Saturday, February 24, 2024

Aleksei Navalny, and Ukraine

Today is the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.  It has also been eight days since the death of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.

Today, too, Mr. Navalny's spokeswoman announced, in an online statement, that Mr. Navalny's body had--finally--been released to the custody of his mother.

Yesterday, President Biden announced some 500 sanctions against Russia, as a result of Mr. Navalny's death, and Russia's continuing war against Ukraine.  Those sanctioned, The Washington Post noted,  included Russian individuals, companies, "and firms in other countries that supply Russia's military and industrial production, according to a Treasury Department spokeswoman."  

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said there will also be sanctions concerning Russia's human rights abuses, within the country, and without. One hopes the sanctions will have an effect.

And yet:  in the United States, the Republican-led House continues to delay--recklessly--sending crucial aid to Ukraine.

Gamesmanship is not leadership. Fealty to Donald Trump--who is besotted with Putin--is not leadership. The stakes, concerning Ukraine, are incalculably high, worldwide, and many in the House GOP don't seem to care.

The world--teetering on its axis, while House Republicans are dormant.  

Putin is strengthened by this; America's moral leadership is deeply diminished.

And, to speak of Mr. Navalny:  he was an immensely brave man. 

The day before his February 16th death, he made a court appearance, video from which has aired on television, and can be seen online.

In the courtroom--or, in the enclosure within the courtroom--he was smiling, laughing, making jokes to the judge.

The judge had imposed "a stream of fines" against Mr. Navalny, an online Russia-oriented independent news site noted (a site blocked in Russia; the publication is now based outside of the country). Mr. Navalny said the following, at the court hearing (I am using the translation not from the above publication, but from the CBS News video, below):

"Your honor, I am waiting.  I will send you my personal account number, so that you can use your huge federal judge's salary to fuel my personal account."  He added: "Because I am running out of money, and thanks to your decisions, it will run out even faster. So send it over."

Mr. Navalny's cheerful-appearing demeanor, the day before he died, was, on its own, evidence of his tremendous fortitude, and his heroism.

He had not, his manner proclaimed, been defeated--either from the terrible (and freezing) conditions of the Russian Arctic penal colony to which he had been sent in December, or from the punishing circumstances at the prison where he had been previously held since 2021.  During his imprisonment, he spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement.

Mr. Navalny's death--whether due to the harsh conditions of his incarceration (conditions imposed, certainly, by Vladimir Putin), or because of a Putin-ordered assassination--is a tragedy of great magnitude: for the citizens of Russia, for his many supporters, and, of course, for Mr. Navalny's courageous family. It is also a considerable tragedy for those seeking freedom across the world.

On February 16th, the day his death was reported, Anne Applebaum wrote the following in The Atlantic, online:

The enormous contrast between Navalny’s civic courage and the corruption of Putin’s regime will remain. Putin is fighting a bloody, lawless, unnecessary war, in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians have been killed or wounded, for no reason other than to serve his own egotistical vision. He is running a cowardly, micromanaged reelection campaign, one in which all real opponents are eliminated and the only candidate who gets airtime is himself. Instead of facing real questions or challenges, he meets tame propagandists such as Tucker Carlson, to whom he offers nothing more than lengthy, circular, and completely false versions of history.

Even behind bars Navalny was a real threat to Putin, because he was living proof that courage is possible, that truth exists, that Russia could be a different kind of country. For a dictator who survives thanks to lies and violence, that kind of challenge was intolerable. Now Putin will be forced to fight against Navalny’s memory, and that is a battle he will never win.

On February 20th, Nadya Tolokonnikova--one of the founders of the Russian music/protest/performance art group Pussy Riot, and who was a friend of Mr. Navalny's--published an op-ed essay in The New York Times.  She wrote the following:

People say Mr. Putin feared Aleksei. But I think the reason he wanted to get rid of Aleksei was another emotion — a darker, more sinister one. It was envy. People loved Aleksei. With his jokes, irony, superhero-like fearlessness and love for life, he led with charisma. People followed Aleksei because he was the kind of person you wanted to be friends with. People follow Mr. Putin because they fear him, but people followed Aleksei because they loved him. Mr. Putin clearly envied this appeal. No amount of money in the world can buy love; no amount of missiles and tanks can conquer people’s hearts.

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.)