Thursday, July 7, 2011

This One's For You

It turns out that one of the benefits of age…although there are too few to mention, at least at my point in life, where you realize that youth was wasted on the young but have yet to assume the role of cranky yet beloved Grandpa…is that you become more comfortable not being cool.

This is why I interrupt the usual gravity of this blog to announce that not only has Barry Manilow just released his first album of all-new material in a decade entitled “15 Minutes,” but also to come out of the honeysuckled arbor and admit that I am an unabashed Barry Manilow fan. Close friends have likely suspected for some time, but only now, when I have reached the age of accepting my own inherent dweebity, do I have the strength to admit it to the world.

There. I said it. And they’re right. It does feel better to be out in the open.

I was a bit too young to be part of the first wave of Manilow Mania, being only 12 when “Mandy” hit the charts. My earliest young musical tastes centered around whatever 45’s Mike Mitchell, a grade school friend who is now an actual real live Professor of Music, played on his hi-fi (that’s how I know about The Cranberries, although of course I had no idea what “Go All The Way” was about), and by whatever Saturday morning cartoon shows were running through my head. The latter explains my continued infatuation with The Archies, The Osmonds, and The Jackson Five, as well as the fact that I still know that:

“The Cattanooga Cats don’t ever purr.
They know how, but not what fer.
The Cattanooga Cats won’t go meow, say meow.
Wouldn’t try, but they know how!
Just doin’ their thing (chu-ba-da, chu-ba-da)”

Later, the music that I knew was based on whatever teen idol’s posters my friends David Brown (grade school) and Doug Reynolds (junior high) and I could tear down from the walls of their respective sister’s bedrooms. This is why I am intimately familiar with the musical catalogue of both The Partridge Family and Bobby Sherman. As a personal note to Karen and Crary, I’m deeply sorry for my part in those episodes. Just for the record, it was ALWAYS your brother’s ideas.

(As some of you may know, Bobby Sherman later became an EMT and served as a CPR trainer with the Los Angeles Police Department, which I think redeems this bit of musical nostalgia within the ER doc’s blog.)

I came to know Barry Manilow in high school, where he was a ubiquitous part of the slow dance scene. Understand that at that age, the best thing a nerd’s hormones can hope for is a slow dance with a girl. Not any girl…there are still standards… but an actual real live double X chromosome girl with breasts that might press up against you as you danced. And Barry came with me through college. Children these days will find it hard to believe, but there was a time when if an evening was going well, three Manilow albums and half a box of wine could seal the deal.

In gratitude for his help, I’ve been a loyal follower through the years. I’m not going to say that everything he does is great. He can’t do rock and he can’t do latin. “I Made it Through the Rain” drives me crazy because I keep thinking he should get a damn umbrella. I’m not too fond of “I Write the Songs,” because I have this vision that if the first caveman who created music by banging their clubs on rocks saw Barry, they’d have turned their clubs on another target. But most of his stuff is pretty good and eminently sing-a-long-able, and some of his pieces are pretty close to perfect. “Even Now” is one of the truest ruminations on past relationships that I know. His best song ever…and one I want played at my funeral, if anybody’s taking notes…is “When October Goes,“ with music by Manilow and lyrics by the legendary Johnny Mercer. It is simply the finest musical meditation ever on aging, love, life, and ultimately the futility of it all. Flippin’ brilliant.

I’ve actually seen Barry twice. The first time was in Jacksonville when he was touring with his last album of new material, “Here at the Mayflower.” It was a good show, most notable for the fact that at one point during the song Weekend in New England…and specifically at the line “When can I touch you?”…someone in the balcony screamed out, “RIGHT NOW BARRY!” Blissfully plugged into their headphones, the band played on, but Barry himself stopped playing and started laughing as if he’d never heard that line before. (The concert also stays in my mind because I lost a bet. I figured that Barry Manilow was so popular there would be at least twenty people of color in the audience of several thousand. Turns out there were eight, auditorium staff not counted. It was like counting minority representation within NASCAR fans. But at least Barry has Oprah.)

