The Trappings of Fame


“Fame … makes a man take things over …. puts you there where things are hollow”

If you were a baby boomer in the sixties, you most likely never knew anyone who was ‘really really’ rich. There was a kid in my school whose dad was a famous football player, but I didn’t know her well. And there was another friend who came from Texas; they had a big house, and even had a maid, who let us make chili and mess up the kitchen.

I had relatives who had oil patch money – they didn’t come around to many family parties, though. They likely got tired of being hit up for loans that would never get repaid.

USA - 30th Anniversary of Elvis Presley's Death - GracelandWhen you think about it, one of the most famous, and presumably wealthiest, person with a high profile, back in those days, was Elvis. And by today’s standards, Graceland isn’t exactly the Taj Mahal. Not with all that shag carpeting. But for the time, it was high glam.

As a child, I knew, through reading, that there had been times in history when some people had attained obscene wealth, usually by conquering another country, and by subjecting those natives to their will. Those people were called kings, and whatever they wanted was granted to them, for their skill in warfare.queen of sheba

England had a royalty, but they wore sensible shoes.

I didn’t look up to those people; I never wanted to be ‘royal’ It seemed a pretty high price to pay for a life lived entirely in the public eye. And back then, there were a lot of people who wondered if the trade off of privacy for public adulation was a good one.

Now, of course, people will do anything to be seen, hopefully to be admired, for whatever it is they can do to be different. Tattoo a snake on your face? We’ll only be impressed if you’re the first to think to do so.

“Could it be the best, could it be? Really be, really, babe?”

I don’t know if it is a Canadian way of thinking, but I remember how most people I knew, growing up, adhered to the ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ … that meant that you didn’t want to stick your head up too high, or blow your own horn a little too loud, because you’d be sure to get cut down to size if you did. The syndrome is basically a way of sneering at those who revel in having a ton of money – which we assume is ill-gotten gains – or of seeking fame in public life.

william shatnerIn the seventies, you’d have been more likely to hear someone snigger, “geez, who does he/she think he/she is!” when a Canadian even got a mention in American media.

We did not put many Canadians on pedestals for their achievements, though we’d often get a little warm feeling when we felt like we’d snuck a Canadian through, behind America’s back. Like that William Shatner guy, with the weird way of talking. His mum had an acting school on Girouard in Montreal, so he was one of the good one’s.

We had our own awards, our Junos instead of Grammys, our Genie awards instead of Oscars, and by geez, that should be good enough for any Canadian! Just look at that Walter Ostanek fella, and all his polka Grammy wins! Does HE look happy? Now, you just go practice your accordion, and try not to get all stuck up and big headed!

“Fame …. what you like is in the limo”

And then came …. rock and roll hedonism.

“In the seventies … There was more excess, more hedonism, more drugs, more attitude, more sex, more style, more enthusiasm. Just?… more.” (The Telegraph, UK)

mudsharkI’m not saying that the days of mud sharks, Whovian displays of hotel trashing, and the deaths by overdose of nearly every icon of the day opened the door to the pedestaling of the rich and famous….

but it helped.

The austerity of the post war years, and the drive and eventual success of the lower class kids, who knew the only way to get out of soul crushing poverty was to get into sports or rock n roll, became the envy of those who wondered what it would be like to literally have the world and all of it’s glories at their feet … drugs, drink, the most beautiful women in the world … it could all be yours, if you just cracked the Top Ten Charts.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Some of the luckier and richer rockers listened to their dear old dads, or to the managers and accountants who flocked to help funnel some of this largesse into safer investments, like property. And sadly, some of those ‘helpful’ advisors turned out to be there with the intention of taking advantage of the silly geese now laying multiple golden eggs.

Fame and wealth are on a sliding scale, as the wiser of the nouveau riche artistes soon learned. And if those musos wanted to keep at least some of the moolah that was coming in, in order to pay for their growing entourages, they’d have to learn to manage, manipulate, and increase their funds, just like the robber barons of the last century had done.

And off they went, to the tax havens…. and began to grow their own little dynasties …

“Fame, “Nein! It’s mine! is just his line … to bind your time, it drives you to, crime .”

We aging hippies, especially those of us who chose careers in the arts, might not have prioritized the acquisition of wealth, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t drool a little when these new ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ were dangled before us, in the mid eighties.

make it rainMTV glommed onto that envy, and promoted the lifestyles of celebrities in shows like “The Fabulous Life Of … “ and “Cribs.” These quasi reality features pretended to give the plebes a glimpse into the opulent homes, glamorous lifestyles, and vacation playgrounds of those musicians who had ‘made it.’

