The Infinite Jukebox: Alison Krauss’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’

Until I got married and my wife put her foot down very firmly, I went through a phase of devotedly watching the Country Music Awards show from Nashville every year. Before you start to object, let me assure you that this had nothing to do with an unexpected love for the music, even though I had a phase in the Nineties of exploring the melodies of some of the more modern female country singers.
No, it all started one weekend away in Shropshire with a mate and his wife, the Awards show on BBC2, the wine open on the coffee table and a great deal of sarcastic backchat from both of us, about the music, the singers, the introductions (some of which really not needing our gleeful snarkiness to turn them into minor masterpieces of unintended hilarity).
So I’d tune in every year, bottle already open, open-armedly welcoming the chance of piss-take, whilst on the serious side hoping for more occasions on which the long-haired, tall, slim, short buckskin-skirted, knee-length booted Suzy Bogguss might do another enthusiastic and bouncy dance. Or even sing, I wasn’t fussed.
But into even frivolity like this a serious point must also intrude. That first occasion, at Paul and Jane’s, I saw a singer I’d never heard of sing a song I’ve never heard. And on the strength of that one performance, that silenced all of us by its beauty, and by the emotional impact of the song, I bought a compilation album by Alison Krauss, just because it featured ‘When you say nothing at all’.
Although Ronan ‘Pub Singer’ Keating covered it and had a UK no. 1 single with it, I’m astonished still that ‘When you say nothing at all’ hasn’t become a modern standard, a song attempted by all and sundry. Somehow, it’s resisted becoming as well known as it should be, and remains a song that’s almost a private pleasure.
The song was written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, who thought it was ok but nothing special. But it was first recorded by Keith Whitley, who took it to the top of the Country music singles chart in 1989, before dying of alcohol poisoning. Alison Krauss was a noted singer and bluegrass fiddle player who recorded it with her band, Union Station, in 1995 for a tribute album to Whitley. It was never intended as anything more, but people heard it, people loved it, it got airplay it spread and it was her first single hit, reaching no 3.
Which was why she was on the Country Music Awards show that Saturday night, and why Paul and I both stopped in our tracks to listen to something we immediately understood was special.
‘When you say nothing at all’ is a love song that puts into words how much more is said without words. It’s amazing, Krauss sings, how you can speak right to my heart, without saying a word. It’s in one sense a conventional sentiment, but the song brings it to an extraordinary depth, by making all of it about silence, and the inability of words to define this collaboration of minds and souls.
And then the chorus bursts open with all the ways that love eschews verbal communication. The smile on your face lets me know that you love me, there’s a truth in your eyes saying you’ll never lead me, the touch of your hand says you’ll catch me whenever I fall. You say it best when you say nothing at all.
Those who only know Keating’s version not only do not know the delicacy that Krauss brings to the song, her deft, pure voice flowing with the love the words themselves do not say, but they do not know an original line, as the second verse leads into the repetition of that chorus. Old Mr Webster, she sings, referring to the famous American dictionary, could never define what’s being said between your heart and mine. Nothing so oblique for us poor stupid Britons, who will never understand a reference to a master wordsmith being lost for words.
And the surprising strength that she brings to that chorus, full of the force of her conviction that this is where her love abides, the band reinforcing her on those first two line.
I think that night in 1995 she may have sung to just a solo piano accompaniment, trusting in her voice to deliver a song of such silent profundity.
Overall, Ms Krauss is too pure country for my mixed tastes, just as I retain very few of the CDs or tapes from that long-ago fascination, but her version of this song still moves me like few others, and without it there would be no point to have an Infinite Jukebox at all.


Sunday Watch: My World… and Welcome To It – e01-03

You have to be of some age, my kind of age, to remember this one season sitcom from 1969/70. The Sixties were a decade when all manner of American sitcoms filled British screens and many many more never made it, for good or ill. I was never particularly discriminate between them back then but in the case of My World… and Welcome To It I was definitely on the ball.

My World was created and directed by Mel Shavelson and produced by Sheldon Leonard, a successful sitcom producer whose name inspired Sheldon and Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. It starred a three-handed cast of William Windom as John Monroe, Joan Hotchkis as his wife ellen and ten year old Lida Gerritson as their daughter Lydia.

But what distinguishes the series is that it is almost entirely based on “drawings, stories, inspirational pieces and things that go bump in the night by James Thurber”. Thurber was a legendary humorist and cartoonist in the Forties and Fifties, a surrealist, a satirist, most famous fror the creation of Walter Mitty (though Thurber’s original story bears practically no resemblance to the film starring Danny Kaye).

And the sitcom is a surreal mixture of downhome and surreal humour, making ample use of animated settings and sequences (brought to life by DePatie – Freleng, of The Pink Panther fame). Windom’s John Monroe is a cartoonist working for a New Yorker-stle magazine called ‘The Manhattanite’, a wry and somewhat grump/cynical commentator on the state of the world today, who sees reality very differently from his affectionate but sensible and practical wife Ellen, a housewife. Windom’s laconic, easy-going style is ideal as Monroe, looking at the world from an unexpected tangent and breaking the fourth wall continually.

But in Lisa Gerritson as Lydia, the show struck gold. She’s a very intelligent, very serious young child who doesn’t quite understand her father, who is out of his depth when it comes to facing her, and I very quickly became sympathetic to Hotchkis who, as the straight-woman to her co-stars, is on a hiding to nothing, reduced almost to a cypher.