The second time was in Las Vegas three years ago, when he was playing the MGM Grand. This was your standard Vegas show, somewhat more intimate than a ten thousand seat arena. Put simply, Barry puts on a great show. He sings what you want him to sing, he involves the audience, he screws up from time to time, he laughs and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He seems genuinely baffled that people still come to see him, and genuinely grateful that they actually still do. Most of the audience that particular night was comprised of “Barry’s Angels,” a fan club dressed in white, some with handcrafted cardboard wings duct-taped to their back. The Bride was clearly the youngest person in the audience, and even at my advanced age I wasn’t that far behind. When two of the fan club ladies asked what brought us to the theater, I reminisced about the past utility of Barry and a bottle to ensure a good night, and they nodded their heads, a faraway longing in their eyes.

The great thing about the Vegas show was that you could see Barry up close. That’s how you can tell he’s had botox. From the corner of the mouth up, he looks perfect. From the corner down, where he can’t have botox because unless Senor Wences is involved the last time I checked singing required actually movement of the mouth, he looks like an old jowly Jewish guy. Which, of course, is what he is.

(Speaking of Senor Wences, remember how he used to draw a couple of eyes on his hand, outline his thumb and index finger with lipstick, stick some hair on the whole thing and then talk to his friend Johnny? My brother got off a good line a few years back when our discussion turned to lonely guys indulging in self-pleasure. He immediately whipped out a pen, drew two dots on his hand for eyes, and made the hand say “It’s horrible! He makes me touch him! Arrrrgggghh!” Okay, maybe it was funnier at the time.)

I knew Barry was probably older than I thought, but didn’t realize until I read in the USA Today article about his new album that he was almost 68 years old. That produced a pause. Sixty-eight is only 7 years younger than my Dad, whose musical talents are limited to a few folks songs on the ukulele (none of them Hawaiian) and an enthusiastic but rousing chant of the family anthem, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.” And the article also said that Barry is intent on keeping his private life private, as he should. Yes, I’ve heard the rumor that maybe he’s gay, but it really doesn’t matter. Besides, as a nice Jewish boy, he wouldn’t do that to his mother. No matter where she is today, I know she’s still hoping he’ll settle down with a nice girl, have a child or two, and invite her over once a week for a nice Shabbos dinner. Trust me, it’s what they do.

And while we’re making musical confessions, let me also state for the record that I have a man crush on Tom Jones. I’ve always contended that The Lord speaks in several voices. When he’s imparting knowledge, he sounds like Charlton Heston. When he’s pissed off, he sounds like James Earl Jones. When he wants to express love, he sounds like Barry White. And when he wants to propagate the species, he brings on Tom Jones.

(For the record, I am not sexist about the Voice of G-d. When The Lord expresses either compassion or wants you to feel guilty as sin, the voice is exactly that of your mother.)

I’ve seen Tom twice, each time up close at a relatively small venue, and he is simply masterful. It’s true that women still throw their underwear at him, although some of his fans are now old enough that one wonders if girdles and support hose hold quite the same attraction as lacy bras and panties did before. Nonetheless, both his voice and his sex appeal are fully intact. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear a conversation at the table next to us when The Bride and I saw him in Vegas. Shortly after the first song, the wife noted that if Sir Tom beckoned to her, she was going back to his dressing room no matter what. And her husband of many years replied that he would be happy to let her, to know that someday he might also have what Sir Tom had once received. That’s not unusual, is it?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Death of a Dream

Where there is no vision, the people perish. - Proverbs 29:18.

It’s a week before the final launch of the shuttle Atlantis, and I’m watching a PBS show on the Columbia disaster. The thirteen year old boy sitting ten feet away wants to know why I won’t turn it off to look at a funny internet video. I don’t know how to explain to him that retrospectives are all I have left of my childhood dreams of space. And thanks to the Obama Administration’s dismantling of America’s manned spaceflight program, he won’t even have that.

This is such a visceral issue for me that I’m not even sure how to write about it. I was a kid of the Apollo era. While the generation before me remembers the moments when President Kennedy was shot, and the one after benchmarks at 9/11, for my group our touchstones were in space. We remember Apollo 8’s reading of Genesis from space, and the grainy pictures of Apollo 11 on the moon. (Most of us can still recite the first words from the moon.) We remember that these things happened late at night, and most of us saw them with our parents in the living room or in our beds, the whole family living a moment together. We were the ones who stayed awake past bedtimes to follow Apollo 13. We saw the Challenger explode before our eyes, and felt loss a second time with the Columbia. We learned about daring, tragedy, perseverance, and triumph.

