Music, Personal Essay

All of my heroes are officially dead

By Scott Ross

With Pete Seeger I note the passing of perhaps my last living hero.

Well, as that grand old troubadour himself might have noted, the need for heroes may indicate something lacking in ourselves, or at the very least something unformed, and immature, about our sense of values. One of the more difficult lessons to endure is the recognition that those one admires most are all too capable of revealing themselves to us as fallibly human. There was, I’ve discovered, much that was unsavory, or anyway less than admirable, about Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams and Arthur Laurents and Pauline Kael and Bob Fosse and Billy Wilder. Stephen Sondheim too has proven to have feet of clay, as have Larry Kramer and Harlan Ellison. (My heroes have tended to be artists; I’ve never emulated a politician or a soldier, two species who seem to me far more alike than can bear a great deal of scrutiny.)

But Pete, whatever his personal foibles or his slowness to come to grips with, say, sexual politics, seemed—seems—to me if not above reproach, seldom in its vicinity. He, and his fellow Weavers (Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and the late Lee Hayes) may have been uncomfortable fitting themselves into the mold required by Decca and Gordon Jenkins, may even have believed they were selling out in some way, but when push came to shove, their collective sense of ethical probity was not a movable feast. Pete after all was at Peekskill, risking life and limb in the face of sense-maddened (and officially sanctioned) rioters as bent on shredding the Bill of Rights as he was on defending it.

Pete’s system of values was humanist in the very best sense, his causes uniformly devoted to the elevation of his species, and the earth in which (and the air and water on which) they lived. Not for Pete Seeger the easy means of escape, or the avid role of the happy informer, in the case of Burl Ives, or the paid one, as with Harvey Matusow. It was Pete, not jolly, bearded, avuncular Burl, who appeared before the actively fascist House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and stated, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, essentially under such compulsion as this.”

I am reminded today of something I once overheard in a music store (remember those?) in the mid-1990s. Some young dolt was looking through the folk section and not coincidentally “educating” his girlfriend on the performers whose CDs they were perusing. Something in his tone, and his gasbag manner, instantly annoyed me. But when, exhibiting one of Pete’s albums he bloviated, “His politics are all wrong, but he wrote some great songs,” it took all the restraint I possessed to keep from screaming, “Pete’s politics are his songs, you puffed-up, know-it-all, Republican ignoramus.”

I bet when he reads Ayn Rand his lips move.

Pete would no doubt have smiled benignly, and demurred, gently, in that mellifluous tenor of his, preferring to take the opportunity to teach rather than simply to vent. That’s one of the differences between Pete Seeger and me. Pete’s impulse was to inclusion, and, if not solution, at least diffusion. You can hear it in his choice of material, in the words he wrote, and in his urge to call-and-response in his concert appearances.

It is, after all, the differences between yourself and your heroes that ultimately make them heroic.
Pete Seeger rr9042

Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.

Galileo: No, Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Bertolt Brecht, Galileo
(All other) text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
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All Politics is Local

Bill Moyers’ State of Conflict: North Carolina

By Scott Ross

Brought to my attention by my friend Eliot M. Camerena. Wisconsin got more press coverage, electronic and otherwise, but my state is hurtling merrily along the same path to GOP Hell. It seems to me that Moyers et al. get it absolutely right here:  Limitless Access to Money + Retarded-adolescent, Randite ideals x Uninformed Electorate = Unchecked Political Power and Influence. If not Art Pope, the Kochs. If not them, someone else will be happy to step in. And their hand-picked figureheads such as the man I call His Smugness of Charlotte will cheerfully do their bidding, as long as they’re rewarded with sufficient patronage. Look for Governor Pat to run, within the next few years, for Senator or President… and then Art Pope, having effectively reversed a century of my state ‘s progress, can get to work setting back the clock for the entire country.

