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The Quiet Presence of Celebrity

17 May

PPM-blur

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A man who sold millions of records in his lifetime and entertained hundreds of thousands sat on his guitar case on the sidewalk in front of the funeral parlor. He was about three hours from his New York home and may have been waiting for an Uber to the train station. Everyone else either went home or got in their cars for the procession to the cemetery. They walked by him and around him. He seemed old, frail and alone.

The funeral was for my friend, who was also his friend. The deceased was accomplished but not famous. This was not a celebrity funeral. It took place in a quiet suburban town. About 150 people attended.

My friend had been many things in life, most notably a newspaper man. As a journalist he met famous people. He eventually struck up a friendship with a trio of folk singers who were wildly famous in the 60s and even after. The group was so well-known it popularized Bob Dylan songs in a way Dylan never could. As I entered the narrow hallway of the funeral parlor, I saw the musician, one of the two surviving members of the trio, trying to make his way through the crowd. Even at 80 he was recognizable to me. He was being unceremoniously jostled, as was I, but with a guitar in hand and extra age on his body he was finding it difficult to maneuver. I waited for people to treat him in some special way, to acknowledge him and greet him, but at that moment no one did. He eventually made his way to a room off from the viewing area where there was coffee and snacks.

After an hour or so, the service began. All seats were taken. People were standing. A few more chairs were brought in and the singer managed to get one near me. He sat down precariously. The hand holding his guitar was shaking.

The famous folk trio he belonged to broke up in 1970 and thereafter would frequently reunite, perform and even record. Years ago, my friend wrote a lyric about the Irish-English conflict and sent it to him. The performer wrote music for it, and his trio recorded the song – Fair Ireland – in 1990. After three eulogies, the singer took the microphone, talked about our friend, and sang Fair Ireland. His shaking hand had settled.

The song opens with the verse:

They build bombs and aim their pistols in the shadow of the cross
And they swear an oath of vengeance to the martyrs they have lost
But they pray for peace on Sundays with a rosary in each hand
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland

It ends with:

So we’re left with retribution it’s the cycle of the damned
And the hope becomes more distant as the flames of hate are fanned
Who will listen to the children for they’re taught to take their stand
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
Only love and real forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland

There was gentle applause. The singer retook his seat, and the service ended.

I imagine that after a life of intense fame and a loss of privacy, achieving semi-anonymity in old age is welcome. Nonetheless, I felt deep sorrow for the entertainer, possibly a carryover from the sorrow I felt for my friend, but still altogether different. I fully understand that generations pass, that what once was popular fades, and that value and esteem can evaporate. But there is this hope that dignity remains intact. Seeing the musician alone, sitting on his guitar case, waiting for something, I wanted to offer him a ride as a way to preserve his dignity. That would have meant leaving my place in the funeral procession, so I didn’t do it.

 

From my car window I could see he was weary, worn and sad. In his early years, he had traveled the world. He married and then divorced. He had two children. There was a problem with alcohol and drugs. In the 70s he was arrested on a sex charge but pardoned by the president of the United State. I wouldn’t have felt so bad if he had just come down from New York with a friend, anyone, younger or just as old. It didn’t matter. Just someone there for support.

He most certainly has people in New York. I only wish I could have seen one. To me, that would have made his past life more meaningful, more joyful. As the long funeral procession pulled away, I was at least happy that my departed friend, highly successful, had his success elevated by intense love and caring. In the end, he was not alone, and had never been alone. This, one learns, is the enviable life.

 

The Old Myths Have Faded; New Ones Are Needed

11 Apr

 

Homer

Homer, the blind poet

 

Zeus, most powerful of the Olympic gods, is the protector of guests. Remember this when you sit down at diner with enemies.

 

An ancient Greek tradition requires you to be hospitable to all who visit under your roof, be they friends or enemies. This honored and revered tradition is known as Xenia. If a guest is not treated properly, Zeus could intervene on their behalf.

abduction-of-helen

The abduction of Helen

Paris of Troy ignored Xenia and ignited a war when he ran off with Helen, the wife of his Greek host.  In recent times, a ghastly violation of Xenia was depicted in the famous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, where all guests were slaughtered.

