Not What I Heard

The soundtrack of my young life went something like this: my mother played classical pieces on the living room piano, my dad played Sinatra and Johnny Cash on the Hi-Fi, my brother played the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on his transistor radio.

I try to remember that personal context thinking of the day (I was around 10 years old) when my friend Anthony brought a new album to the clubhouse of our neighborhood playground. He said to me, in dead earnest, “I know this isn’t what you listen to at home but you have to hear it.” And with that titillating introduction, he pulled James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’ out of the sleeve, itself looking strange and unfamiliar to me, and placed it on the playground’s antique record player.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear to me now, many years later, but when the ungodly-long (it was over 7 minutes) song ended, I knew something buried deep inside me had been released. I thought I knew music before hearing James Brown but this was something I’d never heard before; I’d never ever heard anything remotely like it. My wee 10-year-old brain was well and duly blown, and blown for good. When, sometime later, I finally saw Brown perform in ‘The T.A.M.I. Show,’ a concert film, a true happening of cosmic scale, I sat slack-jawed throughout. Not only was his music completely different than anything I’d heard before, he moved in ways I’d never seen.

My family recently gave me ‘The One,’ a brilliant biography of James Brown by RJ Smith and I inhaled it practically overnight. The New York Times review is here. It made me remember what I felt when I first heard his music and it made me appreciate or, more properly, re-appreciate just how revolutionary a figure he was. And to say I loved the book is in no way to sugar-coat Brown’s street-tough life, personal inadequacies, or thorny personality.

James Brown lived hard and righteously pissed off nearly every single person he ever met. That said and understood, he laid a foundation for all that followed him. If you don’t know James Brown, his music and performance, do yourself a favor and discover him now. If you do know him, get Smith’s book; it will be a revelation.

You’re welcome.

So Long, Ernie

When you see the photo of an actor of a certain age on the front page of The New York Times, you come to know exactly what to expect.

I’d spent the weekend in the mountains with my family, sequestered from pretty much all news media, so I didn’t hear until we got back to San Francisco and I logged on. There was a publicity still from ‘Marty.’ So, in pretty short order, I knew that actor Ernest Borgnine had passed away.

Ernest Borgnine provides a sort of demographic litmus test. For most people my son’s age, he is best known as the voice of Mermaid Man to Tim Conway’s Barnacle Boy on the animated TV series SpongeBob Squarepants. For those my age, he was the fun-loving, wise-cracking, Navy commander Quinton McHale on TV’s ‘McHale’s Navy.’ To those of his own generation, Borgnine would always be the Oscar-winner who portrayed Marty the New York bachelor butcher.

He was, of course, so much more.

As an actor, Borgnine inhabited a dizzying array of roles in singular films like ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock.’ He more than held his own with co-stars who were legends of film acting and entertainment, such as Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, WIlliam Holden and Spencer Tracy. Even when he portrayed a tough guy or bad man, which was a lot of the time, he was often the person in the cast the audience most closely identified with. Some called him an everyman but he was really more like the man everyone wanted to either be or have around to watch your back.

Borgnine’s best and most beloved characters were, without exception, normal working stiffs. Sometimes they were put in situations over their heads and sometimes they put themselves there but they were always normal working stiffs. Marty Piletti, perhaps his all-time most beloved character was, after all, a simple butcher. Not, as populate so many films today, people of means (e.g., doctors, lawyers, architects, superstar athletes or entertainers, or just plain old rich guys) who can afford just about anything they want. Ernie played working stiffs.

They had to cut corners to make ends meet. They knew the price, by God, of a cut of beef and a quart of milk. Some were abused as kids. Some had been roughed up. In truth, all had, in one way or another. They took the bus and the subway. They lived in little apartments they felt lucky to have. They didn’t have professionally decorated summer homes in the Hamptons. They didn’t run the precious latest-thing bakery in Santa Barbara.

No, by God, Ernest Borgnine was playing quintessential hard-working Americans back when that concept didn’t seem like an anachronism on TV and in films.

What actor takes on that kind of role today? Exactly.

Ernest Borgnine was 95 when he died; he’d led a full and exciting life (He’d been married to Ethel Merman, which was the source of some hysterical stories I’d heard him tell one time.) and I bet we’re going to miss him a hell of a lot more than he’s going to miss us.

Ernest Borgnine was an actor who played the best of what we Americans used to value most in ourselves and each other.

My Funny Valentine, Many Ways

Some popular songs explode into our consciousness then disappear just as quickly. Big hits that are ubiquitous, then forgotten: a one-hit-wonder’s signature tune, theme to a hit movie, dance club favorite.

Others are more lasting. They’re seemingly born fully grown, fully realized, already familiar. Many artists might record it, seeking to explore the deep truth within the song.

Such is My Funny Valentine, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Below, some examples from among the 600 artists known to have recorded versions of the song. I’ve included two by Chet Baker (one early in his career, one near the end) because he had such an obvious connection to it.

Enjoy and appreciate the song’s own genius, as interpreted by great artists.

Chet Baker, Torino, Italy (1959)

Etta James (date unknown)

Frank Sinatra, Capital Recordings (1953)

Miles Davis, Milan, Italy (1964)

Tony Bennett (date unknown) 

Chet Baker, Tokyo (1987)