I was changing channels the other night while watching my prized basketball, and thought about channel Thirteen (pbs) and how I had neglected viewing it since the advent in my cozy domicile of cable and televised basketball.
Alighting upon this blessed channel, I saw a late-60s model Frank Sinatra, with receding hairline, gruff charm, and a voice resonantly sonorous with weathered greatness. Oddly, the cable info ticker described the show as being about Jewish cantors, and while it didn't appear to correspond with Frank Sinatra on screen, the thought did cross my mind that Sinatra's art was a close cousin to the cantor's religious art.
Sinatra delivered a few lines of energetically casual wit, and subsequently introduced, on the far stage, a radiant Ella Fitzgerald. The moment that big beautiful woman opened her mouth and emitted a rich breath of voice that was so rightfully her own, I forgot I had been previously watching basketball.
Truly, I thought to myself, this is where it's at! Fitzgerald's stage was appropriately and deliciously understated as she animated her figure with a natural motility, swaying and jiving in fixed position to the rhythms of the music. The excessive, bacchanalian spreads of contemporary pop music exhibition came to mind, Britney and Beyonce and Aguilera and Madonna and on, with garish set designs and physically demanding and thematically pointless choreography and flesh and explicit sexuality. I thought to myself, someone like Ella might have difficulty gaining appreciation or attention if she were to emerge in this day, and the thought gave me pause.
Which got me thinking, that myself and my appreciations might not be made for these times. I look back and see that boomers, the generational essence of what constitutes the modern pop cultural phenomenon, have instituted and mythologized through pop culture their life, THE LIFE, moving from the stable halcyion repression of the fifties through the rebellious, tumultuous sixties, then the burnt out, decadent 70s, segueing neatly into the coolly materialistic and aesthetically frigid 80s and through to the awakened, retrospective 90s, the millennial decade of irony and pastiche, and now on to the 'oughts with their sprawl of prosperity, decay and disunity, their lack of moral center.
THAT IS THE MODERN LIFE WRIT LARGE, look close! I had inherited the culture of their design, the interests that fueled the consumer culture of the late 20th century.
The typical guy, the typical 55 year-old dad, went through that span of time and came out weathered and with his women, his marriage for good or ill, a family life with several crazy cultural experiences, maybe a divorce but several opportunities, if he is an educated man, to make his way in the world and cast his lot in with the honest capitalists of this country that reap what they sow, and find ways to skim a bit more from the top. It's the life, roughly speaking, that they sell us daily in advertisements and sitcoms and movies and talk shows.
I wouldn't mind such a life if I were able to actually live it through the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s. I think i might have had a good time of it, and I'd not mind being 55 today. Instead I'm mid-20s in the 'oughts, and I'm confused about the state of the international union and my personal state of being, with the cultural amoeba and my engagement with it, with others. I'm staring down the barrel of a different life, not the one sold to me.
Anyway, Ella finished her song and came over to Frank, asking what he thinks of the pop music of their day, late-60s, rock and roll. "Oh I think it's groovy, man, groovy," replied Sinatra, and they ripped into "Up Up and Away" by the 5th Dimension. That's pretty hot, and they kept it up, punctuating a medley of contemporary tunes and classics with brief comments and conversation.
They closed the medley with a dynamite rendition of "Goin' Out of My Head", a bombastic highlight, the ending nothing short of a full-voiced climax with Frank's full throated "over you"'s a vital counterpoint to Ella's sharp vocal affirmation. The quality of their voices, as they smoothly shifted from easy conversation to mellifluous projection, was truly astounding. Their faces beamed as they stood up from their stools, and I was struck by the fact that they had done their entire duet routine SITTING DOWN.
The scene shifted to a black set with two grass chairs, one occupied by Sinatra and the other by a figure with guitar illumined whose face was shrouded in darkness. He was playing bossa nova licks, and an offstage orchestra was filling in the spaces. Frank teased a cigarette: "The instrument, a guitar. The rhythm, bossa nova. The artist, one of the founders of this sound and its main composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim."
The darkness lifted from his face and Tom Jobim started shaking his head and plucking with aplomb, dropping a few mild scats as he and Sinatra performed a medley of bossa nova tunes and one or two standards. I had long since wished I had the good fortune of videotaping this broadcast, to bask in the quality of the performances and remind me of the thoughts they had inspired,,,
when the pledge commercial came on. I had passed on becoming a member of Thirteen last year when I saw a rather electric Bee Gees live set; I felt I should have pledged then but neglected to. This year I jumped at the opportunity to pledge, going for the $150 package that included the Sinatra special on DVD and an album where he collaborates with Jobim. They could have each been purchased separately at lower cost, but I wanted to thank that network for exposing me to the cultural reality of the past, to the way things were and the way things ought to be in the 'oughts, if i had my way. Authentic, and a deliriously good time.