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Les Paul: A Real American Idol

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Les Paul

Les Paul died yesterday at the age of 94. That is the sad news.

The happy news is that there is an infinite supply of good things to say about this amazing man. As a musician and inventor, influential is inadequate. He was the developer of the solid-body guitar that bears his name, inventor of multi-track recording, overdubbing, reverb and echo, and above all a uniquely gifted guitarist whose playing is—as the cliche goes–often imitated but never duplicated. And, as a footnote, he was the godfather of Steve Miller (literally, not just musically).

He was a hero in more than music. Four years ago, at celebrations of his 90th birthday, scores of the most famous people in music came forward to talk about his unequaled humanity, generosity, modesty, and all the other qualities we would want to point to in people whose passing we mark, the qualities that make somebody a true role model.

The best news to come of this is that for a change, there could be no media overkill. No coverage could be enough. And just like that, within hours of his death, thousands of media stories and messages appeared. Not a single one of these stories had to make excuses for lapses in his life, or had to dig around for some unearthed detail to fabricate sensation. It was all good.

The media redeemed itself by doing what it can do best, celebrating and (for some) introducing a great life. Of course, Les Paul helped a little, by putting together a life the likes of which we won’t see again, but which will be in our lives as long as we listen to and love music.

The best introduction to Les Paul is probably the award-winning documentary Les Paul – Chasing Sound! , which aired as part of the PBS American Masters series. Not only is it the best look most of us will ever get of Les Paul, but in media terms it is a reminder of just how important documentary filmmakers are in painting lasting portraits of real American idols.


After writing this post, I realized that XM Radio often creates special channels–sometimes temporary, sometime permanent–for special artists (Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, etc., etc.) So I wondered whether Les Paul might get a channel of his own.

I went through the channels, but didn’t find one. Instead I ended up at the Classic Vinyl channel, where Derek and the Dominoes were playing Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. I got captured by Eric Clapton’s playing, which is when I had this ephinany:

XM doesn’t need a Les Paul channel. Most of its music channels are Les Paul channels.

And yes, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix did play Les Paul guitars at one time or another. In fact, during the period when his playing led to the “Clapton is God” phenomenon, he was playing a Les Paul.

Of course, that saying was never quite right. Clapton and all these other great players are talented disciples. There was only one Les Paul.

Written by Bob Schwartz

August 14, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Music, Uncategorized

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Happy Days Are Here Again?

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After some relatively not-so-disastrous economic metrics last week, I began seeing headlines and news coverage like this:

Economy on the Mend

That’s a matter of interpretation, and there’s no consensus (as if there is such a thing among economists). This did get me thinking about the value of loud public optimism in the face of continuing economic uncertainty.

The most famous case in American history may be the popularity of the song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” written in 1929 by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager:

So long sad times
Go long bad times
We are rid of you at last

Howdy gay times
Cloudy gray times
You are now a thing of the past

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let’s sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

Altogether shout it now
There’s no one
Who can doubt it now
So let’s tell the world about it now
Happy days are here again

Your cares and troubles are gone
There’ll be no more from now on

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let’s sing a song of cheer again

Happy times
Happy nights
Happy days
Are here again!

The song became an anthem of the Great Depression. It was played at the Democratic National Convention of 1932 that nominated FDR, and became the unofficial theme song of the Roosevelt administration.

How the song came to be written and become an anthem is strange and enlightening.

The song was written in 1929, but before the Stock Market crash, and it was supposed to be about World War I soldiers celebrating the end of the war:

Along with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” “Happy Days Are Here Again” embodied the Great Depression for millions of Americans. Yet Ager’s bouncy tune and Yellen’s feel-good lyric had nothing to do with the Depression. The movie musical Chasing Rainbows was nearly complete when Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production, told Yellen he wanted a song for at new scene in which World War 1 doughboys celebrate the armistice. Ager grumbled about having to collaborate on another song because his relationship with Yellen had soured, but he agreed to stop at Yellen’s house that afternoon. “Got a title?” he groused. “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Yellen answered. He later swore that the words came to him at that moment. A half hour later, they had finished the song. Two days later, MGM filmed the scene even though the movie was so lame it was not released for several years.

