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Much of it, I confess, is back when I was a kid when pop exploded into rock 'n roll, when giant movie bugs and pods offered metaphors for Atomic Age anxiety, when 10-cent comic books and 25-cent paperbacks carried transcendently lurid pulp fiction. But quality isn't a monopoly of the 50s, as my columns on songwriters of the 20s, radio shows of the 30s, thriller writers of the 40s, love-rock musicals of the 60s, ABBA and "Ab Fab," Hong Kong horror films and Bollywood weepies, cigarettes and casinos and "The Singing Detective" try to show. There's so much out there, back there. And that just makes sense. Now is an instant. Then is everything else.
And sometimes, Now demands to be compared to Then. So when a new Broadway musical of old Burt Bacharach songs opens on the eve of the composer's 75th birthday, that's a That Old Feeling story. A Halle Berry citation of pioneer black actresses, a movie patterned on old Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies, a U.S. invasion of Iraq that seems inspired by Rambo's exploits than T.E. Laurence's, a film on the splatter of the Christ all are natural pegs for this column.
DEAD MEN TALKING
The other kind of TIME story that spurred this column is the obituaries I am occasionally asked to write. In the past year I contributed obits of perhaps 20 notables, including Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Johnny Cash, Alan Bates, Sun Records' Sam Phillips and, for the magazine's international divisions, Hong Kong diva Anita Mui and Bollywood earth mother Leela Chitnis. The pieces ranged in length from 40 words (for TIME's Milestone page) to 4,000 (for the Cash cover story, which sold about 440,000 newsstand copies, a lot for us). Some of these elegies, like the crash Cash cover, are cobbled on the fly, but many are written in advance. Far in advance.
In the early 80s, TIME's managing editor, Ray Cave, urged the appropriate writers to devote weeks when they had no pressing assignments to preparing obits of people we intended to spend a page on. (Many newspapers and magazines do the same, to offset hysteria when a star's death is disclosed hours before closing time. One Saturday afternoon I had three hours to research and write a page on the novelist Ralph Ellison.) Spurred by Ray's initiative, and my own interest in summing up great lives, I dutifully compiled tributes to eight or ten worthies, including Laurence Olivier, Greta Garbo, Kate Hepburn. Some of these folks had been famously ailing. Yet they refused to die. I came to suspect that my obit-writing guaranteed these eminences something like eternal life. Hepburn, flinty and defiant to the end, outlived my original obit by 15 years.
As I say, TIME accumulated a small morgue of these send-offs, written and laid out and virtually ready to run. One of these came in handy toward the end of a busy work week just before Christmas 1983, when our editors were alerted that the surrealist painter Joan Miro had died. (A big name almost always dies around Christmas.) Fortunately, a Miro obit had been written some years before by Bobby Baker, since deceased. An editor gave the piece a suitable freshening and sent it off. At the very end of the week, a resourceful soul at the copy desk called that week's top editor, Chris Porterfield, to say that Miro hadn't died, he was only ailing. Just in time, Chris pulled the piece. He later noted that we were dangerously close to making journalistic history: an obit of a living person by a dead one.
Then Miro did die, on Christmas day. Turns out we could've scooped the world.
For me, the pleasure of considering a significant life became a habit I was determined to extend on this website either in longer obits (of Chuck Jones, Al Hirschfeld, Leslie Cheung, Jack Paar) or in logorrheically wishing a happy birthday to Les Paul (on his 85th) or to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Shepherd (on what would have been, respectively, their 75th and 80th.) Sometimes I nostalgicized famous magazines (Mad, Playboy) on their 50th anniversaries, a favorite TV news show ("CBS Sunday Morning") on its 25th.
Often I am one of hundreds of writers noting these events. In a few sad instances I can offer the reflections of acquaintanceship with the deceased Chuck, a friend of nearly 25 years, and Leslie, a suicide at 46 (the poor melodramatic dear). Mostly I hope to find expressions of the impact popular artists have had on us, and on me as a consumer of manufactured dreams. I juggle my shocked or melancholic reaction to the news of their passing with the sweet challenge of bringing, in words, the dead back to life.
