Come Ride the Little Train: In Praise of “Petticoat Junction”

Forget about your cares

It is time to relax

At the Junction…

My most frequent babysitter as a kid was the television set.  Now, I know I’m strange, but I don’t think that’s atypical for baby boomers.  I probably saw most episodes of the more popular cartoons, Westerns, and sitcoms made during the 1960s. Back then, though, I didn’t know which shows were good and which were bad. I just watched what the networks fed me. I hadn’t yet developed any critical thinking skills.

Today, thanks to various cable TV stations that specialize in nostalgia, I get to indulge in many of these shows again. And I sometimes wonder “Why did I ever watch this dopey thing?”

One of them is the half-hour CBS show, Petticoat Junction. This is a situation comedy with a rural theme that aired between 1963 and 1970. Petticoat Junction had two sister shows, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” These two shows were funny. Petticoat Junction was… well… “charming.” But there were no truly wacko characters, so the show relied more on situations, and the laughs were sparse.

So why am I praising it? Maybe because I’m now popping Centrum® senior multivitamins, but I don’t require laughs like I once did. Just smiles. These days, old-fashioned settings and cornball humor, which Petticoat Junction had in spades, are (pardon the colloquialism)… fine and dandy.

Granny and Jethro Clampett are TV classics, and I love the crazed bumpkins in “Green Acres,” who lived in a strange, alternative universe. But Petticoat Junction, for me, is less frenzied.

Heavens to Betsy, I don’t want frenzy these days! What do I want? I’ll tell you: I want to recline in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Shady Rest Hotel, ogle the beautiful Bradley sisters, then mosey inside with Uncle Joe to sample Kate Bradley’s fried chicken, dumplings, and gravy.

Bradley sisters, first lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Pat Woodell, Jeannine Riley

Petticoat Junction (henceforth “PJ”) was one of three situation comedies (including the earlier “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the later “Green Acres”) created by a man named Paul Henning. Henning was a prolific writer of radio, television, and film. In 1962, he concocted an idea for a television show about a bunch of hillbillies who strike it rich, then move to swanky Beverly Hills, California. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was so successful, Henning was asked to invent another show. This would be PJ.

Henning came up with the show’s premise from stories his wife told of being a child in Eldon, Missouri, where her grandparents ran a hotel near some railroad tracks. She entertained Henning with anecdotes about the simple local folk, and the city slickers who checked into the hotel. Henning liked the contrast, which was sort of a reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He called his fictional hotel the “Shady Rest,” situating it midway between the farm towns of Hooterville and Pixley. A three-car passenger train named the “Hooterville Cannonball” connected the two boroughs, but apparently went nowhere else (if you like trains, the “Cannonball” might be worthy of research). The town of Hooterville had a small grocery store run by a man named Sam Drucker (Frank Cady). Nearby lived various farmers, such as Fred, Doris, and Arnold Ziffle (the last-named a near-genius pig), Newt Kiley, catty Selma Plout, deaf Grandpappy Miller, ex-New Yorkers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas, and others. But most of the action occurred in and around the Shady Rest Hotel.

Here, a widow named Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) managed the Shady Rest, along with her three luscious daughters: Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo. They were assisted… or unassisted… by Kate’s uncle, Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan). There was also a frisky terrier with no name who was always upstaging Uncle Joe whenever Joe tried to concoct some new, failed business enterprise.

Additional characters included Cannonball engineers Charlie Pratt (Smiley Burnette), conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), and bad guy Homer Bedloe (prolific character actor Charles Lane), who was forever trying to shut down the Cannonball. Later seasons featured cropduster Steve Elliott (Mike Minor), who eventually married Betty Jo, both in the show and in real life; engineer Wendell Gibbs (Byron Foulger); game warden Orrin Pike (Jonathan Daly); and Dr. Janet Craig (June Lockhart of “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”).

Bradley sisters, second lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Gunilla Hutton

PJ ran for seven seasons. The cast frequently changed, which helped keep the show fresh. Three different actresses played blonde Billie Jo: Jeannine Riley, then Gunilla Hutton, then Meredith MacRae. Two actresses played brunette Bobbie Jo: Pat Woodell, then Lori Saunders. Redheaded Betty Jo was played throughout by Linda Kaye Henning, daughter of Paul (billed as “Linda Kaye” early on).

