I’ve Lost My Addiction for TV and I Want it Back

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 8, 2020

As a life-long TV addict, I’m going through a bizarre phase where I can’t get into watching TV. I’ve started asking myself: “Why do I watch TV?” I theorize if I can figure out the specific aspects that currently make me love a rare TV story now it might help me find new shows that will hook me in the future. I don’t know if other people have this problem or not. Leave a comment if you do.

Right now the number one factor in me finishing a TV show is whether or not I’m watching it with someone else. Currently, I’m watching Star Trek: Picard on Thursdays with my friend Annie. I watch Jeopardy M-F with my wife Susan. We also watch Survivor together on Wednesday night. For ten years I watched a lot of TV with my friend Janis, but she moved to Mexico. In the year since I’ve only rarely gotten hooked on a series that I’ll watch by myself. My fallback on these restless nights is to put on a Perry Mason episode or graze on YouTube videos. But this week, I’m even having trouble finishing even ten minute YouTube video.

Every night I try three or four new shows hoping to find something I’ll want to binge-watch. And I do find things that just a couple of years ago would have glued me to the set. But for some unknown reason, I lose interest after about 5-10 minutes. That’s even when I’m thinking, “Hey, this is a good story” to myself. It’s an odd sensation to consider a show interesting but then feel “I’m tired of watching” after a few minutes.

I could do other things, but this is my TV time and I don’t want to give it up. If I have enough energy in the late evenings I do switch to reading.

The last two nights I’ve tried Taboo and Ripper Street — shows set in 19th-century England, a favorite time period of mine. Even though I marveled at the historical sets and staging, I couldn’t get into them. A few weeks back I did binge-watch 8 episodes of Sanditon. That makes me wonder if I now prefer polite society to the scum-of-the-Earth strata. I loved watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with Janis, but on my own, I can’t stick with the newer seasons of Better Call Saul.

Thinking about that I do remember I was able to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown by myself. They were nonviolent. However, I loved Black Sails and quickly binged through four seasons, and it was very brutal. Maybe I don’t mind certain bloodthirsty characters. Maybe violence isn’t a factor at all.

What are the elements of a story that draw us in? What makes us watch a screen for hours and hours? Don’t you think it’s rather strange that we spend so much time mesmerized by our television sets? I’ve watched a lot of television in my life — more than most, but less than some. Remember that old meme about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die? Well, if that happened to me, a third of that vision will be me lying down asleep, and another huge chunk will be me sitting in front of a TV screen. Television must be very appealing since we willingly devote so much of our free time to it. But why?

I recently wrote “What Happened To Science Fiction?” trying to understand how science fiction had changed from Star Trek in 1966, to Star Trek: Picard in 2020. I realized back in 1966 what I loved about science fiction was the ideas in the story. But in 2020, what I loved about Picard was the characters. And in between most SF fans have switched from loving ideas to loving the storytelling. In other words, I felt there were at least three types of appealing qualities to science fiction (which can apply to any kind of fiction:)

  • Ideas/Information
  • Storytelling/Plot
  • Character/People

I still mostly admire fiction for ideas. I love storytelling and characters, but not as much as I love information and details. Picard is interesting because of the character Picard, but also because of Patrick Stewart. Back in 1966, I believe Star Trek acquired a lot of fans for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, etc., but I liked it for individual episodes with cool science fictional themes. Television used to be very episodic. Now a TV show often has an arc covering a whole season or even multiple seasons. Its appeal is the storytelling and plot. But pure storytelling doesn’t addict me.

We used to be mesmerized by 30 or 60-minute tales. That appeal of television was like enjoying short stories. In fact, 1950s television killed off the pulps and short story magazines. Modern TV, with binge-watching whole seasons, is like reading a novel. We now commit to ten to thirteen hours. Part of my problem might be commitment issues. It used to be committing to a 90-minute movie or 10-hour season was no big deal. Mentally, it is now.

We tend to use television to kill time, to fill up our lives. That suggests we don’t have anything better to do, but I also feel that TV is an art form we admire. That we devote so much time to TV because it is something of quality, and is worthy of our attention. It could be 10-15 minutes is all I’ve got for admiring TV at age 68. And the reason why I can watch for longer periods with other people is I consider it socializing.

