John Ostrander: Scattershot – Past / Present
Perhaps it’s a sign of aging when you’re more attuned to what came before than what’s going on now, especially in entertainment. Oh, I’m up on what’s going on with movies and TV (less so in music) and I certainly have my faves in those areas. Recently, however, I’ve been re-discovering some music I’d had before, some TV I had seen when I was a boy, and have found that some of my favorite movies were created before I was born. This column is a grab-bag (hence "scattershot" — it’ll be our code for columns that have a variety of topics) of some of those. Given the age of the material, these are probably less reviews than post-mortems.
• We Five came out of San Francisco about 1965 when I was still in high school. If you know this folk-rock group at all, it will be for their one big hit, "You Were On My Mind". I not only loved their big single, I bought their two albums, the first named for the hit single and the second was "Make Someone Happy". They broke up after the second album and later reformed with new members. I’ve discovered that the reformed We Five still plays venues today.
The reformed We Five was nice and did some memorable stuff but, for me, it was the original We Five that means the most because they were powered by the voice of their remarkable female lead singer, Beverly Bivens. She had a remarkable vocal and emotional range and was able to do folk, rock, blues, and showtunes. I played the hell out of those two albums until I wore not only them out but the album covers as well. I couldn’t replace them because, at the time, there was no place to go to find a replacement once a group had stopped being popular.
I’d heard lots of rumors connected to the dissolution of the original group — Bivens left music because her fiancee had died, she herself had died in a motorcycle accident, the usual rock stuff. The latter seemed probable to me at the time because I never heard her again. It seemed to me, being such a remarkable talent and having such a wonderful voice, that Ms. Bivens would go solo or find another group. She came out of the same era as Grace Slick and Janis Joplin and, in my opinion, I would have ranked her with both of them. I mourned her.
Within the last year, thanks to the Internet, I learned the truth. She quit. She married a jazz musician and settled down and stopped performing. The original We Five fell apart largely through bad management. The group does have a site on the Internet where I was able to pick up the truth about all of it.
Even better, I discovered that those first two LPs were now released onto a single CD. I had to have that. Past reason or discussion, like an addict for a fix, more than I ever wanted chocolate, I wanted that CD!
At the same time, I was a little trepidatious. There are things that I loved when I was a kid and later, on returning to it, discovered that – eh, it wasn’t so hot. Would the reality of it mess up my memories of those two LPs?
I listened to it as soon as I could tear it open on receiving it through the mail. It was a strange effect. It was me listening to it but I was aware of me listening to those songs back in the Sixties. I was Me Now and Me Then. Part of the pleasure was in meeting an old friend, in a way, and of genuine enjoyment but also of I connecting with my emotions today. At the same time, I remembered how I felt then, how I responded then to the music. My needs back then weren’t my needs today; I brought different sensibilities to the music now although I still found the same joy in the music itself.
The two LPs are widely eclectic and it may be that eclecticism that ultimately did them in. It was hard to hang an identity on them. They did "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. They did "Inch Worm". They did songs that Roberta Flack would later cover and become better known for — "Softly As I Leave You" and "The First Time" — and while Ms. Flack sings these songs wonderfully, I prefer the versions that We Five did. The group also did "Let’s Get Together" which Youngblood would do later to great acclaim. We Five’s version is infinitely better — it has life, energy, a better rhythm, and Bev doesn’t sing it through her nose. Bev wails the blues on "High Flying Bird"; she makes "Softly As I Leave You" sweet, gentle, sad, and poignant.
The second of the two LPs was issued after the group split up and that’s too bad; it could have used a little more polish. If the group had continued, they would’ve needed a more coherent – figured out a direction and taken it. All that being said — I love this CD. Some of the old treasures do stand up. And it gives me a glimpse of who I was some 35 years ago. Hell of a bargain.
• David Crosby these days winds up, often as not, as a punchline to a joke. He was revealed to be the sperm donor for Melissa Etheridge’s baby and millions wondered, "WHY would you pick David Crosby?" Bloated, rehabbed a few times, one could forget that he was part of the Byrds and a founding member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young) and the glorious music that he made. And none more glorious than this, his first solo LP, originally recorded in 1971.
As with the We Five LPs mentioned above, this was a favorite of my younger days and, like them, one in which I not only wore out the groove on the record but the album cover itself from taking the LP in and out so often. It featured soaring harmonies such as Crosby’s work on the Byrds and CSN(Y) but also improvisations and some cuts that were mostly instrumental but had wordless vocalizations in them.
And this, like the We Five LPs, was lost to me for a long time and only recently restored. I happened to chance on Bob Edwards’ Saturday show on NPR when he was interviewing Crosby and learned that not only was the LP being re-released on CD from Rhino but that the sound was cleaned up and re-mastered and even had a bonus cut!
I lost no time locating and buying this CD, either. And, once again, I approached it with both anticipation and dread – it meant a lot to me when I was in my early twenties. Would it mean as much now that I’m in my late fifties?