I personally think we are living through the End Times—not, as the rabid Jesus Christers believe, of the world itself but of the American Experiment. I believe that democracy in fact (as opposed to theory) has either died, or is in its death throes in this much-vaunted Land of the Free. I wish I didn’t. But all around me, the willful ignorance if not downright stupidity of the average American provides daily illustration of the thesis, and proof (if any were needed by this point) that those with enough money can brainwash the mass into voting against its own best interest time after weary time, until it has ceded its power and its voice and with a radiant smile on its idiot face, pitched in to build its own prison. Whereat the poor, dumb bastards can smile and say, “I may have destroyed myself… but by God at least I kept that nigrah [or kike, or faggot, or spic, or ay-rab; fill in the derisive noun for your own favorite cultural bugbear] from gettin’ anything!”

And I’ll stop there, because I’m depressing myself.

Eliot’s Word Press blog: http://emcphd.wordpress.com/

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Personal Essay

Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

By Scott Ross

Tomorrow, 18 January, marks my 53rd birthday. And no, that announcement is not me fishing for good wishes; I accept the date because I must, not because I’m happy about it. However, last week’s uncommonly cold weather in North Carolina caused me to think of my father’s circumstances the day I was taken home.

There was, I was once told, a wind-chill factor of 20 below in Canton, Ohio the morning I exited my mother’s womb. Had I known, I might have climbed back in. At the time, my parents had an old VW Beetle. A convertible, no less. (In Ohio. What the hell were they thinking?) They, and my sister, were living in the upstairs apartment of an elderly widow, Mrs. Claire Reed, who lived downstairs and with whom we maintained fond contact long after we moved into our own, rented house when I was three. Her gentleman friend, sweet old Ed McQuisten, was so constant a presence at Mrs. Reed’s that the two became linked in our vocabulary. One seldom spoke of Mrs. Reed, or of Ed. They were as one entity. As one word: “MrsReed&Ed.”

The day Dad was to bring Mom and tiny self home from Aultman Hospital was brutally cold… and the heater on the VW Beetle had given up the ghost. It also chose the morning my father was on his way to pick us up to die along the side of the road. Dad opened the hood, determined the problem, and set off on foot toward an auto parts store he’d passed along the way. As if sent by a divine providence, Ed happened along. He was more than happy to take Dad to the parts supply store, wait for him to make his purchase, and drive him back. He offered to stay until the engine was going again but my father, whether with bravado, from humiliation, or out of some misguided faith in his own mechanical abilities, assured the old man that he would be fine.

Ed drove away. Dad replaced the faulty part, got in behind the wheel, turned the key… and probably either groaned, wept, or, knowing him as I did and so, cursed a veritable blue streak as it failed to engage. Re-checking the engine, he determined that he had misdiagnosed the problem, and trudged back through the bitter cold to the parts supplier.

My father made it back to the car, and replaced the part in question; what it was I no longer remember, and Dad is dead. I was brought home in that heat-less Volkswagen, bundled so thoroughly I could not be seen, but intact and, despite the odds, physically no worse for what must surely have been an uncomfortably Arctic drive. I don’t know whether Mrs. Reed imbibed, but I hope she served, if not hot toddies, at least some piping mugs of cocoa.

As is, sadly, so often the case, at least in America, I was never really close to my father. I suspect he liked his children best when they were small, and could be played with, like soft, animated toys. It was only when they became more definite people that he lost, if not interest, then outward affection. I also believe that some fathers become aware, in an subconscious manner, of their son’s homosexuality during a boy’s early development and distance themselves accordingly (thus ironically providing fodder for all those boring, now-debunked, clichés anent the distant father/overbearing mother.)

He was, I think, too much like his own, hated father — although, as a friend pointed out recently when I spoke about the two, Dad must at least have fought that demon in himself. In any case, although he had my paternal grandfather’s temper (and, I suspect, was a victim as well of the same chronic depression that I am now certain affected the old man and that currently blights the life of his father’s grandson) my father was never as physically abusive as his dad. Still… even one nose-bleed-inducing smack across the face is more than sufficient; from the age of 9 I never again fully trusted, or felt entirely comfortable with, my father.