99 COLUMNS APPEAR ON THE WEB...
...and in my first one I announced "the rise of a new generation of culture consumers: one that has instant access that the glories of the past. The sprawl of video and web technology puts almost anything you want at your fingertips or on your cassette shelf." Already that observation is antique; it has been outdated by Napster and iPod, TiVo and digital TV. Just now I'm in Toronto, savoring CineFranco, Marcelle Lean's annual festival of French-language films. But back home in Manhattan, my TiVo knock-off gizmo ($7 a month) is recording "South Park," "Martha Stewart Living," "Media Funhouse" and Garbo's German version of "Anna Christie" from four different channels. I couldn't have done that three years ago.
And three years fairly zips by. There are so many subjects still be be considered: Lenny Bruce, Pete Seeger, Alistair Cooke, Garrison Keillor, the EC horror comics line, to name a few coming up soon. And I have old promises to keep. In the first column I offered this preview of coming attractions: "I want to write about a 'new' collection of Tin Pan Alley lyrics, a 'new' 10-CD set of Mildred Bailey sides, a 'new' package of silent short comedies that Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton made back when Woodrow Wilson was President." Well, I reviewed the pop-lyrics book, and the Arbuckle-Keaton package, but I didn't get to Mildred Bailey not then, and not last year, which was her centenary. Two outta three ain't good. It was my firm intention to fold Bailey into this column. Now she will have to wait a bit longer, because she deserves a whole column to herself and because, dammit, I'm going to bring this 100th column in under 3,000 words.
In other ways, especially in pop culture, three years is a long time. Many of my early rock 'n roll idols flourished for a brief, brilliant moment. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, all had two years, tops, at the top of the game they did so much to shape. The comedy heroes of my youth Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Harvey Kurtzman, Lenny Bruce produced their great work in their 20s or 30s. (Holly, Kovacs and Bruce get excuse slips for dying young.) Do the most intense talents wear themselves out by creating such heat? Is there a chemical formula that divides the number of years allotted to a pop icon by the amount of energy generated? Or do I overrate these guys because they came along at the time when I needed them? I can't answer that question. I can simply say that, to an extent, I am now what they showed me then.
WHAT ABOUT BOB?
Certainly public personalities with a lower emotional density wear better, stick around longer, perhaps because we're not constantly made aware of their presence. They have a subtle, lingering effect, not cathartic but calming. Only when they go away do we notice the end of a stream of white noise, the hole where the wallpaper was.
That notion smacked me with its poignancy this week when I read of the canning of Bob Edwards, host for 24 years and four months of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Howard Stern and Don Imus got all the drive-time buzz, but, with 13 million listeners, Edwards was the voice of the top-rated show on radio.
And a soothing voice it is. Instead of annoying you awake with racist, sexist chatter, as Stern and Imus do or pushing sensational headlines with strident vocal editorializing, as many of the all-news stations do Edwards reports on a violent, miserable world in tones so gently modulated that they seem to say: It's not that bad. Catch another few minutes of shut-eye. (Besides, in a little while the whole two-hour show will be rebroadcast.) NPR's afternoon anchors, on the homeward-bound "All Things Considered," have a schoolmarmish severity that breeds apocalyptic concern. Edwards, no matter what dire bulletin he is reading, is comforting, reassuring. He's the lullaby anchorman. And now NPR is putting him to sleep.
What is Bob Edwards' connection with the concerns of this column? Well, he's over 50, and I like his work. Or rather, now that I'm forced to think of it, I appreciate what I always took for granted. More important, Edwards' demotion from anchor to "senior corespondent" (and hasn't "The Daily Show" made that designation too risible to be handed out in real news organizations?) relates to the raging subtext of this ostensibly celebratory column. Beneath the warm words about classic pop culture is a continuing, Stygian rant against planned obsolescence against the prevailing idea that something good automatically becomes tiresome with repetition and must eventually be phased out.
I'll keep cooing, and railing, as long as they let me, and you read me.