Human Interest Stories
Oh, brother! It’s that time of the month again, when one’s mane starts to look a bit straggly and those sideburns are in dire need of a wee trim.
Did you ever get the feeling that no matter where you went or whatever hairstyling establishment you happened to frequent, you could never get the perfect haircut to suit your taste, style and looks?
That’s how it was for me (uh, when I had a full mop of hair, that is). In my youth I wandered through a host of hair-clipping joints and local barbershops, always hopeful but never fully satisfied with the results.
That elusive search for the perfect haircut can take on the semblance of a hunt for the Holy Grail. This is something that has taken me years of aggravation to understand and appreciate, that never-attained but forever longed-for journey of discovery. It can take the shape of various forms and in various manifestations. And don’t you dare think that women have it easier! Why, it’s quite the opposite! Getting the right hairdo is just as frustrating for them as it for us — maybe more so.
The art of caring for one’s coiffure is, indeed, just that: an unreachable and strictly unattainable achievement in craft as well as the latest fashion trends. In ancient times, men and women of means often had their hair braided (only to prove that they could), while they just as regularly could have had their noggins shaved. These served as viable options for many a generation until the arrival of the Swinging Sixties and Seventies. Before (and, in hindsight, many years afterward), it was considered common practice to keep the hairline closely cropped.
Actually, the mania for long hair and full-facial whiskers started with the early settlers and the notorious mountain men, i.e. those rugged individualists in the masculine mold of your average Jeremiah Johnson. A bit later, during the Civil War years, extreme head and facial hair were the norm, due to the lack of equipment or, more likely, the dearth of individuals available to do justice to the style of the period.
About every other generation or so, the business of keeping one’s tresses lengthy or shortened undergo alteration. This piece is about those times when the novelty of keeping your hair long eventually wears off. It’s then that we’re faced with the act of doing something about it. And where does one go? Where else but the neighborhood barbershop!
The Barber of the Block
The search for a decent haircut began, basically enough, in one’s hometown. And there were plenty of enterprises to choose from, from Coy Powell’s Barbershop to Aunt Irma’s Place. These small business shops served the locals well for any number of years.
Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of all these myriad enterprises was their colorful epithets, used primarily as an attraction to potential customers: Joe’s Barbershop, The Italian Barber, Florio’s Hair Styling Emporium, Ye Olde Barber Shoppe (note the old English lettering), Your Tonsorial Palace — these were familiar and ongoing concerns geared mostly to males.
You might even call them mini-history museums. As a matter of fact, much has changed since the heyday of the “shave and a haircut, two bits” mantra of yore. I “fondly” remember the sound those crude ancient hair-cutting utensils used to make: obtrusive, whirring noises that smacked of another era entirely when getting a haircut was deemed a rite of passage for young men. However, for kids it was one long, laborious wait.
The racial makeup of the local barber pool ran the gamut of ethnicities, from Eastern European and Eurasian to Caribbean and South American. Many of our homegrown haircutters proved to be of Hispanic origin, while some were decidedly Mediterranean in looks and lineage (Italian, Greek) or Middle Eastern (Arabic and Lebanese, even Turkish). I’ve known a few Cuban and Puerto Rican barbers in my time, along with a smattering of African Americans. None of them were young by the standards of the day, and practically all of them (with rare exceptions) were non-natives.
Interestingly, Carmen Miranda, the entertainer known as the Brazilian Bombshell, had a father, José Maria Pinto da Cunha, who when he immigrated to Rio de Janeiro from Portugal took up the barbering trade in order to make ends meet. Regrettably for Seu Pinto, in those turn-of-the-century times engaging in a profession of cutting men’s hair was considered a rung or two above that of a streetwalker (go figure!).
How times have changed…
Robert Fiance Beauty School
As it happened, choices were limited as to where one could go to get a decent trim. An alternative appeared in the early to mid-Seventies, the so-called beauty academy or haircutting school. A relatively benign and unassuming storefront, for the most part the Robert Fiance Beauty School (established between the 1930s and 1950s) was staffed, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where I grew up), by youthful and moderately “experienced” beauty salon students — all eager to please.
I was frequently attended to by both decent and poor hair-cutting aspirants on my monthly Saturday sojourns to the school. I usually got my money’s worth, certainly nothing that I would describe as an outright embarrassment.
The shop was clean and well run, and the charges were below your average rate for a haircut in high-priced New York. The downside of going to such a place was that you ran the risk of getting scalped, both figuratively and literally. It was best to get a second or third opinion before venturing forth on your own.
It paid, too, to get a few reliable recommendations from those who had frequented the better known establishments in one’s immediate vicinity. That’s how I happened to run across the next item on my list, Manzana Hair Cutters.
Manzana Hair Cutters
The name was simply a business moniker, what we call a DBA (or “Doing Business As”), a legitimate enterprise — unless served as a front for other activities.
On the “good word” of a customer of a place I used to work at in the mid-1970s (a policeman I’ll call “Bill,” or the guy with the oh-so-cool haircut), I took time off one day to go several blocks down the street and up a steep walkway to a second-floor loft on the Lower East Side.
I had to knock several times before someone decided to let me in. The person who opened the door seemed a trifle surprised at my presence. I told this suspicious individual that I was looking for Mr. Manzana. He rudely answered, “There’s no Mr. Manzana here.” I was taken aback by his snappy response, but plowed on nonetheless. When I informed him that “Bill” was the guy who sent me, he allowed me to enter.
No sooner did I set foot in the salon when I suppressed a mild shock at what I saw. This wasn’t your recognizable, everyday beauty salon or haircutting parlor, but a ramshackle warehouse. The majority of the so-called “stylists” were either gay or transvestites, something I wasn’t prepared to deal with back then. Still, I remembered how nice my buddy “Bill” looked and how much he praised Manzana’s abilities, so I swallowed what pride I had left and patiently waited my turn.
The head stylist finally came over and, before I could open my mouth, began to berate me for being a half-hour late. This forced me to assume a defensive position. I told this irate fellow that I was coming to his establishment on my lunch hour, that our business demanded we serve our customers first before taking off for lunch (not that he cared one whit for his customers).
Not impressed with my explanation, in a huff he pointed to one of the other stylists and told me to go wait in his chair. The other stylist, who was just as annoyed as the owner by my tardiness, took one look at me and launched into a verbal invective about having to give up HIS lunch hour to serve my needs.
Oh, well, so much for sympathy from a bunch of devils …
As for the haircut, it wasn’t any great shakes, if you get me drift. Nothing special or extraordinary, more of a cut and a snip and a vague swirl of the scissors; the stylist swatted my head this way and that, and hither and yon. I’ll put it to you this way: it was more show than substance. In the end, I got nowhere near the preferential treatment my friend “Bill” had received in this place.
After that little escapade, I never went back to Manzana’s.
National Geographic Special
Many years later, I happened upon a 2002 National Geographic Special devoted to the search for the Afghan girl, the one with the soulful green eyes on that famous 1985 cover of their magazine.
The special was about one of the photographers, Steve McCurry, who nearly two decades later went to a faraway locale in Afghanistan in pursuit of the mysterious “cover girl.”
