Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bu-sy day, bu-sy day, bu-sy day

Porgy and Bess: Gershwin's melodramatic trash

You know, it ain't that much different from high school. Maybe what happens there is what happens always. You have a great idea, nobody notices, or you're even seen as a freak. I look at my "views" and it's pathetic, because everybody else I know who keeps a blog has hundreds of views a day. I have almost none. It's not supposed to matter, and if I push it out my mind (hard, and each day), maybe it doesn't.

But am I putting anything out there at all that is of any use to anyone, besides me?  If I ever dare ask anyone, they tell me I'm not hustling enough or writing the kinds of things people want to read. I'm making the dire mistake of expressing my feelings and views rather than bartering: I will praise your work, not because it's any good but so that YOU will praise MINE, and thus we can reflexively call each other good writers (whether we've even read each other's stuff or not) and thus drum up sales. That is how it is done, and I'm not doing it, so once more I am fatally out of step. After writing "real" reviews for what now seems like a dismal and futile 30 years, it's dismaying, to say the least. And I won't do it, and so, the results, which I must live with. 

What got me going on all this? George Gershwin. Lately I have been obsessed with his death, which is too bad because it wasn't representative of his boyish, buoyant life. It was an awful way to end it, suffering alone from a horrible condition that everyone seemed to think was a form of attention-getting. He had cancer of the brain, which is not a condition given to malingerers.

And even Porgy and Bess - an opera that STILL creates controversy whenever it is produced anywhere, because nobody seems to be able to square three white guys writing a masterful opera about poor blacks in the South - he was trashed for it, though that didn't keep the crowds away.

I listened to this recording from 1935 today and just caved in, collapsed in tears. I don't know what it is. At first it was the sheer beauty and sheen of the voices, and the way they were being used; then it was the sense of pledging, of vows dearly made and nearly kept. There are aspects of music that can never be put into words, of course. Gershwin was speaking something never spoken before, in a language he invented as he went along. We notice the freshness, vitality, but also a profound sadness, and yes, a Hebraic quality that caused Oscar Levant to label it "the best Jewish opera ever written". You can layer the two on top of each other and see a lot of overlap, the core of it being the pain of exile.

All this takes me to an incredible, even jaw-dropping review in a new book I have on Gershwin. Vergil Thomson was a composer himself, a failed one who wrote scores for industrial films. One year he made $300 from composing, which is $300 more than I ever earn, let me tell you. Anyway, the review - I have to transcribe it out of the book here, but I'm going to take a crack at it, not just because it makes me feel better, but - because it makes me feel better.

"One can see, through Porgy, that Gershwin has not and never did have any power of sustained musical development. . . The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles. . . His lack of understanding of all the major problems of form. of continuity, and of serious or direct musical expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of his musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. . . It is clear, by now, that Gershwin hasn't learned the business of being a serious composer, which one has always gathered to be the business of he wanted to learn. . .His efforts at recitative are as ineffective as anything I've heard. . . I do not like fake folklore, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor plum-pudding orchestration." 

Other choice words from critics included "tripe", "lamp-black Negroisms", and "melodramatic trash", and there were even anti-semitic references to "gefilte fish". Oscar Levant muttered during the intermission, "It's a right step in the wrong direction."

Dying seems to be a good career move for many. Only a couple of years after this recording was made, Gershwin's head exploded and he was gone. Only then did everyone begin to sing his praises, to recognize his greatness. Bickering over Porgy goes on even today, and maybe it's a good thing - keeps the edge on it, keeps people talking. Can three white guys write an opera full of black stereotypes and get away with it? Only if they're brilliant enough to see beyond race and social standing, rip off the veils of pretension to find the human souls beneath. These aren't pretty people, but neither are the thugs and prostitutes of Mahagonny.  They aren't there to prove a point, but to sing their lives, to let us hear. 

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Let's Talk: why we need it so badly

There's a reason I post this link today.

Though it has gotten a certain amount of coverage by the mainstream press, mostly telling lame versions of "the clown story" ("But doctor, I AM Pagliacci!"), Let's Talk (sponsored, let's not forget, by Bell) is always well down on the list, because mental health simply isn't news. The fact we're just beginning to "talk", "break the stigma", etc. (or "reduce" the stigma, as it's usually expressed) in 2015 horrifies me. The fact that we have to set aside a day for it (but only one - let's not get carried away here) is discouraging, but it's better than nothing, I suppose. But I think we still have an Amadeus-cage/snake pit/cuckoo's nest mentality, or at least scorn, contempt and mortified silence.

I don't know what I'm going to do about all this, so I'll post this excellent link to many good videos, then re-run a piece that it cost me something to write.  Will it do any good? Will anyone even see it?

Let's not "reduce" the stigma: let's throw it out!

Every day, and in every way, I am hearing a message. And it's not a bad message, in and of itself. 

It's building, in fact, in intensity and clarity, and in some ways I like to hear it.