Ager and Yellen published the song anyway, and a New York song plugger took it to George Olsen, whose orchestra was playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania on Black Thursday, the day the stock market crashed. Yellen later wrote about the reaction:

In the big dining room of the hotel, a handful of gloom-stricken diners were feasting on gall and wormwood. Olsen looked at the title of the song and passed out the parts. “Sing it for the corpses,” he said to the soloist. The diners broke into a roar of laughter. The band played on, and one couple after another rose from their tables, stomped to the bandstand, and sardonically yelled the words with the vocalist…

(America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser)

So it was an accident, an astonishing coincidence. While those first listeners on Black Thursday sang along “sardonically,” the millions who sang it in the years to come were much more earnest and sincere:

A perky tune often played in a staccato manner to fit its jaunty words, “Happy Days Are Here Again” was soon joined by a legion of cheer-up songs that typified the Depression’s insistent public optimism…Perhaps the success of “Happy Days Are Here Again” as a Depression anthem and as a campaign song for the Democrats derives from its directness and naivete. The brief lyric has only two words of more than one syllable. Its sentiments are as simple as its words, but its bubbly assertion of good times in the face of the evidence soon has us singing along.

I’m not sure news media belong at either extreme—as suppliers of endless unmitigated economic bad news or as cheerleaders selling sunny and unrealistic optimism. Thinking about “Happy Days Are Here Again,” though, it appears that people, headlines or not, have a way of choosing and using exactly what they need to get them through the times.

Written by Bob Schwartz

August 2, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Michael Jackson’s Hair Is On Fire 25 Years Ago

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I was just getting a little more comfortable, now that Michael Jackson Media Madness is (for the moment) stabilized.

Then three things happened.

Last week, Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. The news hooks for the video being shown continuously are that this is newly uncovered footage, and that the pain killers he used during his recovery started him on the road to addiction that led to his death.

Yesterday, Howard Kurtz of CNN’s Reliable Sources had Nightline’s Terry Moran as a guest. Kurtz asked Moran why Nightline had opened with Michael Jackson stories on 13 of 15 shows during the past few weeks. Kurtz wondered if the story could possibly be the most important on all of those nights. Moran hedged a little, then admitted that the most important stories are the ones that viewers think are the most important stories. Kurtz stopped pushing the point, and I’m still pondering.

Also yesterday, Don Henley’s song Dirty Laundry came on the radio. Not great art, but it is a good example of pop music as social commentary. No doubt informed by the Eagles’ years in the spotlight, the song sure seems to fit some of the Michael Jackson coverage:

I make my living off the Evening News
Just give me something–something I can use
People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry…

We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde
Who comes on at five
She can tell you ’bout the plane crash
With a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die
Give us dirty laundry…

Dirty little secrets
Dirty little lies
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie
We love to cut you down to size
We love dirty laundry

Now here’s the interesting connection: When I went looking for those lyrics, I discovered that Lisa Marie Presley covered Dirty Laundry on her second album in 2005. It was the first single released from the album. If anyone knows something about media airing dirty laundry—particularly the posthumous kind—there are few others I can think of who are better qualified.

Written by Bob Schwartz

July 20, 2009 at 3:37 pm

The New York Times in Time

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I know I sound like a broken record (that’s one of those black plastic discs, oh, never mind, you had to be there), but I continue to support the vitality of print media.

So does the New York Times. But as I noted before, the appearance of the New York Times on The Daily Show didn’t do the Times any favors. Especially baffling was the interview with Times Assistant Managing Editor Rick Berke. I thought Executive Editor Bill Keller was realistic and thoughtful, but he apparently didn’t like his own performance, as he says in this week’s Time magazine 10 Questions feature:

You recently appeared as part of a Daily Show segment that treated the paper as a comical anachronism. How do you respond to those who seem eager for newspapers to die out?
Tommy Giglio, CHICAGO

Bill Keller: Well, that’s the last time I try to be a good sport. Even my wife told me that I looked faintly ridiculous, and she was trying to make me feel better. Among the people who would miss us most would be the wise-guy pundits and scriptwriters for satirical TV shows, because they riff on the news we produce.

That’s an okay point about riffing on traditionally gathered news, but good satire doesn’t necessarily mean cheap shots. In this case, they pointed out—and the New York Times agreed—that the news in the print paper is at best yesterday’s news. That’s just a fact.

What struck me as ironic about Bill Keller’s appearance on the 10 Questions page is that the questions from Time readers were collected online, and the page also recommends “To watch a video interview with Bill Keller and to subscribe to the 10 Questions podcast on iTunes, go to” But what’s really weird is the graphic that depicts Bill Keller in a Polaroid photo, which unlike struggling but still kicking print media is an actual extinct medium.

A newspaper, Web, video, podcast and iTunes page in a magazine, with a Polaroid twist. That’s what I call synergy.