What piqued my interest most was the fact that the photographer had heaped praise on a local haircutting parlor where, after a haircut and a vigorous shave, “they gave you this wonderful head massage.” The little thirteen-year-old boy who administered McCurry’s massage looked as if he was kneading the man’s head like bread dough.
At the time of this special, it made me wonder to what extremes some people will go in order to get what they were after — in this instance, a relaxing massage from a young boy. At least no one yelled at Mr. McCurry for being two decades late.
Women’s Beauty Salons
Speaking of young boys, I remember, as a small child, waiting endlessly — and impatiently — waiting, waiting, waiting with my little brother in a woman’s beauty salon, while our mother would sit under this massive hair dryer for a period that never seemed to end.
Mom would wear these enormous hair curlers, which the attendant at the salon had spent an untold number of hours placing in strategic positions on her head. She looked like she had a head of extra large eyes.
That made no sense to me, why women would spend an entire afternoon (or all day, for that matter, usually on Saturdays) under a broiling contraption that spewed nothing but hot air for hours on end.
As for myself, I do remember getting a wonderful “hairstyle” in West Palm Beach, Florida (again, back in the late 1970s), AND by a female hairstylist. It was there that I first came across the marvelous hair products of a company called Redsen, or some such name. I forget now what the products were, but they were supposed to have kept my hair from drying out.
Regardless of the theory behind Redsen’s products, I was already at the point of losing most of what was left on my head. Soon, there would no longer be any reason for me to spend money on hair products. Descriptions such as “hair design,” or “hairstyle for men,” were useless for someone who had hardly any hair on his noggin.
Floyd the Barber
Not pleased with real-life barbers? What about the fictional variety? Well, there was only one person I could think of in a pinch: Floyd Lawson, the barbershop owner, who was strictly speaking a minor character on the Andy of Mayberry television series, also known as The Andy Griffith Show.
Played by character actor Howard McNear (1905-1969), Floyd fulfilled a purpose, fundamentally to provide the comic relief from the everyday tensions of the main characters, i.e. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Andy’s Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier), Andy’s son Opie (Ron Howard), the town drunk Otis (Hal Smith), and other denizens of the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.
Mind you, one rarely saw Floyd give an “actual” haircut and shave; he would mainly go through the motions, although I distinctly remember him having a shop with your standard issue barber’s chair and waiting room.
Not so strangely, the fictitious Floyd was inspired by a real-life barber, Russell Hiatt, who lived and worked in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the actual town where the star of the show, Andy Griffith, had grown up in.
Floyd was “honored”, somewhat, by an early Kurt Cobain song and music video titled “Floyd the Barber.” In it, Kurt shows up at Floyd’s barbershop for a shave and a haircut, only to be greeted by the mad merchant in a wild takeoff of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
In the video’s main section, Floyd, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Opie and Otis all conspire to murder Cobain in the barber chair, a really “hair-raising” episode in Kurt’s body of work.
Unlucky with TV shows? Well, then, let’s try the movies!
From John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), where Humphrey Bogart gets more than he bargained for at a cut-rate Mexican tonsorial parlor (wait till Bogie puts on his hat!), to legendary Marshall Wyatt Earp (a particularly laconic Henry Fonda) and his fancy, shmancy after-shave lotion in John Ford’s 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine (“What kind of a crazy town is this?”), cinematic representations of barbers and their shops abound.
There’s a scene in Warner Brothers’ Dodge City (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz, where Errol Flynn’s British-accented Wade Hatton is seated in a barber chair, waiting for a shave and a mustache trim. The barber, played by the rickety Clem Bevans, is game for completing the task when he’s interrupted by the intrusion of the film’s villains, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his evil gunslinger Yancey (a particularly repellent Victor Jory).
Did you think the handsome good guy Wade was going to sit still for a nice, relaxing shave and a haircut with these mugs staring him down? Not on your life! While his road buddy Rusty (Alan Hale) is sitting in a makeshift tub in the next room, bad guy Surrett insists on freshening up with his weekly Saturday bath. Shaky barber Clem hesitates but Wade comes to the rescue. He gets up out of the chair, straps on his gun belt and confronts both Surrett and Yancey with some old-fashioned straight talk.
Later on, Wade is back in the saddle again, or rather in the barber’s chair, when another of those tough hombres appears in the doorway, threatening to take him outside for “a little talk” with the boys. Hah, I’ll bet!
Wade takes care of him handily and in the twinkling of an eye. Sitting back down in the chair, Wade tries to resume the conversation where he had left off. He asks the barber what was it he was rambling about, taxes? The barber is too nervous to talk and too shaky to trim Wade’s mustache. Luckily for him, Wade is as handy with a blade as he is with the gift of gab. He is more than capable of giving himself a trim, which negates the need for a barber.
What’s Opera, Doc?
Moving on to the musical side of things, we have, of course, the mellifluous Figaro, the most famous haircutter in all opera. He can be found in several works for the lyric stage, the first by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, the four-act The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), based on the second play in the trilogy by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
The first play, The Barber of Seville, spawned two operatic versions written several years apart, the first by Giovanni Paisiello, and the second and more popular one by Gioachino Rossini. Both operas pay precious little attention to Figaro’s plying of his trade.
In fact, in the Mozart opus, Figaro is no longer a barber but is now Count Almaviva’s valet and servant, with nary a haircut or shave in sight. However, in Act II of Rossini’s version (sometimes played as a third act), Figaro attempts to shave the cranky Dr. Bartolo, guardian of his lovely young ward Rosina. In most stage depictions of this scene, Figaro deposits a generous helping of lather over Bartolo’s features in order to divert his prying eyes from the billing and cooing taking pace with the young couple in love, i.e. Almaviva (disguised as a music master) and Rosina.
I always get a big kick out of this scene, which is most amusingly done to Rossini’s quicksilver scoring. Any opera house worthy of the name can be counted on to keep the audience in stitches at this point.
Believe it or not, there was a sequel to the Mozart work, composed by Jules Massenet, called Cherubim, based on the secondary character of Cherubino. Now, the character of the playwright Beaumarchais, along with Figaro, Susanna (whom he marries), the Count, Rosina, Cherubino, and several illegitimate offspring, all make their presence felt in the 1991 composition The Ghosts of Versailles, with music by John Corigliano and text by William M. Hoffman. Unfortunately, there are no “close shaves” in this work, but the pre-headless form of Marie Antoinette does put in a ghostly appearance.
Another operatic hairstylist, the Barber of Baghdad is of German origin. Known as Der Barbier von Bagdad in its native land, the music for this comic opera was composed by Peter Cornelius. Although once popular in Europe, the title character Abdul Hassan (bass) has fallen on hard times. He shares many qualities with his Spanish counterpart, Figaro, in that Hassan acts as a go-between the two lovers, Nureddin (tenor) and Margiana (soprano).
Running counter to the romantic sentiments found in Mozart, Rossini and Cornelius, we now come to the notorious modern musical Sweeney Todd, made more famous than he ought to have been by Stephen Sondheim’s darkly sinister yet melodious score for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
A sort of latter-day Jack the Ripper, on whom he was partially modeled, the revenge-seeking Sweeney (real name: Benjamin Barker) provides the tasty filler for the otherwise disgusting meat pies concocted by the loony landlady with a rolling pin, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime.
