A history lesson regarding major events in the motion picture and live music industries

pop-cultureAugust 15, 2014 — Where were you 75 years ago today?

Not born yet? Me neither. My parents were only seven and eight at the time, so it would be another 20 plus years before I made my debut. I wonder if they remember that 75 years ago today, “The Wizard of Oz” premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

Oddly, the film was not a box office success, even though it had been MGM’s most costly movie to produce at that time, and was based on a popular book. When annual television broadcasts began in 1956, “The Wizard of Oz” found its following, and became one of the most famous films ever.

Now, here’s another question. Where were you 45 years ago today?

Perhaps you still weren’t born yet. Most likely, I was playing jacks on my front porch that summer day. Little did I know that several hours north, Woodstock had opened on August 15, 1969.

Woodstock, a rock concert that took place in upstate New York, was tagged “Three days of peace and music.” More than 30 popular acts of that time period performed before an audience of 400,000 young people, and even today, it is widely regarded as the pivotal moment in popular music history. On a side note, it’s difficult to believe that Woodstock doesn’t rank on top ten list as one of the highest attended concert in music history. The number one spot belongs to Rod Stewart, who on New Year’s Eve 1993, drew a crowd of 3.5 million at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Two major events in American pop culture occurred on this day 30 years apart, and although they couldn’t be more vastly different, they have affected us. One taught us about wishing for life over the rainbow, yet there is no place like home. It also opened our minds and helped us imagine. The other showed us that music is a great way to make a statement and bring people together, and that nearly a half a million young people could gather in one place peacefully, even during a time when America was dividing rapidly. It also opened the minds of many, although some might say in a drastically different way.

Both cultural events gave us the lasting music we know and love. The soundtrack to “The Wizard of Oz” features one of the best-loved songs of all time, “Over the Rainbow”, a song recorded by over 100 recording artists. For a 75-year-old song, it is still widely played and relevant today. Woodstock provided the soundtrack to the turmoil of the late 1960s, and many of those songs by The Who, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, etc., are still popular.

After all of these years, both performances are firmly implanted into our lives, memories, and traditions. Can you name any musical artists or motion pictures of today that will still be talked about and celebrated 50 years from now?

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Another milestone in Beatles’ history

imagesJune 20, 2014 — As if we needed another reason to feel old comes the news that The Beatles’ film — and my favorite of all of their films — “A Hard Day’s Night” celebrates its 50th anniversary in a few weeks.

Here’s an article from “The New York Post” naming 10 things you probably didn’t know about the film. And they’re right. I didn’t know them. Not even one.

If you’re a fan, watch for the film to appear in select theaters, and to be released on Blue Ray in honor of the milestone.

While I enjoy the entire Beatles’ catalog, I especially adore this time period when they seemed innocent and carefree. The Fab Four also proved they could act, too.

If you haven’t seen this comic gem, plan to see it on the big screen if it comes to your area. I’ve seen it more times than I can count on television, but 10 years ago, in honor of its 40th anniversary, I experienced in a theater for the first time, and it gave me a different perspective. Definitely worth the price.

The holy or the broken

music-notes3March 28, 2014 – Let’s play Name that Tune.

This song was…

  • Written in 1984
  • Not an initial hit for its Canadian singer-songwriter creator
  • Covered by over 300 artists including Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, k.d. Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, and Il Divo
  • Widely used in film and television, and on elevators
  • Named the 10th greatest Canadian song of all time, and listed as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time by “Rolling Stone”
  • Named the greatest song of all time by U2’s Bono

Need another clue? This song was the topic of “The Holy or the Broken”, a book written by music journalist Alan Light.

If you guessed “Hallelujah”, give yourself a pat on the back. If you guessed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” you deserve much more; people may know the song, but it is rarely attributed to Cohen. And if you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the song, listen here, and I’m sure you’ll find you’re mistaken.

Light also writes for “The New York Times” and “Rolling Stone”, and is the founding editor of “Vibe Magazine”. He appeared last night at Kelly Writers House, a center for writers from Penn and the Philadelphia region on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to discuss the book, the song, and the myth, and how it became an international anthem for human tragedy. Or triumph, depending on the performer and which verses of the song he or she chooses to sing.

Yes, “Hallelujah” can be that simple, or that complicated depending on your point of view. Even Cohen, who created the song, has been known to change and add lyrics to suit his mood. In all, he has written about 80 draft verses for it.

Light talked about and played portions from a few different versions of the song. He started off with Cohen’s version, and told the story that when he recorded it, the record company did not want to put it on the album. “We all know you are great,” the record company executive told Cohen after hearing ‘Hallelujah’, “we just don’t know if you are any good.”

According to Light, “Hallelujah” was a difficult song to write. Cohen struggled with the lyrics for years, and recalls being in a New York City hotel room in his underwear, banging his head on the floor saying, “I can’t finish this song.”

It’s also puzzling, he points out, that the song is used at many benefits to help victims of various disasters, yet no one, not even Cohen, knows what it actually means. The song even became popular with kids when it was used in the movie “Shrek”. Light explains that since “Shrek” was a DreamWorks film, a DreamWorks recording artist was needed to cover it. Rufus Wainwright sang an upbeat version for the film and it became planted in the minds of a whole new generation.