I used to watch several hours of TV a day, even by myself, but in my old age, that seems to be a declining skill. Is anyone else having this problem? Since retiring I want to watch a couple hours of TV at the end of the day before going to sleep, but I’m having trouble filling those hours. Last night I tried a half-dozen YouTube videos, fifteen minutes of Ripper Street, and about five minutes of five movies from the TCM on-demand collection. I’ve always had a powerful addiction for old movies, and I went ten years without access to TCM and hungered for it terribly. I recently got TCM again when we subscribed to YouTube TV, but old movies don’t thrill me like before.

Is something wrong with me mentally? Have I just become jaded because of decades of TV consumption. Has a decade of binge-watching multi-season shows worn me out? I feel like a heroin addict who has lost the high but still wants to shoot up. I miss having a TV show I’m dying to get back to watching.

I always thought one of the benefits of old age was getting to watch TV guilt-free. I figured I’d be too decrepit to do much else and assumed my declining health years would be filled with the quiet life of books and TV. Man, I’m going to be up Schitt’s Creek if I can’t watch TV. I need to figure out exactly what turns me on about TV shows so I can find something to watch. Hundreds of scripted series are created each year. There’s bound to be more for me to watch.

I absolutely loved Black Sails because it was a prequel to Treasure Island, and the entire four seasons led up to that story I’ve loved since childhood. I wonder if there are other TV shows based on books I loved. Looking at Ranker’s “The Best TV Shows Based On Books” it’s going to be tricker than I thought. Most of them are based on books I haven’t read, and many of the ones based on books I have read aren’t shows I’ve liked. There must be another psychological element I haven’t considered.

I also loved watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I think it’s because it’s about a time period I remember. I recall the 1970s too, but The Deuce isn’t that appealing. I’ve been meaning to try some of the shows set in the recent past. I’m looking forward to watching Mrs. America on Hulu, about the second wave feminists. Maybe biographical historical shows set during my lifetime is a noteworthy factor. That might be why I like The Crown so much. And it might explain why I also enjoyed documentaries on Miles Davis and John Coltrane recently.

And thinking about it though, the setting has to be more than just contemporary history. There are lots of shows set in the recent past that don’t work. Evidently, history needs a connection.

Genre shows have also petered out for me. Shows built on mystery or romance no longer work, and even though I still love reading science fiction, TV science fiction has no appeal anymore. Without Annie, I wouldn’t be watching Star Trek. She also got me to stick with The Game of Thrones.

All I know, is every once in a while I do find a show that absolutely addicts me. I just wish I knew what drug it contained that’s addictive.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should I Forget Dorothy?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 17, 2020

Being part of history is the gold standard for being long remembered. Pop culture fame can also get you remembered, but not as long. Geneology is probably the common way we ordinary folks will be remembered, especially if we’re neither historical or famous. Writers and artists often like to believe they will achieve immortality through their works, and that was certainly true for Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Sadly, being published today usually proves a poor bet at avoiding literary obscurity.

Through some weird accident of circumstances, I have become the repository for the memory for Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole who wrote under the name Lady Dorothy Mills. I maintain the website ladydorothymills.com. Last year it got a total of 175 visitors, but most of them leave almost immediately. It’s a very static site because I seldom find new information about her. I used to get a query about her every year or two, but it’s been years now since I’ve heard from anyone asking about Lady Mills.

Lady Dorothy Mills wrote fifteen books from 1916-1931, nine novels, and six nonfiction books, all long out of print. I own all of them except her first novel Card Houses and the last Jungle!. She is most famous for writing five travel books capitalizing on the idea of an aristocratic European woman traveling alone in Africa, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. She achieved a minor amount of fame. As far as I can tell only 26 used copies of her books are for sale right now, and most of those are the nonfiction titles. Of the 5 copies of her novels, two are the German versions of The Dark Gods. Most of these volumes have been on the market for years. There is little interest in her work.

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth my effort to convert her books into digital texts so I can submit them to Project Gutenberg. It would be a terrific amount of work and its doubtful anyone would read them. But I’d hate to see Lady Mills become completely forgotten. I’ve been trying to come up with reasons to convince people to try her books. Right now it’s almost impossible to get ahold of any kind of edition to read. I’ve wondered if there were free ebook editions available would a few readers give her a chance?

