R.I.P., Ray Manzarek

ray-manzarekOvershadowed, understandably, by the news Monday of the massive tornado in Oklahoma, was the passing, at the age of 74, of Ray Manzarek, legendary keyboardist for The Doors.

I’ve not been the biggest Doors fan over the years, but every time I do hear their music, whether by choice or by accident, I do have a predictable thought that I REALLY like them and wonder why I don’t listen to them more often.

Anyway, Manzarek, in my opinion, was the key ingredient to the band’s sound. Bucking all convention, The Doors did not have a bass player, and so Manzarek performed double duty, playing bass lines with his left hand on one small keyboard and swirling organ arpeggios on another keyboard with his right hand. Guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore were certainly distinctive to some degree or another, but when I think of Doors music I first and foremost think of Ray Manzarek’s work.

For an accompanying video, I’ve chosen one of my personal favorite Doors songs, When The Music’s Over.

Thanks, Ray, for all of the great music!

Video Fridays: R.I.P., Allan “Sidney Freedman” Arbus

allan-arbusI’m late getting to this, but I’m sad that I’m posting my second obituary in one week.

Following my post on Monday on the loss of Richie Havens, I heard the very next day of the death of actor Allan Arbus, at the age of 95, mostly known for his role as the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, on the TV show M*A*S*H.

(In a creepy example of the urban myth that celebrities die in groups of three, since I started writing this, I’ve learned of the death of country music legend George Jones at the age of 81. I may or may not be able to post an obit for George later today.)

Anyway, I mentioned once before that I practically grew up on M*A*S*H. In fact, it was such a central experience for me, as well as for many of the people I knew, including my best friends, who would talk about it constantly, reciting our favorite lines, analyzing it’s ups and downs, that it is not unsurprising to me at all that Allan Arbus’ passing would inspire more than just a brief note about how I used to enjoy him on television.

(If you aren’t a TV geek who enjoys exploring the themes of a show, if you are someone who simply likes entertainment, that’s cool, but you might want to skip ahead below, to the video part of this Video Fridays installment, a montage of clips of Allan Arbus from various M*A*S*H episodes.)


Now, the fascinating thing here, for me, is that Allan Arbus and his character, Sidney Freedman, actually represent the epicenter of an aspect of M*A*S*H that divided its fans into two opposing camps:

  1. Those who preferred the earlier seasons of the show, when comedy far outweighed drama, and when the comedy was, as I would argue, of a more sophisticated style.
  2. Those who loved the evolution of the show from mostly comedy toward increasing amounts of drama, and despite the shift in comedic style.

You see, although Arbus only appeared in 12 of the 251 episodes of M*A*S*H, and although his earliest appearances were in Season 2, when the show was still firmly mostly-comedy, I contend that the very fact that Sidney Freedman became a recurring character is symbolic of the evolution of the series towards drama.
Gradually, the show became less and less about the farcical absurdities of war, in the style of, say Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — the style, incidentally, of the original source material, the novel by Richard Hooker and the film by Robert Altman — and more and more about the emotional, dramatic, traumatic and tragic nature of war.

That said, a convincing argument could be made that, once you delve into the ugliness of war, as would, let’s say, a psychiatrist, digging through the horrible toll it takes on humans and humanity, that it necessarily gets harder and harder to make light of it. A sitcom about war, then, could eventually become shallow or even insulting to those who have faught in, been injured by, or have lossed loved ones to war.

And, nothing underscores Sidney Freedman’s central role in this evolution than his central role in the very last episode of the series, 1983’s Goodbye, Farwell and Amen, M*A*S*H‘s swan song, the show’s last statement on the subject of war, which centered on therapy sessions between Sidney and Alan Alda‘s Hawkeye Pierce, who had suffered a nervous breakdown over a traumatic experience involving a mother who silenced her baby, thereby suffocating and killing it, in order to protect Hawkeye and the other passengers on a bus that was under enemy fire.

Drama indeed. Nothing funny about that.

Now, I should make it clear that, despite my preference for the earlier seasons, I do appreciate the significant achievement of keeping the show on the air for 11 seasons, while maintaining a huge audience and mostly positive reviews. After all, I kept watching and never missed an episode.