Edgar Buchanan, as Uncle Joe, was the only other principal actor besides Henning and Frank Cady to last the entire run. He was the closest thing to a wacko and provided many of the best laughs. He just wasn’t as good-looking as his nieces.

Along with its instantly recognizable theme song, music played a big part in PJ, both inside and outside the show. Actress Pat Woodell was a professional singer, and Meredith MacRae was the daughter of singer/actors Sheila (“The Honeymooners”) and Gordon MacRae (OKLAHOMA). During the 1963-64 season, the three Bradley girls and a friend (played by Sheila James from “Dobie Gillis”) formed a mop-top pop group called The Ladybugs, in response to the Beatles’ recent success (the actresses recorded a single as The Ladybugs and, like the Beatles, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”). In 1968-69, MacRae, Saunders, and Henning released two singles as The Girls from Petticoat Junction. And many episodes, particularly the later ones, featured group singalongs around the piano.

_________

Of the seven seasons that PJ aired, my favorites are seasons four and five. These featured Meredith MacRae, probably the most popular Billie Jo. By this time, the sisters’ personas had solidified: Billie Jo was smart and career-minded; Bobbie Jo was a cute airhead; and Betty Jo was the tomboy turned wife and mother.

Also, seasons four and five still featured Bea Benaderet as the mom, Kate Bradley. Benaderet was the most skilled actor in PJ. She’d had a long career in radio and television (she provided the voice for Betty Rubble in “The Flintstones”). She was so talented, that Paul Henning is on record saying that PJ existed only because he wanted to get Benaderet in a starring role.

Bea Benaderet

Sadly, Benaderet contracted lung cancer, and she missed much of season five. She died in 1968. Her place was taken by June Lockhart, who portrayed a doctor who takes up residence at the Shady Rest. Lockhart tried, but she couldn’t replace Benaderet. The show’s ratings declined.

PJ was canceled in 1970 at the beginning of an infamous “rural purge” by CBS. A lot had happened in America in the late 1960s, and CBS executives felt that comedies with rural themes were out of touch. Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” famously said “(they) canceled everything with a tree.” Shows like PJ, “Green Acres,” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” were replaced by more urbane and topical sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Those shows, and others from the 1970s, are comedic wonders, loaded with clever writing, characters, and trend-setting humor. But it’s a heterogenous world, and I feel there’s also a place for simpler, throwback shows like PJ. I’m grateful to MeTV for resurrecting this special show, which for some reason has been neglected by the suits at other cable stations.

If you like homespun simplicity, check out PJ, if not on MeTV, then on DVD. It won’t have you howling with laughter. But it has a simple grace that is especially welcomed in these graceless times.

Bradley sisters, third lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Meredith MacRae (copyright Gene Howard)

Some interesting facts about PJ:

  • There were actually four Billie Jo’s. The original actress selected was Sharon Tate. She’s pictured in several early promo photos, but she resigned before taping because her agent felt she wasn’t ready for a major television role (some say it was because she had posed nude). She later popped up as a recurring guest character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
  • Pat Woodell, the original Bobbie Jo, left the show to become a singer. That didn’t work out well, and she returned to acting, appearing in several sexploitation flicks, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE from 1971. She passed away in 2015.
  • The bright little terrier named “Dog” had the real name of “Higgins” and later was the star of the popular movie BENJIE, which also featured Edgar Buchanan.
  • Jeannine Riley and Gunilla Hutton, who both played Billie Jo, later jumped into the hay lofts of the variety show “Hee Haw” (another victim of CBS’s rural purge).
  • Before her one season in PJ, Gunilla Hutton was a chorus girl who toured with Nat King Cole. Cole became infatuated with Hutton, who was 19 years younger, and almost left his wife. He abandoned the fling after developing smoking-related lung cancer.
  • Mike Minor, who played handsome pilot Steve Elliott, was the son of Don Fedderson, creator of “My Three Sons.” He and Linda Kaye Henning were married five years, then divorced. Minor died in 2016.
  • Before PJ, Meredith MacRae played the girlfriend of the eldest Douglas boy in “My Three Sons.” (Shucks, why couldn’t the Bradley girls and Douglas boys ever hook up??). MacRae succumbed to brain cancer in 2000.
  • Lori Saunders’ real name is “Linda,” but she changed it to avoid confusion with Linda Kaye Henning. Saunders and Jeannine Riley later acted together in a failed sitcom called “Dusty’s Trail,” a clone of “Gilligan’s Isle” set in the West, starring Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker.
  • Frank Cady is the only actor to ever appear in three concurrent television shows (PJ, “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”). He was in his 40s-50s when he played Sam Drucker. Cady lived to age 96, passing away in 2012.