Written by Bob Schwartz

July 15, 2009 at 3:56 am

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll

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I just learned about the latest book from music writer, teacher, and performer Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. I haven’t read it yet, but here’s part of the publisher’s summary:

Following the approach of his groundbreaking and controversial blues history, “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,” Wald examines the expanse of mainstream popular music from ragtime to disco, trying to separate the realities of the music, dance and culture from a centuries’ accumulation of familiar myths.

As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of pop styles through developing tastes, trends and technologies–including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television–to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century.

Among the themes:

Most music histories concentrate on jazz or rock, and on artists the writer thinks are great, rather than on the most popular and influential stars (for example, we get Louis Armstrong rather than Paul Whiteman, and Buddy Holly rather than Pat Boone). These canons are fine as far as they go, but leave us with a warped sense of the world that produced all of those artists. Wald tries to leave his own tastes out of the picture and instead understand the tastes of mainstream dancers and listeners, and the changes in lifestyles and technologies that shaped the evolution of American popular music…

Women (or girls) were almost always the main audience for popular music, and their tastes to a great extent have determined the course of pop history…. Pop music is almost always driven by female tastes, but almost all the history has been written by men–and not just by men, but by the sort of men who collect records rather than going dancing, and consider most mainstream pop to be junk. This book puts women’s tastes at the center of the story, from the flood of young female office and factory workers who sparked the dance crazes of the Jazz Age to the early 1960s when “twisting girls changed the world.”…

The Beatles’ success brought an unprecedented segregation of American music, which continues today…. The Beatles’ success marked a split between older rock ‘n’ roll and modern rock–and the moment when the interracial world of rock ‘n’ roll was divided into rock (white) and black (soul) styles. Wald argues that this ended a pattern of interracial give-and-take that had produced every previous major American pop style, from ragtime to rock ‘n’ roll.

This sent me to my library of pop and rock music histories. Was there throughout these books a conventional history and narrative? Was it all mostly written by guys, about guys, for guys—guys who didn’t think and talk much about dancing, who didn’t like dancing, maybe because they couldn’t?

Before thinking about those and other questions, it is notable how many talented and original writers and thinkers have turned to writing about pop and rock music over the past forty years or so. Also notable is the number who were already or who became musicians, or who went on to related pursuits (Jon Landau as Bruce Springsteen’s manager—yeah, I know, he had seen the future; Cameron Crowe as music-centric film director).

And yes, the writers are mostly men. White men. The Penguin Book of Rock & Roll Writing (1992) includes 43 writers, six of them women. (And weirdly, one fake woman, Theresa Stern, which was a pseudonym used by Richard Hell.)

Did these writers share some conventional historical perspective, some mythology, either because they were the earliest writers who created it, or the later writers who bought into it without examination? I don’t know.

What I do guess is that some of these guys did share a certain perspective on the significance of the music and the specialness of saying something profound about it. Could this sort of worldview have skewed their vision, blinding them to the kinds of real world cool/uncool phenomena Wald focuses on, like girls dancing and teen idols being important? It’s worth thinking about.

Here’s part of that that perspective, as played out in two movies about the music.

In Almost Famous, pioneer rock writer Lester Bangs mentors an aspiring young writer (who grows up to be the movie’s director Cameron Crowe):

If you’re a rock journalist, a true journalist — first you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company.

And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls… they’ll try to fly you places for free…. offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends.  These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.

They are trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously — dumb! And you’re smart enough to know that. And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real. Right? And then it will just Become an Industry of Cool.

High Fidelity is a film about a music-obsessive record store owner named Rob. It is adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, who in his own life and literature seems to share this sort of deep driving affinity for the music and its meaning. The movie is filled with obsessed guys exchanging critical assessments and lists of records. Even (or especially) in his private misery, it is all about the records for Rob:

I’m reorganizing my records tonight. It’s something I do in times of emotional distress. When Laura was here I had them in alphabetical order, before that, chronologically. Tonight, though, I’m trying to put them in the order in which I bought them. That way I can write my own autobiography without picking up a pen. Pull them all off the shelves, look for Revolver and go from there. I’ll be able to see how I got from Deep Purple to The Soft Boys in twenty-five moves. What I really like about my new system is that it makes me more complicated than I am. To find anything you have to be me, or at the very least a doctor in Rob-ology. If you wanna find Landslide by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons. But you don’t know any of that, do you?