My World ran for one season of 26 episodes which has never been officially released: my two-DVD set is a bootleg copied from videotapes. It was critically acclaimed, to the extent of winning two Emmys in 1970, Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, but it had already been cancelled for moderate ratiings, about which all I can say is, You Fools!

The three episodes I’ve watched this morning ranged quite widely: ‘Man Against the World’ served to set up the format, starting with John arriving at his Connecticut home from work – a full-sized 2D stageset of Thurber’ famous cartoon of a house turning into a woman to talk back at him as Ellen – and being persuaded to assist Lydia with her history homework, despite her wish that he didn’t. This is a set-up to play out Thurber’s famous sketch about General Grant being so drunk at Appamattox that he surrenders to Lee and plays out through the first appearance of Lydia’s doctrinaire schoolteacher Miss Skidmore.

‘The Disenchanted’ has John trying to handle Lydia’s decision to run away from home and set up in New York to get away from the boy sat behind her in class who copies her work and pulls her hair, whilst ‘Little Girls are Sugar & Spice – and not always Nice!’ gets away from thurber by pitting Lydia against her father at Chess, and getting the better of him.

Subtle and wry as the humour is, I’ve got to admit it’s doubly out-dated in certain elements. This is original matrial from the Forties being repurposed for the late Sixties and Nixon’s Presidency. The set-up is old-fashioned, with Ellen as a stay-at-home housewife and the first episode adopting a quasi-misogynist tone, whilst the crux of the third episode is that Lydia traps her father in an inescapable position over which he delays making a move for two days.

Then just as John receives the very sage advice that all he can do is lose but save face by making it look like he’s deliberately throwing the game, Lydia gets a lesson from her mother about the essential female duty of giving in to protect the man’s fragile ego, which she dutifully absorbs with that wonderfully characteristic attitude of not understanding why but accepting it as just one more of those adult mysteries. Gerritson is just brilliant in the part.

It’s lovely to catch up on My World… and Welcome To It after a half century. It has that rare thing about an American Sixties sitcom, subtlety. It doesn’t go for belly-laughs but rather chuckles, it holds its own in the wistfulness sakes, it’s modern and old-fashioned in one go and above all it has charm. In bucketsful. I shall enoy meandering through it.

Dan Dare: Keith Watson’s OTHER New Eagle Story

A long time back, as part of my series on Dan Dare stories, I reviewed the first ever real revival of the Pilot of the Future, a six-part, eighteen page story appearing in New Eagle in 1989, drawn by the legendary Keith Watson.
At that time, I was aware of, but chose to ignore, a second Watson story, a pathetically short effort consisting only of two episodes, the second completed by Andrew Skilleter. I don’t know the history of that but, judging by all I know of Watson and his loyalty to Frank Hampson and his work, I could easily see him walking away in disgust at such poor and cheap material.
Not that long after my piece on Watson’s six-parter appeared, I was advised by a commenter that I had it wrong, that Watson had drawn a second ‘full-length’ story in New Eagle. For various reasons – the overall lack of quality of the first story, the complete of my Eagle collection, the discovery of comics collections on DVD – I didn’t bother trying to find and read it until now, and so it can take its belated place in the list of tales I recognise as semi-canon.
The second story started on 3rd February 1990 with a cover by Watson and the excitable blurb about ‘A craft of Alien origin crashlands in England…’ Indeed it does, but the fact that it crashlands in Wigan, practically next door to Digny’s Aunt Anastasia’s house, disrupting her famous annual outdoor party (what famous annual outdoor parties?) doesn’t get things off on the right foot. Nor does Aunt Anastasia immediately vid-phoning Digby at Spacefleet HQ to tell him to come nad drag it away necessarily improve matters. Then Farmer Benson, on whose land it’s crashed, has in dragged into a barn in case it might be worth something for salvage, and starts fiddling with its controls. Which erupt with probably disastrous effects when someone hits it with a hammer…
I confess to having had this first part for a couple of years without feeling the urge to go further, as you may well understand, but now I’ve got the rest of the run off eBay, so how did things develop?
Near two pages of rapidly burgeoning disaster seques into Dan and Digby debating the likelihood of this craft being an alien probe out to make contact, like the Voyager probes launched in the Seventies. This is the Voyager mission of our world, not Dan Dare’s Universe, making the reference an anomaly (the prediction that Earth lost contact with Voyager in the late 1990s was, thankfully, inaccurate). But that’s just a prelude to an energy field forcing the pair down into a School playground where the kids are running from a horrible, dragon-like monster (oh dear…)
Noticeably, whilst Sir Hubert Guest wore the proper Spacefleet cap, Dan and Dig have to wear the unimpressive forager-style peaked caps that characterised the ongoing stories. Not even Watson can make them look palatable. Anyway, Dan and Digby get rid of the fire-breathing thing by decoying it into the local colliery museum and dropping it down a liftshaft. Then a machine appears, collecting soil and plant samples, until it reaches a garden Centre and blows up for no adequately defined reason. Are you detecting a streak of the banal a Saturnian mile wide yet?
Still, the machine is generating an ever-widening energy field that’s consuming everything in its path. Enter Professor Peabody to detect that the field is penetrating everything above ground but not a dicky bird underground. Clearly Earth’s earth is inimical in some way, so Dan whistles up a Thunderbirds style machine known as the Earthworm, which he and Digby will use to literally undermine the machine, causing it to drop into the local subsidence.
This just sets up the cliffhanger. Apparently radio waves in Dan Dare’s future can’t penetrate underground so the moment the Earthworm digs through the surface its incommunicado, and the maps of the old mine-workings don’t show shafts… So the Earthworm gets trapped under collapsed rock, earth and substandard twentieth century coal… unable to move!
But you know Dan Dare will save the day, thanks to an offhand remark from Dig that sets his brain working. By turning up the heat, Dan burns off the coal in time to get the Earthworm where it needs to be. Cue one massive cave-in, enabling the machine to be sealed in and cut-off from sunlight. Day saved, end with Aunt Anastasia complaining about cracks in her garden and a portentous comment from Dan Dare about maybe we don’t want to meet this alien civilisation after all.
This other adventure is very much the traditional curate’s egg. The adventure itself is flat and banal, less involved that some of the old eight-pagers from the Eagle Annuals of the Fifties, and in its determinedly mundane settings I get the impression that the writer can’t really take it seriously. It comes over to me as being penned by someone who can only see Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as old hat, fit only to be sent up: I mean, come on, Dan Dare? In 1990?
But if the story is, frankly, a load of bollocks, it is nevertheless another eighteen pages of Keith Watson, devoting himself to maintaining the quality of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. And despite the enforced faux-pas of the forager caps, for which he cannot be blamed, Watson is again on wonderful form, this time supported by a colourist who makes full use of his palate, Even in those panels that are mostly monocoloured, the tones chosen are attractive and sympathetic, and do not overwhelm Watson’s linework.
Good art, shame about the story: how many times have we said that? Sometimes it seems the price of an affinity for this scruffy and disreputable medium. I’m glad to have these pages to look at and drink in. Let this exceedingly minor effort tuck itself into some unimportant and half-concealed corner of the continuity. Keith Watson rides again in our memories.