There’s an associated side story as well, in the young sailor Anthony’s attraction to Johanna, the beautiful ward of the dissipated Judge Turpin. Certainly the plot of The Barber of Seville had been co-opted (or lifted), in part, by book writer Hugh Wheeler and composer/lyricist Sondheim in concocting this rather sinister brew. When one thinks of Anthony as a working-class Almaviva, Johanna as a Victorian-era Rosina, Turpin as an amoral Bartolo, and Sweeney (which goes without saying) as an Industrial Revolutionary Figaro swinging his razor high, the connections become obvious if, in the long run, abhorrent.
For a bit of animated levity, Warner Bros. Studio turned out a marvelous series of Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s. One of the funniest is titled Rabbit of Seville, directed by Chuck Jones in direct homage to the Rossini opera. That “Wascawy Wabbit” disguises himself as the local hairstylist so as to escape the clutches of trigger-happy hunter Elmer Fudd.
Fudd gets the treatment of a lifetime, however, while waiting in Bugs’ barber chair. The rabbit mounts Elmer’s forehead for an extended foot massage (in juxtaposition to that Afghan boy’s kneading of the photographer’s scalp). All this, and more, to the bouncy tune of the opera’s Overture!
Bravo, Signor Figaro, ma bravo!!!
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Having gone through every conceivable permutation (and then some) of the where and how of the local barber shop, I have come to the conclusion that it will have to remain an obscure dream — always within reach but forever eluding our grasp.
As we all know, the fun is in the chase. And like the art of collecting, you spend a lifetime in pursuit of the Grail, but you never, ever find it. If you did, then your search would have ended and, by design, so has your life.
You wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you?
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Three): Life after Soccer
Dénouement: Decline and Fall
With Pelé’s departure on October 1, 1977, the North American Soccer League (NASL) and Warner Communications were able to negotiate a contract with ABC television to broadcast regular network showings of league games, with a concentration on the Cosmos. Hand in hand with this arrangement, there were the requisite tailgate parties, barbecue outings, photo opportunities, the works. Giants Stadium was filled to capacity for nearly every game, a favorable omen.
But there were rules to be obeyed, and tried-and-true formulas to respect. One of them was self-evident: you can’t have one great team scoring all the goals, with every other team in the league a bunch of nobodies. Without reliable opposition you lose your competitive edge, that ability to test yourself, to prove yourself worthy against a determined foe. In this, the Cosmos suffered a fate worse than sudden death.
In 1978, the NASL expanded to twenty-four teams. Conversely, while the Cosmos themselves were getting better at their own game, the quality of play went down everywhere else. There were teams formed in Texas and Hawaii, even in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, places the NASL had no business being in. As for the Cosmos, they were constantly on the road, with translators, stretch limos, hotel bookings, etc., all on the company dole. In fact, there was an over-abundance of hoopla; numerous league records were also being set for goals, wins, and attendance, but to what end? To victory in 1978, that’s what! And ABC Sports and their award-winning announcer Jim McKay covered it.
By 1979, Chinaglia was supposed to be calling the shots. He put together the team, the so-called “shadow government” (or the man behind the curtain, in David Hirshey’s words), with Coach Firmani and a fellow named Peppe Pinton coming along for the ride. A photograph is fleetingly flashed on the screen showing a beaming Steve Ross, with Chinaglia in half-shadow in the center (his face turned partially to the side), Professor at far right in wide-framed glasses, and João Havelange, President of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 (1:19:45 to 1:19:46) in suit and tie. Ah, to have been a fly on that wall!
True, the Cosmos were ratcheting up the victories, and Giorgio was busy scoring goals — a win-win situation for all, one would assume. That is, until the team ran into the Vancouver White Caps and the infamous shootout phase. Five seconds left, Nelsi Morais beat the goalie to the punch. Nelsi scores! But time had run out for the Cosmos, and for the league. Poor scheduling (a matchup at high noon on a hot and humid Saturday in July) led to even poorer TV ratings. After one year ABC canceled their contract. That spelled doom not only for the team but for the entire league. Back-biting, finger-pointing, and infighting resulted. Everybody blamed the man in charge, Chinaglia, for the debacle. A convenient enough scapegoat, according to his detractors, but the truth was far more complicated.
In 1982, the Cosmos won their fifth title, then under Mazzei’s stewardship. The team photo (at 1:24:10 to 1:24:17) shows the natty Professor, smiling amid the turbulence as was his nature, seated strategically between Chinaglia and Beckenbauer (keeping the “giants” at bay, so to speak), just as the NASL was collapsing around them, the result of a bloated budget and the lack of a profitable television deal.
To add to their misfortunes, Atari, Warner Communication’s prize video-game baby, had crashed and burned, a one-day, billion-dollar loss, leaving in its wake a “tsunami of red ink” that Ross could not ignore. One of the last full team shots in the documentary (panning from left to right at 1:25:01 to 1:25:06) features everyone from Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and the Cosmos players to the animated Ertegun brothers. But where was the Professor? After so many images of the bespectacled trainer, mentor, and coach, Mazzei had become even more pronounced by his absence. With that, Warner started to trim the fat.
Also in 1982, Colombia had withdrawn as the host nation for the 1986 World Cup competition. Perhaps this would be the shot in the arm that soccer needed to ensure its continued existence. An enthusiastic Ross campaigned hard to get the tournament staged for the first time ever in North America, a sign of soccer’s growing importance in our hemisphere. It was here that Professor Mazzei was called back into action. We see another photo of Steve Ross, similar to the one above of Ross, Chinaglia, and Havelange, this time with an ever-so-slight portion of Professor’s face (at 1:26:08 to 1:26:11), from his left eye up to his head, being exposed — emblematic, one would think, of his diminished position behind the scenes. Despite the politicking and glad-handing invested in the effort, the bid went to Mexico (they had previously hosted the contest in 1970). No explanation was given for the turndown.
In 1984, the Cosmos was dissolved.
A group shot (from 1:28:16 to 1:28:20) includes, from left to right, Clive Toye, Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and Gordon Bradley, surrounding the constantly smiling Pelé, who occupies the central position. He is holding the NASL soccer ball in the palm of his hand — the “King” displaying his scepter, the world in his arms. Just below the ball, squatting in front and cut off from below eye level, is the distinctive visage of Professor Julio Mazzei.
Only his upper forehead remains visible — photographically speaking (and as far as the Cosmos were concerned), only half as significant a contributor to the organization as he used to be. But all that work wasn’t for naught.
“The legacy of the Cosmos would be that they lay the seeds for every player that plays in this country today.” Thus spoke former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing. “Can you imagine a team like the Cosmos today?” quizzed Chinaglia appreciatively. “With the talent they had on the field? It would be worth a billion dollars!”
Indeed they would.
