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Works of Fourth of July art

Tuesday 7/4/23

Wanted to do a round-up of works that to me are perfect for the Fourth of July--a nice compendium for the digging in.

The Grateful Dead are, in my estimation, the best band this country has ever produced. They assimilate so many American musical styles in the making of what is their own unique sound, which was also always changing. They never had a sole sound; theirs was the sound of plethora and expansiveness, though with focus and precision, a great concern for detail. The Grateful Dead were meticulous, which is counter to how people who don't know them that well talk about them, with the whole "jam" thing. Don't be fooled--rather, become aware.

There are times when I think they're the best band ever, anywhere. That is, there are certain moments when I'm listening to them that I find myself asking who has ever been this good? I'm not saying that they are the best band. I'm saying it's the rare band that has ever made me have this thought. I can tell you the others: the Beatles, Joy Division, the Stone Roses. That's it. (I'm talking pop and rock and roll, but if I were talking jazz, too, I still think the Dead are the best of all American bands.)

This summer gig from 1970 at the Fillmore West is an ideal Fourth of July listen. You get the acoustic set and the electric. Notice how few notes it takes you to realize how special this music is. It's like words in a story--I can tell what someone has three words in. Often less, if they're great. The Dead were probably at their most Fourth of July-esque in 1970. There are those strains of Americana that are more prevalent than in 1968 and 1969, with the former in particular being notably intergalactic. Obviously, 1970 is the year of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, two cornerstone records of American musical history. The Dead's year of 1970 is one of those all-timer years, the way that the Beatles' 1963 was. The annus mirabilis. Listen to that "New Speedway Boogie."

Then we have this fellow: Chubby Parker with his old time banjo back in 1928! This is one of my favorite songs and performances, which I first encountered on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), a set I've been listening to since I was a teenager. It's truly a song for everyone. Cuts across all ages.

Up next is Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" from 1958. I could write an entire book about this song--and would start doing so tomorrow if someone said go for it--and it'd range back to the Civil War and on through to today. It's a formidable piece of writing more than anything else, and it's not like it isn't a masterful performance. If you were to ask me what is the most important guitar cut of all time, I'd say Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." It also roused John Lennon to deliver one of his finest vocals on the BBC in 1964. The ultimate American story song. Whitman and Twain never wrote better. "Country" means "colored," of course.

Speaking of Twain: Orson Welles was a transatlantic person who wasn't from anywhere in one sense, but seemed indomitably American at the same time. That lack of being from a place had to do with the events of his childhood; Welles passed through Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Highland Park, Illinois, and on to Dublin and the world, via New York City and Hollywood. I find it suggestive of some kind of a deep something that Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and myself spent so much time in the same ostensibly random--but probably not--Illinois town. A skill for which Welles doesn't get enough credit: his editing. He could take a novel or a play and slash it down--by building it up in another way--to an ideal vehicle for radio. And that's what he did with this March 17, 1940 radio adaptation of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Baseball naturally suggests itself on the holiday. As a Red Sox fan, I'm going to be someone inclined to love something like this: a radio broadcast from 9/26 (when the Sox' magic number stood at three) of the 1975 pennant-winning season, with Ned Martin in the booth. My boyhood hero Carlton Fisk is the Sox' DH in this one. Martin was a poet of the radio broadcast. This was a time when the world was just smarter. He'd make references to Shakespeare in his calls of the game, but he was also that neighbor across the way from you that your dad liked talking to and you'd come along as well. A Sox game on a radio, and New England people being neighborly in summer before you went to the store down the street for a couple packs of baseball cards.

Comics are never funny now. It's awkward to listen to them and think that you're supposed to pretend they are. Because they're not funny, people like to say that they're "edgy," whatever that means, and their job is to say uncomfortable things, which makes comics, then, no different than the guy on the subway who is going off to himself while everyone tries to pretend he's not there.