Red-wedding

Shock at the Red Wedding

Xenia and other intricate facets of ancient Greek culture come down to us through myths. The myths are extensive and far reaching. They involve great heroics, tales of morality, flawed character, the foibles of gods and humans, desire, lust, misjudgment and so much more.  The myths also help explain the world and how it got here.

Pillars-of-hercules

A statue honoring Heracles and his pillars

For example, it was Heracles (aka Hercules) who connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. While traveling to the end of the known world, he reached an impasse. Rather than climb a mountain,  he broke though one and created a narrow strait to the ocean, leaving what we know today as the Pillars of Hercules. From ancient Greek stories we learn how peacocks got their colorful tails, why once-white ravens are now black, and how two people, told by the gods to build a small ark, repopulated the world after a great flood by tossing over their shoulders stones that turned into men and women.

Fight-between-lapiths-andcentaurs

Drunken centaurs creating havoc

The importance of these myths to Greek culture, and later to Roman and European culture, is shown by the art they inspired. A piece of  pottery from the 6th century B.C. shows Bellerophon destroying the fire-breathing Chimera. A first century Roman sculpture is of baby Heracles strangling a viper sent by Hera to kill him. A 16th century painting by Piero Di Cosimo vividly captures the drunken centaurs creating violence at a wedding feast.

 

That artists desire to retell these stories speaks of their value, even if we don’t understand that value today. While every culture has its stories and myths, the Greek myths are undeniably special. Their depth and originality is unmatched. They took root in multiple cultures and have  persisted over centuries. When we watch Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, we are being entertained not so much by Hollywood but by the ancient Greeks.

Wonder-woman

The warrior Amazons were a Greek creation

As I now reread some of these tales, I sense a current vacuum in contemporary western culture. With no disrespect to Gal Gadot, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Brad Pitt as Achilles, I don’t believe the legacies of Greek mythology are doing for America what the original myths did for Greece. I don’t think they educate, inspire and set a correct path for us. And I don’t think anything has effectively replaced them.

 

Meanwhile, we are being pulled apart by forces like politics, race and class.

 

In truth, the detailed and fabulous Greek legends never fully unified the Greeks. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war with each other. Yet there is something strong, powerful and wise about using engaging stories to teach people what they are and what they should be. That someone or some group was willing to do this speaks to the inner essence of a humanness that, without help, is prone to chaos. The goal of the storyteller, of course, is to civilize.

Moses

Moses leading his people

The Hebrew prophets had this intention when they wrote and compiled scripture for an uncultured, barbaric tribe. To a great extent, those prophets succeeded and the western world, thriving today in commerce and replete with interaction and exchange, is a reflection of their efforts. Even so, the impact of scripture is waning and its messages, like the Greek tales, are being lost or forgotten. What’s needed now are new insights, new stories, new guideposts. It is time for a 21st century Homer, a modern Moses, a fresh light cutting through an old fog – a Greek revival, of sorts, if you will.

 

Our biggest problem is we have forgotten what we are and what we can be. Teaching this anew,  we can first understand ourselves, then respect and value ourselves. Once we develop true self-respect and visualize a purpose, we can, as individuals, extend respect and dignity to others. Building a culture around respect and dignity will not only strengthen us, it will unify us. And it may do so in ways the Greeks never imagined.

 

So let the stories be told. Let the heroes flourish. Let us see virtue and valor prevail. Let us know all the things that lead to failure, disrepute and disfavor so a place is reserved for harmony and peace and a new meaning is brought to life.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
million-dollar-quartet2

Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Million-Dollar-Quartet-hits-high-note-at-Bucks-County-Playhouse

That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

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From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Oh, Oh, Oh … Christ was a Jew!

