003, When my older daughter, Helen, was 9, she got to see Bruce in person at Shea Stadium. She loved it, though of course he was farther away. (She says her main memory today is feeling the whole stadium shaking underfoot.) Though she knew a couple of the songs, as others began and the crowd roared, she'd turn to me and say, "What song is this?" 
Helen at Shea Oct. 3, 2003
So when we got home, I cut her several CDs in the order of the setlist so she could learn them. I titled them "What song is this?"

Nancy texting at MSG 2006
Helen was also at her sister Nancy's first Bruce show 3 years later, at Madison Square Garden in June 2006, when Springsteen was touring with his "Seeger Sessions Band." 

It was boisterous fun, but not really a Bruce show, and Nancy, then eight, fell asleep before it ended.

By his next tour in 2007, I had met Sydney, the remarkable woman I am with to this day. She only had one deficit - she had never seen a Springsteen concert. 

We rectified that on October 10, 2007, boarding a bus at port authority to the Continental Airlnes Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Though Bruce was featuring songs from a recent album I wasn't crazy about, he also dug deep into the catalogue for "Thundercrack," "Incident on 57th Street" "Adam Raised a Cain," and - more prophetically, "Reason to Believe" and "She's the One." 

We also got to see him in 2009 at the old LA Sports Arena, when he dug up "Backstreets" and covered "Raise your Hand" and "Proud Mary." 

A month later, November 2009, I was back in NYC and in the crowd at the Garden, to see him perform his second album in its entirety, "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle." Because he plays them less often, those songs are special to me.

In June 2011, his longtime saxman, Clarence Clemons, died of a stroke. I worried the band would never be the same.

Bruce cannily found the only man to replace him - Clarence's nephew, Jake. A job took me to LA so I missed the tour's NY shows, and then I was in NY when he played LA.

So on May 2, 2012, I schlepped out to Newark and was so moved that I actually wrote to his longtime publicist, Marilyn Laverty, about the experience.
"I have been seeing Bruce for 35 years and there's always a moment during the show where he lifts me up -- for whatever reason -- to a higher ground. I actually had several such moments last night, especially "The Weight" and "My City of Ruins" and the Clarence film. It's been a rough month for a lot of people I know and the Bruce message is undeniable and reaffirming."
Marilyn wrote back "Glad you dug it...even the veterans are saying last nite was one of the best ever!"

Bruce and Adele
Though I may no longer be a religious zealot about him, I still find communing with him and the band an important spiritual touchstone. In March 2016, we brought Nancy (now 18 and old enough to appreciate it) to Madison Square Garden for a show in which he played "The River" start to finish, included "Because the Night," "Meeting Across The River" into "Jungleland."

During the encore of "Dancing in the Dark," His mother Adele, age 90, came up to the side of the stage and danced with him. He finished up with "Shout".

Nancy turned to me in astonishment. Yup.

Four plus baby bump to be Born in the USA
When Springsteen's Broadway shows were first announced, I signed up for the lottery but was pretty sure I wasn't going to pay $700 -- I love him, but I'd rather fly to Europe. I failed the first several times. And after hearing that he shushed people from singing along, I wondered if I ever got in, if it would be too reverential for me to enjoy.

He kept extending the run - and I scored two $400 seats for April 10, rationalizing that they were for Sydney's and my birthdays. We happened to be going the same night as two 30something friends (right), who are expecting their second child, so that lucky kid was getting a first Bruce show in utero.

When the lights went down, and Bruce came out, he started talking in the discursive way I hadn't seen him do in years. Even though it was obviously prepared, it was something I realized I'd been missing as the years went on, when Bruce spent time personalizing the songs and performance. When discussing his family he revealed that his mom is still alive at 92, but has been suffering from Alzheimer's for seven years (so, including the time we saw her dancing.)

As Bruce recapped his early years nostalgically - missing the time when life was a blank page that could go in any direction - I wouldn't say the years slipped away. Instead, they accumulated, to something more profound. The shared experience that keeps us all going in hard times. He brought out Patti Scialfa, his wife of nearly 30 years and mother to his three kids (whom he didn't mention, though he did salute the Parkland Florida kids who are trying to reform gun laws).

During his moving tribute to Clemons, and local Jersey musicians he'd known who'd died in Vietnam, I thought about my two earliest connections to Bruce. Eddie Zalaznick, whose ticket I had claimed to see that 1978 Palladium show? He, his French wife and their three pre-teen sons all perished in the crash of a chartered Egyptian plane in January 2002. And Steve Hertz, who first swayed me away from Manfred Mann, took his own life in May 2014.