Truthfully, my beef with the show wasn’t really with the trend toward drama-over-comedy. Rather, as mentioned above, I found the comedy that did remain to be lacking in sophistication, too often heavily laden with silly puns, slapstick arguments and personality clashes.

Whatever you make of this analysis, regardless of which camp you reside in, I think we can all agree that Allan Arbus was wonderful as Dr. Sidney Freedman. As Alan Alda said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times Arbus obituary, “He was so authentic in the role it was hard to believe that he wasn’t that person.”

R.I.P., Allan Arbus. Thanks for the memories.

R.I.P., Richie Havens

richie_havensHeavy, heavy, oh heavy, sigh.

I’ve just heard the very sad news that one of my all-time favorite musicians, singer-songwriter and master interpreter of popular song, Richie Havens, has passed at the age of 72.

Even sadder, I don’t have the time today to properly honor Richie, and so I’ll have to settle for reposting something I did back in July 2011.

Richie, thank you SO much for all of the beautiful music, your beautiful heart, and your beautiful voice.


Originally posted July 1, 2011.

This morning, on Facebook, a friend posted a clip of Richie Havens performing his famous cover of George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun, I was reminded of how much I love Richie, and I realized that I hadn’t listened to him in far too long.

Richie is a beautiful musician in so many ways: his complex rhythm strumming style, his use of open tunings and thumb-wrapping, his soulful voice, a voice like no other I’ve ever heard, and he may very well be the best cover song artist ever.

And as much as I enjoyed the version of Here Comes The Sun, I went in search on YouTube for a clip for this week’s Video Fridays installment, a clip of my favorite Havens song, Follow, but sadly I couldn’t find a live performance.

I then found an amazing older clip of Richie doing a medley of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman, that is totally worth watching, but there’s a painful missing bit in the bridge of the latter.

So, I settled on a different version of Just Like A Woman, this one from the 1993 concert celebrating Dylan’s 30-year anniversary as a recording artist.

Video Fridays: R.I.P., Jonathan Winters

jonathan-wintersVery, VERY sad news today…the brilliant comedian Jonathan Winters has died at 87.

I know I’m dating myself, but, because I was raised on television, I saw a LOT of Jonathan as I was growing up, on a wide variety of TV shows and in many of the movies he appeared in, and he always stood out as one of the most unique people on the tube.

There was a wild unpredictable quality to his presence and his work, born from a virtuosic improvisational style that was WAY ahead of his time. Winters was the proverbial box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get, and you never knew when he’d change characters, which he could do at the drop of a hat.

I remember distinctly the occasional awkward silences created when he’d abruptly switch gears and the television actors he was working with were caught off-guard, needing a moment to catch up. Rather than being jarring, I always recognized these moments as refreshingly unscripted, the product of a fearless master artist who was not afraid to take chances, and as a result mostly succeeded.

Anyway, the internets are abuzz with this news, along with loving and admiring tributes from his fans and colleagues, and of all the stuff I’ve seen so far my favorite has been the following video, in a tweet from Patton Oswalt, a stunning example of Jonathan Winters’ genius for improv, many, many years before the rest of the world would discover the “prop game” on Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Rest in peace, Jonathan, and thanks SO much for all of the laughs!

Tweet of the Day: #R.I.P.JackKlugman

When I first saw this tweet from The Onion, I chuckled:

But then I realized that I never posted anything here in response to the loss of Jack Klugman, the stage, film, and TV actor best known as Oscar Madison on the TV version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.

My having not done that is really unacceptable.

oddcoupleThroughout my entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, continuing until I moved to the west coast in 1988, reruns of The Odd Couple were broadcast nightly on New York’s WPIX, channel 11, and I watched them, was thoroughly entertained by them, over and over and over again.

I had friends who shared my passionate love of The Odd Couple, and we’d rattle off bits from the show, from one liners to entire scenes, and the jokes never, ever got old.

It’s tempting to say that Klugman, as Oscar, was my favorite, but the truth is that he and Tony Randall, as Felix Unger, were such an amazing team that it diminishes both of them to play favorites.

