These Too Shall Pass (Obits by David Pelfrey)
All obits in this section are previously published items by David Pelfrey © 1992-2012 Black & White
When those hard-living rural lads strolled into the Sun Records studio in the early 1950s to create a new kind of music, label owner Sam Phillips recognized right away that he was working with a new kind of character as well. These guys possessed an intriguing, with-it demeanor that Dwight Yoakam has called “the G.I. cool of the hillbilly cat.” They were country boys who joined the service in the ’40s and ’50s, saw a little bit of the world, and then decided to be a big part of it. Their adventure was a country-comes-to-town affair, but the principal players weren’t some ol’ boys named Jethro or Cletus. They were called Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee, Waylon, Charlie, and Johnny. There were plenty of other rockabilly rebels making a big racket at the time, sporting shiny suits and insane pompadours, and generating a citified, go-cat-go energy appropriate to the era’s space-race, atomic-age vibe. Johnny Cash, however, emerged from that realm a still different breed.
Cash’s trademark tempo was a steady, boom-chugga-boom rhythm, unquestionably better suited to trains than to rockets. That sound, so effectively rendered by Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant (aka The Tennessee Two), also suited the quavering baritone of a serious man who was well versed in America’s earliest country and gospel traditions. More significantly, the unique rhythm and tempo were downright essential to Cash’s chosen subject matter, which he said was “usually heartache, drugs, death, hell, and struggle.” It’s not surprising that he might focus on heartache and struggle, having been born one cold winter day on an Arkansas dirt farm in 1932, the bleakest year of the Great Depression. It’s no surprise, either, that by the time he was ready to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash walked onto the stage dressed entirely in black.
For those who were very young during Cash’s up-and-down career trajectory of the ’60s, it was easy to regard The Man in Black as a purely dark character. His stern visage and black longtail coat recalled the insane, murderous preacher from Night of the Hunter. Indeed, one could easily imagine Johnny Cash, guitar in one hand and Bible in the other, wandering the Tennessee hills like some kind of grim, hillbilly undertaker. It was reasonable to assume, also, that this angry singer was hopped up on bennies, considering the continuous news about Cash’s fondness for amphetamines. As for being dangerous, well, he smashed up some footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, and he seemed to always be performing at maximum-security correctional facilities. Observers found it more than puzzling that Cash could establish such an instant rapport with convicts. Just listen to those desperate men cheering when Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
“Folsom Prison Blues” wasn’t even Cash’s most downbeat song. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” were part of the repertoire, along with old gospel favorites such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”. Even at that, the song titles didn’t always prepare a listener for the lyrics: before “There You Go” gets going in earnest, Cash opens with, “You’re gonna break another heart; you’re gonna tell another lie.” When he wasn’t telling off some spurned lover in a heartbreak tune, he was describing some wayward woman’s tawdry deeds. No wonder Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan hit it off so well. In any event, if you were eight years old in 1968, you were probably a little bit afraid of Johnny Cash.
That would make you 10-years-old in 1970, by which time you may have been enamored of Johnny Cash. Cash’s star rose to its zenith in 1970, thanks to a couple of hit songs coinciding with ABC’s premiere of “The Johnny Cash Show,” and June Carter rescuing Cash from drug addiction (when Waylon Jennings sings about a goodhearted woman in love with a good-timing man, you have to wonder). Without question, Johnny Cash’s talent led to his exploding onto the music scene in the ’50s, and his becoming a country legend by 1968. It was the television show, nonetheless, that made Johnny a national folk icon. The musical variety program, which ran from June 1969 to June of 1971, offered viewers an undistilled portion of the Cash and Carter family musical oeuvre, which was to be expected. What surprised fans was Cash’s enthusiastic but discerning celebration of the many facets of American pop music. To say that Cash’s interest in music was eclectic is like saying that he preferred dark suits.
On a given night, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young might make an appearance (Cash had a thing for Canadian songwriters). Cash might sit down with Judy Collins for a duet of The Byrd’s “Turn, Turn Turn,” or he and Ray Charles might team up for “Busted.” Guest line-ups included The Cowsills, The Monkees, Cass Elliott, Lulu, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Diamond, and Jose Feliciano. Sometimes it got weird, as any duet with Dennis Hopper or Kirk Douglas must. Many times, the mix of stars was rich beyond belief; imagine Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, Roy Acuff, Merle Haggard, Tex Ritter, and Roger Miller with the Statler Brothers and all the Carter girls. Two duets, Cash and Burl Ives doing “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and Cash and Marty Robbins on “The Streets of Laredo,” probably belong somewhere in the Smithsonian’s television archives.
This unparalleled exploration—at least on television—of American music was also the platform from which Johnny Cash revealed to audiences his love of the country, his affinity for hardworking, downtrodden folks, and his sense of justice. The lectures and historical segments, on vinyl and on television, were sentimental and unsophisticated, to be sure, but there was no doubting his sincerity when Johnny Cash sang about the vanishing railroad, the mistreatment of American Indians, or the destruction of the environment. But Cash was also having a rocking good time with Tony Joe White and Kris Kristofferson. It was his idea, by the way, to have Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan as guests on the premiere of “The Johnny Cash Show.” That was two months before Woodstock.
For some reason, the late-coming hipster adulation that Johnny Cash received after signing up with Rick Rubin’s American Records in the early ’90s has everything to do with the Man in Black persona, yet nothing to do with the enthusiastic, eclectic music maker who entertained a nation for decades. Too many goth kids got excited when Cash covered Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails. Linking Johnny Cash to the gothic aesthetic, just because he wrote a few masterpieces about heartache and death, is rather like linking Cash with heavy metal based on his association with freight trains. Some of us may have been afraid of Johnny Cash when we were kids, but we got over it. Then we really began to enjoy his music. That’s because there are all kinds of reasons to idolize Johnny Cash, and, even though most of them happened decades ago, they are still available at the record store or through iTunes.
In the early, glorious days of animation at MGM, William Hanna car-pooled from Santa Monica to Hollywood each morning with legendary animator Tex Avery (creator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, among others). Like all other Americans, MGM staff suffered gas rationing during WWII. While Avery was busy instilling surreal comedy and sheer mania into animated features, Hanna and partner Joe Barbera were producing an immensely popular series of short animated films starring a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. They won seven Academy Awards, and if you’ve ever seen the beautifully drawn, devastatingly clever vintage Tom and Jerry cartoons, the awards seem well earned.
By the mid-’50s another kind of rationing was taking place, as animated films were becoming astronomically expensive and unprofitable. Hanna and Barbera departed MGM, devised a new kind of animation using barely 10 percent of the usual number of drawings, and cast their creative gaze on TV land. Long story short: meet the Flintstones—and Huckelberry Hound, Top Cat, Yogi Bear, and dozens of other frame-spare, practically immobile characters from the golden era of Saturday morning breakfast cereal.
Actually “The Flintstones” premiered during prime time in 1960, as did “The Jetsons” two years later. They were geared toward adults, the former being “The Honeymooners” as “a modern stone-age family,” the latter a suburban farce set in the future. But there was gold in them there Saturdays, and thus was generated a mammoth catalog of low rent, low culture animation that, for better or worse, is part of American culture. Hanna-Barbera creations include Wally Gator, Jonny Quest, Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, Magilla Gorilla, Atom Ant, Space Ghost, the Fantastic Four, and of course, Dastardly and Mutley. &
Writing for Time magazine about Rogers’ passing last year, Jessica Reaves made this astute observation: “The most remarkable thing about Mister Rogers was not that he loved children, although that was apparent to anyone who observed him even for a moment. It’s that he respected children, not just for their ability to amuse or inspire, but for their intellect, their inherent sense of right, and their penchant for honesty.”
Reaves writes with some authority; she grew up in a Pittsburgh neighborhood just around the corner from Fred Rogers. It was in that city, home of the first public television station, WQED, that Rogers developed “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” started broadcasting in 1964, and then began airing the series on PBS affiliates around the country.
Rogers applied to every facet of the afternoon program much of what he had learned in child development courses and in theological seminary. The mastermind behind the longest running series on PBS emerged as the most nurturing, gentle, and straight-talking host in television history. Mister Rogers also became an icon; the blue sneakers, the cardigan, and the songs are instantly recognizable and frequently parodied. Today when someone says “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” it’s not a statement about the weather; it’s an ironic pop-culture reference.
It’s too easy to ridicule the show; most of us began doing so by the time we were 11 years old. Yet, as a program crafted to instruct, and more significantly, reassure, three- to six-year-old children about what it means to be an individual with hopes and fears and loves, it often seems like the work of a genius. On the surface, the program comes across as infantile and cloying. But it’s a place where the youngest among us can learn about what a community is, why they should treasure it, and how they, in turn, are a cherished part of it. Also, thanks to those mini-documentaries from Picture Picture, many of us learned a little bit about how assembly lines operate, where marshmallows come from, how sneakers are made, or how radios work.
Especially clever was the way Rogers taught children to distinguish pretend from reality. The imagination was established, in each episode, as a place to go. Rogers didn’t merely allude to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the camera actually followed Trolley through a tunnel and into another setting. Another smart idea: having each puppet in the neighborhood function as an analog for a person that children inevitably encounter in the real world. According to the Mister Rogers web site, “Daniel Striped Tiger is shy. He often needs encouragement to try something new. King Friday is the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; underneath his stern and sometimes unreasonable exterior is a caring person who wants the best for his family and his neighbors. Lady Elaine Fairchilde . . . is independent and willful, and she sometimes gets into trouble. She is lovable nonetheless, but often needs to be assured that people like her just the way she is.”
Lady Elaine Fairchilde, by the way, warrants closer scrutiny. She runs the Museum Go-Round, and so technically she’s the neighborhood librarian. Her ruddy cheeks and unpredictable bad moods might suggest that she has a drinking problem. She tries to mask her rather obvious self-esteem issues with a brusque manner and passive aggressive behavior. Though we never see below her waist, it’s a safe bet she wears comfortable shoes and thick hose. She may find a compatible companion some day, but it’s doubtful that companion will be a husband. On a given afternoon, a simple word of kindness or thoughtful gesture invariably alters Lady Elaine’s mood, and she usually turns out to be a real sweetheart. Most children know an adult who exhibits some or all of Lady Elaine’s personality traits. That she is a central figure in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a testament to Rogers’ genius.
The essential component of the series, however, was Rogers’ candid approach to every subject, by which he demonstrated his intrinsic faith in the intellect of the child. Using the event of his goldfish dying to talk about loss, or having Daniel Striped Tiger sing “sometimes I feel like I was a mistake,” revealed Rogers’ confidence that children could grasp the big, scary stuff. When little Prince Tuesday wonders aloud if he can marry his Mom, Queen Sara sweetly tells him, “You will marry someone like me.” Rogers used straight talk and he didn’t couch the bad news: sometimes we will be afraid; sometimes we will feel like it was a mistake that we were born; sometimes we will make plans to do bad things; sometimes we will feel completely alone. Adults can find it difficult to muster the courage to admit such things to ministers, therapists, or spouses. Rogers concluded that if we have these discussions early (age four) and often (weekday afternoons), some future misery might be avoided, and a lot of genuine happiness might be found.
His main message, after all, was that we might as well go ahead and celebrate our individuality, even if we do have funny ears, or we can’t color within the lines every time. His lean frame, nerdy demeanor, and ever-so-gentle voice made him seem creepy—even alien—at times, and it’s tempting to dismiss Rogers as a Zen-like purveyor of the touchy-feely. But in retrospect, his concept of how we should treat each other, and how we should feel about ourselves, looks unassailable. &
It was all about the love, wasn’t it? Mmmm-hmm. That’s right, ladies. You know it was. Now get undressed.
In a just world, something like that would be etched on Barry White’s tombstone. It comes across as over the top and kind of gross, but that’s because those racy lines are in print. When Barry White sang such absurd stuff in his cavernous baritone, or when he spoke those lines over the silky bliss of his top-notch studio session men (the Love Unlimited Orchestra, can you dig it?), he sounded the deep, mellow gong of romance. His distinctive Barrytone signaled the fizz of champagne, the divestment of raiment, and the rustle of sheets. His was the sexed-up, soulful, chocolate groove of rug burns and lava lamps, with satin pillows scattered hither and yon, and panties and bras all over the damn place. When he sang about shag carpet, he wasn’t referring to the pile. Without question, Barry was the big, bad bard of bodacious booty, and the most salacious chanteur of sonorous seduction ever to rumble his wanton desire straight into a microphone. The libidinous lion of lascivious lullabies, or the mellow master of meltdown melodies? Either way, we couldn’t get enough of his love . . . &
Raised on her father’s estate in Pasadena, Julia McWilliams was a child of privilege known for being brave, mischievous, and fiercely rough-and-tumble, but certainly not for being the kind of girl who might spend any useful time in the kitchen. That was the cook’s job. Julia’s adventurous spirit compelled the 6′ 2″ lass to join the girls’ basketball team in college, then the Red Cross, and then to land an office job during the early days of WWII with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, later known as the CIA). When that position led to work at overseas bases in India and China, Julia discovered that travel often entailed the enjoyment of finer things, in particular fine cuisine. Her friendship with Paul Cushing Child, a multitalented, flamboyant OSS employee with a similar taste for exotic cuisine, blossomed into romance. After the war, Julia McWilliams became Julia Child, (92) moved to Paris, and began a new romance with French cuisine.
After graduating from the Cordon Bleu cooking school (she was the only female in her class), Child established the “L’ecole des Trois Gourmandes” with two other women. She suspected that there were more than a few American ladies living in Paris who might like to learn how to cook the food they were enjoying in restaurants. Ultimately Child and her partners developed a cookbook that was primarily an ingenious, detailed guide to mastering the basics of French preparation before extrapolating those basics to numerous other recipes and dishes. In an era when cookbooks were an insignificant element of the publishing world, Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I began famously stirring the bookstore pot in 1961. (By 1973, sales surpassed 1.2 million.) All of this was a mere prelude to the phenomenon known as The French Chef.
Barely a year after the cookbook was published, Child drove from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the studio of public television station WGBH-Boston for a book promotion. The station’s idea was simply to have a brief conversation with the author, but Child had something completely different in mind. She arrived wearing an apron and carrying a few eggs, a copper bowl, a pan, and a whisk in her arms. Child astonished the studio staff and viewers by preparing an omelet on live television while offering instructions in her unmistakable breathless, warbling, and lilting voice.
Astute observers at WGBH recognized that this master of reductions had just reduced something besides a sauce, as 10 pages of cookbook instructions (with illustrations) had been simmered down to five minutes of completely engaging, strangely charming television. Phones at the studio were ringing off the hook. The upshot was a six-year run of WGBH’s “The French Chef” and, some dozen cookbooks and 10 other television programs later, Julia Child’s status as a pop culture and culinary icon.
Today, with cookbooks at Barnes & Noble filling an entire section of the store and the Food Channel running 24-7, it is too easy to underestimate Child’s impact on the way Americans cook, eat, and even talk about food. Anyone who watched Child go to work in her kitchen (which she donated to the Smithsonian in 2001) recognized that finesse wasn’t The French Chef’s strong suit; the occasional disaster was part of the show’s charm, as well as an opportunity for Child to teach aspiring cooks how to manage failures. Yet Child’s joyful, often rambling, advice had as its theme the bold business of rolling up sleeves and jumping right in. She may have been referring to a tricky béarnaise sauce or a risky soufflé, but Child offered a message that applies to most endeavors. “Have the courage of your convictions,” she would urge. “Be fearless; anyone can do it. Above all, have a good time!” &
Technically speaking, composer and five-time Oscar winner John Barry scored 111 motion pictures, most notably 11 of the James Bond movies, starting with Dr. No and ending with The Living Daylights. But from a larger, cultural perspective, it’s fair to say that Barry—like Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and several others—helped write the soundtrack to the 20th century.
That may be because Barry was composing engaging, infectious melodies for movies at a time when radio stations had theme songs and film scores in regular rotation. No one needed to see Midnight Cowboy in 1970 to memorize its haunting, lonesome theme. And for better or worse, the theme from Born Free was in the mix as well. At the top of any John Barry playlist, of course, would be the composer’s personal favorite, the theme from Goldfinger. The most famous of the Bond themes boasts an unmatched brass attack with the last three of the melody’s first six notes (wah waaaah wah!). That was a trademark device in many of Barry’s scores, and a method he learned from his big band idol, Stan Kenton.
The bold, brassy sound colored numerous scores, but Barry added some key elements that came to define the international-man-of-mystery music associated with Cold War-era spy thrillers. Omnipresent in themes for The Quiller Memorandum, The Ipcress File, the James Bond pictures, or the television series “Vendetta” and “The Persuaders,” was the gloomy twang of zithers, dulcimers, and other Eastern European stringed instruments, the chilling blast of a few off-kilter notes, and sometimes the futuristic timbre of the Moog synthesizer. All those elements blended into what might be called the music of espionage, or perhaps the ultimate score for international intrigue everywhere, for all time. Did Barry know anything about the KGB, the CIA or MI6? Probably not, but he essentially composed for each agency a theme song in case they needed one.
In many instances, Barry’s scores were also excellent pop music. The title track for You Only Live Twice was understandably a huge hit for Nancy Sinatra (and later, thanks to a portion of the melody, for Robbie Williams with “Millennium”). Shirley Bassey made a career from the title track for Goldfinger. Yet apart from Barry’s success with the Bond series, he was also laying down innovative, sometimes bizarre, but decidedly cool scores for The Knack and How to Get It, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Wrong Box, Boom, The Appointment, and dozens of others. Today, young music enthusiasts might think they haven’t heard much of Barry’s music, but if they listen to Sneaker Pimps, Portishead, Grantby, Pulp, Broadcast, or countless electronica acts, then they have actually heard a lot of John Barry.
As if providing a distinctive sound to a certain era were not enough, Barry was equally prolific in the late 1970s through the late ’80s, creating memorable scores for films that often didn’t deserve them (Somewhere In Time, Night Games, The Black Hole, Dances With Wolves, Jagged Edge). He’ll be remembered for the spy stuff, no doubt, along with the cool, jazzy touches in his music that he matched with a lifestyle. Barry drove a Jaguar E-type, married swinging sixties icon and actress Jane Birkin, and wore expensive tailored suits. He was available for photo shoots—anytime, anywhere. Today you can’t find many people who might recognize Barry, the man, but everybody knows Barry, the sound. &
My friend was doing acid, and he said, “Man, the woods are really trippy, aren’t they?” And I said, “Maybe the woods aren’t trippy; it’s just our perception of them that’s trippy.” And then I realized I should have just said, “Yeah!”
That’s the quintessential Hedberg gag: drug reference, 1970s-era lingo, and stoner logic. The standup comic’s shoulder-length shag, blue-tinted shades, and platform shoes reinforced the ’70s vibe, but the soundness of his logic somehow made his jokes a lot funnier than they might be in a less elegant form. Elegance, after all, is any mathematician’s or philosopher’s goal when crafting a logic equation. Hedberg surprised audiences with the speed and concision with which he made his numerous, hilarious deductions, and because surprise is a key element of humor, Hedberg was always halfway home to cracking us up in the first place. Nonetheless, the crucial factor in Hedberg’s humor was that his logic, surprising or not, was unassailable.
Due to a confused, brink-of-disaster delivery, those loopy observations invariably sounded like pot-induced epiphanies, but in Hedberg’s case it’s as though he got so high that he bypassed stupid and came all the way back around to wickedly insightful.
Sometimes my club intro is, “You may have seen this next comedian on ‘David Letterman.’ A better intro would be: “You may have seen this next comedian at the store.” The audience would go, “Why, hell yes I have! He likes kiwi fruit.”
To open one of his many Letterman gigs, Hedberg once briefly scanned a slip of paper and declared, “Okay, I’ve got 13 jokes, ready to go!” That got a big laugh. I asked him in a 2002 interview why such a straightforward statement was funny, and his response was even funnier: “Well, it is true that there were 13 jokes in that set. Maybe audiences just aren’t ready for the truth. They laughed because they were suddenly nervous. But that’s very strange, because they would not have known the absolute truth until I reached the 13th joke and then stopped.”
I also asked him why he laughed so much during his gigs. “That’s a good question, because the jokes are not cracking me up. As you may have surmised, I am already familiar with the material.”
Not enough people were familiar with Hedberg’s material, unfortunately, because apart from a few appearances on “That 70’s Show,” he was resolutely committed to the stand-up circuit, as opposed to the celebrity status that television specials and sitcoms bring comedians these days. Further hampering his rise as the Next Big Thing was his reputation as an unreliable abuser of substances. (In Hedberg’s mind, that would technically mean that he couldn’t be counted on to abuse drugs.)
That’s a shame, since he was the only genuinely innovative thinker in the comic realm of the past ten years. Jon Stewart, thanks to a team of writers, can mug for the camera and win points doing political satire. Ray Romano can be charming and amusing. Dave Chappelle is merely a one-man series of SNL skits, the punch lines of which are telegraphed far in advance. Lewis Black’s fury lasts only so long. Jimmy Kimmel is, well, he’s involved with a very hot Jewish gal who happens to be the funniest woman on earth. Chris Rock has simply updated Richard Pryor, as though both were some kind of hardcore software.
Mitch Hedberg, by way of strong contrast, stood on the stages of forlorn comedy clubs in Houston and San Diego and Birmingham, reeling off dozens of surreal, absurd, and inventive truths. There was one unassailable bit of logic that seems to have escaped Hedberg, or perhaps it was just that fourteenth joke he didn’t get around to telling until it was too late—that drug and alcohol abuse can destroy careers and kill people at a very young age. On the other hand, it could be that his jokes were not that funny, and perhaps his logic was not that sound. Maybe it was just our perception of his . . . never mind. Ponder these classics and decide:
I read that MTV’s Real World got 40,000 applications. That’s amazing, such an even number. You would have thought it would be 40,008.
I never joined the army because “at ease” was never that easy to me. It seemed rather uptight still. I don’t relax by parting my legs slightly and putting my hands behind my back. That does not equal “ease.” “At ease” was not being in the military.
This one commercial said, “Forget everything you know about slipcovers.” So I did, and it was a load off of my mind. Then the commercial tried to sell slipcovers, but I didn’t know what they were!
I got a belt on that’s holding up my pants, and the pants have belt loops that hold up the belt. What’s going on here? Who is the real hero?
A mini-bar is a machine that makes everything expensive. When I take something out of the mini-bar, I always plan to replace it before they check it off and charge me, but they make that stuff impossible to replace. I go to the store and ask, “Do you have coke in a glass harmonica? &
When discussing the creator of the Moog Synthesizer, we could talk about Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelopes, waveforms, voltage-controlled oscillators, and other stuff that fellows with PhDs in engineering physics like to talk about. After all, Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) had several degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and he certainly knew his stuff. But let’s avoid getting bogged down in technical details and consider the larger story instead, which begins in Russia just after the Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1919, mad Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen, aka Leon Theremin, created a musical instrument that generated between two antennas a radio signal, the frequency and amplitude of which a “player” could control by hand, sort of like playing a violin without touching it. An ever-deluded Vladimir Lenin sent Theremin on a global tour with this minor novelty, primarily to show off the amazing avant garde technology that the new worker’s paradise was ostensibly making available to greedy, behind-the-curve capitalists. One of those capitalist outfits was RCA, who purchased manufacturing licenses for the bizarre instrument in the late 1920s. Two decades later the Theremin’s spooky sound was de rigueur in radio and film scores for mysteries, crime dramas, and—most prominently—science fiction thrillers and horror movies of the 1950s (see: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet).
Enter Robert Moog, a teenager light years ahead of his schoolmates and neighborhood chums, who in the early 1950s began making and selling Theremin kits as a hobby. For about 50 bucks, Moog’s astonishingly elegant sets allowed anyone with rudimentary skills in electronics to construct their very own instrument. Moog and his father sold about 1,000 kits in 1960. Building a Theremin, however, was a snap compared to playing the thing. Moog was already looking down the road for something even more elegant.
Enter Raymond Scott, a wigged-out composer, swing-band leader, electronics wizard, and studio engineer who may have been from another planet (some of those wild scores heard in Warner Bros. cartoons and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” are Scott originals). Moog and his father popped into Scott’s mammoth “lab” one afternoon and observed, among other wonders, a Moog theremin set that had been reconfigured by Scott into a type of keyboard instrument he called the Clavivox. “I have seen the future,” mused Moog, “and it is the keyboard interface.”
What followed was the creation of the Moog Synthesizer in various forms, but at a fraction of the cost of the big non-interface synthesizers made by universities and electronics companies during the early 1960s. Integrated circuits changed all that, and pretty soon Mellotrons, Arps, and Rolands were competing with Moog’s devastatingly efficient Series 900.
Nonetheless, it was with one of the 900 Series modular systems that the world got switched on to electronic music. In 1968, pianist Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos, thanks to gender reassignment therapy) released an album of Bach compositions played on the Moog. Switched-On Bach, one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, went platinum. Pretty soon everybody was switching on. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and sundry other pop bands dabbled, but by 1970, artists such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, and just about every member of Genesis were getting very serious. Then came the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (another Walter/Wendy Carlos effort), and Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk, and so on to digital synthesizers and computer sequencers, which the Moog synthesizer definitely is not. To get that Space Age, bachelor-pad sound that Stereolab is known for, you must use an analog device. Just ask Brian Eno.
This makes Robert Moog essentially the father of electronic music as it is made, purchased, and listened to today, even if he was not a composer or player. “I just make tools for others,” he often stated. He’s wrong about that, but physicists do tend to be reductionists at heart. Moog was actually a major catalyst for a quantum shift in modern culture and science. The story in which he had a key role has a parallel narrative, such that the relationship of these cosmic counterparts matches in strangeness the interplay of subatomic particles. Just as Moog and Raymond Scott and other guys in lab coats and crew cuts tinkered with waves and oscillations, so earlier did Edward Teller, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and their colleagues manipulate previously unknown/unseen objects and energies to render forth nuclear energy.
The men in both narratives had an affinity for the “new and improved,” fully understanding the inevitable evolutions of the Kitchen of Tomorrow and the Car of the Future. They listened to swing, but it was the electric, atomic-age swing of the Les Paul guitar. They were squares, nerds, and horn-rimmed geeks that the girls secretly dug (recall Marilyn Monroe’s fascination with Albert Einstein). Their relationship with the enemy had its own curious waveform. Had it not been for the Soviets, Theremin might not have brought electronic music to our side of the globe. But then, without the Soviets, atomic weapon research would not have continued at its frantic pace. Without so many tests in the desert, there might not have been so many giant creatures emanating from Hollywood, but the electronic music team supplied the soundtracks just the same. There might not have been a space “race” either, in which case the space-age sounds of lounge music masters, minus the urgency, could have developed at a slower, less vulgar pace.
Either way, the research teams in both narratives were all about electrons; Raymond Scott’s most famous and instantly recognizable composition is “Powerhouse.” The business of energy entails positive and negative charges, and the two stories are charged with comparable symmetries. These mid-century brainiac physicists instigated a fascination with two things, one that Americans thought they couldn’t live without (Hi-Fi stereo), and another that they knew we can’t live with (Hydrogen Bombs). The space-age bachelor pad becomes the Home of Tomorrow, with a Philco or RCA Victor Hi-Fi in the den and a fallout shelter just south of the patio. The makers of The Bomb worked on the Manhattan Project, the key instruments of which were Uranium 238 and various synthetic elements; Robert Moog and Raymond Scott started their projects in basements in Manhattan, the end result of which was a synthetic instrument.
Polarities evolve from those symmetries. The atom bomb was a fission device; the H-bomb is a fusion device. The bachelor pad becomes a home only after the owner finds his counterpart and stops being a bachelor. Robert Moog’s invention, a thoroughly modern device built for the future, reached the world only after it was used to make a best-selling record of classical compositions from the distant past. The performer on that album was a man who later became a woman.
The H-bomb geniuses and the electronics wizards invented things with properties and behaviors that modern physicists now say might not be correctly understood, if they exist at all. But until we learn for certain, let’s relish the fact that the very first nuclear events in the universe can be observed today in the form of radio signals. The term “radioactivity,” as the synthesizer band Kraftwerk pointed out decades ago, is a cosmic bit of double entendre. &