Friday, December 11, 2015

Frankly Speaking, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Incomparable

(Originally published in May, 2008)
Francis Albert Sinatra is unquestionably one of the 20th century’s most popular and successful entertainers, who left an indelible presence on concert stages, recordings and motion pictures. On his centennial birthday, this Saturday, he still ranks as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with more than 150 million records sold worldwide.
After the media started spreading the news of Sinatra’s death, seventeen years ago, fans from Palm Springs to Passaic mourned the century’s foremost singing sensation.
  For the last 40 years Bruce Springsteen has been the most popular native New Jersey superstar, but before rock and roll, Sinatra was a teen idol when the phrase had yet to be invented and shaped an unrivaled and iconic legacy over four previous decades. While The Boss quickly became my favorite performer, from the first time I heard the opening riff to “Born to Run,” I was figuratively weaned on recordings by Ol’ Blue Eyes.
When I saw Elvis Presley perform “Hound Dog” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, my appetite for rock and roll was whetted. However, prior to cultivating personal music tastes, my ears were initiated to the music of Sinatra, with the albums my mother often played on our living room hi-fi.
As a pre-teen, returning from occasional weekends in the country, aka the Catskills, the car radio was usually tuned to a popular show, “Make Believe Ballroom” on WNEW-AM, hosted by William B. Williams, while I sat in the back seat with my sleeping brother. Willie B., as he was affectionately known, played Sinatra on a regular basis and, by the way, was the one who dubbed him, “Chairman of the Board.”
Sinatra’s music, to some extent, took a transitory back seat when rock and roll started to dominate the airwaves. However, that fleeting displacement shifted into third gear, in the 60s, as he repeatedly performed to sold-out concert venues and recorded noteworthy music. Some of my favorite Sinatra recordings came in those years, including “Luck Be a Lady,” “Soliloquy,” “Ol’ Man River,” (all in 1963), "The Good Life" and "The Best is Yet to Come" (w/Count Basie, 1964), “It Was a Very Good Year,” (1965), “Strangers in the Night,” “That’s Life” and “Summer Wind” (in 1966), and, what quickly became his signature song, “My Way,” three years later. He earned two Grammy Awards in 1966, the same night he received the music academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
A few years before his death, in an attempt to reach children of the bobbysoxers, who made him a teen idol before the phrase was invented, Sinatra recorded a couple of skillfully engineered, duet albums featuring contemporary artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt and Chrissie Hynde. U2’s Bono also paired with Sinatra in 1993 and, a year later, introduced him at the Grammy Awards, noting “...whether he knew it or not, (Sinatra) embodied the rock and roll lifestyle before there was one.”
Sinatra did not write any of the 1,500 or so songs he recorded, but, a New York Times editorial — published two days after he died at age 82 — accurately noted, he had a “special genius with the ability to make a song his own.”
Despite some flaws — the boozing, the broads and the occasional Rat Pack hijinks — Sinatra will, and should, always be remembered for his incredible library of music, his memorable movie roles and his discreet, unheralded philanthropy.
In addition, for much of his life he was dogged by alleged ties to organized crime, which was depicted in a classic segment in “The Godfather.” Whether or not the scenario, with the character securing a role in a “war movie” has any measure of accuracy, Sinatra nailed the role of Private Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” that earned him a well-deserved Academy Award.
Frank Sinatra's climactic scene with
Montgomery Clift in "From Here to Eternity"
Sinatra appeared in 57 other films and, for me, his standout performances include “Suddenly,” “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” I also enjoy him in “Von Ryan’s Express” and “Come Blow Your Horn.”
Most young Yankee fans probably don’t know who is singing “New York, New York” over Stadium loudspeakers after every home game, unless a parent or grandparent tells them. In fact, the day Sinatra died one of the numerous milestones in the history of the storied sports franchise occurred as hefty lefty David Wells tossed the team’s first regular season, complete perfect game. Moments after teammates mobbed the hurler on the field, the music blaring from Yankee Stadium loud speakers was Sinatra’s unmistakable rendition of the renowned song.
A perfect singer, belting a perfect song, after a perfect game. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t get better than that.
Frank Sinatra didn’t always have the world on a string — that’s life — but his voice got under our skin and made millions feel so young and he, indeed, made a profound cultural impact.
Ring-ding-ding, my my and doobie, doobie, doo.
Rest in peace, Mr. Sinatra. Your musical legacy endures for future generations to savor.
      (This is for my parents, Dave and Dorothy Friedman, who nurtured my passion for music)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Critics Need To Thicken Their American Skin

First published October 23, 2003
It seems a small number of thin-skinned New York City police officers don’t advocate the department’s slogan — Courtesy, Professional-ism, Respect — when it conflicts with their personal feelings.
After the first of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s tour-ending three-night stand at Shea Stadium earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the NYPD, specifically, Chief of Department Joe Esposito, the officer in charge of the stadium detail who capriciously canceled the post concert police escort, seemingly because he was unhappy that the singer performed his controversial song, "American Skin [41 Shots]."
An NYCLU executive director wrote to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that displeasure with a song "cannot be a basis for granting or denying department services."
Springsteen wrote the song four years ago in the wake of the Amadou Diallo tragedy that left the unarmed African immigrant dead after plainclothes police officers opened fire when they mistakenly thought a wallet the victim pulled from his pocket was a handgun. Four officers fired 41 shots, hitting him 19 times. A subsequent investigation cleared them of any misconduct.
Despite being interpreted by some as controversial, “American Skin” is, nevertheless, powerful and poignant, and, unquestionably, not anti-police. Those who take exception to the song should listen more closely. In the opening verse Springsteen portrays a cop "kneeling over (the victim’s) body…praying for his life."
In a revised edition of "Songs," a book of Springsteen’s lyrics, he comments about "American Skin," writing, "I worked hard for a balanced voice…I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view." He also notes his intention to show what "systematic racial injustice" can do.
Neither Springsteen nor any of his representatives have commented on the dispute, wisely choosing to ignore an episode that likely would have gone unnoticed, but for the civil rights group’s intervention.
Granted the escort is a courtesy, but law enforcement authorities usually provide it after many popular groups end a local show. It is essential, not to coddle rock stars, but to whisk them safely away from a congested situation in which a crazed fanatic, like John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman, may be lurking.
I’ve toured with Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones and, in each instance, whether in the U.S., Canada or Europe, a nightly post-concert escort was provided. In fact, after one show outside of Boston, the police escorted the Stones’ multi-vehicle entourage away from the venue in an oncoming lane, a clear inconvenience to approaching motorists.
Some supporters of the Shea Stadium decision contend the courtesy comes at taxpayers’ expense, but ignore the fact that the three Springsteen concerts indeed generated more revenue for the city than the cost of the escort.
The Daily News reported that Mayor Bloomberg was "not happy to hear about the retaliation" and poor judgment, according to his press secretary.
An NYPD spokesperson issued a statement that no formal request for an escort had come from Springsteen or members of his band.
I recently received a copy of an electronic communication, allegedly from a member of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The correspondence implies that Esposito had been "stripped of virtually all authority" by Kelly, which may be why he pulled the post-concert security detail after the rock star performed the song that evidently still infuriates a few New York City police officers.
Incidentally, the FOP was brutally critical of the song after Springsteen debuted it in Atlanta in 1999 when only a few people had heard it. At the time, Bob Lucente, president of the group’s New York State chapter, referred to Springsteen using such derisive terms as "a f—-ing dirtbag" and "a floating fag."
Springsteen did not perform the song in question for the last two shows, which some assumed was a surrender to the hullabaloo. That notion demonstrated how little they know about Bruce Springsteen performances. He most likely did not capitulate to the criticism. You see, he rarely performs the same song list two nights in a row, so pulling "American Skin" was probably due to his penchant for change rather than a concession. As a matter of fact, in over 120 concerts in the last two years, Springsteen performed scores of songs with "American Skin" merely sung on a dozen occasions.
Years ago when an adviser told President Ronald Reagan about the Springsteen-penned "Born In the USA" without carefully listening to the song’s angry condemnation about neglected Vietnam veterans, Reagan incorrectly referred to it as a patriotic anthem in a feeble attempt to connect with young Americans.
It appears Chief Esposito and other NYPD officers who remain uptight by the Springsteen song have made a similar blunder. Not only should they take the department’s CPR catchphrase more seriously, but they should also end the petty foolishness that guides their personal feelings, which just might toughen their own American skins.

Springsteen Rises Above ‘Weak’ Stadium Crowd

First published July 31, 2003
Bruce, Patti and Steve - July , 2003
After all these years I’m still fulfilled, not to mention energized, following a live performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band. Whether he’s playing somber, earnest songs about September 11, 2001, from his latest release, The Rising, or mining his treasured vault for crowd-pleasers, Springsteen and company know how to work an audience as much as the late Bob Hope. But when the audience fails to respond, something’s amiss.
I’ve seen Springsteen in concert no less than 15 times since 1973 when he was the unwelcome opening act for Chicago at Madison Square Garden. But, until last weekend, I never saw him in a stadium setting. They’re essentially for spectator sports with inadequate acoustics that can never be conducive to the pulse-pounding, decibel level of rock and roll. I was hesitant to attend his current, record-breaking ten-show stand at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but my mild reluctance was surpassed for another opportunity to see The Boss in concert.
Before the show, there’s a fresh element that enhances the Springsteen experience. It gives fans the option of arriving early for an amusing diversion rather than sitting in traffic on heavily congested arteries leading to the venue or anxiously waiting in seats for the show to begin. In addition to the pre-event, stadium parking lot tailgating, a Meadowlands Boardwalk has been constructed on a 175,000 square foot section of the parking lot that kinda recreates the atmosphere of the Jersey shore — sans ocean, of course — where the Springsteen legend was nurtured more than 30 years ago.
The Boardwalk area, made up of real pine boards, is free to stroll and browse. There’s also a variety of refreshment and souvenir stands, live music from undiscovered bands, a Ferris wheel, carnival games, beach volleyball on a makeshift beach and a karaoke stage, sponsored by a local classic rock station, where rock star wannabes strut their stuff. Those I witnessed displayed no promise. Nevertheless some were entertaining, a few amusing, and some obviously had consumed an excess of alcohol, perhaps to find the guts to appear before modest crowds. To a degree, all were zealous, like the performer they came to see.
Bruce Springsteen is always wound up when he hits the stage. But his shows work best when the audience is equally energized and involved. From the distant vantage point I had in the first row of the uppermost tier, it seemed to take quite a while — nearly an hour — for the lion’s share of the crowd to become unglued from their seats, through no fault of Springsteen and band. They came on stage ready to party. However, some of the audience appeared detached for most the show, no doubt due to the lack of the venue’s intimacy. In fact, before launching into the first encore, following the 16-song opening set, Springsteen noted the absence of enthusiasm, mildly chastising the crowd of 55,000, calling them "weak" when it should have been in a full blown Saturday night party mood.
The friend who accompanied me was surprised when I agreed. It was her Springsteen concert debut and though she was awed by the crowd’s minor enthusiasm, and how most of them sang every word to each song, I let her know it was nothing compared to the customary, high-energy reaction.
One of the biggest responses Springsteen got all night was when he made comments he’d been offering nightly before launching into the next to last song, "Land of Hope and Dreams."
“…There have been a lot of questions raised recently about the forthrightness of our government," he said. “This playing with the truth has been part of Republican and Democratic administrations in the past and is always wrong, never more so than when lives are at stake…Demanding accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It’s the American way. So the truth will out.”
Giants Stadium sits under the flight path of nearby Newark Airport. Therefore, when Springsteen asked the crowd to be as quiet — as much as 55,000 people could be — for "Empty Sky," one of the tunes he wrote in the aftermath of September 11, I found it a bit creepy, less than two years from that fateful day, when he sang the mournful phrase "Empty sky, empty sky," as several commercial airliners passed overhead.
Regardless of that momentary distraction, the rather tame crowd and the stadium setting, seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert with a first-timer was a rewarding experience for this devotee of the Bard from south Jersey.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When It Comes To Common-Sense Gun Control, Congress Lacks Guts

I planned to repost a column that I wrote for the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. That strategy was sidelined after last week’s massacre in San Bernardino.
Even so, the two events, despite a 35-year separation, are connected to some extent. They both occurred in December in a hail of bullets. Lennon’s death was committed by a crazed, lone gunman. The California massacre appears to be an elaborate scheme carried out by two fanatical Muslims.
In between those tragedies, there have been innumerable shootings, but, in 2015, that alarming trend has proliferated. The December 2nd slaughter was the 355th mass shooting of the year. Undeniably, armed right-wing fanatics, with lawfully purchased weapons, are as threatening to America’s domestic tranquility as radical Muslim terrorism.
It’s getting so that for such template news, only datelines and names of the victims and shooters change.
NRA advocates conveniently veil themselves behind a misguided Second Amendment ideology, and others shake their heads arguing nothing can be done, as bodies keep piling up.
If legislators, who play the influential gun lobby’s game, were directly affected by such tragedies, involving family or friends, more than likely, they’d quit twiddling thumbs, offering crocodile sympathy and abruptly enact responsible gun safety laws.
Center for Disease Control statistics indicate states, including Alaska, Alabama and Louisiana, with weaker gun laws have higher gun death rates, per capita, than states with stricter laws, such as New York. Actually, congressional representatives from just those three states received combined donations from the NRA totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Within a day after the San Bernardino killings, the U.S. Senate figuratively poured salt on, and dishonored, the memories of the dead and wounded when it voted against measures to close loopholes, including one to expand background checks for potential gun buyers, and another to end the “terror gap” that allows individuals on terror watch lists to buy guns.
The right to board an airplane excludes anyone on the government’s Terrorist Watch List, but legislators refuse to ban those same individuals from obtaining firearms.
Sometimes it seems the NRA and its gun-obsessed members value their misguided Second Amendment right to possess firearms more than the nation’s safety.
As details about the San Bernardino shootings came out, police there said the suspects not only had stockpiled a cache of weapons and explosives, but their home contained 7,000 rounds of ammunition, in addition to the 2,000 they discharged and discovered in their rental vehicle.
Makes “armed to the teeth” seem trifling.
Though the shooters were apparently radical Muslims, they could have been radicalized white Christian fundamentalists or white supremacists. Ultimately, what is most frightening was how easily they were able to accumulate a deadly arsenal of weapons and ammunition.
Words of sorrow and prayers are not nearly enough. Around the nation, laws have been approved and updated to curtail drunken driving accidents. And, while I don’t completely support New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program to reduce traffic fatalities, at least he did something to reduce accidents, which seems to be working.
Congress should act similarly and initiate weapons-related reforms. Place a limit on the number of guns any individual can purchase and reduce accessibility to some models, especially assault rifles; mandate universal background checks, outlaw high-capacity magazines, ban random weapons sales at gun shows and limit the amount of ammunition one individual or household may possess. Completely ending mass shootings or gun violence is, of course, a pipe dream. But not doing a damned thing is negligent and irresponsible.
Congressional representatives, who habitually bleed red, white and blue, would be wiser to recognize that too many Americans have already bled, which is ultimately attributable to their constant rejection of common sense gun control.
Back in the 80s, there was a feeble effort to curb the drug epidemic, naively referred to as the War on Drugs. It was unsuccessful, but, at least, there the government initiated a program to attack the crisis. What we need now to end the weapons epidemic is a War on Guns. Sounds kind of superfluous, but you get the point.
Cities across the nation have initiated wars on crime and, in the last 20 years, the national rate has declined. Why can’t Congress see that America’s passion for weapons is a disease that has led to an incessant scourge that destroys thousands of lives?
And, the NRA should stop promoting its worn-out, harebrained slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s people WITH guns who kill people.
Moreover, most guns are expressly designed with a single function: TO KILL PEOPLE. Radical motives may induce these killers, but it is the weapon or weapons they almost certainly effortlessly collect that turn into tools of mass destruction. Instead of gutless legislators concerned about Syrian refugees, they should be more alarmed about America’s exceptional gun crisis.
Since the Columbine shootings over 26 years ago, I’ve written more than a dozen columns advocating common-sense gun control (Is that an oxymoron?). There have been nine mass shootings in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, which occurred two years ago next Monday. I wrote my last piece advocating gun control 14 months ago. This is number 16.
I’m confident this won’t be my last.
To close, I send a message to Congress, with fitting Bob Dylan lyrics that impact my point of view: How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?