Thinking about them, as Bruce quoted MLK about the arc of life bending toward justice, I felt overwhelmed with emotion - as I often have at Springsteen shows for four decades. I thought about our pregnant friend in the theater, bringing another soul into this rocky ride on earth.

Then Bruce sang "Dancing in the Dark"- his big pop hit. But acoustic and slowed down, it suddenly becomes a very different song. A mournful plea:
I get up in the evening
And I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

Then Springsteen, who had successfully hushed the crowd except for applause and laughter, got to a certain point in the song. He sang, "I need a love reaction" - and leaned out to the crowd, cupping his ear.

We gave it to him.

Thanks, Boss.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Same as it ever was

Think today's deep-dish partisan divide is unprecedented? Just listen to episode 5 of Slate's Slow Burn, its deep-dive story of Watergate. It provides helpful context for the period we are living in now.

If you don't think supporters of a sitting President were ever this die-hard loyal despite all rational reasons not to be. If you think it's only the current bitter climate in which a party seems to be willing to self-protect at any price.

But most of all if you think that Devin Nunes' accusatory behavior - and apparent marching orders from the White House is some kind of aberrational anomaly.

In case you don't have the time to sit through the podcast, I will "spoil" some of it here, because it is historically important. And fascinating.

The most amazing nugget I took away from the episode was that the narrative I had always believed - that John Dean had come clean about Nixon's culpability, and then was buttressed when a White House staffer revealed that everything in the White House had been taped, was some kind of 1-2 punch of The Truth Tellers routing out the Bad Guys.

In fact, the only reason the tapes ever got exposed is much more happenstance - and only occurred because the Nixon White House was trying so hard to obliterate Dean's credibility that it overreached and unwittingly exposed its own secret.

(Not unlike the recent Nunes Memo which unwittingly undermined its own argument. Trying to assert that the Russia probe was bogus because it was launched by the Steele Dossier, it also included the fact that what really launched it was George Papadapoulos's earlier loose lips about Russia providing dirt on Hillary.)

John Dean testifies, 1973
White House attorney Dean wanted to testify in full to Democrats before any Republicans heard what he had to say, because he worried the White House would immediately hear his testimony from its compatriots mount a counter narrative. And it turns out he was right. Because as soon as he testified, the committee was given transcripts of conversations that Dean had in the White House to undermine his story.

But a savvy investigator (of course who, is, again, a partisan squabble, even today) was like, wait, why do you have these transcripts? Does someone have a really good memory? Or are there some kind of tapes we don't know about?

My memory of all this was that the White House guy who helped install the recording equipment in 1971, Alexander Butterfield, had heroically decided to come clean like Dean.
Butterfield testifying
That turns out not to be the case. In fact, when interviewed at age 86 he told the Washington Post in 2012, that he was willing to remain vague unless he was asked specifically about the tapes, and he doesn't like being thought of as a snitch.
“Frankly, I don’t like being known as the man who revealed the existence of the tapes. It makes it appear that I ran full tilt to the Watergate committee and told them eagerly and breathlessly the very information that Nixon considered top secret. That was not the case. I was facing a true dilemma: I wanted very much to respect Nixon’s wishes and at the same time to be cooperative and forthright with the congressional investigators. The wording of their questions meant everything to me. And when Don Sanders, the deputy minority counsel . . . asked the $64,000 question, clearly and directly, I felt I had no choice but to respond in like manner.”
Why wouldn't he want to be known that way?  Because of loyalty?

We are very lucky the overreach happened, and that someone thought to ask the question, or it may never have come out.

And without those tapes (which, as David Frost pointedly asked, why didn't Nixon destroy them?) Nixon would have continued to maintain his innocence.

And he had many True Believers.

As I write this, there's news from CNN and the NYT that Steve Bannon is refusing to speak to the House committee despite a subpoena. And one can't help wonder if he knows the John Dean playbook - that he wants to save the truth for Mueller and not give away what he knows to those who will run it immediately back to the White House.

Maybe that's not why this is happening. We may not learn the full truth for another 40 years. That's a slow burn indeed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"What Just Happened?"

This summer, I was tickled to read the oral history of one of the craziest episodes in TV history -- in which a dog who's digested marijuana makes off with the heart being brought into a hospital for a character's transplant.  Because I had been part of that creative process, as a story editor on season 6 of One Tree Hill.  