Lou Grant: s05 e13 – Immigrants

Looking up this episode on imdb after watching it, there was a very interesting paragraph about the show overall. This was Lou Grant‘s final season, and I had planned to talk about the reasons for its cancellations when I got to the final episode, but it appears that episode 13 is a pivotal point.

Lou Grant was cancelled in May 1982, this episode having been broadcast in mid-February. At the time, Edward Asner was President of the Actor’s Screen Guild. He had decidedly liberal opinions in Ronald Reagan’s America, especilly with regard to the USA’s dubious intervention in El Salvador. Officially, the show was cancelled for the only usual reason: low viewing figures. Asner believed that the cancellation was political, aimed at stifling dissent. Viewing figures at the time of cancellation were quoted which seemed to justify the decision, but these were compared to the viewing figures for Taxi, which had been cancelled for a lower audience but picked up by another network.

According to imdb, ratings were strong over the first half of the season, with the show usually in the weekly Top 20/25. With episode 13, the show plummeted into the bottom 20, and spent the rest of the season there, and much of it in the bottom 10, lending powerful support to the ratings argument.

On the other hand, the network opted to replace the show with Cagney and Lacey, which had performed disastrously in a three week run and which, whilst outperforming Lou Grant‘s most recent figures, would go on to deliver much power ratings than the show’s fourth season.

This was very interesting to me in the context of ‘Immigrants’ which was pretty much a complete bust, another episode without a resolution, and what’s more one that left every loose end dangling. The immigrants in question were the Vietnamese who fled to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975 – footage of which was shown in the intro – and how they and their culture were regarded in Amerixca. Except that after looking to lead with that depiction, the episode decided it had no confidence in itself and first mixed in then allowed a criminal enterprise to take over.

Two stories filtered into each other. The Trib needed a new photographer and everyone was massively impressed by the work of Lee Van Tam (Le Tuan, central to the story but shunted down to sixth in the guest credits I noticed). Tam was an old friend of Dennis ‘Animal’ Price from the latter’s service in the ‘Nam and a superior photographer. He put the wind up another Trib photographer, Cy Wood (Raleigh Bond) on clearly racist behaviour, nd Tan and his family rubbed up raw their vet neighbour Norman Diggs (J.D. Hall).

Things looked bad. Tan had no idea of procedires and schedules, he was great but unreliable, he wasn’t going to survive his probationary two weeks. Tan was also distracted by his unhappy involvement in the other story, a welfare scandal being pursued by Rossi.

The show backed into this one with a feature on one of the rare serious Welfare frauds that got inflated over its true prominence, but gave Rossi a lead into a highly organised black market in food stamps, under the control of Vietnamese politician Colonel Eyen Van Long. The audience could see long before Lou and Co that Tan was involved via the grocery store his family ‘rented’ from the Colonel. Trying to shut things down when the investigation started, Tan’s reward was to have his porch blown up by a grenade. The show’s only quotable line was bout the Colonel’s enforcer, who apparently knew more ways to kill you than you knew how to die (what a line, though).

Sticky situation. The Colonel was self-evidently utterly ruthless, Tan was about to be let go, and then suddenly Sooty tapped his magic wand, Harry Corbett said ‘Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy’ and everything in the Herb Garden was wonderful (excuse the seriously mixed metaphor there).

Tan decided to spuill the beans about the Colonel in depth. His anonimity was so well preserved by the story that all his neighbours came out to help rebuild his porch without the show ever once considering that if they could work it out, a consummate smartarse like the Colonel might be able to, and he might be less neighbourly about the knowledge. Also, Tam gets a permanent job on Lou’s suddenly-not-at-all-frustrated call, and gets his pay offer jacked up because other papers are interested in him and he has a large family.