(Wikipedia provided much of the information for this article. If you want to read an exhaustive analysis of the fictional town of Hooterville, click here. Someone devoted a lot of time to this subject. This person sounds even stranger than me.)

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Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

50 yearsthe-doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

botnick-rothchild-morrison

Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

holzman

Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

doors_66

We Glorious Bastards (Part 2)

blue delinquent

Last time, Bill, Dan and I were cutting up newspaper to make confetti. We were preparing to “decorate” the Parks house on Devil’s Night, a Detroit tradition held on Halloween Eve. In addition to confetti, we had several rolls of toilet paper, a bar of soap, and some candle wax (more difficult to remove from glass).

The night arrived, and it so happened that Wally and Mrs. Parks weren’t home. Their house was dark, the moon was dim, our parents were busy drinking martinis, and we were feeling bold. Bill had several grocery bags of confetti, and he “let it snow” until the front and back yards were blanketed. Dan went to work on the windows with soap and wax. And I flung my toilet paper with abandon, upward toward the stars, over the treetops, until every tree was dripping with thin, white, paper banner.toilet paper

Before we left the house, I added one final, personal touch. I transplanted their mailbox from the end of the driveway to the bushes by the front door. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I know it wasn’t so Wally could retrieve his mail easier.

Well, I slept like a baby that night. We’d done a good night’s work. Instead of “White Christmas,” the Parks property looked like “White Halloween.” We’d played our tricks, and tomorrow came the treats. But, as any addict will tell you: the higher the high, the lower the low.

Bill told me what happened the following day. Wally and his wife returned home about 2 or 3 a.m.   Wally must’ve had more than a few drinks. When he saw what we’d done to his house, he went nuts. “WHO THE HELL DID THIS TO MY HOUSE!!” he screamed, over and over, his voice echoing through the neighborhood. He was so relentless, one of the neighbors, tired of his yelling, called him a baby and told him to shut up.

Our parents instinctively knew it was Bill, Dan and me (the “Three Musketeers”). I don’t know if Dan’s parents ever confronted him, but Bill’s and mine made us go over, apologize, and clean up the mess. By then, Wally had calmed down (and sobered up). He was actually very nice. “Aw, don’t worry boys, I did that stuff when I was your age, too.” After which Mrs. Parks, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, chimed in “And you probably did a helluva lot worse, Wally.” We felt another argument brewing.mailbox

It took us almost all Halloween day, but Bill and I cleaned the entire property. I never determined what Dan’s excuse was for not showing up. But Bill was livid with him, saying he always managed to slither out of things. I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven Dan.

***

My last wave of delinquency occurred after we moved back to northern Ohio. Again, I was fortunate to have a bunch of adventuresome boys to play with: Kelly, who lived across the street; brothers Joe and Dave, a few doors down from him; and Jerry, Kurt, and Dickie, who lived in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

Dickie was funny. He had freckles and orange hair. And since he was the youngest, he got picked on a lot, especially by Joe. When he got really upset, he’d start screaming, and his face would turn as colorful as his hair. Which made Joe laugh even louder.

Their farmhouse was funny, too. It looked like a tornado had touched down inside. Dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, cat poop on the stairs, always dark, and the parents were never around.