That said, Klugman’s Oscar Madison was refreshingly different from most adult male characters on TV. He was flawed (divorced!), utterly unpretentious, a man who loved the simple things in life, a slob, and yet a man with a very successful career as a sportswriter.

Most of all, he had a big heart, pushed to the breaking point over and over again by Felix’s annoying, often maddening, eccentricities, always to cave in time and again, to remember that Felix, warts and all, was still his friend and someone worthy of patience and compassion.

The character may have been written that way, but Jack Klugman brought Oscar to life in a thoroughly believable way, and even though Walter Matthau was great as Oscar in the film version, I always think of Klugman as Oscar first and always will.

R.I.P., Jack. Thanks for the memories.

R.I.P. Doc Watson

Another great one gone. So sad.

It’s been a rough several months for music elders, starting with the loss of Earl Scruggs in March, then Levon Helm in April, Duck Dunn two weeks ago, and now the amazing guitar genius: Arthel “Doc” Watson.

As usual, there are plenty of formal obituaries out there, so I’ll just touch on what Doc Watson meant to me.

The first recording I ever owned of old-time country music was Doc’s 1975 album Memories. I obtained it in the mid 1990s, at almost that exact same time I met some neighbor musicians, two banjo players and a flatpicking guitar player, all of whom were into old-time country and bluegrass music, and so began my immersion in that particular brand of American roots music.

I still have lyric and chord sheets of about half the songs from that Memories album, I pull them out whenever I’m jamming with my old-time friends, and another song Doc did, Way Downtown, on the 1972 Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, is my go-to tune for when it’s my turn to lead a song and nothing else comes to mind.

Doc was a true virtuoso who could play with lightning speed, but also with achingly beautiful subtlety, as in the contrasting clips below. That he was blind since the age of one is almost impossible to believe, and at times reason enough for someone struggling to learn the guitar to just give up.

Thanks, Doc, for all of the wonderful memories and music.

R.I.P. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn

Wow. Two rhythm section legends gone in a little under a month. So sad.

After having lost one of the greatest drummers in Rock & Roll history, Levon Helm, on April 19th, today I woke to find that Soul, R&B, and Rock & Roll bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn has died at the age of 70.

Duck Dunn epitomized the quiet groove master bass player, having served in that role in the house band at legendary Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee for years.

That house band, Booker T & The M.G.s, with members Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr., were the backing group on most Stax recordings from 1962 (Dunn joined in ’64) through 1970, including those by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Albert King, just to name a few.

Duck would continue to record and play with Booker T & The M.G.s off and on throughout his life, and the list of other musicians with whom he recorded and toured is simply unbelievable: The Blues Brothers, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Levon Helm, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Guy Sebastian, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Roy Buchanan and Arthur Conley.

Back in March 2011, I wrote a post about the 60th birthday of the Fender Telecaster electric guitar, and in that post I included an old clip of Booker T & The M.G.s playing their biggest hit, Green Onions, and I just can’t think of a better video to include here in tribute to Duck Dunn.

The bass line is one of the most recognizable ever recorded, and watching Duck you see a young man who is deeply locked into the groove, feeling it in every cell of his body and throwing it down.

It’s a thing of stunning beauty!

R.I.P. Duck Dunn, and thanks for all the incredible music.

R.I.P. Maurice Sendak

Heavy sigh. Maurice Sendak has died.

I am moved, therefore, to say that the joy and pleasure I felt, when reading the following lines to my son when he was younger, cannot be overstated.

The night Max wore his wolf suit
And made mischief of one kind
And another
His mother called him “WILD THING!”
And Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
So he was sent to bed without eating anything.

It didn’t matter how many times I read it aloud, or later when we read it aloud together, I never, ever tired of it. Each and every time, those opening lines would cast a spell over me, as I was pulled totally and utterly into Max’s world.

But there were two parts of the story that were particularly special to me, for I couldn’t help getting caught up in the telling, adding the following embellishments.

1. As I read this:

And the wild things roared their terrible roars
And gnashed their terrible teeth
And rolled their terrible eyes
And showed their terrible claws.