My mother used to take pains to tell me that my father was proud of me. It would have been nice, just once, to have heard that from him. Be that as it may, I’m not ungrateful: Parents sacrifice much for their children, more often than not without complaint. When it’s below zero, in January, I think of that young man with the un-heated Beetle, braving the killing Ohio chill twice to bring his son home. Thanks, Dad.

Dad and Scott - New Smyrna Beach, July 1968

My father with me, when he still enjoyed my company. New Smyrna Beach, Florida, July 1968.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Books

No there there, Or: Vacuum-packed literary criticism

By Scott Ross

My current reading is Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, a pastiche that posits the way various lives, real and imagined, intersect in New York City during the early years of the 20th century. I picked up this fat paperback at my favorite second-hand bookshop after a cursory glance at the back cover indicated it was comparable to E.L. Doctor’s Ragtime, one of my very favorite American novels. Not that I wanted Ragtime Redux — few things turn me off faster than bloated imitation. But having recently fallen in love with Helene Wecker’s similarly placed, rhapsodic fantasy The Golem and the Jinni, I was in the mood to discover how another writer, new to me, tackled what is in many ways a defining period of recent history, terrifying in its (to us moderns) jaw-dropping poverty and rampant criminality.

Dreamland

Setting aside for the moment my reactions to Dreamland, I was struck, on first sitting down with it, by reading a lengthy quotation on the back cover, from a review in Esquire. Or rather, by one particular observation by an unidentified critic that positively maddened me. “Dickensian in scope and intellectual breadth,” writes the anonymous scribbler, “Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece is Ragtime but without the sprawling misanthropy; Tom Wolfe but with characters that are human, not merely theoretical; Dreiser but superbly written; Sinclair Lewis but with a mystic’s heart.”

I cannot quarrel with the reference to Wolfe, and admit to a profound ignorance regarding both Dreiser and Lewis. But I admire Doctorow almost inordinately as a stylist, and Ragtime in particular as an example of the unfettered brilliance of a prose-poet on a par with the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby and a literary experimenter on the order of a modern Faulkner. The snideness of the critical remark aside, the more I read of Kevin Baker’s (dare it be said?) masterpiece, the more incensed I became on Doctorow’s behalf.

There is scarcely a page of Dreamland that does not present some fresh atrocity perpetrated on either an animal or a human being, occasionally on both at once. This is not a criticism. It was a brutal time, and an especially brutal place. Several years ago New York magazine printed an excerpt from Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York entitled “These Are the Good Old Days,” in which the stunningly casual horror of the the City’s haunts from 1840-1920 Sante described was the stuff of nightmares, particularly in its depiction of the many ways one could disappear forever in the Bowery — not coincidentally the setting for much of Baker’s novel.

Sante’s piece was a vision of Hell undreamt by Dante, where life was cheap and violent death as common as the rats and the cockroaches and the pestilent disease that made survival past infancy something of a miracle in itself. Baker’s world is that of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, of obscene Tammany corruption running hand-in-glove with appallingly cavalier capitalist exploitation, of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and cops beating female strikers with impunity, where even the smallest pleasure is paid for with grotesquerie and humiliation. No serious writer — and Baker, whatever my reservations about the ultimate worth of the tale he’s telling, is certainly that — could, describing the place, avoid steeping the reader in all that was vile and insupportable about it.

But what about that “sprawling misanthropy” of Doctorow’s? I Googled the review in question, seeking an explanation, and locating the critique on the Esquire webpage. (“A Jew, a Lithuanian, and an Erudite Dwarf,” March 1, 1999.) There was the review, all 300 words of it, by one Adrienne Miller, a former Esquire Fiction Editor. Would Miller, in the space allotted, define her terms? She would not. She merely hurls her little semantic Anarchist’s bomb at Doctorow et al., and moves on.