Steven Jay Ross passed away in 1992. He would never witness the arrival of the World Cup to the United States, which came in the summer of 1994. The film’s hopeful sign off, however, affirmed that “After the success of the 1994 World Cup, a new league, the Major League Soccer (MLS) was formed in 1996.” As an added bonus, it flashed this tidbit of information:
“The US National Team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990.”
Pelé, the lone superstar at the start, and the world’s greatest soccer player before and after his time with the team, declined to be interviewed for the documentary (his salary demands alone would have exceeded the film’s budget). His testimony wasn’t required, for without a doubt his one shot at popularizing the sport in the U.S. can be deemed a qualified success.
It was indeed a “once in a lifetime” achievement, an extraordinary story of a team and a league that rose from the ashes of its own destruction to become a major force in American sports. That achievement involved a number of individuals, among them the ever-present Professor Julio Mazzei.
Despite his reduced capacity, Mazzei’s influence continued to be felt as the team’s trainer and board member, as well as a spokesperson not just for the Cosmos but for the sport itself. He and Pelé would circumnavigate the globe by putting on countless soccer clinics and training workshops in over 70 countries. Mazzei even participated in a film, Pelé: The Master and His Method, specifically geared to young people with an interest in the skills and techniques required of the game.
I learned later from Professor’s daughter, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo, the reason for her father’s absence as an interview subject: by the time the documentary was being shot and edited, her father had come down with Alzheimer’s disease. “He no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it?” Unfortunately, we can. Unable to speak for himself. Professor is there in spirit.
After a lifetime spent in pursuit of soccer excellence, Julio Mazzei passed away on May 10, 2009, in the seaside resort city of Santos where he and Pelé first crossed paths.
One of the last scenes in the documentary (at 1:31:23 to 1:31:31) brings back one of the earliest: that of Pelé being hugged by his Cosmos teammates, Steve Hunt and Nelsi Morais, with an exuberant Professor Mazzei alongside as chief celebrant and supporter — the very symbol of joy and passion for the game, of an enthusiasm borne of sheer love for the sport; a childlike purity and naiveté that can only be captured by film and by those who knew him personally.
Although his name is nowhere to be found in the opening or closing credits, Mazzei’s handiwork is evident from start to finish. If his and Pele’s stories, as well as those of soccer itself, are the proverbial immigrant stories of crushing defeat turned into lasting victory; of fame and fortune and having “made it” in America (in Portuguese, de fazer America), then their time here was well spent.
With arms raised in triumph, all hats are off to the man behind the glasses. Not only was he friends with the great Pelé, he was everyone’s friend in soccer. ☼
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, the Stones, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part One)
A Year in the Life
If 1968 was considered a landmark year for our planet, then 1967 was its precursor. The pre-revolutionary tide that 1967 ushered into the U.S., Europe, Latin America and elsewhere was already hinted at in the popular and performing arts. The actual physical explosion came later, in 1968. For now, we can relish the times for what they were.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary, then, of the launch of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — an obvious outgrowth of the fomenting fervor of the period — our local Public Broadcasting Station (or PBS for short) presented a marathon run of money-raising efforts. But the most significant aspect of the network’s frequent stops for call-in contributions and on-air fund drives came with the showing of a British-made “making-of” documentary, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, informing viewers that it was 50 years ago this summer that the Fab Four’s milestone recording was first issued.
Highly informative and thoroughly documented, the British host for the program, composer and musician Howard Goodall, took television audiences through a “magical mystery” tour of some of the Beatles’ most memorable tunes and pioneering work methods. The group labored for months on end, along with their producer, Sir George Martin (known widely as the “Fifth” Beatle), at the Abbey Road Studios in London, England.
Full of fun facts and priceless trivia, the program leaned a bit too heavily on what a so-called “masterpiece” the Sgt. Pepper album undoubtedly was (as if there were any doubt); and how “transformational” and “industry changing” the classic compilation of songs became in the hands of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But instead of turning viewers on to the boys’ superbly recorded output, it turned this steadfast fan off to the excessively pedantic and doctrinaire style of presentation.
You can’t blame the Brits for trying, though. They will stiff-upper-lip through anything, if given half a chance. But this Beatles buff was having none of it. I did manage to sit through at least two showings, which is saying a lot for my endurance.
Ultimately, I managed to catch the most pertinent aspects of how the affable team of Liverpudlians enjoyed experimenting with the innovative multi-track recording techniques being employed at the studio. From multiple overdubs and tape splicing, to layering and backward tape loops; from brass bands, Baroque fanfares and piano crescendos, from the use of a harmonium, tabla and tamboura, animal noises and sound effects, to a 41-piece orchestra (not to mention drug-induced atmospherics), the songs had a unity of purpose and concentration of thematic ideas that were unlike anything else on the market.
Though not as experimental as some would like for us to believe — the group had released two earlier efforts of more substantive material, to be found on Rubber Soul and Revolver — Sgt. Pepper went on to become the Beatles’ definitive statement on their keen observations of daily life, as well as the influence of everyday occurrences found in British newspapers of the time, along with fond (and not-so-fond) remembrances of childhood while growing up in postwar England.
The most arresting development for non-initiates was that the songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” were grounded in actual locations; that both numbers were planned as part of the original Sgt. Pepper concept. Instead, Capitol Records insisted on releasing the songs as the A- and B-sides of a single. Since the Beatles had stopped touring altogether in August 1966 — for a variety of reasons, including security issues, inability to progress artistically, and plain old exhaustion — they decided to record them for later use. Eventually, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” wound up on their December 1967 Magical Mystery Tour release.
Certainly, if “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been integrated at the time into Sgt. Pepper, perhaps reluctant critics might have been quicker to get on the celebratory bandwagon, so to speak. Such as it was, the album continued to attract new converts. Consequently, one must consider this undertaking as a major leap forward in the art of popular music.
Days of “Whine” and Roses
Even more striking — and a clear nod to the yet-to-be-born MTV generation — were the idiosyncratic video representations (in living color, no less) that accompanied the two songs. When I first watched these mini-movies on TV in the mid-sixties, I was clearly confounded by the content. So much so that I feared for the Beatles’ state of mind. The viewer is bombarded with a perplexing array of surreal images and head-scratching visuals that transcend the psychedelic LSD trips of the era into outright weirdness.
As bizarre and outlandish as these videos appeared to their fans, however, it was the altered looks of the Fab Four that drew the most attention. Without advance warning, our Liverpool lads had morphed from the clean-cut, tailor-made young gents they pretended to be (under the tutelage of their manager, Brian Epstein) into the bearded, long-haired British Mod-style pop artistes they had become.
Disclosures such as these, while they tend to be unnerving in the short run, helped to explain the Beatles’ overall songwriting logic. By shedding new light on the creative process, one could spot clues as to the various personality conflicts and clashes with authority figures the boys were unfortunately prone to. Some of the harshest behavior would come from Paul and John toward the members of their group — but reserved especially for themselves. These were evidenced in many of the songs from that period. In order to concentrate on the Beatles’ individual contributions, then, I’d like to focus on several of their biggest hits.