FAME … and wealth, were now what everyone wanted to achieve, by any means possible. Oh yeah, it was all about the Benjamins …

“Fame … what you get is no tomorrow … “

And we bought it .. oh yes, those of us who looked on and envied the lifestyles of those who had cracked the money and power code, wanted in on the fun.

“Americans are accustomed to talking about fame using the heady language of the cosmos: the celebrity as a celestial truth, situated above us; the superstar as a force in the firmament, all heat and light and gravitational demands. Michael Jackson’s environmental form of fame—music that permeated people’s lives, iconography that saturated American culture—anticipated the intimate version of celebrity that is the default today. It is fitting, in that regard, that celebrity itself functions as a spectral character in Leaving Neverland. Jackson was acutely aware of the affordances of fame; he leveraged them, the documentary suggests—and, ultimately, he weaponized them. Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, recalls Jackson making a request of her; she recalls, as well, that when she refused it, he coolly informed her: “I always get what I want.”” (The Atlantic, March 2019)

This year has seen the release of several documentaries that question what the pedestaling of fame has done to our vulnerable young women and men. With the allegations in Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly, we also need to be aware of what fame does to the psyches of those who wield that much power.

camp followersThere have always been camp followers, disciples, those who believe that proximity to what they covet, for even a few moments, raises their own profile and value amongst those who have not had the same access to the royalty of their time.

When those who possess power of any potency use manipulation, a righteous fear, and their fame/perceived authority to get what they want, they are abusing that power in order to exploit vulnerable people for their own advantage or gain. And even if those people go willingly to the abuse, it’s still abuse.

Now, the funny thing is that, somewhere along the line, we all started to think that those who achieve fame and financial reward for being good at one thing, like music, or business, could translate that magic to other careers.

And strangely enough, in a culture that appears to embrace a meritocracy, those who seek fame and power somehow manage to drape the mantle of unique talents upon those whose rise to fame may well have simply come from a well placed endorsement, a reality television episode, or a sex tape featuring some very, very large buttocks.

kardashian buttWe would never expect our dentist to take out our appendix or fix our plumbing, but for some reason, we think that someone who has managed to acquire – by hook, and likely crook – a large amount of money, should be given free reign to guide a country, or should be allowed to tell us who and how to worship. The mind boggles.

The political ‘base’ of a country is as subservient to a populist politician, as a congregation is to a hyperbolic preacher, or a groupie or ‘musical prodigy’ is to a music mogul. There’s a parallel in the abuses.

rewards just aheadDangling the promises of future prosperity, they will assure their acolytes that there is a brilliant future awaiting them, if they’ll just listen to their master’s advice. The prey might wonder at what is asked of them, if they follow this path, and they may be reluctant to give their all, without the assurances, as false as they may be, that their faith will bring them enormous rewards in the end.

The followers will put that preacher, or politician, or musical ‘genius’ on a pedestal, and make that person their whole world, believing that their devotion and loyalty is as strongly returned.

But eventually, and inevitably, that faith is abused.

Our adoration of those with fame and wealth blinds us, and when those whom we’ve put on a pedestal are toppled, our beliefs in our selves is fractured.

toppling idolsWhat goes up .. must come down. At some point, the blinders fall off, and we see that those we call gods and kings are just selfish, spoiled, narcissists, and that we are the toys and pawns they use to satisfy their own whims and urges.

2011 … “A new study co-funded by the Gates Foundation, however, portrays the ultrarich as lost souls burdened by the fears, worries and family distortions of too much money.

Yeah yeah. Cry me a river.

 

 

Sports, Armageddon, and Quincy Jones Oh My!


 

by Roxanne Tellier

It’s Superbowl Sunday! that day when two teams of very large men in very padded outfits will try to kill each other for funzies and a huge, gawdy ring.

I don’t watch sports – it’s just not my thing – but I do enjoy the half time shows, and the award winning advertisements that sponsors save up for this special day.

What’s a ‘lunk’?

In other news, it seems like we’re living through a “Choose Your Own Armageddon” scenario.

If you’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a post-apocalyptic world, your wish may be well on it’s way to coming true!