That isn’t an ending. It’s a total abdication of everything that has gone before. And this was the point at which ratings fell through the basement. Hmm, I say, and hmm again. I shall be very interested in the last eleven episodes.

Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel

In 1960, a television executive at ATV by the name of Ralph Smart proposed a new thriller series for the still very new ITV channel. The name of the series was Danger Man, and it was to star Irish-American actor Patrick MacGoohan, already highly-regarded as a stage actor of some intensity, as Special Agent John Drake, in what would be a series of 37 twenty-five minute black-and-white episodes, intending to fit half hour slots on the commercial network.

As the introduction explained, each week, Drake was a secret service operative. All countries around the world have organisations that deal with complex, frequently sensitive and secret cases, such as the CIA, or France’s Deuxieme Bureau. Drake is one agent, but his employers are NATO, and his brief is world wide.

Drake’s brief might have been world-wide but the filming wasn’t. As early as episode 2, a scene supposedly in Eastern Europe, Romania or Bulgaria I think, was instantly recognisable to me as being filmed on the rougher road on the western shore of Thirlmere, opposite to Helvellyn in the Lake District, whilst a China-set episode in the first dozen broadcast was filmed in a Welsh folly village that, several years later, would become much more well known.

Danger Man was a success, but there was no second series, then or not until much later. Though it had been popular in America, where ATV’s Lew Grade ultimately directed all his efforts, American financing for a second series could not be found and the show lapsed.

Until 1964, that is. Danger Man had been sold around the world. What’s more Ian Fleming’s James Bond had become a worldwide star in films, and there was a massive appeal for spy series. Fleming, incidentally had been approached to help define the series but had dropped out without contributing. Smart decided to rethink Danger Man completely.

All that was left of the original set-up was John Drake, Secret Agent. In its new form, Danger Man (still in black-and-white), was re-imagined as a 49 minute episode series, to fit an ITV hour long slot. Drake himself was now British, instead of Irish-American, as he had self-identified once in series 1, and worked for the British Secret Service. Edwin Astley, a popular composer of television theme and incidental music (and future father-in-law of Pete Townsend), was brought in to write a new theme, ‘High-Wire’, which immediately became one of the most thrilling and exciting themes of the Sixties, an era of great television themes that has never been equalled.

And the new Danger Man was a smash. MacGoohan quickly became the highest paid male actor on British TV. The show was a hit in America as well, where it was re-named Secret Agent (to limit the association with series 1 and give the show a new start) and Johnny Rivers recorded a US-only theme, ‘Secret Agent Man’. There were spin-off novels in the usual American fashion. I even read one once.

The new Danger Man ran until 1966, two full series. It was so big that Lew Grade upped the budget to enable the fourth series to be filmed in colour (for America: in Britain, colour was only achievable on BBC2, 625 lines, and not the standard 405 lines on which BBC1 and ITV operated). Former journalist George Markstein, a man with connections to the UK Intelligence Community, was appointed as Script Editor. Two episodes were filmed in colour, and then Patrick MacGoohan resigned.

What followed is now part of Television history, not to mention the subject of my first, series long, in-depth blog series. In February of this year, just before the lockdown struck, I bought a boxset of Danger Man series two and three, the complete run. I’ve been saving it for months, as the next thing up on Tuesday mornings, once I reach the end of Person of Interest. It’s time has come. We start next Tuesday. Listen to this.

Person of Interest: s05 e13 – Return 0

This is the third time I have watched the final episode of Person of Interest. I have watched it desperate to see how it all falls out, I have watched already knowing what fates are determined. This is the first time that I have forced myself to wait a whole week before watching it. This has, as I suspected, been absolute torture, but you should keep your promises, especially those made to yourself.

It’s been torture because I know what happens, especially in two moments where I am bound to cry. I know a man ain’t supposed to cry, Marvin Gaye sang, but these tears I can’t hold inside. And as the years go by and this world gets ever darker, the vulnerabilities build up and fiction touches me in ever deeper places, places I no longer allow reality to encroach upon. I know I am going to be awash with tears as John Reese and Harold Finch meet their inescapable fates. I know when, and why, and that my response is uncontrollable.

We begin at the beginning, Amy Acker’s words as delivered at the start of the season: If you can hear this, you’re alone. The only thing left of us is the sound of my voice. I don’t know if any of us made it. Did we win? Did we lose? I don’t know. Back then, we didn’t know who it was that spoke them, or why, or when.

Begin on a rooftop, with Harold Finch, clearly in pain but under rigid self-control. He has the suitcase, the one that contained the compressed Machine. He has eight and a half minutes until something is overhead. We do not have to wait to see that he is bleeding from a gunshot wound in his belly to know that he is dying, because he is talking to a voice in his head. The voice of the Machine, the voice of Root. It too is dying. Harold Finch sees and hears his creation as Miss Groves. Who tells him, even as all knowledge and learning fades away, what she has learned, about human beings, about what they are and who they can be and how you can’t tell until their end. Everybody dies alone.

And the faces roll by. John Reese, kneeling with a gun to the back of his head. Lionel Fusco, clutching at two holes in his stomach. And Shaw, staring at a gravestone marked only with a number, the last resting place of Root.