I’m currently reading The Laughter of Fools from 1920. It’s about a young woman living with her aunt and uncle after her father dies. I’m not sure of the time period yet, but you have to imagine a Downton Abbey type of setting. Lady Mills was the daughter of an Earl and grew up in a manor house on a country estate. I assume her life was somewhat like Crawley girls, as Lady Mills was about their age. She would have been 23 in 1912, the year the story began. Lady Mills’ mother was also a rich American woman. However, Lady Mills married a poor American man, and from what I can infer, her father wasn’t as forgiving as Lord Grantham. Lady Mills went out into the world to make it own her own.

The girl in The Laughter of Fools is named Louise, and Lady Mills’ mother was named Louise. I have to wonder how much of herself she put in this character. Louise finds life with her aunt and uncle boring and eventually gets permission to go on a vacation for her health. Her guardians believe she is being supervised by a proper English lady, but Louise gets to run around with an arty bohemian crowd. This opens up a whole new world for her. I imagine the same thing happened to Lady Mills.

I wish I had a copy of Lady Mills’ first novel, Card Houses published in 1916. That was the year she married Capt. Arthur Mills. It might reveal more about her early life and personality. I get the feeling her first few novels were about the life she knew and that social set, and her later novels were fantasy or science fiction. Her travel books were about becoming an independent woman.

I can’t say that The Laughter of Fools is good literature. I only find it interesting for four reasons. First and primary, I’m looking for clues about Lady Mills. Second, I enjoy the Downton Abbey resonating vibes. Third, it tells about life in England during a very literary period — the book adds a few details that I don’t find in Woolf, Huxley, Forster, and others of that era. Finally, it’s about a woman breaking free in a time when few did. But mostly the novel’s appeal is trying to figure out what Lady Dorothy Mills was like and why she became a writer.

I still don’t know what kind of person she was. Would I have liked her? Or was she a weirdo, or even a Lady Asshole? Does she deserve to be remembered or is there a reason why everyone is forgetting her? I feel like I’ve fed a stray cat and now I’m responsible for its care.

Small items about her come up for sale every once in a while but they can be expensive. And if I really wanted to pursue this project properly I’d need to travel to England and do some real research. That is almost not going to happen. Still, I might try converting one book, The Laughter of Fools and see if anyone reads it. It would be nice to see if anyone else gets anything out of her. Sooner or later, I’d like to find a younger person to inherit the caretaking of this strange cat.

JWH

 

 

When The Future Has Become the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Back in 1965, I read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein. The story is about a guy named Dan Davis who invents a robot vacuum cleaner. The setting of the story begins in the year 1970 but the story itself was first published in F&SF in October 1956. So Heinlein was assuming a lot would happen in 14 years. Well, two things. One, household robots would appear in 1970, and cold sleep would be perfected so people could pay to be put into suspended animation. In 1965 when I read the book I thought both of these were still futuristic but hoped a lot would happen in five years. I wanted that future.

Not to spoil the story, but Dan decides to take cold sleep and wakes up in the year 2000 when his patents and investments should have grown into a magnificent pile of wealth. This lets Heinlein extrapolate and speculate even further into the future. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned by Dan. In his future, Dan invents Drafting Dan hoping to make another fortune.

What’s funny is I read The Door Into Summer in 1965 when everything in the book was set in the future and I’ve lived long enough so that the book is now set in the past. That’s very science fictionally existential. Essentially Heinlein imagines the Roomba and Autocad back in 1956. And the 1959 Signet book cover artist imagines we’ll be wearing spandex and capes. And even though some people do wear such garb today, it’s not an accurate guess about average Americans in the future. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if that artist had imagined everyone wearing hoodies, shorts, t-shirts, and flipflops?

I remember back in the 1960s having so much hope for the future. It’s mind-blowing to me that next week I’ll be living in the year 2020.

There’s one thing I’ve learned from experience – the future is everything I never imagined. It’s almost as if I imagine something being possible that the act of thinking it cancels out the possibility.

There is no predicting the future. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls, but sometimes they accidentally get things a tiny bit right. People are always thrilled at that. But imagine if Robert A. Heinlein had written a novel that perfectly captured the Donald Trump years and published it back in 1965. How would readers have reacted? Could they have believed it? Most people would have just brushed it off as crazy science fiction.

RAH-Future-History-chart

However, back in the early 1940s, Heinlein imagined the United States going through what he called the “Crazy Years” and later on experiencing religious fanaticism that leads to a theocracy. Quite often in the 1950s science fiction writers imagined the United States falling apart because of religious revivals convincing people to reject science. Doesn’t produce a tiny bit woo-woo soundtrack in your head?