It also had a huge apple tree in the back. Sometime around 1970, we formed a club, the Apple Chucking Gang (no, not “Apple Dumpling Gang”). We met periodically on weekend nights, after the sun went down, and worked on target practice. The targets were cars that sped along the road outside the house.

THUD… BAM… THWACK… The apples sounded like giant hailstones when they hit. Usually the cars kept going. Sometimes they slowed, but stopping was dangerous, since there was not much berm. Only once did someone jump out of his car and chase after us.apple

Fortunately, the farmhouse had a walk-in basement. When we heard the car door slam, and saw a shadow running toward us along the road, all five of us ran to the back of the house and into the dark basement, slammed the screen door, and cowered behind the moldy furniture. Dickie was slow, though, and the man saw him squeeze inside at the last minute.

“I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!! YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME!!! COME ON OUT!!! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!!” he screamed over and over while pounding the screen door.

After numerous threats during what seemed like eternity, he finally left. But it scared us enough that we decided to retire the Apple Chucking Gang. About a year later, Kurt, who was in my homeroom, said something about “going chucking again,” but nothing ever came of it. Other than a few garden-variety pranks, like aiming hoses at front doors and placing firecrackers on windowsills, it was the end of my criminal career.

***

I hope no one interprets this two-part reminiscence as glorifying vandalism or delinquency. I’ll readily admit I did a lot of dumb things when I was younger, and I have many regrets.

But our only real crime was being young and energetic. Which is hardly criminal. We didn’t steal, destroy property, play with handguns, or do drugs. And, thank God, we didn’t have smartphones that gobbled up our childhoods. I feel sorry for young folks today. If only they knew what a world of adventure and excitement – and not necessarily prankster excitement – awaits them outside of those little screens they endlessly gaze into.

Today, I’m pretty sure my old partners in crime are ok. I haven’t heard much about little Dickie, though, so I’m not sure how he’s doing. He may be doing 5-10 at the Mansfield Reformatory, for all I know.

But I hope not.

We Glorious Bastards

blue delinquent

We turn into our neighborhood and make a right onto our street.  On the left side of the street is a large black Chevy.

“What’s that on the driver’s window?” I ask my wife.  “It’s too big for a bird dropping.”

Even before we pull into our garage, she’s already visited the Wethersfield Neighborhood page on Facebook.  The hot Facebook conversation concerns the Masked Egg Marauders who struck on Saturday night.  Seems while we were out of town, a bunch of juveniles decided to decorate all the cars on driveways and streets with smashed eggs.

I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” she said.  “I think it’s just terrible.  If I did something like that, and my father found out, I’d be grounded for six weeks.”

I kept silent.  Although she knows a smattering of my criminal past, she doesn’t know the half of it (unless she reads this).

***

When I was a boy, we didn’t have cable television, video games, internet or I-Phones.  If we wanted to have fun, we made it up ourselves.  We played neighborhood sports, had water balloon and dirt clod fights, played with G.I. Joe dolls, built go-carts, or ran naked in the woods imitating Tarzan.  Boys being boys, though, we occasionally ventured to The Dark Side.

I remember my first brush with delinquency.  It occurred one winter day while walking home from grammar school.  We lived in back of a high school, and some of the teenagers liked to rev their hot rods down our street after the afternoon bell rang.  One day, tired of throwing snowballs at trees, I decided to try a moving object.

Akermitlthough no Luis Tiant (he pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the mid-1960s), my first throw smashed into the side of this one high schooler’s car.  I was also no Lou Brock (he was a great baserunner for the St. Louis Cardinals), because the teen caught me before I ever reached the shelter of the woods.
I think my fear melted his anger, because he let me off with a warning (and I remember him grinning when he let go of my jacket).  Although coming dangerously close to being pummeled, I received such an adrenaline rush from this snowball incident, it was a matter of time before my criminal behavior escalated.  The stage was set.