The title of Lennon’s “A Hard Day’s Night” from 1964, for example, was taken from one of Ringo’s frequent malapropisms (“That was a hard day’s night, all right”). Yet the lyrics drove “home” the fact that a working-class stiff such as John would never have amounted to much of anything had he not worked his rear-end off first and foremost, or been forced to do so by others and their specific wants and needs:
It’s been a hard day’s night and I been workin’ like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleepin’ like a log
But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you
Will make me feel all right
You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things
And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re gonna give me everything
So why on earth should I moan, ‘cause when I get you alone
You know I feel OK
When I’m home everything seems to be right
When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah!
Comfort from that certain someone is fine, as far as that goes. For the rich, it’s money in the coffer. For the poor and self-reliant, a loving wife or sweetheart is worth their weight in gold. Whatever gets you through the day, chaps — or the never-ending tour, in Lennon’s case. As long as he gets what he needs at night, at the end of a long and tiring day, “everything seems to be right,” for now.
Things went from bad to worse — or “verse” in this instance, with Lennon’s mammoth hit “Help!” emerging about a year later. Here was the songwriter’s cri du coeur, a “cry from the heart” for aid and comfort that John was forced to utter and that was openly advertised to the world at large:
Help! I need somebody
Help! Almost anybody
Help! You know I need someone
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors
Help me if you can, I’m feelin’ down
And I do appreciate you being ‘round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before
Whatever happened to John’s youthful exuberance, his pride in his accomplishments and his joie de vivre? Where was that spirit of adventure, of trying out new things, of boldly going where no pop-rock band had gone before? If his independence (and, ergo, his individualism) had vanished in the ensuing haze, what was there left for him to do?
“I really was crying out for help,” Lennon later confessed in that famous 1980 Playboy interview. “I meant it — it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was aware of myself then. I was just singing ‘help’ and I meant it.” He also preferred to have had the song recorded at a slower pace so as to reflect the seriousness of his situation, but so be it.
As much as Lennon’s life was changing in and around 1965 and beyond, it would change even further in years to come when the Beatles would eventually go their separate ways, and when John took up with Yoko and the avant-garde. The most interesting element going forward, though, was that Lennon returned full-blast to his rock-and-roll roots, which was clearly on his mind in the Beatles’ latter work — specifically, in their final recorded effort, Abbey Road from September 1969.
For me, and for people of my generation, the Abbey Road album is our personal Sgt. Pepper. There is something for everyone on this milestone Apple Records production: quirky word-play and tricky poetics in “Come Together,” all-out hard rock sounds in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” unfettered soul in “Oh! Darling,” a buoyant sing-along in “Octopus’s Garden,” a jaunty jukebox number in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” two classic forays (by the elusive George Harrison) in “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” lustrous harmonizing by all four of the Beatles in “Because,” and Paul’s extended pop opera (with a little help from former friend John) for pretty much the last 16 minutes.
The songs were laid down amid much strife and squabble. John and Paul were going at each other’s throats full throttle; George felt rejected and under-utilized by both Paul AND John; while the happy-go-lucky Ringo gamely soldiered on, in spite of all the controversy. No two or three Beatles were in the studio at the same time: the backing vocals were recorded separately, for the most part and at varying intervals, to be combined later in the finished cut.
It’s a miracle that anything came out of those sessions, but they did. The recording techniques the Beatles had learned throughout the intervening years had finally “come together” in this, their crowning achievement.
What’s in a Song?
John Lennon wasn’t the only one to have felt the ill effects of fame and fortune, of over-sensitive egos and non-stop touring and concertizing. Those pent-up emotions bubbled over as well into some of his band-mate Paul McCartney’s most inspired output.
On the same album Help!, Paul composed a song that has been covered by more artists worldwide than any other Beatles tune to date. The song, of course, was “Yesterday,” released in September 1965, in which McCartney sang solo while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with backing by a string quartet (orchestrated by producer George Martin). By way of a self-confessional, Paul chides himself for letting the love of his life slip through his fingers. The essence of the tune basically comes down to “what a dope I was back then”:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly
Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong now I long for yesterday
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a pace to hid away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Its brooding, melancholy nature, not at all indicative of the cheeriness and unabashed joy abounding in other Beatles hits, made “Yesterday” a singular creation among the group’s oeuvre. The song was so unusual and so un-Beatles-like (it was the first time that a lone member of the group was recorded without the other three) that it caught the ear (and the profit margins) of their British counterparts, the Rolling Stones.
On a side note, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not directly influenced by “Yesterday” and its popularity when they penned, together with their manager, Andrew Oldham, the lovely “As Tears Go By” for the 17-year-old Marianne Faithful in 1964.
Similarly, their version of the song, recorded and released as a single in December 1965, also utilized the scoring of string instruments. This suffused the number with a fragile air of poignancy not normally associated with the Stones’ otherwise bluesy arrangements.
The song’s strongest point is its simple and moving lyricism, beautifully phrased by Jagger in softly enunciated cadences:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The next stanza is the more telling of the three, in that it expresses a rueful attitude about man’s accumulated wealth that is totally unanticipated, coming as it did from the likes of Jagger and Richards:
My riches can’t buy everything
I want to hear the children sing
All I hear is the sound
Of rain falling on the ground
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The last few verses speak of old age and its inherent wistfulness as we reach that final plateau — something that both these gentlemen, and all of us for that matter, will inevitably have to face:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Doing things I used to do
They think are new
I sit and watch
As tears go by
Self-reflection is not the kind of methodology one would expect from British rock stars and stone heads of the 1960s. Nevertheless, here it was, in all its starkness.
(End of Part One)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles
“Quo Vadis, Domine?”
Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.
“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.
As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.
In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.
“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill and Lou, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. It’s the ravings of a lunatic.
The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.
In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.
Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.
“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”
He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”
After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.
“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.
At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.
“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.
Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.
As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
Dramatic music is cued up.
Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom
Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.
Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.
“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”
He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.
There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.
Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.
Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”
“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.
The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.
(End of Part Four)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Dawn of the Sound Era
In the beginning (of the recording industry, that is), there were wax cylinders. The tinny, scratchy sound that came out of those cylinders was one reason for their demise. And because of their fragility, longevity was not a strong point, either.
They were eventually supplanted by the longer-lasting yet heavier to carry 10-inch platters. That’s when thick, circular discs could be played at an astounding 78 revolutions per minute, mostly by hand-cranking a lever that would make rudimentary turntables revolve at approximately that speed.
A needle or stylus was lowered onto the turntable via an antiquated “tone arm.” This device would then cut into the record’s grooves. Vibrations that emanated from the grooves to the stylus were transmitted to a large acoustic horn, which emitted the sound of what was preserved on those same grooves that could then be heard in a record shop, or in one’s living room (known as the parlor).
Variations in the makeup and performance of these elemental record players (called gramophones) resulted in widely fluctuating pitches. This undoubtedly effected the enjoyment of an artist of Caruso’s renown as he flung forth his trademark “Vesti la giubba.” (Uh, was that A sharp or A flat, maestro?) Be that as it may, those fortunate enough to have afforded this revolutionary gizmo could indulge themselves to the fullest in the evolving pastime of record listening.