Science fiction is never right about the future, but sometimes it feels a little eerie. Just enough to hear The Twilight Zone music. In 2019 I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. Those stories had a lot of hopes and fears about the future, a future that is now my past. That’s very weird. But it’s also strange how often they get just a little bit right. Just enough to put a little zing into the story.

By the way, The Door Into Summer is an entertaining novel I recommend and features a wonderful cat character, Pete, short for Petronius the Arbiter. Heinlein loved cats, so do I. Here’s how he said he got the idea for writing the story:

When we were living in Colorado there was snowfall. Our cat — I'm a cat man — wanted to get out of the house so I opened a door for him but he wouldn't leave. Just kept on crying. He'd seen snow before and I couldn't understand it. I kept opening other doors for him and he still wouldn't leave. Then Ginny said, 'Oh, he's looking for a door into summer.' I threw up my hands, told her not to say another word, and wrote the novel The Door Into Summer in 13 days.

And here is a 1958 ad for the book that is fun to read today when we can look back to when they were looking forward.

Door Into Summer ad page 1

Door Into Summer ad page 2

Yeah, I know it’s bizarre that I’m recommending you read a book set in the past that was supposed to be our future. However, it still features the sturdy standbys of storytelling, love, betrayal, greed, revenge, and of course, a cat.

Merry Christmas — JWH

What A Difference 23 Years Make

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 31, 2019

Society is constantly changing and evolving, and so does the popular culture it produces. Starting in 1959, and into the early 1960s, there were a number of court cases that profoundly changed pop-culture by removing various censorship laws. It allowed movies to portray graphic sex and violence, and include nudity and profanity. This was especially noticeable in movie westerns. Westerns in the 1950s seem very different from those in the 1970s, and we can see the transitioning in the 1960s. Millennials and later generations probably have no idea what pop-culture was like before their time, and just accept today’s movies as a norm. If you live long enough, you can see that movies change.

My favorite westerns generally come from the 1940s and 1950s. The other night I watched The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando which had a much different view of the old west. In many ways it was more realistic – we see people going to outhouses, using profanity, having sex, showing a bit of nudity, wearing dirty raggedy clothes, and so on. The characters seem more like real people and have complex problems and psychologies. Too often in older westerns, characters wore not only clean clothes which they changed often, but ones that look like they came from fashion designers. Most folks in the historical west wore the same clothes for many days, seldom bathed, and usually owned a tiny wardrobe. Just compare the two versions of True Grit.

Living conditions in The Missouri Breaks seemed repulsive to me, and it lacked heroes and heroines. It’s not a feel-good western, like Shane (1953).  Who wouldn’t want to be Shane (Alan Ladd), who would want to be Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando)? Of course, Brando’s over-the-top performance does weird-out the overall vibe of The Missouri Breaks, but then such characterizations have become more common as we approach the present day. The recent Joker movie is one example.

If we compare the west of Shane with The Missouri Breaks does it even feel like the same historical era? Is it really the same genre? There are violent people in both films because the essence of westerns is violence. You’d think I should be comparing the two characters the audience wants to see die in the end, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Robert E. Lee Clayton. Both films feature ranchers who hire gunmen (Palance and Brando) but the issue of who the good guys are is confused. In Shane, the good guys are hardworking homesteaders, and in The Missouri Breaks, they are horse thieves, train robbers, and maybe murderers. If we are for law and order, then David Braxton (John McLiam) the rancher and Robert E. Lee Clayton should be our heroes. They’re not.

Remember in Shane, Shane is a gunman just like Jack Wilson, but he’s trying to change, and live under law and order. Shane is the homesteaders’ gunman, but he’s the hero of the picture because he fights the rancher who bullies the homesteaders. Shane sides with law and order. Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by the rancher to kill rustlers and murderers and appears to be for law and order. The trouble is Clayton takes psychotic pleasure in his job.

What happened in those 23 years from 1953 to 1976 that remade westerns? Shane is a killer, but one we side with. In The Missouri Breaks, we side with Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who is a horse thief, train robber, and probably killer too. (We never know who kills the rancher’s foreman.) Of course, in westerns, the audience always sides with a killer, because westerns nearly always resolve conflicts with a killing. Before the 1960s we sided with the white hats against the black hats, but it seems sometimes in the 1960s, everyone started wearing gray hats.