25 Jan

Christ

A certain American president is dominating 90 percent of what we see, hear, and discuss, so I’ve decided to write about a somewhat anonymous but highly unusual person I’ll call Melvin.

 

Melvin was intelligent. He did his undergraduate work at MIT and was studying veterinary medicine when I roomed with him and another vet student at a large university. Melvin is difficult to describe. I like to think he was Andy Kaufman before Andy Kaufman was Andy Kaufman. His life was a performance, not on stage, just walking around. The difficulty with Melvin, like Andy, was understanding the purpose and meaning of his performances.

Andy_Kaufman

For example, I could hear Melvin in his room when he had women over. During climax, he would always shout, “Christ was a Jew!”

 

After a time, I asked why he said this. He probably was employing his distinctly odd sense of human when he answered, in complete deadpan, “What else would you possibly say?”

 

I always suspected he was mimicking a character from a William Burroughs novel or some equally obscure place.

 

As a vet student, Melvin studied much more than I did. One evening, I was in the living room of our campus townhouse entertaining two women friends. He had a test the next day and was upstairs with his books. He obviously needed a break, and he took one in performance mode.

 

Melvin came running down the steps, frantic, dressed in cutoff jeans, no shirt, no shocks, no shoes. It looked like he was sweating. He carried a beat up old guitar.

 

“I’m on in 10 minutes,” he said to the three of us in a panic, “and I can’t play a thing.”

 

Then he ran to a window, opened it and jumped out.

 

Andy Kaufman couldn’t have done better.

brokenglasses

But the best of his bits occurred when I and our third roommate walked him to a house where he was to meet a blind date. We wanted to see what she looked like and stood nearby as he knocked on her front door. When she opened it, we could see she had an exquisite body. It was rare and perfect in every way. She was not, however, attractive. My recollection is she had a slight resemblance to Richard Nixon.

 

Melvin looked at her and excused himself for a moment. He walked to the street and, with a rather demonstrative gesture, threw his glasses under the wheel of a passing car. Melvin then looked at me and the other roommate and said, in a tone of old movie contempt, “So long, suckers.”

 

He went back to the house, went inside, and wasn’t seen again for three days.

 

I’m certain that by the end of the three days the young woman who looked like Nixon knew almost certainly that Christ, indeed, was a Jew.

 

Now isn’t that better than Donald Trump?

Donald Trump

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Is Democracy Sick?

14 Oct

 

With the Russians continuing to mess with us, it might be time to consider an alternative system of government. Perhaps Plato can guide us.

 

A $1.5 million mistake! Do you just let it go?

15 Feb

Golden-nugget-dealer

I once made a painful mistake and was absolved. Recently, a much larger mistake was made by an Atlantic City casino. It, too, was absolved.

I considered my absolution reasonably fair. I’m not sure about the Golden Nugget’s.

It would be nice to know what others think, so please keep reading.

I was in college when I committed my blunder (neither my first nor my last). My classmates were finishing their final exam in political science when I realized I was supposed to be there. Upset and perplexed, I ran to the class and arrived as everyone was leaving. With exceptional humbleness I told the professor what happened and apologized, repeatedly.

His reaction stunned me: He laughed.

“You’ve had an ‘A’ all semester. Forget it.”

And so I wondered if the folk at the Golden Nugget were equally stunned – or more so — this week when their mistake was wiped clean by the State Superior Court of New Jersey.

golden-nugget-buildingAccording to the Associated Press, the case dates to 2012 and a game of mini-baccarat. Fourteen players who had been betting $10 a hand suddenly up their bets to $5,000 and won 41 straight hands. Their total winnings were $1.5 million.

The court, ruling in favor of the Golden Nugget, ordered them to give it back.

They didn’t cheat. They broke no rules.

What they did was notice that the cards being dealt had not been shuffled. As the cards came off the deck, they showed a consistent, predictable pattern. The players took advantage of this pattern to win.

The dealer was not shuffling the cards because the decks were supposed to have been pre-shuffled by the manufacturer. The cards came from a Kansas City company that admitted its error in court.