So, how did this song go from Cohen’s obscure album to Shrek? In the late 80s, Cohen and his music enjoyed a slight resurgence, and various artists put out a tribute album of his songs. Among them, John Cale of the Velvet Underground, who performed his version of “Hallelujah”. He recorded it much like Cohen did, as a solo piano piece, but he changed around the lyrics a bit. It was Cale’s version of the song that caught the attention of Jeff Buckley, who recorded it, and it became the most popular version of the song.  Buckley’s version is the one used widely in various films and television programs. However, it wasn’t a true hit for him, either. When he passed away a few years after he recorded it, people took a second look at his music, discovered “Hallelujah”, and made it what it is today.

Light also says that Cohen may “have penned it, but Jeff Buckley owned it.” He told the intimate crowd at Kelly Writer’s House that he didn’t think about dedicating a few years to writing a book about one song until he began to talk to people about “Hallelujah”, only to realize what a tremendous impact it had on them.

“Everyone had a story connected to the song, and that is very powerful to hear,” he said. “I wrote the book after hearing that a friend of a friend actually named her daughter Hallelujah after the song.”

Are there any bad versions out there?

“Very few,” says Light, “because it is a song that is forgiving. Among the bad, however, are versions by Susan Boyle and Bono.”

Boyle’s version, which appears on her Christmas album is too clean. Her voice is fine, but she barely brings any meaning to the lyrics, and concentrated more on the Hallelujah chorus. Bono’s version may be the worst ever, and Light explains that artist agreed as much when he interviewed him for “The Holy or the Broken”. Bono performs the song to a trip hop beat, whisper raps the lyrics, and belts out a soprano chorus that doesn’t please the ear.

My favorite is k.d. Lang’s sultry cover, which she performed when Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, and also at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

In addition to a compelling lecture, there were two moving performances of “Hallelujah” by Penn student musicians.

For more information about Kelly Writers House, and the programs available to area writers, visit  http://www.writing.upenn.edu/wh/.

Fun with puns and alliteration

a-middle-eastern-eatery-photo-u1January 24, 2014 – Most people enjoy a good pun, the wordplay form that suggests more than one meaning of similar sounding words for a humorous effect. They can be madcap fun.

When you combine a passionate penchant for puns and a lingering love of lists — the alliteration part of this blog post — you end up with a set of data that is sure to entertain. Take a look at the “47 Best Funny Restaurant Puns” from Ranker.com, the crowd sourced list maker of topics both entertaining and practical, and I bet you’ll be entertained, too.

It’s clever, for instance, to name a wine shop Planet of the Grapes, and a coffee shop Brewed Awakening. It’s downright funny to name a deli Nin Com Soup, or a chicken restaurant Sam and Ella’s. I had to read some of the puns/names a few times before it clicked, and admit to still scratching my head at nos. 16, 28, 34, and 44, but it’s a list definitely worth a look.

Idioms and their origin: A top ten list

downloadJanuary 15, 2014 – You have heard them and may even use them, but might not know where they come from.

Idioms, words that stem from the Latin idioma meaning special feature, are phrases that have a figurative meaning separate from a literal meaning. Idioms occur in all languages; in English, they number over 25,000. I am barely scratching the surface, but here are 10 popular English idioms, and their interesting origins:

  1. Turn over a new leaf
    In the 16th Century, people referred to pages in a book as “leaves”. Turning over a new leaf meant turning to another page to begin again.
  2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder
    The author of this particular sentiment remains unknown, but it first appeared in a book of French poems in 1602 (author unknown). Using it refers to lacking something increases the desire for it.
  3. Get sacked
    To get sacked means to be fired. We all know that. It is said to come from the 17th Century in England and France when tradesmen, who owned their work tools took them home in a bag or sack after losing their job.
  4. Can’t hold a candle to someone
    I couldn’t locate a year or place of origin for this common idiom, but it came from apprentices holding candles so their craftsmen could see as they worked; therefore, it had to be before electricity was commonly used. If you don’t perform as expected today, you may be told you can’t hold a handle to whoever performs well.
  5. Mad as a Hatter
    This idiom might be my favorite expression. We know it was used in “Alice in Wonderland”, but it originally it is said to come from 18th Century England when mercury was used when making hats, which caused hat makers to go mad. Today, we use it to describe someone we think is crazy.
  6. No dice
    This phrase is 100% made in America and comes from the early 1900s when gambling with dice was illegal. Gamblers went to great lengths to hide their dice back then; if the law couldn’t find the dice (no dice), they couldn’t convict. We use it indicate there is no chance for something happening.
  7. Get up on the wrong side of the bed
    In ancient Rome, people believed it was bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. If you dared, your day would likely not be a pleasant one. Today, getting up on the wrong side of the bed is used when someone is in a grumpy mood.
  8. Apple of my eye
    When we cherish someone above all others, we might say they are the apple of our eye. This idiom is biblical. Deuteronomy 32:10: “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye”. Shakespeare may have been the first to use it commonly, as he did in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1600.
  9. It’s Greek to me
    Another idiom that is attributed to Shakespeare, and “Julius Caesar” in 1599. It comes from “Graecum est; non legitur, or “It’s Greek, therefore it cannot be read”, which was used by monk scribes around the same time. In modern times, we use it if something complex is not easily understood.
  10. Close but no cigar
    The second “All American” idiom on the list, it is said to have originated in the 1935 script for the film “Annie Oakley”, which stated, “Close Colonel, but no cigar!” Today, we use it when we fall short of our expectations.