Listening to it again for the first time in decades was just pure pleasure. It was familiar to me from all those repeated listenings and, as a result, a real joy. It was also new because the CD re-mastered the original and my sound system now is better so I just hear things I’d never caught before.
What is also amazing are the musicians pitching in from both Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead — Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Jack Casady and more. Joni Mitchell soaring over the top on one cut. Incredible!
I could name you some of my favorite cuts, such as "Orleans", "Laughing", "What Are Their Names", but for me there is no bad cut. The next time I listen I may hear something else new and my list of faves might change.
And I am different from who I was back then. Music, then and now, can have a deep effect on me. I was once in a deep depression and I found that repeat listenings — and I mean repeat as in over and over and over again — of Copland’s Appalachian Spring brought me out of it. Music can summon up an emotion that can sometimes create an image which can in turn lead to a story idea. There is the music that I listen to because I like it and there is the music that I listen to because it is affecting me, connecting to some emotions that I cannot yet name.
This LP was like that for me back then. My connection was not only based on the LP itself but what it raised in me. I played it over and over until I was sated and the LP itself was used up.
David Crosby makes great use of an echo chamber on this CD and I have one of my own when I hear it. Some of those old feelings remain and the CD still speaks to them. I’ve also changed and it speaks to me in new ways. It’s like a strange stereo – as if in one ear I hear the music as I was and in the other ear I hear it as I am now.
For me, art is always about a connection. There is what the creator brings to it but there is also what the audience, the receiver, brings to it. For example, I cannot tell you what any of my stories are about; I can tell you only what I think they are about, what I intended, what I brought to it. My reader tells me what it means to them and that is always a combination of what is there and what they bring to it.
Art isn’t merely about self-expression, IMO. A crying baby is expressing itself. The art is created in the communication, in the connection. It may begin as a person expression but becomes a more universal statement as it connects with a wider range of people.
I have no doubt that Crosby started from very specific ideas that he wanted to express but he created something that has a beautiful life of its own, one that spoke to me as a young man and speaks to me now.
• Encore TV on cable has a Westerns Channel and on it they also do some of the old TV shows from the 50s and 60s, including The Rifleman which starred Chuck Connors. It, like others such as Have Gun – Will Travel, Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Bat Masterston, and my much loved Zorro, were in black and white and a half hour long, minus commercials.
I always liked The Rifleman when I was a kid. He had a great weapon and he used it well, a really good theme song, and the opening credits had him rip off a series of shots so that, no matter how the story turned out, you got to see him use the rifle.
The title character was Lucas McCain who was played by Chuck Connors, who was tall, squint eyed, and not very handsome, to be honest. His character was a widower with a ten year old boy named Mark (played by Johnny Crawford), he lived on a ranch near a town, and had a rep for being as quick and sure with his rifle as others were with a six-gun. All part of the show’s lore.
Part of the fun of the show — and some of the other westerns — is seeing actors guesting on it that would go on to other, sometimes bigger, things. Recently I spotted — in separate episodes — Lee Van Cleef and a very young Dennis Hopper.
What has struck me overall, not only about The Rifleman but many of the other Westerns of this era is how well the writing holds up. There is at last an attempt to deal with issues and the characters have some psychological complexity. Yeah, sometimes they have to resort to tricks to find a way to keep the Rifleman away from his rifle, lest the show end too soon. But this isn’t mindless fare.
One episode of The Rifleman deals with an Argentinean family who moves into the area and the show addresses anti-Latino prejudice. The son of the new owner is a gaucho and is himself bitter with Anglos. Yet he and Luke McCain’s son, Mark, are forced into a situation where they become friends. Mark at first gets caught up with other kids in anti-Latino slurs until his father catches him at it. The viewer learns something about the gaucho who, despite his difference in costume, is treated with respect.
The episode isn’t perfect. I don’t think a Latino is playing the gaucho and he is depicted as something of a hothead, thus playing into stereotype as well. But, given its time, it’s surprising to me how sympathetic it is to the gaucho and his culture. The white racist in the story is not at all sympathetic.
The episodes I’ve seen also seem to provide good lessons for writing episodic adventures, especially comics. Each episode is stand alone; you can see one without having to have seen really any other. There is a standard supporting cast that appears faithfully in most if not all the episodes. It sets up the problem, airs some questions, twists the plot reasonably well most times, and returns everything to the status quo. If you ever need to know how to do a good fill-in script for a comic, study a show like this.
Chuck Connors does a very good job of playing a hero — he’s strong but not invulnerable. His character is smart when he needs to be and doesn’t always rely on the rifle. Connors emits a bone deep decency without being cornball. He’s a stern father in the manner of the era but there is no question that his character deeply loves his son and is loved in return.
I also saw something very interesting on an episode of Bat Masterson. The character is based on a real life lawman in the West and this episode (my guess is that it was from early in the series) re-told one of the legends connected with him. When it was over, the star — Gene Barry — came back to address the audience as Gene Barry, telling them a bit more about the real Bat Masterson, and then said there was another version of that same legend with an alternate ending — which they then also performed as part of that night’s episode! Well, you don’t see that on TV anywhere these days!