Anyway, I look forward to reading Wald’s new book. And if you’re one of those people who may have spent way more time than probably healthy thinking about how the music you love (or used to love but don’t anymore, or can’t understand how anyone could love) got that way, or if you are, God forbid, someone who actually did reorganize their records in autobiographical order, maybe an alternative history is just the thing to open your eyes. Or as the publicist for the book wrote “shake up our staid notions of music history and help us hear American popular music with new ears.”

Written by Bob Schwartz

July 11, 2009 at 11:38 pm


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Yesterday, cable television’s Sci Fi Channel officially changed its name to Syfy.

Skipping the first three questions of the Syfy FAQs (including why?), here’s the answer to the most important one:

4. How do you pronounce Syfy?

No change there. It’s pronounced just like “sci-fi” is.

This move was announced months ago, but the appearance of the new logo on-screen was the first many people had heard about it. There have been lots of comments, including intelligent analysis of the business aspects and merits of this rebranding. There are also plenty of more direct comments, many of them from viewers who frequently used the word “stupid” and the like.

I can talk about rebranding too, but it’s much more fun to take a ride in the Wayback machine and look at coverage of the original announcement back in March. There was a TV Week piece that began

Sci Fi Channel Aims to Shed Geeky Image With New Name
‘Syfy’ Will Announce Name Change, Other Plans at Upfront
By Jon Lafayette

In some universe, the name “Syfy” is less geeky than the name “Sci Fi.” Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, is betting it’s this one.

To that end, the 16-year-old network—owned by NBC Universal—plans to announce that Syfy is its new name March 16 at its upfront presentation to advertisers in New York.

Skipping the media and demographic discussions, there is this nugget about the creative rebranding process

The network worked with the branding consultancy Landor Associates and went through about 300 possibilities before selecting Syfy.

The renaming process does generate lots of possibilities, from the pedestrian to the truly bizarre and unusable. But of all the things I’ve read from the time of the announcement, of all the things that appear today and down the road, nothing makes me more curious than that.

There were about 300 other possible names for the Sci Fi Channel. This may count as an LFAQ (least frequently asked question), but here goes: What were those 300 names other than Syfy?

No doubt, inquiring minds and Sci Fi (Syfy) viewers want to know.

Written by Bob Schwartz

July 8, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Television

Michael Jackson and Evita

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The breaking news is that the family now plans to bring the body of Michael Jackson to Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Apparently the family could not find the nearby helipad, so the body will be driven there from Forest Lawn Memorial Park. This procession will likely turn into one more ring in the media circus. (The fact that an actual circus parade is scheduled for downtown L.A. today—to announce tomorrow’s opening of the circus at Staples Center—needs no comment.)

Hearing this, the only thing I could think of was the death of Argentina’s Eva Peron—Evita.

For those who only know Evita from the musical, there is a much more fascinating and complex story that the show barely touches.

In 1952, Evita was a more significant star in Argentina than Elvis, Princess Di or Michael Jackson ever were. Their outsized influence was cultural; Evita used her self-made stardom—some would say idolatry—to help radicalize the politics of a nation.

How she got there and what she did with that power remain the stuff of living, breathing controversy today, fifty-seven years after her death that year. You cannot visit Argentina, or follow online discussions, and not quickly find ongoing arguments about her motives and her role in history.

Evita was a master of creating a bigger-than-life public persona that would engender absolute loyalty and love, not just masking the possibility of darker motives and actions, but obliterating that possibility completely. Some would say that there were few better at this sort of manipulation. She made herself Santa Evita.

Which is why when she died in July 1952, millions who believed she could do no wrong turned out in the streets of Buenos Aires. Even those of us jaded by big funerals and mourning for big public figures can only be awed by the films and accounts of that mass of people. Though myths have grown up, it is said that every flower in Buenos Aires was bought up that day, and the pictures make that plausible. Eight people died in the crush of mourners.

There is one more point to make about Evita in death. Because of her enduring appeal and popular power, and because of the perpetual political controversies about Peronism, Evita’s body was secreted out of the country and spent many years in Europe. Her well-travelled remains eventually returned to Buenos Aires, where her tomb is a (controversial) tourist attraction.

In some ways, we are experiencing a sort of Evita moment, especially in the media coverage of the Michael Jackson death. We will see whether this last-minute funeral procession prompts even a little of that Buenos Aires madness. And we will see whether in death, bitter disagreement and controversy will interrupt the peaceful rest of Michael Jackson. There’s no doubt that in the short term it will; only time will tell what fifty years bring.

Written by Bob Schwartz

July 7, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Posted in Music

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