But Bob Newhart the album-making artist was very funny, as in actually funny. The entirety of his 1960 debut album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart is perfect for our treasury of Fourth of July works, but this man knew how to start his album career off right with the opening cut, "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue." Incisive American humor, and no less effective now than at the start of a decade in which it had real influence. People talk about Sgt. Pepper, Highway 61 Revisited, and A Love Supreme, obviously, but include The Button-Down Mind in a list of that era's culture-informing LPs. Listen to how smart this is. It's like, "Wow! People were once allowed and able to be intelligent!"

Radio asked people to use their imaginations, because, believe it or not, we once had imaginations. We could conjure images in our brains. We could travel from world to world just by listening. We were a lot better at that act of listening. And when we're better at listening, we're better at connecting and also being present in the world. We're better people. We can do more for others and ourselves.

The best American radio series was Gunsmoke. The scripts of John Meston were a big reason why. So was the core cast of William Conrad, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, and Georgia Ellis. We talk about whom the fifth Beatle might be, but the fifth cast core cast member of Gunsmoke was surely John Dehner. He wasn't in every episode, but pretty close, and unlike the regular quartet, he always played a different character.

But more than anything, what made Gunsmoke what it was--and elevated it to a level no other radio program could reach--was the sound effects/design. From those effects alone you can know exactly what everything looks like, be that in Dodge or out on the prairie. You know the layout of the town, distances from building to building. You know the alleys and you know how far off they are by what sounds might be coming out of them in the background. I have never heard anything like it.

The show was so consistent. There are no weak episodes, and there are hundreds of them to listen to. If there is a quibble to make, it's that sometimes--and it definitely wasn't a trend--the episodes sort of petered out, less open-ended than that a way hadn't been figured out in time as to how to bring them to a close. They could touch on the sentimental, after the whole of the episode not being sentimental at all. Not true with the episode, "The Cabin," from December 27, 1952 (and was the first episode after a touching and sweet Christmas episode), which concludes with some Yeatsian lines but of the American prairie. There's an element of the apocalyptic. It's an intimate, harrowing, epic story--those things at once. Grand and personal, and it speaks to various components--the good, the bad, the tragic, the enduring--of the American condition.

I don't think that complicated, rich America exists anymore. An America of individuals. I don't believe there are very many individuals left in a world of constant devolution. And a nation of constant devolution. There isn't art like this now, and at the time, people weren't thinking in the terms of art. This was our popular culture. All of these works that I've just shared. But we can locate art and depth in even Ned Martin's call of the Red Sox game, a radio Western, a children's song, a rock and roll number, a summer evening out at Bill Graham's music hall, a recorded comedy set.

When a world and a nation doesn't have works like these, they don't work as well, and as they sink lower and lower, they don't work at all. That's where we're at. But where you're at never has to be where you stay. I think there's something American in that notion--that of the quest. There's something Grecian in it, too; Homer and Ben Franklin would have agreed on much. Ancient and less ancient, though it can seem like a long time ago now when people could turn to the left and to the right and encounter works of significance and value, that functioned as entertainment and more than entertainment. Pioneering works of community. Just as people one went west and formulated communities in undeveloped parts of this growing nation.

I feel like we're tasked with that same challenge again right now, only all of the land has been settled. I'm talking about those plains within people. To let the wagons roll, so to speak, across them, to find the individual spirit, and encourage it come out so that new communities, necessary communities, may be made.

These works of American entertainment and art from earlier times can help get one started in current times. Tap into them and tap into parts of your self that you might not know are there, or that have been covered over with the innumerable particles of however many years of dust storms. The defining quality of the American nation used to be one of rising again, or, if rising for the first time, in insisting to stand. We slither and melt away now, descend through the grates of sewers in search of lower levels of ourselves, and are encouraged to do so by our environment, and may even be well-compensated or awarded for going down, down, and further down. It's what America has become and how its people function. It doesn't have to be that way. If things just had to be the way they were, or are, then there wouldn't have been any farmers who turned up ready to go and do what they thought was right and necessary on the banks of a river in Concord.

Listen. Learn. Stand up. A nation needs to relearn how to do all of it. Or it will never again be anything approaching the nation that it was, or, a better nation, which is really the entire ideal this country was based on.

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