Is The Rifleman or any of the other adult westerns of the era great television? Maybe not. They’re all part of a genre and they all have their formula. It is however, really good TV and I’d sooner watch an episode of The Rifleman than a lot of the new shows that dot the TV wasteland right now.
• Okay, just one the great films of all times with one of the greatest scores of any musical anywhere. Just one great song after another. Terrific performances, iconic characters, a lot of wit in the script, and those flying damn monkeys still creep the shit out of me.
It also has two of the best special effects in the movies — one of which I as not even aware of the first maybe dozen times I saw it. I didn’t originally see it in the movie theater — like most kids of my era, I saw it originally on TV and that meant a black and white TV. So when Dorothy first opens the door onto Oz, the Technicolor special effect on stepping into Oz from the "real" world was totally lost on me — until we got our first color TV. Then I finally got it.
What a brilliant special effect that is as well. Just a door opening into color. What a wonderful, simple way of telling us we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The other major special effect is that damned tornado. It remains one of the best if not the best depictions of a tornado on film — Twister notwithstanding. Yes, I know all about what the twister really is and how they created it and I don’t care. That’s a scary ass damn twister dancing around in the background. It worked when I was a kid and it work now every time I see it.
For me, Wizard of Oz also has one of the most heroic moments on film. Go ahead and laugh; I’ll stand by the statement. Dorothy has been caught by the Wicked Witch and is imprisoned in her castle. The only ones to get her out are her three friends — the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion. Oh, and her little dog, too. Time is running out on some sort of unspecified menace that will kill her. I’m not sure to this day what it is but that damn red sand is running through the hourglass and keeps getting lower!
The three companions have gotten hold of uniforms belonging to the Wicked Witch’s guard and, as the changing of the guard completes and the music swells, the trio march in behind the guard as the drawbridge is drawn up behind them. They figure they’re probably going to their doom but none of them, not even the Cowardly Lion, can just leave Dorothy to face her fate alone. All out of love.
Yes, part of it all is that incredible music at that moment but, for any character, it’s knowingly risking your life for another that defines heroism. We know they’re going to be okay; The Wizard of Oz is not one of those films that is going to end badly. The characters, however, don’t know that and, for all the movie’s fun and lightness and humor, I think that is a moment of real heroism and I get goose pimply every time I watch it. I did as a kid; I understand why as an adult.
• Possibly my favorite film of all time. In recent years, I was teaching two classes of writing at the Kubert School and each class had two sections. I made all four sections watch the film which meant that within one week I saw Casablanca four times. I got something new from it each time I saw it.
I was lucky in that the first time I saw the movie, it was in a movie house with all those amazing images on a large screen. I had put it off seeing it for years in college; I’ve always been somewhat stubborn. Tell me I have to see or read something and I’m apt to refuse — especially if it’s what everyone else is doing at the time.
I saw it with a theater full of people who knew it and loved it. They cheered with the singing of the Marseillaise. They cheered again with "Round up the usual suspects." They laughed in unison at all the great lines and reacted to all the great characters as if they were old friends. It was the perfect audience with which to be introduced to this great film.
Later I would see it by myself and I own the laserdisc and then the DVD of it. I marveled at the restored version and how crisp and beautiful the black and white images were. I got swept up originally in the story’s intrigue, in its romance, in its wonderful characters down to the small parts like Sasha. It’s only much, much later than I came to understand what the movie is really about.
Casablanca isn’t about those "letters of transit" although they are a dandy version of what Hitchcock called the "MacGuffin". It isn’t about whether or not Ilsa and Rick wind up together. It is the story of a man who has died and is slowly, painfully, coming back to life. It’s not about redemption; it’s about rebirth. Rick is reactive throughout most of the film; non-involved, he sticks his neck out for nobody. It’s only in the final act that he initiates action — and once he does, the film steamrollers towards it climax.
I know the stories behind Casablanca. The film makers, at the time they made it, weren’t trying for art or a great film; they were trying to make this one work, to grind it out. Yet something happened along the way to create what is a work of art that does speak to the human condition and continues to speak to and engage its audience. If not, it would have been forgotten long ago.
As I mentioned above, film, like any other work of art, reflects what we as audience, as viewer, as receiver bring to the equation. I hear as myself now but I also hear as who I was then. I am that younger man and yet very different from him. There are things that I cared for earlier that no longer work for me; some of them do work now but at different and maybe deeper levels.
I won’t say that younger man is a stranger to me; I can certainly recognize him. I wonder if he would recognize me, however. If, as younger men and women, we met our older selves, could we recognize ourselves? Could we bear to? If you, reader, are in your twenties, do you think you could recognize yourself in your fifties in you met yourself? Would you want to? Or are you in denial — as perhaps I was — that you could ever get that old?
We would have things to talk about, however, my younger self and I. The We Five, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, David Crosby, The Rifleman and more. There are pleasures we share that haven’t diminished, that haven’t died. That last a whole life long.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. John’s column is a weekly presence here at ComicMix.