…I would put the book into motion, as if brought to life by those terrible roars, and my voice would get louder and deeper and wilder, and I would draw the book right up close to my son’s face, to bring him up close and personal with the Wild Things.

Honestly, it is entirely possible that I enjoyed this more than my son did. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, at least the first few times, it very well may have scared him a little, and, having read quite a bit about Sendak today, about how he rebelled against the sickly saccharin and sanitized children’s literature of the 1950s, I like to think he would have approved.

2. And, when I read this:

And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus begin!

…I would sing a little song of my own composition, well, more of a march chant than a song, and it went like this:

Rumpus, rumpus, we’re having a rumpus!
Rumpus, rumpus, we’re having a rumpus!

…and I would sing it over and over again, and the book would go back into motion, my crude attempt at animating the static pictures of the rumpus, a glorious parade of Wild Things, with Max on the shoulders of one of the beasts, a revery, a celebration of wildness and freedom.

Oh, and I guess there was one other embellishment.

3. When I read this:

And Max, the king of all wild things
Was lonely and wanted to be
Where someone loved him best of all.

…I would give my son a gentle and yet firm squeeze, as if to emphasize that I did, indeed, love him best of all.

I can still feel his little body, nestled in under my arm, his head resting on my shoulder, as we:

…Sailed back over a year
And in and out of weeks
And through a day
And into the night of his very own room…

Thank you, Maurice Sendak.

Rest in peace.

R.I.P. Levon Helm

Apropos my post from yesterday, sadly, what had been forecast has come to pass: the great Levon Helm has died.

Honestly, after what I’ve written about Levon already, and considering all of the remembrances and tributes out there on the internets and those to follow, there’s really not much more for me to add.

He was one of the greats, a HUGE influence on me, a voice that I will hear in my head and treasure in recordings for the rest of my life. For that, I feel tremendously grateful.

As has been widely noted, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, losing his voice for a time, but then he came back with a vengeance, releasing two Grammy winning albums, touring, and collaborating with fellow music legends in the Midnight Ramble shows he hosted at his barn/studio in Woodstock, New York.

Having posted a video yesterday of Helm at the zenith of The Band’s career, I thought I’d choose something from his late comeback, to honor how vital and amazing he was until the bitter end.

Rest in peace, Levon. You’ll be missed.

Levon Helm and the Preemptive Obituary

Yesterday this tweet appeared in my Twitter feed:

By the end of the day, dozens of retweets later, it was clear how dearly loved Levon Helm, legendary drummer and vocalist of legendary music group The Band, truly is, operative word = is.

Then, this morning, I came across this headline (emphasis in bold added by me):

Levon Helm Was The Real Voice Of America

…and before I even clicked on the link to read the Esquire article by Charles Pierce, I rushed to read the standard news reporting on Levon’s passing, only to find that, as of this writing, he hasn’t actually died yet.

And, before I could process how uncomfortable it was to see a writer referring to Levon Helm in the past tense before he’d even passed, I clicked on the link to read the preemptive obituary only to find that the headline had been changed to:

Whip to Grave: Levon Helm, the Real Voice of America

Now, I don’t know if Charles Pierce changed the headline because he realized how people might react to an obituary for someone who hasn’t died yet, or because the new title fit the premise of his piece better. The latter is compelling, because the phrase “whip to grave” refers to a lyric in a song from The Band’s first album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink, a tune titled We Can Talk, a powerful statement about America’s often stark contradictions.

As for the former, I’ll probably never know, but the question seems irrelevant when you consider something Pierce writes in his last paragraph:

I wanted to write all of this before he passed. I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we’d lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock.

For me, the thought of losing Levon stirs up the sadness of having already lost Band members Richard Manuel in 1986 and Rick Danko in 1999. (A post of mine from September 2010 sings praise for Danko specifically.)

But Levon Helm deserves the credit that Pierce gives him, as he was the only American in a band full of Canadians, he was their street cred as purveyors of Americana music, his southern drawl was unmistakable and his Arkansas roots oozed from his music.

He will be missed when he’s gone, but for now I join in the celebration of his life and the many glorious musical gifts he’s given us.