This week, the most informed leading lights and heads of the military and intelligence bureaus of the United States reported on the current hotspots around the globe that could cause major conflicts and bring unrest to America.

trump spoiled toddler poseThe most uninformed man in the world, who doubles as the president of the U.S., told them they were all wrong, and that only he, based on his ‘gut feelings’ and a solid and continuous scrutiny of the talking heads of the FOX Network, knew what was really going on.

So adamant was he on this point that the White House decreed that there would no longer be daily presidential briefs brought to him every morning, as these contrary ‘opinions’ were just too upsetting for the boy king.

trump tan failOh, and also that his orange facial tinge is due to ‘good genes‘ – not makeup and definitely NOT from a tanning bed.

To further demonstrate that ‘nobody’s gonna tell ME what to do!” trump then decided to end the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty, which currently prohibits the production or testing of ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. Russia, a little miffed that the Orange Julep is pretending to bicep flex, immediately retaliated, declaring the treaty, in place since the days of Reagan, null and void.

This tiff, combined with the unstable situations in North Korea and the Middle East, now has those in the know worrying that an arms race is about to restart between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. And it’s got me wondering where on earth I’m gonna find a school desk big enough for me to ‘duck and cover’ my big butt.

What we’re left with, after the clear warnings of the hearing, and the toddler’s subsequent tantrum, is something that will keep me and many others awake at night. Trump has been established as an ignoramus – uninformed and unwilling to learn – and the people who actually have the facts on global instability have been marginalized and belittled on the world stage by their own Commander in Chief.

This leaves precisely NO ONE in charge of what to do when the shit hits the fan. There are no leaders in which the American people can put their faith and trust. America is now ripe for a takeover by even the weakest nation on the planet, due to this gross destabilization of reality.

And if that don’t kill ya ….

Hundreds of thousands of fish have choked during Australia‘s hottest month since records began. Swathes of the United States are colder than the north pole. New ruptures have been found in one of the Antarctic’s biggest glaciers and there are growing signs the Arctic is warming so fast that it could soon be just another stretch of the Atlantic…. The US deep freeze, which has plunged temperatures in Minnesota to -50C (-58F), may appear to have little in common with the searing heatwave that cooked Marble Bar, Australia, in 49.1C (120.4F).” The Guardian, January 2019

world will end in 12 years AOC… little in common indeed … what’s a 100C degree temperature swing amongst friends, amirite?

At Davos, a feisty Swedish teen activist, Greta Thunberg, led a snowy sitdown demonstration to warn the billionaires, world leaders, business figures and celebrities gathered there that their inaction on climate change might be turning them a profit now, but didn’t bode well for their dreams of a long line of succession to their personal thrones.

“Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we all have created. But that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame,” 16-year-old climate crusader Greta Thunberg told the audience

Thunberg’s own strike from school every Friday for 23 weeks has inspired a wave of similar protests globally by young people who wonder what the point is of education in a world where political leaders fail to tackle climate change.

Also at Davos, and If you’d prefer your endtimes to involve guillotines, rumble carts, and a Les Miserables soundtrack, Rutger Bregman, historian and author of Utopia for Realists, gave the unclothed Davos emperors an earful, when he rightly pointed out that their prattlings on inequality and social unrest were sweet, but had little impact when divorced from the role the very wealthy play in the problem.

wealth isn't created at the topHe told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It is like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.”

With all of that angst swirling around me, I am always enormously grateful when I find a little respite to the daily horror of the trump era, be it by watching videos of cats dressed in shark costumes riding Roombas, or of having the good fortune of stumbling upon a sweet documentary I didn’t know I needed to see.

QUINCY … this film alone is worth my monthly Netflix payment. The 2018 American documentary about ‘Q,’ the record producer, singer and film producer, is two hours I consider very well spent.

Quincy Jones – one of only 18 EGOTs (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner) … over 2000 songs and 300 albums recorded … 51 film and television scores … over 1000 original compositions … 79 Grammy nominations and 27 Grammy wins …. producer of both the best selling single AND the best selling album of all time.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Quincy’s life was never easy, right from the days of his rough upbringing on the south side of Chicago. His mother was diagnosed schizophrenic and roughly dragged away in a straitjacket when he was just seven years old. He didn’t see her again until he was a successful young man.

His determination and grit saw him survive the Great Depression and go on to perform with Lionel Hampton as a teenaged trumpeter, and then put his head down and conquer every form of music that interested him, despite the barriers erected by the colour of his skin.

quincy and ray

He worked hard, and he loved hard, but the work had a habit of getting in the way. All three of his wives eventually had to leave because the music and the work was taking up all the air in the marriage.