Given that Ragtime is, for all its stylistic dazzle, one of the most achingly humane novels of the past 40 years, and taking into account the historical parameters common both to it and to Dreamland, whence Doctorow’s “sprawling misanthropy”? Or is that Miller, in common with so many of her current ilk, is, as I suspect, on the one hand parading her erudition (“Look! I’ve read Doctorow, Wolfe, Dreiser and Lewis!”) and on the other, and secure in the knowledge that few readers will be willing to admit that they don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, tossing wild, context-free and utterly unfathomable brickbats at her literary betters?

RagtimeDoctrorowHardcover

We’ve seen this sort of thing before: The sweeping put-down that says, Logic, or even rudimentary rules of composition, be damned: I’m slapping that pesky author [or artist, or filmmaker, or composer] down, and the devil take the meaning along with the hindmost the off-hand insult that challenges without recourse to anything like precedence or example or even a simple definition of terms. Even presuming one has a passing knowledge of the work of the artist being referred to, Miller’s statement represents a kind of academic and critical short-hand that, on its face, and even below the skin, means absolutely nothing. It’s the literary equivalent of schoolyard bullying. And it’s practiced all too bloody often. (John Lahr does it all the time, in the pages of the New Yorker.)

I’m not talking about fairness here (although that, too, is in short supply.) My veneration of Ragtime is not definitive; it’s merely how Doctorow’s novel strikes me, viscerally, emotionally and intellectually. You’re free to find it meretricious, or self-consciously arty, or even misanthropic if it strikes you so, but for the love of critical honesty, not to mention readability, at least have the decency to explain your goddamn particulars. Tellingly, Miller does so for Wolfe (“with characters that are human, not merely theoretical”), with Dreiser, and with Lewis; Doctorow’s magnum opus she merely dismisses, as “sprawlingly misanthropic.” In what way? No, sorry — madame simply can’t be bothered.

To quote E.B. White in another context: If this is what passes for serious criticism now, then I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

spinach - carl rose and e b white

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Personal Essay

TV Pals: Icons of an Ohio Childhood

By Scott Ross

I was born in Canton, Ohio in 1961. The hosts of the morning and afternoon children’s shows we watched broadcast from Cleveland. First and foremost was the genial Captain Penny.

Ron Penfound was the Captain, whose designation always caused me a bit of confusion, since his costume was that of a railroad engineer. No matter. Among the treats we got from the Captain were Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, AstroBoy (who made me unaccountably uneasy in a way I still can’t quite put my finger on), The Little Rascals (aka, Our Gang) shorts and, my personal favorite, The Three Stooges. The Captain always admonished us that we could laugh at their antics but never, ever to behave the way they did. I had a copy of this photo, “signed” by a photocopier, on my bedroom wall:

TV Pals 1 - Penny

Captain Penny’s closing words were: “You can fool some of the people all of the time… and all of the people some of the time… but you can’t fool Mom!” which came to be known, I discovered later, as “Captain Penny’s Law.”

TV Pals 2 - Larry

One of Captain Penny’s frequent guests was Jungle Larry (Lawrence Tetzlaff) who was a big attraction at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky. A sort of low-rent Jack Hanna, he often appeared with his wife, “Safari Jane.”

TV Pals 3 - Larry at CP

Look at that guy on the left. This he wears to an amusement park? What a fun date he must have been!

Photo of self and my older sister, Vicki, meeting Jungle Larry at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky. Summer 1969.

TV Pals 4 - Barnaby

At right: “Barnaby” (Linn Sheldon), an oddity in that he seemed to be an elf or some such, and lived in an Enchanted Forest. He was the afternoon host, and the Popeye shorts were his metier. He had an invisible parrot called “Long John.” I leave it to Bruno Bettleheim to sort that one out.

He looks a bit like Larry Semon, doesn’t he? Or maybe Harry Langdon.

TV Pals 5 - Woodrow

Woodrow (J. Clayton “Clay” Conroy) was a neighbor of Barnaby’s in the Enchanted Forest. I recall very little about his shtick, or what shorts he ran. Possibly Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear cartoons? Someone did, I know.