In fact I was kinda sad I hadn't been interviewed. 

I would have told the reporter the episode probably contributed to me not being asked back the following season, because when the creator, Mark Schwahn, pitched the dog-heart scenario, I blurted out "You can't do that!" 

Being told "no" was a trigger for Schwahn, who often reminded us he'd grown up in a trailer park and, with no showbiz connections, created the young-people smalltown soap opera and kept it on the air despite getting no respect from critics -- or even his own network.  Every season he concocted a finale that could double as a series finale, because he was never told in advance that the show would be renewed. Six seasons in, he bristled that he was still arguing with the higher-ups over his casting choices. In fact even though the show was produced by Warner Brothers, instead of being on the legendary studio lot the offices were on the lower-rent "Ranch" down the street, in a grim little trailer (a weird ironic twist given how far he'd come from his origins). 
Perhaps in retaliation, he made so many out-there nutty plot choices that the room had developed the catchphrase, "What just happened?" to remind us to think outside the box. While critics may have looked down on it, it outlasted, say, The West Wing by two seasons. 

So: when I blurted out "You can't," Schwahn bellowed back "Handelman! Never say 'can't'!" He was the king, and I was the peon. 

We both knew I was lucky to be there-- in fact he had rescued me from the scrap heap. He'd interviewed me for season 5 and not chosen me, and then my agents had dropped me. So a year later when they called to say he was looking for me, I landed the gig with no agents at all. 

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions --

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fact-checking the universe

The Deuce premiere. Gambling addict Frankie and his bookie.
1971 NYC. Yay! A Mets reference!  Seaver was my favorite! 
Tug? TUG??? 
My whole life, I've been cursed with a kind of OCD-level need to correct the universe.  I have an almost comic inability to enjoy something I am reading or watching or listening to -- even a museum note about a painting -- if there's a glaring error involved.

At least -- to me it's a glaring error. I'm sure most people gloss over it, or just let it go.

I've joked that since the rise of the Internet and all its sloppiness, I see my main role as its sole copy-editor.  But I DO send emails to writer friends about mistakes in their articles or headlines (since these days they can be fixed). I have tweeted to authors I don't know about their mistakes. I'm trying to keep the world safe from perpetuating - let's not call it fake news -- just ignorance.

It's exhausting. And I'm not proud of it. And it's probably cost me a couple of jobs where I just should have kept my mouth shut. I kind of think of it as my Wile E Coyote impulse. There's an old Roadrunner cartoon in which Wile E has programmed a piano to explode as soon as Roadrunner pecks on a certain key. He leaves sheet music on the piano. Roadrunner comes over and plays it wrong several times. After cringing, the increasingly furious Coyote bursts forth, pushes the bird aside and pounds out the correct sequence, blowing himself up. (Update: this was apparently the FOURTH time a Warner Bros. Cartoon used this joke, leading me to think Chuck Jones hated the song from childhood piano lessons.) 

With all the accusations of falsehoods bouncing around the world in 2017, easily fact checkable misinformation should not be out there.

I understand how this kind of oversight can happen in the rough and tumble of journalism, with its increasingly breakneck deadlines, but it's still no excuse -- like when, for example, my one-time employer and music bible Rolling Stone published a remembrance by Rickie Lee Jones about Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker, and she misspelled the other guy's name as "Fagan" instead of Fagen. Or, in the obit for Rod Temperton, initially called the hit he wrote with Michael Jackson "Rock with Me," instead of "Rock with You." (Both I sent notes about, and both now are corrected. Was it my doing?) I also corrected a friend's assertion about who had read a statement from Bill Cosby's wife after his mistrial. The friend was grateful, having had to file the piece from an airplane.

But it's always a little more confounding to me when an error pops up in a movie or a TV show. After all, not only did the people on the set all hear it and see it -- the script had to get through many incarnations and

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Triumph Lost and Found at the WGA Awards

 “I guess the WGA thought  it  would be fun for the children’s category to be presented
 by a foul-mouthed puppet—but  unfortunately, Sean Spicer wasn’t  available.” - Triumph
Awards shows might look glamorous on TV and in pictures, but in person, they're often a slog to sit through - even if you're nominated, but especially if you're just an audience member.  Long-winded thank-yous, irrelevant claptrap, long walks from the balcony to the podium.