It was said at the dawn of this new era of sound reproduction that Puccini’s arias were made to order for the gramophone (later dubbed the phonograph) — an obvious reference to their brevity and an added boon to those enamored of his oeuvre. On the other hand, anything by Wagner, whose main quality was his persistent long-windedness, was clearly unplayable in this form.
This highlighted one of the major defects of the 78-rpm record, i.e., its short playing time. At three to four minutes per one-sided disc (depending on the turntable’s speed and accuracy, as well as the record’s groove spacing), this was hardly enough time for the prelude to Lohengrin to reach its climax. When 12-inch platters came out, the time-span increased to just over five minutes per side, give or take a few. You can imagine how many platters it would take to hear a relatively brief work such as Mascagni’s 80-minute Cavalleria Rusticana, let alone something of Der Rosenkavalier’s heft.
Soon, cumbersome 78’s were replaced by longer lasting 45-rpm’s, to be replaced later still by the microgroove LP sometime in the late 1940s. Around the mid-1950s, the 45 had been relegated to such genres as folk, pop, blues, jazz and rockabilly, music that barely lasted a full three or four minutes per side.
With further technical refinements and the development of the 33 1/3 long-playing album, as much as a half hour of time on either side (again, depending on the microgrooves in between) could be taken up with vocal, instrumental, orchestral and/or choral programming of varying types and degrees. Hah, Götterdämmerung be damned!
Thus the notion of the complete opera album came into existence, with “complete” being a relative term — not that opera wasn’t available on those old 78’s, not by a long shot!
Surprisingly, a goodly amount of the standard repertory had already been committed to disc by the 1930s and 40s, the so-called Depression and War years. The downside, as stated earlier, was the sheer size and bulk of those albums. In many cases, a work such as Verdi’s Aida would require a huge financial outlay (for the time, of course). Not to be done in by the cost factor, the weight of having to lug around 30 or more platters was off-putting, to put it mildly.
Along with the above problems, most opera sets were severely cut in order to fit what remained of the music onto those hulking discs. Added to which, the vintage sound quality of those early acoustics and the slightly more tolerable electrics were hardly what one would call state of the art.
Indeed, the 33 1/3 LP record had come along at precisely the right time.
Opera as Spectator Sport
Even better for opera buffs, the next series of tweaks and innovations — the development of stereophonic sound reproduction with that of the opera album itself, which included deluxe librettos, copious liner notes, and historical and biographical information — became a godsend to novice listeners such as myself.
For the first time one could hear an uninterrupted presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or stretch one’s comfort zone immeasurably by taking a chance with those interminable Strauss monstrosities. The other novelties that stereo reproduction introduced us to were the enhancement of and appreciation for opera as a performing art.
Still unsatisfied, avid collectors the world over would scour their local record shops for ever more out-of-the-way anomalies on what knowledgeable opera aficionados might call “privately issued” labels. Others less inclined to political correctness would prefer to use the term “pirated editions” of their favorite artists or works. Such rarities as Catalani’s Loreley, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, or the Lisbon Traviata, for example, were at one time considered the Holy Grail for lovers of the form.
Opera fans my age and older would search high and low and over a vast range of pre-recorded formats, either on reel-to-reel tape or low quality discs, for that one outstanding performance, or that one elusive moment, that towered above the rest — many preserved, unfortunately, in positively excruciating sound.
Still, what price wouldn’t fanatics pay to to relive Maria Callas’ spontaneous high C from Mexico City in the conclusion to the Triumphal Scene from Aida, or tenor Franco Corelli’s voluminous, gasp-inducing, stratospheric assumption of Calàf to soprano Birgit Nilsson’s icy Princess Turandot? How about Mario Filippeschi’s dramatically declaimed Radames from the Naples Opera? Did he really take that phrase, “Sacerdote, io resto a te!” all in one incredible breath? You bet he did! Opera was treated as a spectator sport in days gone by….
Moments such as these were unheard of when complete opera albums appeared on the scene. What was so often felt in the opera house could not hope to be duplicated in the studio — nor would it. The point of record albums was to introduce prospective buyers, both amateurs and veterans alike, to the joys of listening to a given work in the comfort of one’s abode, just like the old days of grandpa’s gramophone. There, one might begin to cultivate an intimate relationship with opera, one that would nurse you through tough times.
Today, we have YouTube, live streaming and other Web-based methods of revisiting those fabulous moments from the past. Back in the LP era, though, you were limited not so much by the medium of the analog recording itself as to the content the record companies put out into the marketplace. Standard works were the norm, while adventurous repertoire was a risky maneuver. And therein lies the rub: economics and the reality of the complete opera recording business.
As they approached the end of the millennium, the classical divisions of the most highly respected record labels of the 1950s through the late 1980s (RCA Victor, Decca/London, EMI/Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, etc.) experienced shrunken budgets and cost-cutting measures on an ever-widening scale. It was an accepted fact that, over the span of many decades and with the exclusion of artistic merit, complete opera albums were considered a money-losing proposition.
Given the cost of having to pay for a 100-piece orchestra, for 60 or more choristers, for conductors of unquestioned repute, and for singers of superior abilities, to include sound engineers, recording technicians and other highly skilled professionals, the size and scope of such an endeavor as recording a complete opera remained prohibitively expensive.
When record companies first started recording their efforts at, say, La Scala, Milan, or inside the Rome Opera House, as many of them did early on in the process, the costs were shared by most participants. Frequently, budgets were kept in check or out of the equation entirely over the objections of those in charge of the enterprise. “Never mind the bottom line,” some record executives would insist, “it’s the preservation of the art form we most care about.” Oh, really?
As salaries skyrocketed and the tremendous physical and financial demands of traveling overseas increased exponentially, the break-even point for producing and releasing complete opera albums had long-ago vanished.
Nowadays, with most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory items already firmly “in the can,” what was there left to record apropos of the opera?
My Time with My Favorite Pastime
Recalling my own adventures with the recorded art, I can tell you that everything I learned about opera first started with my listening to it. And what was it I listened to? Why, the radio, of course! Where else could a kid from the inner city enjoy opera at his leisure — and for free?
In my early teens, I couldn’t afford to attend live performances, not until I started working. Oh, there were plenty of live options: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, City Centre, and Lincoln Center. All were available, but not to me.
No, I grew up listening to the Met on the radio, as many people my age did. Fortunately, I discovered a wealth of opportunity at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There, I could borrow complete opera albums to my heart’s content. Prior to that, I had spent many a free hour at our local branches, pouring over books and librettos of my favorite works, and jotting down the words to my favorite arias, in between studying for exams and such.
The unalloyed pleasure of listening to a complete opera, unencumbered by daily chores or current events, is something I will always treasure with fondness, longing and a large measure of nostalgia. Those were the times I could really sink my teeth into dissecting the content of what the performers were trying to achieve when they sang their roles in a foreign tongue. Having the original Italian, French, German or Russian libretto at hand, while following along with an accompanying English translation of the text, opened up a marvelous new world of knowledge and comprehension.
More significantly were the influences on me of such classic albums as the Georg Solti-conducted Ring cycle on Decca/London and the RCA Victor Madama Butterfly with Gigli and Dal Monte, real eye-openers as far as my acquaintance with the medium was concerned. I would also add the RCA Victor Aida with Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri, Warren and Christoff, along with the Decca/London Fanciulla del West with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and MacNeil, as testaments to their staying power.