It's about mental illness, a state I've always thought is mis-named: yes, I guess it's "mental" (though not in the same class as the epithet, "You're totally mental"), but when you call it mental illness, it's forever and always associated with and even attached to a state of illness. You're either ill or you're well; they're mutually exclusive, aren't they?

So the name itself is problematic to me. It seems to nail people into their condition. Worse than that, nobody even notices. "Mentally ill" is definitely preferable to "psycho", "nut case", "fucking lunatic", and the list goes on (and on, and on, as if it doesn't really matter what we call them). But it's still inadequate.

There's something else going on that people think is totally positive, even wonderful, showing that they're truly "tolerant" even of people who seem to dwell on the bottom rung of society. Everywhere I look, there are signs saying, "Let's reduce the stigma about mental illness."

Note they say "reduce", not banish. It's as if society realizes that getting rid of it is just beyond the realm of possibility. Let's not hope for miracles, let's settle for feeling a bit better about ourselves for not calling them awful names and excluding them from everything.

I hate stigma. I hate it because it's an ugly word, and if you juxtapose it with any other word, it makes that word ugly too. "Let's reduce the hopelessness" might be more honest. "Let's reduce the ostracism, the hostility, the contempt." "Stigma" isn't used very much any more, in fact I can't think of any other group of people it is so consistently attached to. Even awful conditions (supposedly) like alcoholism and drug abuse aren't "stigmatized" any more. Being gay isn't either. Why? Compassion and understanding are beginning to dissolve the ugly term, detach it and throw it away. 

"Let's reduce the stigma" doesn't help because it's miserable. It's the old "you don't look fat" thing (hey, who said I looked fat? Who brought the subject up?). Much could be gained by pulling the plug on this intractibly negative term. Reducing the stigma is spiritually stingy and only calls attention to the stigma.  

So what's the opposite of "stigmatized"?  Accepted, welcomed, fully employed, creative, productive, loved? Would it be such a stretch to focus our energies on these things, replacing the 'poor soul" attitude that prevails?

But so far, the stifling box of stigma remains, perhaps somewhat better than hatred or fear, but not much. Twenty years ago, a term used to appear on TV, in newspapers, everywhere, and it made me furious: "cancer victim". Anyone who had cancer was a victim, not just people who had "lost the battle" (and for some reason, we always resort to military terms to describe the course of the illness). It was standard, neutral, just a way to describe things, but then something happened, the tide turned, and energy began to flow the other way.

From something that was inevitably bound to stigma in the past, cancer came out of the closet in a big way, leading to all sorts of positive change that is still being felt. But first we had to lose terms like "victim", because they were unconsciously influencing people's attitudes. We had to begin to substitute words like "survivor" and even "warrior". 

One reinforced the other. The movement gave rise to much more positive, life-affirming, even accurate terminology. That's exactly what needs to happen here. We don't just need to "reduce the stigma": we need to CAN that term, spit on it, get rid of it once and for all, and begin to see our mental health warriors for who and what they really are. They lead the way in a daring revolution of attitudes and deeply-buried, primitive ideas, a shakeup and shakedown of prejudice that is shockingly late, and desperately needed.

Why do we need to do this so badly? We're caught and hung up on a negative, limiting word that is only keeping the culture in the dark.  I once read something in a memoir that had a profound effect on me: "Mental illness is an exaggeration of the human condition." This isn't a separate species. Don't treat it as such. It's you, times ten. It's me, in a magnifying mirror. Such projections of humanity at its finest and most problematic might just teach us something truly valuable. Why don't we want to look?

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Superbowl 2015: the year we lost EIGHT puppies!

Animal friendship at its finest

Budweiser has done it again.

Despite false rumors that the beer company was nixing its signature Clydesdales for the big game ad, Budweiser has continued its very successful strategy of highlighting the power of animal friendship. In a sequel to its 2014 ad “Puppy Love,” “Lost Dog” tells the story of an 11-week-old golden Lab who gets separated from his best friend — a Clydesdale horse.

What comes next is a minute-long emotional roller coaster that will make you feel like you’re watching Homeward Bound for the very first time.

Eight puppies between 11 and 12.5 weeks old were used in the filming of this ad, directed by RSA’s Jake Scott. The poignant soundtrack is by Sleeping At Last, who offer up an acoustic version of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” originally by the Proclaimers.

We won’t spoil the saga — warning: there are wolves!! — but you might want to sit down.

Here is my take on all this. The operative sentence here is "Eight puppies between 11 and 12.5 weeks old were used in the filming of this ad". I've already heard people say, "My God, what if they hadn't found that puppy? Do you think they still would have shown the ad?" and "Didn't the Animal Cruelty people get after them?"  Every single person I meet seems to believe that this is a REAL story, with a REAL puppy, one puppy, the actual Buddweiser puppy, and that the story is something that happened in real time  (because who films things, anyway? What are you talking about? Don't they just sort of. . . happen?). Or else someone ran around after the puppy with a camera while sentimental music heaved in the background.

Speaking of heaving.

FOUND: more bullshit recordings from Year Zero!