But this year's Writers' Guild East Awards (a parallel ceremony was being staged live in LA simultaneously) - because of a perfect storm of host, presenters, political situation, nominees, victors, and honorees -- was remarkably rewarding and entertaining for me. Not just as a member, or as a TV viewer, but as a former journalist And it ended with a hilarious near-tragedy-turned comedy, involving Triumph the Comic Insult Dog's missing trophy.

Cobb (right) applauds Bernstein (center) 
Though I've been part of the nominated shows in the past, this year I was there as a member of the Guild's activities committee, working as a volunteer, drawn partly by the host - The Daily Show's Lewis Black - as well as the promised presence of Wire creator David Simon, on hand to present an award to his fellow Baltimorean John Waters, and I was hoping against hope as a TV viewer that The Americans, written and shot here, would finally win a much overdue award.

I had the happy task of ushering New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, who produced the Frontline documentary Policing the Police and was being given the first Walter Bernstein Award,  for writers "who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity." The award is named after the Blacklisted screenwriter hero - who is still sharp at age 97 and was sitting at the table with Cobb (left) - a living testament to standing up to governmental malfeasance.

From the get-go, the proceedings had a special charge to them. It's hard to explain how much harder the East Coast community of writers has to work to succeed in showbiz, which prefers everyone to be under its eye and thumb in L.A. -- and have stuck to their creative guns while doing so. Among those in the room: Simon, Waters, Tina Fey, Kenneth Lonergan, Jill Kargman, John Patrick Shanley, Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the staffs of John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Colbert,  as well as unionized broadcast news journalists like our President, longtime Bill Moyers writer Michael Winship.

The intro to Lewis Black - another inveterate New Yorker who I first encountered when he was staging plays by aspiring playwrights like Aaron Sorkin downstairs at the West Bank Cafe in the 80's - correctly stated, "He was the voice of Anger in Inside Out, and was also the voice of anger in literally everything he's ever done."

He spoke of watching Trump's recent press conference while trying to write his monologue, "and I was forced to realize yet again that we are living at the intersection of satire and reality."

I had one personal agenda for the night: Before the ceremony, I tracked down Steve O'Donnell, former Letterman head writer who was getting the Herb Sargent Award, who, with his twin brother humorist Mark, had written a piece for me at Rolling Stone

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Father's Dreams of Obama

Walter Handelman (1931-2009) in the Navy circa 1954
Eight years ago tonight, my Dad, Walter, left a Super Bowl party and died in his sleep. On each anniversary, like others on Facebook who've lost loved ones,  I usually post a classic photo (like the one above) a brief tribute, and get a lot of sympathetic "likes."

But this year feels like something more is in order.

I realized it had to do with an email he sent me and my brothers after election night 2008 -  that I wound up quoting in his eulogy not two months later.  He died only 12 days after Obama's inauguration.

Dad was a lifelong Republican - but a bygone species of moderate sometimes referred to as "Jacob Javits Republicans" - who last voted for a GOP Presidential Candidate in 1968.

All my life, Dad hadn't been that communicative about his emotions. My mom (a lifelong Democrat, whose dad was a labor lawyer) was the, shall we say, expressive and dominating partner . The two of them were inseparable - literally. At some point we surmised they had never spent more than a few consecutive days apart their entire 49 years of marriage.

She died suddenly at 70, in October 2007, of an aneurysm, while swimming. (He had found her and had jumped in to the pool fully clothed trying to rescue her, but she'd died instantly.)

After all those nights in a couple, in his solitude he uncorked a new (or rather, hidden from me and my brothers) frankness that gave us a new relationship with him.  

He would often go to Mets games solo, leaving her seat empty rather than trying to replace her companionship. and confided to us that at bedtime he often "spoke" to her.

Here's the email he sent after Obama's election. 
Obama's win was an historical event in our country's history.  It is hard to overstate its meaning, the full extent of which will not be known, probably, in my lifetime. 
I feel proud of our country, in a way that I have not fully felt for many years.  Hope is what has gotten us through one crisis after another during the 20th century, and is what we can cling to into the 21st.   
And in Obama I think we have a president who has the intellectual capacity to seize the opportunities that make hope a reality  As someone who served in the armed forces, and who has made the ideals of Boy Scouting a central part of his lifetime, I am happy to see a  person in the White House who shares my belief that the leadership of our country on the world scene, as we had during World War II, is the most important gift we can make to humankind. 
I talked to Mom about this at length, aloud, last night, and felt her with me as I dropped off to a deep and dreamless sleep.
getting Eagle Scout award
I keep wondering what Dad -- an Eagle Scout who lobbied for years to try to get the Boy Scouts to accept gay scouts,  an ROTC Navy Lieutenant,  a private-practice estates and trusts lawyer who did pro-bono and reduced-rate lawyering for churches and prison education and homeless outreach, and a tireless local volunteer, including a 2-year stint as the mayor of my hometown -- would think of the pendulum swing that occurred this election.