It’s all crumbling. Ice9 is spreading. Everything has gone to pieces. John is outed as the Man in a Suit, but the Police plan to execute him and Lionel, until the final shots from offstage, across the harbour, a sniper freeing our two men to follow Finch back to the subway, there to divide into two missions, to divide forever.

Samaritan is trying to preserve itself, a duplicate in an air-spaced server, impervious to the virus. Using the pretence that he is carrying a thermonuclear device, Finch gains access to the server and uploads Ice9. Desperately, Samaritan creates and despatches duplicates. Finch intercepts them all, except one. It will be uploaded to a quarantined satellite.

The only last defence is to upload the duplicate of the Machine to the same satellite, there to fight Samaritan. It has lost billions of simulations: this time it can’t afford to lose. And though Finch has forgotten, it has Root’s modifications, giving it the power to fight. As soon as the upload is done, the building will be destroyed by a rogue Cruise missile. So that only he will die, Harold barricades John in to keep him safe.

The other two, Sameen and Fusco, have been left to defend the Subway, the Machine itself, that stranded Subway train carriage. Samaritan’s men, led by Jeff Blackwell, will attack. The Machine intervenes: the train is live and so is the Tunnel behind the wall. Blow it up, ride away. Blackwell gets on board, shoots Shaw in the arm, is taken out by Fusco.. Shaw examines his bag, forms the impression he’s shot a friend of hers… but as they reach the next station, Blackwell pulls a knife from his boot, sticks Fusco in the gut, twice, runs before Shaw can shoot him.

So we come back to the rooftop on an early, bright morning, Now we know why. Harold the Fisher King, lame from the beginning, wounded honorably. Hallcinating his Machine. Only the Machine has been doing one last job. It has been distracting him. Distracting him from realising that the aerials on the rooftop the Machine has led him to are not sufficient. Not like those on the taller building across the street that he now doesn’t have time to get to. On which stands another man. It is not Harold who will sacrifice himself today. John Reese has had his own deal with the Machine. He is going to pay it all back in one go.

It’s the end of his course. John Reese is going to die now and we are going to watch him die. No bullets will be fired from offscreen this time, no deus ex machina will plot a miraclous escape. Greater love hath no man.

And they come from two directions, and John spins and shoots. The upload goes into space. Harold has left, in time to seek medical aid? But at last a bullet hits Reese. Then another. What Harold the mysterious stranger said in the opening episode comes to pass. John Reese has gone beyond all further regrets before the cruise missile vaporises the rooftop he went to on his final job.

And Samaritan tries to establish itself on the satellite, but the Machine has followed it.

Did we win? The cybercrash is over, and the recriminations start. Senator Garrison, trying to avoid responsibility, claims the threat was of Chinese origin. Oh no it wasn’t, the committee chair contradicts, it was Northern Lights. Either way, it’s moot: the programme is defunct.

Jeff Blackwell packs to go away somewhere, very rapidly, but not rapidly enough. Sameen Shaw enters his apartment. He tries to explain it was nothing personal, just a job. Shaw agrees. She used to do jobs like that. In fact, before she met some people, good people, she would have just shot him. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you to do this, Blackwell tries, hopefully. They wouldn’t, Shaw agrees. But they’re all dead. And she shoots him dead.

Fusco survived too. He and Shaw meet for what’s probably the last time. She comes to collect Bear.

For the third time in this final episode, we witness a small boy standing rigid in the rain at his father’s funeral. His father died a hero saving lives. We cut to the grave of another military man, died 2005: Lawrence Dixon, who ‘died’ when he went into Black-Ops.

The phone rings in the abandoned Subway station. Amy Acker’s voice repeats into a tape-recorder. And screens begin to run, programmes run, a new mission is requested.

John Reese is dead. In a bar in a computer memory, a cop who has had to deliver his thirty fifth message of a death, listens to his partner surmise that everyone dies alone. Except, he says, if someone, even if it’s only one person at all, if someone remembers you, maybe you don’t really die at all. And in Italy, Grace Hendricks is painting with calm and concentration. A man stands looking at her, a few yards away, waiting for her to look up, and recognise him.

And if I can see anything at all by now, so overwhelmed that I am, I see Sameen Shaw, walking Bear in Times Square. A payphone begins to ring. She stares at it, crosses and picks it up. She listens hard. She puts the phone down and starts to walk away. As she does, a smile comes to her face, such a smile as Sameen Shaw has never smiled before.

This is our future. Make of it what you will. And thank you for following me these past two years.

The Infinite Jukebox: Steely Dan’s ‘Midnight Cruiser’