His talent and genuine love for music propelled him to places few others could have gone. When the record companies said he was too young and inexperienced to be a producer, Dinah Washington insisted it was Quincy’s production or no one’s.

Mercury Records said, ‘Nope, we want a name.’ Dinah said, ‘Here’s a name for your ass: Dinah Washington with Quincy Jones as an arranger.’ ”

In the late fifties, Quincy’s work with Frank Sinatra was instrumental in the singer’s push for racial equality for Las Vegas entertainers, eventually playing an integral role in an agreement between Vegas hotel and casino owners that effectively desegregated the city in March 1960.

He knew everyone in the biz, and he worked with most of them. In one portion of the film, set in 2016, Jones inspects the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture exhibits, where the personal effects of so many of his old ‘homies’ –Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis – are on display. In a few hours, the grand opening ceremony that he has guided into place and produced will begin, but for a few moments, he is black musical history personified, both past and present.

The man never seems to stop, despite having had several serious health scares, including a nervous breakdown, blood clots, a stroke, diabetes, and not one, but two brain aneurysms.

And yet, the overwhelming passion that seems to guide his life is his incredible gratitude and appreciation for his family and friends. This is a loving man, a man who cannot get enough of his family, and a man who, despite having done so much in his lifetime, is still capable of finding joy and surprise in the music and the young musicians he continues to mentor, even as he edges ever closer to 90.

There were many moments in this film that touched my heart, and nearly brought me to tears. It is the existence and continuing presence of a rare genius in our midst that gives me hope for both music, and an America that could produce such a man.

 

Motown: The Musical


The sixties were a glorious time, unlikely to ever be repeated or rivalled. The fifties had been a cautious decade, where women stayed home after marrying to take care of their men, kids didn’t sass parents, and no one questioned authority in the family or in their country. Well, at least on the surface.

hitsville USABut the sixties were all about breaking free of rigid expectations. The kids were loud, and demanding that their culture be not only accepted but respected. Feminism, the civil rights movement, and counter culture in general flourished. And into this heady mix, Berry Gordy, a guy from Detroit, working out of a house on W. Grand Blvd, brought his own dream to life by creating MotownHitsville U.S.A.

Trailer 

Motown: The Musical is a heady ride, a pastiche of the songs that mirrored and urged on a youth culture chitlin circuitexploding in front of our parents’ shocked eyes. The story, written by Gordy, traces the determination , grit and greed that was necessary to bring the music of young, black performers out into the open , and into the spotlight, after decades of being relegated to touring under Jim Crow laws and on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Much of early rock and roll was unacceptable to a white, uptight audience in North America. The music written and performed by black artists was routinely filtered through clean cut and very white vocalists who better exemplified what the society of the day wanted to see and hear. As Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis once said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”  

The charts of the day were wide-ranging; a radio station’s top ten might include everything from rock to country to instrumental movie soundtracks, to a song scooped from a Broadway musical. And into this blessedly catholic mix, Gordy dropped the songs that exploded minds once closed to racial diversity.

hot100 1960When I first heard Motown songs, they were often filtered through the music of The Beatles, and other British groups who were eagerly seizing upon this new form, a rhythm and blues concoction that stepped all over early rock and roll structure, and brought attention to lyrics with heart and soul, accompanied by dazzling melodies and angelic harmonies.

The Beatles, always hip to finding hits where others might not have looked, recorded three Motown hits for their second album, With The Beatles, in 1963; “Money”, Smokey Robinson’sYou’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and The MarvelettesPlease Mr Postman.”

Money (That’s What I Want,) “was the first hit for Gordy, on the Tamla label operated pre-Motown, and released in 1959. And right from the beginning, Gordy was ruthless. “Singer Barrett Strong claims that he co-wrote the song with Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford. His name was removed from the copyright registration three years after the song was written, restored in 1987 when the copyright was renewed, and then excised again the next year. Gordy has stated that Strong’s name was only included because of a clerical error.”

But Motown’s legal scramblings and shenanigans didn’t come to our attention until years later. What we were hearing and enjoying were songs that burst out of the radio, as Martha and the Vandellas called us to come “Dancin’ In the Streets.”

Gordy’s musical stable included The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. He loved to pit the performers against each other, believing that “competition breeds champions.” He was a showman who understood what the people wanted, and the young artists that flocked to his label soon learned that their street cred was about to be vigorously scrubbed off them.

Maxine Powell ran the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. Most people have probably never heard of Powell, who died this week, but music fans have unknowingly enjoyed her handiwork at Motown since the ‘60s.Maxine Powell finishing school for Motown

“When I opened up, in 1964, the finishing school, the purpose was to help the artists become class, to know what to do on stage and off stage, because they did come from humble beginnings. Some of them from the projects and some of them were using street language. Some were rude and crude, you understand, but with me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.”

It was Powell’s job to teach the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Tammi Terrell, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, and Smokey Robinson how to present themselves charmingly during interviews, performances, and off-stage public appearances. When they were in Detroit, Motown singers were required to attend two-hour session with Powell, learning public speaking, posture, walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming. Powell had studied African-American cosmetology at the renowned Madam C.J. Walker training school in Indianapolis.” (http://dangerousminds.net/comments/motowns_charm_school)

Motown: The Musical takes all of that background and lays it out beautifully at our feet. Over 50 songs from the rich catalogue are sampled, in small or large bites, and the audience visibly thrills, sitting a little taller in their seats, as their own musical memories are stimulated.

Josh Tower plays Berry Gordy, whose long love affair with Diana Ross, portrayed by the lovely Allison Semmes, is pivotal to his life. Consequently, a large part of the musical is devoted to her work, first as a teen, and one of The Supremes, diana-ross-stylethrough her machinations to become the acknowledged star of the group, her foray into film, to her eventual break with Gordy and Motown.

But it’s tiny Michael Jackson, ably brought to life by Leon Outlaw Jr., (the role is shared between Outlaw and Nathaniel Cullors,) who steals our hearts. Outlaw plays the young Berry Gordy, and a young Stevie Wonder, whose over-bearing stage mom terrifies Gordy. But it’s when we hear Outlaw as the 10 year old Michael Jackson auditioning with the song, “Who’s Loving You,” that we’re galvanized.

jackson 5The song was written by Smokey Robinson for his group The Miracles, who recorded the song in 1960 for their first Motown album. The song was issued as the b-side to The Jackson 5’s first single, “I Want You Back” in 1969. And of course, Michael went on to extraordinary heights … we still feel his loss. But back then, that little kid with the big voice could be depended on to knock it out of the park pretty much every time he came to bat. The Jackson 5 were so huge in the sixties that they received the ultimate compliment of the time – their own animated TV series.

We dip, dip, dip through other artists and their contributions to the legend. Jesse Nager plays Smokey Robinson, a long time Gordy friend, while Jarran Muse plays a suitably conflicted Marvin Gaye, whose greatest songs were nearly never accepted by the label.

“The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.

Marvin_Gaye_What's Going ON… Gaye approached Gordy with the “What’s Going On” song while in California where Gordy had relocated. Gordy took a profound dislike to the song, calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”. Gaye, who had also begun recording some songs that would later be featured on his later album, Let’s Get It On responded by going on strike from recording anything else for the label unless Gordy relented. Motown executive Harry Balk later recalled that he had tried to get Gordy to release the song to which Gordy replied to Balk, “that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Most of Motown’s Quality Control Department team also turned the song down, with Balk later stating that “they were used to the ‘baby baby’ stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp.” Gordy also felt the song was too political to be a hit on radio and too unusual compared with what was considered a part of the popular music sound of that time to be commercially successful.

With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released to record stores, sending 100,000 copies of the song without Gordy’s knowledge, on January 17, 1971, with another 100,000 copies sent after that success.” (Wikipedia.com)

The musical is set in 1983, as the cream of the Motown crop returns for the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Gordy, fuming over the slights and spats of the past, is determined not to attend the ceremonies. But his memories, and the cajoling of family and friends, including Smokey, finally get him to relent. He and Diana have a smoochy smooch, ‘we cool,” moment, and everyone sings.

The quasi happy ending, however, completely bypasses what many believe to be the high point of the show … Michael Jackson’s return to perform a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, followed by a solo performance of “Billie Jean,” that showed us that the kid had blossomed into a formidable man … with a mean “Moon Walk.”

I loved Motown: The Musical. I’d highly recommend it not only to those of us who lived through those halcyon days, but to anyone aspiring to a career in this business of show, as some of the trickiest moves and manipulations on the parts of both artists and managers are still in play today.

But definitely … come for the music. That ‘sweet, sweet music’ will get you every time.