Need a good laugh? Here are six funny people to follow on Twitter if you’re not already doing so.

thCAJPS43TJanuary 10, 2014 – I may not be a Twitter genius, but as a blogger, I send a tiny URL linked to my site each time I post, giving me a fair amount of experience with the social media site.

On the receiving end, I’m also in the fair category, occasionally checking in on the 59 special individuals I follow. I appreciate funny tweets best, although it’s difficult to amuse in 140 characters or less. Here are the six people who manage to do that for me:

  1. Steve Carell – As Michael Scott on “The Office”, Steve Carell’s childish antics began to wear on me, but I missed him when he left. Now, he amuses me with his clever posts on Twitter. I enjoyed this one from last year – “Tomorrow I am going to start not growing a beard.”
  2. Steven Colbert – The political satirist is always a kick on “The Steven Colbert Show”, but it’s nice to get a little slice of humor on Twitter, too. Recently he shared his New Year’s resolution – “They say ‘the camera adds ten pounds’ which is why my New Year’s resolution was to fire two cameramen.”
  3. Ellen DeGeneres — I typically work during the day and don’t get to enjoy Ellen’s humor on her popular daily talk show. On Twitter, I can enjoy it whenever I want. Ellen had this to say about the return of a famous British show – “Amazing to think people lived the way they do on Downton Abbey. Portia was watching something else, so I watched in the servant’s quarters.”
  4. Jimmy Fallon – Mr. Late Night will take over the reins for Jay Leno next month, and it seems he’s gaining more popularity by the day. I knew something was special about him from his earlier SNL days. During the holidays, he tweeted this little gem – “One Thanksgiving my mom had to bail my sister’s boyfriend out of jail. At least we had something to talk about at dinner.”
  5. Hugh Laurie – Who knew the grim Dr. House could be so funny. Thanks to a nudge from my sister, I do now. His tweets are a bit sarcastic, and I love that – “Do you ever get the feeling you’re not being watched?”
  6. Steve Martin – I’ve followed Steve through his early “Let’s get small” stand-up days, and enjoyed his movie career, too. Now the banjo-playing comedian is a timely contributor to Twitter – “Just learned that the NSA has figured out how to log onto Twitter and read my feed.”

I’m sure there are more funny men and women that could brighten my day, so please send suggestions if you follow any. My funny bone thanks you.

Killer designs or killer shoes?

October 10, 2012 – How do women walk in those extreme high heels and platforms that are all the rage?

I understand why they try to do it. They believe it looks attractive, and want to look fashionable and trendy when they go out on a Saturday night. Appearing taller than you are is often a good thing, and having legs that look a mile long is sexy. That makes sense. But I don’t understand how they think they can walk in this frightening footwear.

I turned to the Internet for help and here’s what I found:

How to Walk in High Heels
Learn How to Walk in High Heels

Thankfully, I’m not serious about learning how to walk in those monster shoes since neither one of those sources answered my question. Even I could walk in heels the size they feature in these “How To’s”.

So, what set me off on all of this shoe nonsense? While sitting at an outside café at 2nd and Market Streets in Philadelphia Saturday night, an interesting and busy intersection that’s perfect for my favorite pastime – people watching – I must have witnessed a hundred or more young women walk by in shoes with platforms so high and spiked heels even higher, it made my head spin.

Still, none of these lovely women could walk gracefully in them, and I’m not sure anyone could. They may look fashionable while they are standing still – and even that’s debatable – but once they moved, they appeared clumsy, lumbering and awkward. I have to wonder why they spent their hard-earned money on these torture devices.

At the table next to us we had another shoe drama unfolding. A young couple sat; she wearing the highest heels I’d ever seen, the tears streaming down her face because of a bleeding toe, and he soothing her with his words of comfort, “Babe, what the hell did you do?” While he cleaned the wound with a shot of tequila, and she continued to sob, it didn’t take a genius to realize that her shoes were probably the cause. Not to mention, it wasn’t the most appetizing sight when you’re trying to enjoy dinner.

Most women have a thing for shoes, and I sort of fall into that category. I get it. I watched “Sex and the City” and believe in a “woman’s right to shoes”. I simply prefer footwear with sensible high heels that look better on women who want to do more than stand still all evening, and who want walk gracefully cross a room without the fear of falling from such a high distance should her ankle wobble over.

As I watched the parade of killer shoes pass by, I kept thinking that even though those who wore them may be younger and more fashionable, I wouldn’t want to walk a mile in their shoes.