I imagine it might be something like how my folks in their seats behind first base at Shea Stadium reacted when the Mets - inevitably -- imploded.  Let's just say, there was a lot of...expressed emotion.

As they headed to the parking lot, however, they did not swear off the Mets or baseball or the traffic jam forever. They knew the season was 162 games long. And if the Mets didn't make it to the playoffs, there was always next year.

I'm trying to keep that in mind.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Survey Says?

Family Feud prepped us for this. 
We are drowning in surveys. I'd be saying that even if it hadn't been the year of a Presidential election (one which, by the way, proved the utter ineptitude of endless polling). All month we've been getting what amount to survey results about movies, music, books, photos, stories of the year. (The Chicago Sun-Times email this week helpfully declared this the "Year of the Cubs and Trump.")

Our constant loop of feedback has weird consequences: Jan. 1 2017's Sunday Times just arrived with an entire printed section consisting of the "Most Read, Shared & Viewed" Stories of 2016 (reminding me of when TV shows used to run "clip" episodes with characters having flashbacks to save production costs).
For readers with no Internet?
When the Internet started, we were all lured into voicing our opinions: not just the things we bought on Amazon and eBay, but the sellers themselves. Not just a Facebook post or Tweet, but our comment on others'.

More recently, the convenience and economy of Uber comes with the price of having to rate our drivers - and be rated by them.  (The main result I've noticed is the increase in forced personal interaction with drivers.)

Bryce Howard's ratings soon go south (Black Mirror)
The "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror earlier this year (right) took the social cost of such ratings to their illogical conclusion, where lives were ruined by bad numbers.

For a while, I gamely played along

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Pool Disrupter (An Election Parable)

Swimming is what I do for exercise and for mental health - the latter more than ever this election cycle when I've been working at CNN and having to immerse myself in the daily morass.

But I was reminded again this morning, there's one swimmer who keeps making it difficult for me to lose myself - and the situation has echoes of the campaign.

Public pool lap swimmers are generally a collegial, accommodating bunch. We all have our routines, but we understand that since we have chosen to exercise not on a lake or on a solo elliptical machine at the gym, we have to pace ourselves and dovetail with our fellows.  If there are two swimmers, you split a lane. More than two, you swim in counterclockwise circles. Some pools even designate "slow, medium, fast" lanes to help sort things out.

But some people just don't care - about others, rules or decorum.

Case in point: One day last summer I was at the excellent community pool in Durango, Colorado (left), and found 10 of the 11 lanes had two swimmers sharing. So as is customary, I stood at the end of the 11th, and when the lone swimmer arrived, I tapped him on the shoulder to inform him we'd be splitting it.

His reply was shocking. "I don't do well with splits." He turned and headed back into hogging the lane.  Instead of crowding two other swimmers, I waited for someone else to finish and took her place.

That was a one-time incident. But the situation at my neighborhood rec center pool in Harlem is chronic. I was ecstatic to discover the beautiful tiled space when I moved uptown 6 years ago, and I have adjusted my life to match the Parks Department's limited lap swim hours, during which orange cones are set up by the lifeguard to designate them slow, fast, medium, respectively.
Over the years a melting-pot group of regulars - African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Latinos, Caucasians - is usually partaking of the M/W/F 7-9am slot. Among the most memorable a 90-year-old woman who paddles the whole time on her back; a 90-pound woman who swims entire laps underwater along the pool bottom; a bearded guy who wears no goggles yet zooms past most of us; an elderly guy who works out with water barbells in the deep end, and a heavyset man who does some lackadaisical water exercise in the shallow end of the slow lane but mostly harangues anyone else in earshot.

Then there's the Big Guy.

When I first enter the pool room, I know what kind of workout it will be if The Big Guy is in the water. He's retirement age, well over 6 feet, pear-shaped, probably 300 lbs., and he swims a full 90 minutes three times a week.  His pace is very very very methodical (ie slow), taking elaborate, wide-swath flip turns at each end, which would be fine if he were in the slow lane. But