My self-studies began in earnest with the earliest of the items indicated above, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally released on 78-rpm records in 1939, this RCA reissue introduced me to my parents’ favorite work, one they had heard often in Brazil, in particular on the night before my birth (for a more detailed description of this event, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/opera/). These old monophonic LP’s had been played so often that the staccato fugue introduction was by now unlistenable, so scratched were the sounds that emanated from their grooves.
Beniamino Gigli, the Pinkerton, was in his element. The lieutenant’s caddish nature, the good humor he exhibited in his exchanges with Goro and Sharpless, and the ardent deference paid to his teenage bride Cio-Cio-San, were well preserved, to which can be noted the pouting, sighing tones Gigli was famous for. No other tenor on records has captured that quizzical aspect of the line, “Milk punch o whisky?” when offering the American Consul some refreshment. I always wondered, as many listeners no doubt have, what the hell “milk punch” was? My best estimate would be the Italian librettists’ erroneous translation of Japanese saké.
Toti Dal Monte, a renowned coloratura at the time the recording was made, was a controversial choice for the title role. On record, her voice was thin, wiry and high-pitched, and may strike listeners’ ears as irritating. However, she alone (among a surfeit of recorded Butterfly interpreters) immediately convinces us of the “little girl” behind the arranged marriage to the foreign naval officer. Because we know she was only a child-bride, her rapid transformation into adulthood is all the more striking for its fierce determination. With tears flowing and an astounding ability to act with the voice, Dal Monte’s ritual suicide is the most heart-breaking on record, and the most emotionally wrought. It takes a steady hand not to be overcome by the sheer intensity of her performance.
The thing I noticed most, however, as I followed along with the libretto, was where the text diverted from what was actually recorded. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but RCA Victor had inadvertently printed the ORIGINAL 1904 libretto to the opera, not the thoroughly revised 1907 Paris edition of Butterfly — the one most opera-goers are familiar with and which the world’s opera houses have continuously staged. How odd, then, and how confusing for a neophyte such as myself! But instead of frustration, curiosity got the better of me. I needed to learn WHY there was a difference between what Gigli was singing and why a large portion of his dialogue was missing from said recording.
Years later, when I became aware of the multiple versions of Puccini’s opera, I realized the Butterfly we’ve seen on stage was not what the composer had intended. I sought out and bought a CD that included what was available of the original source material, along with the various modifications introduced at Brescia not four months after the work’s disastrous premiere at La Scala, as well as further snips and cuts.
The result was a more refined reworking of the composer’s conception, one that centered primarily on the character of Cio-Cio-San, as the above recording certainly does, and on her growing maturity, both personal and psychological, as a mother and as a woman, which Dal Monte superbly encapsulated.
All this from a sonically compromised, monophonic recording.
(End of Part One … To be continued)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Truth to Power
These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate
“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate
“Richards references the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, which describes Jacob dreaming of a ladder that connects earth to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend. Yet, in this sculpture, the text and disembodied feet and heads reveal a complex and pessimistic interpretation, or possible consequence, of this dream. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder highlights the tension between faith and failure; of looking to the heavens with a longing for ascension and the letdown of earthbound realities.”
Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
This piece “consists of five downed airplane sculptures caught in thick barbed wire. In an artist statement discussing the iconography of his practice, Richards noted, ‘Planes and other vehicles of escape are always caught in traps, or crashed, abandoned signs of hope and promise.’ ”
“Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit were a touchstone for Richards and the reference appears throughout the titles of Richards’ work. In one of these stories, Brer Fox thinks he has thwarted his rival Brer Rabbit by throwing him into the prickly shrubs of a briar patch, only for Brer Rabbit to escape because he was ‘born and bred in the briar patch.’ Richards turned to Uncle Remus folklore as narratives and metaphors for negotiations of historical and contemporary racial politics.”
Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park
“Swing Lo’ consists of a large, rusted chariot outfitted with neon lights and one wheel (a seconds wheel is purposefully, but mysteriously, missing). When installed, the chariot played reggae music from a booming sound system. The work conflates the biblical chariot with the visual vernacular of a souped-up lowrider car, retrofit with lights and stereo. Richards often merged worlds in this way, bringing together spiritual and literary references with popular culture to complicate the themes of his work. Richards’ recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opened up to a plurality of representation and interpretation.”
“Along with a nod to lowrider cars, the title Swing Lo’ more directly references the American negro spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.
The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
“In describing the stakes of this work, Richards said, “[The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee)] is in the form of a public monument. You see these bronze monuments in the park and you just walk past them, yet they’re supposed to be the highest honor in our society. They’re commemorating some great deed or person. But I have to question is that really what we’re fighting for — a piece of bronze in a public park that no one notices or cares about? The whole heroic ideal of glory that you’re fighting for seems rather empty and banal when it comes down to that. With this installation it gets ambiguous because ‘Tuskegee’ is inscribed on the base. People assume it’s referring to the Tuskegee airmen, but it’s also about the Tuskegee experiments. At the same time and place that the Tuskegee airmen were getting their training, black men were being used in experiments to see how syphilis would progress through their bodies. So therefore it’s a destroyed and neglected monument. But it’s also one in which, the viewer, in order to see the hidden tar field inside, has to bow down to the monument. It’s a sexualized and an allegorical work in relation to all of these things.’ ”
Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts
Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem
“Richards created Free F’All during his fellowship with Socrates Sculpture Park in 1997. A life-size Tuskegee Airmen figure stands atop a tiny landing, 16 feet in the air, with a bucket below him, evoking the image of a dicing board and pool, yet Richards’ figure instead has a much smaller space for positioning his potential leap, perhaps alluding to the limited and constricting options for African-Americans in the face of ongoing oppression. Richards’ figures and bodyparts were often pierced and the airman in Free F’All is riddled with nails. Specifically a reference to [Congolese] nkisi nkondi medicinal power figures, this visual allusion highlights Richards’ exploration not only of race in contemporary America, but also of African ancestry, tradition, and religion.”
[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
“Throughout his career, Richards used his own body to cast his sculptures, including the disembodied heads for sculptures like N’Kisi Nigga and Map Head. Nkisi nkondi sculptures were an important reference for the piercing that was a hallmark of Richards’ sculptures. These Congolese power figures were used to protect a community and embodied defensive power. The nails and blades that often punctured the sculptures activated the spirits made accessible in the figures. Invoking the name of the N’Kisi figures and pairing it with the multiple inflections of the word Nigga, ranging from derogatory to the reclaimed, familiar, and colloquial, the title of Richards’ sculpture N’Kisi Nigga is a complex comment on the relationship between contemporary American racial politics and African heritage.”
Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
“Tar and Feather is a poetic balancing act of lightness and weight. Five cast bronze sets of wings hang precariously from monofilament, encircling an overfull bucket of tar and a resulting puddle of tar on the floor.”