The judge’s ruling said New Jersey’s Casino Control Act requires that cards be shuffled. Since they were not, the mini-baccarat play was illegal, unauthorized and therefore void.

The court ordered the 14 players to return their winnings, minus their original bankrolls.

Years ago when I learned I had screwed up, I was willing to accept the consequences. Naturally, I felt that the Golden Nugget should accept its loss, or at least go get the $1.5 million from the company – Gemaco — that didn’t shuffle the cards. (They reached an undisclosed settlement.)

I changed my mind when I learned more about the case. Now I don’t know what to think.

The additional details and background came from the website Cardplayer.com.

It seems that back in 2012 a lower court actually ruled in favor of the gamblers. It was willing to award them their winnings – which they had not fully collected. The Golden Nugget suspected it was being scammed and paid out only $500,000. The 14 gamblers were forced to hold the rest in chips.

The gamblers, all of Asian descent, were not happy with this first ruling. They wanted more than their winnings. They wanted damages and made allegations of illegal detention and racial discrimination.

The owner of the casino, Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, said he would gladly pay the $1.5 million if all other charges were dropped. The 14 gamblers refused.

Now they have lost, and most likely will appeal.

Even for a guy who got As in political science, I’m not sure who is right or wrong; who is being fair or unfair. I’d like to hear from others on how they would rule.

The one resounding thought I’m left with is this: If I had been playing mini-baccarat and the cards started showing a pattern, would I have been smart enough to take advantage of this, or would I have been kicking myself for the rest of my life for missing the opportunity?

A final footnote: Gemaco, the company that didn’t shuffle the cards for the Golden Nugget, once manufactured cards for the Borgata that had flaws on the side. Ten-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Ivey was dealt those cards. He noticed the flaws and used them to win $9.6 million.

Lanny Morgnanesi

Get me out of this prison!!!!

27 Jan

Another Day, Another Time the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" Another Day-Another Time

Mull over, if you will, these few lines from a Woody Guthrie song:

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

You’ll hear a bit of that tune in a documentary called, “Another Day, Another Time.” The film, embedded below, features mostly folk and old tyme American music. Producer T. Bone Burnett got a bunch of very fine musicians together to celebrate the traditional approach to music, and the movie gives us both on stage and off stage performances.

As I watched it, enjoying every note, I realized a preponderance of the songs were about imprisonment and the destruction of individuals by authority. There were songs like:

  • Hang me, Oh Hang me
  • The Midnight Special
  • The Auld Triangle
  • House of the Rising Sun
  • Worried Man Blues

Spanning decades, these songs continue to touch people, which is why they prevail. They reach something inside us. You don’t have to be a criminal or a con to appreciate them. As I listened to all these prison songs, it came to me that so many of us, whether we have been in a cell or not, must fell imprisoned.

I believe it’s these feelings that keep such songs with us and inspire new ones.

Johnny Cash is famous for his “Folsom Prison Blues,” where a man convicted of killing someone “just to watch him die” longs for freedom and is incensed every time a train filled with free people passes near his cell. The song is so convincing many believe Cash served time in Folsom. Not so. He wrote the song while in the Air Force, stuck at a base in Germany and longing to once again be his own man.

So the song was a metaphor for him, and for us.

Why do we feel this way? Where do our shackles come from? More important, how can we get rid of them?

Although Woody Guthrie wrote about the imprisoned Worried Man, he also wrote “This Land is Your Land” – which joyfully describes a vast, beautiful country and the unfettered right we have to travel it. In the documentary, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson do a number called “I Hear Them All,” and combine it with “This Land.”

They received the loudest applause when they sung this Guthrie verse:

There was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said “Private Property”

But on the backside it didn’t say nothin’


This land was made for you and me.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we, too, focused on the back of the sign. Our minds have put us in prison. It is up to our minds to get us out. The freedom and expression of music will help, as will the film, “Another Day, Another Time.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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