TV Pals 6 - Franz

Franz the Toymaker (Ray Stawiarski.) He showed up after Captain Kangaroo, and also ran cartoons, the names of which escape me now. His sidekick was Raggedy Ann. My mother used to swear Ann was played by Jane Connell. (She wasn’t.)

Franz’s sign-off was, “Be good, and schmile at everybody!”

TV Pals 7 - McDonalds

I also owned the McDonald’s keepsake above, which I displayed proudly on my bedroom wall next to the portrait of Captain Penny. Left to right: Franz, Woodrow, Barnaby, the Captain.

220px-Leif_Ancker_as_Mister_Mac

I don’t remember Aloysius T. MacGillicuddy (“Mister Mac,” played by Leif Ancker) but I certainly recall Popeye Theatre, which he hosted.

In 1969, when I was eight, we moved from Canton to Mt. Vernon, Ohio. No more Cleveland stations for us; now we were subject to the whims of Columbus. There were fewer choices, but that may have had as much to do with local programming cut-backs as anything else.

TV Pals 8 - Flippo

Flippo the Clown (Bob Marvin, nee Marvin W. Fishman) ran Looney Tunes in the morning — my first exposure to the pre-1948 titles that didn’t run on the Saturday morning network shows.

Flippo was a real curiosity, in that he also hosted the Million Dollar Movie for housewives — which of course included a daily lottery drawing — and the afternoon movie, both decked out in full clown costume. Since he presumably wore it, and the make-up, in the studio all day, I wonder if he “lived” the role off-camera…?

I liked Flippo. In those days, a television clown, safely distanced by glass, cathode tube and physical miles, didn’t unnerve me. (Only when they got too close, in real life, did I tend to squirm.)

TV Pals 9 - Flippo

Flippo in palmier days, before the waistline went.

flippo 91a8f6665f9642805d2d4b31af886e2c

This is the Flippo of my memory, hosting the afternoon movie, from either 3 to 5 or 4 to 6. I forget which.We watched him, as we did everything else in my household throughout my childhood and adolescence, in black and white.

Thanks to Flippo I was exposed to a lot of old movies after school, although the only one I remember with any special clarity was the original 1942 Michael Korda Jungle Book starring Sabu. That one fascinated me because it was so very different from the 1967 Disney animated version, with which I had been absolutely besotted when I was 6 or 7, and much more like the Kipling stories. (When I saw the Korda again years later, I wondered how on earth, even at age 9, I could not have noticed how gorgeous Sabu was. I mean, I had a crush on Jonny Quest, for god’s sake!)

I have absolutely no memory of Flippo’s morning children’s show, possibly because from the ages of eight to ten, while we were in Mt. Vernon, I was in school and seldom saw it.

TV Pals  10 - Flippo

I have a much better memory of Luci’s Toyhouse than of Flippo’s children’s show, possibly because I was always drawn to hand-puppets, and Luci (Lucille Gasaway) had a whole plethora of them, including Pierre, Lion, and Stanley Mouse. She also had a dragon, who looked nothing like Burr Tillstrom’s Ollie, let it be said. I had a small replica of that dragon for years. I wish I had it still. I owned a copy of this photo too:

TV Pals 12 - Luci

TV Pals 13 - Stanley

Stanley Mouse from Luci’s Toyshop. It’s likely I remember his name so well because our babysitter’s name was Cindy Stanley. She once told us her little brother had been one of the children in the audience interviewed on the show. When Luci found out his last name and suggested he must be related to Stanley Mouse, her brother matter-of-factly replied, “Yes, and I have a sister named Cindy Stanley too.”

I have no special sense of nostalgia regarding these things. Or, if I do, it’s not for any specific personality or series but for the excited sensations of childhood, when just being alive and curious and engaged in the moment was itself a pleasure… before adolescent doubts and anxieties took so much of the sheer fun out of being young. That, and perhaps a kind of wistfulness for the days when local television stations actually gave half a damn what they fed to kids, and employed such creatures as Captain Penny and Flippo to entertain young viewers as a matter of course. I do, however, find it diverting, on occasion, to remember.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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