Go back in time and the further you get, the more likely it is that I didn’t hear the songs I recall on The Infinite Jukebox when they first appeared. Of course I heard a lot of Steely Dan when they first appeared: both ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reeling in the Years’ were released as singles in the UK, both got an immense amount of airplay and both were completely ignored by the Great British Record Buying Public. In fact, everything single-wise was ignored except for 1977’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ (I tell a lie: ‘Do It Again’ on reissue in 1975 got to no 35, big whoop).
But despite my familiarity with, and love for these songs from the first time I heard them, I did not buy a Steely Dan album until 1978. At least it was Can’t Buy a Thrill.
And so I finally heard the remainder of that first album, that the New Musical Express had raved over, but which it had described as an album of songs in the way that it’s follow-up, Countdown to Ecstacy was a band album. I knew at last what they meant: smooth, pop-oriented songs, strict structures, verses and choruses and middle-eights and instrumental breaks. This was the business, and ‘Do It Again’s long shuffle and western revenge set-up and ‘Reeling in the Years” collegiate times and ripping guitars were the highlights, one heading up each side in those years when music was in shiny black and turned over on itself.
But there was this other song, buried away as track 4 on side 1, that had all the same qualities as the Dan’s other early songs, of tight playing and a chorus that invited you to lend your own throat, whose lyrics offered the same kind of proto-nostalgic milieu as ‘Reeling in the Years’ but which offered something deeper, something in which the smartarsery of the album found resistance. It was a song that had sentiment at its heart, joyous reflection, a memory of times that were better, or at least fresher. A time that was fun and yet in its way serious, about which there was to be no cynicism.
Oh, it was obvious that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were clever, cleverer than us and knowing of it, and clever enough to be cooler, in on a joke that no-one without their intelligence would ever see, let alone understand. But ‘Midnight Cruiser’ was where it got to them. Where the cleverness remained but it had stopped protecting them.
Polonius, my old friend, Fagen exclaims, step on in and let me shake your hand. The kid, as he’s described in the liner notes (remember them?) is glad to see his old buddy and invites him out: for one more time, let your madness run with mine. They’re not just going out, they’re going back, one last cruise: streets still unseen we’ll find somehow, no time is better than now.
And the song swings into one of those glorious Steely Dan choruses, full of melody and yearning, asking where are you driving midnight cruiser? Where is your bounty of fortune and fame? I am another gentleman loser, drive me to Harlem, or somewhere the same.
But the clue’s already in there, in that reference to Harlem, the long ago hip place of the Jazz Age, where the white folks went for fun and risk, but that Harlem was long since dead in 1972, and it was a vastly different place by then, and only the risk remained.
And with it the regret. The world that we used to know, the Kid muses, people tell me it don’t turn no more (he’s not been to see for himself, unable to bear so direct a disappointment). The places they used to go, familiar faces that ain’t smiling like before, and then comes the climactic conclusion, the dagger to the heart, the sadness that cannot be overcome, for things are not now as they were, and never will they be again, and there’s not a damned thing you can do to alter that, nor to escape from the pain and the loss. The time of our time is come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long.
Oh yes, time, and the illusion that if you’d done this before now, if you hadn’t waited so long, it may all have been there, still alive as you once knew it, waiting for you and Polonius to make it be alive again by being there, by being part of it.
It never was, and no amount of cool can bridge that gap between was and is, nor take away the sense of loss. Where are you driving, Midnight Cruiser? Where have you been and where will you be now, and can you be if this doesn’t exist any more?
And behind the music is the knowledge that without that past, Polonius and the Kid aren’t Polonius and the Kid any more: after this, they will never see, hear or speak to each other again, because the point has been lost.
Steely Dan conjured up the music to tell us what the words alone can’t tell us, that there are things this world will do that no-one can stand up against. I heard that from them in 1978, long after they recorded this poignant song, and I am reminded of it every time I hear it again.
The time of our time is come and gone. I fear we’ve been waiting too long. Is there a sadder lesson to learn?

Sunday Watch: All Quiet on the Preston Front – s01 e05&06

She of the biscuit

The logistics of a working Sunday and the multifarious complications of life as it is now left me thinking I might only manage one episode this week, but let’s go for it, especially as episode 5, ‘Deisel’s Garage’, quickly established itself as a calm-before-the-storm episode, keeping the pot boiling on the major themes of the series and allowing room at last for the more peripheral characters to shine.

Such as Deisel. Tony Marshall’s been a face in the crowd so far, one of the gang, a bit more elevated than the extras but not much more. Now we learn that Deisel and his younger brother Lennie, an excited, enthusiastic and clueless Paul McKenzie, jointly own the petrol station they inherited from their lately deceased Dad, Lol, whose name still adorns the frontage.

Trouble’s brewing. The new petrol station has just opened on Morecambe Road and it’s all-singing, all-dancing and all lights, videos and microwaveable burgers. Deisel’s got competition to worry about. He’s discussing buying lights when the over-eager Lennie excitedly and proudly shows him what he’s bought. They’ve knocked down their Dad’s old church and Lennie’s bought a souvenir, to remember Lol by. It only cost £600. It’s the steeple.

Given that this drastically reduces the amount of money needed for something the garage actually needs, i.e., lights, money is required. so, with everyone drunk after an evening at the TA, Lloydy comes up with an idea. i mention the drunk bit as that’s the only reason Deisel and Spock don’t immediately run screaming to the hills, but instead travel three miles TA-style to Mitch mitchison’s estate to steal back Lloydy’s fish.

Turning that into money demonstrates the inestimable value of an idea via Lloydy, who, incidentally, is inventing a board game that’s a mixture of chess, mah-jong and contract bridge, that’s called ‘Ghurka Tank Battle’.

As for the ‘major’ players, Hodge gets back with Laura without actually saying Kirsty’s his daughter, then goes to visit Jeanetta in Blackpool to ask her to have Laura sing at her forthcoming Conference event, and Eric, having admitted the truth about the Green Dragon outfit (now fished out of the river by an unsuspecting angler) to get back into Dawn’s books, is invited by her to a Corridor party at the Teacher Training College. Caroline Catz has her hair down for the first time this series. She’s handling Eric quite nicely, allowing him to blossom a bit, though the poor bugger’s still so naive that when she gives him the perfect, on their own moment for a first kiss, he doesn’t even see it and shakes her hand instead. You can tell why they nick-named him Eric, can’t you?