Through space, we saw a dream that we all could share. And while many of us, in our childhood ways, wanted to be astronauts, we also knew that just by being an American we were part of that dream. For those of us raised on space, who knew that our future as a nation would take us forward, upward, and outward, manned space flight was not just about boosters and capsules and lunar rocks in a Plexiglass case. For us, the space program was a fundamental part of being an American, about who we could be as individuals, as a people, as a nation. And today, where we’re all adults and our wide-eyed optimism has been tempered by the cynicism induced by moneyed interests and political hacks, watching the Space Shuttle rise from the pad was our last symbol of hope, a final sign that perhaps working together, we could be something larger than what we are.

To be sure, I’m not harboring any illusions about the space program as a whole. For a while I worked in an affiliate support role with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I have friends who’ve worked in NASA facilities in both Florida and Houston. The space program has not been perfect. There have been problems with design, safety, fiscal care, and mission management. The planned Constellation program undoubtedly had issues to overcome. And while the space program no doubt accelerated technology, I’m certain that we’d still have personal computers, Tang, and Velcro even without Apollo. I also believe wholeheartedly in the unmanned exploration of the solar system and beyond, and would certainly acknowledge that there are a whole host of tasks that robots can do faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than humans.

But to try to elucidate practical reasons for the space program is to completely ignore why we go into space. We go into space because, to paraphrase President Kennedy, not because it is easy but because it is hard. We do it because it gives us something that we may not achieve, but to which we can always aspire. We do it because the infinite reaches of space continually stretch our goals and our imaginations. We do it because only by contemplating the vastness and antiquity of the universe can we address the fundamental questions of the uniqueness of humanity.

We do it because, as Americans, we explore. We expand. We learn. We go farther. And we need men and women to be our vanguard of exploration, because we can’t invest our hearts and souls in a bucket of bolts. We need people to take the risks, to go up and come back and tell us how space feels and looks and tastes and smells, people whose voices we can hear and whose hands we can shake. Space is all about aspiration, inspiration, and destiny. It’s about man.

There’s a practical, and a political, side to this as well. What the administration has done is not just to cut NASA’s budget, but also put thousands of people out of work in the midst of a jobless recovery. It’s hard to fathom that it’s okay to bail out moneyed interests on Wall Street and the auto industry in Detroit, but not consider those workers who support the space program. And if it’s not galling enough that the space program has been wrenched from the imagination of the American people, the President had the nerve to want to come to Florida to see the final launch of the shuttle Endeavor. This is hypocrisy at it’s finest. He’s making sure that he gets to see what he’ll be taking from the rest of us before it’s gone. But hey…it would also be a potential photo op with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly. From what I understand about Rep. Giffords, she’s pretty sharp. I’m sure she would have figured the politics, but scorned the posturing. (While I am not a “birther” by any means, perhaps this is one occasion when President Obama’s childhood abroad during the pivotal years of Apollo puts him out of touch with the rest of us.)

The Obama decision to defund the manned space program has utterly destroyed the idea of a national dream at a time when Americans need to unite more than ever. We’re divided politically, with honest disagreement traded for extremism and hate. Class and income gaps are widening, the standard of living is falling, and the American quilt is being torn into a raft of self-focused groups. We’re a people who find fault in other but deny responsibility, and instead of one nation under G-d we’re becoming a nation of ones unto ourselves. What could always unite Americans was a dream. First it was Liberty, Manifest Destiny, the Great American Melting Pot. For my generation, it was the conquest of space. A nation that was built on exploring frontiers, on doing that which no one has done before, now has no outlet for it’s boundless energies and no single goal to unite the country at a time when those forces are increasingly turned inward in destructive ways. Our leaders are taking from us something very real and precious, and replacing it with nothing.

And so my son is likely to be more absorbed in the world within his room more than the heavens above, engaging the universe through electrons and keyboards and not in real time, in a life devoid of real dreams and real heroes. Sadly, despite my best efforts, he’ll likely have no idea what he’s missing. But given the fundamental lack of vision from our leaders, perhaps that’s exactly the point.