“Richards was consistently interested in the complexity of charged materials throughout his practice. While the sculpture’s wings, feathers, and flight speak to the possibilities of escape and uplift for Richards, on the flipside, the tar, and its racial connotations, reflect the ways in which black people can be struck or inhibited by systemic racial prejudice. As with Tar and Feather, Richards’ work purposefully navigated and mined this tension in both material and concept.”
Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
“Richards created his largest work, Are You Down?, in 2000, as part of a Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park, just outside of Minneapolis, MN.”
“John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO & Co-founder of Franconia Sculpture Park, describes the piece: ‘Are You Down? was created and is sited … outside the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota …. The original sculpture was cast in resin/fiberglass — cast into bronze, as a memorial, in 2012 & is the only permanent sculpture at Franconia. Are You Down? is a tableau of three life-sized human figures. Three parachutists fallen from the sky, they sit disconsolate on the ground in a mass of heavy black sand. Backs turned to one another, the figures form a triangle about fifteen feet on a side. Within the triangle of the figures is a large bulls-eye flat on the ground, the target where the men had aimed to land. Their heads clad in leather hat aviator helmets, their shirts torn from the drop, the figures represent three downs aviators from the storied, all-black Tuskegee Airmen Squadron of the Second World War, men whose images Richards (using himself as his model) returned to in his work obsessively, again and again. They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.’ ”
“In speaking to the pilot imagery in his practice, particularly the Tuskegee Airmen, Richards noted, ‘The pilots serve as a symbol of failed transcendence, and lost faith, escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators seeking home.’ ”
Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“Fly Away O’ Glory consists of an arrangement of seven pairs of metallic bronze, muscular cast arms, with hands extended, each holding one feather that spins vigorously via motor power. Richards often used motors and kinetic elements to give his artworks literal motion and drive. With its spinning feathers and disembodied forearms, this work calls to mind the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wax wings that melted, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. In this work and others, Richards explores the opposing forces of uplift and downfall inherent in flight: the transcendent potential of wings and elevation and the inherently opposing risk of crashing and peril.”
“Grounded and flailing, the spinning feathers of Fly Away O’ Glory, despite their efforts, cannot lift and elevate the forearms of the sculpture. The unresolved, Sisyphean kinetic energy of this floor-bound sculpture speaks to the difficulty, maybe even impossibility of taking off and reaching great heights in a system and society that is structured to silence marginalized voices and repress their success.”
Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.
“In this impactful sculpture, 50 small airplanes wrapped in hair spiral downwards, from a cloud of hair in the ceiling, towards a mirrored bull’s-eye target on the floor. Richards often used hair in his sculptures, noting ‘I use hair and skin in an investigative way to raise questions of duality about race and social issues …. I just thought this is a perfect material in terms of its metaphorical content and reference to my own concerns about climbing the social ladder and how people judge me for my hair.’ ”
“The work’s title His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me quotes the religious hymns of Civilla Martin. The hymn is about value, hope, and faith in the face of hardship, and the care of the creator to all aspects of the world, including creatures as small as sparrows. Richards often included biblical references, from Jacob to St. Sebastian, in his works. In Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), with airplanes as small as sparrows nose-diving toward a mirror that reflects their downward flight back upward, a sense of faith and fate are confounded and Richards’ interest in flight with its transcendent and devastating possibilities comes to the fore.”
A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo features five bust-like plaster heads and pedestals. Four of the heads rest atop small bases and bear images of white police officers in confrontational postures outfitted in riot gear. The images themselves were cut from newspapers and applied via a photo transfer method. Plaques are adhered to the pedestals for each of these four busts reading, ‘When I was young I wanted to be a policeman.’ The fifth and central disembodied head spins via a motor, and has an image of Rodney King’s face in the middle of the forehead, with a plaque on the pedestal reading the titular phrase, ‘A loss of faith brings vertigo.’ ”
“Rodney King was a taxi driver who brutally beaten by police officers after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles in 1991. King found himself at the center of a furor around racial injustice and police violence as video footage of the four police officers repeatedly striking him gained international attention. The police officers were eventually acquitted of charges, which is considered to be the main cause leading to the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed and thousands injured.”
“With King at the center, the narrative of Richards’ sculpture is one of a loss of faith in the police and the dissolution of any implicit relationship to safety and protection. The antagonistic stances and actions of the white police officers depicted, juxtaposed with the presence of King’s slowly rotating face, has an effect of total disorientation. During our contemporary moment, in the face of recurring police brutality, the continued murders of black men at the hands of police officers, and the responsive Black Lives Matter movement, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo continues to have urgent and pressing resonance two decades after its creation.”
Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“Travel Kit is one of the most surreal of Richards’ sculptures. While a standard travel kit contains toiletries or other every day items, Richards inflects his version with a tinge of the grotesque. Seven fingers extend from each of two hairbrushes entangled in tufts of hair, providing an otherworldly take on primping. For Richards, ‘The suitcases [in my work] function as carrier of memories, containers of longing and desire for a lost home.’ Richards was born in Brooklyn, yet grew up in Kingston, Jamaica before moving back to the United States to attend Queens College; his international upbringing provided him with an incisive perspective on America, particularly pertaining to social and racial inequities.”
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian
“Michael was riffing on Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Roman Empire. There were multiple historical narratives interwoven in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian other than the early Christian martyr depicted in psalms:118 or Christian paintings. Some popular culture references include the film King Kong (1933) and Muhammad Ali’s infamous Esquire Magazine cover (1968). The Tar Baby reference comes from the character by the same name in the Uncle Remus stories (1881) written by Joel Chandler Harris, made up of Black stereotypes in the 1800s; Tar Baby literary being made up of tar and turpentine.”
“I remember Michael speaking about the complexity of these themes running through the piece. Concepts of isolation, sacrifice and transformation were key elements in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian. The discrimination and racism the original Tuskegee airmen had to struggle with and overcome as it came from their own U.S. Government was only the beginning of their battle during World War II. This complex and contradictory part of America’s history was crucial in the development of Michael’s piece. Interestingly enough, today most search engines describe this piece as ‘St. Sebastian’ and exclude ‘Tar Baby Vs.’ and there is a lack of critical attention paid to the American built Mustang fighter planes attacking their own pilot. I know Michael would have scoffed at the misrepresentation of his work because he was very particular about media-history and its representation of people of color.”
“He decided Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian was too expensive to make in bronze plus he lacked the proper facilities. Michael spent weeks making the life-size clay figure based on himself and in the process later taught me how to make a rubber mold. He didn’t complete the piece in Miami but worked on it in parts from 1997 through 1999 and exhibited first in Miami at the Caveat Emptor exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL. Genaro Ambrosino (Director) admired Michael’s work and was a close friend. Ambrosino Gallery would eventually give Michael his first one-person show in Miami on September 16, 2000. The exhibition was a coming home of sorts for Michael after finishing his CAVA residency in South Beach the year before.”
Say It Loud!
And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:
Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”
John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”
Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”
Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”
Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”
Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”
Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”
Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”
Michael Richards, Artist Statement:
“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?
“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.
“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.
“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.
“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.
“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”
The End Game
We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.
Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.
What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?
These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.
Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.
I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s “statement” — it is Michael himself.
With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes