Monthly Archives: September 2017

Remember Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell’s passing left me sad, and not just because I enjoy his music. Campbell was the first celebrity I ever met: Not only was our encounter memorable but it struck me later as an amazingly instructive lesson for how a person should conduct oneself when faced with an awkward situation.

The year was 1970, my aunt and uncle had just bought a camper, and they took my three cousins, my sister, and me on a trip to Colorado. I was 5 years old.

I remember little about the trip other than how bizarre I found it to be so high in the mountains that I felt cold in the summer and how much fun it was to sleep in a tent with the brood. And I remember meeting Glen Campbell, who at the time was not only a country music artist but also the host of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a popular TV show my family watched every week.

One afternoon I had an urgent need to go to the bathroom, so my uncle pulled into the next service station and I ran out, alone, to the bathroom. While I was standing at the urinal a wasp landed on my shoulder and I froze in fright.

The man next to me noticed it, too, and whispered to not move an inch while he slowly moved his free hand in position to make the kill.

Naturally, I immediately tried to shake the wasp off, which caused me to be stung just as Glen Campbell’s hand hit my shoulder, hard, right where I had been stung. I burst out in tears and I made a mess of the task at hand to boot.

Campbell went into parent mode (he had three kids at the time), cleaned me up and carried me in his arms to my aunt and uncle to explain what happened. The adults chatted for a couple minutes while waiting for me to catch my breath, my aunt took a photo of me with him that’s forever lost, and we went on our way.

The incident stuck with me not just because of the celebrity encounter; as I grew older I came to appreciate what an awkward situation it must have been to be alone in a bathroom with a screaming 5 year old, and how he handled it with grace and aplomb.

When we had children a few years ago I came to appreciate it as a good parenting lesson as well: As much as we might want to try, we simply can’t instruct our children on how to behave in every situation they may encounter: We have to give them a few lessons, instill some values, and hope that it’s enough for them to figure things out on their own.

The Last Beatles Concert

It was 50 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught…wait, no, that’s not right. What was 50 years ago on Monday was the last time the Beatles took to a stage to perform a concert. It might be argued that the January 1969 London rooftop jam session was the Beatles’ last public performance, but their final concert proper was held August 29, 1966, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the end of a U.S. tour that had been as stressful and unpleasant as it had been brief.

You can’t blame the band for wanting to get off the road. Touring had long been a well-known drag. After the Beatles had performed in Stockholm, for example, John Lennon was asked what he thought of the trip. “Fine,” he said. “It was a room, a car, a concert and a sandwich.” There’s the road in all its glamor.

The Beatles had reason to feel the road wasn’t just a bore, but a dangerous bore. The backlash in the United States when Lennon floated the notion the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was nothing compared to the angry reaction when, in July 1966, the lads seemed to snub Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. Having had a bitter experience at the British embassy in Washington back in 1964, the Beatles made it a point not to go to embassy events or other official shindigs. But when they didn’t show for a Manila palace lunch with Ferdinand Marcos’s wife (and 200 children who were her guests), things got ugly, fast. The Beatles escaped their hotel down hallways lined with staff shouting abuse at them; their transportation disappeared and when they did get a car to pack into, soldiers along the route to the airport kept forcing them off the main highway; when they did finally make it to the airport it wasn’t clear whether they were going to be let on the plane or just done in by a mob right then and there.

A few weeks after their harrowing escape, the Beatles were back on the gerbil wheel in the States, where they worked their way from Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland (where fans nearly trampled them), Washington, and Philadelphia. And then down to Memphis, where a cherry bomb was tossed onstage, making the band think they were being shot at (troupers that they were, they kept playing).

But neither security concerns nor the grim plains-trains-and-automobiles slog fully explain why the Beatles gave up the stage. It was no way for them to make music. Even before their first, triumphant trip to the States, the Beatles were getting sick of standing in front of shrieking crowds of adolescent berserkers. “They’re not listening to anything,” John griped. “All they’re doing is going mad.”

Remember Tom Petty

C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on the same day as the JFK assassination. It’s an odd bit of historical trivia that often gets cited to show how even important markers can get lost amid earth shattering news. It might be as stretch to compare Tom Petty to those intellectual titans, but it would also be a mistake to underestimate what a beloved figure he was. That Petty died in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history seems somehow too coincidental not to notice.

It’s an especially cruel irony, because one of the reasons why Tom Petty was so beloved was that, beyond his musical output, Petty was the rare rock star who wanted all of the attention focused on his prodigious and worthy catalog of hits. Petty’s death at age 66 might be the one time where the attention deserved to be focused on the man himself, and that’s understandably very hard to do right now.

Over the course of a 40-plus-year career, the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers experienced some of the inevitable rock ‘n’ roll drama. One of the band’s bass players, Howie Epstein, died of a heroin overdose in 2003. There were the requisite divorces. But somehow it was never the stuff of sordid rock ‘n’ roll gossip. Unless you were some kind of superfan, you likely knew none of these things. All you knew is that when a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song came on the radio, the dial stayed where it was.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous first record came out the year I was born. I have never known a time without Tom Petty reliably on the radio, and even as a burgeoning rock music obsessive, I sort of took them for granted. About a decade ago, I realized that I reflexively knew every word, guitar lick, drum fill, and keyboard accent for more than 50 Tom Petty songs. And yet, I had only owned exactly one Tom Petty record. (That was his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever with “Free Fallin’,” “Running Down a Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” And even that CD I possessed solely because one my sister’s friends left it at my parents’ house.) Oddly, this realization coincided with another, more startling realization: I liked Tom Petty. A lot.

My musical awakening came in the late ‘80s/early ’90s, and those younger than that might not have a sense of how oppressively omnipresent classic rock radio had become. In an FM dominated, pre-Internet world, pop music fans basically had a choice between radio stations that played Whitney Houston all the time or radio stations that played Led Zeppelin all the time. When Nirvana cleaned the Augean Stables of rock ‘n’ roll my freshman year in high school, it was quite a relief.

Toscanini

“You are no good.” These were not the words Gregor Piatigorsky, a nervous performer, needed to hear as he warmed up before playing a concerto with the New York Philharmonic. The man who uttered them, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, then said, “I am no good.” The effect on Piatigorsky was immediate and lasting; writing about the incident some 30 years later, the cellist remembered wishing he had “died as a baby.” Nevertheless, he kept practicing, kept striving, hoping somehow, in the brief interval of time remaining, to change the maestro’s mind. “We are no good,” said Toscanini just before the two took the stage. “But the others,” he added, “are worse. Come on, caro, let’s go.”

For Toscanini (1867-1957), pursuing perfection was a matter of conscience. Here was the right way, the only way, of being a musician; any other was simply wrong. In this brilliant biography, Harvey Sachs delineates the guiding role of conscience in Toscanini’s life. Sachs writes from a position of unimpeachable authority: The present biography is his second of the conductor, whose letters he has also edited (2002) and about whom he has written a collection of essays (1991).

Mad for music as a boy, Toscanini enrolled in the conservatory in Parma, the town of his birth, at the age of 9. He practiced his instrument, the cello, diligently, but he spent just as much time listening to the practicing of his classmates. To become more conversant with the instruments of the orchestra, he taught himself the violin and double bass. As a pianist, he was fluent (if not exactly polished), and he could, at sight, reduce complex orchestral scores consisting of dozens of parts to make them playable within the compass of his two hands.

Toscanini was aided in assimilating music by his photographic memory. During rehearsals as a young cellist, he was forever looking around him, much to the consternation of his conductor, who assumed he wasn’t paying attention. But Toscanini had no need of the notes on the page; his mind had already absorbed them. He fixed his eye now on the conductor, studying the gestures he made, now on his fellow musicians, noting which gestures they responded to and which they ignored, alert all the while to what he might do differently and what he would do better. (“Formal study of conducting did not exist in those days,” writes Sachs, and Toscanini learned his craft by observation.) He put to use what he learned once he gained the podium, and his wondrously retentive memory allowed him to conduct vast symphonies and operas without recourse to a score.

Success came to him while young, and one achievement led swiftly to another. He was chosen in 1898 to direct the reconstituted La Scala Opera, widely considered the best theater in Italy, if not the world. (One envious critic knocked him, though, for his “Luciferian arrogance.”) He was lured away in 1908 by the New York Metropolitan Opera, whose board of directors spared no expense to improve the condition of the hall and the caliber of the musicianship. (His most vocal champion on the board was the financier and philanthropist Otto Kahn.) La Scala won him back for eight years, only to lose him again, this time to the New York Philharmonic. When in 1936 he resigned from the Philharmonic, it seemed that, as the New York Times put it, Toscanini had “ended last night his career as conductor in America.” But then an NBC executive came up with an idea—“that the network could attempt to bring the world’s most famous classical performing musician back to the United States under their company’s aegis,” Sachs writes. “Given NBC’s huge and growing corporate resources, the network could afford to transform its already substantial, high-quality house orchestra into a first-rate symphonic radio orchestra.” Toscanini’s leadership of the NBC Symphony Orchestra made him, through the power of radio and then television, a household name. And his appearances as a guest conductor of other orchestras were as numberless as the stars.

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Outside music, the touchstone of Toscanini’s conscience was liberty, and he believed its blessings should be enjoyed by all people, free from coercion, unimpeded by prejudice. He was an ardent philo-Semite. While recognizing the genius of Richard Wagner’s art, he wasn’t for a moment taken in by the composer’s Jew-hatred. Wagner the man he considered a “farabutto”—meaning, according to Sachs, scoundrel, crook, or swindler. Toscanini also saw firsthand the anti-Semitism faced by Otto Kahn in the upper reaches of New York society; he could not fathom how the society that Kahn benefited so greatly with his largesse denied him the right to participate in it fully. At his own expense, Toscanini traveled in 1936 to Tel Aviv, where he proudly conducted the inaugural concerts of the Palestine (later the Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra.

A brave anti-Fascist, Toscanini ran afoul of the government of Mussolini. The more tightly Il Duce clamped down on the Italian people, the more Toscanini rebelled. Repeatedly Toscanini refused to conduct “Giovinezza,” the Fascist party’s anthem, before concerts where its playing was required. Once this caused him to be roughed up by a band of young Fascist thugs; afterward his hotel was descended upon by a mob of 200. Eventually, Mussolini arranged to have Toscanini’s telephone conversations wiretapped and his activities watched. In 1938, Mussolini even ordered that Toscanini’s passport be seized; it was restored only when it became clear that Il Duce’s zeal for punishment was outweighed by his dislike for negative publicity from the United States and England. Toscanini immediately left his beloved Italy, not knowing whether he would ever return. Eight years passed, but return he did, after Mussolini was dead and the war was over, to direct the reopening of La Scala.