Just to mention that Rundle is still holding the live rounds over Polson’s head and then we’re ready for the end of the first series.

And it all worked out in the end, with a bit of nudging to get things to fit in, in the episode ‘Kirsty’s Biscuit’, which referred to a moment of catering improbability that was just like magic: in fact it was the magic that bound up the episode.

A large part of the episode took place in Germany, ostensibly, the TA’s two-week summer camp, including a joint exercise with the Bundeswehr, the German TA, in which Section 2, our brave and noble warriors, hit gold. It was pure gold: Hodge and Eric, in the dark, camoed up to their eyeballs, have an argument over Hodge has lied to Laura about not being involved with getting her the job for Jeanetta. They fight and fall into an advanced Recce post with intelligence that could enable the German CinC to be captured. Rundle changes the plans, Section 2 lead, the capture is spectacular, kudos all around, especially for polson and Rundle, having held his unwanted hold over the Corporal for long enough to remind Polson who is on who’s side, drops the live rounds in the North Sea.

Still on the North Sea but now it’s dark, Eric is wandering disconsolately on deck, avoiding Lloydy trying to get everyone to play Ghurka Tank Battle, finds Dawn. She’s weighed him up all too well, the issues with his father, his innate Eric-ness, and decides to repeat the goodnight scene from the Corridor Party, only this time grabbing his collar, hauling him in and kissing him. A relationship begins. And no, he’s not only going out with her because her nane’s the second half of his favourite film, Zulu Dawn.

Which leaves us one more story to tie down before we can go on our summer holidays. Laura, believing that her job for Jeanetta is all her own work, turns up in Blackpool to discuss specs, not that she has any. She meets Kirsty but doesn’t twig. She goes to the Conference, all bare shoulders and thigh length sparkly blue dress, ready to sing her heart out…

…and Kirsty’s biscuit falls off her plate, lands on edge and rolls. Rolls along hundreds of metres of hotel carpeting, bounces down a flight of stairs without disintegrating (I’m not eating a biscuit that hard!) and into Lauras room, just as her door opens. Magic biscuit. Kirsty follows, recognises the photo of Hodge and, sproing!

It’s the final straw for Laura, who sees everything. Everything, that is, but the bits you don’t see and which have to be explained to you which Jeanetta, figuring she owes Hodge one, explains to her.

So, when all is said and done, Hodge gets back to a loving and knowing girlfriend, who’s given up singing to do Conference catering for and in cahoots with Jeanetta Scarry. Ghurka Tank battle is a hit with Ally and Fraser on one side and Lloydy, Spock and Deisel on the other. Of course, Hodge still has extreme difficulty in actually saying the words that Stevie Wonder called up to say, but hey, there’s a good prospect of a second series, isn’t there?

In fact there was, but that’s for another time. Speaking generally, I’ve enjoyed this first seriwes immensely. It’s densely packed with jokes, many of which are just the normal banter between friends, but even more of which are, to use Clive James’ words, the architecture of the story. This has been the series I gave up on after twenty minutes. the other two series are even so much better and there are things in series 3 that to me are perfect in both comedy and drama.

But that’s for later. Where will I be next Sunday Watch? Wait and see.

Fairytale Time 2020

It’s that time of year again, and it’s getting to be that time of year earlier and earlier. Last week, the first two Xmas singles crashed into the Top 100, the perennials of Mariah Carey and Wham! Long term readers of this blog will know that I take a personal interest each year in one Xmas song, the one that for me is the perfect Xmas song, and the one that has re-charted for the longest sequence in time of any record. Obviously, that is ‘A Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.
Which has today entered the Top 100 at no. 63.
Unfortunately, this time of year is also the time of year for boring arguments about ‘A Fairytale of New York’ with reference to a couple of lines in the lyrics, namely the second verse where MacColl and Shane McGowan’s characters slag each other off. A matter of him calling her an old slut on junk and she responding by calling him, amongst other things, a cheap lousy faggot.
Are these nice things to say? No, of course not. Is McGowan a misogynist and McColl a homophobe? We don’t even know if the characters whose roles in the song they are singing are misogynist or homophobe, or just a couple who have been involved with each other’s rough lives for so long that they will reach for any insult with which to attack the other in their disappointment made acute at the Xmas season.
Does it matter? These are, as I said, not-nice things to say, but this is a world in which people say not-nice things. I have, on many occasions, said not-nice things, even if they were not these particular not-nice things. But people say them, and a certain amount of accepting this is, I think, necessary.
The question of language in ‘A Fairytale of New York’ has once again been taken up by the sledgehammer-to-nuts BBC Bashing Brigade. This year, the BBC have announced a mixed approach: Radio 1 will play a bowdlerised version recorded by The Pogues and Kirsty in 1992, Radio 2 will play the original and DJ’s on 6 Music will play whichever version they prefer. One local radio DJ – there’s always one, isn’t there? – has already vowed not to play it at all and described it as a ‘nasty, nasty record’: I need hardly tell you my response to that, do I?
And the Guardian, forever eager to build mountains up out of social molehills, has convened a panel of radio listeners to debate if the BBC should censor the record at all. My opinion? SFW. The record is the record. I have owned it since 1987 and I play it whenever I want. I really don’t care what they do on the radio, any radio, the song is thereby untouched. And, to be very honest, have people completely lost the ability to make up their mind for themselves about something that, at base, is entirely personal?
That’s what worries me most. Since when does someone else’s opinion about a piece of music matter so much? Can nobody think for themselves any more? If you like, great. Play it, enjoy it, be moved by it as I am. If you don’t like it, pass by it, as I do Mariah Carey and Wham! We’ve got too many more important things to worry about this year than a bloody Xmas song.

Lou Grant: s05 e12 – Review

We’re now halfway through the final series of Lou Grant‘s final season and after last week’s stumer, we had a three-cornered story in which all three elements came together in a technically and logically satisfying completion.

We began with a confusing open, in which a photographer is allowed by the Sheriff’s office to enter a private residence and take copious photos. The place is a mess, a complete craphole. The photis show this clearly. This is og peripheral importance to the overall story but it makes a point that resonated strongly with me, with particular regard for the actions of the British mainstream press this last several decades.

I’ll beat that drum a bit later on. For now, let me establish the cornerstones of our plot. In order of appearance these consist of Charlie Hume being appointed to the Western States News Council, a journalism self-regulating body, Mrs Pynchon persuading Billie Newman to write her memoir for a book of profiles, and Joe Rossi and Ruben Delgado bringing to Lou Grant a copied tape of Councilman Garbers telling anti-Latino jokes.

The story spaces out its threads carefully. Charlie’s first experience of the Council is in considering the case from the opn. He’s met with barely-concealed hostility by Dean of Law Doctor Meredith Hall-Sutton (Karen Carlson) who, it rapidly transpires, has a grudge against the LA Tribune.

Billie’s only agreed to do Mrs Pynchon’s memoir if she has a free hand, if she can treat it as an unfettered story. Mrs Pynchon bombards her with facts, and talks with an affecting wistfulness of her life with Matthew Pynchon, when she was a socialite with no cares or responsibility. But when it comes to the transition, when Matthew, fifteen years older than her, died and she transitioned into the unexpected role of Publisher, naive, inexperienced, terrified, this is something Mrs Pynchon glosses over, brushes off, deflects.

And there’s Rossi and Ruben’s story. Garbers threatens to ue and is told the patrician equivalent of ‘do one sunbeam’. So he raises a complaint to the News Council.

There are mixed feelings about the News Council. Charlie believes in it as a good. Mrs Pynchon supports it financially. Lou and Rossi hate it, regarding it as a ridiculous intrusion upon their professional judgement, by misguided laymen who don’t understand Journalism.

Here is where I get to bang my drum. The Council debates the photos taken in the open. They are accurate, they are honest, and as such both the editor of the paper printing them, together with Lou, Rossi and Animal, regard them as unimpeachable. They show an old man who’s a dirty slob, a dirty house, uncooked food on his stove, unwashed dishes in his sink, piles of comic books around. This is called slant. It’s the lousy, miserable, dirty and vicious practice of only telling those parts of the story that support the biased point you’re trying to make.

The old man was a victim of an airplane crash. He was fying to Germany for the first time in forty years bcause he’d been notified his sister had had a heart attack, and didn’t have long left. He didn’t have time to finish cooking, or clean, or wash pots before heading to the airport.he bought comics for his grandchildren but read them himself first to make sure they weren’t too violent. Slob? Deranged? Feeble-minded? Not when you knew all the story, not when you knew the parts the newspaper didn’t print. And Lou and Rossi supported this? I don’t. I hate and loathe it. Tell the fucking truth, you bastards!

End of banged drum.

So the Trib attends the hearings. Doctor Hall-Sutton remains hostile. Charlie recuses himself. Billie digs deeper into the transition period. There’s an old clipping that refers to Matthew’s presumed successor, Managing Editor Jack Hall. So Billie goes to visit Lou’s nightmare, former City Editor Thea Taft (played by Margaret Hamilton, the Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, in the penultimate role of her life). Thea tells her that everyone expected Jack, a very popular, very knowledgeable, very sexy man, to take over, but one day, after a meeting in Mrs Pynchon’s office, he was gone, for good. Lost everything after twenty dedicated years. Never made it back. Left a daughter behind him, Merry. Not Mary, Merry. Short for Meredith.

And suddenly everything clicks into place as one whole story. Charlie persuades Dr Hall-Suton to abstain, though the vote goes overwhelmingly against the Trib anyway. And Billie pushes Mrs Pynchon into a moment of anger, a threat that Billie not merely resign from the memoir but from the Trib…

It’s a moment of shock, to none more so than Margaret Pynchon, taking her back to that day in her office with Jack Hall. She tries to explain how it was to Billie, how in those days things were limited for women. She was a socialite in her forties, with a husband fifteen years older. The ‘good times’ were supposed to be over for a woman her age. But here was Hall, attractive, sexy, growing closer. Nothing had happened but the signposts were there. And Hall was ambitious. He wanted to be Publisher, all or nothing. It isn’t quite said in so many words but he gave her the feeling that all his… attentiveness had had this as its purpose. She doubted. She fired him. On her first exercise of power she abused it. And she has rigidly refused to do that ever since.

So all things fall together. Billie needed to know to write the story but she didn’t need to write that part (I can’t help but reflect that we are once again back to the topic of slant). And the Trib won’t sit down under censure. but all of this aftermath is just that, aftermath without consequence, a way to ease out of the story and cue up the closing music.

An illuminating episode, though I doubt that the light I saw shining was meant to enter the corners where I saw it. Sometimes the important message is not the one you meant to send.