In 1968, we moved from Ohio to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  Downtown Detroit had just undergone a series of civil rights riots.  We kids in the ‘burbs had our own version of rioting, called Devil’s Night, which occurred annually the night before Halloween.  Before I get to the infamous “Night of the Parks House,” however, allow me to touch on a couple other crimes:

Rubber Band Lunacy: It was much later when I took up the game of golf, but at 10 years old, I possessed intimate knowledge of the interiors of golf balls.  Some golf balls, just inside the hard outer shell, had yards and yards of thin rubber band wrapped around a hard, core rubber ball.  When unraveled, this rubber band had enough length to be stretched across a street and tied around two trees.  The band was virtually invisible… until you were right on top of it.golfball

Long story short, a lot of car brakes were slammed on Westbourne Drive during the summer of ’68.  This stunt lasted until, one day, a motorcycle came along.  Tucked inside my hiding place in the juniper bushes, I watched in horror as a leather-clad member of the local Heaven’s Devils gang “lay down” his bike after confronting my rubber band barrier, which he probably mistook to be a long, thin wire.  To this day, I don’t know if he saw me pop out from the bushes and skedaddle 15 blocks until I collapsed from exhaustion, since I never looked behind.  But this incident ended my rubber band period.  Instead, I shifted to less risky delinquency…

Bloody Bicycles: One day, at the end of a long session of “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?,” Bill, Dan and I hatched a plan that involved our kid brothers.  We took their bicycles and placed them on their sides alongside the curb, their wheels skewed at different angles.  Then we positioned our brothers on the pavement near the bikes.  We used Heinz ketchup to resemble blood.

I think it was the fifth or sixth car before one finally stopped.  She was an elderly lady who got out and frantically inquired “Are you hurt??  Are you alright??”  It was probably the smell of ketchup, or maybe my brother Steve’s bad acting that assured her, yes, Steve was alright.  Although enjoyable, this foray into Hollywood lacked the despicable element that we so craved.  On Devil’s Night, 1968, however, we received our Master’s degrees in delinquency…ketchup

Night of the Parks House: Wally Parks and his wife had no children.  They were about 40 years old and lived in a ranch house directly across from ours.  I remember that Mrs. Parks had blonde hair, usually tied in a bun.  Wally was tall and athletic-looking, and according to my friend Bill, had a propensity for alcohol.  Very nice people, but very private.  And once in a while, they argued.  Loudly.  Bill, Dan and I used to sneak up to their bushes and listen to them fight.  One time, Wally angrily flew out the front door with his tie flapping, and he hopped in his car and zoomed down the street.  “Probably headed to the bar,” said Bill.

It wasn’t my idea to target their house.  But one day, after my monthly allergy shot, I rang Dan’s doorbell, and he led me down to his basement.  Bill was there.  They were cutting up piles of old newspaper, and they were totally absorbed in the task.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re making confetti,” said Bill, as he clipped away.  “We’re gonna get Parks’s house on Devil’s Night.”

***

(End of Part One.  If you want to find out what happened on Devil’s Night, please check back in a couple weeks.  And like my blogging buddy Neil says, if you like what you read here, don’t be shy about clicking “Like” or “Follow”)

Pearl

50 years

janis

All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy

When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

fonda

A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It’s one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood’s the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now part of popular culture.

eastwood_wallach

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It’s Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). It gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” a lot, but it’s usually negative. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit an agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and (in my opinion) they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers (if you know what I mean).

Before the 1960s, and dating to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie and television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and nothing in-between. The actors looked like they’d just stepped from the fitting room at J.C. Penny. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and they were always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had a lot to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood woke up and began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it’s the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere (it still hasn’t been released on DVD, for some dumb reason). A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

heston

7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio’s nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

hombre

3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western, Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it’s (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It’s tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

andalusia

1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

Louie-Louie

Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

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The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

barbarians

The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

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The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

the-hollies-bus-stop-odeon

The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison

Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.

WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD

In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

zippo 2

Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.

THE NEWS TODAY

When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

cam ne villager

Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.

TURNING TO GRAY

But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only a few years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.

________________________________________________

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/safer/camne.html

http://www.historynet.com/what-really-happened-at-cam-ne.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNYZZi25Ttg

Da Nang 1965

Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

GREAT ESCAPE, THE

(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

mcqueen_dunaway

Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

mcqueen_bullitt

Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

mcqueen_lemans

Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

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The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

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Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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