J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at BachonBach.com

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

Continue reading “J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?”

Beautician, Roller Derby Queen, Olympic Medalist: A Tribute to Earlene Brown

Earlene Brown 1956 Olympics
Earlene Brown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, photo from Australian archives

When they make a movie about Earlene Brown, and surely someone must, the opening scene would be in a bowling alley, July 1964. Two immense women, one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, stand at the head of a lane, each gesturing at the ball and the pins. Both are laughing helplessly with wide, gap-toothed smiles; neither speaks the other’s language. Another older woman, small but wiry, comes up, speaking rapid Russian to her compatriot. She turns frequently to the other, asking in thick, broken English, “Here? Fingers in here?”

They all hold bowling balls as if they were oranges, tossing them abstractedly from palm to palm, seemingly weightless. The black woman explains and points. “Yeauh, yo thumb and these two heeah…” Her accent is a little Texas, a little southern Californian. She winds back and whizzes the ball down the lane; it slices through the ten pins, sweeping them up like dust off a broom.

The other tall one, Tamara Press of the U.S.S.R., awkwardly holds the twelve-pound ball downward, letting it hang from her fingers. Her wind-up looks the same, but when she lets the ball fly, it spins hard off the lane into the gutter, then into the wall, leaving a dent.

Of course, no record exists of this scene, when Olympic medalist Earlene Brown escorted her Soviet competitors from Tokyo through the Bowlarama in Compton. Yet a quartet of the world’s best shot putters at a bowling alley is fun to visualize, particularly if three are Soviet and the tour guide is African-American and speaks no Russian. Can’t you see the bowling alley owner, a grizzled little fella chomping a cigar, come out to protest the ding in his wall, only to run into the Soviet handlers–*coff KGB*? After all, Wikipedia notes out that Earlene’s tour of her Russian friends was “unsanctioned.”

Photo from Getty

Continue reading “Beautician, Roller Derby Queen, Olympic Medalist: A Tribute to Earlene Brown”

Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior

In honor of MLK day this past Monday, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about dedicating this entry to Betty Reid Soskin. I have to admit, though, it’s been difficult to get going, and as I began pulling quotes and details to share, I finally realized why it’s been hard. She is damn intimidating!

Soskin, Glamour magazine.
Soskin, magazine cover of Glamour.

A five foot three, soft-spoken 97-year-old might not seem particularly overwhelming. For those lucky enough to have heard her speak, you know also that she is extremely approachable and willing to share both her thoughts and listen to yours. But what she has accomplished in her life makes clear that this woman is a force of nature. What she lacks in height, she has made up for with a lifetime of copious activism and the promotion of American ideals of liberty and equal opportunity.

Chock Full O’ History

Here are just a few portions of her remarkable life story. She comes from Cajun, Creole, Spanish, and African ancestors, with a great-grandmother born into slavery and an ancestry that stretches from the time of witches to Dred Scott through the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. She came to California from New Orleans and served in a segregated Jim Crow union hall in Richmond California during World War II. Opening a gospel-themed record store in Berkeley with her husband, she raised a family, experiencing redlining in Berkeley and both subtle and overt racism in the suburbs of Walnut Creek. Continue reading “Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior”

Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down

Freddie Mercury is still an enigma. So is Queen. There’s a danger to pigeonholing the band as either hard metal or popular crowd pleaser, to using Freddie as a poster boy for the gay ’80s or Brian as an emblem for the big-haired glam rockers of the late ’70s. Queen was always hard to pin down.

Hey hey hey hey it was the D.N.A.
Hey hey hey hey that made me this way
–“Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen

Mercury/Malek comparison
Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek at Live Aid. Photo by 20th C. Fox at thenationalae.com.

In the new biopic of the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody,”  Rami Malek is terrific as Mercury, the spark of life and chaos that brings the lush guitar layers of the band’s musicianship to life. Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, and Ben Hardy are lovely as Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor who create the sounds that now rank among the greatest rock songs–the greatest songs–of all time.

What Movie Were They Watching?

The critics have generally panned or dismissed the film. Rotten Tomatoes (a critical compilation) was barely 59% last week. Audience responses, in contrast, have been 94%. One of the greatest curiosities then, as we sat watching, tapping our feet, and singing along under our breath, was why?

The reality was perhaps more interesting, and more nuanced, but in any case the overall narrative architecture of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a Lego palace of clichés. A band strives to get to the top and tastes the sweet and sour sides of success. A misunderstood genius suffers for his art, alienates those who care for him most, and finds forgiveness and redemption. A lot of the story may be true, but none of it feels remotely authentic.–Review from A.O. Scott at The New York Times

A big part of the reason for the negativity is that the film fiddles with Queen and Mercury’s timeline, for dramatic effect. Mercury did not know he had AIDS in 1985 when they performed at Live Aid, the performance that a 2007 BBC poll ranked as the greatest rock performance of all time. One of Freddie’s sustained notes during his a cappella section became known as “The Note Heard Round the World.” Because that performance–in retrospect–looms large in the annals of rockdom and for the history of Queen itself, it would make sense to create it as a climax for their story. Hence, it’s the beginning and end of the movie, hence that glosses over the fact that Freddie lived another six years and that Queen continued to release albums during that time.

Ok, so be forewarned about that lack of historic “accuracy.” Continue reading “Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down”

Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain

Crazy Horse carving, September 2018
“My lands are where my people lie buried.” Crazy Horse Memorial, September 2018. Photo by kajmeister.

Korczak, the sculptor, slung his drill over his back and climbed over 900 steps for almost 40 years.  He blasted bits out of the granite mountain, day after day, grinding down the 563 -foot side to lay out room for a long pointing arm. If ever there was a visual definition of the word “surmount”–to mount upon, to prevail over–this must be it.

One man, one drill, one mountain.

Crazy Horse Memorial 1974
Memorial in 1974, when I first visited. Photo by memorial staff, copy on Pinterest.

He hadn’t gotten especially far by 1973, when I first saw the Statue-To-Be, driving across South Dakota on our cross-country trip moving from Detroit to Sacramento. Now, returning back to visit some of my old haunts in Michigan, the memorial was the first big stop on our trip through the heartland, this pink-tinged grassland of our country’s center.  Korczak’s grandchildren are now in charge, and the crew is slowly but surely pulling the image of the proud warrior out of the granite. Continue reading “Heartland I: The Carving Climbing Out of the Mountain”