Shane, the Alan Ladd character, knows killing is bad. He wants to avoid killing, but in the end, he is pushed into it to save the people he loves. The audience admires him. But Robert E. Lee Clayton, the Marlon Brando character, delights in killing and justifies his behavior by killing horse thieves, train robbers, and murderers, people we should be against, but we despise Robert E. Lee Clayton and rejoice when he is killed. And in the last fifty years, we’ve seen both the hero/anti-hero and bad guys kill more and more people in westerns. Brando’s bizarre performance was only a bellwether.

Tom Logan, the Jack Nicholson character, is an anti-hero. Yet, even when anti-heroes are as charming as Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), should we really like and admire them? It is true that the old west criminals were more colorful than dull hardworking people who actually built the west.

Something happened to the westerns in the 1960s. Before that the good people were nicer, but so were the bad people. Sure, the bad guys of the old west were mean, and psycho killers too, but they weren’t as disturbing as modern bad guys. Between the westerns of the 1950s and the 1970s, we see the bodies counts rise in each film, and we see more depraved violence. The profanity, nudity, and sex are the upfront obvious differences, but I also think there is a shift in how westerns present killing. Intentionally modern westerns of the 1970s like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Judge Roy Bean, etc. worked hard to redefine the western in terms of artistic storytelling but also in presenting old west history with a different psychological perspective. In some ways, this shift became most visible with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When did good guys v. bad guys become neurotics v. psychos? When did westerns go from gunfights to serials killers and mass shooters? In the Old West, the most famous gunfight (O.K. Corral) three men died. In modern westerns, the body counts are so high that most viewers stop counting.

Sure, TV cowboys of the 1950s did a lot more killing than their movie counterparts. By one estimate, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke killed between 138 men and 7 women to 303 people over a 20-year period. However, if we consider each episode a separate story, the violence is far less.

Maybe I like the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s because I find the death of the bad guy at the end of the film a satisfying resolution to the story. Watching modern westerns feel more like we’re Romans at the Colosseum, desiring non-stop killing. We’re not there for the story, but for the slaughter. Films like the Hateful 8 are designed to feed our need for gunplay porn. If people watch sex porn because they’re not getting laid and want to vicarious pretend having sex, then why do we enjoy so many killings in movies today? Is it because we’re not getting to kill all the people we want and vicariously find release in the pretend killings?

I believe body counts began to escalate in the westerns of the 1960s, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and ending with The Wild Bunch (1969). I still loved these westerns, especially as a kid, and even when I felt they were becoming silly in their efforts to top themselves with gimmicky plots, explosions, and ways of killing people. However, as I’m getting older, I question my fondness for such killathon westerns. I admit I love TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld, but I’m also wondering about myself too.

Westerns 1

These days I’d much rather rewatch Winchester ’73, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory, Rawhide, Angel and the Badman, Shane, Three Godfathers, Tall in the Saddle, and movies like them. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or turning back the clock to enjoy movies when there were fewer killings per film. I was taught in school that the ancient Greeks didn’t allow violence on stage in their plays. All violence had to happen off-stage. I’m not ready to go that far. I do like the realism of modern westerns. The sex, nudity, and profanity are fine. I’ve just got to wonder about the kill-porn addiction we’ve acquired.

Angel_badman

We have become a nation that worships guns. Notice how often we see people posing with guns, and how often we see them in pop culture. The interesting thing about westerns is we see a historical era where people lived by the gun but were moving toward a gun-free civilization. Westerns represent a time just before all the cowboys would hang up their guns. (Watch the wonderful Angel and the Badman.) We’re now living in a time where everyone wants to strap on a gun. Is this the undoing of civilization?

Isn’t it rather ironic that in the old west, Republicans were the advocates for gun control? They were for laws, regulations, order, progress, cities, and civilization back in the 19th century. Doesn’t it seem they want to bring back the wild west now? Aren’t old westerns really propaganda for gun control? In some ways, new westerns seem to counter the philosophy of old westerns.

But then we have one last problem. Were any westerns ever like the historical west? Or, are westerns really the pop culture snapshots of the people and times in which they were made? If that’s so, we live in some pretty strange times if we judge ourselves by the movies we see in the theaters today.

JWH

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH