Thursday, February 15, 2024


From Ann Beattie's fine book of short stories, Onlookers (published last July):   

Here are two sentences--from a story titled "Alice Ott"; the story is narrated by Alice Ott's niece.

My boyfriend back in Michigan had found me withholding. That was because sometimes I didn't talk just about him.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The great Ringo Starr, and the Beatles

I'm obviously writing about the following belatedly--but Ringo Starr was featured on the cover of (and was interviewed for) the December/January issue of AARP's bi-monthly magazine. 

The interview, with writer Rob Tannenbaum, concluded with these surprising (and fascinating) comments by Mr. Starr:

I was 22 when I joined the Beatles in 1962, and I was 30 when it was all over. We did eight years, and look at how much we packed in. We loved to work — well, Paul loved to work more than all of us. John and I would be hanging out in the garden and the phone would ring. We were psychic — we knew it was him. “Hey, lads, should we go into the studio?” Otherwise, we’d have put out three albums and then vanished.

Perhaps Mr. Starr was exaggerating, a bit, for effect--that, without the prodding of Paul McCartney, the Beatles may only have released three albums.  Yet even allowing for possible hyperbole, his comment is still noteworthy:  that it was Mr. McCartney who was the driving force behind bringing the group, again and again, into the recording studio.

Yet one must also focus on these words, in the above remarks: "We loved to work." One of the great pleasures in watching the Beatles--in videos, in television performances, in films of their concerts, and in their feature films--is to see a group that always seemed to enjoy performingThey looked, so often, like they were having a good time.

Author Mark Lewisohn, in his book Tune In, subtitled The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 (Three Rivers Press, 2013), quotes Roberta "Bobby" Brown, a young woman who was a devoted Beatles fan, during their Cavern Club period in Liverpool, and beyond.  She attended the group's shows when Pete Best was the drummer, and remembered when Ringo Starr took Mr. Best's place in 1962.  She said: "I really liked Ringo from day one...As soon as he got up there I thought he was great.  He was full of personality.  He wasn't this moody James Dean-like person at the back. Pete never smiled and Ringo always smiled."

Ringo did indeed have an appealing personality, during his years with the group (as he still does, today, at age 83).  He was also a terrific drummer.  

The group's February 9, 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan program--sixty years ago, yesterday--remains, for me, a thrilling childhood memory. The performances, that night--the group sang five songs, in two separate segments--were tremendous. They also appeared on the program the following two weeks.

The group's final performance, for the first Ed Sullivan appearance, was of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (see link below), which was, at the time, the number one song in America.  (The group's manager, Brian Epstein, had decided he would only let the group appear in the United States once they had achieved a number-one hit there.)

One of the most interesting parts of the above video, I think, takes place at approximately :50 from the video's start.  

At that time, a camera--described on a Beatles-related website as a "mobile crane camera"--moves above and beyond George Harrison and John Lennon, to focus on Ringo Starr.  What is intriguing, about these moments, is that the closer the camera gets to Mr. Starr, the louder his drumming becomes. It seems as though there was a microphone attached to the camera; I never knew there could be this pairing, of camera and microphone. As the camera then recedes, the volume of the drumming diminishes. (Though maybe I am misunderstanding this; perhaps, say, there was a boom microphone above, and its volume was for some reason raised, and subsequently lowered, as the camera first moved closer, and was then pulled back.)   

(One also notes this, about the video: as many Beatles fans are aware, there was an issue with John Lennon's microphone during the February 9th telecast; the volume was too low.  Yet the performances nonetheless remained superb--including that of "I Want to Hold Your Hand.")

Here, too, is a video (flawed, unfortunately) of the group's performance, that night, of "Till There Was You." The video--which has been colorized--is of poor quality, yet the audio is fine.  The performance includes a beautiful vocal by Paul McCartney, and lovely guitar playing by George Harrison.  It is during this song, famously, that each Beatle was identified, on the screen--including this wording about John Lennon: "SORRY GIRLS, HE'S MARRIED."

(One notes that there was an homage to the on-screen identifications of the group, in the 1996 film That Thing You Do, directed and written by Tom Hanks. The film was about a 1960s one-hit American group (called The Wonders), and the scene, in the following YouTube video, is of a television appearance the fictional group made. The homage to the February 9th Ed Sullivan program occurs at approximately 1 minute and 50 seconds into the video: )

In the earlier part of their recording career, the Beatles covered songs by a number of artists. These included Smokey Robinson and The Miracles ("You've Really Got a Hold on Me"), Little Richard ("Long Tall Sally"), The Shirelles ("Baby It's You"), Chuck Berry ("Roll Over Beethoven"), Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go to Him)," and Buddy Holly ("Words of Love").

The Beatles' cover version of "Till There was You," performed on Ed Sullivan's program, was, I think, a very interesting (and appealing) song choice, indicative of the breadth of the group's (or, at least, Paul McCartney's) musical interests. The song was written by Meredith Willson, and was featured in his 1957 Broadway play The Music Man, as well as in the subsequent 1962 film.

It has been written, though, that Mr. McCartney originally learned of the song not from The Music Man, but from a cover recording of it by Peggy Lee.  Wikipedia notes that the song was a "minor hit" in the United Kingdom, for Ms. Lee, in early 1961, and also notes that Mr. McCartney was given the Peggy Lee record by a cousin of his. Author Mark Lewisohn, referred to above, writes that "John really had a go at Paul for singing [the song]--but didn't try to stop him doing it, recognizing there was scope for all kinds of music in this group, to please all kinds of audiences...just so long as no one went near jazz."

Lastly, here are some additional comments about Ringo Starr's drumming.  As suggested above, I am a great admirer of Mr. Starr's drumming skills.

In his book Tell Me Why, subtitled The Beatles: Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After (Knopf, 1988), writer Tim Riley quoted from the book All You Need is Ears (St. Martin's Press, 1979), by George Martin, the Beatles' producer. Mr. Martin wrote that Mr. Starr was "not a 'technical' drummer.  Men like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa would run rings round him. But he's a good solid rock drummer with a super steady beat, and he knows how to get the right sound out of his drums.  Above all, he does have an individual sound. You can tell Ringo's drums from anyone else's..." 

Wrote author Riley: "When Martin says 'he knew how to get the right sound out of his drums,' he means in part that Ringo wanted to serve the songs rather than show off...His commitment to the music was always bigger than his ego."

In his book, Mr. Riley wrote, for example, of the 1965 song "I'm Down," which was the B-side of the 45 record "Help." The song, Mr. Riley wrote, was "Paul's first straightforward original rocker since 'I Saw Her Standing There'," and he wrote that the recording was a "rock 'n' roll classic." It's a rather wild and enjoyably frenetic song. Near its conclusion, wrote Mr. Riley, "the band veers breathlessly close to the edge of hysteria, and it's to Ringo's credit that things don't fall apart. The hardest assignment for any drummer is to let the others cut loose to the extreme while providing a steady beat for them to fall back on.  Lesser bands would easily come unglued with a groove so addled and punctured; Ringo maintains a sure but unconfining backbeat for the madness, the strongest glue of all."

Here is a remastered recording of "I'm Down," from YouTube:

Mr. Riley wrote this, as well, of the 1965 song "Day Tripper": "As the end [of the song] approaches, Ringo takes over with fills, and he defines the final moments...The drumming he has been slinging into the sound at every entrance is like small pelts of compressed tension and release, and it's difficult to imagine the track without it.  But the final drum spot condenses his other fills into a solo of imaginative breaks: triplets here, tom-tom rolls there, filling up each opportunity with rhythmic commentary on the riff that has driven the entire song. Even Paul's hidden bass ad-libs [heard in the left channel of the recording] don't match Ringo's ingenuity.  His timing shows just what attentive drumming a track like this requires, and it is among Ringo's finest moments."

Here is a video--not a live performance, but a video nonetheless--of "Day Tripper":

(Please note: The above piece was lightly edited, in the hours after it was posted.)

Monday, February 5, 2024

Trump, and the 2024 election

It is not only profoundly alarming, the possibility that Trump could be returned to office, in November.

It is also alarming, in the extreme, to think of what he might do--to think of what lengths he might go to--if he loses again.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Martin Luther King, Jr., and the calendar

I think, with some regularity, about the prominence of dates, in our lives. 

During a given year, so many dates stand out--dates with personal, or historical, meaning (and historical dates often feel deeply personal).

There is the date of our own birth; the birth dates of loved ones; wedding anniversaries; the dates when loved ones died.

Today, the 15th of January, is of course the anniversary of Dr. King's birth, in 1929.  Today, had he lived, he would have been 95 years old.

I think of the tremendous burden Dr. King faced, through his years as a public figure: his awareness, ever-present, of the possibility of assassination.

Which, in the end, happened, on April 4th of 1968--when he was shot while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

It is astonishing (and deeply saddening) to remember that Dr. King--one of the most towering figures in America's history--was only 39, at his death.

There are, certainly, many other dates of great significance. 

One thinks of November 22nd.  September 11th.  December 7, 1941.  D-Day, on June 6, 1944.  The death, on June 6, 1968--two months after Dr. King's death--of Senator Kennedy.

February 9, 1964 (sixty years ago next month)--when The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan's program. 

August 8th, 1974:  President Nixon's announcement, in a television speech, that he would resign from office the next day.

Then, dates which are more recent:

January 6, 2021, at the Capitol.

I am unsure how many people remember, specifically, February 24, 2022 as being the date Russia began its war against Ukraine.  I suspect millions of people--beyond the area of Ukraine itself--likely do remember it, and one hopes the date will continue to be kept in mind.

And three months ago: October 7th, when Hamas committed its invasion of Israel--which led, quickly, to the Israel-Hamas war.

In addition to today's anniversary of Dr. King's birth, there is today another anniversary--the date of which I had not recalled, until watching a recent CNN special.  Fifteen years ago--January 15th, 2009--the "Miracle on the Hudson" occurred, when Captain Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Everyone on board--155 people--survived. 

Years after the fact--or only weeks, months after the fact--we feel, often with great emotion, the effect and meaning of certain dates.  Our awareness of such dates gives to us (in an evocative, associative way), an ongoing sense of our personal histories--and of national history, world history.  An awareness of the calendar (and all of its particular associations, from both the distant and recent past) becomes, indeed, a significant part of our lives.

Friday, January 5, 2024

An extraordinary role in D-Day

On Tuesday, The New York Times published an obituary of Maureen Flavin Sweeney, who died on December 17th at a nursing home in Belmullet, Ireland.  She was 100 years old.

I had not known of Ms. Sweeney, or of the remarkable role she played during World War Two.

In 1942, as the Times reported, she took a job at the post office of Blacksod Point, an Irish coastal village.  Her name, at the time--she was not yet married--was Maureen Flavin.

The Times wrote that the "remote post office also served as a weather station.  Her duties included recording and transmitting weather data.  She did that work diligently, though she did not even know where her weather reports were going.

"In fact," Times reporter Alex Traub noted, "they were part of the Allied war effort."

Then, in June of 1944, days before the D-Day invasion--originally planned for June 5th--her weather data altered history. "On her 21st birthday, June 3, she had a late-night shift: 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. Checking her barometer, she saw that it registered a rapid drop in pressure, indicating a likelihood of approaching rain or stormy weather."

The Times story continued: 

The report went from Dublin to Dunstable, the town that housed England’s meteorological headquarters.

Ms. Flavin then received an unusual series of calls about her work. A woman with an English accent asked her: “Please check. Please repeat!”

Ms. Flavin asked the postmistress’s son and Blacksod’s lighthouse keeper, Ted Sweeney [whom she would marry in 1946], if she was making a mistake.

“We checked and rechecked, and the figures were the same both times, so we were happy enough,” she later told Ireland’s Eye magazine.

The Times wrote:

That same day, [General] Eisenhower and his advisers were meeting at their base in England. James Stagg, a British military meteorologist, reported that, based on Ms. Flavin’s readings, bad weather was expected. He advised Eisenhower to postpone the invasion by a day.

The general agreed. June 5 saw rough seas, high winds and thick cloud cover. 

D-Day took place on June 6th. "Some commentators," Times reporter Traub wrote, "...have argued that the invasion could well have failed if it had occurred [on June 5th]."

The obituary notes that Ms. Sweeney only learned of the importance of her weather reporting years later, in 1956.

Here is the link to the June 2nd story about her, from the Times:

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

News Anchor Tom Foty, CBS Radio

For years I listened, with pleasure, to Tom Foty's assured and appealing news anchoring, on CBS Radio.

Mr. Foty died on December 26th, at 77.  He was last heard on the network December 21st.

His distinctive voice can be heard in the story, below, from Washington's WTOP Radio.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Typewriters, at auction

As one who has come to miss his long-gone manual typewriters (and an IBM Selectric, sold, as I recall, in 2000), I was interested to read this December 7th story from The New York Times:

The story concerns an auction, taking place December 15th in Dallas, run by the company Heritage Auctions.  It is a collection of 33 typewriters, owned by entrepreneur and civic leader (and a former president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners) Steve Soboroff.  The collection includes typewriters once owned by Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Temple, Andy Rooney, Philip Roth, Jack London, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Tennessee Williams. 

In 2022 Mr. Soboroff donated six typewriters from his collection to the Smithsonian: typewriters of Joe DiMaggio, Maya Angelou, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, Jerry Siegel (the co-creator of Superman), and John Lennon (who, one notes, died 43 years ago today).

Mr. Soboroff assembled much of his collection through auction purchases; some were bought from family members or friends of those who had owned the typewriters.  The Times article includes the following:

Typewriters are imperfect little engraving machines, Mr. Soboroff likes to say, requiring more physical interaction than today’s laptops. Some exude a personality, a mechanical soul, like a vintage car or a maestro’s violin. The connection to their original owners adds to the mystique.

“They are really hard to find because some heirs don’t want to give them up,” Mr. Soboroff said. “They’ll sell the clothes, pictures. They won’t sell the typewriter.”

Here is a link to a press release about Mr. Soboroff's collection, on the Heritage Auctions website: